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Archive for July, 2008

17 countries. 259 days. Thousands of miles. 67 blog posts. 56 books. 1 stolen wallet. A million new friends. And I’m finally home.

 

I’m writing this from my place in Toronto with only a vague shimmer of a realization of what has happened to me over the past nine months. I have sat down to write this final entry so many times and yet… nothing. Even now I’m fighting the urge to put down the pen and turn on the TV or pour another cup of tea. It’s funny how quickly you settle back down into “life.”

 

The future is uncertain. Maybe that’s the reason I’m so against closing up this past. And although once again I’m going to find myself on the move – to the UK in the fall – there’s no ticket showing me where I’m going to end up and that’s disconcerting. But I am the eternal optimist.

 

I think no matter how much they try to deny it, all travellers are optimists. Only an optimist could stand on the side of the road and know that the next bus, bike, pick-up truck or car will take them to their next destination. Only optimists go alone to the middle of nowhere knowing they are sure to meet a kindred spirit in a bar to stave off the loneliness of “far from home.” Only an optimist can be sure that the very last dollar in their bank account is worth spending on yet another bus ride to yet another place. You have to know it will all work out alright, or else you wouldn’t have left in the first place.

 

Looking back over Sarah and my travel blogs is hilarious – it’s amazing what has changed and what has stayed the same. Team J-A-S broke up early on.  At least half of my original packing list got trashed in Africa and had to be replaced in Australia. We not only made it to the Aussie Open but scored incredible seats. My first reference to Lofty is as “a friend from Stray bus.”  The most useful item I brought with me turned out to be my sarong.

 

One thing I did get right is that this trip changed my life. One thing I got wrong is that this was a “once in a lifetime.” I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve caught the bug! Travel will always be high on my priority list. South America calls, as does China, Japan, the Middle East and most accessibly, Europe. Is that the whole world yet?

 

My favourite country was New Zealand, followed closely by Zimbabwe (just don’t get me started on Mugabe). My favourite city was Cape Town, then Melbourne. The best island was Zanzibar. The best beach Matai Bay in northern NZ. The best dive in Fiji. The most relaxing moment? A tie between gliding through the Okavango Delta in a makoro and having a Thai massage on Chaweng beach. Finally, the scariest moments: standing on the edge of Bloukrans Bridge, rolling a car outside Brisbane and approaching the bone-filled stupa at the Cheung-Ek Killing Fields.

 

I learned so much – how to scuba dive, how to survive in the desert, how to surf, how to sky dive, how to make a killer tom yum gai soup, what to do if a lion/rhino/elephant starts to charge you. The Oasis tour in Africa was fantastic and I made so many friends for life. I would recommend it to anyone. For that matter, I would recommend travelling to everyone.

 

Compared to the hundreds of travellers I met on my trip, it’s not as if I had a more exciting itinerary than anyone; tried harder to get off the beaten track; visited more remote islands and exotic places; felt more alive or been closer to death. Most of them are still going and I am back home. But that’s the beauty of it. I know how accessible the world is, now. It can happen for anyone. It could happen for you, if it’s what you truly want to do.

 

Final words of travel wisdom? Trek towels stink. Exchange books at secondhand stores. Never refuse an invitation. Remember that – just as rules are made to be broken – plans are made to be changed.

 

Always use the hostel kitchen. You never know who you might meet.

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My last proper day away was spent in Phnom Penh, capital city of Cambodia. Off the bus with a few other tourists, I was immediately surrounded by hundreds of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. I was so glad that I booked accommodation before arriving! Because of the pre-planning, a driver was there with a sign and my name on it… a welcome face in an overwhelming crowd. I hopped on the back of his motorbike (my huge green backpack between his legs, I’m not kidding) and we zipped through the streets of Phnom Penh to my hostel on the river.

 

The atmosphere in the hostel was even more laidback than in Thailand. It was a strange mixture of middle aged male life drop-outs, young travellers and cambodian locals. I arranged a tour of P-P with my driver and then dropped into one of the chairs for some r&r. There’s a noticeable difference between P-P and Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a purely tourist-driven town, while the centre of Phnom Penh is almost completely void of white faces.

 

My Phnom-Penh tour was organised back-to-front. We started at the end; viewing an orphanage which was a direct result of the khmer rouge violence and ensuing poverty. It was a privately run orphanage, meaning that it relied on private donations for their upkeep. I brought along a 50kilo sack of rice which could feed all the children for only one day. But I spoke for a while with the local French teacher, who said that because it was low season, any donation, no matter how small, was appreciated. It was amazing to spend some time with the local children, who spoke to me in both French and English and were delighted by the little Canadian flag pins I handed out (thanks Mum!).

 

After the orphanage, I went to the Cheung-Ek Killing Fields. Although I had heard stories from other travellers, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Certainly not a beautiful stupa and miles of beautiful green fields and trees. For some reason, the name “the Killing Fields of Cheung-Ek” had brought to mind a scene much more desolate.

 

There were people stationed at the entrance to the stupa selling flowers and sticks of incense, but my eye caught sight of what was beyond and I was both entranced and appalled. Skulls. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Piled on top of each other in the centre of the stupa, categorized by age and gender but otherwise jutted and propped against each other in disarray. I circled the gruesome monument, came back to my senses and bought both flowers and incense – the money goes to support the families affected by this atrocity. I lit the incense and prayed. How did something so tragic and enormous happen within my lifetime and I be so completely ignorant of it?

 

The rest of Cheung-Ek is equally chilling. The bones in the stupa represent only a few of the mass graves that have been uncovered. You can walk through, over and around the other graves, the ones they have yet to unearth.

 

I completed my terrifying journey into Cambodian history by visiting Tuol Sleng prison or Sector 21. The fact that it was a former high school made the place all the more chilling. Just imagine… monkey bars from the playground gym being used as hanging posts. Classrooms installed with iron bars on the ground to chain the prisoners to the floor. Or being divided into cells barely big enough for me to turn around in. Curiously, the Khmer Rouge were pros at keeping records. They photographed every single inmate and their pictures now fill the rooms at the Tuol Sleng Museum.

If you can believe it, I went straight from my visit at the prison to the airport. You might wonder how I could possibly spend the last real day of my trip exploring such horrors. But Cambodia is such an amazing and resilient country, and I wouldn’t have been able to understand that without visiting their history. And it is so recent. It is so relevant. And yet, there are few signs of despair. Everyone is smiling, optimistic, entrepreneurial and excited about the future. The perfect place for me to end an incredible adventure and show that no adversity – even the very worst kind – is impossible to overcome.

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