Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ho Ho Ho from Columbus Circle

Coming to you live from the Columbus Circle Holiday Market!! We’re already at the end of our second week at this three week market and things are going well. Not only are sales good but we’re making friends left and right in our little corner of the market. Right now Oktay, my Turkish neighbor who sells glass ware, is chilling in my booth while his sister Ozlum argues with him from outside. It’s a slow Tuesday but a fine snow is coming down which is bringing the people out (and hopefully putting them in a shopping mood). Marushka took the day off to rid herself of a cold. I am left alone to man the booth for the day. No big deal there’enough activity here to keep me occupied.
Despite a lousy world economy, people are still shopping for the holidays. Lots of people from all over the world stop in to buy t-shirts and pj’s for their kids. Bad
economy or not, children always need clothing. Texas, England, Mississippi, Ireland to name a few. One of the things Maruska and I do to entertain ourselves is to keep a tally of all the different places people visit from. Another thing is to photograph all our friends who come by to visit us on a daily basis. So far we have had many friends pose in our booth. Marshall started the tradition and other friends (both mine and Marushka’s) have been immortalized in celluloid in our booth. We have to keep things exciting and fresh at the market.
As Christmas gets nearer, we sell more and more. I have a few things already sold out. My Lion shirts have been a huge success and I’m already done with them. I’ve started a new line of pillows and plush cats and owls which have been going like hotcakes too. I’m sure the closer we get to the big day, the crazier people will get and they’ll just throw money at us. Well that’s what the guys who run the market say. I’ll let you know how it all ends up.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

In The Hall of the Khmer Kings

Is there a word for the feeling of emotion one gets at finally fulfilling a dream? That initial moment when the dream becomes a reality and you stand there saying “Holy shit this is finally happening!” Well whatever it was called, that’s the feeling I had as we drove into the Angkor Wat park yesterday laying eyes on this amazing ancient site for the first time. Not only was it the excitement of finally being here but also the awe of Angkor Wat itself. It isn’t just one big temple, it’s a whole series of temples and complexes spread out in the vastness of the jungle north of Siem Reap in northern Cambodia. For all of you travelers that read this, put this on your list of places to see!
Siem Reap, was a small sleepy town until French archaeologists stumbled across this wonder of the world covered up with jungle back in the 1860’s. Now the town is becoming a city whose main business is Angkor Wat. Big hotels, restaurants, souvenir stores, resorts and spas, you know it they’re building it. Hell why not after years of horror and war, they deserve some peace and prosperity. Did the anciet Khmer kings ever think that their huge city/temple complex would be exploited so and traipsed over by tourists from all over the world? Probably not, but I don’t think they’d mind all that much.
The question going around in my mind is “Didn’t the locals know this was here? Did they care about it or just looked at it as old ruins?” Well thank God for the French to unearth this place and let the world be able to come and enjoy it as much as they enjoyed unearthing it and wresting it from the clutches of the jungle. I’m sure as my days here progress that question along with many others will be answered.
My traveling companions are friends of yore from my Ekaterinburg days over 10 years ago. Luc, Rosie, Elizabeth and I are founding members of the Group Vacation Club and have met up around the world in a whole slew of places from Dubai, Switzerland, Maine and Mt. Kilimanjaro. We used to all live in Russia at the same time but now our homes are cast around the world: London, Manila and New York. Still we manage to get on planes and meet up in various places on the planet. We don’t really recall how this group vacation came together but I do recall being inspired back in June when I was flying to Kabul from Delhi and reading about Angkor Wat in the Indian Airways magazine. Luc and Rosie were planning to come in October, Elizabeth was planning a trip with a friend throughout Southeast Asia and somehow it all came together. Our fifth travel buddy, and new member of the group, Amelia fits in with us and we’re all having a great time. Good traveling friends are hard to find so when you find them, hold on to them.
There is so much to see here that one needs at least 3 days, and at that it’s only the surface. Amazing as Angkor Wat is though, one can get templed out so you need to take breaks. Luckily there’s plenty to do in Siem Reap to keep one occupied. We’re holed up at the charming Maison D’Angkor, a colonial-esque hotel on the outskirts of downtown Siem Reap. Post-templing we gather by the pool for drinks before heading off to a restaurant in town. We have been having some pretty good meals, our favorite being the Carnets d’Asie a fancy mix of French and Khmer cuisine. Friendly, attentive service, good wine list and delicious food. Stay away from Khmer Kitchen, bland food and bad wine. Eventhough it’s recommended in the guide books and Mick Jagger ate there, it’s a forgettable place.
The temples of Angkor Wat and beyond are endless and overwhelming. So much detail and Hindu symbolism, one would need a course on it all before getting on the plane to come here. I could rattle off all the things we’ve seen but it wouldn’t mean much to you readers back home. Intricate scenes from the Ramayana etched in sandstone, nagas (multiheaded snakes), apsaras (heavenly nymphs), lingas (phallic symbols), devas (good gods) and yoni (female fertility symbol). It’s all so overwhelming at times that I shut down. Instead I sit and take in this magnificent place. Back in my hotel room, I read up on what I saw and then it makes more sense. We’ve been traveling around from site to site, Ta Prom being the first place we hit, having to wade through ankle deep water from all the rain to get into the place. Yesterday we drove an hour out to the Kbal Spean or River of a Thousand Lingas (where Luc and I played under a waterfall) and Banteay Srei, The Citadel of Women (thus called because of the fine detail etched in the stone which could only be done by women’s hands. Today is Angkor Tom one of the more famous places to visit and tomorrow we’ll take on Angkor Wat, the granddaddy of them all. We attempted to get up at 4:30 am for sunrise at Angkor Wat but after all the wine and good food last night we decided to sleep in. There’s always tomorrow. The sunsets are as amazing as the sunrises and we’ve caught a few of those. Tomorrow is our last day so we’ll get up at the ungodly hour to experience sunrise over one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

