Thursday, May 14, 2009
I'm wading through the thousands of images taken while I was gone. I'm more or less recovered from jet lag but no less disappointed at the real world I've returned to, though I have no right to be disappointed. It will never change, only I will change and I knew that being away for three weeks wasn't going to accomplish the kind of change that would make a difference in my life here immediately.
Anyway, thinking back to when Jesse and I went to Abu Simbel and what those brief moments felt like in retrospect. I am struck by the contrast in the experience of seeing these monumental and magnificent sculptures and the crowds of western tourists of which I am one milling around at seven on a blistering morning in the desert. I am struck by the intensity of awe I feel contemplating works such as these and the near impossibility of being undistracted by those feelings while in the presence due to circumstances.
Last night I was reviewing some images taken the night before at a Nubian village we went to for dinner. As we approached a line of camels and riders passed across our view in front and I snapped off a group of pictures. At the time I suspected several things that did not add up in my mind to what I wanted the images to be. One was that the village appeared painted to some extent to appeal to western and English speaking tourists, hence the word "crocodile" spelled out on a building otherwise sporting Arabic script. Also the some of the pictures smacked of pandering as they did not feel like they originated for any reason other than what it was thought a tourist might respond to. Lastly the caravan of camels which when I was taking the pictures was rather distant was, as I suspected, ridden by at least two tourists in bermuda shorts and sun hats.
How to reconcile to the fact that one is there with the hordes? At Abu Simbel after not enough sleep and a three hour drive across the desert one is thrown in with the dozens of bus loads of tourist arriving at the same time, which to our western biological clock would breakfast time.
There is no chance to savor the feeling of serenity or power in the presence of the sculptures themselves for me. I need more space, more sense of the sacred, perhaps it is the scale that impresses? I think it's much more.
I feel when I look at these kinds of works, that I am rightly put in my place in the world and in the context of history. That I am as important and significant as a single sigh in a long life in terms of what these antiquities present to me.
An image of Jesse at the Temple of Philae caught my feeling very well, a feeling I immerse my self too deeply in photography to savor as much as I wish when in the presence of the works them selves.
It is disturbing to my own desire to be able to experience these places, and times with the kind of peace one wants from a refreshing visit to ocean or countryside. I ask myself what makes me so special and I have no answer, other than what ever others conclude for themselves, I am too wrapped up in my own neurosis and self centered delusions to have a grounded perspective. If I grant myself any credit at all it is that I truly passionately love to share what it is that I love so much and want others to have at least a chance at the pleasure and enrichment that I gain.
That said, I am also aware that anything we experience is appreciated or not half based at least on what it is we bring with us to the experience. The same is true for any art, music, film what ever. Thus it is always frustrating to feel at times that one shows what one perceives as magnificence to others only to receive back the feeling of incomprehension or even indifference.
When I am traveling I want to be invisible and of course that is a conceit of my own as I am anything but invisible to most, but I try to minimize my sense of intrusion as much as possible.
Then there is the complaint that we are using the rest of the worlds for our museum, to gawk at "primitive" ways of life and revel in the difference from our own technology and information saturated world.
What arrogance it is to wander around in these peoples world, their lives, to hand them money from a life that to them appears to be of unparalleled luxury compared to theirs.
I can't help but wonder when traveling, especially out of the city, where that man with the donkey and the goats sleeps at night, how his food is preserved or prepared. I think I know the answer in part which is that he sleeps in a dwelling that would make most of the people I know squirm if confronted with the realities of it. Possible lack of running water or minimal and same for electricity. Same for access to so much that is part of the fabric of our lives, access to public education of a significant quality, libraries, airwaves filled with information, music and advertising.
That brings me to why I don't feel so arrogant in front of these people. I am not so sure that what I know of daily life is always superior to what they know. Like them, I pay a price for my "freedom". Their world is proscribed by at least a degree of religious devotion and tradition that we scorn mostly in our predominantly secular world. Their world has rules for behavior of what is expected of the genders and their world is filled with family and extended community I suspect largely unimaginable to many of us any more.
I envy them that sense of security and knowing how the balance of life is defined. They do not necessarily question the world beyond the boundaries of their own culture. They also might if they had a greater access to education and if public health services were stronger, but who am I to look down on them? They don't live in a world of sex and material goods saturated advertising bombarding me from every direction, they don't live in a world so secular and without reverence that money is the common denominator and not community. relationships, feelings and family.
