Welcome to my first official blog!  In the short-term, we'll be using this site to document the 2014 USAF Academy Cultural Immersion Trip that I'm leading to Cambodia!  See Details Below.

Seoul and Beyond--and Trip Conclusion

July 13, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

We arrived in Seoul on time and having heard that we might be able to get into the city during out 11-hour layover looked for bus transportation and answers to questions.  As we were walking through the transfer area, we stumbled up on the Transit Tour Desk and a woman there told us about the whole deal.  Basically, the Seoul/Incheon Tourist Board ran buses and tours for very low prices (or free) ranging from two to five hours.  There was a Seoul City Tour leaving at 0800, so we hurried to through the immigration desk to the airport entrance.  The cadets liked this option, too because it meant that they got a South Korean stamp on their passport and could check South Korea off as another country visited.

At the tour desk, we were told that the five-hour tour would cost $10, but included a lunch.  We tried to sign up but the lady there said that the 0800 trip was full.  She did put us on a waiting list, though, saying that a large group of 11 had reserved spots but that they had not yet shown up.  As it turned out, they never did, so we made it onto the 0800 long trip instead of having to settle for a two-hour tour of just the Incheon area.

We joined 15 others and a very animated guide who obviously lover her job.  The drive into Seoul took us an hour and we went directly to the Gyeongbukgong or Royal Palace on the northern part of Seoul.  Our guide explained that only about 10% of the palace is original because “we’ve been invaded many times,” and Becky and I had visited the sites around the palace when we were here in 2010, but it was still a great walk and clear that more renovations had been accomplished since we were there before.  Our guide managed to walk us through most of the palace in just over 45 minutes with some lively descriptions and quick walking.  This was France-style power tourism at its best.

When we made it back to the bus there was one irate guy still on the bus with his two small children.  He claimed that they were the last ones off the bus and by the time they had exited they couldn’t find the guide and didn’t know where to go so they just sat on the bus.  His wife was in the bathroom in the parking lot and we had to wait for her to come back.  The guide told the whole bus, though, with her microphone before we left that if you got separated you just needed to be back at the bus by 1000.  Still, this guy gave her hell for leaving them behind.  Ugly Americans—though they said they were in transit from their home in Hong Kong.  Why someone would take two kids under six years old on a tour like this is crazy anyway.  The guide handled it well, though, and apologized profusely but didn’t really give in.

Our next site was the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple more in the center of town. When we got there, our guide made it clear that we had only 15 minutes at the site and then we would be moving on.  I didn’t see the family get off the bus.  The temple was very impressive and there were many inside following a chant leader.  The exterior was decorated with many hanging paper fish which our guide said was indicative of the season.  Fifteen minutes was plenty of time to walk around and take a few photos.  Luke fell asleep in the back row of the bus and missed this stop completely, much t our amusement.

We reboarded and next went to the traditional street market (Insadong) and shopping area in downtown Seoul that, I recognized, was in the same area as the hotel at which we had stayed four years earlier.  Our guide described the area and then told us that we would be going to lunch first.  We walked down a narrow street (inaccessible to cars) and then upstairs to what looked like a traditional Korean restaurant.  The six of us sat together on rustic wooden chairs and we had a prix fixe menu that included several starters, rice, and then a choice of three main courses.  The appetizers were some very good kimchi that was not too hot, some fermented eggplant, seaweed, and potatoes each in separate bowls that were repeatedly refilled by the servers.  My main course (along with Dylan) was s spicy soup that had an egg plopped into it raw—it cooked quickly in the hot broth—lots of tofu, some potatoes, and plenty of spice.  It was medium hot and very tasty.  Our guide told us that the way to eat is was to have a spoonful of soup and the go for a bite of rice.  The others had dishes that they clearly enjoyed.  Dylan, Winston, and I ordered a bottle of the local beer (0.5 liter) and recognized that we were back in the developed work when the bill for each one was $5 or 5000SKW.  The coupled that complained about being left behind got off the bus, saw a a fried chicken and French fry place and went there directly, skipping the Korean lunch that they’d already purchased.  I liked the fact that the cadets recognized boorish behavior of Americans overseas.

After lunch we broke into two groups—Dylan and I were more into the back alley walking while the other four were window shopping.   The sites and people were fun to see and we covered a lot of ground quickly.  We went to one park that seemed to be populated almost entirely by old men.  The inner walls of the park contained large bronze high relief murals showing key historical events in Korean history, specifically the Japanese occupation period, and there were statues and monuments to key resistance leaders.  It was small and peaceful with some beautiful flowers, too.

We continued our walk around, passing down narrow alleys to see various pork parts cooking in small kitchens, one restaurant clearly dedicated to octopus since they had an aquarium filled with small ones front and center at the entrance and an caricature octopus in their logo.  There was a small children’s science museum with funny statues that showed a large elephant being sucked into a black hole (not clear where the front part of the elephant was located, but I’ll presume that it was another painted black hole somewhere else in the city).  One gentlemen seemed to have stepped out onto the sidewalk midway through a barbershop shave visit.

Seeing downtown Seoul was a revelation to the cadets.  They were amazed at how clean the streets were, that people in cars and on motorbikes actually followed traffic signals and laws, and there were no stray pets roaming the streets.  Dylan and I wondered at what point in the development of a modern society citizens start being conscientious about trash and follow traffic rules.  I didn’t realize at first how amazing the Seoul scenes must’ve been to them since their only Asian experience had been Cambodia, and told them that Singapore made Seoul look dirty by comparison.

The time passed quickly a before we knew it, we were back on the bus and headed through town back to the airport.  The cadets got to see the Seoul tour through the fog, but not much else since the air was thick, but relatively cool.  We were happy to not be sweating much more after all of our travels and glad that the temperature in Seoul was much lower than the 94F (35C) it was the day before.  Here's the slide show of our morning in Seoul:

Back at the airport, we passed through passport and security check quickly despite some lines and took the train to the international terminal.  We were at out gate by 1330 for the 1730 departure so everyone had time to catch another nap, walk around, or work on blogs and photographs.  The airport was annoyingly warm (probably upper 70s despite air conditioning.  I cleaned up as best I could in the bathroom, changed shirts right before we got ready to board, and brushed my teeth.  Some of the cadets got some food before boarding as they planned to just skip dinner and go to sleep once we were on board.  I ate my last Clif Bar as my dinner and had my Ambien in my pocket for easy access as part of my plan.

We when went forward to board the Delta 767, they told us that our boarding passes issued in Phnom Penh were no goo and that they needed to reissue new ones to us.  We stepped aside and went to the customer service agent at the gate and handed over our passports.  Then, things went downhill again—much like they had at Phnom Penh.  I asked why we weren’t either alerted to do this in the four hours prior to boarding or why the boarding passes were not sufficient but didn’t get any solid answer other than “Delta is not Korean Air.”  True, but both flights were Delta/Korean code shares, so that didn’t make much sense.  We really began to worry when the whole plane was boarded and they now were asking for our baggage claim tickets.  Suddenly the thought that our bags may not have made the transfer (in 11 hours!) dawned on us.  They entered the numbers and we asked if our bags would be on the flight, but again the explanation in their best English left significant room for doubt.  Luke had to explain his name again, but this passed quickly.  Luke, Hansena, and Annie boarded when they got their passes as they were all on the same reservation with me, but Dylan and Winston were on a different confirmation code that required even more work and research.  I waited outside for them and we were the final three people to board the plane by about ten minutes. 

