Saturday, May 03, 2008

Semi-Permanent Dwellings Again

Sorry its been such a long time since our last update folks. Anth and I have been busily settling into the groove of life back in Australia. Anth is now several months into her new job.

Contrary to an earlier post from late last year about my plans to start a Masters in International Development, I've decided to drop the facade of helping needy people out of poverty by starting a Masters of Business of Administration instead. I've slowly been coming to turns with the loss of something I used to know as personal time, as the demands of study have subsumed my life. Its nice to be studying again though, and I never thought that I would put the words "accounting" and "interesting" in the same sentence together.

Our new abode in Melbourne is located in Toorak - one of the swankier suburbs, which means that I have had to find a suitable restraint system for our micro chihuahua for the back our Mercedes when we go out on drives to our holiday house. We are in the second story of a 1940's apartment block that has a rather pleasing vista over the city skyline. Its been nice to unpack possessions from various stages of our lives and have them all in the one place. I have acquired a new-found love for inanimate objects - driven primarily by our new front loading washing machine and the vintage deco style hardwood sideboard that we acquired in Phnom Penh at the end of last year.

Unfortunately work and study commitments have meant that we have not yet been able to fully avail of the many cultural delights on offer in Melbourne. We have managed to see a few live shows though - including a sprawling 3 hour epic set from Ween. In contrast to the last few years, our travel plans for the immediate future are fairly modest - extending only to the odd trip interstate.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Khmer Architecture

In the last few years in Cambodia I have come to really enjoy photographing some of the many buildings that were designed in the late 1950's and 1960's - a movement that has been dubbed the ‘New Khmer Architecture’. This was a period of dynamic cultural and political ambition in Cambodia, and saw an extensive programme of urban renewal and construction across the country.

The architectural style pioneered by leading figures such as Vann Molyvann was an innovative blend of contemporary French and classic Angkorian styles. The works that they designed are slowly becoming recognised as some of the most important artistic milestone in 20th century Cambodian culture. These buildings are particularly precious now, as the majority of contemporary architecture mimics classic traditions or the worst traits of the Thai and Chinese “villa” styles with copious quantities of tiles, mirrored windows and faux columns.

Sadly some of the most impressive buildings have been destroyed or restored in ways that show a complete disregard for their original form and beauty (I’m typing this at work in one of the worst offenders). Ironically, some buildings are still well preserved due to their lengthy abandonment after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.

Anth and I have been on several of the excellent architecture tours that visit some of the key sites. There is also a fabulous book published last year called Building Cambodia - New Khmer Architecture that Anth gave me for my birthday yesterday.

To celebrate my birthday, we went out to the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities campus near the airport – which I presume was designed by Vann Molyvann. One of my biggest regrets leaving Cambodia last year was that we never took the time to visit this campus – and I would always look forlornly out the airplane window whenever we flew over it.

Fortunately we were able to make amends yesterday and there were no security guards on campus – although some members of the sparse student population were puzzled as to why two foreigners were wandering around their classrooms in the hottest part of the day taking photos. On the way back into the city, we paid a return visit to the last of Vann Molyvann’s 1970’s masterpieces – the Institute of Foreign Languages. Some of the shots from this architectural photo safari are on our Flickr page.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Melbourne 2008

It's official! We are moving back to Melbourne in the new year. I have been offered a position with the Productivity Commission and Andrew has applied for a Masters in Development Studies and Environment Analysis at Monash University. We are both really excited at the prospect of being back in one of our favourite cities, and being closer to family, friends, parks, good pubs and live music.

At the moment though, we are truly enjoying being back in Cambodia. It is wonderful to feel grounded again and surrounded by familiar sights, smells and sounds. Although that said, it is the season of festivals, public holidays and constant construction here - so things at times are almost too lively. Andrew is working full time at Pact as an anti-corruption consultant and I am combining periods of lady-like leisure with some consultancy work with International Development Enterprises, who I have worked with in the past and think are doing excellent work in Cambodia.

Our time in Cambodia and away has given us a bit of perspective, and I think has really shaped how we will work in development again in the future. Seeing the basket case that Cambodia is, with the excesses of international money, foreign consultants, corrupt officials and myopic outlooks can make anyone cynical. We are really looking forward to some time at home and opportunity for further study and experience.

