I have the greatest privilege of being associated with Native cultures of many continents.. thus satisfying my curiosity and desire to travel and the chance to help them with my medical expertise. these notes are from those travels. I am a professor at the University of Havana
Friends and Food feature predominantly in
each of these trips, and a little bit of humanitarian medicine.
The best eating these days for me is where
my close friends are, in Bogor, in Indonesia.
Some of the flights themselves were
memorable, the three most memorable ones being: the Japan Airlines flight from
Tokyo to Chicago, the Jakarta to Doha and Doha to Brussels flight on Qatar,
with the Cathay Pacific flight from New York to Hong Kong added on. I also
enjoyed a recent London to Miami flight on American.
Simple interactions with old and new
friends are the highlights of these trips: Siem Reap, Kuala Lumpur and Bogor.
The last stay in Siem Reap was memorable for its simplicity.
GIFTS OF SILK FROM CAMBODIA
THE TAMIL ADVENTURER FROM PONDICHERRY IN SIEM REAP
(FRENCH ARCHITECTURE IN THE OLD MARKET)
So in a few days time, I would be leaving
for yet another Far East, Food and Friends trip, this would be trip no 4 and I
have the uncanny feeling that I may not travel to the Far East for the rest of
the year, as Israel and India have come calling.
Definitely expect friendships and food, and
on this visit, plan to be a tourist for a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur! It
has been a long time since I had visited the Batu Caves as well as the
And who would not want a nice Nyonya Meal
Always grateful for the many people who
make these journeys pleasant and memorable!
It takes so little to make other people happy in their work and feel appreciated!
This was my first visit to the Windy City,
by the lake to attend the annual meeting of the professional association I
belong to, The Endocrine Society, They were expecting 8000 professionals
belonging to the society to attend the four day meeting and I was excited to be
at the meeting.
I arrived at the ORD airport, an airport I
had passed through many a times but never stepped outside its perimeters
towards the great city lying yonder. There is a metro station right at the
airport and for $5 you can be downtown within about 45 minutes, I was at La
Salle Station. It was a sunny day, and the first person I met gave me the
walking direction to the Chicago Hilton Hotel.
At the reception, nothing unusual, nothing
outstanding, but surprise was waiting at the Executive Lounge at the 24th
floor. Thus began some of my nicest interactions with people who live here
during my four-day stay.
The days were very busy. I was at the
conference at 8 30 AM and did not get back until close to 9 pm to the hotel,
soon it was time to sleep.
Angie greeted me very warmly at the
Executive Lounge. They had already packed away the savouries and canapés and
the wine. But she made available skewers of fresh vegetables and a nice glass
of white wine. We talked for a little and I told her I would be back before I
left the hotel four days hence. I made a point to rush up to the Lounge as I
returned, since the Lounge closed at 9 pm and we exchanged a few words. Each
time it was the same friendly smile and welcoming words and something little to
I really felt close to her and felt a
little sad saying good bye to her on my fourth day. I wish her well; she
deserves the best in her future, either with the Hilton Family or elsewhere.
The second person was an employee of the
conference hall. She had a smile as bright as the sky, she certainly was more
cheerful than most of the professional participants of the conference. She was
assisting with the “wheel of fortune” where the participants in the conference
had one spin each day.And won
something. On the first day I won a small penlight which comes in handy to
examine patients or when travelling. On the second day it was a nicely designed
pedometer, to count the number of steps I had taken each day (I like to do 10
000 steps each day). The lines were always long for the “wheel of fortune” and
while the professionals waited, she mingled with them, brightening them up with
friendly chatter. She would look at the badges of the attendees and make a
remark or chatter about their countries of origin. When she saw I was wearing a
Cuban tag, she was over the clouds, as she had heard nice things about Cuba.
Each day she would ask me something about Cuba. I told her that she should hone
up her dancing skills before Cuba and that with her personality she would blend
in well with the locals in La Habana, Cuba
On the third day, I told her that I would
very much like a Tee Shirt of the society that was on raffle. When I reached
the wheel of fortune, she took my ticket and handed me a Tee shirt without me
having to spin the wheel!