Finally, though, we were on board. I popped my Ambien, set the music on my tablet on shuffle, put on my facemask and can’t say I remember much from takeoff until almost five hours into the flight.  Hansena was seated next to me at the window and she slept most of the flight.  I managed to finish my second book of the trip (Willa Cather’s 1923 Pulitzer Prize-Winning “One of Our Own,” about rural Nebraska and World War I) and also got more work done processing and cataloguing photos.  We landed on time at a sunny SeaTac and made our way to customs and immigration.

The lines were long at the passport checks, but they had new kiosks that allowed US citizens to just scan their passports, answer a couple of quick questions on a touch screen, and then have a photo taken with an integrated camera.  The kiosk then printed a receipt that we handed to the agents with our passports.  I was impressed with the entire system.  Annie was less pleased, though, as for some reason not clear to any of us here receipt printed with a big red “X” in the middle and she had to go back through the system.  We’re not sure if it was a random check or some malfunction.  Still, she met us down in baggage claim about ten minutes later.  Dylan, Hansena, Luke and I were already waiting for our bags and we had one of our bigger reliefs of the trip when we saw them on the carousel.

Recheck-in went smoothly and we passed security eventually—I was reminded that we were back in the States because my TSA agent that patted me down after I set off the metal detector with my metal hip offered the kind of stateside attention that I’d missed in Korea and Cambodia. 

We made it to the gate area about four hours before boarding and used the time to set up our typical camp near a bunch of recharger plugs.  Dylan promptly went to sleep sprawled out on a back of nearby seats and he was joined by Winston a little while later who found a parallel set.  The others were watching the Netherlands-Brazil soccer match and they returned later.  Luke went to sleep. Hansena woke Winston three or four times because he was laying on his back and his snoring was audible throughout that SeaTac C Terminal.  Dylan hardly budged for four hours.

SeaTac’s free wifi was blazingly fast and I managed to get all of my remaining photos processed and uploaded to my Zenfolio account, my Microsoft OneDrive cloud backup, and to several smaller Facebook albums.  I also added a few items to our Googledocs spreadsheet documenting some expenditures during the trip, called our shuttle company in Colorado Springs to reconfirm our pickup, and get some pages into “The Book Thief.”

By 1730 we were all cleaned up, awake, and ready to board the final flight leg of our trip.  A call came out for a volunteer to take a middle seat in the exit row (non-reclining seat) so that a family could sit together in this oversold flight and I took it, reasoning that the cadets were tired of me sitting around them, I’d get more leg room, and I didn’t plan to recline anyway since I would be typing this blog.  The family was thankful and it worked out well.

Nothing to report on the return flight and our bags and driver were on time worked out well.  On the final van ride back to the Academy, our driver (a Marine Corps Vietnam vet) had lots of questions about the trip because he was also the driver that took us to the airport three weeks earlier.  (Let me note that it was a 30 minutes longer trip than it had to be because USAFA has decided to close the North Gate after 2200 so our driver had to go all of the way to the South Gate and then back north to the Cadet Area to drop off the cadets)  With all of his questions, and my answers, he was happy that we’d had a good trip and surprised by how upbeat we were about Cambodia and its future.  I realized the same thing, while trying to balance my comments with all of the challenges that we saw.  The conversation really helped all of us focus on what we saw and learned on the trip and was a great way to finish.

Becky picked me up at the South Gate as did Winston’s sponsors.  We all had a few shorts words of mutual thanks and congratulations on a trip very well executed.  This is my fourth official cadet immersion trip and it was the smoothest—even though it was the most physically and culturally challenging and immersive.

Thanks to all who followed us on this trip, checked the blog, and wrote encouragement. Special thanks goes to the USAFA Class of 1981 for supporting this trip through their generous donations to the USAFA Endowment as part of our class gift (If you’re ‘Second to None,’ reading this,and haven’t yet contributed to the Class Gift, I hope this blog and the success of our trip will encourage you to do so). Cadet final reports will be submitted and publically available via the USAFA Endowment's website sometime in early August. I'd also like to thank Developing World Connections (especially Ashley Ekelund), Equitable CambodiaIntrepid Travel, Mango Tours Cambodia, and our great guides and leaders: Dan TcSotheavy Sov,Sokkheang LyKheng Senh, and Savorn Toem for helping make this such an amazing, memorable, and important experience for our cadets (and me).  All 5000 of my photos are now up at martyfrance.zenfolio.com.

And that’s it folks.  More adventures start soon when I depart for a semester abroad at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore as a Fulbright Fellow.  The Cambodia trip and strengthened my resolve to travel as much as practical throughout Southeast Asia and Indonesia while I’m there as well as making plans to meet Becky in Hong Kong during our Fall Break to see that great city and let Dan serve as tour guide again--for beer and photo discussions.  I’ll run a blog for that trip, too.

All the Best,


Transit from Kep to Phnom Penh and Beyond

July 12, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

We packed up, relaxed just a little and said ‘goodbye’ to The Beach House, our home for nearly two weeks, at 1400 on Friday.  The drive back to Phnom Penh was at least as harrowing as the trip to Kep, but this time I sat in the front seat and took a few photos.  This also allowed me to use one of the few seatbelts onboard as seatbelts are mandatory in Cambodia for the front seat.

Traffic was noticeably heavier due to the pop-up national holiday, with many families on the road in both directions.  We made the same halfway stop at Takeo for drinks and to see a little more local flavor.  It was there that we saw one of the most packed cars of the trip.  While departing a stop a Toyota Camry passed us with at least nine people inside.  To give you an idea how this is accomplished, the person on the far left of the front seat was NOT the driver.

About 30 km from Phnom Penh, the traffic was getting heavier though it continued move reasonably well.  At this point, though, our lead driver took a turn to an off-road hoping to go around the city and it’s traffic a little.  This led us on about an hour’s worth of the worst paved and semi-paved roads of the trip, back alleys, parking lots, and open fields that couldn’t possibly have save us any time.  Twice the drivers had to stop to try to determine where they were.

By the time we arrived in Phnom Penh, it was almost time for our 1800 dinner reservations at Malis.  We drove “straight” there and were greeted by a security guard that said that it was closed for the holiday.  Clearly, the person with whom I made reservations by telephone the night before was unaware of these plans.  We called a couple of other restaurants and then settled on returning to Khmer Surin, the large guest house and restaurant where we’d dined before flying to Siem Reap (seemingly) ages before.

The drivers got us there easily and we went to the third floor for an open air seat and were soon joined at the next table by six Chinese business men who decided that they needed to chain-smoke through their meal.  Luckily, there was a breeze and the ceiling fans were working overtime, but it was still annoying.

Our flight didn’t leave until 2320 that evening, so we had plenty of time for the meal, ordering drinks first (Beer Lao for Dylan, Dan, Winston, and me) and more frilly drinks for the rest of them.  We were glad Vy was dining with us one last time and I announced that her meal and Dan’s was on me as their “tip” for great, great help and guidance for the trip.  For appetizers, we had fresh and fried spring rolls and some excellent chicken satay in peanut sauce.  Winston was now on stag two of what was his typical diverse choice of beverages:  jasmine tea; beer lao; followed by a white Russian and then a cappuccino. 

Our waiter hovered over us for quite some time, though we resisted him, wanting to stretch the meal out a little more since we weren’t planning to leave until at least 2000.  The waiter actually warned us that a couple of plates would take longer to prepare than others, but they seemed to arrive with the others.  I had a grilled whole tilapia that came out undercooked and raw in the middle.  Three of the cadets ordered Pad Thai, Vy had the frogs' legs, Dan ordered grilled whole catfish, Winston had fried rice in a pineapple, and I can't remember what Dylan got but think it was some noodle dish, too.  My fish came back recooked and was actually quite good.  Most of us ordered dessert, too, and we were ready to go at 2000.  