For the moment though, Phnom Penh is great. Whilst some things are changing, much is the same. The Government has embarked on a huge civic beautification project running up to the election and have managed to make one of the most attractive monuments in South East Asia a grand statement to Khmer bling, (I wonder what Vann Molyvann thinks!) with fountains and coloured lights ringing the Independence Monument. There are more and more black Lexus four-wheel drives on the roads and some grand business and residential developments advertised over vacant lots.

I have discovered the joy of food markets before 8am (a stark contrast to 6pm after work and a full day of heat and humidity), and am driving Andrew crazy with my insistence to get up and buy fresh nom acow (sweet rice flour cakes) and fresh fruit for breakfast. It's also wonderful to see Ben and Bec again and resume our place in the house. At times, it's almost as if we hadn't left!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

All good things must....

Tomorrow marks the final day of what has been a long long odyssey for Anth and I. Apologies again for the lack of posting, but we have been busy visiting friends and family in Ireland, the US and Canada for the last 2 months. We have just spent the last 10 days staying at the residence that my grandmother calls home in outer outer Vancouver. Its been a lot of fun hanging out in the local strip malls and eating dinner at 5.30pm, but its a minor contrast from how we started the trip tearing around the freezing streets of Beijing on our bicycles. Tomorrow evening we are flying back to our old home in Phnom Penh for a few months.

So why no South America? I hear you ask. Well, its down to a number of reasons.
  1. No hablamos Espanol - Whilst we were always planning on learning Spanish when we arrived (in fact Anth had successfully devoted time in the past months to preparing) the practical implications of speaking little Spanish became apparent last month when we met with a few of the folks in Washington DC managing the South American programs of my old employer Pact. We also started examining some of the bad attitudes that we picked up in Cambodia of "Hey, we're white - isn't that enough for a job?!" after discussing just how well qualified the people of Ecuador are to fix their own problems (who would have thought huh?).
  2. It's time to go back to school. We both talk about doing more study in the future, but never really deciding when or what. I am going to be first, and am hoping to start a Masters degree in the new year and Anth is planning on doing the same the following year.
  3. Whilst its been an amazing trip, we are tired of being of travelling (see below)

Back to the last few months though - its hard to describe our travels in any other way than incredible. We've been bloody lucky to see the crazy places that we have, and to have caught up with so many wonderful friends and family along the way. As amazing as it has been though, we are both absolutely ready to stop. When you start travelling its easy to underestimate how exhausting it is to be sleeping in different places every night, always trying to find the cheapest way to do things, having virtually no personal space, orienting ourselves to new food, places and langauges and sitting on endless bus journeys (of which there have been many). We are both really looking forward to having a familiar couch to call our own and a kitchen to prepare food in how and when we desire! I don't want to sound like we are complaining, but there is always a risk that when you only show pictures of yourselves looking happy in beautiful places you're not painting the full picture of what its like to travel for this long.

A big thanks to all of you that have met up with us, fed us and sheltered us in the last few months - we are both incredibly grateful. We'll try to keep things a bit more up to date in the next few months in Cambodia and as we find some less-temporary dwellings (sorry - I couldn't help myself).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

No we are not still in Jordan

Well, it seems we have allowed quite a bit of time to elapse between posts. Despite the fact that we are unemployed, spend our days at our leisure and generally have very few commitments we have been flat out busy since Jordan. It's true!

Our trip has really changed gears, the last month has been a revolving door of friends and family in different countries with a bit of site seeing added in for good measure. After a whirlwind trip through Syria and Jordan and back through Syria again we met up with Kate and Andy (who you may have heard of through the fabulously popular Poundster site) on the west coast of Turkey. It was great to see them, take a cruise down the coast, discover gozleme and other great home cooked Turkish food, talk Australian politics and read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that Kate purchased hot of the press in Greece.

We said goodbye to them in Istanbul after some nights out in Taksim, great ferry rides across the Bosphorous and our fill of beautiful mosques.

Inside the Agha Sofia mosque in Istanbul

From Turkey we flew to London where we met up with a score of friends all who tried to convince us that London was really a great place to live. The weather also joined in on the recruitment job, with the our first day the hottest day to date for that summer and the streets filled with sun seekers heading off to the many summer festivals that were on offer.

