Home Wistful

Home Wistful

Today is Mid-Autumn Festival here in China. As with most festivals and holidays around the world, this day is meant to be spent with family and close friends. The traditional food eaten today is the mooncake, and it is delightful. The mooncake is not just a delicious breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack option; it also has its share of symbolism. As my CT explained to me, it’s round to mirror the full moon’s face that goes back to the story of Mid-Autumn Festival, and as none of my CTs seem to be natural storytellers, I’ve had to piece to story together from vague mentions.

oOo

Once upon a time, there were ten suns. The suns took turns being in the sky, until one day they all rose together. It was a disaster. Crops and people caught fire, the rivers dried up, and animals died. An archer named Hou Yi shot down nine of the suns, leaving only one for light and warmth.

The gods were so impressed with him that they offered him a drink of immortal water. But Hou Yi had a wife, Chang’e, he loved very much and didn’t want to become an immortal without her. So he gave the water to her to hide away so they could stay together.

Hou Yi also had an apprentice who knew about the hidden immortal water. He was a greedy man and wanted to be immortal. So, on the fifteenth day of the eighth month (Lunar calendar) he waited until Hou Yi was out hunting and forced his way into the home where Chang’e was working. He demanded Chang’e give him the immortal water.

Chang’e refused and instead drank it herself and then flew away. She couldn’t stay on earth anymore since she was now an immortal, but she wanted to stay close to her husband. She flew to the moon and built a palace there.

When Hou Yi returned from his hunt and found out what happened, he was heartbroken his wife had fled to the sky. So he took her favorite fruits and cakes and left them out where she could see. He also sacrificed animals for her. The others in the village soon learned what had happened to Hou Yi and Chang’e and, being sympathetic to the pair, also began leaving out fruits and cakes and sacrificing animals.

oOo

It’s a pretty cool story. China is rife with neat legends and stories like that. The problem is finding someone who will sit still long enough to tell you the story. Aside from that, Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest festival and those around the world are a time for families.

So of course my CTs have been asking incessantly if I’m homesick.

Well, if I am, what are you going to do about it?

I’m not, for the record. I prefer the term Home Wistful. I keep explaining to them that I talk to my parents usually once a week. Skype isn’t blocked, so we talk on Monday or Tuesday and I tell them about my classes and they tell me about work and whatever’s going on in the neighborhood.

I don’t require proximity to people. The only time I missed home was the three weeks I was in Vietnam and that was because we were all busy and didn’t get a chance to talk. Let’s be real, I miss the cats and dogs the most. I definitely need to find a traveling companion before my next big trip. A year without little paws padding behind me is unacceptable.

I do miss a few things about home, chiefly peanut butter. But we’re getting into my favorite season: Autumn. I love fall and Halloween and both of those things are not a big deal here. Sure, the kids know about Halloween, but no one goes full on haunted house, there are no skull and bat decorations, no costumes. No freaking pumpkins. No apple cider, which I’m pretty sure is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

In Indiana, autumn has a scent. There’s a shift in the way the air smells as the leaves start coming down. There’s a bite. When you wake up and open the windows you can smell the dew on the leaf litter. It’s one of my favorite smells. There’s none of that here. There are trees. But, there’s not really any green space. No matter how early you wake up or how late you go to bed there’s always a tang of diesel in the air. I haven’t smelled grass in months. When I water my plants I pretty much stick my face in the pot just to smell that damp earth scent I didn’t realize I smelled every morning I woke up in Indiana.

I love going through pumpkin patches. I can spend hours wandering up and down the hills searching for the perfect pumpkin. But my favorite thing to do is curl up on the couch with a mug of hot cider and a Tim Burton movie while the clouds are grey and heavy with rain and the wind is too chilly even for a sweater. There’s always a cat close by, either on my feet keeping my toes warm or on my lap trying to get into my cider.

Or when I’m at my dad’s house and there’s a fire in the fireplace and the dogs and I sprawl out in front of it and watch football or a movie with pizza on the way.

Those are the things I miss. I miss the smell of autumn and I miss having a purring cat on my lap or a big farting dog next to me. People I can talk to, I talked to a friend for almost eight hours this week. I knew way back in January that fall was going to be the time I missed home the most, but being halfway through September and not seeing even a pumpkin window cling I think I might miss it more than I thought I would. So I wouldn’t say I’m sick with missing things, but wistful for my own little autumn traditions.

And peanut butter, dammit.

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Adventures Abroad: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Well, well, well. Long time no see. I think. I don’t know. Time lost all meaning for me about July 16th.

I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam right now at a delightful hostel called the Skygon. I’ve been here just shy of a week and I am having an absolute blast.

Wait, what? Where did Vietnam come from?

Really, it surprised the hell out of me, too.

So August 1st, I finally was done with classes and sacked out on the couch with snacks and a week’s worth of Daily Shows to catch up on and a second viewing of Zootopia in my immediate future. I had zero plans for that day and the next day and the day after that and after that and so on and so forth. The only blip in this sea of nothingness was an expected visit from a friend who’s been living in Cambodia. And that was almost two weeks away. After that though, I was scheduled to go on a trip with the school to Qingdao. Initially, I’d been told my friend could come with me, so I was really excited about the trip. Then they reneged on that and said they couldn’t bring and unknown foreigner on a school trip. All right, I’ll grudgingly give you that. But I was significantly less excited about spending an regimented ‘vacation’ with my school knowing I would be on a shorter leash than I’ve had so far. And that shit has been short. And it would also cut my friend’s visiting time almost in half.

August 2nd rolled around and I had watched The Daily Show and Zootopia and I was looking around for something else to do when my friend posted a picture of himself at a little outdoor café in Ho Chi Minh City. And I don’t know what happened but, much like my decision to come to China, I thought, ‘Hey, flights to Vietnam are pretty cheap, why don’t I just meet up with him there and we can come back to China together.’

So I messaged him and everyone else down here making sure it was okay that I just fucking drop in like a paratrooper in the middle of their lives and it was. So by Wednesday, August 3rd, I had my plane ticket for a departure time on Friday. My school pretty well wigged out when I told them I was leaving for Vietnam in two days but not much they could do about it.