Perhaps this is only a reflection of my own mangled background. I feel like a child in front of some of these people and there are many who probably think just that of me. I am in awe of those whose world makes sense and they are confident that their place in it is secure. Sometimes I am not so sure.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Another week of jet lag. I hadn't counted on it being so brutal. Maybe I should have just stayed away. I came home to exactly what I knew to expect, a and now ex wife still deluded into imaging I would want anything to do with "friendship" without major changes in our relationship. I dreaded coming home for this reason alone. It was what I left and knew I would return to as no one has the power to change the past other than their perceptions and as yet I have had no grounds or experience to base such changes upon.
So now that's out of the way. I was in fact delighted today to find that the Egyptian Hotel Windsor desk clerk had sent my brass tray and it arrived in the mail as promised.
The delight was as much in having someone you trust come through for you as the fact that one of the artifacts of my childhood was such a tray. That original tray was bought when I visited Egypt as a child, dragged home by my mother with two children (of which I was the younger) along with a huge leather hassock (deflated at the time)as well as an amazing inventory of trinkets, souvenirs and lovely pieces of folk art typical of Egypt accumulated over the many months of our visit then. Those items were dragged physically across Europe by my mother with me and my sister on trains and ships and finally after New York by airplane to home, across the bay from San Francisco and displayed for decades only to be lost, dispersed or other wise disappear. I wanted my own tray now that I understood it was to be a table and not a display object for a shelf.
I live in a different world though I may be her cultural and psychological heir. I was apprised as I left Phnom Pehn for Seam Reap that my total weight must equate to no more than 43 kilos (the rest of the worlds version of 50 lbs) so I was glad I had had the brass tray sent by the Egyptian postal service.
Hopefully (and probably) that service has improved in security. As a child the anecdote I recall is the American or other expat who was expecting a gift in the mail from home that never arrived. The sender inquiring repeatedly finally feeling pressed to describe the particular striped neck tie sent, and upon inquiry at the Cairo post office the ex pat noticing the clerk wearing a tie suspiciously similar to the missing gift. So I am delighted to observe confidence in the present ability as well as (and perhaps most importantly) the Hotel Windsor which negotiated the entire thing for me at a remarkably more reasonable rate than that quoted to me by Egypt Air the airline I flew out of Cairo on to Bangkok.
But enough of that. I am home now and enjoying only the after glow of photographs that I am editing along with the slowly fading memories. It is aggravating to me that no matter how hard I work at preserving recollections I know for a fact that details will disappear day by day, invisibly and inevitably. Being human is such a humiliating and aggravating reality at times.
So as I knew I would find, I am home in my college town, filled with young people and of course being heterosexual I tend to some times notice women and the fact that the way they comport themselves along with how their physical characteristics differ from those in other countries, they are also of significantly different disposition towards men. Here I feel, as I knew I would at home, far more isolated and severed from contact. It is a consequence of both my being of some generations older than the coeds that frequent the neighborhoods near the university as well as the facts of how genders behave in my culture differently than in others I visited. The curiosity to me is that in Egypt with a clear distinction in the roles of men and women, perhaps due to my being a man, I felt included and respected though socially separated from women, in Asia I felt included and socially engaged and at home I feel neither except with people I know well and not many of those.
As I work on the photographs I remember how I felt being there and finding them. I remember feeling an intense love of Egypt, of the people and knowing that they would not necessarily understand my feelings or what being there meant to me. I thought about it a lot at the time and after. It is not an academic sense, it is of necessity highly subjective, born of experience and repetition. I'm sure if when I visited in 1976 I had not had a positive return I would not have wanted to return again as much as I had for the last over thirty years. Fortunately I was not disappointed but felt entirely vindicated in my feelings.
It is not hard for me to see the gulfs in reality between my own country and Egypt and much harder to know how to bridge those gulfs as an individual. As I work on the images I see one after another, faces that I remember looking at me either quizzically, friendly or angry and knowing in that moment to not further pursue, to take my advantage of good will or resign myself to a moment missed and the light being wrong. So many considerations, none of them particularly personal and mostly circumstantial.
Time and again I wanted to tell someone that I could not communicate with how important I felt it was that I have a momentary chance to show how wonderful Egypt is, how marvelous that people can still feel the pride of history that Americans can mostly only read about.
We imagine ourselves to be proud of our history but there is absolutely no comparison with the pride of people knowing their heritage counts immeasurably in the history of the world while ours is still an experiment barely even tested as the contemporary world watches in a combination of envy and confusion at our embarrassing wealth even in the worst of times and our incredible nearly total lack of experience with physical strife amongst ourselves or with invaders compared to extensive poverty more common elsewhere.