The bag lady of San Diego was the next
The next annual meeting of our professional
society would take place in San Diego in California. A booth had been set up
whereby we can get information about San Diego, its hotels and attractions. I
stopped to chat with her, and at the end of our conversation she encouraged me
to put in my piece of paper for a prize. I never win a prize, I told her that
is why I don't enter into any competition. No, I want you to put in your
The next morning there was a call from her
informing me that I had been the winner of the prize. I went to collect my prize;
she gave me the prizes mentioned in the brochure, plus a large white plastic
bag. I thanked her and thought nothing of the plastic bag till I got back to
the hotel when I opened it, was surprised at the collection of goodies she had
put inside, including a signed copy of a book about SS Midway which is now a maritime
museum in San Diego, a windcheater with San Diego written on it, which came in
handy during my flight over the Atlantic a day later. A cap, a sunglass etc.
completed the pleasant package.
Thank you, the Bag Lady of San Diego.
I had checked out of the Hotel and was
walking towards the La Salle Station. I saw a CTA employee walking along and I
stopped him to ask where is the entrance to the La Salle Station. He said, come
with me, I am going along that way. I tagged along. Not only he took me through
the quickest route, but was kind enough to pay my entrance as well.
Once inside the train, I asked him, where
do I pay the $5 fare? He said, don't worry about it; I have taken care of it.
It was he who said, I have been living here
for 30 years, originally from Michigan. People have a wrong idea about Chicago,
they think we are not friendly people, but Chicago is a friendly city.
During my stay, meeting ordinary
Chicagoans, made me realize that Chicago is one of the friendliest cities in
America and in fact, the reception for a visitor is better here than in Miami!
Bienvenidos a Chicago! Y sus lagos y gente!
At this meeting, I had made up my mind that i will not do any networking or chat frivolously with any of the participants, but was looking forward to seeing the faithful endocrinologist from Cairns, Dr Ashim Sinha. I was not disappointed. He was there and it was good to spend a few minutes chatting with him over a cup of coffee!
I am writing this from Joe to Go Cafe in the centre of the tourist area in Siem Reap, in the relative comfort of an early morning air conditioning, while the outside temperature is already in the unbearable range. April and May are hot months here in Siem Reap and you can expect lots of rain in June and July.
I began coming here, of course attracted by the Angkor Archeological complex which is the largest of its kind in the world. On my first visit here in 2001, Siem Reap was a village, with a central market with one or two upscale hotels and a warm and welcoming place. The Khmer friends I made at that time remain my friends to this day.
Last night walking along the street which now is dubbed PUB street, which is a collection of bars and restaurants catering for the budget minded European traveler, I lamented to myself how the mass tourism has completely ruined this village ( I can think of other places in Asia as well).
Currently the only tourists you see in Paris or Bruxellles are well heeled Asian tourists, where as the young European can no longer afford to see parts of his own country, but with cheap airfares they can find themselves in the midst of exotica: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the decade long favourites. They are on file to destroy Myanmar.
I am, looking back, happy to have visited and enjoyed simple interactions with people, before the tourist hordes arrived.
Yesterday, walking towards an South Indian restaurant, I was accosted at least one hundred times with offers of prostitutes, drugs, massages, hotels and restaurants and what not. Obviously there must be a demand for these things, brought on by the tourists , otherwise why should it attract such a large number of Jinateros or Jockeys as we call them in Cuba.
Fish cleaning your feet, with a drink thrown in, mediocre euroepan food in its various forms, with the local food taking a distant second in offerings. Which backpacker would like to eat Fish Amok when he can have a Taco? yes? bring on the hamburgers, spaghetti and pizzas, the european civilzations contribution to the world in recent times.
This morning, long before the sleepy hordes begin invading the streets, I went for my morning walk/run, and when I reached the old French Quartier, the peace and the offerings were of another quality. I made up my mind, If I do come to Siem Reap again, the next time I am going to stay in the French Quartier,preferably in a french owned and run establishment with their traditional arrogance and disdain for English speaking people and distaste for the backpackers who cannot afford their prices.There I will escape the various offers for prostitutes and drugs, tuk tuk drivers wanting to take you somewhere.
