Blog | Globetrotter Dogma
Recognize Pride Needs No Flag
Grace over race
I’m sitting outside on a mini stool in northern Cambodia where my bent knees don’t fit under the table. A three-course meal arrives from the nearby food stall—a hard-boiled egg served as a delicacy with three additional finger bowls presenting spices, limes, and mint. Egg vendor #7, Chantheaea, giggles when she returns with a tiny long-handle spoon. Meanwhile, I watch two guys, Narit and Ponlok, shoot it out on a makeshift outdoor pool table. This jungle-encased village, Cheabb, probably won’t see electricity in the lifetime of these two pool sharks. Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, has just built its first shopping mall with an escalator that has become an instant tourist attraction. I realize later that Chantheaea was chuckling about my inside-out T-shirt. I haven’t passed a mirror in weeks.
I’ve flown 15,000 miles by plane, over-nighted on a bench of a chugging riverboat, spent a day in the dusty cab of a puny Japanese pickup crammed with 10 riders, and then 10 hours on a wobbling motorbike sputtering on rutted, meandering jungle trails. The trail, barely worthy of foot traffic, frequently requires crossing rivers on slimy log bridges. It becomes impassable during the wet season.
My brother Basil and I were repeatedly warned not to venture into this isolated region that’s supposedly rife with landmines and holdups by teams of bandits. However, our reward for forging ahead was a spontaneous night that fused a wedding and a bizarre theater odyssey. The first thing we saw in Cheabb was a mobile PA system announcing what later turned out to be a play. The PA system involved two guys on a motorbike rigged with a large horn on the handlebars connected to an amplifier sitting in the drivers lap. The rear passenger held a mike to a Walkman that made the announcements.
In this off-the-grid destination, the wooden box houses are raised on six-foot stilts. In the shade below, black buffalo, pigs, and chickens reside. The people, mostly rice farmers, steal naps in hammocks slung between stilts under the houses or between the trees. Everyone we pass waves hello. My hunch is that once war-ravaged, perpetually destitute Cambodia had a lighter side, and I wasn’t quitting until we found it. Landmines, civil war, and genocide dominate many associations with Cambodia, but life has returned to a new version of normal, even in Preah Vihear Province, one of the poorest and most isolated.
There’s no way for an outsider to know they’re crossing between the neighboring villages of Cheabb Lech and Cheabb Kart (Cheabb east and west). But that’s where we were invited into the soul of this village with zero tourism. In one magical night, we attended a wedding reception, which later segued into an outdoor theater performance, and then slept on the top cop’s porch.
The wedding highlights included proud toasts ladled from a 35-gallon jug of homemade milky-fermented booze, dancing to insanely loud Cambodian pop, eating bugs, and listening to the best man speech in which he noted that the bride’s premiere hobby was jumping rope. The groom, dressed in a frumpy, oversized suit, couldn’t stop snickering during the should-be solemn slow dances. Our go-to-guy, the only one in town who could speak English, told us about the local pothead, a little girl who wears a red cooking pot as a hat.
After the wedding reception, the group marched across town to join 200 people already seated on the ground before a stage that was amplified by a lone microphone hanging from a wire. The wooden stage set was draped in billowing, silky tarps. The performance, hours and hours of short bits, were punctuated by the manual closing of a dainty pink curtain. A flash photo (Basil’s) started a tizzy that startled the entire audience and made actors modify their act and speak in even higher pitched voices.
Where there are no televisions, traveling troupes are still the stars. Within the crowd, several campfires were maintained to combat the 70-degree winter chill. At one point during the six-hour Khmer epic play, half of the audience suddenly stood up and gasped—a reverse domino effect that didn’t seem like a standing ovation. It wasn’t. A six-foot-long heat-seeking venomous snake had crawled into the audience. Once the snake was hacked in half by someone who happened to have a machete handy, the show resumed. Basil suggested that the snake’s demise might be a metaphor for what happens here when someone threatens married life.
