Atkins, it ain't

Not much has suffered during my two months of life in Argentina, save my waistline. My belly isn’t hanging down over my belt just yet, but give me another two months with Argentine cuisine, and the Great Spillover might just begin.

How to sum up the Argentine diet?

Umm…meat and sweets.

There you go.

Argentines are big meat eaters. In 2007, per capita beef consumption was 149 pounds a year, according to one source, down from 396 pounds per annum in the 19th century. Yikes.

I mean, they do have good reason to enjoy consuming cow – their country is one of the major producers of the stuff (the country has just under 40 million people and some 50 million cows) and its quality is way up there. The majority of restaurants seem to be parrilla (grill) places offering numerous beef cuts, chorizo sausages, blood sausage, short ribs, breaded meats, pork, barbecued chicken, and so on, ad infinitum.

This was tea meant for two

But hey, why be forced to choose just one animal part? Go for the gold with the meat feast platter – oh, I forget the name. The first time I saw one of those being carried out – a large, raised platter heated from below piled at least four inches high with cuts of meat – I thought some banquet was happening in the next room. It was for the family of four at the next table.

But man, after a while, it gets to be too much. I’m no vegetarian, and am really not a health fanatic when it comes to my diet. But here, order a hamburger or a lomito and what you get is heart attack on a plate.

The beef, that’s fine, but usually it’s covered in a slice of ham, a half-inch layer of melted cheese, and then an egg, boiled or fried. Oh, don’t forget the sea of French fries that come with it. Tired of that, there’s pizza and pasta, which Argentines eat mountains of. Cream and red meat (really?) sauces are preferred.

Desert anyone?

My typical breakfast

Oh yes, there is the divine dulce de leche, a thick caramel paste that once must have been the nectar of the gods. It’s often layered between short-bread cookies dipped in chocolate (alfajores), or stuffed into mini croissants dusted with confectioner’s sugar, or simply eaten out of the jar by addicts like me, until they go into sugar shock.

Don’t forget the flan, which also has a dulce de leche variation, or the gelato stands on every street corner, where for about US$2.50, you can get a big Styrofoam container overflowing with three of your favorite flavors. They say it has less fat than American ice cream, you know, so what’s the harm?

Note the empty nature of the jar

I don’t know why Argentines, with all these high-carb, high calorie, big-portioned meals, aren’t just huge. The men do tend to be bigger than Europeans after, say, the age of 40, but they don’t in any way approach the American girth. What gives? They’re not all dancing tango 24/7.

So I complain and I regret and I just continue to eat it up. Asceticism can wait until I return to Berlin. (I don’t want to talk about it!)

In fact, after I wrap this up, I’ll probably head out to the restaurant here in Iguazú recommended in my guide, supposedly the best in town. What I’ll order? Probably a big hunk of cow flesh and a glass of Malbec.

Because when in Rome…

I'm crying for you here, Evita

There’s something about the proverbial tourist trap that just gets my goat.

Is it the Disneyfication of a place that was at least once kind of authentic? Is it the touts that accost you every second step pressuring you to eat at their restaurant, or trying to start fake conversations (usually beginning with the word “friend”) just to get you to stop so they can make the hard sell? What about the prices, 50% higher than anywhere else in the city, and the food, 50% worse?

What’s not to love?

“El Caminito” in the Bs.As. ‘hood of La Boca fully meets all these requirements for tourist trapdom and I had pretty much decided to give this block of candy-colored houses a wide berth. But, as my time here comes to a close (I don’t want to talk about it!), I fell victim to the marketing. This little street is in all the tourism material, was the main pic for the Smithsonian magazine cover story on the city, etc., etc. (Slide show below.)

Street scene

The funny thing is, this tourist sinkhole is located right in the middle of a neighborhood that is considered fairly dangerous, La Boca. The name refers to the mouth of the Riachuelo river, a stinking cesspool of a waterway that gives the area its distinctive, disagreeable smell. (Although yesterday, a brisk breeze drove the most noxious fumes on their way.)