Self portrait in Picadilly Circus

We had a great time in London and tried to cram in as many sites as possible whilst still seeing as much of Beth, JLo and Louise, and as many West Wing episodes as possible. My favourite site was probably the Tate Modern with a great exhibition on global cities and urban development and some brilliant surrealism and post war European and Amercian art. Other big highlights were sampling the entire Quorn range (would someone please import this stuff to Australia!!) and seeing the Bolshoi Ballet perform their triple bill at the Colliseum!

Jules, Beth, Anthea and Louise at the Pickle

Since I had never been to the UK before and Andrew had family who he was eager to catch up with, we hired a car and drove to northern Wales to stay with Andrew's Aunt Helen and her family. We also met up with Andrew's uncles Phil and Tim for an extremely indulgent dinner in the Docklands area, which was so good that our final day in London had to be somewhat more relaxed than initially planned.

Helen, Jennifer, Dave and Andrew on the west coast of Wales

From London we joined thousands of others in a queue for an Easyjet flight off the island. We flew into Berlin on the same day that my parents commenced their European jaunt and spent a furious four days of site-seeing with them.

Judith and Anthea in Berlin

It was wonderful to see mum and dad and despite the short time frame we got a good balance of seeing the sites and relaxing drinking whiskey in their hotel. The most discussion provoking place we visited was the Hamburger Bahnhoff which features challenging modern art (or as the curator states in his introduction art that is not clearly art).

The Hamburger Hauptbahnhoff

We bid a sad goodbye to mum and dad and then dashed off to Hamburg to visit my old friend Joerg. It was great to see him, but fleeting with only 28 hours in Hamburg. Still, we managed to get a wet tour of Hamburg (the weather was not so supportive here) and indulge Andrew's great hunger for Bratwurst, sauerkraut and other allegedly typical German foods.

Joerg and Anthea in front of the Spice City in Hamburg

We are now enjoying an "Irish summer" in Dublin. The sun came out on our first day here but I haven't seen it much since. But as we are staying with Andrew's grandparents we are happy enjoying some warmth and home comforts indoors.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Quick update

Hey folks, just a quick update as we haven't been online for a while. Anyone that has been diligently checking our Flickr page will know that we have not been in Turkey for a while. About 6 weeks ago, we decided that we would extend our travels in the Middle East so that we could meet up with Anth's wonderful friends Kate and Andy (who have just embarked on a similar length jaunt) in Turkey and with Anth's parents (who will be hitting Europe in August). All of this has meant that we have been able to "upsize" our itinerary to include Syria and Jordan (both places that Anth has been before but was very happy to re-visit).

I won't bore everyone with an Iran size treatise on having one's expectations completely countered in an "Axis of Evil" country. Suffice to say the week we spent there was great - we ambled a lot in the very charming Old Town in Aleppo, we woke up at 5am to see the stunning Roman ruins at Palmyra, we ate a lot of cheap and fantastic street food, and we met some very interesting young Syrians.

We are currently in Jordan enjoying the wonderful hospitality of a former co-worker of mine from Pact - Dianne - and her son Gabriel. We've been a few great trips out of Amman - including the ruins in Petra and Jerash - but most of all we have LOVED been able to be in a house for the first time in months. The side benefits have included cereal (god I've missed it), access to a washing machine, and television (we watched half of the final season of the West Wing - which has been with us since Islamabad - in one sitting).

Our novel period of relative inertia will be ending in a few days when we head back to Syria and then Turkey. It certainly feels like the next phase of our journey through Europe and North America is much more imminent - as is the need to find gainful employment when we finish up in South America!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Valley of Assassins

We have now been in Turkey for almost a week and still I am finding it strange to feel the wind in my air and the sun on my bare arms. Despite these personal freedoms and the ready availability of beer Iran is still very much in our thoughts. Sure Turkish people are friendly, and we were definitely ready to leave Iran, but I don't think I have ever travelled in a country where I have made so many real connections with everyday, ordinary people. It is this that really made our time in the country so amazing.

Our final destination in Iran was Gazor Khan village which lies at the foot of Hasan-i-Sabbah's Alamut Castle, one of the castles scattered through the Valley of Assassins. Ever since I had read about the legend of the assassins (and yes, came across the SCIII references) I had been keen to visit.

