Uncategorized

To resume…

I’m sitting on a train, months have passed, and not a single post has been published since I left Cambodia.

“Where’s the time?”

I hear my mind calculate over and over again.

“just start” I implore myself…

… and here I am, back again, on a train, the only time to sit and think. To sit and write.

I’m eavesdropping on a conversation in the compartment to my left, two guys discussing the London stock exchange on the phone to some woman who even through the soft speaker sounds stressed and concerned… and I have this sense of everything falling into place. This reminder that we are all leading our own ‘important’ lives. Or maybe it’s not so important?

It’s not an existential crisis, but rather an interesting moment of clarity where the seriousness of a simple phone call between two people means so much to them, and so little to everyone else.

I can’t tell why this particular conversation touches me, or why it inspires me to come back here onto this blog.

It’s been a long month and I’m all kinds of exhausted. The kinds of exhausted where your everything hurts, and you just need a 4 month sleep. Or just a cuddle from someone who doesn’t want or need anything from you.

I’ll use these words as my all encompassing hug, and hope it nurses me back to some form of regularity.

For the absence, I apologise.

For the incoherency, I apologise twice.

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Coffee, Food, Hospitality, Observations, Prattler's Top 10, To Do, Travel, Uncategorized

PRATTLER’S TOP 10 – BERLIN

Making this list is sort of oxymoronic… Berlin is such an incredible city, with so much to offer for so many, that to even assume that a “Top 10” can be produced is really arrogant, and really ignorant. Nevertheless, I march forward into the idiotic, and bring you…. PRATTLER’S TOP TEN ‘BERLIN’!

Fat Bike Tour

Fat Bike Tour

1. First up, get yourself onto a FAT BIKE TOUR. These guys know how to have some serious fun whilst giving you the perfect overview of the city. The bikes are structured so that you feel like an absolute boss whilst riding them, and you can’t help but smile like an idiot as you cycle through the Tiergaarten on a sunny day, seeing naked old men and rabbits alike frolicking through the beautiful (and ginormous) gardens. This is the perfect way to start off your trip without being TOO or NOT SO informative. (Also, this will tick off all the major tourist attractions like the Brandenburg Gate/Reichstag/Victory Monument/Jewish & Homosexual Memorials/Berlin Wall… so you’ll feel like you’ve seen it all). I also recommended doing the afternoon tour as they take you to a legitimate Beer Garden with great wurst/schnitzel and beer (of course)

2. There are a shitload of museums in this city, and you’re going to have to see one to make yourself feel like you’ve indulged the “culture within”. So, I suggest you skip the Neue, the Historiches Museum and all the other ones and head straight to the PERGAMON MUSEUM. It probably doesn’t get much more impressive than this. I mean… alter to Zeus AND the entire gate to one of the oldest cities in the world… need I say more?

Z Bar

3. Z BAR in the heart of one of the major suburbs, Mitte, is a fantastic little watering hole without pretention. It’s dark and dank interior serves a grungy chic backdrop for a long catch up with a group of friends. The cocktails are fast and messy, and the bartender doesn’t have time for your bullshit. Get in, order, grab a seat, and expect some beast of a dog to rub up against the leg of your barstool whilst its owner strikes up a conversation about the Australian desert in winter in near perfect english.

4. KATER HOLZIG & CLUB DER VISIONÄERE are household names in Kreuzberg. One simply cannot exist without the other. Whilst Der Visoanaere serves as the perfect beginning to what will surely be your most alternative night out in Berlin, Kater Holzig is its younger sexier best friend which can’t stop dancing until the wee hours of the morning (which in Berlin translates to about 8am). Der Visionaere’s setting off the River Spree draws a wide demographic all looking super cool, but leaving behind the attitude. The same goes for Kater Holzig whose door policy is second only to Berghain (the most notoriously difficult club to get access into in the world). Don’t speak, don’t smile, don’t wear heels or a shirt and absolutely NO English. Hand over your ID and look the bouncers straight in the eye with a sense of sincerity and you’re guaranteed entry. This is where the pretentiousness ends, and once you’ve overcome that whole ordeal, a hipster’s paradise awaits. Set in a courtyard of sorts and enclosed by multiple abandoned warehouses and gigantic graffiti pieces, Kater Holzig is divided by 4 dance spaces, a restaurant upon an artificial wooden hill, and some fantastic real estate on the River Spree where you’re emplored to watch the sunrise around 4:38am. Go mad, and don’t leave until you’ve had your fix.