Friday morning, I woke up at 0300 for no goddamn reason and just decided to stay awake. I had a train leaving at 0700 to get to Xi’an which is about a three and half to four hour train ride and then from there I would have to catch the airport shuttle which would take about an hour and then my initial flight from Xi’an to Hong Kong left at 1550. And then from Hong Kong my flight to Ho Chi Minh City didn’t leave until 2200. Pretty straight forward.

Train left the station no problem. But we stopped on the tracks twice. For about twenty minutes each. We didn’t pull into Xi’an until 1215. The airport shuttle bus leaves every half hour. And of course it’s only like a ten minute walk from the station if you know where it is. Thank the gods for Tuk Tuk drivers, man. One of them gave me directions and then rode down the street next to me for two blocks until he pointed out the tiny, out of the way, im-fucking-possible-to-find-on-your-own station. I bought my ticket and slid into one of the last seats at 1232.

The bus didn’t leave until almost 1300.

Traffic was light, well, light for Xi’an, so the bus actually managed to make good time. That and the man drove like he was possessed, which, not complaining. We made it to the airport just shy of 1400 and I realized as I was walking in, I had no idea which airline I was flying on.

See, to get my ticket, I wanted to use my China bank account because my US funds are, LOL. But the only sites I could use for my China account were, of course, in Chinese. So my manager is the one who actually bought my ticket and then she sent me a screenshot of all relevant information, which was in Chinese.

So I asked the two guys at the door who are in charge of checking for bombs in luggage if they could get me to the right check-in counter and they pointed me with confidence to H. I walk up to the lady at H to verify that this is the check-in counter I need. Nope. She points me to G. So I scurry around to G and ask a lady there. She shakes her head and points me back to H. So I go around again to H and find a different airline counter and ask the lady there. Nope. She points me back to G. So I go to the other end of the Gs and finally fucking find my counter.

I get through my check in no problem. But while they give me my boarding pass, they don’t let me leave the counter because they want to verify that I can actually get into Vietnam. See, the way Vietnam visas work is that you have to fill out all the paperwork beforehand and get a letter of entry and then you pick up your visa on arrival. So I used an express service for my visa since I was leaving really short notice and they lumped me in with the nine other people they had on the same flight. The airline people thought this was quite suspicious that I had all these other traveling people on my official paperwork but I was a solo traveler. So I had to wait another half hour while they verified both with Vietnamese Immigration and the company I went with that I could indeed legally enter the country upon arrival.

1445, I finally get through security—where I had to go through “extra security measures”—and settle at a small overpriced café to finally eat something. After that, I boarded the plane.

And then we sat.

There was a storm en route and traffic control had us delayed to avoid it. I had a three and a half hour window between flights in Hong Kong, which I figured would be enough time to get through all the other security that goes with connecting flights. Only bonus for the delay was that I finally got to watch Captain America: Civil War. What a damn good movie.

So we land in Hong Kong and my primary goal is to find my gate and sit in front of it until I get on that goddamn plane because Holy Fuck this fucking day, man. And the lady at the directing others who had only minutes to reach their connecting flights tells me my gate hasn’t been assigned yet.

So, yet again, I sit down for some overpriced airport food. Although, the Starbucks black current slushie was really good. And Hong Kong has some cool ass money. I was going to ask the lady for smaller bills but there was a line behind me and I refuse to be that tourist. Hong Kong airport is pretty cool too. It has charging stations for your phone at pretty much all the gates so I just plugged in to one of those and caught up on my cracked articles.

With no other issues we finally board the plane annnnnnd the entertainment system is down and won’t be working for the duration of the flight.

 

But that’s why we have Ipods.

Finally, finally I arrived in HCMC at damn near 0100 and then I proceeded to sit for an hour while they prepared my visa. So glad I’m backpacking, because if I’d had checked luggage, I’d have left that shit.

I got to Skygon just shy of 0300 and met Jay, my traveling buddy, outside. Skygon is on the 12th floor of a 22 floor building and has incredible views of the city and river. It’s the cleanest hostel I’ve ever been in and the ladies are so nice. Really, if you ever find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, stay at the Skygon.

 

 

Sometimes, the ‘Right Thing’ Hurts

Sometimes, the ‘Right Thing’ Hurts

I’ve been in Vietnam eight days now. On the bottom floor of the building where the hostel is located there’s a tiny supermarket. Like the size of a gas station. They have, what Jay and I declared “The World’s Most Chill Cat” who lives in the supermarket. He’s awesome, he sleeps curled up by the ice cream cooler and doesn’t even crack an eye open when people pet him. One of the guys who runs the place picked him up one day like a sack of potatoes and put him over his shoulder and the cat didn’t twitch a whisker.

He’s freaking awesome.

But I went downstairs this morning to pick up some traveling toiletries and something was wrong. As soon as I stepped off the elevator I could hear this awful sound it was a low gravelly meow, like the sound was being piped through some kind of distortion. And there just past the door to the store was The World’s Most Chill Cat yowling and screaming that awful sound while tucked away in a small grocery basket. There was a small dog nearby so I figured, maybe World’s Most Chill Cat isn’t chill around dogs. And then the dog left. And he was still making that terrible noise. It was a noise of pain and fear. There are sounds you can hear from a block away and you know whatever is making it is in pain and scared and that’s what World’s Most Chill Cat was doing. He was scared and in pain and no one in the store really seemed to mind.

Walking up to the checkout I noticed the fur on his legs and belly was dirty and matted like he’d waded through a puddle. I tried to ask the guy what was wrong, what happened, but his English is limited to numbers and I only know three words in Vietnamese.

I can’t leave an animal in pain. So I crouched down to pet him and try to figure out if this was something I could fix. I thought at first he’d been hit by a moto and maybe had spinal damage. He couldn’t get up. It was like his front and back legs weren’t getting the same signals. He couldn’t coordinate his front legs enough to push himself up and his back legs only seemed to be able to kick. But while I tried to calm him I saw the lacerations on his front legs, the bite marks on his neck. He’d been attacked by something. Something bigger than him, and, by the looks of it, something that managed to bite his head hard enough to cause neurological damage.

