Sugar Packets From Around The World

Wouldn’t the featured photo be even more fun if I hadn’t have had to post the collage with the watermark? In case you’re wondering, I uploaded my photos to http://www.photovisi.com, and was too cheap to pay $2.30 for the one without it the watermark. This is not even meant to be an advertisement.

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Different hot beverages from around the world. From top to bottom, left to right:  [First row] Vietnamese coffee in Hanoi, Iraqi mint tea in Phnom Penh, classic earl gray in Pai, Thailand, [second row] latte and jasmine tea in Chiang Mai, Thailand, latte and green tea puffs in Phnom Penh, milk and honey in Istanbul, [third row] churros and hot chocolate in Zaragoza, Spain, Turkish tea street art in Istanbul, and a matcha latte in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
If the featured photo is an testament to the way I enjoy traveling, its that I ingest a variety of hot liquids in all of the places I visit. I love lattes, teas, matcha, hot chocolate and even hot milk and honey.

While many of these drinks are sweet enough on their own, others require extra sugar. And I’m not shy to make it as sweet as possible. With the frequency with which I visit cafes, this means I’ve seen a lot of sugar packets.

Some caught my attention for being crafty and colorful; others might have been considered boring had it not been for the allure of another non-Latin script.

Some of the photos below were taken quickly on my IPhone, sometimes as an afterthought. Please excuse the low quality.

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Seville, Spain. The packet reads: “Smile, life is happy, enjoy it.”

I have a friend who posts inspiring, short Facebook statuses. I once told him that I really appreciated them. When I scroll through my newsfeed, they are micro-reminders to relax, collect yourself and to be kind to others. Sugar packets with reminders, like one above, serve the same purpose. Just like a good cup of tea, a short quote can bring you back down to earth.

The sugar featured below is from Cafe Louvre in Prague. I was visiting last January, and realized that would be the last time I traveled to a freezing place on purpose. I found comfort on the second floor of the elegant cafe. I sat alone at a table for two and indulged in a sweet sampler platter. My motto was “treat yo’self.” I sipped from my latte and dug my fork into red velvet and chocolate cake as I wrote in my journal.

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Prague, Czech Republic

I didn’t realize the religious undertones (it does say “God”…) of the quote found on the sugar packet below, but here is an explanation. The takeaway? See opportunity in difficult circumstances instead of a failure.

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Pai, Thailand

Sometimes, it’s just sugar. Nothing fancy.

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cups are red. So is liquid.

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Laos

Sassy Susan getting her morning brew.

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Camino de Santiago, Spain

Underwater themed! With bubbles and butterflies…

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Thailand

Hmmm…..

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Portugal

Sassy Susan also makes desserts…

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Portugal

“Love life, love food, love nature…”

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Thailand

Hearts and sugar.

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Portugal

Yes, you, sugar, you inspire my life…

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Portugal

More red!

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Laos

Palm trees and pirates = sugar.

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Florence, Italy
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When I Flew To Asia On A Hello Kitty Plane

I am about to fly to Australia with Emirates. You know, the airlines that uses Jennifer Aniston in their marketing? The one with showers on board? They have a reputation. But a lot to live up to. I’ve already had a magical flying experience.

I was taking EVA Air from Houston to Taipei before transfering to Bangkok. When I checked in in Houston, I looked at my ticket. “Is this Hello Kitty?” I asked the flight attendant.”Yes, you’ll be flying in our special Hello Kitty plane,” she replied.

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Excuse me? Is this the best day of my life? Have I always dreamed of this moment?

No, but it didn’t make it any less exciting.

I anxiously waited as the multitudes boarded the flight. I was one of the last ones on. I waited in a long line. Stopped in traffic, I had a great view of our festive plane. A woman burped loudly behind me as I took a picture.

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The flight attendants were announcing information as I found my seat. The one speaking at the time sounded strikingly similar to Marcel the Shell.

I sat in my seat. I was in a middle seat, squished between an elderly man to my left and middle-aged man to my right. I think they noticed me sending selfies to my friends and family.

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Had to do it. WELCOME !
I curled into their amazingly warm blankets. I put on my pink slippers. I watched Bollywood and Korean films and was fed on no less than five different occasions. The highlight was the red velvet cake with cream cheese icing.