Back in the day, that day being the 19th century, is was the entry point for immigrants and goods to the city. Many new arrivals set up shop here and built houses with corrugated zinc.

They didn’t have money for paint, the story goes, so asked arriving ships to give them any leftovers. That’s why the dwellings were painted this crazy quilt of colors.

Back to the danger: most guides and several websites from travelers recommend not venturing down to the neighborhood after dark, nor straying away even during the day from the candy-colored street packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, and sprinkled with cops and couples dancing tango and posing for pictures in exchange for some cash.

Who does this?

I was concerned, emptying out my wallet before I went, dressing down, making sure my camera was safely hidden away, getting ready for the knife-wielding thugs surely lurking behind every bright pastel corner.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried. The place was so chock-full of Bermuda-wearing paleskins like me (well, minus the attire), that only the most criminal would have dared. OK, I’m sure it’s happened. I just stayed aware and was not bothered by anyone but the touts.

I’m not quite sure what the attraction is. It’s so fake and out of touch with anything actually happening in Buenos Aires (save the very cool contemporary arts center next door).

The food is pricey, the stuff for sale schlocky, the houses…kinda pretty, but you’re done in ten minutes. But then, people were actually paying to have their photographs taken behind those painted wooden boards with openings that you stick your head through. So what do I know?

The Real World

The surrounding, more monochromatic neighborhood looked much more interesting. There is some cool mish-mashy architecture, the stadium for the Boca Juniors soccer team that is the local religious shrine, hole-in-the-wall restaurants grilling their beloved meat out on the street, and all in all a different side of Bs. As., far removed from my leafy, upscale Palermo neighborhood.

But as I still had vague thoughts of gangs of rampaging hoodies in my head, I didn’t get too far off the beaten track. Probably a wise move in the end; I’ve still got my camera.

Sleeping giant ... hope he stays that way

There were a few seconds of pure panic.

I had just braved a disgusting restroom in the bus station in some mid-sized city about seven hours into the return trip from my week in Patagonia. The bus had pulled into a brightly lit station at around 11 p.m., just as I was dozing off, when the steward came up to the top level and blasted out some sentences in rapid-fire Spanish. I was fairly sure he said the bus was stopping for ten minutes, but asked an Argentine next to me; she held up ten fingers.

So, a quick trip to said facilities, and back to the platform area, ready to get down to sleep for, I hoped, a big chunk of the trip back to Buenos Aires.

But, the dock where my bus had been was empty.

I know I gasped out loud. There was a bus from the same company two docks over, so I ran over to it, but the destination sign said Mendoza, another city. Could I have been that stupid? What had that damn steward said, a ten-second stop? Why did I even get off the damn bus? There was a bathroom on board. My computer, my phone, my passport, half of everything stitch of clothing I have here in Argentina was on board that now-absent vehicle. Where the fuck was I, anyway?

The panic must have been pretty visible because out of the corner of my eye I saw an arm waving at me. I looked over in the fluorescent glare and recognized a guy who had been sitting a couple of rows back from me. “Don’t worry,” were his first words after I went over to him, like a castaway greeting the ship coming to save him. “The bus is coming back in ten minutes.”

Shoreline

Had that initial, white-hot fear been founded, it would have been a very crappy coda to an otherwise delightful week in Patagonia. (Slide show below.)

After a pleasant day in Bariloche (see previous post), I had rented a white VW Gol, Volkswagen’s entry-level car designed in Brazil that’s a hit in South America. This was no high-performance vehicle, more like a Ford Fiesta with slightly better styling, but it was cheap. I’d read that there were lengthy stretches of road coming up that were not paved, and some four-wheel drive, manly vehicle would have set my mind more at ease. To distract myself from the gravel surface coming up and the possible results of my miserliness, I just kept scarfing down the chocolates I’d bought in town until I was sick.

But then I reached my first destination on the Seven Lakes Drive without having to leave the comforts of asphalt. Villa la Angostura is a little up-market town next to the peninsula where I did my hike, also in the last post. I don’t know; it was pretty and all, but felt kind of like a tourist trap, although the trap has mostly been set for the wealthy Argentines who come here to ski or who have second homes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the scenery cannot be beat. But the town itself didn’t offer much besides chocolate shops or stores featuring all the same Argentine handicrafts.

