giovedì 31 ottobre 2013

Kep, the southern jewel

Happy Halloween everyone! There's never been a year when I felt the Halloween spirit less than this year... Oh well, it's not such a big loss, especially considering what I'm getting in exchange.
Today was my first day of actual Cambodian tour. Now, since I need to save every penny for my upcoming scuba instructor course, I will be living this experience in the cheapest way possible. Luckily it won't be the last time I'll be in the country, and the next time I'll have a job too, so for now I'll take this journey as a challenge to do and see as much as possible while spending close to zero.
It'll also give me a chance to understand where it's actually worth it to spend a couple extra bucks for some added comfort... First off: not tuk tuks.  They're stupidly expensive (at least they are expensive for my pockets, I guess they'd be cheap if someone is used to using taxis), and they take out all the fun from the actual journey  I'd much rather rent a bicycle for the day and enjoy the road (while also doing some cardio). That is, of course, if your destination is not on the opposite side of the province. In that case, your could consider renting a motorbike (still cheaper than a tuk tuk, even counting gas).
Anyhow, let's skip the rest of this endless preface and get to the facts: woke up, walked to the bus station (45mins, saved 2-3$), and took a bus to Keep. After 5 hours of a super (and I mean super) bumpy ride on a partially dug out dirt road, I got to my destination: a beautiful small town on the south coast of Cambodia, probably just under 30mins away from the Vietnamese border. Before Sohanoukville took over, this once was the preferred beach destination of many rich families in Phnom Penh and the rest of the inner parts of the country. The town itself is developed mainly along a single road which follows the perimeter of a small peninsula with a 263m high hill on the centre. All around the hill, almost all the way down to the sea you can find the primal forest of Kep's National Park, which I will visit later during the afternoon. But first I want to tell you  about the guesthouse I'm staying in.
I got off the bus in the central roundabout and got mobbed by tuk tuk drivers as usual. After I fought my way out I started walking towards my guesthouse, in the me, developing part of town. The road was longer than advertised on my guide but at least it wasn't boring, especially since I was accompanied by a group of monkeys for a bit :-P
After a half hour I finally got there: tree top bungalows. Now don't let the name fool you like I did... There are bungalows on tree tops, but those are the super fancy VIP 25$ a night ones... Not the lowly 4$ ones I went for. Those are plane and simple bamboo and straw bungalows on the ground. Still, the place is amazing, immersed in green and all built with natural materials... Not a trace of cement. After checking in and freshening up a little I rented a bike and went to the national park. The main circular trail was about 8-9km long and wide enough to travel easily by bike; from there, the occasional smaller, steeper and barely wide enough to walk on trails detached, some going towards the sea, while others going towards the hill summit. I still hadn't had lunch so I first stopped for a sandwich at a little bar at the beginning of the trail, called "Led Zep Cafe". There, I discovered that they're the founders of the Squirrel association (Squirrel ass. In short, lol), who cleared, opened and maintained most of the trails in the park. All along the trails they put up informative signs with interesting facts and numbers about the park, asking with maps, directions, distances, etc. A very well done job.
Following one of the smaller trails I found myself in front of a humongous carved tree with a shrine to Buddha on the inside. It looked like it hadn't been used for a while, judging from the rainwater in the offering bowls and the wet candles/incense sticks, but in a corner I found a plastic Tupperware with dry ones and a lighter. I lit a couple candles and an incense and made my way back to the main trail and my bike. By the time I finished visiting the park out was almost sundown so I went for a quick photographic tour of the coastline statues (giant crab, women looking into the horizon, etc) and went to the crab market area for dinner. I forgot to tell you before (or maybe I did in a previous post), but Kep is the city of crabs and, along with Kampot, of black pepper. 
I am now sitting in a seaside restaurant waiting for my plate of crabs with rice and black pepper sauce. I'm starving and I just can't wait for it to get here so I can devour it.

Until tomorrow...