Luck does not even begin to describe our circumstances. Our standard of living, our assumptions, our sense of entitlement is beyond the expectations of kings for even the lowest of us in so many circumstances. There is no way to understand this in a text book and only travel and being in the midst of the reality of other cultures begins to educate.
It is an experience that is more precious than the finest university can provide, it can only be gained by throwing your self into the midst and taking what you find by trusting that people are human every where and they feel largely as you do and want mostly what you want, that is to be loved and respected and accepted for who they are. It's not all that complex really.
Today as a self indulgence, feeling crummy still both physically and emotionally, I bought two CD's to make myself feel better and I took a long time choosing. The first is Women of Egypt 1924 -1931 and the other is Amr Diab, greatest hits. a major pop star in Egypt. Obviously these are sort of bookends of the modern world, and being an amateur student of culture I found myself wanting at least some degree of perspective. This wasn't too bad for two choices for someone who reads no Arabic and took a chance. I can't begin to describe them adequately but the first is much more listenable to a western ear willing to hear and the second is surprisingly both clearly rooted in the culture and modern in being sped up (as is our own popular music since World War Two for the most part) and American influenced in the way that pop music is almost everywhere now.
Anyway, an afternoon spent making rice pudding with my formula with cardamom and almond flavoring) a good cigar, a martini made with gin from Washington State and finally a phone call from a local acquaintance and then Jesse to leaven my otherwise sometimes heavy moods.
It is hard for me to come home to what I left, knowing what it would be so well. not looking forward to it particularly and not being disappointed. Hoping to be wrong but knowing the probability being I would not be wrong.
So onward with the predictable and wondering if maybe it is time now to just move entirely away after believing so fervently in being of a place and having more than a brief history as is so common. Wondering where I would go and why. Wondering what my purpose here is anymore without a context or a partner to justify my presence. I feel like a left over with out any particular excuse or necessity.
Maybe that will change, or maybe I will change by leaving and creating a new reality for myself. It's too soon but I feel impatient as I was feeling already before I left.
As I review the images I am alternately amazed and embarrassed. I am amazed at the humility and good humor people exhibit towards me for the most part and I am embarrassed by own arrogance and assumptions. I freely acknowledge my sometimes predatory and voracious tendencies when behind a camera, my desire to capture before the subjects defense mechanisms and perhaps outrage at being invaded by an apparently presumptuous tourist take over against my simultaneous desire to not be rude, be a poor guest in their country that I so delight in for the very reasons that it is not my own culture and that I have so much to learn and want to share.
I am an ignorant outsider without more than a rudimentary command of a smattering of words or knowledge, just a profound affection.
An odd thing I heard the night before we left Cairo. We're visiting with a friend of a friend of my son. a woman from Egypt who's parents were diplomats and grew up in Washington DC. I give her the brief details of why I am so fond of Cairo and at some point she compliments me on my pronunciation of Arabic. I felt somewhat embarrassed as I felt there was no basis for such a compliment. I could only attribute it to the early phonetic recognition of a child to what the sounds "should" be coupled with the infrequent exposure I've had as an adult. Still though, through our entire visit words would come to me that I recognized but had forgotten the meaning of and when I asked I realize that of course I did know the word. Not whole phrases really but words coupled that help greatly when dealing with people in the street, phrases like "mafeesh felooze" or "I have no money" which you tell the appropriate beggar, or "mazboot" when asked how I want my coffee, which simply means balanced or not too sweet and not too plain. It happened every few days and by the time we had to leave as has happened in the past I didn't want to leave yet, I wanted to belong and be accepted and feel loved. Something that sometimes feel missing at home where it should be for everyone. It's no ones problem but my own to fix.
Still, looking at these images, seeing some of the faces of joy and genuine welcome how can I not wonder why it should feel so hard to find this close to home, but it does.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
I must be almost home because I’m incredibly frustrated trying to do something that should be really simple. I arrived about six thirty with four or so hours of sleep. Wandered into the beautiful new airport all but deserted and finally located a bench near an electrical outlet to plug in the computer. Plugged in and found no wi-fi. Not really surprised, I took a nap. Drowsing listening to the background music shift from Parsley Rosemary & Thyme to Fur Elise by Beethoven. There was a nice performance of some traditional Chinese musicians and dancers for a while. The personnel at Immigration and Passport control were efficient and professional. All seemed like it would be a smooth transition.
