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Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

The African Safari. For many it’s the pinnacle of a lifetime’s worth of wanderlust, wrought in the childhood dreams of far away places and exotic animals. Like a magnet, the pervasive pull of the cradle of life draws people from around the world to its savannahs teaming with life and its breathtakingly endless African skies.

While each of our dreams about African varies from person to person, I would guess that the spirit of all our dreams remains the same: the opportunity to encounter some the rarest, most beautiful and dangerous animals in the world, the Big 5. But the safari promises not just an encounter, for any of us could get that at our local zoo, but an encounter with the Big 5 on the animals’ terms, in their habitat, in their home.

But as I travelled across that mighty continent, I realized that there was a catch, one that put a damper on my entire experience: Safaris can’t always deliver on their promises.

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I pride myself on having a willingness to eat anything and everything while traveling abroad, but as I sat in the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, staring at the fried tarantula that lay on the table in front of me, I felt a lot like Bart Simpson licking his tongue across a subway handrail in an attempt to prove he had no sense of taste…I’m in way over my head here.

During a walk through the market earlier that day I came across a number of vendors specializing in cooking and selling a variety of things that are usually found on the bottom of someone’s shoe—from ants and crickets to maggots and beetles. These vendors offered me a very good deal, a medium-sized bag of bugs and creepy-crawlies of all shapes and sizes for one measly American dollar, and since I’ve had the need to take advantage of all deals and sales firmly ingrained in me through my Mennonite upbringing, I simply couldn’t pass it up. While I normally would save you from an extended description consuming insects, in later days the question I’ve been asked repeatedly is, “how did they taste?”

The longstanding joke, of course, is that it tasted like chicken, which everything seems to these days; but the truth is, it was much much worse than that. Fortunately for me the bugs had been fried, so at least they weren’t jumping around in my mouth, but that was the only positive that came out of the experience.

As I placed the maggot in my mouth I let it sit there for a second, not sure if I should just swallow it or if I dared to take a bite. My curiosity won out and as I bit down it felt like I had reached the Tootsie-roll centre of a Tootsie-pop, but instead of filling my mouth with the sweet taste of chocolaty candy, it filled my mouth with an explosion of ooze and guts. As I winced at the overwhelmingly awful taste, I couldn’t image how anyone would regularly eat those small critters. Then, as I popped a cricket into my mouth, I did, for a brief moment, wonder why I kept doing this to myself, a thought quickly replaced by the struggle to choke down an insect with an ample amount of legs and wings.

What I didn’t realize during this ordeal is that I had become quite a tourist attraction myself, as people from dozens of countries surrounded me in the market, snapping pictures of me like I was a Cambodian sideshow. I’m not sure why after all of this I was still intrigued by the prospect of eating a tarantula, but nevertheless the feeling persisted.

I bought two spiders, one for myself and one for an adventurous girl in my traveling group. This was not the first time I had lured some unsuspecting woman into a culinary adventure way over her head, as in previous journeys I had cajoled a young woman into eating a plate of cow brains with me, which resulting in her vomiting for the rest of the evening.

As I sat there, with the tarantula staring up at me from the table, I began to rethink my decision. But, there’s nothing quite like a little peer pressure and the danger of being bested by a girl to make you eat things you would rather avoid, and so with the agreement that we would chew the spider for at least thirty seconds before drinking anything, the tarantula went down the hatch.

Amazingly, of all the bugs and insects I had eaten that day, the spider was by far the best. It had been lightly seasoned, so it actually had a flavor beyond that delicious spider crunch. As I chewed through the tough shell, I could feel the hairy legs in my mouth, providing an interesting sensation that set off my gag reflex several times. But, remarkably, the thirty seconds quickly came to a close, and as I washed down the remnants of a spider with tepid Cambodian beer I felt a distinct sense of satisfaction. At least I didn’t throw up.

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I stood in a room that was once a high school cafeteria, transfixed; the laughing and smiling faces of young people replaced by pictures of hundreds of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. I shuddered as the placid facades of those now dead, struggling at that time to contain their fear in compliance with the prison rules, seemed to rise ethereally from their photos, like restless spectres silently screaming out for justice.   

                                  

I was in Cambodia, at the infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, a former school turned holding area for those unfortunate enough to fall into the ruthless grip of the totalitarian communist regime that ruled the country until a mere thirteen years ago. Classrooms, once places of learning, had become distorted, turned into torture chambers designed specifically to elicit confessions from the innocent and guilty alike; enacting the barbarous Khmer Rouge philosophy, “It is better to arrest ten people by mistake than to let one guilty person go free.” As I moved from room to room, the voices of the victims of that policy—men, women, and children alike—seemed to call out from the shadows, leading me to reflect on the depths of evil of the human soul. As if I needed a reminder, around each corner were signs, expressly forbidding smiling or laughing. The only person smiling in this place, where babies as young as five months were among the victims, was Brother #1, otherwise known as Pol Pot, the leader of the communist government.

                         

As I continued to wander, carefully avoiding the barbed wire that hung over what used to be windows and tiptoeing around what seemed to be blood stains still visible on the floor and walls, I could scarcely contain my revulsion; the truly horrific thing, I was soon to discover, was that the atrocities got worse…much worse.

For those that don’t know about the Khmer Rouge, they were the ruling communist party in Cambodia that existed, in one form or another, from 1975 to 1997. From 1975 to 1979, when most of the greatest atrocities occurred, Pol Pot and his communist party subjected Cambodia to radical social reforms, intending to alter the country from a capitalist, city-based population, to an agrarian-based communist system. That meant that all city-based professionals—teachers, business people etc.—were deported from the cities, forced to work in communist farm collectives or various other forced labour projects. Throughout this time, millions of Cambodians—and some unlucky internationals—were sent to prison like S-21, some 1.5 million losing their lives in the waves of torture, interrogations, and murders that were meant to purge the country of the treacherous influence of capitalism.

The horrific conclusion of this journey through one the darkest chapters of the late 20th century ended at a place ingloriously dubbed, the Killing Fields. For those that were found guilty through the torture and interrogation of S-21 were sent there, a place so poignant and evocative that I wondered if I should be there at all. As our guide led us along as winding path, carefully plodding past shallow mass graves, I felt a sense of being an intruder in a place that was, simultaneously, too evil and too hallowed to be subject to the constant influx of curious tourists. As I looked beneath my feet, I discovered I had been treading on human remains lying just beneath the surface. Horrified, I tried to find a place I could stand were I wouldn’t be defiling the remains of the unfortunate victims, but no such place existed in the Killing Fields. I ended that day much like it began, transfixed, staring at the hollow eyes of thousands of bleached-white skulls that had been placed in a memorial ossuary, yet another reminder of those that fell under the iron fist of Pol Pot and his bloody regime.

                                          

From the ossuary to the tree that the Khmer soldiers used to bludgeon babies to death—while mothers were made to watch shortly before their own demise—the malevolence and evil of that place was palpable, leaving the traveler with visions that will never be forgotten; an experience essential for everyone and no one alike.

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