Off the beaten path , in the context of South East Asia, means these days, dont go where the backpackers go!
THE EXTRAORDINARY NATURE OF EVERYDAY
ENCOUNTERS IN SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
These are the lessons brought home to me,
during my four day stay in Siem Reap, second time this year 2014.
Give dignity to the other person
Be genuinely interested in what brought
that person to this place, far away from their home.
Be humble. During a short encounter, do
not waste the time boasting of what you have done with your life.
Let your demeanour speak for itself. “People
are kind to you because of the way you are”, I was told.
Discuss what the others are interested
in, and don’t dominate the conversation.
Brief description of some pleasant
encounters in Siem Reap
1. Japan holds a special spot in my
heart, for the fantastic education I received about Nutrition and respect for
food during my nine visits to the country in 2005.
Here in Siem Reap, I come across the shop
KRU KHMER, with Japanese style and thoughts
The lady in charge of the shop during the
evening hours had the surname of my favourite Japanese writer and we had a nice
chat about Cambodia, NGO work which produces the dainty things at display for
sale and of course Japanese food!
2. Who would have thought I would be
running into a Tamil adventurer and a history buff right here in Siem Reap?
He said: I am a Tamulian, because long
before there was India, there were Tamils and a Tamil Culture.
While sitting with him at the Indian
Restaurant opposite the provincial hospital, many people, tourists, residents
or visitors all from India, kept on dropping by our table. All of them were
favourably nationalistic about India, but they were not emptily boasting, like
one tends to hear from the Indians living among the Westerners. Perhaps these
Indians who are living in India are proud of their independence of thought and
not having to play up to anyone or anybody.
An IT person, who was in the employ of
TATA, was proud of his connection with the Communist Party, CPM. He wrote his
address in detail in case I happen to be in his neighbourhood!
Two archeologists based in Madras,
working on the rehabilitation of Tah Prohm temple on behalf of Archeological
survey of India.
3. A soft spoken lady from NZ, who was
doing her Khmer lessons and homework, when we began chatting at the Joe to Go café,
where the upstairs was calm and conducive to writing or studying. We had a nice
chat about everyday happiness, but did not have time to explore why she was in
Yes there is a difference between
backpackers who are here for two or three days, who strut around the ruins in
their tuk tuks, in contrast to many others who come here to give of their time
and expertise to bring a little bit of happiness to the others.
Here I was reminded of a great
conversation I had long time ago about Myself vs Others
Some people, in fact the majority in our
western world, is concerned about themselves, whether they are at home or
backpackers in other countries. A small minority is concerned about others and
usually end up much happier in their lives.
I have great respect for people who
sacrifice for others. By the way the concept of Sacrifice is very important in
most ancient philosophies.
4. At the airport, I saw a young lady
hastily devouring her sandwich at the security check point. She had bought the
sandwich a minute before, but the security people wouldn’t allow her to take it
on board! The surrealism of the conflict between the east and the west! A little
later I learned that she is Mexican, graduate of UTSA and now teaching English
in a smaller town in Sumatra. It was good to speak Spanish while waiting for
the plane to take us to KL!
And of course there were the usual Khmer
friends made over the course of years...
Truly felt richer for these every day
interactions with people with varying dreams!!
things about an enterprise or a government give clues to why it is bound to
fail or succeed. Why has Pakistan failed so miserably when their neighbours,
who virtually are the same people, have flourished so well? Why is MH Malaysian
Airlines is in the throes of bankruptcy despite never having made profits and
always bankrolled by the government is in the same town as Air Asia, which has
done more for civil aviation in South East Asia, has dramatically changed the
culture of travel for all South East Asians rich and poor? The Malay dominated
government of Malaysia in the spirit of exclusivity employs predominantly
Malays at MH whereas at Air Asia, it is the merit that counts.
Here is one
simple example of the inefficiency of MH.