Outside the restaurant, we said our goodbyes to Dan and Vy.  Both were like part of the team and they fit in well with us throughout their time.  There were hugs all around and promises of visits. (I'm planning to visit Hong Kong where Dan lives in October with Becky)  Both said that they would highly recommend any of us (even me, with some reservations) as team leaders for upcoming Developing World Connections/Equitable Cambodia service trips because of the great work we'd done and how well we'd embraced the culture and experience.  They again expressed their amazement that we'd survived three full weeks in Cambodia without any serious illness and only one person-day of work or touring missed.  I can't thank either one of them enough--we were so lucky to have them on the trip as well as the great guides and drivers.

Once again, traffic was terrible going to the airport.  We didn't arrive until after 2045 and finally pulled up to the curb to get our bags and tip our drivers.  I gave our part-timer $5 for safely bringing us from Kep and then I had to chase down Dee.  The cadets had given him $5 tip already and he'd hugged all of them with just a huge smile.  He'd really adopted us even though he spoke almost no English.  He's a REALLY excellent driver who we trusted implicitly.  Anyway, I ran him down in the drive-through area of the departure gates and knocked on his slowly moving window.  He pulled over and I gave him another $10 and he hugged me and we shook hands to say goodbye.  He also got a USAFA lapel pin.

Things got more interesting at the airport, though, for check-in.  The Korean Air agents were confused by our tickets and the fact that we were traveling to Denver on a total of three different airlines (Korean, Delta, Alaska) even though the Korean Air flight was code-shared with Delta.  When they finally worked all that out and told us that they couldn't give us boarding passes for Seattle to Denver, we hit another snag...  The agent noticed that Luke's passport lists his first name as Lucas, but the airline ticket was issued to "Luke."  She said that she couldn't issue him a boarding pass and apologized.  I started to raise a stink by pointing out that he's made it to Cambodia with the same credentials and ticketing, but she held firm.  We continued to try to explain and she finally got a supervisor.  HE looked very concerned and said that the names didn't match.  We told him that we knew that and I became more assertive.  At this point, I didn't know what we were going to do--call the Embassy?  Call the government travel agent (Manassas Travel) or what.  It didn't help that, technically at least, the airline was right and this was something that we just hadn't caught.  He said that he would check with his manager and he came back with yet another person who finally approved the boarding passes for Luke/Lucas.  By now, our check-in process had gone on for over an hour and we were very glad that we'd arrived early.  We had only about 30 minutes from that point until we actually boarded the flight.

Last Morning in Kep

July 10, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep, so that's how I got the blog posted from yesterday.  We'd planned to meet at 0630 to walk to the Crab Market, but none of the cadets showed up.  I told them the night before that that was no big deal and that I'd leave with whomever wanted to go at 0630.  It's about a 20 minute walk and when I got there, things were just setting up.  Fish were already grilling and vendors were cooking bowls of Khmer breakfast noodle soup.  Restaurants were sweeping out their front entry areas and cleaning up from last night's rain and wind.  It was low tide and about a dozen people were scavenging for crabs, snails, and the like in the tide pools, sand, and exposed rocks.  Crab pots were in and there had already arrived some bucket so live tiger shrimp and other varieties that were being picked through for size by the retailers.  I didn't stay long and paid $2 for a tuk-tuk ride back to the Beach House, arriving at about 0715.  

By then, Dan was up and had ordered breakfast.  I ordered Khmer soup with prawns and went to the room to finish packing and get ready for the morning.  The girls came down and did the same thing, but none of the guys even showed up until Winston came down at 0755, followed by Luke, then Dylan.  They all skipped breakfast or had snacks in their rooms because we were supposed to leave at about 0800 as usual.  Vy was there and she outlined our plans again:  school visit with soccer game; visit women's vocational training center, the a final lunch at the Vine, back to the hotel, checkout at 1400 and then the drive to Phnom Penh.

The weather was excellent with finally some clearing and blue skies as we drove to "Our School," a small K-12 school near the Vine retreat that we'd driven by before Savorn (mentioned earlier) is an English teacher at the school and his wife is the librarian.  The school was originally run by an NGO and funded in large part by the Korean government, but has since been taken over by the local community.

We  learned when we arrived that today had been declared a national holiday by the king and the government and that school would not be in session.  However, many kids showed up anyway at the request of Savorn and the other teachers.  About 30 kids and several teachers greeted us when we arrived.  Savorn showed us around the peppercorn farm that he also manages which is located adjacent to the school.  He said that it had 1125 plants which produced between one-half and one kilo each per year.  He was very proud of the irrigation system that pumped water from a reservoir pond to a small water tower about four meters off the ground, then into the pepper plants.  They also had some pretty large cow manure piles that they used for fertilizer.  He said that as part of his job (his house was next door), he also managed a newly planted mango orchard that had 3000 trees on 10 hectares of land (almost 25 acres).  Savorn's house looked nice and modern compared to most in the area with a steel roof. It was obviously well-maintained.  He said that the community and school provided him with the house as a condition of employment.

From the peppercorn vines, we went back to the school and looked into the classrooms.  They were very basic, with minimal lighting.  They did, however, have a nice computer room with 15 new Toshiba laptops and it was clear from the posters and writing on the board that they were teaching spreadsheet use, some basic coding, and the use of other apps.  The entire school has nine teachers and its annual budget is $12K.  Yes, I said $12K.  That both impressed and saddened me at the same time.  Kids have to pay a small fee, equal to $0.50 per month from their families to attend, but everything else is free.

We then went to the soccer field for about 45 minutes of spirited, but rough (with loose rules) sport on the mostly dirt field.  All of the cadets played as did Dan, Savorn, and one of Savorn's friends.  About 20 kids played.  They split into two teams that were roughly boys versus girls, though Dan and Savorn played on the girl's side.  We had a lot of fun watching the game and everyone was sweating profusely within a few minutes.  The kids (mostly ages 6-12) had a blast and really showed a lot of spirit and enthusiasm.  The cadets ate it up, too.

After soccer, we moved to the front of one of the buildings and Dan sang some songs with his guitar.  We were trying to find some songs that everyone would enjoy (with some participation) and Hansena and Annie demonstrated and taught them to do the Hokey-Pokey.  The kids loved it, though they didn't get the right versus left thing entirely.  They all giggled and laughed when Hansena called them to put their "butt in" and their "butt out," then shake it all about.  I videoed the whole scene with my camera.  The kids like it so much that they did it again to huge applause.  They then sang one of their songs and we cheered.


Finally, it was time to go, so I pulled out some of our gifts.  I gave Savorn a USAFA pin for his lapel and then pulled out the gross (144) of USAFA emblazoned pencils that we'd brought with us from Colorado.  To my surprise, the kids all lined up--girls on one side, boys on the other--to receive their pencils.  I had more than enough for two each, so I gave them each two and they politely said "thank you" in English of "akun" in Khmer, each treating their new pencils like gold.  I gave the remaining pencils to Savorn as well as some foam rubber baseballs with USAFA logos, some lanyards, and other stuff.  The kids stayed in their lines and we did high-fives down the line with each cadet before regrettably saying "goodbye."

We next went to a vocational training center where local girls and women were learning to weave silk scarves by hand, make coconut shell jewelry, and other artisanal crafts.  This was an example of another NGO that had started a local training shop but had now given it over to operate as a real business.  We'd seen their products for sale in local hotel and really like it, so it was nice to be able to see the crafts being made an then purchase some more souvenirs at very good prices.