PS: first time blogging from my cellphone... this takes forever... Next posts will be shorter for sure!

mercoledì 30 ottobre 2013

First Stop

After a 6 and a half minivan ride from Koh Sdach, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh. The trip wasn't so bad, especially considering that Marina, Jess and the volunteers did it in almost 11 hours when they arrived last month (god knows why).
After having settled in the guesthouse and satiated our hunger we went to... ... ... Kid's City! Haha, I know it sounds strange... but some friends told us it was a fun place to go climbing, and they couldn't be more right! The place is AMAZING! and not just for kids. It's 10 story building with every possible thing to have fun: from climbing to laser tag, a science lab and so much more. We stayed in there for almost 2 hours trying every single different kind of wall to climb (there were 16 in total, each one particular and challenging in its own way). We had heaps of fun!  (

The next day, while Jess was "working" at her new office (the Blue Pumpkin Bar), Marina and I went to visit the killing fields of Phnom Penh. If was  both a horrifying  and extremely interesting experience at the same time. I won't go into the details of what happened in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, but lets just say that they should start teaching it in school along with the Nazism, cus they're not very different at all.

Anyhow, after  regaining our mental capabilities (or at least what's left of them) we went for lunch at a tiny little restaurant (fits 15-20 people maybe, staff included) called Sesame, renown or its noodle plates.  Servings were abundant, tasty but light at the same time. I'd give them an easy 8.5  or maybe even 9 out of 10. The afternoon was spent going from one street market to the next, spending waaaaaay more money than what we could afford, but hiding behind the excuse that they were all gifts for the people we love, and that we couldn't put a price tag on that. :-P

We went for dinner at an Italian restaurant that Jess had been speaking very highly of, and with good reason. Pizzas were good (not amazing, but good, especially considering we're in south east Asia), and the wine was DOC real italian wine so it was delicious. After years of hearing people talking about the Primitivo wine, i finally had a chance to try it, and now i can say i understand what all the fuss is about!

Today (Wednesday) I went for a bike ride in the Phnom Penh countryside with some other friends who live
in the city. It's incredible how the scenery changed completely after crossing the Mekong river: on one side you have Phnom Penh, with its skyscrapers, traffic, hoards of rude tuk tuk drivers and the Royal Palace overlooking the river, while on the other side roads are made of dirt, houses are never over 2 stories high and people are extremely calm, smiley and polite. Everything is way cheaper too.
We rode for an hour in the countryside until we got to a Silk Weaving House. The women working there spoke amazingly good English and explained to us the whole process of silk weaving from the birth of the silk worm to the  detailing on the fabric. I was stunned by how informed, educated and polite they were. I was very happy to buy a scarf  from them instead of from a local market.

Tonight Jess has her flight back to England and tomorrow I will start my actual journey around Cambodia... first stop: Kep, known for it's Crab based dishes.

Until tomorrow!

lunedì 28 ottobre 2013

Ready, set, go!

So as I promised, I'll try to keep you updated on my movements in the coming weeks... Marina, Jessica and I just got on the bus to Phnom Penh, where we'll stay for a couple night until Jess catches her flight back to England.
We've bell looking forward to this evening all week... Good food, good wine and civilization, yay!
Despite the anticipation of a good meal I'm still kinda sad I'm leaving... Three months are a long time and I was starting to think of this place my second home... Fia and I have been through a lot and I'll miss her so much... (Ellen too, even of she's been mean to me all month lol :-P)
I'm sure we'll see each other again sooner or later, and I'm so looking forward to it already...
Now we have a 6 hour bus ride ahead of us... I hope I can get some sleep or I'll be bored out of my ears...
Until tomorrow,