Nothing interesting here

And let me tell you, I am not impressed (by the handicrafts, that is). Every time I’m in Asia, I just go wild seeing interesting things to bring back. I just keep myself in check so my apartment doesn’t begin looking like a Chinese restaurant.

But here, there’s been no temptation to pull out my wallet for any of the cheesy, chintzy stuff like badly painted wooden figures, vaguely “native” looking I-don’t-know-whats, knives (so many it’s scary), or cups meant for mate (the national tea-like beverage, wait, or is that Pepsi or Sprite, which everyone seems to drink much more of these days?).

Well, I did get the DVD of that Argentine movie that just won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. At least I’ll have something.

So, I did that hike, fell victim to a woman selling a bunch of dulce de leche products my expanding waistline does NOT need, and crashed.

The next day me and the Gol left Lake Nahuel Huapi and paved roadway behind, hitting the gravel, jerking and shuddering alongside fantastically beautiful lakes nestled amid forest-covered mountains – Lake Correntoso, Lake Espejo, lakes Falkner and Traful. They were all azure blue and shimmering under the bright, late summer sun. They’re perfect for long treks on their surrounding mountain ridges or for setting up tents on their tranquil shores – if I were into that kind of thing.

Wish I hadn’t been so worried about my seen-better-days car just shaking into a million pieces, or kicking up some rock that would put a huge scratch on its white (well, tan at this point) surface. I did get out a couple of times to snap some pictures, although a car would inevitably pass by and I’d be lost in a thick cloud of kicked-up dust for a few minutes. It was only half-way through this stretch that I realized the car actually had AC and I didn’t have to have the windows open and hold my breath whenever some SUV would roar by, leaving me literally eating his dust. The windows stayed up after that.

Bouquet

Back on asphalt and up to San Martín de los Andes, a truly charming town that’s cute indeed, but not treacly cute like Villa la Angostura. I stayed at this B&B called La Casa de Eugenia, and if you’re even in San Martín, this is the place to be. The place has an incredibly laid-back, nice host, beautiful design and furnishings that aren’t snotty, and a breakfast to die for. Thank you, guide book.

The food in the area: excellent. Ravioli stuffed with lamb in a blueberry sauce, local trout, or medium-rare Argentine steak with, yes, some version of potatoes, usually accompanied by a nice glass of Malbec.

It was then that I headed up to Junín, the angler’s paradise I mentioned in the last posting, as well as home to the Christian sculpture garden. It was also the place of death of the Blessed Laura Vicuña, a girl who lived to the ripe old age of 13 and was beatified by the Pope John Paul II. She gave herself to God because her mother was shacking up with a farmer to make ends meet. I don’t think she can be canonized because Laura’s backers can’t produce a miracle she performed.

But the real miraculous aspect of the region is the extinct (I certainly hoped so) volcano rising like a earth god above everything around it. It’s called Lanín, rises 3,776 meters, and elicited another audible gasp from me when I first spotted its snow-capped peak while jerking and shaking down yet another unpaved road. I was headed down the northern shore of Lake Huechulafquen after having stopped at the national park ranger station. I asked about hikes, but “easy, shortish ones.” The woman told me about one that, in the end, appears to have been designed for small children. I guess I came across like even more of a wimp than I thought.

Lakeside idyll

As I walked around this forest path reading signs featuring the adventures of a comic forest elf and his “living room in the forest,” powerful Lanín kept watch behind me, resting after an eruption many moons ago which spewed volcanic rock all over the place. You can climb the peak, but it takes three days and you need to be outfitted with things like ice-axes and crampons, and prove to the rangers that you are mentally and physically prepared for the experience. I didn’t think I’d pass that particular test. I was content to appreciate it from afar, as well as the astoundingly beautiful lake not far away, placid and glistening under a brilliant blue sky.