I had a cat. His name was Oliver. He was my baby boy. He was terrified of everything, but when I was nearby he walked with a swagger and tried to bully the other cats. He was a dork and not the brightest crayon in the box, but he was my little boy.

I had to put Oliver down a year ago this month. He got sick. I don’t know what happened and I don’t know if I didn’t catch it fast enough to save him or if there was nothing I could have done to help him. All I know is that I noticed my fat cat was losing weight, fast. And when I took him to the vet they told me it was probably diabetes. But the shots didn’t help and the food didn’t help. And a week after that when I came home from work he was so weak he didn’t even protest when I picked him up and jumped in the car with him.

They could have done more tests. They could have given him steroids. But I didn’t have the money. I couldn’t afford to find out what was wrong with my baby boy. And he was weak and he was in pain so I did the best thing I could for him.

And I know he was probably a little scared when they gave him the shot, but he was so frail he couldn’t fight. But he tucked his head under my chin like he always did and I held him until his heart stopped.

I miss my little boy. And maybe it wasn’t for the absolute best, but it was the best I could do for him at the time. And that’s what owning a pet is. It’s doing the best for them, the best you can do, even if it kills a piece of you to do it. If that means giving them to a better home or giving them lasting peace, then that’s what you do.

But these people with The World’s Most Chill Cat, they are not taking care of him. They are not doing what’s best for him. There is no saving The World’s Most Chill Cat. The damage is too severe and human healthcare out here is iffy at best. There is no medicine or surgery out here that can save him. And if I can find the Vietnamese to ask them where to find a veterinarian, I will do right by this cat. I will do the best that I can for him, just like I did for my baby boy.

Adventures Abroad: Mountaineering!

Adventures Abroad: Mountaineering!

20160603_144940            Hey-oh! So two weeks ago, after recovering from what shall henceforth be known as Plague Death, I decided to take my—still recovering—body out for a spin. On Friday, the sun was out and the day was a perfect upper seventies with a nice breeze. Our staff meeting ended early and I had a whole afternoon to myself. So I decided I wanted to climb a mountain.

 

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This mountain.

My target: Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain). This is the mountain that has lights along its upper ridge that glow different colors at night that kind of look like the dorsal spikes of a dragon. Anyway, it’s pretty and my Chinese teachers told me it was free and gave me some vague directions to the entrance.

I almost walked past the entrance. It’s just a sweeping set of stairs with a little landscaping around them pressed right between a small side alley that leads to homes and a restaurant. I mean, there might be a sign, but I can barely read pinyin, definitely can’t read Chinese characters.

Once you get past the building though there’s more decoration like some rocks with characters on them that might be a poem, or the name of the mountain, or telling people not to litter. I don’t know. You go up a little more and the stairs become a staircase and on the railing are the zodiac animals and peonies and birds. There are a handful of ornamental trees that break up the monotony of stone, but not much. It didn’t look like it was going to be a very interesting walk because those first few levels are mostly stone and concrete.

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But once you get up to the first landing you’re already pretty high. Aside from the occasional car horn you can’t hear traffic or people. I moseyed up to the next level and found a small side path. Bingo. I took off down that like a hound on a scent. The little path was cool and shady and smelled so wonderful. You have no idea how much you miss the smell of grass and trees until you don’t smell them every morning. The one thing I miss the most about home is opening the windows and smelling dirt and grass and dew.

 

The little path brought me back around to the main staircase. If ever there was a Stairway to Heaven, it’s this damn thing. I figured the little trail I was on would get me to the top eventually. Nope! That was just a little side expedition, if you want to get to the top you need to climb the stairs.

I don’t know if you know how many stairs there are to the top of a mountain, but it’s a fuck-ton. My gods. And there are no trees. It’s just you and sun and stone and concrete and a fervent wish for an escalator.

 

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So. Many. Stairs.

I had to stop and enjoy the scenery a couple times, but I finally made it to a little oasis. There’s a small park-type thing about halfway up with benches and big shady trees and restrooms. It was nice to walk more than two steps without having to step up a stair, but it was pretty obvious I wasn’t at the top. I wandered about in the maze of little paths trying to find the accursed staircase.

I stumbled out some gates and found a road with nothing and no one on it. It was really weird because where Feng Huang Shan is, I’ve walked all around this area and I’ve never come across a road that came up the mountain. Because if such a goddamn road existed I’d have taken that and not those bullshit stairs.

I was a little hesitant to explore too far because there were several signs around, but none that looked like they said Keep Out, but I can only assume that a Chinese Keep Out sign looks like a European/American one. Thankfully, a couple came down the road that didn’t look like they were on any official business so I assumed it was safe to explore that direction.

And I found it! Just beyond the curve in the road were a small parking lot and a section of a giant city wall that one of my CTs told me was there. Past the city wall is a new looking park area with beautiful rose bushes planted all over the place. The place smelled amazing. All the roses were scented and there were only a handful of people there so it was quiet enough to still hear the birds. Two of the men there were flying kites. They had these contraptions on their chests that looked like boat wheels. They were really serious about their kites. And from this park you can see the whole city. Yan’an is really cool, people. They way its built between these mountains and the river. It’s awesome. Hard to appreciate from ground level, but way up high where you can see how the streets wind and how the buildings work like Tetris, it’s amazing.

But I wasn’t done! There’s a watch tower still standing on the section of the intact wall. And of course there were stairs to get there. And after a hundred more fucking stairs, there’s a steep ramp to climb and then you’re finally at the watch tower, the highest point on the mountain.

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There were two other people up there with me but the three of us were content to stare out at the city. And just when I was thinking I could stay up there for an hour or two I heard it.

Thunder.

I had hope for probably twenty minutes that the rain would stay one mountain over where I could see it already falling. And then the sun disappeared. And the wind kicked up. And the thunder was louder.

I started heading back down. It was about five o’ clock and I still had to figure out if I wanted to make dinner or get something from a street vendor. I usually try to be in bed before ten on Friday night because Saturday night I rarely sleep more than a couple hours. So the more sleep I get before the weekend starts the better off I am.