After the marathon performance, we feasted with the wedding gang, but passed on the cow stomach and dried blood patties that resembled black tofu cakes. After waking up on the hospitable police chief’s front porch, we visited several schools, all raised 12x12-foot platforms either under a home or outside covered by tarps. The blackboards were black paint on flat boards and the instructional guides were laminated posters, one for math and one for language. After Basil donated hordes of pens and notebooks to these makeshift schools, he also stepped in as interim teacher, which routinely inspired more laughter than learning.
Despite the forewarnings about landmines and holdups, we ventured to Cheabb where the people, like most Cambodians, exemplify warmth, grace, and pride, which is incredible when considering the unspeakable horrors many of them have endured in their lifetime. In these more prosperous times, some still manage to survive on one dollar and 1,000 calories per day. The Khmer capacity to overcome extreme adversity and still welcome unannounced travelers with smiles and respect is humanity. Being the first foreigners to visit a place where they’ve never seen any is a traveler’s cliché—but when you unearth the last remnants of virgin turf in Southeast Asia, dignity and joy is what you’ll find.
As my brother and I prepared to roll out of Cheabb, we enjoyed a final hard-boiled egg at the food stall. The newly married couple rode past and waved to us and all of the food stall workers. They were honeymoon bound—a visit to the other side of the village—which made the staff cheer wildly. That’s when it dawned on us that the bride was #7, our previous egg vendor, Chantheaea.
*photos: Basil Northam
An Interview with “The Travel Detective”
Peter Greenberg, “The Travel Detective” and the Travel Editor for CBS News, is no doubt a man of the world—who also keeps a foothold on Long Island. I was curious to hear this multiple Emmy-winning investigative reporter’s take on “the island” (Long Island) I know well… about the good and perhaps not so good.
Q. You have a house on Fire Island. Do you have other connections to Long Island?
A. Well, you can’t have a place on Fire Island without being connected to Long Island. Of course, I know Bay Shore very well, because that’s the boat gateway to Fire Island. I do all my shopping on Long Island. I try to fly as much as possible out of McArthur Airport in Islip, which remains New York’s secret airport.
Q. Why Fire Island?
A. My parents brought me there when I was six months old. I spent every summer there growing up. It’s the best possible place for kids—no cars—only bicycles and wagons. And as much as I travel the world (420,000 real air miles a year), I race back to Fire Island every chance I get because it remains for me a wonderful opportunity to relive my youth, my freedom, and my innocence. It’s also the place where I sleep the best.
In his spare time, Peter Greenberg is a volunteer firefighter on Fire Island
Q. The crowded Hamptons aside, why should Americans and foreigners visit Long Island?
A. Yes let’s keep the Hamptons out of it. I prefer to call Fire Island the Hamptons without the attitude! And the best time to go? May, or the magic month of September. And I’m not one of those Memorial Day to Labor Day fair weather folks—I’m on Fire Island from March thru early December. I also do Thanksgiving there each year.
Q. Do you fancy Long Island wine?
A. With my travel schedule, I drink as little as possible, but Long Island Wine has certainly improved in recent years.
Peter Greenberg outside the Westgate Mall during the terrorist attacks in Nairobi, Kenya
Q. What do most travelers not know about Long Island?
A. Most travelers don’t know anything about Long Island. Americans are the most geographically ignorant people on the planet—no surprise when you consider that only about 37-percent of Americans even have a passport. And there’s no guarantee among the 37-percent that do have passports that they have even looked at a map.
Q. I grew up in Garden City (amid Nassau County’s commuters) and my parents later moved to Southold (amid Suffolk County’s vineyards), so I appreciate Long Island’s variety. What advice does The Travel Detective have about visiting there?
A. Forget the Long Island Expressway or the Southern State Parkway. Head east on the Old Sunrise Highway and find main street in every Long Island town. Take your time, and discover a number of great destinations.
Q. Long Island is chided as “Strong Island,” “The Guyland,” and other slags via the likes of a few infamous knuckleheads. How do stereotypes like this impact regional tourism?
A. I understand those stereotypes—and know many of them personally! In fact, without exception, Long Island is the only place where a number of my friends call me “Pete” and I don’t mind—because my long island friends are real.