It was finally time for our last lunch at The Vine Retreat.  What a great, secluded guest house with just awesome food that we'd enjoyed for almost two weeks.  I probably gained weight on this trip and The Vine is the primary culprit.  We had another great squash soup as well as squid with fresh green peppercorns--both delicious as usual.  I gave one of my Tripadvisor "Excellent Service" pins to the woman who had been taking care of us during our visits.  This was clearly one of the highlights of the trip.  

We all decided to just get back to the hotel as quickly as possible to rest, shower, and finish packing before the arduous and thrilling drive back to Phnom Penh.  Once there, we plan to go to Malis for dinner before Dan an Vy drop us off at the airport for a wonder 2320 departure to Seoul.  

Here's the whole day's slideshow:

The Weather Breaks!

July 10, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

On what was supposed to be our final work day, we were all a bit on edge because we wanted to work, but the weather had stymied us for two days and we were wondering if we'd have any chance at all.  There was rain overnight and, when I awoke, it looked like it had just stopped raining.  We all met for breakfast and it sprinkled just a bit--as we could see in the swimming pool--but the clouds didn't look as threatening and the wind wasn't so strong as in the last two days.

The forecast was still not good, so we left at 0800 hoping to get a chance.  When we arrived at the work site, our little bridge was totally submerged and we had to take another way around that included zig-zagging on the little levies that separate the rice paddies east of the houses.  As you walk along these, little frogs jump into the paddies and there were ducks enjoying the rains as well.  Cows are everywhere in rural (and urban) Cambodia, so we passed a few of them as well.

As usual, the families were there to great us, shake our hands and thank us for the work.  Jay was using a hatchet to turn a couple of branches and some leftover wood into scaffolding--some seriously impressive innovation--and Mr Song was helping him.  We started mixing mortar right away and went to work finishing the bricklaying.  Winston and I shoveled mud into the gaps around the concrete cylinders, too, while Mr Song leveled the mud/dirt inside the latrine and we distributed the base granite stones evenly and marked on the interior walls where the cistern containment would be.  

The work went quickly except for a couple of frustrations with deciding how high to go and the correct slope for the roof.  Just as at the other site the previous week, I would put up bricks, Jay would tell me they were too high or that a vent was going into that spot, then a few minutes later, Mr Song would come over and tell Jay and me that we needed to go higher or that something else had to be fixed.

This touches on the whole translation thing.  With Vy working at the other site, we did seven days of work with no common language.  Jay knew "yes," "no," and "okay" in English, and I knew only "thank you," "hello," "goodbye" and how to count to five in Khmer.  This made for an excellent immersion experience for the cadets (and good patience training for me), but in the end it did cost us time and work.

We finally settled on heights and slopes, though, and soon began stuccoing the exterior of the latrine.  We had some mix issues (too thin) to begin, but those were solved quickly and Dan, Annie, and I got to work--with Tiem helping us, Jay finishing the top of the bricks, and Winston mixing.  The ladies and girls were constantly hauling new buckets of stucco to us when they weren't presenting us with fresh coconuts to drink with a straw or holding out baskets of fresh bananas and rambutan.  The other team didn't have as much support as we did and one less worker, so they were a bit frustrated and behind, but still happy to be moving along.

The weather continued to hold and was overall as pleasant or more so than Monday, with a nice breeze and overcast but light skies.  We worked hard and long, getting as much done as possible before breaking for lunch just after noon.  We drove to the Vines and everyone agreed that this should be our shortest lunch of the trip--we were all anxious to get back to work before the rains came again. Lunch included morning glories deep fried in a light eggy batter as well as another delicious soup and the ever-present rice.  We settled up for the additional drinks quickly and were back to work well before 1330.  

From here on, both teams worked almost non-stop until 1730.  We had the usual breaks for iced-coffee and bananas, but those didn't last long.  Even Jay was taking fewer smoke breaks as we all thought that the rain would arrive at any moment--but it didn't.

After getting most of the exterior walls done, Jay and I went to work finishing them--Tiem worked on one wall himself--then Annie and Dan moved inside to start stuccoing there.  Winston kept us in stucco all afternoon and did some of that himself when we was ahead of the game.

And so the afternoon went--smoothing and evening the sides until they were flawless using a wet sponge and a straw broom as the finishing touches.  By 1700, it looked like we were going to finish the outside walls completely and that the basic coats of stucco would be done inside, too.  The other team found a stopping point and came over to see our work--it was also on the way back to the van since we now walked an alternate route.  Jay and Tiem moved inside the latrine to do finished work and I helped for awhile, but it was obvious that we'd hit our stopping point and it was time to go by about 1715.  Mr Song and Vy assured us that the workers would be able to finish everything on Friday and that it was okay to leave, so we began saying out goodbyes to the family (grandma, two of the three sisters, and three granddaughters) who'd been feeding us so well.  We took photos and had our hands shaken about a hundred times.  It was just a superb ending to two weeks of work and everyone clearly appreciated the entire experience.

On the way back to the hotel, we decided that we would, in fact, wade out to the Kep Crab for photos.  I set the camera up for Vy and as we arrived it looked like the tide was going out and that we'd have no trouble getting there from the narrow, but sandy, shoreline.  Winston and I took off our boots and waded in socks because of the many rocks, a couple of the cadets kept their shoes on, and we started the meter wade to the base of the Crab.

Vy took the first set of photos and then we decided (on Dan's urging and demonstration) that we could climb onto the platform.  Luke found a couple of large, strategically place rocks near the platform and we were able to swing ourselves up.  Luke and Hansena climbed farther up the Crab and we took another round of photos.  After that, Dan climbed down and scouted the bottom to find a sandy section not too far away from the platform and I jumped off, seat first, landing easily in the shallow water--rock free.  The others followed suit and we were all wading back in a few seconds.

When we got to the road, we all realized that we didn't want to get into Dee's van and mess it all up, so the cadets decided to run back to the hotel--about a half mile.  So, we made a very interesting picture to the locals as seven fully-clothed but soaking wet people were jogging along the seashore's sidewalk, squishing with every step.

We were back to the hotel by 1830 and decided to go out to one last dinner at Holy Crab that night, leaving at 1915.  On our way over, though, Vy called us to say that Holy Crab wasn't open on Thursdays, so we chose our second favorite restaurant in Kep--La Baraka.

We were seated outside at Lar Baraka on their upper deck and had ordered drinks and were enjoying them.  Everyone was very pleased with their day amazed that the time had gone so fast.  Suddenly, though, our luck ran out and we heard the "plop, plop" of a few big raindrops and then suddenly it was like someone had turned on a shower head directly above us.  We were drenched in a matter of seconds and sent scurrying inside with our drinks.  The staff, though, was very accommodating and found us a table within minutes.  We'd beaten the rain on our final work day and it all felt good.  Everyone was so tired that dessert was ruled out and everyone went straight to their rooms upon return to the hotel.

Here's the slide show from today--I'm up to almost 5000 shots for the trip.

Another Rain Out

July 09, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

We woke up again to a driving rain storm and what seems like the real monsoon.  At breakfast, we discussed options including taking the time to visit some local schools or travel around the area to see more sights, but the rain was so heavy that Vy told us that the schools wouldn't even be in session because the kids all rode their bikes and scooters to school and the rain was too heavy for that.  