I arrived at
the gorgeous airport of Changi, in Singapore (yet again a contrast to KLIA
which cannot hold a candle to Changi), a technologically advanced airport
representing a technologically advanced country which has already reached the
developed country status. (In Malaysia it is still the rhetoric, we will be
developed by 2020, big chance!)
I wanted to
fly MH from SIN to Siem Reap via KUL, there were other airlines flying via
other cities to my destination, but I felt a soft spot for MH and Malaysia from
my recent multiple visits to the country. Indeed the other airlines offered
cheaper fares, and were more direct. (Jet star from Singapore for example). I
fondly thought of the time, I was granted a Business Class ticket (roundtrip)
on MH from LHR to MEL via KUL, with Teh Tahrek when you pleased. Also I wanted
to change planes in KUL, an airport loaded with symbolism for me, with multiple
arrivals and departures and goodbyes.
I have an MH
app on my iPad and I have been able to book on it before, so why not this time?
Each time, at the completion of my transaction, a message appeared saying
Unable to authorize the credit card!
there might be something wrong with my credit card so I called them in the USA,
only to be told that everything is in order (USA is 12 hours behind in time to
Singapore). Next I called the call centre of MH in KUL, a call that I had to
pleasant young woman, a non-malay by her elocution, found in the computer my
multiple attempts to book the flights and said she would help me reinstate it.
The fare was
259 USD (the direct flight was just 100 USD, air Asia was slightly more also
via KUL) I was looking forward to the MH club in KUL and also the pleasant crew
of MH. I was put on hold, while the young lady consulted her supervisor, who
returned after about 15 minutes.
Here is what
accept your credit card since the flights are within 24 hours! But you can pay
at the MH counter at the airport when it opens, which was fine with me.
cautioned, the fare you had booked is on line but when you pay for the ticket
at the airport they would have to charge you the full fare which would be 744 Sgd
(more than 675 USD!). For that money you can fly to Melbourne and back and they
are trying to extort that out of me, just because I wanted to fly with them?
I thought of
Yossarian of Catch 22 fame! Yes MH likes to help you, but our offices are open
only at times when nobody is behind the desk.
the stock of MH is plunging, since no one is interested in rescuing them, not
even their coreligionists in political power which has been supporting this
financial hemorrhage for more than half a century, to the tune of billions of
is why MH and Malaysia are so far behind, far behind Singapore and very soon,
Indonesia would be ahead of them, India has already surpassed them
technologically. They are not innovative, mired in accusing a leader of
homosexuality, banning a church from using the word Allah; these belong to the middle
Ages and not the modern times, if they want to remain competitive. Singapore
has achieved the first world status since they separated in 1965, when the
Malays predicted that Lee Kuan Yew would return, running back pleading to be
taken back... LKY once famously said: in Jamaica, why his country is so
advanced… you see, Singapore is inhabited mainly by the Chinese. Survival,
Innovation, lack of desire to depend upon government subsidies, lack of racial
prejudices when it comes to merit... these are hallmarks of Singapore
I am sorry
sir, the girl, said somewhat pleasantly.
airport has free Wi-Fi and rows and rows of computers for general use. I was
able to find the same fare, for the same flights, on line, on the web site of a
travel company and within minutes I had my tickets mailed to me electronically.
(It is the amount of time the pleasant girl put me on hold). I was able to pay
with the same credit cards the MH people couldn’t accept!
MH and Malaysia, are you listening?
A visit to Israel is an eye opener, even
those who keep abreast of what is happening there. On a recent short visit, I
was amazed how developed a country Israel is; in fact it has caught up with
Europe/America in every way. Here Development at human and social and
structural level is not a slogan (some other countries in Asia would proclaim:
we will be a developed country by 2020, the citizens of those countries should
visit Israel and see for themselves)
I had arrived at Tel Aviv International
Airport from Amman, Jordan. The contrast is stark. Jordan is a very poor
country with a large uneducated and unsophisticated population, who live bound
by their culture. The level of development is at a low level.