The assassins were Ismaili muslims who were feared throughout the region until they were wiped out by the Mongols in the 13th century. The story goes that Hasan-i-Sabbah would lure young men to his stronghold with promises of the eternal paradise they would attain by training and working as assassins. This pitch was further assissted by drugging the trainees with marijuana (although possibly this last part is not true and the term Assassin - Hashshashin came from other sources) and having them awake in a garden abounding with beautiful virgins and delectable foods. Hassan-i-Sabbah used his army of men to intimidate and manipulate political empires. The assassins would work their way into trusted positions in their victims staff and death would always be by dagger.

It was late afternoon when we began the 40 minute hike up the hill to the ruins of Alamut castle. It was a public holiday in Iran so there were many Iranians making the climb with us. We asked one man what the holiday was for and he told us that it was the anniversary of the death of Fatima (the daughter of Prophet Muhammad). "I am very happy for this holiday and so I say: Allah bless you Fatimah, I wish you long life!" It turns out he is an Iranian with a french passport and as such is able to travel freely. He told us that the previous month when it was the anniversary of the death of Imam Khomeini he went to Thailand and from Krabi uttered similar words of encouragement in Khomeini's name.

At the top of the hill we stopped and sat down to take in the sweeping, stunning views. I could certainly understand how difficult a place this must have been to reach and conquer. I spied a group of people around our age coming our way and at first wondered whether they were Turkish given that the women were wearing clothes that would be normal in Australia. One had a hat on her head, but no scarf! In fact, I started to feel downright dowdy in my hot and demure wimple-like scarf (unbecoming yes, but very practical in terms of staying on your head).

They tripped over to us and were very excited to discover that we were Australian.
"Excellent, now we can ask you a question that we have been thinking about!!"
It turns out that they are very much Tehranis and that they had been drinking some newly home-made red wine in their apartment the other week and decided that they would like to move to Australia so that they could perfect their wine-making skills. We informed them that Australia was just the place and they were very amused with their idea.

We then took some photos, and I was introduced to the interesting fact that when in places of isolated natural beauty particularly bold Iranian women take their headscarves off for photos.
Our new Tehrani friends left after an exchange of emails and we sat on the hill watching the sunlight play over the undulating landscape and musing about Iran now and in the past. In terms of the castle their wasn't much left, making it hard to get a sense of how the assassins really lived. Recently I read one article which credited the assassins as being the first terrorists. However, unlike their 11th century descendants Ismaili muslims now are a very peaceful and tolerant group. Many live in Pakistan, in particular in the north of Pakistan where we travelled recently.

It continually amazes me how wonderfully welcoming and hospitable people in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Syria are. These are countries which are met with the most fear and concern when we tell people we are travelling there, but in reality they are also some of the places where I have had the most rewarding and unexpected experiences as a tourist. In fact, there almost seems to be a direct relationship between the despoticness and fear of a government and the warmth and hospitality of the people.

Hello Turkey!

Notice anything dıfferent? Bare skin and hair - shocking! Oh, and please note the background evidence of a reputable provider of non-prohibitively expensive SIM cards that we purchased with cash from an ATM. Not exciting I know but you miss these things when they are gone. Oh, and this tasted really good too:

Khodafez Iran!

So after 5 weeks Anth and I are spending our final night in Iran in a lovely little town called Maku about 25km from the Turkish border. There have of course been the inevitable ups and downs as with every country. Firstly the downs:
  • Pretty much anything associated with the moronic mullahs and their puppet government
  • The occasional bouts of narrow mindedness and absence of creativity that come from looking backwards and being shackled to a glorious historical legacy (also see "But we built Angkor Wat!" mentality in Cambodia)
  • The complete lack of vegetarian food for Anth

Despite these factors, we think its safe to say that our time in Iran has been one of the most overwhelmingly positive travel experiences we have ever had. We did quite a bit of research before we came here, but like most people in the West we had our fair share of misconceptions. Based on our experiences in the last 5 weeks, we would like to declare that:

  • Iran is safe (crazy driving on the roads excepted)
  • A large percentage of the population do not go to the mosque regularly
  • Iranians HATE to be grouped with Arabs
  • There are a lot of women that are pushing the limits of hijab (and looking very fashionable to boot)
  • Iranians do not have a blanket hatred for Jews

Socio-cultural and political misconceptions aside, Iran also has some incredibly stunning historical sites and a deep reverence for old fashioned culture (we have never met so many literature and theatre students before) that is almost quaint. From a selfish point of view, the ridiculous oil subsidies (prices have just increased from 8 to 10 cents per litre) that are crippling the government economically (inflation is waaay out of control now) make travelling in Iran VERY cheap on the fantastic trains and buses. Another gift from the government is their crackpot policies and isolationism which has driven other tourists away and made locals even more eager to engage with us.