I went to change the remaining Thai currency to Yuan so I could get something to eat and had to pay the equivalent of seven US dollars for the privilege. Later I realize I could have used a credit card for food and waited until I got home to convert currency. Instead I do both.
I go to an airport restraint promising free wi-fi and order a club sandwich and a cup of coffee. Regular coffee which tastes pretty good amounts to an espresso sized serving in a regular cup. After forty five minutes of slowly eating the OK sandwich and almost warm fries I still cannot get an Internet connection and complain. I’m told they have cables, no wif-fi and am directed to a triangular shaped desk with two connections per side. I’m given a cable and sit down at a vacant space and plug in. After over five minutes of trying to get on line I notice the stickers on the two receptacles on my side both say “broken”. So I sit and wait for one of the others to free up and after ten or so minutes one does and I plug in again. I still cannot get a live connection to the Internet and give up after another ten or fifteen minutes in really annoyance. Decide I will try a land line credit card call since I am never able to get through on my cell phone no matter what I do.
I wander around and find a bank of phones. The video interface is mostly in Chinese but I plow ahead and do the best I can to get a response I can work with. I am told repeatedly regardless of the credit card or way I try to use it that “calls to that number are not allowed”. I’m trying to call my son in Oakland to see if I can get my car left at my house so I can collect my mail and do banking before the weekend starts. Then I try to call each one of his brothers with out success either. Finally I decide the try the most expensive option and try a collect call and manage to finally get an English language interface. Finally after having tried countless times on three different phones on two different banks of pay phones the call goes through. Of course I’m calling at the wrong time and it’s ten thirty at night for my son and he’s not sure he can move the car for me. I feel badly that I’ve interrupted his sleep and that I’m asking for something beyond his ability. I feel like my efforts to get through were mostly an exercise in futility and that I should have done nothing, taken a pill, had a drink, waited until I got myself home and then decided how much I was over drawn or now many bills I’d missed paying in my absence.
Ultimately none of this will make any difference and my life will soon return to the patterns it normally follows with the people that I normally interact with at home. The Chinese cultural celebration display is on again with young dancers on the stage spinning around. That sounds better.
An hour later. I quite feeling so aggravated and resign myself to the future having not a great deal of change from the past. It’s usually so incremental that the differences are marked in degrees of subtlety rather than dramatic contrast for the most part. I may as well accept that nothing is going to change, no one is going to act any differently and that if I want that I need to look elsewhere or within myself.
My final flight takes off in about an hour. The trip has been remarkably free of irritation other than allowing myself to be ripped off early on in Egypt, and some extravagant expenses such as a suit in Bangkok. I’ll have to take myself to the opera this fall to justify the purchase. Of course maybe I’ll learn how to convince other people I’m really serious about doing business rather than just playing at it. It took me six months or more of steady effort to get that confidence as a cab driver so I should allow that this time too. Of course when I was learning to drive a cab I wasn’t alone and that does make a difference. Maybe it seems like it makes more of a difference now because I’ve returned to this state too many times to feel optimistic any more. Just resigned that this is what the cards I’m dealt, have dealt myself for that matter, will amount to and there is nothing more to be said. I need to simply figure into my budget the fact that if I want to tell someone my innermost thoughts I have to pay for it, and if I want to be touched kindly, I need to pay for that too. The expectations of how things are supposed to be are mostly made up in my own mind and resolving to be at peace with the facts of my life is all I can do or else I’ll act out inappropriately again with sex, drugs and other self destructive behaviors.
I’ve been away since April 7, been to three countries and in seven different cities since I left home (New York, Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Seam Reap)and on nine different airplanes and spent my money with far less restraint than I do at home. Hopefully I will enjoy my things at home, enjoy drinking the Arak and smoking the cigars, wearing the suit, the silk boxers and kimono. The bottom line is that I bought things for others that I got great pleasure out of choosing and if they bring others pleasure then that is worth more than the indulgences I bought for myself.
I remember when I left that I was struggling with whether or not I deserved such a trip and I can’t say that I’ve changed much in three weeks. The feelings of privilege as an American are not feelings I am comfort able with. I want to share what I have with others and not feel used or exploited. Those feelings are no different with those I let in close to me at home than they are when I travel and am among strangers. Sometimes the differences can seem blurry as those in other countries are so warm and engaging, friendly and solicitous and ultimately it is about your money. At home the behaviors are a little different and the coin of the realm is not necessarily that of cash, sometimes it is more expensive than one realizes at first.