Anyway, most of the pop up storms we’ve had have been over and done with pretty quick. I knew I was going to get wet, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it. A few sprinkles, maybe a little more, but I figured I’d be dry before I got back to my apartment since I had about an hour walk ahead of me.

Haha! No. I made it back to the staircase that would take me to the street and it was like someone turned on a faucet. I was soaked through in less than five minutes. And of course, I was on the stretch of stairs without even a flower to hide under so I just put in my headphones and trudged on thinking it would end soon enough.

When I got to the street it was still raining so hard the street looked like a river. Still a half hour walk ahead of me and I have fully come to terms with the fact that it is going to rain the whole time. So I bought some cherries from a little side shop and some cookies from my favorite bakery.

Walking into my apartment block the rain started to lesson to sprinkles and by the time I got up to my apartment and had my socks rung out the sun was out. Pretty sure I pulled a muscle when I rolled my eyes. But, I did make some tea and cobble together some leftovers and binge watch The Daily Show for a couple hours and eat cookies. So, rain and all, it was a pretty good evening.

Adventures Abroad: Team Building Day

Adventures Abroad: Team Building Day

Friday we had “Team Building” day and I will preface by saying I was not particularly looking forward to it. It’s become abundantly clear that what my fellow Chinese teachers consider fun is radically different from what I consider fun. And I had to be at the school at 8am which irritated me because I knew it would be 9am before we actually started the day. But if I was late I’d never hear the end of it. So I got there on time and proceeded to wait around for everyone else to show up. At 830 I was told I had to do a demo class.

*headdesk*

A high level demo class, so, at least an hour.

optimus

And I knew it was going to be a special kind of day when after my demo the line manager told me she had a near religious experience while doing one of the activities. I split them into groups and told them to make a machine. Any machine, a machine that can do whatever they want, and then they had to tell the class about it. This made her think some deep thoughts apparently and she was quite moved.

But once that was over we were on our way to starting our day for real! I got to ride in the car with the other teachers while the line manager and front desk lady took the bus to meet us there. In my exploration of Yan’an I’ve mostly gone east and west and not so much north and south. So I got to see another part of the city as we drove to the countryside.

I am and always will be a country girl at heart. Cityscapes are not my thing. Give me hills and fields and birds and coyotes. So when we finally left the hustle and bustle of Yan’an behind and got into the country where the mountains and hills where bright green and there wasn’t a building in sight; bliss.

We pulled into a small town, which I’m guessing still had a population larger than my hometown, and they finally told me what exactly this team building day was going to consist of. Up to this point the only thing I knew was that I had to be at the school at 8am and we were going to the country. We are at Wanhua Mountain! This is a place I’ve mentioned before, way back when I was still researching cities. It has the largest concentration of wild tree peonies in china. And they were everywhere. Unfortunately, we were a little early for most of the blooms. Anyone who heads over there on Monday though is in for a show because those buds were just about ready to pop. There were enough open though that the air smelled fabulous. For the first time since we went to Sihanoukville I could smell trees and flowers and not diesel and people.

‘Twas glorious. The trees were cypress as well so we had the pungent peony scent with that sharp pine smell and I about swooned.

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But I couldn’t go frolicking through the hills as soon as we got there. We had to wait for Line Manager and Front Desk Lady. While we waited the other teachers picked up a quick snack, which for me would have been a complete meal. Chinese people can pack away the food y’all.

When the rest of our group arrived I was almost at sprint for the entrance when Line Manager and Front Desk Lady said they wanted to get a snack too. So I wound up getting a little biscuit/roll thing—stuffed with meat and vegetables and deep fried—from a street vendor while they sat down to cold noodles.

And then, finally, FINALLY! We were off!

I’m having fun exploring the city of Yan’an. There are a lot of small alleys and side streets hiding great food and cool things all over the place. But you put me in with trees and flowers and winding dirt paths and I cannot resist. I have to know. I have to know where it goes, what’s on the other side of that hill, and where does the path lead? So while the city has done a magnificent job of creating a wide safe stone walkway with easy to navigate stairs and handrails that winds you around the peonies about ten minutes into this hike I was gone.

I did try at first to weave between staying on the official trail and wandering off on the smaller footpaths. I really did try to stick with the group. But it seemed their goal was to get to the top of the mountain whilst mine was to enjoy the climb. I was taking pictures left and right and just reveling in hearing birdsong for the first time in months that didn’t come from birds locked up in cages.

I gave up about halfway up and set off to follow a promising path and found a big cluster of peonies in full bloom right on the edge of a drop off. What. A. View. You can’t capture these vistas on a phone, you just have to take my word that it was straight drop off the edge and those hills stretched for miles.

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My path got me to the plateau first which I thought was funny because the whole time I was off on my great adventure I could hear them telling me I was going to get left behind.

And at the top we found a whole stretch of peonies in bloom with a clear view of the hills again.

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A little further down there was a huge statue and one of my CTs told me it was Mulan.

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Holy Hells, THE Mulan? Yes! Apparently Wanhua—where the peonies are—has some kind of claim to Mulan. I don’t know how true that is since it seems when exactly and where exactly Mulan was born is a little fuzzy, but that’s what she told me. Whether it’s true or not, who cares, the statue was freaking awesome.

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At this point, only a live Phoenix landing on her shoulder could make this better.

If you don’t know, yes, it is the same Mulan from the Disney movie. She took her father’s place in the army, with a little less fumbling than the movie portrays, her father taught her warfare and how to use weapons. She was a general in the army for something like ten years and at the end of it she refused any and all rewards and instead married one of her generals and retired to her hometown. There is a myth/legend that she gave birth on the battlefield to a son, but the only one who knows if that’s true is long dead.

I was trying to think of any badass lady statues we have in the US and Liberty is all I could think of and she’s not even a real lady. She’s just an icon. We need more Mulan-esque statues.

After we took a couple pictures with the statue the rest of the group was ready to go back down the mountain. I, on the other hand, spied a small side path. I told them I’d meet them at the bottom and took off before anyone could say otherwise. The path I started on was paved and it just led to a bathroom.

But, just past that were a tiny foot path and trees and glimpses of a view that could rival what was on the other side. Boom. Gone.

