My fingertips indulge on this dirty Mac keyboard at a Quarter Century of Truth

23 12 2010

This post is dedicated to Catherine Anne

At the current moment I’m sitting in my boxers on the third floor of a friend’s apartment, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  I have been five months without a permanent residence, spending my first holiday season away from home, kindly been given a free place to stay for the next two weeks, and the much-needed time to slow down and reflect.    Outside my window, I can hear the sounds of street vendors cleaning up for the night through my broken 14-cent headphones retrieved from Marrakech.  I scratch the scar on my head still present 3 months later after getting mugged in Madrid, while slowly sifting through old photographs, each worth 1,000 words and story of its own.

The beauty of traveling solo is that it forces you to be truthful, gives you time to think and it helps in understanding where and who you are.  I’m taking full advantage of these benefits, as I contemplate the last year of my life, turning 25 years old in 7 days, and not having a clue of what I will do next.

What I do know, and what it is clear to me, is that every scratch, bruise, memory, all the possessions that I carry in my bags, strangers turned friend, every failure and success, have all been earned, and are rightfully mine, it has been without hesitation, the best year of my life.

My home can be found in these three bags

Somewhere between watching Nadal tear it up in three straight sets at Wimbledon, standing on the tallest building in the world in Dubai, Ramadan in Morocco, organizing a fashion show alongside an international designer, getting back to my roots in Battambang, shooting an AK-47, running with the bulls, teaching at a Khmer university, and diving the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea . . . I realized something, I didn’t climb any mountains.  I floated between dreams and reality, accomplished some of my biggest life long goals, I crushed the mountains, and couldn’t ask of anything more out of 2010.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To think, not too long ago, I touched down for my first flight of this journey in Reykjavik, Iceland, not knowing where the world would lead me, to this warm December night, far away from any white Christmas, the city sleeps, and I ground my self into this beautiful imperfect truth, take comfort in this solitude, and give myself an early gift by embracing the past.  When I sit down at about this time next year, I hope that I feel as lucky as I do right now.

Thanks for letting me share


Home is Where Your Heart is…

27 10 2010

By Kinero Tan

As I boarded a bus leaving Bangkok, entering Cambodia through Poi Pet, the same way my family left the country 26 years ago to escape the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, my mind was flooded with mixed emotion. To be completely honest, I wasn’t quite certain that day of exactly what I was in search of. But my instincts led me to believe, that answers were somewhere in Cambodia’s muddy gravel roads, never ending rice fields, in the sincere smiles on the faces of farmers, daughters, mothers and children, in the erratic rain, in a sea of street vendors, food carts, tuk tuk drivers, and the ordered chaos of unforgiving traffic, among the aromas of dried fish in the meat market, from the smells of durain, lemongrass, lime leaves, curry, and amok in traditional Khmer dishes, in the untold stories of my family members who never left the country, answers I was determined to unveil.

I am the youngest of six children and the only to be born in the United States.  My father comes from a northwest province of Cambodia, called Battambang.  He was once a successful orange farmer and still a greatly respected man in his district.  He often made trips to the surrounding cities and distributed produce to local markets.  During a stop in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, he would find the eyes of a beautiful Chinese street vendor, and the pages that followed this chapter in his life would be filled with love, children and happiness.  But like the unpredictable weather during the wet seasons, the years of prosperity would be abruptly washed away with the rain…

From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge would overtake the country, claiming the lives of 2 million + people. Led by Pol Pot, this guerilla group would rise from the northeastern jungles and systematically dismantle and destroy Cambodia in the name of a communist agrarian ideal.  We now know this period as the Cambodian Holocaust.

A time in history when my family would be stripped of everything they owned.  They would experience and witness the hardships of concentration camps, forced labor, disease and famine, and spend seven grueling days and nights fleeing to the safety of a Thai refugee camp.  Years would pass, and on January 18th, 1984, the dreams of hope would finally be answered by a sponsorship through the American Red Cross, and then a flight halfway around the world would carry them to Longview, WA where opportunity, along with a new definition of struggle awaited them.

My families will to survive and my parent’s ability to more than successfully raise 6 children in a foreign land, put 5 boys through college, and exceed all odds, I feel privileged and blessed to be standing again where the story originally began.

It’s been a little over a month since I touched down and I’ve found myself more than occupied.  Between volunteering at Panasastra University, assisting with projects under Global Student Outreach and spending time with my relatives who still occupy my father’s old orange farm, everyday is new adventure.