Time was running short, so back in the car for a bumpy ride back to San Martín to get my stuff and make the three-hour trip back to Bariloche to catch the bus that afternoon. I had to put pedal to metal even around some hair-raising turns since I was running late. But by God, I didn’t want to miss that bus. Can you imagine missing your bus out in the middle of Patagonia?

Sight for Sore Eyes

It was at about kilometer seven that I began to wonder if I really was the outdoorsy type; at about nine-and-a-half, I was having serious doubts.

I mean, it was my own decision to break off from the group of tourists with whom I’d taken a boat from Villa La Angostura through the breathtaking Nahuel Huapi Lake to the end of the Quetrihué peninsula during my week in Argentina’s Patagonia. The wimps were going to do a 15-minute circuit on a raised wooden path looking at some barkless trees and head back on the boat.

Not me, I was going to trek the 13 kilometers back. I had bought some hiking shoes that drove a dagger into my sense of aesthetics, but I’d just grin and bear it. I had acquired a Gore-Tex-ish jacket that would keep out any inclement weather. But my nature-appreciation experiment was showing signs of distress. The jacket now tied across my waist had to be hitched up every three feet or so and I’d just stepped pretty much in the middle of a good-sized cow patty while looking at, I don’t know, some vines or something…poison ivy?

Yes, there are country folk and there are city folk, and I had pretty much decided at that moment I was a member of the latter club as I tried to get the gunk out of the grooves on the sole of my right shoe.

Occasional groups of young people whizzing by on mountain bikes left me wishing I’d chosen that option. I’d decided to walk the route, thinking I’d be doing some more intense communing with nature that way, and get better pics. Well, I’d gotten about as up close and personal as I wanted – shit-smeared shoes, a couple of insect bites, raging thirst.

At one point late in the game, I came across three young women sitting on the trail. They asked me about the walk and I tried to feign enthusiasm. One looked like she was smoking a joint, which seemed like good preparation for what lay ahead.

Lake placid

Lake placid

But, as appears to be the case in Patagonia, even the most citified person cannot fail to be awed by the region’s natural beauty. (Slide show below.)

And once I turned a final corner on this tiresome hike, I was hit hard in the face by a fantastic vista of deep blue lakes surrounded by pine-covered mountains and valleys. Frustration, swept away. (I still made a beeline for a kiosk selling drinks.)

I didn’t know much about Patagonia before going, besides the fact that it comprises the southern part of Argentina and Chile. It’s a huge region with varied geographic features: from arid, scrubby flatlands to forested mountains to ice fields and glaciers.

Where to go? My first travel itinerary was ambitious. I thought I’d fly to the Lake District, do some driving around, then fly down to Calafate and see the impressive glacier there, on which you can trek if you’re under 45 (time’s running out for this guy), then take another flight down to Tierra del Fuego, the most southerly tip of South America, called the End of the World. But, seeing the cost of flights here, I scaled it back considerably…even foregoing airplanes all together.

Despite my general dislike of buses, especially the thought of sitting in one for 20 hours (the time it would take me to get to the Lake District from Bs.As.) I was told that’s the way to get around in Argentina, especially for gringos on a budget, who pay three times what Argentines pay when it comes to airfare. So, I booked the highest class on the ómnibus and crossed my fingers.

A far cry from Greyhound

Well, this ain’t Greyhound. First class was on the upper deck of a double-decker monster, fitted out with seats you see in business or first class on a plane. You’re served snacks and meals, and at bed time the seats fold down to 180 degrees. The only negative was the movie selection; there were about three or so, I think. One forgettable Robin Williams vehicle and two straight-to-cable flicks heavy on the explosions and bad acting. The sound was piped over loudspeakers, and my iPod ran out of juice half-way through.

First stop, 20 hours later, San Carlos de Bariloche, the starting point for Patagonia’s lake country and the Seven Lakes Drive I was eager to do. Perched on the edge of the azure waters of Nahuel Huapi Lake, it’s got an odd Swiss Alps feel – only en español. That’s largely due to the chalet-style architecture from the 1930s that was inspired by the early German and Swiss settlers. It’s called the “Bariloche Alpine Style” and uses local stone, varnished wood and carved gable ends. It’s all over the place. Sometimes it looks too precious to be real, but I suppose it is.