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GIVE ME MORE
You may have already guessed I also frequented the bathroom. All pain from my bladder subsided as I walked into a pink wonderland of Hello Kitty mist, lotion, and soap, with Hello Kitty Dixie Cups and pink toilet paper.

If I had to take a 16 hour flight, I’m glad it was with you, Kitty.

 

 

But Don’t Play With Me…

…’Cause you’re playing with fire.

“It’s clear they’re really talented, but it’s still awful to watch,” Lance said. “It’s same same, but not different at all.” Lance, our “outrageous Kiwi/Aussie friend,” was referring to the nightly fire shows on Koh Phi Phi, Thailand (you met him in this post about Vodka and Paolo, Phi Phi beach dogs).

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“I’m so done with these fire shows.” -Vodka

What was once a way for Samoan warriors to demonstrate their strength, the fire performances made their way to the Thai islands and turned into a staple (free) activity for cringing tourists.  A German employee at Banana Bar told us that although many of them are Burmese, the performers are “like Thai celebrities.”

Rightfully so. Every night they suffocate in the overwhelming stench of gasoline and more likely than not get third degree burns- without flinching.

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“I can’t watch you guys do this.” -Cat on Phi Phi

They stand barefoot on the wooded platform and drip sweat for four hours. Meanwhile, drunk and overly confident tourists who jump into the mess for a free bucket end up suffering for weeks to come. Just read this article by a guy (a self-proclaimed “dumb-ass”) who weeks after the incident still had a “festering burn.”

What happens at a fire show?

Our first night staying at Stones Bar, we were lured in just like all the other tourists. From our dorm room we heard the DJ put on his set list (which was ‘same same’ every night, a YouTube mix of deep house) and scream, “ARE YOU READY, PHI PHI?” Our first fire show was just a few feet away. We walked out and sat on those plastic, orange lounge cushions with awkwardly placed headrests.

We watched as the long-haired boys dipped the ends of their sticks in gasoline and lit them on fire. Most can be described as scrawny but muscular. With tattoos and piercings, they have a kind of bad boy look to them. A confident, relaxed look. It’s like their eyes are saying “I’m playing with fire but I don’t give a f***.” They were spinning the sticks in circles, to the front and to the back, and eventually throwing them in the air only to see them fall on top of them.

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Imagine this, but in human form. Perhaps not so drastic.

Aside from around six adult performers, Stones bar boasts two miniature performers. Both of them look around five years of age. They are put on people’s shoulders, jump on peoples’ backs, and used to adorn a formation like a star on a Christmas tree. The older one is 11, and he won’t let you forget it. “How old are you?” Jennifer asked. “ELEVEN! ELEVEN!” he replied in a half scream, half hiss.  Just like Vodka, he attracts a parade of mainly (drunk) girls who try to give him a hug (#guilty) and ask him lots of questions. During the show, the other performers put the small children in charge of walking around with the tip bucket. I gave lots of cash.

The show was impressive. The performers are talented. Even the young ones have a hand-eye coordination I never will. But just like Lance mentioned, it was hard to watch. I could imagine the pain of the burns, the sweat and the exhaustion. I worried about another childhood lost for a local 11-year-old. My sister and I stayed for the first part of the show and left the beach to see live music in town.

The next night, we started in the same way as before. We got dressed, walked outside, grabbed a drink and watched the Stones Bar fire show. But soon after it started, we decided we had seen the exact same thing the night before (and would see the exact same show for days to come). Looking down the beach we noticed that several of the bars had fire shows.

This night, we came to find out that the further you go down the beach, the more professional and intricate the performances become. If the fire shows boys lived in the Midwest, the Stones Bar boys’ appearance would be described as “jail bait” and those at Ibiza Bar “wholesome.” At Ibiza the performers never dropped sticks and followed along to the music in choreographed steps. At 4Play they impressed the crowds by doing bodybuilding with weights on fire. There appeared to be a hierarchy and a clear physical difference in the performers. I had a lot of questions.

Who are the performers?

I wanted to know who were the performers, and why did they decide to pursue this profession? Was it the fame? The prestige? The celebrity status? The chance to drink every night? Why were there only male performers? (Although, I did see one female Western tourist performing at various bars. Go, girl!)