I’m finishing my last beer in China and going to the gate to take off in forty five minutes. The trip will be over in twelve hours or so and then I’m back to the cool grey fog of home and reality again. Until I can get away.
The airport is new and glossy, left over from the Olympics. I was last here in 2006 and loved the city but this time I'll be stuck in the air terminal for nine hours. It sounded worse in advance than it was in reality. I find things to be interesting almost anywhere I am and for the most part refuse to be bored but insist on trying to bring my own context of experience with me to understand where I am from a present perspective each time.
Despite a depressive personality I love the world and humanity and revel in all the variations and permutations we insist upon each other. It is these infinite variations and digressions that make us human and keep me from being bored.
How can I as an American accustomed to the impossible privleges and assumptions that Americans entertain, not be impressed with the soaring modern architecture in both the Bangkok and Beijing airports? Yet, Phnom Penh charmed me, reminded me of the first time I flew out of San Francisco as a child in the fifties, the terminal was similarly modest but no less international. We oncce built a patch in the middle of the bay and called it Treasure Island after the Robert Louis Stevenson story, dropped a Worlds Fair on it (what ever happened to those?) and had loft plans to use it as an airafield for Pan Am Clipper Ship airplanes to the "Orient".
In America the future is constantly racing ahead to collide with the present in ways that we here take for granted and the rest of the world marvels at and yet like any one anywhere, we pay a price for this success rate. The price is the sometimes loss of personalization. It takes time to be personal, it takes time to spend time with others long enough to hear them and know what they feel. One of the American failures has been the trade off of the human for the transendentally futurist. So enchanted with our ability to fly close to the sun like Icarus we forget to sit in the mud and be charmd by the child mocking us and being a clown just across the way. It takes time and patience to do these things and it does not require any gadgets or gizmos. It doesn't matter if you have the latest Ipod or sleekest car. The child doesen't care and neither does a lot of the rest of the world. Theyn are dazzled by our neverending phenomena but at the end of their days, there is still rice to be planted, a child still to be sung to and some one down the road expecting to be paid off to leave you alone for another day. We just handle our payoffs with a less primitive systlem, but no less draining ultimately.
Corruption is part of the human condition. That's how we got to be where we are now. Not glamorous and fast, but clumsy and awkward. stepping in the mud of the world, not watching where we walk, electing fools who couldn't even lie with a straight face. Some of us insisted on voting for these people and it will always be so, here and abroad as well.
This time though the greetings were so often more "welcome, Obama GOOD!" and lots of thumbs up. People wanting to know how we feel about the new president and hopeful that we're still hopeful.
They do depend on us to an incredible degree and we have let them down so many times and told them to ignore the little man behind the screen but people are not fools by and large and they don't ignore what is in plain sight.
We insult the world when we take it for granted. They know that we have taken them for granted and that is why in part they are ready to take us for what ever they can when that is the option, because they will never be up to the bigger hammer that we represent so viscerally.
I grew up in the immediate shadow of the atomic bomb, that hammer ever ready in the shadows that everyone hopes will go away and everyone knows will never disappear within the memory of anyone who will ever remember them however remote. We're talking here about people who in some cases still celebrate the holidays of the Pharaohs. How do you argue with people who readily acknowledge a heritage of four or five thousand d0cumented years? This isn't some vague Day of the Dead worshipping some personal ancestors, this is the history of the world, all of us. They celebrate it, we don't. We're still hung up with Seventy Six Trombones and a Big Parade on the Fourth of July. It feels puny to me. These folks know antiquity and what the nitty gritty reality of being human really is in the put rice on the table with nothing else in sight.
I know I'm rambing here.
I'm home and rattling around in my coffin factory looking at the artifacts of my brief trip and wondering what I could have left behind. What I might have skipped. Not much, I would have skipped letting myself be humiliated by being ripped off by a man inthe building I once called the home zero in Cairo but now is just another decrepit two star hostel hard by the El Tahrir Bridge. Since I'm such a "rich" American, I can take it and wince. Not let it color the rest of the time, and me? I'd go back to Egypt anytime, hot, cold, wet or dry. Cambodia? Sure I'd go back. I'd plan a little more now that I know a little more. And Thailand? When do we leave?
I found a message on my phone when I got home from a friend who I wnet to China with the last time, when I thought I was happily married, asking me if I wanted to go again this summer. Now that I'm not happily married, what's to stop me? When do we leave and do I really have to come back this time?