There is, however, a dark side to this pretty place – Nazis. For years, the head of the German Bariloche school was a former high-ranking SS officer. Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” is said to have lived here for years before his eventual capture and trial. After World War II, Argentina in general was a haven for Nazi war criminals, some of the most notorious who enjoyed explicit protection from then-President Juan Perón, Evita’s husband.

Alpine Style

But walking down Bariloche’s main drag, I didn’t spot any swastikas or suspicious Lederhosen, but a lot of outdoors shops and ski suppliers. There’s a big ski resort not far from here, Cerro Catedral, and the place is packed in both summer (boating and fishing and hiking) and winter (skiing, of course). I hit it just after the summer throngs had left. Perfect.

The region is known for its chocolate, and chocolate emporiums line the streets – delicious and deadly. I did not resist temptation. In the afternoon, I took a gondola up the Cerro Otto, a mountain and, I think, small ski resort just east of town that offers spectacular views over the region and its glittering lake.

But you know, a picture is worth a lot of blathering, and I took a bunch of them. So I’ll just add a slide show here and conclude the Patagonian adventure in the next post. Besides, I’ve got Spanish homework to do.

Local graffiti

Our paths cross several mornings a week as I walk up Borges Street toward the subway, dodging the errant streams of water as people hose down their sidewalks, resisting the call of the bakery’s  mountain of sugary croissants, and sighing – again – about that once-beautiful neoclassical corner house that’s made the sad transition from faded elegance to just junky and shabby.

The man is kind of short with a belly, sports a thick mop of jet-black hair and exudes an amazing sense of calm even though he’s the critical nexus of an impossible system of movement and instinct that seems preprogrammed for chaos.

He’s the dog walker. And he’s got nine charges on leashes most mornings, the smallest being a German shepherd.

It’s a strange but common sight in this city of dog lovers, where you can get anything delivered, from a latte to your laundry, from empanadas and ice cream to your weekly grocery shopping. For those busy porteños (Buenos Aires residents) with a little extra cash, why not hire out the walking chores?

I like this particular moving human-canine mass; it retains a kind of stately flow despite the thundering buses, uneven sidewalks and enough dog shit laying around to drive any pooch to distraction. Better than the mini-herds of smaller dogs you see occasionally, yapping and nipping and just making life miserable for everyone concerned.

Palermo pads

The dog walkers are just one of the more colorful aspects of life here in Palermo Soho, my neighborhood in la Capital Federal, where I’ve been for about three weeks. Friends had recommended the area as a desirable place to be, and turns out Lady Luck was on my side when I rented an apartment over the Internet.

It’s quite the place to be these days, full of cafés and leafy oaks, parks and squares and a wonderful mish-mash of architectural styles, from the aforementioned neoclassical beauties to modern, minimalist high-rises (luckily not too many, yet) and everything in between. There are even a couple of half-timbered houses that wouldn’t look out of place in Bavaria.

The neighborhood’s gotten the Soho designation because it’s become quite hip and trendy, and expensive for Argentines. The big Palermo neighborhood has been further subdivided into Old Palermo, Little Palermo and, most oddly, Palermo Hollywood, since there are a bunch of television studios there.

My area has fewer Klieg lights and more hip clothing boutiques, staffed by impossibly beautiful Argentines who must have either just stepped out of a Greek sculptor’s studio, Pygmalion style, or are just killing time until they’re scooped up by some telenovela producer. I step out of these places happy with my wardrobe addition, but wanting to put a bag over my head.

Adding to the city's decibel level

Luckily, the hipster epicenter is several blocks away. Right around my apartment, it’s a bit more down to earth and every-day. There’s the supermarket around the corner run by Asian immigrants (they’re ALL run by Asians with a grasp on Spanish that seems worse than mine), where I can buy my sweet but deadly-to-the-waistline dulce de leche.

There are the fresh vegetable stands on every block, where you can get a bag full of greens for a song. There’s the gym next door where Argentines work off all that beef and cheese that make up their diet. And there’s the laundry where I take all my dirty clothes and drop them off with the kind old woman who continually takes delight in the strangeness of my name. I pick them up later that day, washed and folded, all for about three euros.