Peter Greenberg inside the cockpit of an Airbus A320 while filming his public television series The Travel Detective
Urban to Pastoral—in a flash
Wilmington, Delaware, had always been that Amtrak station between Philadelphia and Baltimore that I’d never visited. Until now. Surprisingly, a three-mile ride from downtown Wilmington is a transformation into the wide-open picturesque Brandywine Valley—the nearly immediate scenery change is akin to opening a curtain into a new pastoral world.
The Brandywine Valley Village of Montchanin is a step back into a simple, elegant time in American history—and the DuPont family legacy. It was named for the grandmother of the founder of the DuPont Gunpowder Company. The Montchanin Inn features 11 meticulously restored buildings dating from 1799. Nine of the 11 buildings served as homes for the gunpowder factory workers. Today, you can stay in any one of them, as they have been restored with all of the comforts you’d expect in any fine hotel. Many of Montchanin’s finely appointed houses have private, manicured courtyards, fireplaces, and a knack for bringing you back into the heart and soul of early Americana. Each of the 28 guest rooms and suites have their own charming personalities. A mix of old and new, the modern marble bathrooms have Jacuzzi-sized bathtubs.
The homey reception area and the adjacent common room “barn,” which once housed cows, double as a period museum. Hand-picked photos, paintings, furniture, and relics grace the high-ceiling space that’s centered by a gigantic fireplace. This all makes checking in here much more than a swipe of your credit card. The front desk staff are all trained in emergency “historic” maintenance, such as being able to adjust loose antique doorknobs. Small luxury hotels with big old hearts need special TLC.
The capstone of its luxurious offerings is The Spa at Montchanin Village—an addition to the inn’s barn. It features signature treatments in five rooms and skin care lines that blend plants, pure essential oils, and technology. This standout spa in Delaware has veteran masseuses that will seek and destroy any ache you declare.
Reminiscent of bygone rural England, this former working-class village is now a landmark refuge owned by a seventh generation DuPont relative. The inviting grounds are a hit with history buffs, wedding groups (especially second and third weddings, which allegedly are way more relaxed), and conference attendees. This quaint mini campus of carriage lanes and garden-lined pathways also features a dozen birdhouses that add to the warmth of this restored nineteenth century hamlet.
Krazy Kat’s Restaurant is Montchanin’s fine dining option specializing in hearty Northeast cuisine. The waitresses wear smart neckties and the local handcrafted brews are only $5. Quirky, dressed-up dog and cat pictures line the walls as locals and hotel guests comingle. Krazy Kat’s, a former blacksmith shop, also delivers to The Spa. The Crow’s Nest, once an indoor parking lot for horse-drawn carriages, sits atop Krazy Kat’s and is available for meetings and receptions. Montchanin is Delaware’s take on Colonial Williamsburg.
Revived downtown Wilmington has a crown jewel hotel and great restaurants…
* Hotel DuPont is Delaware’s architectural crown-jewel, and a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. A mesmerizing tribute to Italian walnut and early 20th century art, it doubles as a swank American history museum. Classic paintings—including originals by three members of the famed Wyeth family—and gilded moldings don the walls. The Green Room, its signature restaurant, is (in my opinion) one of the fanciest places you can have breakfast in urban America. Within the sprawling building, the archetypal DuPont Theater, a mini Radio City, has never gone dark since 1913 (no other theatre can make this claim). The hotel, originally built to house DuPont employees, is a tribute to a company that has been awarded 38,500 U.S. Patents since 1802—including 935 in 2012, the most in DuPont history.
* Harry’s Seafood Restaurant—an incredible spot for a seafood binge—helped pioneer the city’s riverfront revival when it opened in 2003. Two evolving daily menus serve up fresh fish, some of it flown in from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska; the oyster selection also catches air en route from British Colombia. Set along the tidal Christina River, this airy, naturally lit 15,000-square-foot space is bisected by a fireplace and a 25-seat square bar (my suggestion for dining, as you can enjoy the amiable flow). The enormous, refreshing space serves 150 people at once, with room to breathe. That number grows to 250 people when the riverside front deck opens. Meatheads will savor its varieties of grass-fed beef.