5. Outside the (insert station) Strasse Station once lay a humble forest green lavatory, where the odd hobo, and some drunken hipsters could perch their weary and inebriated bodies, and empty their bloated bladders to much relief. Well, the toilets don’t exist there anymore, but hobos and hipsters can get a different kind of release there now: BURGERMEISTER. Brainchild of SNYSOLUTIONS is a reconverted burger joint serving some of Europe’s finest burgers without apology. Think the ‘Huxtaburger’ of Berlin. My recommendation is the ‘insert burger’ with jalapenos and mushrooms. Whether it’s for a late lunch or a very early hangover cure at 4am this lavatory does not disappoint.    

6. Every Sunday morning in Maüerpark, on the cusp of Prenzlauerberg, is a long winding flea market appropriately named the MAÜERPARK MARKT. It’s the perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday morning as the market hugs a huge grass oval where Berliners from all walks of life come to BBQ on their throw-away BBQ’s (a concept Australian’s really should have coined many moons ago), and partake in the karaoke amphitheater where the leader drags his little karaoke machine for all to enjoy. Pick up some flavored quark (think yogurt like dish) and watch the market grow busier and busier. On the way home make sure you pick up a currywurst from Madonna’s favorite place under Uberswalder Strasse Station.

7. A visit to Teufelsberg (a half hour train ride and hefty 30 min hike) will make you feel like one of the spies that inhabited this now abandoned USA spy tower. Sitting upon a hill overlooking all of Berlin and its surroundings, you will ponder how the Russians turned a blind eye to this intergallactic eyesore. It’s contemporary purpose is negotiated through the voluntary security personnel who run tours that wind in and up the tower with no allowance of return until the end. You’re stuck in a multilevel art installation that provides each visitor with many haunting and fantastical graffiti pieces. Once at the top, you’re greeted by awe-inspiring views over the Berlin forrest, and soft whistles of the ind through the dilapidated tower balls.

8. As expressed in my previous post ‘A Barista’s Burden’, I am a self-proclaimed coffee wanker, and so, after having departed from South East Asia, the addict in me could not wait to quench my withdrawals in Berlin. Of the many café’s and coffees I frequented around Berlin in my 2.5 weeks there, it is my belief that THE BAHN & FIVE ELPHANT are making some seriously good things happen… mainly coffee (of course). The Bahn has two venues in central Mitte, their roast house and their café. The café is tiny but their head barista knows what’s up, and their fig, beetroot and chevre sandwich is a delicious brunch option. On the other side of the city in Kreuzberg lies Five Elephant, a beautiful little nook in the hipster suburb of Berlin. This place roasts in house, and knows what it means to be coffee obsessed. The crew are hilarious and so nice. Get them chatting and they’ll set you up with some excellent coffee of the day, a piece of their INFAMOUS cheesecake (it really can’t be avoided it’s THAT good), and some hot tips for other cool spots around Berlin that shouldn’t be avoided.

9. For those seeking a more cultural side of Berlin, you have a plethora of galleries to choose from. Of the many I was dragged to by my father, SPRÜTH MAEGERS GALLERY definitely did not bore. Not only is the space absolutely incredible, housed in a renovated old Berlin building in central Mitte, but the standard of the exhibits is world class. Showing throughout June was Joseph Kosuth and George Condo.

10. WOOD WOOD & BAERK are two excellent shops if you’re in need of some new threads. Though it’s basically possible to find decent clothing anywhere in the world nowadays, these stores are pretty selective with their collections and often stock local German and Berliner brands. BAERK also acts as an exhibition space and often has some interesting local artists showing their works at the front of the store.

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Cambodia, Observations, Religion, Volunteering

Great Expectations…

… and other things you should leave at home when traveling to a Third World Country…

Often, when one travels, one is faced with a plethora of challenges.

Whether it be finding the next place to sleep, or to eat, or trying to sort out transport… and the endless “lost in translation” moments where you find yourself in an improvisation class playing space-jump (a game where you have to mime out whatever action you have been given by the previous actor, and the next person has to guess what it is).

Each country has its own unique combination of these countless obstacles.