Scenes from the farm…

Barefoot soccer, I’ve been out the last couple weeks due to an ankle injury

Newly found appreciation for the plant and animal life we consume

My relatives and I at temple during one of Cambodia’s national holidays

My favorite thing to do is to wake up early in the morning and ride out into the countryside. Staring out to an endless sea of flooded rice field as the sunrises is an incredible spectacle.  On a few occasions, I’ve found clear skies with scattered heavy rain clouds… absolutely amazing.

Flash Showers as visitors wait for sunset atop Bahkseng Temple in Siep Reap Daily Travel Photos

Volunteering at Panasastra, one of the elite Universities in Battambang and helping to shape the lives of young adults has been a fun and rewarding experience.  The students and staff have taught me so much about the cultural nuances of Cambodian people, and my Khmer is becoming better with each day.

Some of my students and I at PUC

Global Student Outreach is a non-profit organization that provides community service opportunities for students and adults in Cambodia.  They have a lasting commitment to helping the underprivileged children in this country.  Breath of Cultures shares a close relationship with GSO and I am personally thrilled to be here helping with their current efforts in sponsoring and caring for 15 orphans in the Chheu Teal district of Battambang.

Here are some of the GSO orphans proudly standing in front of their new home

Working on the ground level with Global Student Outreach has been eye opening.  In my first week, I went along on rides to visit the homes of potential orphans. It was hard to fathom the world that these children have been brought up in.  Unsanitary accommodations, hungry and left to fend for themselves… Some haven’t seen their parents for months and are beginning to wonder if they will ever come back at all.  As each orphan departs on the long car ride to their new homes, quietly avoiding contact, nestled in the corner, with one hand gripping the handle of the car door for some type of reassurance, I could only imagine the tears in their eyes are those of fear, of sadness, of anger, of frustration, and I would like to think of hope.  As the weeks progress, I get to see the transition of these children who have made new friends at the orphanage, fed 3 square meals a day, given new clothes, a bike to ride to school, there first ever toothbrush, and more importantly, someone who will look after them and make them laugh and smile for all the years that laughter was lost.

Click the link to see how you can help Global Student Outreach

As I ride through the city streets and watch the world around me,  I can’t help but see this place, these people and the city’s character running through me.  I have learned so much about myself, my family and what it means to be Khmer.  But above all, when I leave, I leave with a deeper understanding for who my father is, what he stood for and while 9,000 miles separate us at the moment, I’ve never felt closer to him, than I do now.  What once used to be a cultural barrier, is now a common interest and I can only see our communication and relationship continue to grow.

They say home is where your heart is… Cambodia will forever be in my heart.

The Least Explored Wonder of the World

4 09 2010

By Kinero Tan

Slowly take in a deep breath, clear your mind, and imagine . . . you are surrounded by crystal clear waters, hovering effortlessly above a white sandy beach bottom, you’re 16 meters down, with the warm sun penetrating the waters surfaces, serving justice to a colorful array of marine life inhabiting the Red Sea.  From Puffer fish, seahorses, Two-Banded Clownfish, Picasso Trigger Fish, Blue Spotted Stingrays and corals of all colors, shapes and sizes . . . you name it, and I didn’t know what any of it was.  What I did know, is that I wanted more.

After hearing all the raving reviews about Sharm el Sheik being one of the best diving destinations in the world, I had to experience it myself and take advantage of being so close to the Red Sea.  4 days in Cairo left me with several unforgettable memories, a better understanding of the Muslim faith, traditions surrounding Ramadan, as well as a new friend I hope to someday revisit.   Yet, escaping 20 million people to a beach town with less humidity, fresh air, and cool water to jump into, is exactly what I needed.

In my last months in Portland, between planning a fundraising event, finishing school, preparing to leave the country for a year, and saying goodbye to friends and family, it was impossible to squeeze in my open water certification as I had intended.  So when I arrived at the Onaas Dive Club, my plan was to have a guide take me down, no certificate necessary.

The simple thrill of breathing underwater was enough to lure me in.  The marine life I saw that day was unreal, and after scratching the surfaces of the other two/thirds of our world, I found a whole new realm to explore . . . I was hooked and had to get my certification.  I had only two days in Sharm, and the open watercourse normally took four.  Kevin Grice, my guide, happened to be the lead instructor at Onaas. He informed me that it would take a lot of hard work (He wasn’t kidding), but if I really wanted to get certified, he was willing to work with me.  He sent me off that evening with a series of DVD’s, a 300 hundred-page book, and a RDP table (I had no clue what to do with). He told me to get through as much of it as possible, and to meet him downstairs at 8AM in the morning.