It’s  pretty certain that one of the city’s most famous sons, writer Jorge Luis Borges, would find it somewhat odd that the area has become so chic. He spent his childhood in a house just around the corner from me, on the street that now bears his name. (It’s now a hair salon with a plaque.) But back in his day, Palermo was a semi-rural area on the outskirts of town, frequented by gauchos and knife-carrying thugs who liked to drink and fight in the local bars.

Literatura...that's a real slog for me to get through

Just down the street at the next corner is where Borges, in his poem “Buenos Aires,” set the “mythical foundation” of the city. Well, today at the intersection there’s a hamburger place where I got some disgustingly greasy French fries the other day, a designer furniture shop and an ultra-hip bar that’s all flat metal planes.  But at least on one corner there’s still the “Almacén el Preferido,” a pink building that dates from the 19th century.

Borges wrote about the sometimes nefarious goings-on in the place and the atmosphere of potential violence that fascinated him.

Yesterday I peered in the window. Not a sign of a glaring gaucho on his fifth whisky or the glittering flash of deadly metal. Instead, an amorous couple stared into each other’s eyes and two tourists, outfitted with fanny packs and Crocs, dug into a big hunk of Argentine beef.

At least the food part of this particular Buenos Aires scene is eternal.

Caption

Infinity pool

To mark the half-way point of the workshop in Phnom Penh, my colleague and I had decided to take a weekend trip down south to Kep, a sleepy little place on the Gulf of Thailand and just a stone’s throw from the Vietnamese border. (See slide show below.)

A luxury resort tucked away on the coast, fresh seafood and a respite from the capital’s traffic for a few days were refrains of a siren song I had no interest in resisting.

Our driver picked us up on Friday morning and slowly made our way out of the city, heading south past various government ministries, including one that used to be the American embassy, and which was the scene of a hasty US evacuation just days before the Khmer Rouge took the city in 1975.

As we got further from the center, the constant swirl of scooters, cars, carts, bicycles and pedestrians that make up the city’s streets began to thin out. Buildings were replaced by small plots of land and then the landscape opened up to reveal large rice paddies, watery green carpets of spindly stalks.

Hygiene hazard

Hygiene hazard

As Phnom Penh receded, so did those city scenes of young Cambodians on scooters chatting on mobile phones and hulking Lexus SUVs daring any other vehicle to impede their way. Country concerns took over. Scooters here might be loaded with precariously balanced pig carcasses or even live ones, on their way to a meeting with the butcher’s knife.

Twice small motorbikes passed from the other direction with what looked like, from a distance, big bunches of dark foliage tied to a pole balanced behind the driver. They were dead chickens, a lot of them.

Out here, more men and women were wearing the krama, the traditional Cambodian checked scarf that can be used as head covering, sarong, bag, washrag, towel or blanket. Houses got humbler, many up on stilts in the midst of the paddies, some not more than thatched walls and a roof. Often a family would be gathered under it, one or two people in a hammock, others sitting around talking, holding babies, just taking refuge from the tropical sun.

Car-side service

Car-side service

In the villages we passed, small, ramshackle shelters housed shops selling cigarettes and gasoline decanted from old soft-drink bottles. Pigs and dogs ambled among customers of the open-air butcher shops, surely eyeing the large hunks of bloody meat hung on hooks.

On one section of road, roadside stands offered a local delicacy, frog. Smaller ones were a kind of finger food, I suppose, kind of like the fried tarantula other regions are known for. Here, the larger amphibians came bunched on a spit: frogkabob. We politely declined when offered one at the car window.

Kep-on-Sea

Kep was not always the quiet, you-can-hardly-call-it-a-town kind of place it is today. In the first half of the 20th century, it was a swanky resort town for the French colonials and Cambodian elites. It was known as Kep-sur-Mer, here the French built large villas along the waterfront and King Sihanouk had a mansion built on a hill overlooking the Gulf.