If they came looking for me there wasn’t a trace to be found. I was in the bushes and ducking through trees without breaking stride. Found a steep drop half hidden by long grasses and weeds.

And I popped out not too far from where I’d gone in and I was about to head back when off to the right I spied a well word track going further up the mountain.

Well, LET’S SEE WHERE IT GOES!

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Nothing bad has ever happened from following a forest trail, right

This is what I needed. This right here. Solitude and silence with a warm breeze and the only evidence of people was the path I was walking. They’ve done a couple studies on peoples’ brains and discovered that even if you were born and raised in the city seeing natural landscapes relaxes your brain. We may have come quite a long way from Lucy, but it still puts subtle stress on our brains to constantly see manmade objects. This is why greenspaces in cities are such a big deal. People need nature. The quantities vary, but we all need to see a flower every now and then to stay sane.

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Pictured: Sanity

I’m so glad I can take a bus to Wanhua because I didn’t find the end of that trail and I want to know where it goes.

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Adventures Abroad: Yan’an

Adventures Abroad: Yan’an

I’m really—really—bad at blogging. I thought that suddenly being thrust into a whole new country and culture I would be better. I’d be one of those bloggers that puts up a new post every week with pictures.

Clearly, this is not the case.

It would seem that while I enjoy long form fiction writing, when it comes to blogging I’m a micro-blogger. But, I’ve committed myself to keeping some form of coherent recollection of this adventure so I will do my damndest to keep up with this thing.

 

The three hour train ride to Yan’an was really fun. I slept for only a few minutes at a time because the landscape had me preoccupied. Just outside of Xi’an the landscape looked pretty similar to Indiana; lots of fields and a few stray trees with farms in the distance.

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I haven’t been to the Southwest United States, so the rugged mountainous landscape coming in to Yan’an was the first time I’d seen that many shades of brown and gold. The sun was setting and it cast this pretty orange glow over these craggily peaks and the scattering of vegetation clinging to them. There were winding rivers, canyons, and small plateaus where people had crops planted.

 

As a rule, I dislike arriving in new cities at night. There’s something about not really being able to see where you are, the shut up buildings and lack of people that makes new places seem like the far side of Mars.

We arrived in Yan’an just after 7pm and the sun had already packed its bags and hightailed it behind the mountains. The other reason I don’t like arriving somewhere new at night, there’s nothing really to look at. The buildings right there by the road are lit up with streetlights and signs, but past that it’s just dark shapes you can assume are buildings or landscape. So there’s not a lot of distraction to keep me out of my head. And if there is one thing I don’t need when I touchdown somewhere new, it’s time in my head.

That reptilian part of your brain, the one that’s in charge of survival, self-preservation—what’s it called, the hindbrain?—starts to wake up and get loud. This is something new. This is something different. Something unknown. And that’s when it starts screaming. WhathaveyoudoneWhathaveyoudoneWhathaveyoudoneWhathaveyoudone WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!

But then there’s that middle part of your brain, the one that balances survival with reality. And the reality is that you’ve gone past a grocery store and a supermarket so you can go there in the morning and pick up supplies. The reality is you’ve done this before, just take it slow. The reality is you know in a couple months you’ll know the streets and bus routes and where to get a great meal cheap. The reality is, this isn’t scary, it’s just new.

And then there’s the small part of your brain, it’s quiet now, but in a few weeks it’ll be louder than everything else. It’s the part that sees the lights winding up the mountains and wants to know where they go. It’s the part that hears the names Pagoda Mountain and Phoenix Mountain and wants to climb them. It’s the part that hears there’s a Kung Fu school somewhere in the city and gets a thrill. It’s just a whisper in the back of your head but when the sun comes up it will get louder. It’s that little voice that pushes you out the door to explore, to find that grocery store and see what else is on the street. It’s that voice that sees the bridge and wants to know what’s on the other side.

One thing at a time. Right now you need to sit for a couple hours so the screaming ape part of your brain can calm down. But in the light things aren’t so bad. And the rational part of your brain gets you moving.

 

I’ve been here three months today and while I haven’t figured out the bus routes—the school is within walking distance—I have figured out where I can get a quick good meal and have made friends with some of the street vendors. I get discounts, people. Discounts. Sometimes the bakery I go to gives me a free cookie.

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Yan’an is built into the hills and mountains surrounding it. They have literally carved this city into these peaks and valleys. From every window in my apartment I can see a mountain. My kitchen and bedroom windows face a sheer rock face. Really, the mountain is about ten feet from my windows.

 

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Yes those are bars. Pretty sure they’re to keep the falling rocks from coming through the windows.

My apartment is becoming closer to home. It’s big, two bedrooms, which if I had my books with me would be great because then I could make a library. But alas, my Kindle is my library now. Anyway, I figured out last month that this place feels so big because there aren’t any furry feet running around. This is the first time in my life I’ve not had kitty or dog paws tapping across the floor after me.

I don’t know how people do it.

I’m at the point where I’m thinking of buying a rabbit from one of the people selling them on the street just to fill up the empty space. I haven’t yet. I’m holding out for an adorable stray kitten. And, well, if that doesn’t happen then my pets back home will have to endure endless snuggles.

Have I mentioned yet there’s a primary school in the courtyard of this apartment complex? Yeah. At 7am sharp Monday through Friday they blast this music to announce the beginning of the school day. I can hear them having their gym or recess right now. There’s a man with a microphone saying something in Chinese.

I don’t mind it. Although it recently became a stress point in my life. Now, you see, I’m a pretty private person and I’m not overly social, never have been. So China is a challenge in a lot of ways for me, because as of writing this, I am yet to see another foreigner in this city. So I get stared at a lot, which most days I can ignore, some days I get a little hostile, but fuckin’ hell, I understand why celebrities take swings at the paparazzi.

Anyway, I’ve been told—and I knew before arriving—that people are really curious because like I said, they don’t see non-Chinese people very often. A couple weeks ago I was coming home from the store during the primary school’s lunch hour and a group of five or six girls ran up to me and tried to start a conversation. Fine, I can play nice with the little kids and it was pretty funny trying to figure out what they were saying because they only know two questions in English and my Chinese is limited to pleasantries and asking where things are and identifying fruits and vegetables. So I tried to answer some of their questions for a few minutes.