Sometimes, the challenges are too arduous to overcome, and though you’ve set yourself a goal to remain, to persist, to help, to be involved… sometimes, learning to walk away, to leave, is the hardest, and most rewarding challenge you may face.

This was the challenge I faced a few weeks ago in Cambodia.

After being sorely disappointed with my placement at Our Home by the Cambodia Volunteer Foundation (CVF), (you can read more on this in my previous post ‘Those who can’t do… teach?’), I tried to move to an orphanage where perhaps, for the three weeks remaining, I could at least help care for some kids, rather than wasting my time at Our Home, which had apparently lost all of its funding 6 months earlier, and whose teachers (that could not communicate at all in English) were working there on a voluntary basis, and were mostly students from the university who had no teaching accreditation anyway. The orphanage we were placed at 5 days later was the Missionaries of Charity. A worldwide Christian organisation that sends nuns across the globe to proselytise their religion whilst caring for orphaned children.

Walking into this orphanage was like walking into a Christian nightmare. There were a plethora of Jesus loving posters with quotes from the bible all over the wall which was contrary to the bright blue gates that all but imprisoned these Khmer (and not to mention, Buddhist) children. As I wandered around this cold interior, with it’s bright blue walls and tiled floors, cots lined one after the other, and a team of nuns overseeing the chaos within… I couldn’t help but think… where is this Jesus you hang from all your walls? Where is your god!?

Not only were there too many children screaming around and crying for attention, there was one child with a mental disability, another who was 6 years old and whose legs were so badly deformed that he couldn’t stand, and another that had Down’s Syndrome, that when I pointed this out, they had no idea what I was talking about.

And though it’s fine for me to judge this godless place, it definitely serves its purpose. At least these children are off the streets, are being bathed, fed and loved, and have somewhere to sleep as well as each other. So perhaps, practising a different religion is the price these children have to pay?

Regardless, I chose not to go back, because a) I am not in favour of proselytising (practise whatever you wish, just don’t force it onto anyone else) and b) They clearly did not need my help with that amount of nuns and carers.

And so, after a very frustrating 3 weeks of non-volunteering, and an extended meeting with the head of the CVF (Cambodia Volunteer Foundation) about facillitating change within the organisation itself so that future volunteers would not share the same dissapointing experience that I had… I decided to pack up my bags and head East to Bangkok, where I was guaranteed some civilisation and a proper shower at last.

But the sad lesson learnt is that no matter the intention, sometimes the only way to be selfless is in fact about being selfish.

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Cambodia, Island, Observations, Travel

Paradise, at a loss

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” 

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Some weeks ago, some fellow volunteers and I decided to travel to Koh Rong Island, 2 hours off the South West coast of Cambodia. Though our experience of the island was mostly sublime (think hours spent in warm Gulf of Thailand waters, and sipping cocktails in bungalows that hug the shore), there was a dark underbelly that I could not help but observe whilst there.

Behind its beautiful beaches, lush tropical forested mountains, timber beach bungalows, coconut shakes, and most beautiful of all, the phosphorescence in the water that sparkles when you swim at night, lies a harsh reality, run by its locals for a small fee.

One quarter of the length of the island is left to the local Khmers who seemingly do not age beyond their 30’s. Their children, all below the age of 5 (before they are sent to the mainland to start school), are living, what seems to outsiders as, ‘the idyllic lifestyle’. However, their boredom on this tiny island is evident, as Ruth (a fellow volunteer from Sweden) and I, sit drinking our cocktails and watch a small boy throw a kitten at a pack of ferocious dogs (also bored to death and driven mad by the sandflies). After the kitten tries to protect itself from the 5-6 dogs on the attack, the boy picks him up, hurls him around without a care and then takes its two front paws and hangs the kitten as if to place it on a washing line. He then shakes the poor cat as the cat squeals with pain and terror, and tt’s at this point that Ruth and I interject with pointed fingers and a very loud “NO!”, and the boy runs off sheepishly, having achieved the attention he so sorely craved in the first place.

At the same time, a young Khmer mother (and the owner of the fruit shake stand at the end of the pier) is literally whipping her toddler with a cane for peeing his pants. And though your instinct tells you to lurch forward and stop her… 3 Khmer men who were wrestling on the sands moments earlier, stare at you as if to say “go ahead… I DARE YOU.” We dare not.