giovedì 24 ottobre 2013

Last Turn

Only 5 days left to go... these last 4 weeks have passed faster than ever. Having so many people around the base made everything so much more fun and stimulating! I practically finished my divemaster course a couple days ago: done all the tests, passed all the exams, drawn all the maps, and saved all the drowning divers... we'll be celebrating this weekend. Yay! :-D Ellen will also be joining in on the celebrations for her Open Water Diver certification, her fist step in her zero to hero journey (from non diver to divemaster in 6 months).
The past week has been all about dive training and species recognition lessons: Ellen did her Open Water, Caroline her Advanced and the others started studying for their Rescue Diver course. Everyone learned how to identify the different species of invertebrates, fish and substrates and started testing out the new survey methodology. I've been assisting on all the courses, giving me the chance to see how it feels like to be on the teaching side of the lesson. I've been enjoying it a lot and i would love to continue my own training by becoming a dive instructor and being able to certify friends and family.
Talking about the future... remember last post when I said there might be an opportunity for me to come back? Well, its now official! Shallow Waters asked me to come back next year as their Science Officer once Marina leaves (in May-June 2014). The only catch is that I have to do my Dive Instructor Course first, but that's no big deal, especially since I was already thinking about doing it even before they said anything.
Things really seem to be falling into place. I remember when I was leaving Italy three months ago saying that the best outcome would have been to stay here working for them. It was just a dream back then, but its almost become reality now! The contract wold be for a whole year... and it's a bit scary to think about. I've only been here 3 months and i'm already starting to miss the commodities of the civilized world... good internet connection, entertainment, good food, wine... not to talk about friends and family; but it would be the opportunity of a lifetime. After a year here I could finally say I have some real experience in the marine conservation field and i could apply to all those jobs that consider me inexperienced now. The more i think about it the more i believe it would be the perfect stepping stone for my career.
But lets go one step at a time. First of all: roadtrip around Cambodia. I'll leave Koh Sdach with Marina and Jess on the 28th to go to back to Phnom Penh; we'll stay there till the 31st, when Jess will go back to England, Marina will come back to SW headquarters and I will start my actual roadtrip. First destination will be south-eastern Cambodia; I'll stay around Kampot and Kep for about 5 days and then I'll go to Battambang and Siem Reap, in the north-western part of the country. The bulk of my trip will be in Siem Reap for sure, in the temple city of Angkor Wat. I'll stay there almost a whole week before moving first to Kampong Cham, then to Kratie and finally to Boeng Yeak Lom, in the far north-eastern tip of Cambodia. These regions are known for their wonderful river scenaries (Mekong River), untouched lakes and sky high waterfalls, but i'll tell you more when I'll get there (or better, i'll let my camera tell you more).
On one side i'm really sad i'm leaving Koh Sdach, but on the other hand i really cant wait to go on this adventure and see all these spectacular places.
I'm also getting quite excited about coming back home, and I really wasn't expecting this feeling. I mean, of course I've missed my family and friends, but this wasn't much different to my trip to Brazil... and way shorter too... I din't feel this way after 3 months being there... I wonder what's different... of if something changed in me. Who knows.
Still, i cant wait to come back home and go out for a big nice dinner with all my family and friends, enjoying some good wine and the best company in the world.
This post is starting to get way too long... I still have a lot to tell you all but I'll try to spread it out with the following posts. I think i won't bring my PC along with me on my roadtrip (to save backpack space) but i can still post from my phone... i'll try to write something every day to keep you all updated on my location but don't expect the posts to be long or fancy (since i cant really control the page format from my phone). You'll probably find a post with only text and then a couple more posts with only a photo... i'll do my best to keep the blog simple and organized and in the worst case i'll just reformat everything once i get back to Phnom Penh on the 17th-18th before catching my flight. Also, the photo gallery won't get updated until i get my hands back on my PC... i'm sorry... but i really need the space in my tiny backpack for my clothes. :-P
I'll still post some low-res pic from my phone though.