Then they wanted to know where my apartment is.

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Ab-so-fuckin-lute-ly not.

Thank the gods for language barriers, I just pretended like I didn’t know what they were saying until I waved and said goodbye while pointing to my bag of groceries. They waved and said goodbye too and I start trudging up the stairs.

They started following me.

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Oh no. Oh hell no. I do not need the 300+ K-5 kids in that courtyard to know where my apartment is. People stress me out enough on the street I don’t need to wonder if when I come home at 7 o’ clock at night there might be a small hoard of people gathered by my door wanting to ask me questions. Fuck. No.

So I faked I forgot something at the store.

Judge me.

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I did pick up some apples, which I realized I needed as soon as I started walking in the direction of the small grocery store. So that worked out and by the time I made it back to the complex school was back in session and the courtyard was blessedly quiet.

But I have a new rule, I can leave my apartment whenever I want, but under no circumstances can I come back until after lunch or after school is over. It sounds stupid, but if I’m going to endure people staring at me like they’re waiting for me to turn into wyvern I have got to have my Fortress of Solitude.

hiding

 

Adventures Abroad: Sihanoukville pt. 2

Adventures Abroad: Sihanoukville pt. 2

The next day in Sihanoukville we went island hopping. As a group, we got on a tourist boat—$20 a person with breakfast and lunch included—at nine in the morning and set sail. I’ve never considered myself much of a beach person; I’ve always pictured my dream home either snuggled in a mountain or part of sunny meadow. But nine hours moving from tropical paradise to tropical paradise can change a girl’s mind. I could totally live in a treehouse on Kong Roh or Koh Rong Sanloem.

But I know you don’t give a damn about me hanging out on the beach, so here are some pictures. Live vicariously, my friends.

Here’s a soundtrack for you.

 

And after a really great day of sand, sunburns, and thorough relaxing, we went back to the hotel, changed, and headed back to the beach for dinner. I had a delicious fruity drink that was served in a an actual pineapple and spent a couple hours on the beach, digging our toes into the sand enjoying good food and company. We splintered off a bit after that. I gave “going out” about half an hour before deciding that the club scene is not and never will be my thing. So I walked around for a bit with a couple others looking at shops and postcards and talking. We were some of the first back to the hotel but after nine hours on a boat–I burned the top of my head!-I was out cold in less than fifteen minutes.

 

 

Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Sihanoukville pt. 1

Adventures Abroad: Cambodia, Sihanoukville pt. 1

Sihanoukville, named after a Prince, is a really new city in Cambodia. It wasn’t established until the mid-1950s and during the Khmer Rouge it was kind of swallowed by the jungle again, but it is rapidly becoming a tourist hotspot.

To start our last weekend together we woke up to clouds instead of bright sunlight like we were used to. No matter, it was still warm and we were about to head to the beach. Now, when we went to Siem Reap we had a mini bus and it was juuuuuust big enough for us and one bag. This time, all the people going to Thailand have to bring all of their luggage, because Sunday morning they’re heading across the border to start their new adventure.

When I looked outside, expecting a bigger bus, I spied two ten passenger vans.

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This is going to be a very long trip.

And as more people come down with their luggage we all eyed the vans with increasing incredulity. Half of the people going to Sihanoukville were taking all of their luggage, the rest of us had our backpacks. And these two vans are just sitting there. I have to wonder if this is how bands feel when they go on their first tristate tour with all their gear and luggage. It seems to defy physics that all of this stuff is going to fit in these vans. I’m not above holding my bag, I did it when we went to Siem Reap, but we’re still looking about 10+ full size suitcases plus carry-ons and backpacks.

Just…how?

But they start taking luggage out and telling people to load up. They Tetrised the everloving shit out of that luggage. I was half-surprised the bottom layer of suitcases and backpacks didn’t blink out in a shower of stars as they packed them in there. It was something to behold. And by the gods, they crammed all of us in those vans, too.

 

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Given how many people they squeeze on a moto, this should not have surprised me.

Annnd we were off! Still pretty tired and the sky was still grey, but we were on our way to the beach! Trees and sand and the sound of waves and no diesel fumes! We just had to get out of Phnom Penh first.

Newest gritty reboot: Escape from Phnom Penh—will you survive the roundabout?

Again, I loved looking out the window. There are so many different facets to this city. Going even half an hour in any direction will introduce you to a new side of this city and these people. Phnom Penh is one of those places you can spend years exploring and still be surprised. On one hand you have almost gridlocked traffic and a police officer risking life and limb standing in the middle of the mess directing traffic and then a little further up the street you have the road down to a lane and a half because the morning market crowd has spilled over the confines of the shoulder and people are just slowing down and pulling over wherever they can. It looks like a biker rally with motos and scooters instead of Harleys and Indians. And even a little further down the road and suddenly these green fields open up and cows are grazing. Then there’s another little city cluster with buildings staked almost on top of each other and people selling fruits from small stands on the sidewalk and motos zipping back and forth and TukTuks.

 

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This picture is everything you need to know about Cambodia.

It was a really fun ride and when we stopped to for bathroom breaks and water I got even more of an adventure.

Squatty Potty.

Fact: If anyone tells you they went to SE Asia and didn’t use a squat toilet they are lying through their lying face.

So, check that off my SE Asia experience.

 

Southern Cambodia is very hilly and so lush with greenery and thick foliage it’s not hard to imagine you could go traipsing through that jungle and find a new species of something. It’s so lovely and the farther south we went the more the sun started to peak out. That cast some really dramatic shadows on the hills, the crown would be hit with sunlight but the valley below would still be in shadow. It looked like a fantasy world painting. Maybe the next thing I write will have a griffon or something hiding in the green hills of Cambodia. Or a Naga, that would be more appropriate.

Then, through the trees, glimpses of blue. Palm trees lined the road, not indicative of the beach, there are coconut trees all over the place, but pair that with the water and you could feel how damn close we were.

Through a dust-sand covered section of town that looked like most of the other tiny towns scattered about Cambodia and then the van made a sharp turn down a—shit you not—dirt road that looked more like a wide cow path. But on the horizon was sparkling blue and we were heading right for it. I don’t care if I have to unload and take a donkey the rest of the way, anything to get me there.