One Night (and Day) in Bangkok

Actually it was two nights if you count the brief bit of night I used when I arrived around 11 pm on Wednesday. The Tokyo-Bangkok flight on ANA made me love the Japanese and their overly polite and kind ways even more. The young flight attendants with their well coiffed hair, simple make up and stylish uniforms (loved the poofy bows worn at the side of their necks) were a refreshing change from the dumpy, schlumpy flight attendants on American. I slept most of the way, beign whacked on the head by a big bout of jet lag. I was exhausted when I got to Bangkok but somehow the bright lights and the excitement of being in a new place woke me up. By the time I got to my glamorous hotel in Chinatown, The Shanghai Mansion I was hungry again so I walked around the hood, finally planting myself at an outdoor cafĂ©, ordering some calamari in hot sauce and a big Singha beer. I watched the street scene before me, taking in all the people walking by or eating at the next tables. A guy on an elephant came by and tried to get me to pay to feed the baby pachyderm sugar cane from a bag but I didn’t want to. The elephant banged his trunk on a nearby table and snorted a high pitched snort at me. Sassy thing he was.
My room at the Shanghai Mansion is so retro Chinese, evoking the 1930’s China. A nice online gamble that paid out—thanks The lighting, the colours, the little features of the furniture and the bed are all up my alley. Maybe I’ll turn my bedroom back home into a tiny resemblance of room 411.
The strange thing about jet lag is you don’t know when it’s going to hit you. You can try and adapt to the time wherever you are, which usually works for me but then there comes that moment when you just can’t keep your eyes open and sleep forces you down for a nap. Well luckily, I had a regular sleep and woke up around 7 as I usually do. I have one day in Bangkok and so much to see so I didn’t want to spend the day lolling in bed. After hitting the breakfast buffet, I made my trek up to the Ko Ratanakosin area of town. This area is where all the must see sites are: the Reclining Buddah, The Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddah. After 24 hours on planes, the last thing I wanted to do was get in a tuk tuk or cab so I walked, a mere 30 mins or so. What better way to see this bustling city of who knows how many million. It was a hot humid day so by the time I got there my shirt was soaking, much to the amusement of the locals staring at me.
The three must-sees didn’t fail me. After seeing the gigantic reclining Buddah I was ready to convert to Buddhism. This enormous, happily reclining deity all aglow in warm gold leaf was so peaceful. I felt a sense of inner peace as I walked around the length of Buddah (my second reclining one I’ve seen). A little more pleasant than a dead man on a cross and threats of going to hell if you don’t obey. Being in Thailand for my first time, I had to snap away at almost everything I saw. The stupas, temples, pillars, mirror and gold encrusted doorways, big pots with lotus flowers blooming, and fancy facades. Within the Reclining Buddah complex (that’s Wat Pho to the locals) is the Wat Pho Thai Massage School so I just had to stop in for the first of 3 massages I got that day. Let me tell you if ever I needed a reason to move to Thailand it would be so I could afford to get massages everyday. Man is my body out of whack! But little by little the young guy smoothed out the knots in my calves, feet and shoulders. After an hour I wanted more and it was not hard to sell me on an hour long foot massage. Hell I could have stayed there all day throwing money at them but there were more sites to see. I considered taking a tuk tuk after the foot massage so as not to ruin the fine work done on my feet, but the urge to walk was there. Plus the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddah were a stone’s throw. After waiting out a passing torrential rain, I made my way into the Palace grounds. Being a big “King and I” fan this was like mecca and I found myself humming some of the tunes. I so wanted to do “Shall We Dance” across the Throne Room floor but refrained. I’m sure I would have been thrown out of the place (plus it’s probably been done before). What can I say about the Grand Palace? Although you can’t go inside the buildings, it’s still very impressive.