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
I noticed tonight that there are all these vendors of garlands of jasmine and an orange flower the name slips my mind at the moment. There are shrines all over that people leave offerings at and I wondered if the garlands were some special festival and was told they are year round. When I went back out without my camera of course I immediately ran into a tiny old woman with a large tray of these flowers on her head. That and I also ran into another elephant. I like them for some reason.
Tomorrow I have to check out of the hotel at noon and find something to do for ten hours. I guess I'll just walk around and take some pictures but ten hours is a long time with airconditioning and somewhere to sit so I'll have to improvise some how. I guess it's time to find a coffee shop with airconditioning where I can hang out for hours at a time if I need to. I doubt I'll be bored, that is a state largely foreign to me thank god.
I bought a second suitcase as from China Airlines website it states that if I am going to North America I can carry two suitcases not over 23 kilos. I have done that and can easily carry everything else.
Tonight I went out at twilight to find what I could in the neighborhood. This may give some feeling for what the atmosphere is like here. It is so many things simultaneously that it is probably a mistake to try to sum it up in some neat statement. I think I'll be coming back here some day. There is a Bangkok Gift show in November, maybe then. So I'm going out to enjoy the evening with out my camera for a change.
After taking these pictures and a hundred and eighty or so other ones (believe me they're not all usable the way I work) I started my dinner with some skewers of meat from a vendor grilling them on his cart. Four different kinds and four different qualities as well. The pork sausage one had too many bone fragments in it to pass FDA at home, but it tasted good and I like the smell of the meat griling all over the place. Next I had corn on the cob that was as good as any at home and to finish it off I had a bag of roasted crickets or grasshoppers. I just had to try some of the insects I've been so curious to find out what they're like. They're OK, not bad at all, mostly crunchy greasy and salty. Three of my major favorite food groups.
I was told to look at the MBK mall if I wanted anything electronic or whatever and I wanted to see what it was like. I thought I might buy a memory card for my camera if the price was good but I don't really need one to tell the truth at this point.
So I took the sky train, which is incredibly modern and efficient. I'd say it was quiet too, which is more than I can say for most metro trains. Two stops later and I was at shopping central. The contrasts here were driven home again though with the sleeping man under the stairs and the child beggar asleep on the stairs with his cup. I guess if I lived here I'd have to get used to it. It appears that millions of people have.
Once inside it was a relief from the muggy heat of mid day. It must have been in the eighties with humidity around 75%, but I'm just guessing. There is quite a lot of air conditioning here and I wondered what the power source was as they use it liberally. Inside it almost seems like malls within malls and malls linked to other shopping centers by passageways over streets and it seems to really become one amazingly dense concentration of everyday commerce. All the ladies underwear, Pashmina scarves, luggage, fast food, electronics and so on with another area reserved for the Imax and other movie theaters. I'd guess Singapore might be on a par with this but this clearly is some miles ahead of even the most modern department store I saw in Beijing.
After looking over the electronics and wondering how so many people selling so much of the same thing in such proximity can survive I decided the prices weren't compelling and I was unwilling to risk the purchase of a product more sophisticated than I can readily understand and not be confident I will have no problems when I am thousands of miles away and have no recourse.
Roaming around in the malls also were visible numbers of western tourist fair skinned and blond in many cases. It looked like a high school had gotten out in some San Diego suburb as there were so many young looking white girls and a lot of maybe college aged couples as well as the odd middle aged person looking lost. Hey, not me. The point in getting lost is to figure out how to find your way back so you begin to learn your way around. That's my theory. Of course if you get frazzeled or anxious you can hop in a cab or on a tuk-tuk and sit in traffic for a while, might be quite a while too.
I decided to look for neckties and underwear. At least I found three decent neckties for around six and a half each. They definitely will bargain as she wanted 490 baht each for the ties and I offered her 900 for three, she laughed at me and said some things in Thai I didn't understand and accepted my offer. Perhaps she didn't expect a westerner to bagain that way, I don't know.
Finally it was time to head back as I wanted enough time before the tailor delivered his goods to me.
Then I got lost trying to leave and began to feel like I was in a video game of strategy where because I am overlooking one critical detail I keep repeating the same sequence over and over. It was maddening. Finally I went outside to get my bearings and sort of did and decided to go back inside and go up a level so I could go across and so on and it didn't work either, I ended up on some upper floor walking past the same Bangkok versions of KFC, Sizzler, Pizza Hut, Swensons and innumberable Japanese chains. Finally some how I saw the detail hidden in the mass of confusing textures and images and signs and mannaged to find my way back to the sky train so I could confidently wait on the platform to take the train going in the wrong direction a few stops. It all worked out and I got back in time to have one of the beers I bought last night and got cold in the room fridge.