A British employee at Banana Bar said most Western female tourists get with them, or want to get with them. A lot of them have Western girlfriends. A Brazilian, who worked at a snorkeling tour company who claimed to give you weed along with your snorkeling equipment, didn’t have a high opinion of them. “They think they own the island,” he said as he shook his head. “They are assholes. They punch dudes if they try to get with a girl they are looking at.” Perhaps he was speaking from personal experience.

When I approached the performers before the show the next night, they weren’t intimidating at all. On the contrary, they were soft spoken. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Thai and their English language skills weren’t enough for us to discuss my pressing questions.

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My favorite performer. Cue cat emoji with heart eyes.

I wanted to sit down with them, but timing was difficult. The only time I found them was either right before the show when they were practicing, or at the end of the night when they were too drunk to form coherent sentences, let alone in English.

One night, after the music had been shut off, I was hanging out at the picnic tables at Stones Bar. I was just sitting and winding down when I was approached by a British tourist. He sat down on a tree stump next to me and put his arm on my back. “Take it off,” I said. He laughed and asked, “Do you want to go have sex with me?”

I rolled my eyes and told him he needed to leave. When he hesitated I stood up and turned around. I saw the performers sitting at the table behind me. Still annoyed by the British tourist, I walked up to them. “I want to talk to you but I don’t want to have sex with you!” I belted out.

One of men was kind enough to assure me we could just talk. He even answered a few questions as best as he could. Most of the performers at Stones are from the north of Thailand. They’re young –between 19-24 years-old- and only recently started. They start off training with the basic moves, then with determination graduated to be good enough to perform at one of the beach bars.

I still have lots of questions and very little answers. The next time I visit Phi Phi I’m planning a full ethnographic study. The gracious performers weren’t able to tell me everything I wanted to know, but one did confirm something I suspected.

“What do you guys do in the shows?” I wondered.

“It’s same same, all days.” He said. Like Lance said – same same, but not different at all.

Featured photo: One of the young kids on top of a fire pyramid. 

Want to see an interview with a performer? Watch this video filmed in Koh Tao by Jacques de Vos.

 

9 Worst Photos of 2015 + BONUS PHOTO

It’s close to the end of the year. This means you’ll be seeing the year in review: Best of… worst of…most memorable…

Here’s another list to add to the multitude, and hopefully this either makes you laugh or inspires you to make fun of yourself or someone you know.

2015 took me to many countries: Spain, Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria, Portugal, France, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (obviously in no particular order, and clearly not in alphabetical order).

With lots of travel brings lots of photos. And with lots of photos brings lots of bad photos.

I’ve never been one to be particularly photogenic. Travel has only made me see this even clearer. If I don’t look downright awkward, I usually find myself somewhere between boring and too excited. We’re all overcritical of ourselves, this I recognize, but others have also confirmed my debility.

Take a look at the 9 worst photos I took in 2015, and let’s hope 2016 brings even worse ones. #Nothidingfrommyselfanylonger

1- When we were in that room in Morocco

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Beauty at its finest.

You heard the story (most likely you read it). We were in the same room for hours. Which meant ample time to showcase how that sweat and extreme heat transformed my face.

2- A great photo shoot in Laos

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Hottie with a body

The scenery in the rural area outside of Vang Vieng, Laos was breathtaking. My modelings skills were not.

3- When I wasn’t the only one in Finisterre

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We were meant to be friends. Except, she’s actually a great model. I must be a bad influence.

After we finished the Camino, Kimberly and I cheated and took a bus three hours to the coast to Finisterre. We cannot blame the exhaustion from the Camino, as by this point, we had relaxed enough.

4- When Sweaty Betty comes out to sunbathe

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This takes “what you actually look like at the beach” to a new level.

Enough said. Koh Phi Phi, Thailand, was hot.

5-When my sister tries to take a cheeky Snapchat

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I sent this to someone who replied, “total boner.”

6- When I’m sleeping

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I’ll call this one “sleeping beauty”

I’m lucky enough to be able to fall asleep practically on command. I’ve slept in a number of moving vehicles and in front of many people. I can’t control the way I look, and more than that I can’t control who decides to capture those moments.

7-When I try to take a sneaky selfie

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Not as cute as I had intended

Last year in Ibiza my friends and I had a picnic at Cala Salada. Our Argentine friend grilled my beloved choripan. At least chimichurri wasn’t in my teeth at the time I took the picture.