lunedì 14 ottobre 2013

Pieces falling into place

Hello everyone,

this time i really exaggerated... i haven't posted in ages! I'm sorry.. things have been pretty busy here lately.
The new batch of volunteers finally arrived: Ellen, Sandra and Caroline; our Project Scientist and Science Officer arrived as well: Jess and Marina... as you all know I've been waiting for them for a while, wanting to ask them loads of questions to understand the reasons behind certain choices.
In the past week they've been incredibly helpful... all my doubts have been cleared and we've been working together to get the Marine Internship Program up to date; all the new presentation are ready and we're gonna start teaching tomorrow.
Jess is really an endless pit of knowledge, and really fun too! She met Marina while working for Action Quest last year (an american summer-school like program in the Caribbean) and offered her a job at Shallow Waters for a semester. Too bad it wasn't me! :-P
The good news is that i looked into what Action Quest does and it seems really really really interesting. I'd love to go work there but i have to do my Scuba Instructor course first (IDC). I've been looking at scuba schools that offer some kind of internship program to pay off the fees for the course, but i haven't found anything appropriate yet. It seems like I'll have to paint another house to get the money to do the course... but I'm sure it will be completely worth the trouble.
Anyhow, no need to think too much ahead of myself... i still have 2 weeks here at Shallow Waters and 3 weeks of tourism around Cambodia. There's still loads of time.
I'm starting to feel really sad about leaving this place; I've only been here 3 months but if feels like it's exactly what i want my life to be, with some tiny adjustments here and there. Jess and I have been talking about the possibility of coming back as a staff member next year, once I've done my IDC. Half year here and half working for Action Quest sounds exactly like what i need. Fingers crossed.
Today i'll start organizing my trip around Cambodia. I think i'll spend the first 4 or 5 days in the Kampot reagion (suthern part of the country) and then work my way up to Siem Reap (where the temple city of Angkor is). From there Ill go to the eastern part of the country and then back to Phnom Penh to catch my flight on the 18th. It's a very generic plan for now, I'll look into it in more detail today and tomorrow. One thing is for sure: expect loads of photos. I haven't been taking any here but i'll make up for it, i promise. :-)

giovedì 3 ottobre 2013

Brace yourselves... people are coming

Hello everyone...

no big news from Cambodia this time... life here has pretty much settled into the usual routine... 6am alarm, early breakfast... diving in the morning if the weather is good and office work for the rest of the day...
I finished the Invertebrates and Fish presentations (and they look awesome), only corals left to do now...
A couple days ago Owen and i went on a field trip to Koh Kong, he had to meet with the director of another conservation program while i needed to leave the country and come back in with a new visa...
The trip took about 3 hours by taxi... in 7 people. Yes, 7... cambodian style... which means 4 in the back and 3 in the front... oddly enough 1 person in the passenger seat and 2 in the driver's. Don't ask me why.
Anyhow... the road was devastated to say the least... half of it wasn't even paved, while the paved part had humongous holes in it... entire pieces of "asphalt" washed away leaving gaps of red mud and half a meter deep puddles. I was praying we wouldn't get stuck all the way. Pushing the car out of the mud was really the last thing i needed. Luckily we didn't.
Eventually we got to Koh Kong... Owen went to the guesthouse while i got dropped off at the Thailand border to deal with my visa situation. After almost  an hour of queues i made it through the border and decided to take a look at the million different little shops of cheap knockoffs that were huddled on the border. I came out of there with a bottle of perfume and a new pair of "Ray Bans"... for less than 10 euros in total.. and i don't like to bargain so i guess anyone else would have spent even less (these are the situations where i wish i took more from my father's personality).
I passed through the border again, got my new visa and made my way back to Koh was already lunch time by then so we found a nice little bar/restaurant and placated our hunger... I found out that the place had a proper coffee machine (italian bar style) so i had a nice huge cup of caramel cappuccino... I was really in need of some good coffee...I have a moka here but as most of you know a good coffee from a bar machine is a whole different universe of taste.
The next day we made our way back to Koh Sdach... this time we were only 4 people in the taxi so i even managed to get some sleep.
When we got back i found Fia working on the map of the archipelago that she started making last week, she needed to do some maintenance on the scuba equipment so while she was doing that i finished painting the map, and I must say, I'm amazed at my painting skills. I never thought i could do such a good job! :-P Maybe i should consider that as a career instead of biology!

I am alone in the base at the moment... everyone is somewhere doing stuff... Sofia is in Sihanoukville filling up the oxygen tank while Owen is on his way to Phnom Penh to pick up the new volunteers. I'm waiting for Jess (the project scientist) to arrive so i can get started on the coral presentation but as of now i have nothing to do...  I've already reorganized the dive shop yesterday and my mapping project is practically complete... i finished watching Game of Thrones season 3 (O.M.G!, just O.M.G!) and I've gone through every possible job website in existence... so i guess I'll just roll my thumbs for the rest of the day...

Oh, btw, I've got a cold and i cant stop sneezing. -.-'

Bye! ------------