Vy thought of buying tarps and using them to shield us from the rain and wind, so she called Mr Song and it looked like we had everything worked out.  We loaded up just before 0900 during what appeared to be a lull in the rain and everyone was pretty excited about the opportunity to get some work done.  However, about five minutes into our drive to the work site, the rain started up again in earnest and was coming down as hard or harder than ever.  We turned down the muddy road from Highway 33 and it was barely passable.  When we got to the front of the house that bordered our work, we saw that the pond we'd been crossing on a log was huge and the logs and bridge were invisible.  Vy, Dan, and Winston got out of the car to reconnoiter the situation, but it just looked hopeless.  We might've just waded across the pond, but the rain was falling so hard and the wind was so strong that no one thought the tarps would hold or be able to protect us and our work.  Sadly, we decided to turn back.

At the hotel, there was just not much to do except read, watch movies, and wait for lunch.  The rain never really stopped all day.  A little after noon, there was a short period of near clearing, so I walked about a mile to the crab market just to get some exercise.  I walked around the market area to see what was being sold and I purchased some packages of local peppercorns as gifts and souvenirs (white, red, and black).  The rained started to pick up then and I ducked into a restaurant for lunch just as another mini-typhoon wave of torrential rain hit the shoreline.  

It seemed like the tarps and decking at the restaurant were going to blow in for a while, but the rain eventually let up as I finished a relatively quick lunch of grilled barracuda and rice with a big bottle of Angkor beer.  When I left, it was hardly raining and I managed to make it back to the hotel before it started again.

That's how the day went.  We'd have a short break,but you could just see the clouds building and another wave would sweep in.  Hansena and Luke took advantage of one short break to rent mountain bikes and tour the area a little, but they cam back soaked to the bone.  I hung out on the deck reading most of the afternoon, as did Dylan.

We talked about other activities, but not much was really possible.  Hansena brought up our desire to make sure that any unexpended funds from our trip (that we'd already paid to DWC) to to Equitable Cambodia to make sure the latrines were finished even if we couldn't do the work and Dan assured us that that would be the case.

Finally, at 1830, we returned to Holy Crab for another great dinner and talked about our chances of getting more work done tomorrow given the forecast (bad) and how we would handle our school visit on Friday (if it occurred at all) prior to the drive to Phnom Penh, dinner, and our departure from the airport to return home.

The cadets have kept a good attitude and managed to find productive ways to keep themselves busy during the breaks, but I can tell that it's wearing on them as it is me.

I did manage to take a few shots in the rain today, and here's the slide show:


Rain Out

July 08, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

We awoke to torrential rain and thunder, but hoped that things would clear and we drove to our work sites this morning.  It looked like our hopes would be fulfilled as we saw a few glimmers of blue and the precipation subsided for a little while.  When we arrived and parked the van, the little pond we needed to cross was swollen and the palm log was insufficient to cross. The homeowner graciously waded out into the pond barefoot (clearly thinking, "What's up with the American's that can't get their feet wet") and placed another log to bridge part of the gap.  The last few steps were still tricky, though, much to the delight of our spectators.

We each split up into our two groups and headed over to work.  just the senior sister was home at our project and she was very happy to see us again.  Vy told us the day before that she was 49, but she looked easily 60.  She doesn't know a word of English, but we're all trying to communicate and learn a few words--Winston most of all.  

We bailed our cement pit of water--it had about two inches of standing water in it from the rain--and were close to beginning to mix concrete when Jay pointed to the Southeast and we saw a squall line incoming.  We waited for almost two hours for the weather to clear, but we never go to the point of being able to mix concrete and go to work.  Vy translated for me as I spoke to the woman of the house and senior of the three sisters that we met the day before.  She said that five lived in the house, plus the grandmother who often slept there.  This included her daughter (teenager), her youngest sister who had a small baby, and her son.  All three of the sisters were widows.  The youngest had just lost her husband recently, while the oldest had lost her husband in conflicts with the Khmer Rouge after the 1979 liberation.  She said that her husband had been in the Army and had died shortly after their daughter (youngest child) was born.  The daughter looks like she's about 16 or 17, so that would put his death sometime in the late 90s.  She also said that her middle sister just lived a few kilometers away and visited often.  I asked who worked the rice fields that surrounded the house and she said that she did most of the work.  Having seen her use the hoe to dig the day before, I believed her! She also pointed out her well that had been built four year before with contributions from a Cambodian restaurant in California.  Looking into the well, you could see that the water table was only about a meter down.  Still, they got all of their water from it. Vy said that any drinking or cooking water is first boiled, though, and since it tastes so bad they usually only drink it in the form of tea.  (Photos)

At about 1030, we decided to just go to the Vines, tour the peppercorn farm, catch an early lunch and hope things would clear.  Lunch was again fantastic with a fish and tomato soup and some stir-fired veggies.  We are eating healthily here.  Soon after we started eating the weather seemed to clear and we went about a half hour without a sprinkle.  Vy called Mr Song and we packed up after lunch and headed back to work.  I did get a chance to take some pictures of Dan's friend, Savorn, and his 18-month-old son which I liked a lot. (Photos) I also took a lot of flower shots... (Photos)

When we arrived back the work site, the water had gone down in the pond and we forded it easily.  It wasn't raining, so at our site we bailed out the new inch of water in the concrete ring and Annie and Winston wanted to start mixing a batch even though jay wasn't there yet to give instructions.  I cautioned against it and Dan agreed.  Dan pointed out that losing a full bag of cement was probably more costly to them that a day's work--the raw materials were relatively expensive--and that we should proceed without Jay's direction and some clearer skies.  Sure enough, about five minutes later, the skies opened up and it rained for the next 90 minutes almost non-stop.  We sat on the  front porch of our homeowners house and just watched it rain.  In the barnyard area, rain ran like little rivers towards the rice paddies that were gently terraced and connected with small drainage ditches to slow the flow between each and keep the young rice submerged by about three inches.  The rain just didn't let up.  We couldn't even get back to the work site for some time and when it slowed for a few minutes, it would recommence even harder than before.

By 1400, we just decided that we just had to call it a day.  It rained all of the way back to the hotel and is still drizzling as I write this.   The forecast isn't much better for our remaining days either.  We'd been lucky in the first week to get the work done with only minor interruptions for rain, but this IS the rainy season and our luck seems to have run out.  We're committed to doing as much as possible and will work into Friday morning if the weather allows.  Still, the cadets are disappointed and frustrated to have a task in front of them and not be able to get it done. (Photos)

Everyone relaxed for about 90 minutes back at the hotel and we slowly congregated on the deck/cabana area to play some pool and cards.  There's really not much else left to do until the weather clears, so we'll try to make the best of it. 

Here's today's slide show...


Latrines Week Two--New Work Site

July 07, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

There was quite the thunderstorm here last night at about 0400 with torrential rain and lightning, but when we woke up the rain had stopped long before breakfast and it was breezy and noticeably cooler.  

I woke up early and got some work done writing and working on photos and got a Facebook message from Annie that she wasn't feeling well.  I went next door to check on her and she was nauseous and had spent most of the night dizzy and in cold sweats.  She didn't have a noticeable fever, so I ruled out malaria and chalked it up to probably not taking yesterday's two plus hours on a rocking boat at sea too well.  She admitted that she hadn't probably had enough water, too, so I encouraged her to drink a full bottle and start working on another.  After a conference with Dan and Vy, we decided to leave Dan's cell phone with her and let her stay in the room and rest for the day.

We left the hotel on schedule and dropped by the local post office.  Hansena mailed a bunch of postcards and was a bit worried because she said that she had to lick all of the stamps.  Maybe not a good idea in Cambodia.  Oh well--we'll see if that gets her.

We next stopped at a "hardware store" and I bought two shovels for a total of $7.  These were medium-sized spades with handle grips that I thought would help us at the site since we didn't have very good shovels last week.