8-When it’s sunset in Cala d’Albarca

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Those sultry eyes

My family came to visit me in Ibiza, and little did they know the pickings for their Facebook albums would be slim.

9-When you ask someone something at the wrong moment

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Where’s the…

Those are also my “don’t look at me” eyes.

You’re in luck. Number 10 is a bonus photo. It’s a throw back from 2014, but it was too good not to share. I was randomly looking at a friend’s Instagram when I saw a gem. At the time when this photo was taken, I didn’t have an Instagram yet. It was a big surprise to stumble upon this last August.

10- When its so bad it doesn’t even look like me

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Love me or leave me?

I Saw My Period At A Sacred Place

Warning: This post has to do with my menstrual cycle and will discuss blood. If this makes you uncomfortable, please stop reading. If this makes you uncomfortable and you are uncomfortable with the fact that you are uncomfortable, you might be interested in learning about menstrual cycles! See the fun and easy-to-read guide Menstrupedia and read here about how people are changing the period stigma around the world.

It was our first day in Bangkok, Thailand. My sister and I were doing our first go-round of tourism. After getting Malaria medication, eating at Silom Soi 20 and Cabbages and Condoms in the same day and sweating our way through tuk tuks, taxis, public transportation and city crowds, we thought it was time for some culture.

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Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho.

And by culture, I mean disrespectfully passing quickly through the splendor, history and architecture of Wat Pho and going directly to their massage center.

Sometimes you’re sweaty, tired, and have period cramps. And you just want a massage. A Thai massage, at that. Where else better than the very place that’s credited with it’s invention?

I came wearing long “hippie” pants and a shirt covering my shoulders. When we got the massage, they gave us traditional Thai massage clothes, which are loose fitting pants that are near impossible for me to tie. Every time I got a massage in Asia I had to seek the help of one of the employees to secure them. You would have thought I’d learn.

Both Jennifer and I were guided into the air conditioned room. In this massage center, and all others that we visited in Southeast Asia, privacy is a different concept. Your relaxing massage is enhanced by sharing a space with at least 30 other people. The employees often have full-on conversations, and then whisper to you when they want you to do something. It’s like they’re screaming to each other about their weekend -“WE HAD SO MANY PEOPLE AT MY HOUSE I DIDN’T HAVE ENOUGH FOOD”-and then they gently tap you on the shoulder and whisper, “Turn over please.”

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Tiles at Wat Pho.

In my loose fitting clothing, I lay down in a shared bed next to a older white female tourist. She halfway opened her eyes as I climbed on next to her. I gave her the nod.

My period was heavy. Early in my cycle, the floodgates had been let open. I had a pad in, which you’ll soon find out was not the best option for a Thai massage. I thought the wings would protect me, but I calculated wrong. A tampon would have sufficed. My struggles with the menstrual cup would have resulted in a much worse situation, so at least there’s that.

My masseuse was a middle-aged man with short black hair. He was petite and walked quickly, giving me directions and leading me with his hand gestures. He didn’t speak much English but gave me frequently smiles and nods to indicate I was doing the right thing.

As he put my legs and arms in different positions, I was left vulnerable to the threat of leakage. I opened my eyes as my foot was above my head and I wondered if I was going to bleed through the pants they had given me. He turned me on my side and was practically punching my right hip (getting all those knots out, love that!) and I felt some dampness (to be less graphic on a post about periods). He and the female masseuse next to him started talking. I, of course, didn’t think anything of it. Conversation during massages are normal.

The massage continued for thirty more minutes. He cracked my back, contorted me into a quasi-back bend and slapped my upper back to signify the end of our time together. “Okay, all finished,” he whisper. I opened my eyes, rolled over, and thought, oh shit.

Earlier, I was worried about bleeding through their dark pants. I never considered the possibility of leaving a pool of deep, red blood on their crisp white sheets.

“I’m so, so sorry,” I told my masseuse. I wrinkled my face and tried to communicate how sorry I was with concerned eyes. He just keep smiling and shaking his head. He tried to tell me I had nothing to worry about. I was grateful for him not making a big deal out of it.

At least the next person to sit in the bed where I got my massage would do so on fresh sheets. Yeah, you’re welcome.