And we make another turn and the road dropped out from under us. This tiny, narrow little paved road snaked down the hill at a near vertical angle. Apartments built into the wall of the hill where this road had been carved had a view of trees and when the breeze was bright the sapphire blue of water.

In true Cambodian style, we blew out of that narrow alley with only a cursory honk and straight into the thick of traffic. Bigger than I had assumed it would be, it still can’t match the hustle of Phnom Penh, well, as much hustle as Cambodia gets. This is a beach town in the middle of the jungle and you can feel that everywhere. I really had the feeling that the people there were only just holding the jungle at bay. Like if they let up for even a day the trees would buckle the roads and sidewalks, shrubs would pop up on street corners, the colorful flowers they had planted would overflow their pots and take up residence in the cracks of buildings.

Twisting and turning down the streets we pulled into small courtyard and parked. Set back off the quiet street, our hotel was five minutes from the beach. Ready for water and sun, we couldn’t dump our bags and run straight into the water. Not all of our rooms were ready yet.

But we’re innovative and we want to go to the damn beach. Those who had their rooms ready stored luggage for those who were still waiting and we all changed. After liberal application of sunscreen were off and down that hill like greased lightning. The hill down the beach is lined with tiny cafes that reminded me more of Western Europe like Greece and Italy, also towering hotels that probably cost forty bucks a night and travel centers and small grocery shops selling food and swimsuits in the same display.

Sand! Glorious sand and the sound of water!

The only beaches I’ve been to are the Carolinas and Florida and there the waves come roaring in like freight trains and they body slam the beach every time they come in. Sihanoukville waves are much gentler. There was no roar, it’s more like a harsh whisper. And the sand was warm and the sun peeked out a little to really make the water shine. I’ve never seen turquoise water. In Sihanoukville the water is literally the color of gems and precious stones; lapsis, turquoise, sapphire. I see why people flock to beaches like this.

And the water was warm! Like a warm salt bath. Again, in the Carolinas the water is cold and in Florida unless you catch a warm current, it’s pretty chilly too. Not here. It was so nice. This is why people retire to places like this. I’d love to spend the rest of my life in this crystal blue warm water.

One thing the Carolinas have on Sihanoukville; Waves. I like the massive six and ten foot waves that come rolling in. Those waves that will steam roll you if you’re not paying attention and pummel you into the sand. I love those waves. I like it when the storms out at sea churn up the ocean and those dark waves rise up like the specter of Death and hit the beach with everything they have.

The quiet waves at Sihanoukville were nice though. Easy to float on.

I got lunch with a couple other girls at one of the many, many small restaurants lining the backside of the beach. These little businesses were crammed in right on top of each other but they didn’t overwhelm the beach like you get in US beaches. They were like small huts that blended with the jungle beach scenery. I got swordfish for the first time in my life. It was amazing. Cambodian cuisine doesn’t use a lot of spices so the natural flavors of the food really shine. I got a Yellow Submarine drink and one of the girls got a goddamn incredible strawberry smoothie. No one does smoothies like Cambodia. No one.

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Adventures Abroad: China-Arrival

Adventures Abroad: China-Arrival

Saturday was my last night in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and it was one of the best days of the whole trip. I helped a couple teachers who are in limbo move their stuff to a hostel. And by “helped” I mean I tagged along so I could go to the little coffee shop just down the street from the hostel and get a strawberry chiller. I did carry one suitcase up four flights of stairs, so I earned that chiller, dammit. But we had lunch at great street food place and visited Wat Phnom, one of the oldest temples in Cambodia.

We’d been to Wat Phnom before, it was the first stop on the City Tour we did the first Sunday we arrived. It’s within walking distance which was great because I was so sick that first tour I didn’t recall seeing a lot of the stuff that was there. And it was really nice to walk through with just the four of us instead of a group of twenty. It felt less intrusive to the people who were there praying and making offerings. I thought I’d pick up some things from the little tourist stand but none of it was really Wat Phnom or Phnom Penh. There were a lot of things with Angkor Wat on them, elephants, lions, and a few statues of Brahma.

At five o’clock we added the teacher with the most nicknames: Aquaman/BoBear/Little Bear/Dread Pirate Robert to our number and set off for a boxing match. Entry to these things is free, you just have to pay for the ride there. It was a broadcasted match and we got front row seats.

The kickboxing was great, make no mistake, I’d love to go to another one, but the star of the show was the zebra print clad bookie taking bets. This woman was shameless and managed to get Jay to wager five bucks on a match which he promptly lost.

There were four matches each match lasted five rounds or, in one case, until a KO in the second round. Dude got his bell rung by a beautifully executed roundhouse. It was incredible, had I not been watching his feet I wouldn’t have seen him move it. It was like a snake strike there and back in less than a blink. And he was one of the slow fighters. There was a fighter in the last round whose kicks were absurdly fast and that fight ended in a draw because the other guy still dodged them. A couple more years of experience and that kid will be undefeated. I mean his footwork was incredible. Still needs work on his punches, but had those kicks connected they would’ve dropped the other guy.

I would say far too soon the fight ended and we went our separate ways for the last time. Three went back to the hostel whilst Aquaman and I returned to the Marady Hotel so we could leave the next morning.

oOo

Yesterday, Feb 21st, Aquaman and I got up at the ass-crack of dawn and headed to the airport. It was kind of nice being on the streets of Phnom Penh at 530am. Not a lot of traffic and the air was cool and cleaner. It was a nice send off from the city that in ten years will be a bustling destination place. And it was nice to take a Tuk Tuk instead of the taxi I was thinking about. As we’d been talking at lunch the day before, Phnom Penh is leaving the age of Tuk Tuks behind. As the middle class continues to expand and more and more people get cars there’s a very good chance Tuk Tuks will be pushed off the roads for the sake of efficiency. They might keep some for tours of the city for foreigners, but they won’t be the staple of transportation.