The drive to the new worksite was a little longer and we turned north off of the main road instead of south. Once onto the dirt road, we went about a half-mile into the countryside where we found the homes to be more spread out with rice paddies/fields separating all of them.  It was really beautiful and we liked the area immediately.  

We got out of the car and walked across a palm tree log bridge that spanned a small pond and then shortly arrived at the first work site (photos here).  We dropped Team 2 there and they rejoined their team leader from last week who was already started digging the square trench for the foundation.  Team 1 walked about another 100m across a couple of rice fields to the second site that was next to a rather larger house with accompanying palm frond roof barn for the animals. The land around the house was much more spacious and open and we were shaded by coconut palms.

Jay was there and he and Mr Song had already dug the foundation and were pouring concrete over the granite boulders that they'd placed with sand in the foundation trenches.  We immediately started placing the first layer of bricks onto the foundation concrete following the guide lines and also started digging the septic pit.

Once again, we struck water before we made it much deeper than a meter, but that was proceeded by a lot of work cutting through palm roots to get to the base clay.  Winston was schooled by one of the ladies of the house (age 49) on the proper use of a hoe to dig a hole.  She was amazingly strong and effective and we were all humbled.  She MAY have weighed 110 lbs, but I doubt it.  Winston had another digging helper, too, whom we presumed was the man of the house, but that's still TBD since they speak no English and we speak very few Khmer words.  Once they got through the roots, the work went very fast, though, and by lunch time it was clear that we would have the concrete cylinders in place later in the day.

As we laid the bricks, mixed the concrete, and really got into a groove, we noticed that almost everyone around us was supporting the effort.  Little kids were delivering bricks and shoveling mortar into our buckets. The sisters that live in the house were helping dig holes, delivering fresh coconuts for refreshment, and doing as much as possible.  At our last site, I have to admit, it was frustrating to see the number of idle people doing nothing--at least at our latrine site, though Team 2 had a little more support on their side of the road.  Today, it was our team with the support and our work showed for it.

There was a lot going on at the farm, too.  Seven-day-old puppies were yipping in the wood and palm leaf cooking shed next to us and a couple of them tried to crawl out from underneath.  Chickens were constantly running around us and the kids were everywhere.  Still, despite the distractions, we were moving at a great pace and had more than seven rows of bricks laid with the door mounted and sand and rocks inside the latrine before lunch. (Photos here)

We drove to The Vines again for lunch and had their amazing Cambodian salad with peanuts again, along with a squash and chicken soup.  We decided to cut lunch short and get back to work earlier than usual since the weather was so good and we were being so productive.  We called Annie to check on her and she reported feeling quite a bit better, but we decided to let her rest through the afternoon and prep for work tomorrow if she continued to improve.

We were back from lunch before 1330 and spent the afternoon placing the cylinders and working hard on the bricks.  The ladies brought us rambutan fruit (like red, really spiny lichee nuts) and bananas (later) as well as sweet, iced Vietnamese-style coffee.  The weather continued to be nice, so we mixed batch after batch of concrete on the hard ground near the front of the house and the kids kept us going.  We had four bricklayers for most of the afternoon, except for mixing breaks and when we put the cylinders in.  By the time the afternoon was complete--and we worked until 1700--we had at least 18 rows of brick laid (over 6' high), the cylinders placed, and Jay was installing the concrete vent pieces.  (Photos here)

Vy came over and helped me chat with the family while I was laying the last couple of rows of bricks.  They explained that three sisters (ages from the late 40s to early 50s) lived there and in neighboring houses with all of their kids, Grandma lived next door butslept i nthe big house at night to protect her from "ghosts," and that the small baby was five months old.  I explained the composition of our group and our purpose and made it clear that we were in the US Air Force.  They were very happy to have us and kept thanking me over and over again.  I tried to convey how much we enjoyed the work and appreciated their support as we worked and their participation in the process.

We left at about 1700 knowing that both groups had had a great day.  We were happy to be more in the country and around the rice fields and really like the families that we were helping.  Of course, I spent most of my break times taking photos of people and our work, so you can see those photos here.

When we returned to the hotel, Luke suggested an early dinner, meeting at 1800 to walk over to a French Bistro named "Brise de Kep."  Everyone showered and cleaned up quickly and Annie joined us, too, feeling much better and ready to work tomorrow.  We walked over and generally enjoyed the meal.  I ordered a tuna steak for $4 and it was overcooked, but Dylan had Magret de Canard and it was good, while Hansena had a good barracuda filet and Annie ate their version of a fried chicken breast.  To pass the time, we played cards (the France Family's official card game that we call SOYN).  It was a good time and it kept us busy and not complaining about the service all of the way through dessert--which was the best part of the meal.

We're looking forward to tomorrow and will finish the bricklaying in the morning and hopefully get most of all of the stucco done tomorrow afternoon.  We're feeling good about finishing on Thursday now.

Here's the slide show of all of the photos taken today:

R&R Day 2 - Boat Trip

July 06, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Today, the cadets were allowed to sleep in and we didn't depart until 0900--my wife, Becky, can tell you how rare that is when traveling with me.  They all made it down to the van in time, though, but didn't order breakfast from the hotel.  I think they all made breakfast out of leftover snacks from yesterday's trip and Friday's party.

We'd arranged, with the help of Vy and the hotel, to rent a boat for the day including the the boat owner/driver and planned to visit two or more of the islands off of the coast of Kep.  We drove to the boat dock and were directed to the end of the pier where we met our typically long, skinny Mekong River-style boat that you see all over Southeast Asia. The engines are side-mounted diesel of gasoline motors that look like they've been stripped from a car or truck.  The propeller is attached axially at the end of a long shaft that extends from the engine by 8-10 feet and turns a two-blade propeller at a shallow angle.  Like the boats on Tonle Sap, the props have a lower protective framework to keep them out of the mud.

We loaded up without issue, put on our life jackets and left for the one-hour ride to Koh Pau and the fishing village there.  The seas were moderate and we rocked a bit, but no one got sick (even me) and we pulled into the little bay at about 1010.  Savorn, a Cambodian friend of Dan's, was with us.  He translated and told us all to be back at the boat by 1100. (Photos are here)

We waded ashore past an abandoned boat and along the garbage-lined shoreline past several ramshackle houses with palm frond roofs.  Dogs barked at us and kids scurried along as we passed, some of us looking for shells while I took photos of the boats in the bay and of the local residents.

We rounded the corner of the island and passed along an uninhabited section that was quite rocky.  After clearing this, we had a shortcut through the jungle and past some houses to the main area.  We saw a LOT of kids and I took photos.  They started following us and I took more photos.  They were all very friendly and obviously surprised to see us.  The cadets and I had a great time interacting with them.  They were just beautiful kids stuck in a very, very poor situation.  It was difficult not to feel pretty about their lot as we waved goodbye and left for Rabbit Island.  Here's an album of photos of the kids, plus another one showing other parts of the island.

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Soon after the boat left Koh Pau, the wind picked up and the rain started.  Almost then entire 25 minute trip to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) was in rolling four-foot waves and a driving rain storm.  We covered what we could, but we all got soaked to the bone.  The rains stopped just a couple of minutes before we landed at the shore, though, and stayed nice throughout the rest of the day.

We left the boat and walked along a path to the south shore of the island that had dozens of thatch bungalows, a few outdoor restaurants, a nice beach, and plenty of hammocks.  We ordered lunch and found the service to be, once again, lacking.  Dylan finally got his food almost 90 minutes after he ordered it.  They said they'd run out of beef and needed to run to one of the other restaurants to get some.  We worried about the local canine population.  