Tonight I imagine will be an orgy of photography and street food. Maybe I'll get propositioned again, most likely I will. It's kind of flattering, even if it is all about dollar signs. At least it's honest and it never happens at home.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
My guide, Wan, a pleasant, well seasoned Thai woman who has lived in Germany and other countries but grew up here took me for my last night with her paid assistance. We went to dinner at the same spot she took me to the first night. Food, two dishes and a fruit juice for about $3 or less, I paid for hers as well.
Then she took me to Soi Cowboy, a famous street of girly bars where there are some topless ones as well. Never having actually been to a topless bar before i have to say it was slightly anti climactic in that the difference with the one she took me to the first night was that their breasts were bare. Othr than that it was the same inventory of bored out of their minds girls trying to keep jiggling to the indeffinite hip hop electro disco beat that never stops. I bought us each a bottle of water (same price as beer she pointed out) and finished mine in maybe six minutes and suggested we move on. I think she was mildly surprised that I bore so quickly but there wasn't anything to do but look at all these bodies with nothing to do but leave finally in as much as I had no intention of giving any of them money. The street it's self was such a trip I had to come back later and I did.
After that we went back to her favorite massage parlor (legit, big sign says NO SEX) and we each had a two hour full body massage. I think it's the first meaningful human touch I have experienced in far more months than I care to count and just like the person I tell my inner most secrets to, I pay for this service. Like the other though, this is really worth it and cost $10. The woman who worked on me found her way to my back and shoulders and paid them the attention they have needed for decades. It would be worth coming back to Bangkok just to have that every day for a week.
Then we walked back to the hotel and agreed to meet for breakfast when she would give me some tips on how to spend my last full day here alone. I'm actually looking forward to it as I don't feel particularly intimidated having had a few days indoctrination which was just about what I needed.
After that I grabbed my camera and headed back to Soi Cowboy, but not before coming to a small intersection with a traffic jam involving two elephants. I was going to take the sky train for 15 baht which is maybe fifty cents but I couldn't figure out how to get up to the platform so I took a cab which cost me a total including the tip of 45 baht, and was much less hassle at 11pm.
I walked up and down the street doing my dumb tourist guerilla photographer routine which consists of holding the camera to my eye to take pictures of the neon and the food vendors and holding it at navel height with the zoom all the way open and allowing the camera to auto focus and hope that what I'm aiming at proves to be what I had in mind. I'd say I have mayber 30% to 50% luck but no one gets irritated with my taking their picture as I am looking in another direction entirely than what the camera is aimed at.
Then I walked all the way back to the hotel which only took fifteen or twenty minutes. During that time I was propositioned by a prostitute who asked me to take her picture and witness to a small child sleeping on the sidewalk with a puppy. You want pathos? Here it is.
I kind of enjoy the colorful polyglot chaos of the whole thing, it's simultaneously some how sweet and honest, garish and vulgar, exhuberantly absurd and unabashedly carnal. Fun for all. It has begun to remind me of both Toulus Latrecs Moulin Rouge period where he hung out with prostitutes and had them model for him as well as George Grozs images of Berlin in the twenties and thirties. Filled with fat men ogling bored women who have only one thing on each of their minds, sex and money. The girls are so cheerful and want you to pay them attention (and money)but it seems so much more human than what ever the version of this is in America where we are shocked, SHOCKED! that such behavior is going on in our communities. Oh the indignation. And thennnnn...the drunken fat tatooed lumbering western white males in clusters, deciding, deciding, deciding, which one shall it be, by god there are so many so qualified and my god, it's only money. Oh well, you only live once, or so they say.
The tailor came to my hotel room to show me the suit he made, with the two other pairs of pants I had him copy and the suit pants I brought along to be altered. The man works fast, and we decided the jacket cuffs were a half inch too long so he'll bring it back tomorrow to deliver the finished product. I am hoping he can ship it for me as I'm anxious about the weight thing and China Airlines allows only 23 kilos total to be checked through. I hope I can carry a lot.