Seeing the Emerald Buddah for Buddhists is like visiting the Vatican for Catholics. This small figure way on high of a structure of gold has had a bumpy history of being stolen, reclaimed, hidden away by the Burmese but is now solidly resting at home in Bangkok. Once again I was blown away by the sumptuousness of the buildings, ornate decorations and just being in this fabulous setting. Oh how lucky that Misses Anna was to be running around these lavish digs. But I don’t envy here in those giant hoop skirts in such humidity.
Walking around a new city is something I just love. While I have a plan and a map to guide me, I love the spontaneousness of stopping at a food stand for something to eat or going down a bustling alleyway of shops to see what everyone is selling. If I don’t see everything I plant o see? Well, that’s OK because I saw something else. After all the Buddahs, I decided to have a ride on the river. Stopping for some delicious street fair (with a plea to Buddah and others not to get stomach problems from it) along the way and doing some more people watching. I love how in this town locals and foreigners mix so well together. We’re not all packed on a bus and taken from site to site, eating only in uber clean places but we’re sharing a meal with them at little metal tables with plastic stools and jamming on to crowded water ferries instead of paying more for a private boat. So down the Chao Phraya I went with all the other tourists, monks and locals going about their usual business.
My next must-see was the Golden Buddah, the largest solid gold Buddah in existence. Jumping off the boat down river, I navigated the tiny market alleyways toward the Golden Buddah. Within that alleyway, I think I found the source for the knock offs one can find on Canal Street back home. Besides that there were some cool things being sold like Halloween stuff but I resisted and kept on moving. I needed to fulfill my spiritual enlightenment and not get carried away in the realm of mass materialism. I did succumb to a package of cashews which I chewed along the way to the temple. The Golden Buddah did not disappoint at all. Pretty darn fabulous to see a 30 m high solid gold Buddah. I didn’t take of my shoes and go inside (I was still wet from the big rain) but I stood and admired from the doorway amid the incense and lotus flower offerings.
After so many Buddahs, I needed a nap so I went back to my Shanghai bed for some sleep. No sooner had I gotten into bed than a great big thunder and lightning storm hit—more reason to stay in bed. The jet lag hit hard and I was out for quite some time. I did rally around 9pm and pulled myself out of bed to go have some dinner and see more things. My friend Marshall told me I should go to Khao San—a pedestrian street with lots of good restaurants and where there’s a lot going on. So I grabbed a tuk tuk and sped up there. The driver wanted to take me to Pot Pom (the sex quarter) but I wasn’t in the mood for that (yet) so off we went to Khao San. No sooner had I reached Khao San that I wanted to get the hell out. Khao San is a quaint little street that some giant frat party invaded. Not my style so I high tailed it down an alleyway to find a quieter more authentic place to eat, drink a beer and watch the world go by. I must saw one thing though, Khao San had a huge collection of great t-shirts. Many I’ve seen in NYC but there’s some cool designs on Khao San. Whether my designer friends are stealing from the Thais or vice versa will have to remain a mystery.
Post dinner I was feeling more awake so I decided to see the sex quarter just for shits and giggles. Pretty crazy place will girls, guys and trannies trying to lure you into their bar for all sorts of shows. I preferred to wander and take it all in rather than jump into the loud foray inside. Once again, not my style. I did stop however for another massage along the way, since I was feeling the one earlier wearing off. Plus my feet, calves and shoulder sneeded more kneading. Sam Chai, my masseuse, went to work and two hours later I left for my hotel feeling like a hundred bucks.
So there it is, one night (and day) in Bangkok, where the world is your oyster, clam, squid, chicken, pig, duck—whatever you want it to be. Cambodia here I come!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Return To Kashka Suu