Which makes me sad for future visitors. I don’t know how you can actually experience Phnom Penh unless you’ve gone the wrong way down a narrow one way bumping over potholes at fifteen miles an hour dodging stray animals and pedestrians only to come screeching out into the street with only a cursory glance at oncoming traffic. I mean, that’s what makes Phnom Penh fun.

Anyway, I digress.

I still hate flying. Only had two three hour flights and it was still miserable. Aquaman and I had the same initial flight so we got to Guangzhou and picked up our luggage, but what should have been a two and a half hour layover for me and a two hour layover for him, turned into less than an hour for him. So he had to book it. I had just at an hour to get through customs and security which was nerve wracking but we lucked out because the security line was the longest and it only took me about ten or fifteen minutes to get through.

Then there was the hike.

So I got through security and there’s this little thing like a golf cart with eight seats sitting there with a sign that says “To B Departure”. And on my ticket it says I need to be at B. So I climb aboard and before I have my backpack settled on my lap we’re off.

I never wondered what it would be like to ride on an indoor Tuk Tuk, but now I have the answer to that unasked question. It could be a ride at Cedar Point. Pedestrians? They better move. I doubt we were going that fast, but this dude had it floored the entire way. It blew my hair back.

It was great and I was glad for it since I found my gate was, of course, the farthest from arrivals as physically possible. They might as well have just put it on the other side of the city.

By the time I got to my gate I had fifteen minutes before boarding.

And I still hate flying.

But the flight was fine, hardly any turbulence and a smooth landing. The real challenge was grabbing my luggage and trying to find who was picking me up. By a stroke of luck, one of the ladies who was here to get me saw me first. Since our ride hadn’t yet arrived we sat at Starbucks and she asked me about the US and I asked her about China. She was really cool and I wish she was coming with me to Yan’an, but oh well.

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These are apartments. This is the fourth block we passed on the way to Xi’an proper from the airport.

I had thought I’d be staying in a hotel or hostel, Jay, the godsend that he is gave me the name of a hostel I could book if I was left to find my own lodgings. Luckily? The son of the lady who owns the school I’ll be teaching at owns a “hostel.” It’s nice, but I’m guessing this is just a place they use for teachers who are doing their training in Xi’an. I think I’d rather stay at the place Jay told me about but how do you kindly ask, “Hey, I know this is free, but I’d like to pay to stay somewhere that looks cooler.”

Anyway, I thought I’d just spend the rest of my night just chilling after all day of traveling, but alas, ‘twas not to be. We went to the house of the guy I’ve been emailing who, while writes English fairly well, can’t speak a word of it. So for an awkward hour and a half I drank delicious green tea and listened to the Chinese conversation going on around me.

Then we went out to eat, this is like 8pm, I’ve been up since 430, because my brain hates me, and I am almost asleep on my feet. You have no idea how exhausting Chinese society is until you’re in it. Every single one of us was performing in one way or another. Always, always, always keep your best face up.

So after a month of somewhat plain Khmer cuisine, I assaulted my body with a variety of spices it didn’t get even in the US. I know I had some kind of fish soup, roasted pig’s feet which were pretty good, some kind of mushroom, potatoes, eggs, and some kind of really rich soup that I really enjoyed.

My stomach is not happy with me.

Then they ordered me some kind of noodle bowl and, seriously guys, I haven’t been eating a lot, like once or twice a day for the last month, this was three times that in one meal and I’d already eaten on the flight. And there was also some kind of mozzarella stick looking thing they told me was rice covered in brown sugar sauce.

I tried a little of each but at that point I just wanted to curl up and go to sleep. Traveling itself is exhausting. Traveling and then preforming for four hours about damn killed me.

Fiiinaaaaalllllyyyy it was time to head to the hostel where I am sharing a room with two of my Chinese teachers. I, according to them, am the only foreign teacher at the school. So it looks like I will have an apartment to myself. Dank Sei Gott.

They’re both really nice, but even with them I feel like I have a face and expectations I have to put on that’s just not there with other Westerners. I may well have to find the ex-pat corner of Yan’an and head down there once a week or so just to relax.

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This is the entrance to the Tang Paradise amusement park. It’s an amusement park based on the Tang dynasty.

The Killing Fields

Disclaimer: This is my post about the Killing Fields and it is not a happy one.

 

I went to the Phnom Penh Killing Fields a week ago Sunday and I’ve probably started this post a dozen different ways. I thought about doing a step-by-step of the experience, what it was like driving up and seeing it for the first time, listening to survivor stories. But that seems really clinical and detached. There is nothing cut and dry about the Killing Fields and what it takes for humans to do that to each other. It’s a messy experience full of chaotic emotions.

But I’m not going to write about the Killing Fields. There are some horrors in the world that are too great for words. There simply are not words that can convey the spirit crushing horror of The Killing Tree and the Magic Tree. There’s nothing I can say or write that will make you understand what it’s like to listen to a recording of what was most likely the last thing people—children, men, and women—heard before they were hacked to death with hoes, scythes, bayonets, and axes.

You can still see clothes coming up from the ground as erosion continues to bring more victims to the surface. Scraps of t-shirts and jackets and blouses tangled in roots.

One of my classmates found a skull.

I found a femur. Part of a femur at least.

There are teeth and bone fragments everywhere.

So no, I could flip through a dictionary for days and still not find the words to explain to you the terrible horror of the Killing Fields so I won’t try.

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According to the audio tour, the children were killed in front of their mothers before the women were raped and killed.
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Most likely, the victims found here were in the Khmer Rouge army and killed as an example to keep others afraid. They were buried in their uniforms.
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When this killing field was discovered there were still bits of brain and bone clinging to the bark. The bracelets hung on the tree are spirit offerings.
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The caretakers collect the clothing and bits of bone that come up once a month and preserve them. The purple shorts on the left side belonged to a small child.
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All the skulls that have been found. So far, 5,000 victims reside in here.
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Forensic Anthropologists did a study on the bones to determine the sex, age, and manner of execution. None were killed with bullets because bullets are expensive.
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Five Thousand skulls. And there are more still in undisturbed pits under a lake.
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The people killed were doctors, teachers, lawyers. People with education and their families.

 

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Someone’s t-shirt coming up from the pit. The mass graves were dusted with powdered DDT to kill anyone who might have survived the initial execution