I went to the dressing room and changed back into my clothes. My masseuse was waiting for me so he could take my spoiled pants. He had to put them in a “special” hamper. Separate from the untainted ones.

I whispered “sorry” at least ten more times as I walked out. Other clients started to notice and would crack open their eyes to see who this obsessively apologetic girl was. I met back up with my sister at the entrance.

I walked out feeling disgusting. I wasn’t even embarrassed that it happened. I’m all about ending the menstruation stigma. But I was already dripping sweat and couldn’t wait to take a shower. We put our Thai Buddhism lesson on hold until further notice and left the premises.

“I got their sheets pretty dirty,” I told my sister. “I bled through their pants and onto the bed.”

“Oh god, ” was all she could say. She laughed a bit, too.

The only thing that gives me comfort in these types of situations is the thought that I can’t be the only one. Or, I can’t be the worst one. Out of the people who have filed through the doors of the Wat Pho massage center, something had to have been “worse” than my blood on the white sheets. Menstruating women aren’t banned from all temples! Only in some. There’s a success story.

You would guess right now that I would have learned my lesson. I apparently did not. In Chiang Mai, we took a quick detour from seeing the city to get massages. I was again menstruating and again I was wearing a pad, not a tampon. At the end of the massage, I was relieved to not see any blood on the bed. That might be attributed to the dark brown sheets. I changed and found a surprise…but no one but me noticed this time.

Want to read about menstruation in Thai culture? Read here about an American Muay Thai fighter’s experience in the ring and what it’s like to be a menstruating fighter.

Morocco: Camels Wear Mascara, Too

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Don’t hurt ‘em

Merzouga, Morocco was more than just suffocating heat, Berber pizza and goats. It’s December. So obviously, that means a special day is coming up. That’s right! Let’s celebrate animals.

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Kimberly and I on our furry friends. One of our guides is to the right.

In our three day “Camel Trek” from Merzouga through the black desert almost reaching the border with Algeria, Kimberly and I got very close to our camels. Physically, of course. There was, however, a language barrier.

The popular term is camel, but in reality, the animals we see as “camels” in Morocco aren’t actually camels. The one-humped furry creatures you see in the photos below are called Dromedaries.

Although they their pungent stench was overbearing at times, their batting eyelashes, patient stance and gentle grandeur were endearing qualities.

While most of the time we weren’t riding them they were at the well drinking water or grazing far in the distance, sometimes they were relaxing calmly nearby. Watching them regurgitate their food and chew it back up, I was partial to their unique chewing. Here is a video of me trying to imitate it.

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“I CHEW DIAGONALLY” – Camels

On our last day in the desert, we had spent many uneventful hours in a small, one-roomed hut. Accosted by the blistering heat we were confined to this space, save photography outings to do the goat photo shoots and a few quick visits to the well for a Berber shower. Camels drink water, we dump it on our heads.

Around dusk, we were finally preparing to leave the desert and return to Merzouga. In the long hours we had been in the abandoned village hanging out with goats, Ahmed had let the dromedary camels wander.

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Kimberly and Ahmed relaxing in our room.

Ahmed left to find the camels. He was gone for at least 20 minutes. When he came back, the camels sat outside the room, waiting for us to grab the uneaten food, the water canteen, and the utensils. Ahmed was tying up my favorite Decathalon backpack to the saddle as he started to look nervous. “We can’t leave yet,” he said, “There’s a storm coming.”

The wind had picked up. Just as we got our hopes up to finally leave the trappings of the abandoned town, we had to wait longer. We took shelter inside the hut and left the camels outside. Although I was worried about them being left out in the storm, I realized this was what they were engineered for.

When we saw the pellets of sand hitting our dear friends, I was glad we hadn’t have left yet. They stood unflinching through the hour of fierce wind and sand. They shut their eyelids and at some points had to move slowly from side to side. Meanwhile, we were inside the room re-watching the same videos and looking at the same photos we had all day in the midst of our previous boredom.

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Calm, cool and collected.

Just like the wind, they were strong. I admire their ability to withstand such unpleasant conditions. Those sassy little beards and coarse tufts of hair on their heads make them seem like little lions.