Saturday found me with nothing pressing to do so, with a bike in the apartment, I decided to take a ride up to Kashka Suu. I’ve driven up there, walked from there and now decided to bike the 25 kilometres up to my Kyrgyz Shangrila. Now dear readers please don’t tell my mom that I was on a bike without a helmet riding along with cars whizzing by on a country road in northern Kyrgyzstan. Oh shoot! I forgot—she reads my blog. Oh well mom there it is!!
Anyway, on a bike that was technically too small for me and with one pedal semi broken, I gradually made my way up the road. The ride goes slow because heading up into the mountains, one must take into account the gain in elevation, and as we say on Mt. Kilimanjaro “Pole, Pole”—go slow. So up the first hill I went, the steepest part of the road, through the village where I’ve stopped to buy black currants and other fresh fruit from local gardens many times. I stopped for some water at the top and met Andrei and Sasha, two guys also biking their way up to Ala-Archa, the national park. We pedaled together for awhile but I left them by the ostrich farm and headed my way up the hill. The road wasn’t that busy and the cars that were on it knew how to deal with bikers so it wasn’t a huge risk.
Slowly, slowly up the road I went, stopping for water in Baitik, the village with the mosque we’d visit with the Afghans, having a bite of lunch at a store in Kashka Suu, the village from whence the name of the ski resort comes from. One thing I didn’t take into account was the hardness of the seat so by the time I pulled off the asphalt road, my ass was I pain. Bumping along an unpaved 6 kilometre road with a sore butt is not my idea of fun, so I took breaks from pedaling by walking the bike. I stopped at my little green house, that stands to welcome me at the beginning of the dirt road. I love this little house and spent some time resting my weary bones and butt in the shade of the walnut tree in front. The gate was closed in a rudimentary way—tied with twine, which was easily untied. After all these years of looking at it from the inside of a car, I finally went up to the little green house and looked inside to see what it looked like. A very small place—one big room, a small tiled front room and a teeny kitchen with a wood burning stove. Weeds surround the place but I could see the potential of making this a cute little country home. Apparently, it could be bought for under $5,000 rather tempting I must say.
As I got to the big turn in the road where the chebany (local farmers) live, the sky turned dark, thunder rumbled in the mountains, a cold wind blew and it began to rain. I could see Kashka Suu waiting for me up there on the hill but at that point I couldn’t imagine getting up there. Part of me wanted to turn around and head back to town, but after 5 hrs on the road I wasn’t going to give up. Luckily, at the fork in the road, a white minivan stood. I asked the driver if he was going to Kashka Suu and he said he was. He wasn’t quite sure how to get there and I said I’d show him the way if he gave me a ride up the hill. And so, within 15 minutes I had arrived at Kashka Suu just in time for a delicious lunch of soup and meant and potatoes.
My initial plan was to spend a few hours at Kashka Suu and then head back to town in the evening. But once Tom Toomey arrives at Kashka Suu, he can’t leave that easily. After lunch I had a much needed nap. I was wakened from my nap by the sound of the chair lift starting up. Sergei yelled for me to come take a ride, so up the mountain I went. Then I went to see the girls in the kitchen. It was someone’s son’s birthday (and Chynara’s too) so after the third shot of vodka, I decided to stay the night. Plus there was a group of gay boys coming up for a weekend seminar so there was more impetus to stay. We ate, we drank, we laughed as per usual around the big metal table in the kitchen. The gay boys were late so we had extra time. Tamara pulled out a big cucumber and the laughs ensued. After awhile, I wasn’t feeling too well. I think it was too much too soon-itis. The biking in altitude plus good food and bad vodka was a bit too much for me. After the kitchen party, I had to dine with Lyubov Ivanovna and Viktor Yakovlich, the heads of Kashka Suu. More of a diplomatic dinner really, to tell them why we didn’t come to Kashka Suu this year (visas, timing, etc.) and not because we didn’t like them. Still I had to eat plov and drink more bad vodka (I sipped it symbolically) when I’d rather be out talking with the gay boys. They were a nice lot, a little too femmy for me but nice guys all the same. By 9:30 I was free of all my eating and drinking duties and headed to my cabin. I threw up all that food and vodka and hit the sack feeling a little better.
In the morning, I was still a bit woozy. Food was the last thing on my mind and the idea of sitting on a bike and riding back to Bishkek was second to last. Still after a few cups of tea and two of Tamara’s boorsuki (fried dough balls), I was ready to go. 5 hours up and 1.5 hours down—what a difference. Along the way I ran into other bikers, waving a hello to them. I don’t think I pedaled more than 5 times as I sped back down the hill to Bishkek. Man was I glad to get off that hard seat and have a nice long shower. Casanova and Tulip snuggled with me as I napped, our last snuggle together. A quick trip to Rassvet, the place where I get my haircut every summer, and Cale (my assistant), Aida (his wife) and I were off to the airport to catch our flight to Dushanbe. No goodbyes in Kyrgyzstan, just til we meet agains.