* Cozy and established, Domaine Hudson restaurant is where Delawarians land downtown for special occasions. Its award-winning food and wine take no back seats to its metropolitan neighbors, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Here, relaxed pros serve their simple menu. Theres no fine wine pomp, just the facts from veteran servers or a Vino-Pad, an iPad wine encyclopedia. Its “Wine Flights” offer three pours of three wines. I sampled the Pinot Envy, with offerings from Oregon, California, and Chile. A server writes the wine’s corresponding menu number on the base of the glass, which is helpful for sampling (or spacing out). Even hardcore wine snobs will be impressed by their selection. The old-school ambiance is illuminated by an experienced staff. Before enjoying the classic fish and meat dishes, try the Blackened Beets (whipped ricotta, blueberry puree, red-chili vinaigrette) and the Cheese Board (artisan cheeses individually paired with house-made accompaniments), both odysseys for your tastebuds.
* Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant is a straight-ahead and unassuming brewpub—unless you fall into the beer-nerd category, in which case you’ll be kept very busy. This spacious riverside fun zone has two floors, two bars, and a menu with something for everyone. Warm weather adds two huge decks and another two bars that overlook the river. The space is family-friendly in one section, and more hip in the other. A dozen gigantic booths add to the restaurant’s fluidity.
* The Wilmington Riverfront pedestrian walkway’s terminus is the Dupont Environmental Education Center an old I-95 dumping ground that was recently excavated and resurrected back into the pond it once was as part of a wider urban wildlife refuge project.
* The Amtrak trip—the bargain “slow train” still makes great time—from New York City to Wilmington takes less than two hours. www.amtrak.com.
New York Travel Festival
Bohemian National Hall, April 26-27, 2014
Unlike the other generic trade show-like travel conferences, the more intimate New York Travel Festival goes beyond brochures and vendor booths and brings you face-to-face with the industry’s movers and shakers. The NY “TravFest” hosts panels, interactive discussions, and hands-on workshops dealing with hot-button travel topics and trends that will inspire and enhance your travel planning. This show is about making direct access to travel industry experts easy.
Held in Manhattan’s charming Bohemian National Hall, the festival for tech-savvy, immersive travelers starts at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 26. It continues on Sunday, April 27 at Hostelling International - New York.
Standard consumer tickets cost $45 in advance or $60 at the door. This ticket grants full-weekend (Saturday and Sunday) access to: * Talks and panels from top names in the travel industry, including presentations by writers, editors and photographers from AFAR, the Major Media Partner of NY TravFest 2014.
* Fantrotter.com founder Mike Coletta will be hosting Travel 2.0 @ #NYTF, a full-day session which will explore current travel innovation trends, and offer opportunities to discover new and up-and-coming tech travel companies.
* Festival-only discounts from select sponsors.
* In-venue giveaways, including gift certificates of up to $300 from ClothingArts.com, who make the awesome pickpocket-proof travel pants.
* Mezcal and food pairings at the Mexico bar.
Sunday, April 27 is designed around inspiration for people new to travel. Lee Abbamonte–the youngest American to visit every country in the world–is the Sunday afternoon keynote. Later, G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip is the headline speaker for the Matador Network Speaker Series in a session entitled Transformation in Travel. Poon Tip will discuss lessons from his experiences as an entrepreneur and sustainable-travel advocate, as well as his new book, Looptail.
Tickets for Sunday, April 27, are available for $12 in advance $15 at the door. All ticket holders receive discounts on NYC tours offered before, during and after the festival by a selection of New York City–based tour companies in partnership with the NY TravFest.
* More details on http://nytravfest.com.
*For NY TravFest tickets, visit http://bitly.com/NYTF2014.
* For a complete schedule, see http://nytravfest.com/2014-full-schedule/.