To his surprise when I showed up the next day, I had gone through the first three chapters, watched 4 of the 5 sections of the DVD’s and was more than ready to get back into the water.  We spent the first half of the day learning about the equipment, no decompression diving, depth/pressure of water, nitrogen levels, safety precautions, and I loved every minute of it.  We did several exercises in the water, acting out what if scenarios including losing your mask, clearing water in your goggles, and what to do if you run out of air.

He then threw me an unexpected curve ball, and told me that I needed to swim 8/10 of a mile without stopping, and tread water for 10 minutes.  Not in the best shape of my life, and being a terrible swimmer, this wasn’t the best news.  I eventually finished in quite possibly the slowest time of his dive-instructing career.  And as I exited the water breathing heavily, he says to me with a smirk on his face, “Your not the best swimmer in the world are you?”  Only minutes later, he informed me that we would be putting our gear back on and continuing with more underwater drills.  I quickly excused myself to the bathroom, where I threw up for the next couple of minutes, and returned as if nothing had happened.  What can I say, I really wanted to get certified.

The remainder of the afternoon, I had finished 4 quizzes, learned how to use my RDP table which accounted for acceptable nitrogen levels on multiple dives, and we briefly touched on underwater compass navigation.  It had been a long day, yet I still had to go back to my hotel room, study for the final exam and prepare for two more open water dives from the boat.

The next morning, I woke up with a familiar feeling, bringing me back to the days of training for state tennis, pulling 6-hour sessions, all seven days of the week.  The only difference was, my body isn’t as resilient as it used to be.  Yet in the end, it all paid off.  I passed my final exam with flying colors, reentered the water twice to log in my 3rd and 4th open water dive, met amazing people on the boat that shared the same enthusiasm for the sport, took a photograph, and signed off on my official open water certificate.

Riding back home, I sat on the top deck with my feet dangling through the railings.  As we watched the sunset, I felt a sense of accomplishment.  I thought about the rest of my journey and the places in the world I would be able to apply my newly discovered passion . . . Thailand, Vietnam, The Great Barrier Reef, Hawaii . . . My mind drifted into the Red Sea, filled with daydreams about the endless underwater adventures that were yet to come.

Sleepless Nights in Madrid

13 08 2010

By Kinero Tan

This post is dedicated to all the amazing people I met in Madrid!

When it didn’t matter how old you were, how much money you had in your pocket, the time on your wristwatch, or the day of the week.  You didn’t worry about booking hostels, catching trains, or checking out.  We owned the night, and belted out, to six strings of a guitar . . . no women no cry, to a sleepless night in Madrid

When it didn’t matter what language you spoke, the color of your skin, or in what god you did or didn’t believe.  We told our stories, shared our dreams, and carried our conversation into the sun.  It didn’t matter if you were best friends reunited, met last night, or had no proper introduction.  At the moment, we had liters of sangria, plenty of laughter and we didn’t have to say goodbye . . .We had a sleepless night in Madrid

Running of the Bulls . . . a beautiful disaster

26 07 2010

By Kinero Tan

Every year on July 6th, millions of people gather in Pamplona for a nine-day festival, where hundreds of adrenaline junkies get their fix by running ¾ of mile alongside 6 massive bulls.  Spectators rise each morning of the festival before 8AM, to watch from the sidelines and the safety of their balconies.  The locals call it El Enciero (literally translated “the enclosing”- taking these wild creatures through the course to be enclosed into the bull ring) . . . although the majority of us know it as the “Running of the Bulls.”

On July 10th I sat on the beaches of Barcelona, soaking in rays and enjoying the company of my friends.  Even in the midst of the most relaxing phase of my journey, Pamplona was constantly stirring in my thoughts.  The anticipation offered an array of mixed emotions from anxiety and fear to pure excitement of potentially crossing off this event from the bucket list.  I listened to a collection of stories from veteran participants, with endings ranging from blissful to horrific.  I watched the youtube videos, and had done the research, yet nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.

Before arriving to the San Fermin Festival, I would spend one night in Bilbao, a smaller Spanish city just west of Pamplona.  I was privileged to find myself in Spain as they battled it out in the 2010 World Cup finals.  I made my way to the center of town, found a lively bar to sit down in, and shared travel stories with some blocs from Manchester, England who had pure love for the sport, as well as drinking endless pints of beer.

They taught me a drinking game that night, I promised to take with me to the states.  It consisted of taking a coin and throwing it into a friend’s glass as the group chanted, “Save the Queen, Save the Queen, Save the Queen” . . . the victim would drink until the jar was empty, ensuring that the Queen was safe from drowning. Needless to say, we had a lot of jars that night!