(the public transport in Israel is excellent, you can go from the airport to Haifa in the north in one hour and twenty minutes by train)
On arrival at Ben Gurion Airport at Tel
Aviv, the order and organization and efficiency is so apparent, you begin to
wonder why two cities separated by such a short distance can be so widely
But the lessons I learned were not how
structurally advanced Israel has become. It is called the Start Up Nation
because of the number of Start Ups proportionately exceed most other countries
On the day of arrival it was the festival
of Shabuoth, celebrating the harvest (historically). It was such a warm arrival
at the home of my friends, as the entire family were present and I got to see
them all in one place rather than visiting them at their own homes! We shared a
traditional meal, and the patriarch of the family told me that, on every
Shabbat and on each and every Jewish holiday, the entire family gets together
and children grow up with the confidence and security of the larger family.
This particular scene would have been repeated a thousand times all over Israel
(cheese blintzes for Shabuoth)
The importance of having a life partner,
children were also so evident. I made up a family tree of my friends family.
And felt a little jealous that my family and friends are so scattered all over
I am lucky to have strong family ties even
though they are geographically separate and this visit made me realize that I
should put more efforts in becoming closer to them.
Cuba where I spend time is a good example
of people who show solidarity with each other, who go out of their way to help
In Israel, solidarity with each other is so
evident. There may be the threat of extinction from their Arab neighbours that
consolidates that, but one can sense the solidarity. The way it is expressed is
different. It is not the American kind of, Have a nice day but a genuine
concern over each other. Each person is aware that his or her action would
endanger the entire country, if solidarity were not taken into account. In
Amman, for a small bribe, they would have waived my visa fees and thus let me
into the country “illegally”, such an action by an Israeli would be
In Israel, they are not concerned which
part of the globe you are from, it does matter whether you are an Israeli or
not, Jewish or not, and if you are not Jewish, whether you are a friend or an enemy!
I did not feel any friction towards the Arab population of Israel but again the
contacts were very superficial: the wealthy owners of the restaurant, Abu Zayd
in Haifa; the genial taxi driver Salim who has travelled all over Europe and
has two sons at the University.
I was particularly pleased with the warm
feelings people had towards Ethiopian Jewish migrants to Israel. They were
universally considered to be hard working and willing to integrate themselves
into the reality of Israel.
Believe it or not, Israel being an advanced
country (the Gulf countries are far richer but much back ward in their
development and treatment of their workers), there is a problem with Illegal
Migration and it is from Moslem countries! It had forced them to build a wall, which
has stopped the illegal migration almost completely.
(at EDEN, an entirely organic supermarket in Haifa)
The last lesson was the sense of Reality
the people and the country of Israel gave me. I became acutely aware of the
reality of the life. Being an anthropologist it had a greater sting. It is easy
to forget reality a little in America or submerge in Magical Reality in Latin
America, but in Israel reality stares at you. Israel is one of the few
countries in the world where the future has already arrived and it lives next
to the thousands of years of history that is evident physically when you drive
around Israel. In names, monuments, archaeological ruin.
(at Abu Zayd, the salad alone will fill you up and the fish is as fresh as you can imagine!)
At the departure lounge at Ben Gurion
Airport where I waited for my flight to Istanbul, the mixture of people were
very different from the quotidian reality of Israel. There were the usual
groups of Chinese tourists, there were many Christians on pilgrimage and you
could see and sympathize with large number of Filipinas who are probably
working as domestics in the Oil rich countries here on pilgrimage.
On arrival at Ataturk International Airport
after a short flight, it felt like a dream that I had seen the future just a
few hours ago!
I wish Israel well, to be a guiding light
on to this world, where the technology and human kindness can advance hand in hand.
For those of you who may not know, Israel
has set up a field hospital near the Syrian border so that it can offer medical
help to those civilians being butchered by their leaders, some of whom are
actually flown into the medical centres in Israel for advanced medical care!
There is also help from IsrAid to the
Syrian refugees at Mafraq: this time volunteers from Israel help deal with the
Mental Health Issues of the refugees who face a long term exile from their
When I was an adolescent growing up in
Australia, I was taught these words of Theodor Herzl:
After we establish our own state, we must
look forward to helping others across the borders.
How nice it would be, both for Israel and
its Arab neighbours, so that both sides can benefit from a peace and the
development can be shared!