* For news and updates about the NY TravFest, go to http://nytravfest.com/2014.
or @NYtravfest (Twitter)
How One Guitar Will Save The World
An Interview with Luke Maguire Armstrong—The Nomad’s Nomad
Rarely does a written story make me laugh out loud, but “The Day I Did Not Meet Kenya’s Prime Minister” did just that. So, I emailed the author. A few months later, I met Luke Maguire Armstrong, a guy who, in the midst of hitchhiking from Chile to Alaska, got happily stuck in Guatemala for four years. Since then, we meet whenever he breezes through New York City.
I wrote about life on the road while traveling pretty much constantly for 20 years until mellowing into “home life,” which now means taking 10 disconnected trips a year—with each trip now having predetermined return dates. Those vagabond years defined me and make me a tough customer when it comes to enjoying a travel tale. I know a lot of travel writers, but only one who is truly, almost constantly still out there. As opposed to the long-weekend warriors attempting to take over travel writing via minute-by-minute blogging, Luke Maguire Armstrong lives on the road and patiently crafts tales that stand the test of time. The author of How We Are Human supports himself by writing, playing music, and spearheading ongoing humanitarian efforts in Guatemala, Uganda, Kenya, and New York. Recently, we sat down for a chat in Bushwick, Brooklyn, while he paused between a stint in Iceland, where he started the band “Loki and the Fashion Bandits” and a return to one of his first loves, Guatemala.
Q. At what point in your life did you know it was time to hit the road and not look back?
When it seemed my plan was falling apart. A year ago this month, I arrived from Nairobi to New York City after three months in Kenya covering the 2013 elections as a freelance journalist and working pro-bono to put two children orphaned by AIDs in school. I returned to NYC worse than broke. My trip to Kenya, that was supposed to earn me an income, left me $5,000 in credit card debt. I had fifty bucks cash in my pocket and a friend’s couch to sleep on for a week or so.
That marked my one-year anniversary of trying to make the mobile writer lifestyle work. I paced that small Brooklyn apartment and looked at my guitar. She looked back as if to say, “Don’t look at me, this is the life you made for yourself.” I swore silently and made a decision to cut off my lifeboats. I decided then that if I made $100 a month doing what I loved, then that was what I lived off. If I wanted to have a life more glamorous than a homeless person’s, I was going to have to work harder and smarter. I spent my last $50 on business cards, opened my laptop, started writing, and stopped looking back.
Q. Most people might have thrown the towel in well before that point, what caused you to stick it out so long?
I needed that gun to my head—that Yoda on my shoulder telling me, “Do or do not, there is no try.” When failure is not an option, your success is measured by degree. Also, “coming of age” in the expatriate scene of Antigua, Guatemala, made a nomadic life seem like a logical next step.
Q. What prior experiences led you to that small Brooklyn apartment?
While finishing my last semester of college as an exchange student in Chile in 2007, I read the book Into The Wild, took the wrong message from it, procured a $7,000 student loan, ditched my return ticket home, and started to hitchhike from Chile to Alaska. My family has a rich history making rash decisions abroad that affects the course of everyone’s lives—my parents met in the Marshal Islands as Peace Corps volunteers and decided to get married after a few weeks of dating. Near that time, my dad was thrown out of The Peace Corps for building a radio station instead of a tomato garden.
My plans on the road were to volunteer along the way and begin earning a living as a writer before my student loan ran out. I met an Irish travel writer at a campfire on a beach on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and he told me, “Do what you want to do in life. There will be always someone who will pay you for it.” We’ve all heard some variation of this, but at the time I was 22 and it was my first time. It was an exciting notion. I listened to the lapping of waves and thought about my peers. It seemed like most of them put off doing what they really wanted to do to some future date. I never really bought into that model as viable for life and have always been happier for it.
Q. How did you end up making a four-year stopover in Guatemala?
Book-length story short, I thought my writing would support my humanitarian habit, but for four years my humanitarian work supported my writing habit.