In the 116th minute Andres Iniesta scored a goal that would erupt the entire country, a moment that would surely go down in the history books.  Celebration in the streets went late into the night with fireworks flying, drums beating, horns honking, and the unforgettable chant that still rings through my head weeks later, “Yo soy Espanol, Espanol, Espanol!”

After spending time in different parts of the country, I’ve come to learn that there is a great divide among the regions.  For example, Barcelona citizens for several years have been fighting to preserve their culture and regain independence.  Their claim being, “ We are Catalunya, not Spain.” Many northern cities including San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Pamplona consider themselves to be Basque Country.  That being said, on July 11, 2010 it did not matter what region you came from.  As you can see in this picture the Spanish flag flew high in the streets, and the locals sang, “I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish!”  This was an especially unforgettable moment for me, as I embraced a country that would unite under the game of futbol.

Despite the minimal sleep from the previous nights celebrations, I was far too excited to feel restless as I boarded the bus to Pamplona dressed in the traditional San Fermin festival attire.

I hit the streets running, and never looked back.  If I could sum up this town, this festival and how these people partied, it was like “Las Vegas on a Redbull overdose.”

In the hot Spanish summer sun, calimocha (mixture of red wine and coke on ice) was the best way to stay cool.  The narrow cobble stone roads were shoulder to shoulder with marching bands, drum circles, endless rows of bars, people drenched in sangria, and no reason needed to party like it was 1969. The firework displays made the 4th of July look like child’s play, cocktails were poured with an extremely heavy hand, and there was a hazy grey area between taking a siesta and just simply passing out!

Like many others who didn’t know better than to book accommodations for Pamplona months in advance, I found myself sleeping in the park, amongst hundreds of people who were trying to get at least a couple hours of rest before waking up to participate in what we all really came for, “Running with the bulls.”

As I attempted to shut my eyes with two hours to game time, my heart was racing and my mind began to wonder.  Unable to sleep, I walked away from the park bench, towards the sound of drums and back into the city lights.

I sat and watched the bulls sleep for at least a good hour . . .

I checked my watch at 7:50AM and the next 10 minutes would be the longest of my life. I tried to plan my starting place strategically, understanding that at some point 6 bulls would pass me and I would need to run quickly after them to make it into the arena before they shut the doors.  This was my personal goal.

The first gunshot was fired and I knew this meant the first bull was out of the gate.  20 seconds later another shot was fired signifying the last bull was out of the gate.  I stood in the middle of the road and jumped in the air 6 times to look over the crowd of runners to see if the bulls were coming.  I clearly remember on the sixth jump, seeing a mob of people frantically moving towards me, and the horns of the first bull in the pack.

There was a moment during that run where time stood still . . . when an 1100 lb bull stood by my side, his horn the size of my entire arm, froth dripping the sides of its mouth, and the sound of profanities in every language you could imagine.

Being next to something so wild and massive and watching as it passed me, I could feel the fear among those around me.  As soon as the last bull passed I ran as fast as my sangria fueled legs would allow.  I made it into the arena . . . I stared at complete strangers with no words but a mutual understanding. The joy that surrounded us was indescribable; as if we were victorious gladiators, sweat dripping, sun beating on our faces, and a packed arena with thousands cheering from the stands.

To my surprise only seconds later, they shut the gates and released 6 vacas (female version of the bulls) one at a time.  They cover the horns of the bull with something like a rubber stopper, so they couldn’t gore us, slice there ass slightly before letting them out of the gates to run around after 150 clowns that dare to stay in the arena.  Now that I think about it, probably the dumbest thing that I’ve ever done, at the same time one of the best experiences of my life.

14 days, 4 countries, 7 cities, and a start I couldn’t have dreamt . . .

17 07 2010

By Kinero Tan

When mapping out my time in Europe, Iceland was nowhere to found on my original agenda.  Yet, upon meeting with my travel agent I would discover that the most cost effective route in getting to London included a 2-day layover in what is now on my list of underrated hidden gems in the world, Reykjavík, Iceland.

A combination of 24-hour sunlight, hot springs, exploding geysers, and a landscape that lives up to the pictures you see in brochures . . . for an unseasoned traveler like myself this destination was delightfully unexpected, igniting the fuses of the imagination.

My first day included venturing out to the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor geothermal spa.  This lava formation creating steamy water, is one of Iceland’s main attractions.  A tour for 3200 ISK (Icelandic Krona) the equivalent to approximately 26 USD would include entry to the Blue Lagoon facility, as well as a bus ride to and from your accommodations.