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#camelselfie

As soon as the wind died down, we mounted our camels and headed through the black desert. Ahmed had decided that although the storms could continue, we had to leave now  – or it was never. We took our chances. We didn’t want to have more Berber pizza. The storm hit again twice on our ride back (see this video for my dramatic interpretation of riding a camel). We were hot, sticky, sweaty and tired. Yet our faithful companions took us back to safety, slow, steady, and unafraid.

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View from the top

The ride itself was rather uncomfortable. As a result, I left with an achy back, painfully sore inner thighs and ankle tightness. But if there was anything I’d like to ride and hurt my groin area on, it’s my strong and majestic friends of the animal kind.

Human Rights Day: We’re Both Migrants, But For Very Different Reasons

Yesterday, I celebrated 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence with a post on Bilbao’s No Means No Campaign. Today, I’m celebrate Human Rights Day by sharing my experiences of encountering refugees while traveling, and how this changes my perspective on movement.

“Marhaba,” I told my two new Iraqi friends in Arabic. Hello. A simple enough phrase to break the ice.

“Ana assafir al sharq alaousat,” I said with a smile. The two Iraqis giggled. In my formal Arabic I had learned at college, I tried to say that I traveled to the Middle East. I actually haven’t, but I couldn’t remember any other words. Darn you, Al-Kitaab!

I was on a metro, accompanied by my sister and Kimberly. We had just come from Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, a regional Turkish cuisine restaurant in Istanbul’s Aksaray District. “They are so conservative there,” our Couchsurfing host had told us when we passed it in the car on our first day. “They are all immigrants, many from Syria.” The people in hijabs and long, white tunics could have very well been. Turkey currently has an estimated 1.5 million refugees, most of them Syrian.

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Jennifer, Kimberly and I and our new best friends- the waiters at Akdeniz Hatay Sofrasi.
At the restaurant, we were the only women not fully covered. We were also the only women without screaming, crying children. The young, male waiters had taken a special liking to us. We even took a selfie with them. One patron saw us struggling and offered his selfie stick, which, in the end, caused us even more technical difficulties. This meant more time causing a scene in front of the presumably conservative families present.

The two Iraqis on the metro had struck up a conversation with Kimberly. I was sitting in a seat nearby when I overheard. Never missing a moment to embarrass myself and speak Modern Standard Arabic, I stood up and joined in.

“I’ve been here a few months,” Mohammad, the more vocal of the two, told us. “I don’t really like it.” I explained how much I loved Istanbul. I thought it was a beautiful, dynamic city with so much to offer. Mohammad shrugged.

We were traveling several metro stops-around 45 minutes-to get back to our Couchsurfing host’s apartment. As people rushed on and off, families disassembled and assembled strollers and my bored looking sister sat nearby, the four of us-Mohammad, his friend, Kimberly and I- continued to talk.

Life isn’t easy in Iraq right now. It hasn’t been for a long time. His story seemed to mirror so many others I had heard. Either on the news or in person, people fleeing violence all say the same thing. They are happy to be safe. But they just wish they could go home.

This is something often overlooked when I hear others talking about immigration. Many migrants (fleeing violence) aren’t thrilled about having relocated. It’s not something they would have chosen, but living with violence wasn’t an option anymore.

Like Mohammad, I am a migrant. Both he and I had left our home countries. The difference is that I left mine by choice. I had an easy, comfortable life at home. When I leave, it is to experience new things, people and places. He leaves to escape imminent death. I was standing in front of man who escaped violence that my tax dollars could very well have contributed to.

It was a moment (like so many I continue to have) of recognizing my privilege. I can easily flow in and out of borders. When I travel to new countries, the authorities at customs aren’t afraid I’m going to stay illegally and I am never stopped for random security checks. After landing in the airport in Stockholm, the officer at customs asked what I was doing and let me through without further inquiry. The Thai man next to me didn’t gain entry so easily. He was asked to present bank statements. When he couldn’t get wifi to access his accounts online, he was put in a holding room. I don’t know how long he was in there, or if he ever got through.

A few months after meeting Mohammad in Istanbul, Jennifer and I were in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We werecraving Middle Eastern food, and we were in luck. A quick search on Trip Advisor pointed us to Taste of the Middle East, an Iraqi family-owned restaurant. The owners are one of three Arabic families living in the city.

We were seated by Ali, a sassy preteen who skateboards and played American rap music from his phone. There were six tables with four chairs each. Although the restaurant has become very popular, we were the only two eating that night.