Finally, just before 1400, we were done with lunch.  I set a rendezvous time for 1600 at the boat and then allowed the cadets to do whatever they wanted along the beach.  Dylan joined me on a hike around the island on a path that was easy to follow but contained enough thorns to lacerate each of us pretty well, take my hat off of my head, and make for a lot of crouched walking.  Along the way we saw locals cultivating sea weed as well as several small fishing settlements and boats.  The hike was supposed to take us two to two-and-a-half hours, but we made it back in 75 minutes and were happy to have the time to order a beer and enjoy it on the beach before we left.  Annie and Hansena were catching some rays on the beach, while I think Luke and Winston napped in the hammocks.  We were all entertained by and Australian couple (we think they were Aussies) that were in their mid-50s, tattooed, over-weight, bikini'ed, and getting the sunburns of their lives while constantly drinking and smoking, standing in the waves.  It made me think of the US Gulf Coast...  I took no photos, fearing for my camera's well-being.

The trip back was again through fairly rough seas, but there was no rain (photos).  Dylan sat on the bow, which was probably drier than the mid-boat areas as the waves crashed over the sides.  We returned to the pier at about 1615 and were happily back at the hotel by 1630.  We set a meeting time for 1830 for dinner and everyone went to their rooms to dry out, clean up, and relax again--I worked on photos.

We went to dinner at 1830 to Holy Crab along the Crab Market area and (for once in Kep) were very impressed with the service--the food was excellent, too, and the prices quite nice.  There's a reason that it's the #1 ranked restaurant in Kep by Tripadvisor.  We talked a lot about photography at our end of the table.  The food exceeded expectations, too. 

Tomorrow, we start a new pair of latrines in the same village but along a different road.  We're all looking forward to doing the project again with the knowledge that we've gained from the first week and are sure that things will go much more smoothly.  I'm planning to go to the local market and buy a couple of good, new shovels for the team and then donate them to Equitable Cambodia.  Winston's looking forward to more digging and I'm happy to make sure he's well-armed.  

We should finish this pair on Thursday, then the plan is to meet at a local school on Friday and do a little more local touring before we board the minivan with our bags and drive to Phnom Penh.  Our flight leaves that evening, so it'll be a busy day.

Here's the slideshow from today:

R&R Day 1

July 05, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The started with plans to leave at 0600 with our driver, Dee, and a guide that was to be provided by the hotel.  We would spend the day visiting Bokor Mountain for hiking and then go into Kampot and also visit some local caves.  All six of us were ready to go, but the driver couldn't find the guide, so Vy got involved with her mobile phone.  We were told that he was "on his way," but by 0630 no one had shown up, so we decided to just take off on our own with Dee.

I rode shotgun in the van and enjoyed taking photos out of the windows with my 70-200mm image stabilized lens.  The morning light and traffic gave me some pretty good shots given the circumstances.  You can check those out directly in this Facebook Album.

We arrived in Kampot at about 0715 and Dee drove us around a little bit to see the Durian Monument, the external views of the Central Market and also to see the new and old bridges.  We headed out from there a few minutes later, crossing the New Bridge on National Road 3 (two lanes, no centerline) towards Sihanoukville and Bokor.  The phone rang a few minutes later and it was Vy asking us to go back to Kampot because she had found a guide that could meet us at the Durian monument at 0800.  So, we turned around and were there by 0730.  Dee let us out of the van and we walked around a little bit.  

One of the cadets needed to find a bathroom, but he soon discovered that not all gas stations in Cambodia are really "rest stops."  So, we were on the search for a WC.  He tried a couple of guest houses, but they wouldn't let him in.  A few blocks down the road, we came up on the Kampot Pie and Ice Cream shop that we'd seen in an advertisement on our regional maps and found it open.  We ordered drinks (espresso for me, iced Vietnamese coffee for Annie and Dylan, and some fruit juices I think for the others while first Winston then others cycled through their bathroom.  The servers were very pleasant and asked us to come back later in the day for ice cream--which we did because they gave us two-for-one coupons for ice cream.  The espresso shot was only $1 and the same was true for the ice cream.

Back at the Durian Monument, we took more photos, but the guide never showed.  We waited until after 0830,but just left. We'd now wasted almost two hours of the morning.

Pano 3Pano 3

The drive up to the top of Bokor Mountain was not unlike driving up to Olympic National Park in Washington--a long, winding road taking us from the shore to over 3,000 ft in altitude over about 20 miles (32 km).  Along the way, we saw a giant Buddhist statue that was partially covered in fog.  I was just happy that no one got car sick and we didn't have any head-on collisions with on-coming Vietnamese tour buses cutting the turns.

By the time we arrived at the summit, it was foggy, misting heavily and refreshingly cool.  We went past the new. modern casino to the "Old Casino" built during French Colonial times (1921) and long since abandoned and stripped of everything except maybe a few tiles.  The starkness of the stucco and architecture, along with water settled on many of the floors (even upstairs) made for some fun photography and the cadets enjoyed roaming around the haunted house.  We followed all good horror story laws, though, and didn't let anyone go off alone or run towards any screams.  We were also lucky that we got a clearing in the clouds for about two minutes, allowing us to take a few good exterior shots.

Apparently, Dee didn't want to take us to the other "ghost town"-like spots.  Communication was difficult as Dee knows only about 5 words in English.  I was texting questions and tour suggestions to Vy who was then texting or calling Dee to pass along that info.  Much was lost in translation.

From the Old Casino, we went to a beautiful Buddhist temple complex and monastery on a hill well above the modern casino.  Shrouded almost completely in mist while we were there, it reminded you of being much higher in the mountains as clouds raced up the cliffside from the valley below.  During the few clear moments, though, we could see all of the way to the beach and the Gulf of Thailand.  The cadet and I explored the entire area and even made it into the monk's area for their lunch to get a few photos.

From the temple, we went to the (supposedly) four-star New Casino to look around.  This was a large, Las Vegas Resort-sized complex with hundred of rooms in several buildings, bars, gaming areas, etc.  It was also almost completely empty.  We walked around in it almost like it was the Old Casino--only with uglier interior decorating and architecture.  It just reeked of the style of cheap, garish decor, lines, and design that I've seen so many time before in bad Chinese construction.  I took zero photos of it because it was just so ugly--and not even in the good, quirky way that makes for some good photos.  Ugh.  We were happy to leave.

From there, we'd hoped to be able to go see some local waterfalls, but all of my suggestions and map-pointing apparently did not impress Dee, so we headed down the mountain for lunch in Kampot, stopping along the way to get a panoramic photo.

Pano 1Pano 1 We lunched in Kampot at the Rusty Keyhole on Vy's recommendation.  She said that they had the best ribs in Cambodia. The placed looked good and had small pitchers of beer for $2.50 and reasonable prices, so we stopped in.  The drinks were quite good,too, though the ribs were nothing special.  Luke had a cheeseburger with egg on top and fries.  Annie had pasta, Hansena and Dyland shared ribs, and Winston got some stir-fried squid dish.  I ordered the daily special grilled barracuda.  In what has become a common theme of restaurants in this area, everyone's food was served, but it took well over 30 minutes for my "special" to arrive.  When it did, it was quite good, but knowing that it doesn't take long to grill a barracuda filet, they may well have gone across the street to the fish market to get my lunch.

After lunch, we decided to split into two groups and then meet back at the ice cream shop at 1500 and then at the Durian Monument to meet Dee at 1515.  Winston and Dylan came with me and we made our way to the Central Market, pricing scooters along the way and taking photos.  The market was pretty amazing and ALL locals.  We didn't see any souvenir or T-shirt shops here as you can see in this album on Facebook.  We did buy some durian fruit here and Winston was the brave man who tried it first, much to the viewing pleasure of the locals.  Kampot is the center of both the agricultural durian market and also for the production of peppercorns.  We saw lots of peppers (black, white, green, and red) and even some jars of pickled green peppercorns that we almost bought.