Friday, July 18, 2008

My Summer Home

Some people like to say they summer in the Hamptons or the Catskills, in my case I proudly say I summer in Bishkek. Now that isn’t something you say with the affectation and snobby inflection you when when you say “The Hamptons” or “Newport” but I don’t care. My mother didn’t raise me to be a snob. For a brief moment in time however, I didn’t think I would be able to make it here but for the price of a stapler, I did.
After my 1.5 hr flight from Dushanbe, I was whisked to my apartment for the week spitting distance from the American embassy. Batma (one of my camp counselors) is on cat care duty for one of the American teachers who works at her school. The teacher went home for the summer and left her in charge of 2 cats in a huge new apartment in one of the glamorous high rises that are going up all over town. This is one of those “elite” residences that everyone is clamoring to live in (if they can afford it). Design-wise it’s alright but decoration wise it leaves much to be desired. The living room is enormous, the TV is so far away from the couches that you need a giant magnifying glass in front of the screen to see what’s going on. I like the green and white cabinets in the kitchen but it’s so big and there’s no table or chairs to make a little nook or to a cabinet to store things in. My favorite thing is the big disco shower. A giant glass box with all sorts of dials that spray water out from everywhere. I call it the disco shower because there’s a radio in it to add to the bathing experience.
My two charges for the week—Tulip and Casanova are just the pet therapy I need. Tulip is a cute gray and white striped thing ala Mittens my first cat. She’s a little shy and spends most of the time in the bedroom area. Casanova is one of those pedigree hairless felines. One of the ugliest cats I’ve seen but he’s grown on me. He’s affection starved so I gave him a ton yesterday and we’ve bonded. He snuggles on my chest when I watch TV.
I don’t think I was here but 2 or 3 hours before I was in a car going up to Kashka Suu, my former summer camp site, where I’m welcomed like family, the place in Kyrgyzstan I love the most. The mountains are so close from the apartment that they were calling to me, just like they did Maria von Trapp. Tamara, the cook at Kashka Suu was waiting for us and I knew she was making one my favorite things—manty. Manty are a staple of Central Asia—a meat dumpling with chopped lamb, onions and spices steamed to perfection. Tamara’s are special because she uses yeast dough which makes the puffy and so much more delicious. With some homemade laza, a hot pepper sauce, I can eat them til I look like a pregnant lady. Chynara, Cale, Batma, Daniel and I drove up the windy dirt road for an evening of laughs, cognac, and good food with friends. It was Katya’s 20th birthday so the long table was groaning with all sorts of delicious things. We sat, ate, drank, toasted to the young birthday girl, reminisced, laughed til the wee hours. My usual room, 3rd house 4th room, was occupied so we spent the night in the first house, our usual cabin for the girls. Although it was a different cabin, I was still happy to be snuggled in that small single bed, feet hanging off the end, the crisp, clean smell of the sheets and that big square pillow.
In the morning we were awakened by a loud wind storm outside. The roof rattled, doors banged, trees and shrubs bent in the powerful wind blowing down the mountainside. Never in the 4 years being here did I ever experience this. I thought for sure the building would be blown down the mountain or off to the land of Oz. As the sun rose, the wind blew and the clouds turned a beautiful pink before going dark into rain clouds. Still the sun shone and a full rainbow arched outside my window from one ridge down into the valley. Was it a freak act of nature or a welcome back sign from the mountain? Who knows.
After a lingering breakfast with a few shots of cognac, Chynara and I hiked up the hill to pick some dushitsa and chiburets, two wild flowers that I usually pick, dry out and use in tea (just like the locals). One of my summer musts here in Kashka Suu. No sooner had we digested breakfast that it was lunch time. So down we went for lunch with Lyubov Ivanovna, the camp administrator. She treated us to her homemade Burberry wine (not the coat, the berry kiddos), a light yet bitter drink that one nurses slowly rather than downs like the sweet Calvados cognac. By this point I was ready for a nap, drained from the eating, drinking and visiting so I went up to my room the last thing on my list of things to do at Kashka Suu—a post lunch nap. I always loved to go up to my room for a little nap while everyone was busy studying in the afternoon. The car was on its way up to get us, so I quickly snuck up to my room for a little sleep. Tucked under the heavy comforter, I dozed off to the sound of wind and rain, the fresh mountain air blowing through my open door from the balcony. Waking 20 minutes later, I laid in bed looking at the view that has been my summer view for the last 4 years. I said goodbye to the view, to the room and with a lock of the door on room 6 cabin 1, I was ready for a new camp in Tajikistan.