When the chaos dies down… we hear about the English bloke (an A Grade ‘Chav’) who frequented our Monkey Island bar in a drunken toothless (/shirtless) stupor at 10am most mornings, and his night’s run in with the Local Khmer “Law”. After getting stupidly drunk, the idiot demanded drinks from another bar down the beach, to which the bartender refused (very very rightly so!)… and when this idiot continued to demand it, it took but a few minutes for the Khmer at the bar to whip off his belt and start lashing the bloke like nobody’s business. Needless to say, we didn’t see him or his toothless smile for the rest of the trip.

When all of this is said and done, there are still the horrible sandflies that bite you, and then pee in their own bite (filthy little creatures), and the bites will drive you mad all night long!!!!

…and last, but definitely not least, is the legend (that is confirmed as reality, therefore rendering previous statement incorrect, but using it for dramatic effect nonetheless) of the Khmer man who fled from Pol Pots regime who still doesn’t know that the war is over. He lives somewhere deep in the jungle, and has been found on several occasions, once by two french girls who had the great displeasure of stumbling across this deranged man who almost killed them in fear of them being after him!

Though all these dark matters exist on such a small island… its beauty is adored by all, who come to wash off the dust of Cambodia’s mainland, and often get stuck in an island trance for months and months before finally leaving on the same boat they came in on.

Below are some contradictory images which go against all I have written, and will probably leave you, the reader, wanting to visit as soon as possibly.

However… you HAVE been warned.

If Paradise is Lost… you may not find it here.

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Cambodia, Coffee, Drink, Hospitality, Travel, Uncategorized

A barista’s burden

$15 for Nescafe instant... HELL NO.

$15 for Nescafe instant… HELL NO.

At the risk of sounding like a bad cover version of a Foo Fighters song… I’ve got another confession to make…

I am (breathe through it, Ellie) a Wanky Melbourne Barista (WMB).

There, I said it.

It’s been acknowledged… and therefore, I can continue with this post, with you, the reader, fully aware of this flaw in my character. Therefore, discrediting any judgement you may have from this confession.

Now, the issue with being a WMB is that aside from a select few places around the world (I’m thinking Berlin, London, New York, Seattle, Sweden… maybe some town in the depths of Columbia), it is SO BLOODY DIFFICULT TO GET A DECENT CUP OF JOE.

But that doesn’t stop a WMB from giving it a crash hot go… no no, far from it!

So, from North to South and East to West, my fellow volunteers and I went on the hunt for a decent coffee in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and I am ashamed to say that I settled for Gloria Jeans at one point, and didn’t learn my lesson all the way to Starbucks at another (don’t punish me coffee gods! It was in my hour of desperate need!)

But alas, after 2.5 weeks in the country, we stumbled upon ‘Brown Coffee Co.’

Brown Coffe Co.

Three Corner Coffee Roaster

I knew we had hit the jackpot as soon as I saw the La Marzocco GB/5 and the Mazzer Grinders. They use ‘Three Corner Coffee Roaster’ beans, which are probably the only single origin beans produced in Cambodia that are worth a mention.

Three Corner Coffee is the first international standard coffee roaster in Cambodia, and has seen Cambodia’s coffee production increase from 18 tonnes in 2009 to 2,370 tonnes in 2011! That’s a massive jump, and just goes to show how lifting the standards of production also boosts the industry itself.

And so, finally, a very happy WMB finally found some acceptable coffee in Cambodia! and just to prove it… here’s a photo:

Brown Coffee Latte

(Apologies for the pre-sipped image… I couldn’t wait the extra 20 seconds once the coffee reached the table before taking the picture. It went straight from the Barista’s hand into my mouth… and it was PERFECT!)

Everything from the roast, temperature, micro-foam to free-pour latte art meant that I had finally found a cafe to unleash my inner Barista pretentiousness!

The long search for a latte was no longer a burden for this WMB!

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Cambodia, Monuments, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

To Siem Reap… three temples deep.

IMG_4689

Some experiences go beyond words, beyond reason, and beyond the cerebral.

Though the temples are inextricably linked to faith and religion… the process of experiencing these monuments, built to honour Buddha, goes beyond the pious, and deep into the spiritual.

There is something majestic and magnetic about this environment… so different from the rest of Cambodia, and so unique in how nature has been tamed to make way OR victorious in claiming the ruins of these expansive temples.