We all rendez-voused on time at the ice cream shop and passed around the tray of durian for the others to enjoy.  I'm no fan--primarily because of the muddy texture that is somewhere between a rotting avocado and pudding, all with a smell that would clear out a public bus (you can't eat them in public transpo in Singapore), and a bit of a sickly sweet taste.  Winston had another piece and I ate three chunks to help encourage the others.  Dylan, who'll eat almost anything that crawls or flies or can be found under a rock almost gagged on his and the other three cadets tried their best to choke down one segment, but couldn't quite finish their small bites.  Still, we'd all done our duty and tried the treasure of Kampot.

On our return, we turned left off of the National road towards Phnom Chhnork, a cave complex in the nearby hills that houses a Pre-Angkorian Hindu Cave Temple and an interesting rock formation at the entrance that looks like an elephant.  The admission cost was $1 apiece and we climbed the 203 stairs to the entrance accompanied by three ad hoc tour guides all about 13 or 14 years old.  They spoke excellent English and some French and asked the cadets with help on some idioms--though they knew quite a few.  (For example, when one of them asked me to climb/slide down into a steep, dark part of the cave and I said, "No way", he chimed in immediately with "Way!" I then taught him the phrase "November Foxtrot Whiskey," thus contributing to his cultural knowledge of the American military.

We took some photos near the entrance of the small temple and all went with the guides into the depths of the cavern except for Annie and me.  I used the time to take a panoramic shot of the view from the cave entrance.  They all emerged about 10 minutes later from another entrance down the mountain much to our relief.  

Pano 2Pano 2

From there, we walked back through the fertile and busy farmland about a half-mile to where Dee had parked the van. We crossed a two-log bridge over a canal and chatted more with the kids.  They said that they'd only been studying English for two years bu that their school was very good.  

It rained lightly for most of the return to Kep.  After a shaky start, we'd had a good day and all of the cadets were happy to return at a reasonable hour.  We later met for dinner with Dan, his Cambodian friend, Savon, and Vy, discussing our plans for the next day (boat to Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsay) and Koh Por) and turning in early.  Here's the link to the entire slide-show from yesterday.


Fourth of July

July 04, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Once again, I took a morning walk along the coastline, this time with Winston joining me. We were lucky enough to see a few fishing boats come into the shore and enjoyed seeing them unloading.  The rest of the walk was uneventful, though we had some great conversations on corruption, the future of Cambodia, etc.

Once the van picked us up, we stopped at a local beverage shop and bought four cases of drinks--two of beer and two of soft drinks--as well as some snacks and other goodies that we intended for later in the day when our work was complete.  

When we arrived in the village, we started work right away. Mark, who joined us yesterday and is interning with Equitable Cambodia, joined Winston and Dan, along with our homeowner in bailing out the septic cylinder area and then adding the second cylinder so that they extended a few inches above the ground.  The evening before, pipe had been run from the latrine to the tanks, so they were also able to install the lids to the tanks with cement.  

Meanwhile, Annie and I were still stuccoing the interior walls and sealing the cistern compartment with pure cement.  We worked non-stop through the morning and got quite a bit done, including some patching of bridge work that I screwed up from the day before.  Jay was very patient, though, and let me do more and more of the actual skilled work.

On the other side, Team 2 looked to be well ahead of us, but they had lots of interior work to do, too.  Dylan was their stucco-master, and the others did a lot of work in that area, too.  They had their roof on and were just concentrating on sealing and stuccoing as were we.

By 1130, we were ready for lunch having worked just about three hours in the sun without let-up.  Winston was constantly mixing and shuttling mortar to us and as Jay finished each wall we helped him with some spot patching.  Dan was entertaining the kids when he wasn't mixing mortar with Winston or working on installing the septic cylinder lids.

Lunch at the Vines was again excellent, this time with an egg, spinach, and winter squash soup along with another chicken stir-fry concoction.  The cadets only had about 20 minutes to nap again, but I passed the time by finally remembering to bring my tablet so I could read.

In the afternoon, our roof was installed and we finished stuccoing the internal walls.  The roof kept the temperature down just a little bit in the latrine, but the lack of a breeze made up for that.  Mr Sing worked most of the afternoon prepping and then installing our combo sit/squat toilet.  The design is such that there is no flush tank.  Instead, the cistern area will hold water that can then be used with a shower head to rinse the toilet after use with all of the contents flowing down through the toilet through PVC pipe to the septic cylinders.  We were happy to be the first to have our toilet installed as that marked the essential end to our work.  Jay and I still patched and finished a little and there are remaining steps to complete the whole thing (pour the final main floor coat of concrete, install a tank in the cistern area, and (we heard) tile the floor and some of the lower internal walls.  I wouldn't liked to do some tiling as that is something I actually know--oh well.

With the completion, the family where team two was working brought out snack for all of us.  The grandmother had these wonderful dumplings stuffed with coconut, peanuts, rice flour, and palm sugar wrapped in banana leaves and cooked until steaming hot (and safe).  We each at two of them I think--they were delicious.

Dylan was the last one working, sealing their cistern area with cement, but we began to gather around team two' project area.  When Dylan finally finished, we started our little party by spreading out plastic tarps on the ground and bringing the coolers and snacks for everyone.  We took photos in front of each latrine and then, with the help of Vy, I said a few words to the families about our Independence Day and how much we'd enjoyed working and helping the village.  

The grandfather (age 53) of the home where Dylan, Hansena, and Luke were working then said a few words, too, and was quite sincere and moving.  He said that the village had never had foreigners come in and help them before--that they were thankful for our hard work and how friendly and enthusiastic we were.  Vy's translation of his words was that this "was an historic event" for the village and they were very, very thankful to all of us.  We were all quite moved by his words.

After this, we pulled out the drinks.  I toasted Jay, my mentor, and gave him a pair of Air Force Academy sunglasses.  The kids were having fun because they were all drinking Fanta and Sprite getting all hopped up on sugars that they probably didn't see very often.  Dan was corrupting them by showing them how to say "Ahhhhhhh!" with a big wide open mouth when they had finished a slurp. He also put his GoPro camera on one of the boys and promised to post on Youtube what the world looks like through the eyes of a Cambodian 4-year-old.

We stayed for some time drinking and eating, talking to each other with Vy's assistance. The village leader was there as were members of the extended families, all excited about our work and anxious to catch a glimpse of the latrine.

We left at about 1700 and drove back to the hotel. I had just enough time to process my photos and get ready for dinner.  At 1830, we left for dinner at the Kep Sailing Club along with Vy and Mark.

The view at the atmosphere was wonderful at the Sailing Club.  The food was quite good, too, after we worked through a minor glitch--they said, when we were placing our orders, that the kitchen was closed (at 1900?).  With some cajoling, Vy managed to get them reopened as quickly as possible and they finally agreed.

Great seafood and some fancy mixed drinks were available at the Sailing Club along with good seafood and the usual drinks.  The ocean breeze was enjoyed by all and we didn't leave until after 2100.  We'd like to go back on another day when the sunset is at its peak and may do that Saturday or Sunday.

Tomorrow, we're going touring again since the work doesn't recommence until Monday.  Our driver will be taking us to Bokor Mountain National Park to see some old ruins as well as to hike on their many trails. From their, we'll go to Kampot for lunch and then look into some of the local caves before returning for dinner.

Here are the slides from the day--enjoy!

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