But as the country descended into civil war and then into full-on living nightmare, Kep was dragged down too. Eerie reminders of that rise and fall are scattered about in the form of those once-grand villas, whose ruins still stand – quiet witnesses of the Khmer Rouge’s lust for destruction.

Ideological victim

Ideological victim

Since the buildings were seen as examples of bourgeois decadence, they were gutted and burned by the radical egalitarians in their red kramas and black pajamas, and left for the jungle to retake. Where their residents went is unknown to me. Probably some got out of the country before the KR came; others perhaps were not so lucky and ended up in a work camp or those notorious fields.

Some of the villas have disappeared all together, only a gate and stone fence on prime real estate remaining. Others just stand there, crumbling, too far gone to be brought back to life. And besides, superstition prevents many Cambodians from doing much of anything with them. Places where bad things happened are to be avoided.

In fact, the region around Kep was one of the last hold-outs of the Khmer Rouge. One man told us that as late as the mid-90s, Khmer Rouge fighters would occasionally emerge from their jungle hideouts to rob and pillage and generally terrorize everyone.

Paradise regained

However, some buildings in Kep have been saved and been brought back quite spectacularly, including a few at the most fabulous resort we stayed at, Knai Bang Chatt. It preserves some of the flavor of what I imagine Kep to have been in its heyday, a little sliver of paradise by the sea.

Two Belgian men found several buildings that had been built by students of Cambodia’s leading architect, Vann Molyvann, who was himself a student of the European modernist masters.  As one of the current owners is the son of a well-known Belgian interior designer, as you probably suspect, the design concept is not exactly High Holiday Inn.

Resort with a view

Resort with a view

The rooms are simple, almost sparse, but lovely – filled with ochre surfaces, cool tiles, and small touches such as a pitch-perfect bowl or rough hewn table that keep them from being cold and unfeeling.

The landscape is lush, and spills down to the sea side, crossing an infinity pool on the way along with lounging beds and a breakfast table perched out almost on top of the water.

Next door is a sailing club with a former fisherman’s house that is now a restaurant/café, from whose deck we saw one of the most amazing sunsets ever (and I don’t usually gush about these things).

Needless to say, we hung around the grounds most of the time, completely satisfied by the surroundings. I got a class ‘a’ sunburn because I am a class ‘a’ idiot and spent a great deal of time in the pool sans sunscreen trying to figure out why I look like a fish out of water when I’m in it trying to swim.

Old Spice

Sunday rolled around and as a last outing we hopped in a tuk-tuk and asked to see a pepper plantation. The region’s pepper is supposed to be some of the best anywhere. But who knows how pepper is grown? I sure didn’t.

Fruits of the harvest

Fruits of the harvest

So, under a scorching sun, we bounced down a dirt path off the main road and came upon a collection of thatch-and-wood shelters, a few mangy dogs and a hen and her chicks pecking around – Tara it wasn’t.

But all around were mango trees and tall, leafy columns that turned out to be pepper vines on poles. Our driver told us to eat some of the green berries off the vine. The taste was sharp and intense and stayed with me for several hours.

Mouths tingling, we set off to look around a bit. As I was heading back to the tuk-tuk, sweating gallons, I heard a sudden noise behind me. I turned around to see a teenage boy in a red krama holding something coming my way. I think I let out an audible gasp as visions of gun-toting teen soldiers, brainwashed and merciless, flashed in my head. The guy just smiled, whirled his stick, and walked on by.

I made a mental note to read no more books on the Khmer Rouge, at least while I’m here.

Outside the Blue Mosque, the red flag

Outside the Blue Mosque, the red flag

On the way back from Kazakhstan, I stopped for two-and-a-half days in Istanbul. It was my first time in the former Constantinople.

It’s a fascinating place with so many different layers of history piled up on top of each other — Byzantine capital, Ottoman imperial city, teeming Turkish metropolis.

After Aktau, I was jumping for joy to be in a real city, where one could get non-instant coffee and find a newspaper not in Russian. Since I hadn’t seen any of the tourist things, I approached the hordes and dove in.

Here are a few snaps I took scurrying from one site to the next: