I still don’t know if I’m pronouncing ‘Phnom Penh’ correctly

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Thursday was my only planned full day in Phnom Penh, so thinking I had much to cram in I left the dorms early and grabbed my own tuk tuk to Killing Fields. I hadn’t known anything about it before researching my trip to Cambodia, but I love a good history lesson so it seemed like the right way to go. WTF is Killing Fields? In one sentence: during the 1970’s around 17,000 people were executed here and buried in mass graves. Sounds like a bit of a downer way to spend the day for sure, but the audio tour was probably the only actual informative and touching one I’ve ever listened to. Pieces of bone and clothing still poke from the earth after heavy rains, and shattered skulls bear witness to the fact that many men, women, and children were bludgeoned to death for the sake of saving bullets. A beautiful white stupa serves as the center memorial to those executed here, containing a glass case with thousands of excavated skulls. It’s a sight.
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Not totally knowing what I signed up for, my tuk tuk driver was supposed to take me to “S21”. Upon finding out it was the genocide museum I couldn’t fathom spending an entire day on the matter and instead I asked him to take me to Wat Phmom. Ask and you shall receive, my driver obliged and took me to the city’s highest point. Lonely Planet describes it best: “don’t get too excited, it’s a 27 meter high, tree covered bump” but it does have a stunning temple at the top and wandering gardens. I’ll take beautiful architecture over museums any day.
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An hour here in the heat was enough – I went back to the hostel and bathed in Cambodian drafts. At a dollar a piece it’s hard to not choose these beers over water most times. I spent the rest of the evening doing the ‘hostel mingle’ at the rooftop bar with the strangest playlist where recording artists such as Daft Punk, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Blackstreet found themselves side by side. With a 7am call time for the bus to Siem Reap the next day I didn’t make it a late night, I walked to Top Banana for one nightcap (a water) and then to the 24-7 mart for bus snacks, curling up in my bed snuggling rice cakes all before 1am. 20130602-191728.jpg

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What the tuk?: to Cambodia we go

I vowed to start day two with the thing I adore the most in my life – a steaming hot cup of black coffee. The Little India neighborhood in which I was staying in Singapore didn’t have much in the way of Western breakfast, so although Duncan and I canvassed the immediate area we were stuck with our only viable option: Wendy’s. I paired this winning beverage with some sort of a potato curry roll, booked my flight to Cambodia, and by 11am was on my way to the airport.
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I landed in Phnom Penh around 3 in the afternoon. The directions that the hostel provided only said “jump in a tuk tuk” so despite my original reservations about the local transport I did exactly what they suggested and found myself in a covered cart hooked to the rear of a motor scooter. The ride from the airport took around 25 minutes and I probably cried for most of it – not because I was sad or scared, but because it was one of those moments, the kind that completely overwhelms every brain neuron to the point of “Holy shit, I feel so alive.”
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Traffic in Phnom Penh seems to have no rhyme or reason to it. Stop signs don’t exist and traffic lights are rare. People drive the wrong way down the street. Somehow it works though, as all the drivers seamlessly merge into lanes and appear to communicate through an indecipherable morse code of honking. It feels much like an amusement park ride with all the jerking and yanking – except its not the Cyclone, and its not Coney Island. Like a true pro, my driver delivered me in one piece, but after the previous night of jet lag-interrupted sleep, I only lasted a few hours before dying on my own, falling asleep for the night at a raucous 6:30pm.

Bert abroad, a blog, returns

“Will you be joining us for dinner? Tonight we have chicken or beef.”

I’m at an altitude of plus 35,000 feet with nowhere else to go except for this seat, so yes, I will be “joining” you for dinner, but give me that vegetarian plate you aren’t telling the other passengers about-I know it’s a rad curry that knocks the socks off of any Trader Joe’s microwaveable meal- why Rajbhog Foods isn’t nationally known I’ll continue to ponder for the remainder of this meal.

I’m on my way to Paris for the first time for what is undoubtedly the least planned trip I’ve ever gone on. Despite my lack of preparedness I’m not nervous – I’m rocking this one with my girl Lia (a seasoned travel companion) in tow, and I’m confident that winging this one together will be what we needed for our year’s end: a casual, yet busy, adventure.

I booked this trip entirely last minute using a backlog of airline award miles (I luuuve you MileagePlus) so the only way I could make this trip work given the surplus of holiday travelers, I was scheduled to have a wacky connection in Toronto instead of a direct flight. At first to my horror and later on to my delight, Mama Nature threw me a bone and delayed my initial flight so much that I was able to switch at no cost to a direct flight out of Newark – and they even put me in one of those fancy “extra leg room” aisles and let me board first. For an essentially free flight, I really can’t complain.

As I mentioned, I really have nothing planned so there isn’t much to brief anyone about. I do intend to instagram the fuck out of the Eiffel Tower and maybe a Mona Lisa or two, and well, the rest of the cards are just going to have to fall into place.

Centrali-wha?, Pennsyltucky

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After 6 consecutive months back in New Jersey, I finally made the leap this weekend and got out into some foreign territory: Centralia, motherfucking Pennsylvania.

This brainchild was a bit of an on-the-fly idea. I realized I had a rare entire weekend open and the Magellan in me screamed ‘ADVENTURES!‘ So instead of reaching for my passport I enlisted a solid crew of companions, delicately planned out the snacks I would bring, and picked everyone up at a bright and early 9 o’clock Saturday morning. (Er, it was more something like 9:45, but my crew was hungover, Shen was busy gardening his stoop, and those sandwiches weren’t packing themselves.)

For those who haven’t yet consulted Wikipedia, Centralia is a borough about 3 hours west of NYC that used to be a hotbed for mining. But 1962 somebody messed up REAL big and a coal fire started underground and has been burning ever since – creating danger of sink holes, and forcing residents out of the town by way of eminent domain. The population dwindled from over 1,000 to about 5, creating somewhat of a ghost town that supposedly inspired the movie “Silent Hill.” Road trip? Me thinks so.

So we hit the open highway without much of an agenda at all, leaving our ambitions for this trip to be pretty simple:

1. Get Brian some Wawa
2. I dunno, walk the fuck around?
We’re a pretty lax crew and equally support open minds and Wawa, so without much to expect we set our sights pretty low and just looked forward to a day outside of our urban confines. Mostly I was just psyched that because I have nerdy music friends inevitably one of them brought their iPad and 1,000% DJ’d the trip from the backseat. Yep. Happened.

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The Wawa was an easy find (and ain’t it purdy up thurr in thee mountains) but upon arriving at the red dot on my GPS that was to signify we’d reached Centralia, I wasn’t exactly certain what to do next. I openly admit that I really DID spend more time trying to play the role of momma bird and pack snacks for everyone than researching or plotting out Centralia maps. This was also about the time I started spouting out cheesy life quotes for fear I’ve inconvenienced anyone by not knowing exactly where the “cool shit” is. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever been to Centralia before. GUYS, LIFE IS A JOURNEY, NOT A DESTINATION. Uh duh.

The first place we parked to get out and walk around is near an old gated cemetery. It’s aged, but remains well-kept, kind of like a K-Mart. This cemetery was rad as hell though, because it has the headstone where the oldest man in the world is going to be buried one day. John A. Bowen: 1858NOT FUCKING EVEN DEAD YET! I wonder what happened to him?

We walked further down the path to find beautiful mountain views, a small memorial site, and mostly random items in various levels of ruin: pieces of tile, torn stuffed animals, busted computer parts, shot gun shells. We weren’t really looking for the Centralia tourist gift shop, but my God, we found it.

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We got back in the car deciding that this was all a cool story bro, but clearly not ‘it’ for Centralia. The old highway is somewhere, we just don’t know where it is. A gray-haired man confirmed “this is where the town used to be” (along with a thumb point to boot) but all we’ve done is walk on rocky trails wearing inadequate footwear which lead us nowhere and seen a few houses that are definitely NOT abandoned. And my honky ass forgot to wear sunscreen. Thank God I packed snacks.

After lunch we were sufficiently covered in dried sweat and had almost exhausted the amount of routes around the area when we noticed a pack of motorcycles (and a crotch rocket) parked in an area we hadn’t traversed yet. What was just around the river bend was the Centralia holy grail: abandoned Route 61. But it’s not just any abandoned highway, it is a long stretch of pavement with the best amateur graffiti I’ve ever seen IN MY LIFE.

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By ‘best’ I do not mean the quality of art of the graffiti was of a high caliber. I mean that anyone who has the sense of humor comparative to that of a 12 year old boy would enjoy walking down this road. Do YOU like dick and fart jokes? If so, RUN, do not walk, to Centralia, PA.

The entire highway is about a mile long and is littered with defacement of all kinds: spray-painted testaments of love (Tim & Christina 4eva <;3<;3<;3) alongside more antagonistic choice words (Matty has a pencil dick) superseded by graffiti of male anatomy of many shapes and sizes (I hope my mother never reads this), and even ill-fated memes (#YOLO y’all!) Even when we thought we found something cute and clean (“Hey, look, it’s Pac-Man!”) a closer investigation revealed that we were wrong. “Hold the phone… Pac-Man is eating dicks!”

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With so many of these stunning graffiti wonders of the world, how can one honestly choose their favorite? I’ll tell you how.

Two words: COCK. HIGHWAY.

Just when you’ve think you’ve seen it all, just when you assume your threshold for dicks has been reached, what unfolds but a stretch of pavement where some ambitious whip just had to out do everyone. This guy was on a mission. His internal dialogue was presumably something like this: “You know, all those people painting dicks? Ha. Haha. I’ll show THEM who’s boss.” COCKtrailia, PA, you have arrived.

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All the previous driving around semi-lost that we did earlier in the day was to no avail though, because after we returned back to the car after walking Cock Highway 69 Route 61, we knew exactly where we were headed. That townie bar back in Ashland? The Drunken Monkey? Oh, we’re going.

Five minutes down the road, we parked and scrambled for change to put into the meter. Shen was the first to come up with a quarter and… oop- oh… one quarter maxes out the meter? Two hours for twenty-five cents! Ashland, you officially have my frugal heart. We stood outside of the front door to the bar and took a breath before walking in. This is going to be so legenda– ….yeah, it was just a bar.

The lady tending the bar was extremely sincere, accommodating, and even had all her teeth. She put music on the jukebox for us, cheerily took the time to run down the draught beer selections (Bud, Miller, and Lager) and pointed us in the direction of all the electrical outlets so we could charge the batteries on our phones that were dying since we’d spent all day instagram’ing photos of Wawa in the middle of the freaking woods. She didn’t just tell us where the outlets were located. This lady was INTO it.

We ordered 4 ‘lagers’ (thanks Alaina for reminding us the locals don’t call it Yuengling) along with two shots of Jameson (some members of the group might have healthy drinking problems. Might.) and the tab came out to $12. What the what? TWELVE dollars? Guys, don’t worry, I got next round.

Having spent a hot day in the sun and with my white-girl sunburn at about a level 5, this lager served in a frosted mug was the most heavenly, euphoric beer experience I may have ever had. I’ve had Yuengling more nights than there are sober kids in Africa, but this beer tasted like it was from God’s lips to… uhm… my own.

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I’m pretty sure the deliriousness on the drive home that followed The Drunken Monkey was mostly conversations peppered with words half-replaced by the word ‘cock’, and even still 3 days later the Centralia group-text is still on fire with cock-centric words. A small dose of history, a large dose of fun.

Centralia, 2012. Thanks for comin’ out.

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I can’t fucking wait to review this place on Yelp.

Anonymous asked….

Oops! Radio silence! I could explain, but the truth is I have here the draft of a post I just never got around to clicking “Publish” on. I’ve been meaning to respond to some of the questions I’ve been asked since my return, but I’ve been busy writing incognito on the side,   thus letting this collection of expedition-related words fall by the wayside.

What was your favorite part of the trip?

To me, this is a pretty general question because it can be broken down into so many different categories. Favorite city? Favorite sight? Favorite experience? There are innumerable highlights, but I’ll try to divulge a few.

Hands down, Munich was the city I enjoyed most. I regret that I only had two nights to spend there because I kind of only added it onto my itinerary as a city to fly into and didn’t really know that I’d love it so much. Overall it was the city that I had the most straightforward fun in, the city where I felt most comfortable, and felt like there was a ton to do and see and keep busy. Had I known, I definitely would have arranged to stay here an extra day or two, but hindsight is always 20/20 and my motto when these things happen is “If I really want, I can always go back…”

Salzburg Castle topped the charts for favorite site. Not so much the interior of the castle, but really the walk up to the top and the views once we made it there. Pictures can never do justice for scenery, but getting to the castle and looking down at Salzburg below was one of the moments of the trip that always stands out in my memory. Going to the castle was fairly time-consuming, but it was so worth it that at the end of the day I didn’t reflect and think that we didn’t get much else done. I loved Salzburg.

I could get a little sappy and bring back the moving moments I had in Bratislava all by my lonesome, or Christmas day in front of the Colosseum, but easily my favorite story to tell is the one of me racing through the airport and ending up in first class. I’m sure I’ll continue to be moved by many worldly sights in my lifetime, but being treated like a diplomat aboard a transatlantic flight after a whirlwind three weeks abroad is definitely a feeling that resonates still several months after the fact. I loved being away, but being whisked back to the homeland in comfort and style allowed me to return feeling rested and deliriously content.

Hot towel, anyone?

Favorite travel quote

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau

I doubt most people in the 21st century would desire to stake out a camp at Walden Pond and live bare-bones in a cabin for two years, but Thoreau’s spiritual journal towards self-discovery and independence is a profound one that easily translates into the experience of traveling, and even more so to one who is traveling on their own.

I realized early on in life that there were things beyond the Maryland suburbs that I wanted to experience. As early as 3rd grade I would spend countless weekends going to the library and checking out National Geographic documentaries about Egypt and Greece on VHS, oftentimes re-renting the same ones I’d already seen and watching them again. I felt like I was born with an infinite wanderlust, and when I could finally drive it was all I could do to coax my friends into taking the weekend road trip to some random podunk town, or absolutely anywhere, seeking adventure. I guess I could say that the idea of travel is something I always felt was part of my blood, something that was uniquely me, regardless of if I was ever old enough or financially sufficient enough to be able to express it.

I love this quote from Thoreau for so many reasons. I connect to it mostly because Thoreau is acknowledging two paths in life: one path where he keeps living as he has been, and another path where he believes that going to Walden Pond will make him feel more whole, and it acknowledges the idea of regret and living life to the fullest. When I decided to take my first solo trip, I replayed his words in my head so much that they were practically memorized. Our whole lives we’re taught how to work well with others, how to listen to others, and how to compromise, but Americans don’t really seem to value independence. People who spend time alone are often thought to be strange or recluse, and traveling alone is thought to be unsafe and unexciting, but I couldn’t accept this as my own path. I felt like getting to know myself wasn’t going to happen through hobbies or work, it was going to happen by completely removing myself from everything and everyone I already know, seeing what the world gives me, and finding out how I handle it. Regardless of waking up everyday and doing things, making goals and accomplishing them, the idea of never seeing much beyond the Eastern seaboard ate at me constantly. Every journey begins with a single step. I didn’t want to die having discovered I had not lived.

Massively bizarre transit day

Bostjan and I woke up at 3:30am to have adequate time to make it to my flight. I really wasn’t looking forward to the trip, but I was looking forward to getting home. In order to get a flight so close to holidays under $1k, I had to do a lot of homework and in the end have two connections. Ugh.

We arrived at Trieste airport in Italy the standard two hours before an international flight. As we pulled into the drop-off zone, we looked at the lobby and then looked at each other. “Why isn’t the airport open?”

We both had a moment of panic when we read over my flight details 10 times. TRS Airport. 6:40am departure. January 3, 2012. It’s correct. What is going on?

Slowly the lights came on inside and other travelers started to arrive around 5:15am. The check-in counters remained unopened for some time and security was somewhat lighter than the States (you can keep your shoes on through the metal detectors) but the plane boarded quickly and my 55 minute connection to Munich went by just like a blip on a radar screen.

I had a longer layover in Munich, so with little to do I was psyched on the free coffee bar and newspapers. This excitement ended quickly when 1 1/2 coffees deep, my heart started to palpitate and completely overreact to this unforeseen wave of caffeine. I blogged about Slovenia from my iPhone and boarded the connection to Zurich at 11:20am.

I have a strong distaste for boarding planes because it’s pretty much like herding cattle and the entire process takes far too long. We’re all going to the same place, really, on this same plane, so I don’t understand why people get all out of sorts about trying to get on first. In my opinion, I think all airlines should allow ME to board first, because I never bring any carry-on luggage, I always ask for a window seat, and I just get on the plane and sit the hell down. I always end up waiting behind these slow old people on the little walkway that connects the terminal to the airplane, usually in the middle of winter and freezing my ass off. I present a new policy for airlines: smaller, more agile passengers first. No matter what the freaking row assignment.

Since I am already not a fan of the whole boarding process, I was less than thrilled when I got on the plane and noticed that this little twat stole my window seat. A seat is a seat and I try not to sweat the small stuff, but to put things in perspective: I got up at 3:30am. ALL I WANT TO DO ON THIS PLANE IS PUT MY HEAD ON THE WINDOW AND GO TO SLEEP. I let it go. I didn’t ask him to move. I just got a bad kink in my neck and may or may not have drifted off into aviation slumber in this guy’s own personal space. Really, I don’t know.

For me, when I’m traveling it’s a consistent struggle to have any concept of time, so when I landed in Zurich and tried to figure out how much time I had to make my connection, I couldn’t completely figure it out. I didn’t know if Zurich was in a different time zone than Munich (it’s not) and I didn’t know why when I looked at the time on my phone it said I only had 25 minutes to make my plane to JFK. The short answer: the plane to Zurich took too effing long, and now it’s time to find out where the correct boarding gate is and HAUL ASS.

For anyone who frequents airports, it’s common knowledge that in most cases, a 1pm flight departure means that is the time that the PLANE departs. The gate often closes much earlier. Arriving at the gate at departure time is not an option. But being that the flight to JFK was going to be close to 10 hours long, I had two things only on my mind. In order of priority: 1. get to the bathroom and pee first. 2. actually make the flight.

And so I ran. I ran around human road blocks with their rolly carry-on bags, I ran up escalators, I narrowly escaped head-on collisions, and all I could think is “right now, I am totally that person everyone sees running through the airport. I am “that guy.” I was totally fine with being “that guy” as long as I could 1. make it to a bathroom and 2. actually make my flight.

I thought I had a good 15 minutes til departure when I turned the corner and was faced with Swiss Customs. Damn you guys. Dammit. Why won’t you just be a part of the EU? I asked one of the uniformed agents from the back of the line, “Hey, so, my flight boards at 1pm. Do I have time?” I was hoping he’d put me at the front of the line. He took about 8 years to look at his watch before responding, “Oh, you have time. It’ll take about 5 minutes to get to your gate. This isn’t like the US.” I don’t even know what that means, but I said “Oops, I meant, it LEAVES at 1. Not boards, it boarded already.” “You’ll be fine.”

Fabulous.

Waiting for the line to even budge in customs felt like years. Of all the lines, I picked the slowest one, while every other line had an agent who stamped the passport and said “NEXT.” I waited behind people who searched in their bag for their passport like they didn’t know they’d have to show it and now couldn’t locate it. This airport was hot. God, I am sweating. Why is this line moving so slow? I felt like I was in the opening scene of Office Space. If I change lanes, all the other cars will start moving.

I went through customs and with time not on my side decided to run, again, down the escalator stairs and over to… oh… there is an airtrain to the other terminals. Running is useless here. I just missed one. The next one arrives in 3 minutes. Megan, these 3 minutes will be the longest 3 minutes of your life. No one should ever have to feel this way in an airport. This isn’t a pregnancy test.

I was hoping that once I arrived in my correct terminal that I’d be almost there, but for whatever reason I was still without a boarding pass and I really didn’t know where I was supposed to get it. Still worried about priority #1, I ran up the stairs at the terminal to the closest restroom and… there was a line. Seriously? I don’t even have to go that bad, I just have to go NOW. This connection is killing me.

I ran in the direction of my gate only to be considerably more confused when I saw a desk with a sign that said something like “Transfer Desk.” What is this “Transfer Desk?” What does it meaaaaannn?!? The signs were so confusing and although I was convinced that this is where I needed to get my boarding pass printed, I ran onward, figuring at least if I made it to my gate and needed to go back, they wouldn’t leave without me.  I ran about 4 gates down (which in airport terms is something like an entire NYC block) and came across another, line-free Transfer Desk. I looked at the lady behind the desk from 3 rows of velvet rope away and blurted, “I’m not sure, I booked through United, I just got here. New York.” She looked startled and said “They’re waiting for you!” I almost felt relieved. “I just got here.” “I know.”

The lady behind the desk phoned my gate (still quite a bit away) and I gave her the information for the luggage I checked what felt like days ago in Trieste. Oh god, I hope my baggage makes the flight too. She handed me some form of a ticket, pointed towards the gate and told me to run.

By now I am completely over the fact that I am “that girl running in the airport” and run even faster than before. I throw my passport at another lady who is standing at a desk that reads “Passport Control” and proceed to the desk at my gate. Everyone knows I’m coming, but no one has any idea what to do with me. I need a boarding pass. Even more, I need a seat. I watch the women go back and forth on the computer, entering data codes and speaking in a language I didn’t understand. I’m still sweating. I must look gross by now. This fleece, this fleece is so freaking hot. My seat was given away already. I already lost my window seat on that last connection. I’m picturing myself “sitting bitch” for 10 hours in economy class, in the middle seat scrunched between a lady with a baby and a fat man and with no armrests. This! is my nightmare.

Finally a woman with a big smile hands me a boarding pass and says, “You can sit in business class. But you must not talk about it to the other passengers.” I was immediately grateful. Lady, your wish is my command.

I found my seat and shoved my coat under the seat in front of me. I sat down and instantly realized how strange doing that must have looked. Everyone else had nice coats resting on hangers. I just threw mine on the floor. Honestly, who brought this girl? I wasn’t wearing my Sunday’s best (or Monday’s, or Tuesday’s) but I praised my own decision to wear a blazer over my t-shirt today. I don’t look old and rich, but maybe I could fake this. Maybe if I just own this, I won’t spend the next 10 hours feeling like the girl whose seat was given away and normally wouldn’t be sitting in a seat in transatlantic business class.

The hours that followed were some of the most pampered hours of my life. A 5-course meal served on PLATES! With real silverware! A true luxury on an airplane. Soft thick blankets and fluffy pillows, big comfortable headphones, fully-reclining chairs that fold into a bed, and a maître d’cabin to fulfill any of my heart’s desires. At one point I really thought, “I wish they’d leave me alone now. All this service is getting annoying.” I threw an internal fit over not having a window seat on a 90-minute connection, but who needs sleep now? I’m enjoying myself! I snacked, sipped my sparkling water (I know, a crime when the liquor is free) and watched movie after movie from an altitude of 39,000 feet. What window seat?

Arriving in New York wasn’t met without even more hiccups (my iPod not working, getting off the train a subway stop too early, and having the PATH train doors close in my face) but it was easy to overlook them. My bag arrived in New York with me, and we walked down Grove Street towards home with an entirely new sea of memories.