Many thought taking out that $7,000 student loan to travel was a dumb plan, but in the end it led to a career that paid off that loan and most of my others. For four years, I worked in Antigua, Guatemala, as the program director for the charity Nuestros Ahijados. My 11th day volunteering at the project, the director quit and the executive director and founder somehow thought giving me, a 22-year-old, the position was a good idea. I administered 12 programs, fund-raised to meet the budgetary gaps that most NGOs suffered in 2008, and managed a staff of 50 employees and 500 annual volunteers. The project provided education and health resources for people to break out of poverty and had a program to rescue victims of human trafficking. It was a wonderful job where every day felt impactful, and I can’t imagine living life today without the many lessons I learned from that opportunity. In 2010, Christiane Amanpour came to Guatemala to interview me about a malnourished infant centered I had opened and ran for Nuestros Ahijados.
Q. Because you’ve worked with traveling women victimized by crimes in places like Central America, I imagine you would be the right guy explain the rules of the road to my daughter in a few years. What is your core advice to women traveling in distant lands?
Aside from warning them to stay away from my friend Andres, I would say women travelers by the unique nature of the dangers they face are far ballsier than their male counterparts traveling the same road. Be smart ladies, and trust your instincts. No, be smarter than smart. Be a femme fatale traveling Jedi warrior woman who is always one step ahead of anyone that would harm you. You don’t need to actively distrust strangers—most people are good. But never trust anyone you’ve just met 100-percent. People who want to hurt you or take things from you use your trust as their camouflage.
Do your research. What does the guidebook say about safety? What do expats know? What do other travelers say? What do the locals know? What does your embassy say? All of these sources should be looked into, because each provides an important piece to the puzzle of how safe a place is and what you should do to avoid the dangers. If the streets aren’t safe at night, get yourself a reliable cabby who doesn’t drink on the job. If that doesn’t fit into your budget, give your pops Bruce a pouty face and remind him how much he loves you, and I bet he’ll grab your taxi bill. He would have just spent it on beer anyway. Speaking of beer, don’t leave your drink unattended, and don’t accept a drink that you did not watch the bartender make.
Mother and calf in Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve.
Q. I would imagine that playing music live puts you on a fast track into cool, wild, or bizarre situations. Does it?
I’m not sure if it’s my guitar or the crazy person playing it (see Luke perform here), but the short answer is yes. Playing the guitar is a great way to meet people and gain access to places. Most of the stories stemming from this fact are long. One short story that comes to mind is when my guitar led me to an underground gambling ring of chicken bus drivers in the lakeside village of San Pedro, Guatemala. My guitar and I were both drunk. The rest of my friends had gone to bed at a reasonable time. My late-night guitar playing by the lake led to a man named Juan approaching me and inviting me to this underground gambling ring he knew of on the outskirts of town.
It looked like a tough crowd and a rough game. I made a point of losing $20 to keep them from pulling out the guns I could see bulging from their belts and just taking what they wanted. It could have gone even more loco, because one of them asked me if I would be his “frog”—the guy on the bus that collects the money and shouts out the destinations. He was drunk and about to drive to Xela, Guatemala. It was 5am. He said he could get me back by noon. This was a very tempting offer. I did not have a phone with me to inform my friends at the hotel why I would have failed to materialize in the morning, so I declined. I took a few more shots of the fire water the bus driver insisted I try and called it a night just as the dawn ticked up on the horizon.
Q. What’s next for you? You say you’re committed to the path you’re on now, but what specifically is that path?
It’s a winding one, and there are always surprises on it. I plan to continue to write and continually take that craft to a new level. I am finishing a non-fiction book about my four years living in Guatemala and courting various publishers for my completed novel How One Guitar Will Save The World.
Humanitarian-wise, I am going to continue to fundraise and deploy that capital with charities that I have vetted as being sustainable and making tangible differences. My music has recently taken on a life of its own, and I have an LP coming out soon called “Luke Maguire Armstrong: Eaten By a Horse.” Oh, and we can’t forget women. I hope to run into some of them. Specifically, I hope to meet one as crazy as I am, who will let me buy a puppy to “nip at our heels.”
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Luke Maguire Armstrong is a frequent contributor to Perceptive Travel, an award-winning site with the best travel stories from wandering book authors. His current project, Travel Bloggers Without Borders, is an effort to raise $10,000 to take 55 children off the streets in Guatemala and place them in school.
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