So, as a final word we would like to ask every reader of this blog to think about one day travelling to Iran or encouraging your friends and family to visit this wonderful place. Its been a privilege for us to witness and experience Iran and its people first hand, and it has further underlined what an absurd tragedy it would be if major sanctions were imposed.

PS - we have a few more Iran posts up our sleeves which we hopefully get to non-chronologically in Turkey.


For some reasons the vast majority of Iranians are convinced that all foreigners are German (a puzzling fact given that we haven't actually met any here). In fact, the most common way for people to ask you where you are from is "Allemagne?" (we often get this in drive by form shouted from a car or motorbike when we are walking on the sidewalks). When we explain that we are from Australian ("No, not Austria!") the response from the interrogator is usually one of the following:
  1. "Mark Bosnich! Harry Kewell!" OR gloating references to this tragic football game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1997 (if I'm in a grumpy mood I'll mention this more recent game in Adelaide)
  2. "Australia good! Iran bad!" (protestations to the contrary are not always successful)
  3. "I have a friend that wants to study in Australia, how can he/she..." OR "I want to study in Australia, how can I..."

Given the current situation economically and politically in Iran, and the bleak prognosis that a lot of people have - its understandable that people have the latter response. After many conversations about moving to Australia or other Western countries, we have become worried about the apparent ignorance that a lot of Iranians seem to have about what they are aspiring too.

We have lost count of the number of times we have explained Australia's restrictive immigration requirements and the bias towards skilled migrants. By far the greatest knowledge sharing that is required in these types of conversations though is associated with cost of living. We commonly get asked "How much does a [insert profession of person asking] make per month in Australia?" What follows is a detailed explanation of our graded taxation system (never %100 comprehension on this one) and the response is normally wide eyed amazement when we reveal the salary estimate in US dollars. Before people then get too excited and try to hop into our backpacks, we try to list off the average prices in Australia and other countries of food, housing, healthcare, petrol etc...

After these conversations most people still seem determined to move out of Iran. The one exception came last week when we were picnicking with the holidaying families of three Azerbaijani (not Iranian - an important point we learnt!) teachers from NW Iran during the drive back to Zanjan from Takht-e-Solomein (they very kindly gave us lifts after our share taxi there (no problems) and different share taxi back (uhhhh...) plan came badly awry). Anth and I were having our usual cost of living in Australia conversation after they told us that teachers only make 300 dollars a month. We then told them that we couldn't afford to buy a house in Australia and that it would probably be a long while before we could. What followed was an awkward pause and a sympathetic "Oh. I see. We are really sorry to hear that!" - this was a very novel Iran/"rich" tourist dynamic for us! About half an hour later one of the teachers admitted quietly to me that "Maybe Iran isn't so bad - I can buy a car, and a house, and we can go for picnics with our friends anywhere, and we have been driving for 3 days and it only cost us 3 dollars!" This was the first and only time an Iranian has said anything like this to us. (Below is a shot of the wonderful families of the three teachers)

We do not live here in Iran and we can only begin to imagine what it must feel like to to have our daily freedoms severely curtailed - but it was still reassuring to hear someone say that Iran is not THAT bad (at least materially). We were having a conversation a few days ago with an Iranian living in France who claimed that Iran and Thailand are third world countries - we expressed incredulity and immediately countered with "If you want to see third world go to [insert name of neighbouring country to Thailand here]!"

Its possible that all of the negativity that Iranians feel about their country, and their inability to make comparative assessments first-hand with other countries (its VERY difficult for them to get visas) has clouded their sense of what is possible and how things can change. We were having a very poignant conversation with a friend of ours over coffee and she told us that all the young people in Iran are leaving as they don't see any hope. She then told us that she and her husband made personal decisions after the Revolution in 1979 to stay and try and make a difference (an important aside: her husband has spent a total of 8 years in jail and was behind bars for the birth of their only child).