After a 5-minute walk surrounded by 10-foot high natural rock walls, I would approach a modern structure with a backdrop of Iceland’s beautiful countryside.  Thick clouds of steam hover above the water’s surfaces as visitors walk around enjoying waterfall massages, walk up bars where you can conveniently scan your wristband, steam rooms, saunas, and silica mud masks that are provided in boxes around the lagoon.

After spending hours soaking, I felt relaxed, my skin revitalized, and ready for another Icelandic adventure. Later that evening as I aimlessly walked around the narrow streets of Reykjavík admiring the beautiful people and unique architecture, I would stumble upon thousands of Icelanders enjoying a free concert in the park featuring Damien Rice and other local bands.

If you are looking to experience the real nightlife in this city, one suggestion I would make is to plan your stay around a Friday night.  This is the one night of the week Icelanders truly party hard.  Because of the high cost of cocktails, the youth enjoy drinking at home, or “prefunking” as we call it in the states, up until 1AM to 2AM.  The bars and clubs are at peak capacity around 4AM and during this time of year, partying till the sun comes up doesn’t apply . . .

Here is a picture taken at 3:45AM

Going Up!

11 03 2010

By Kinero Tan

This blog post is dedicated to the Stratton Family (Steve, Sarah, John, Betsy, and Patrick). Thank you so much for contributing to an unforgettable weekend.

Breath of Cultures took an early detour to catch up with an old friend with an unscheduled stop in the Windy City. It would be discovered that sometimes you don’t have to venture too far to capture a new flavor. Sometimes, it’s in your own backyard.

So often our first impressions mimic last impressions. And this relationship with a city called Chicago has left a taste in my mouth that’s leaves me longing for more. With only four days to really take it all in, perhaps it was the improbable good weekend weather, the presence of amazing company, or the vertical allure that would leave me falling.

As I looked out from 103 stories up from the Willis Tower (Forever held in the hearts of locals as the Sears Tower) into the burning history that has helped shape the skyline, I realized that moments like that, are the reason why I started Breath of Cultures to begin with. Never again in my life will I be able to replicate my experience on Saturday, March 6th 2010, where clear skies permitted viewing of 50 miles in each direction, four different states, massive Lake Michigan, and the United Center where Michael Jordan led the Bulls to 6 NBA championships. Fortunately for me, on this day, I had all of these things.

After you’ve finished admiring the first ever steel skyscrapers and amazing architecture you can embrace the unique culture sweeping across the diverse city blocks. Any night of the week, you catch a show on the Corner of North and Wells @ Zanies or the Second City Comedy Club where so many of the most famous, past and present comedians established their roots. The word “Jazz” was first created in the Chicagoan vocabulary. Holding true to it’s home, this genre of music continues to flourish and is a proud feature in defining the cities character. Some of the best restaurants in the nation can be found in the heart of Chicago including Alinea and Charlie Trotter’s. Whether your having a slice of pizza, or dining on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock exchange at Everest, visitors and locals alike share a common, “Come hungry, Leave happy” mentality. And with events like the Polar Bear Plunge where locals dive into the freezing Lake Michigan in support of the Chicago Special Olympics, or the abundant Irish Pubs that countdown months in advance for Saint Paddy’s Day when the river running through the city is dyed green, there is no wonder in my mind why these people take so much pride in this place they call home.

My years in Portland in putting together events and celebrating the world of fashion has led to an enthusiasm in the way we express ourselves through what we wear. To all by Breath of Culture followers who share the same excitement for this industry, the realm of couture in this city will leave you with a sensory overload, and should hardly go unannounced. I would describe it as a designer’s dream, and a shopaholic’s paradise. Those of you with an addiction I recommend a hooded sweatshirt that cuts off your peripheral vision. Club Monaco, Bloomingdales, H & M, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Aldo and some of the newest additions including Victoria Secret and Michael Kor cover Michigan Ave in a stretch called the Magnificent Mile. Buyer beware, your plastic might get a little wear and tear, especially for those of you visiting don’t forget to account for a 10.25% sales tax, the highest in the nation!

I leave you with my one recommendation for the City of Chicago: Visit the John Hancock building first.

My reasoning behind this is three fold. This is a good starting point to give you a little background information on the history of the town, and how it came to be. You will also be able to map out the rest of your trip from this one single spot. Whether that may include ice-skating in Millennium Park, visiting the Chicago Historical Museum, or catching the Bulls or Blackhawks rip it up at the United Center. Yes, it’s true. It is only the second largest building next to Willis Tower, but any local will tell you, it’s actually the best view of the entire town considering its location right next to Lakeshore Drive.

I look forward to a likely return visit to this surprisingly memorable destination. But for now, cheers to the next adventure!