Below, are but a few images to try to express the beauty of the three main temples and their surroundings that I had the pleasure of traipsing through for a weekend in May.

ANGKOR WAT 

To speak no ill

To do no harm

To practice restraint according to the fundamental preceptors

To be moderate in eating

To live in seclusion

To devote oneself to higher consciousness

…this is the teaching of the Buddha

TA PROHM (TOMB RAIDER TEMPLE)

The purpose of Buddhist prayer is to awaken our inherent inner capacities of strength,

compassion,

and wisdom

rather than to petition external forces based on fear,

idolizing,

and worldly and/or heavenly gain.

Buddhist prayer is a form of meditation; it is a practice of inner reconditioning.

Buddhist prayer replaces the negative with the virtuous and points us to the blessings of Life.

http://www.cambodianbuddhist.org

BAYON TEMPLE

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Cambodia, Travel, Volunteering

Those who can’t do… teach?

Screen Shot 2013-05-17 at 3.11.57 PMFor those considering volunteering, there are many organisations which ply the eager volunteer with dreams of holding small African/South-East Asian children in their arms, cooing at their adorable-ness and secretly hoping that they will be (single-handedly) changing these children’s lives with their Western hospitality.

Though your friends who have previously volunteered will lead you to believe that this ambition may be achievable (through the proof of many ‘cute’ photos on their Facebook page)… I am here to inform you that (spoiler alert)… it just isn’t the case.

As I had read in many articles prior to choosing “the one” (the right organisation that is…), budding volunteers need to take into (very serious) consideration, how they can best serve the country they are visiting in the amount of time they have to provide. It is quite detrimental to the development of infants to constantly grow attached to volunteers who come and care for them in orphanages, only to depart after a month of placement.

… and so, on my humanitarian high horse, I decided to teach English (something I questioned whether I barely knew myself at times), and immediately took it upon myself to complete a 60 hour TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Course. I justified doing this for a month with the belief that at least I would be providing Cambodians with a skill that could help them find jobs and income for themselves and their families… (the whole “teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime” metaphor keeping my moral compass due North).

Alas, I was met with a very different reality.

Walking the 20 minutes down a hot dirt track to Our School Project for Vulnerable Children, Haylie (my fellow 19yo English volunteer) and I were introduced to the ‘Director’ of the school, who blankly stared at us as we tried to question what level the students English was at, whether there was a curriculum and what classes we would be teaching in the first place.  It became evident that we were on our own with this one… and thank god I hold a degree in improvisation (officially known as the Bachelor of Performing Arts)… otherwise, quite frankly, we would be screwed.

How daunting it was to walk into a classroom with students who looked to us for guidance, who treated us with respect and expectation, and we, the teachers, could only really stare back with no direction and with complete frustration.

… this was beyond lost in translation.

After barely two weeks of volunteering at this school, this is the harsh realisation I have come to about teaching English as a volunteer, and the advice I would offer to those considering following the same path:

1. If considering teaching you must dedicate AT LEAST 3-6 months of your time. This way, you can observe what level the student’s English is at, and build a curriculum that will help them develop their English, rather than hinder their learning through repeating lessons they already know.

2. Pick a school that has a proper English teacher OR curriculum already in place. Otherwise, be prepared to build a curriculum that following volunteers can teach after you depart from the school/organisation… and don’t expect that this will be an easy task.

3. If you have no previous experience teaching English… GET SOME. I read an article that interviewed one of the leaders of a Cambodian teaching organisation who quoted (quite rightly so) that “if you can’t teach the skill in your own country… what makes you think we want you to come and teach it in ours?… we aren’t that desperate.” A truer statement was never made. Don’t be so arrogant as to believe that due to your Western education you can automatically teach your native language… it’s much more difficult than you would ever expect.

4. Be prepared to be thrown into the deep end; have lesson plans, easy games that are not explanation heavy, and materials you can whip out in the most dire of times.

5. If you don’t think you could commit to any of the above points… then DON’T TEACH.

I’ve learnt my lesson the hard way… and though I’m frustrated by feeling dispensable and inadequate in the scheme of trying to contribute to a culture’s struggling society, I must remind myself that experiencing this challenge, though probably not for the student’s benefit… has definitely taught me a thing or two.

I suppose Cambodia is the real teacher… and I, the student.

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