Mohammad, the eldest son, was our waiter. The mother of the family, Muna, cooked our meal. We devoured a cucumber and tomato salad, baba ganouj, and shawarma. We were stuffed, but couldn’t miss a chance to have dessert. We had homemade baklava and mint tea.

As we ate, Muna, Mohammad, and Ali sat near us. Ali had a plate of food of his own he was scarfing down. Curious as to how an Iraqi family ended up in Cambodia, a country known for its brutal genocide, we began asking questions.

Turns out, many people have asked them before. After eating at the restaurant, I did some googling. Taste of the Middle East and the family have received significant media attention for their unique situation (and the light their case sheds on a recent Australian-Cambodian refugee deal). Phnom Penh Post, Reuters, SBS and even Munchies,VICE’s food website reported on the family’s story.

Mohammad told Munchies,“I’m from Fallujah…The worst place on Earth.” In our conversation, he wasn’t as direct, but he did express a deep sadness for his home. He explained that Fallujah was devastated. It was dangerous, violent, and opportunities were limited. After reading the news articles, I wondered how many times that Mohammad had told that story.

The family lived in Malaysia before relocating to Cambodia. They came on business visas and opened the restaurant. This opens a multitude of complications, and even more stressful, uncertainty about their future. While we were in the restaurant, a man visited. He sat at the table across from us and spoke to the family. Speaking in Arabic, I couldn’t understand the conversation, but I understood a few words: “visa,” “travel,” and “Iraq.” I used my incredible investigative skills and deduced they were discussing visa issues.

It wasn’t all serious, however. Ali grinned every time he saw Jennifer. “What do you like to do?” she asked. “Not much,” he said. “I am just here, in the restaurant.” The events of life turned our conversation somber yet again.

Ali doesn’t go to school. He already speaks near perfect English, among other languages. Unfortunately, the family can’t afford the tuition of the private international schools. They told us that Khmer schools were of very low quality. That leaves them with educational options.

Although he doesn’t go to school, he has managed to make friends in the neighborhood. Mohammad told us Ali has already picked up Khmer. “We’re worried he’s going to convert to Buddhism!” Mohammad joked.

Jennifer and I walked 45 minutes from the restaurant back to our hostel. On the way home, I thought more about my ability to move about the world. Mostly, I thought about what the family said about missing friends and family back in Iraq. I leave my country, but I can come back at a minute’s notice. I know with certainty that I will be able to see my family when I want. I thought about when I lived in Argentina and I missed home the most. Knowing my return home would come soon, I was able to continue studying, working, and enjoying Buenos Aires without an issue.

I was stuck on the idea that we both travel, but our reasons are so drastically different. Therefore, our outcomes become drastically different, too. Most migrants in new cities don’t spend time visiting the cultural exhibits or trying all of the restaurants in the city. Often, they don’t even have free time to learn the local language. Many leave without hope of ever seeing friends and family again.

For Human Rights Day, December 10, I want to remember Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 13.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Mohammad, the Iraqi I met in Istanbul,  and the owners of Taste of the Middle East in Cambodia have the right to return home. Technically, they could go home now. But what life would it be? Would they have the space and the freedom to express themselves as they wish? Could they leave the house free from fear of being assaulted?

Discussing refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants of any motive is a complicated topic, much more complicated than I am able to explain in this post. While traveling, we meet all types of people. In my travels I’ve come into contact with Burmese in Thailand, Vietnamese in Laos, Iraqis in Istanbul, Syrians in Greece, Moroccans in Spain, Senegalese in Paris, Indians in Rome, Swedish in Portugal. Europeans, North Americans, Australians and Kiwis can be found in plentiful numbers all over the world.

All of those mentioned are in a way migrants. But all are for different reasons. While traveling, coming into contact with migrants made me reflect on the circumstances in which I embark on the world. We all have the right to leave and return to our countries, but can we?

Small side rant: Many fellow travelers judged us on craving Middle Eastern style food in Cambodia. That’s not “authentic”! What’s more authentic than seeing how a country truly is? If that country involves an Iraqi family, I am getting a real sense of the city by visiting their restaurant and speaking with them. They belong to the city now, too.

Featured Photo: Arabic language globe at the Istanbul Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam. 

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