In Bankok and to a great extent in Phnom Penh was the reality that every transaction becomes a financial exchange ultimately. In the states we're a little more lax about it, partly because we receive so much value in our daily life such as the infrastructure and various amenities in our lives such as the kinds of things we have access to and take for granted. They don't have those things here or in many parts of the world and thus it is true, that no matter what your personal, economic or social status, by comparison to the majority of people in these kinds of countries, we are all "rich Americans" if we can even afford to visit their country as an excursion away from our own worries and complications. It's easy to forget when you're home and surrounded by the daily routines of American life, but believe me, the vast majority of us have it easier than an awful lot of people do here. I hope I can keep that in mind after I come home, at least for a while. I may need to be reminded though, knowing myself and my tendencies. This is me today, who knows about tomorrow.
Today I went to the Grand Palace and saw where the king lives and saw the Emerald Buddha (which is jade) and it got as hot as Cambodia was and no rain. Met an African American woman from Charlotte NC here for the first time to visit her brother, a military vet of Viet Nam era. We joked and commiserated about the traffic and so on. After Cairo and Phnom Penh though this city is orderly and clean with traffic as reasonable as New York, at rush hour sometimes, but still, orderly.
I have to figure out how to send some things home as I have accumulated too many things to bring on the 20 kilo limit China Airways flight on Friday.
I'm looking forward to my own life and not being confronted with the spectacle of so many others whose lives a far more constricted than mine. I whine and complain but the luxuries I take for granted are countless and I need to count my blessings even if the ones that mean the most to me are missing now, there are others and I'll just remind myself of the man who was so deformed he looked like he was melting into the pavement at the entrance to the brothel in Phnom Penh. I wish I had his picture but I didn't have a camer or the heart to ask.
Another trip to these places I'm visiting for the first time and I would plan more around the kinds of photography I like, I somehow find it important to document what I see in these places, I want to show them and share them, but maybe no one really cares, they're all so far away and maybe this is all my upper middle class white anglo saxon privlege trying to rationalize the freedom and luxuries I take for granted. It does not seem so hard to find oneself living in the street in America anymore.
Monday, April 27, 2009
The images here are from the last day in Phnom Penh, one of the street food vendor and two of the Genocide Museum. I decided no one really wants to see the more intense images and if they want to they can ask. The US ammunition box on the bed spring next to the manacles (made of rebar) was the toilet. The image of the man making things with his hands is Bangkok and he makes little animals and shapes using knotted sisal twine I think.
I need to look at some kitchen things today, but it may have to wait until the last day when I don't have any tour plans made for me.
This area I'm in is a bit like Times Square, I've decided and I'm probably seeing a somewhat skewed view of Thai culture as a consequence. I want to go out to take a stroll before the day begins again.
After entering and passing the bar we're seated in comfortable rattan chairs around a small table, an artificial waterfall doing it's thing to the side of the stage and three girls are singing.
I need to try to be precise here because it was so eerie and strange and not bad, but not quite my thing. They were flawless at what they were doing and what that was consisted of soft ballads of the late sixties and seventies. They wore matching dresses with black lace bodices and the dress of a print that I'd call late seventies post psychedelic in shades of tan and brown, almost like the print in the carpet of a movie theater.
Their moves were flawlessly rehearsed, step, twist pause move the arm a certain way and step back and twist and turn and it was all done, song after song perfectly, a movement routine for every song that they knew really well. They also knew how to sing in English really well, fairly unaccented English at that. After every song they said "Thank you so much ladies and gentermen" and it sounded vaguely like the two Chzeckoslovakina Brothers routine of Steve Martin when they spoke.
Song after song, in a strangely identical phraseing, a man in the back with two or three synthesizers filling the room with soaring sounds and beats as they twist turn nod, wave, bend in unison without ever looking at each other once.
Song after song, The Look of Love, Stuck in Lodi, The Sea (La Mer), A Kind of a Hush, I knew too many of them and the ones I didn't know sounded like the others anyway. I was asked if I liked them, how could I not, how could part of me keep from almost breaking into laughter at the strange flawless yet completely disconnected from the source nature of the performance?
I don't know what to say. It's this pandering to the tourist that gets me. I came here to see Thailand not American pop and consumer culture thrown up in the mirror for me to adore. I don't adore it, I'm part of it, I can't escape it, yet that's one of the reasons to travel, to get away and to see other cultures and how wonderfully different they are in their unique quirks and manners.
In Phnom Penh the bell boy took me to the night market the night before I left. It was more like the kind of street fairs we have at home. There were vendors selling stuff, clothes and crafts and jewelry and so on, so of it appealing even. But what was nice was that it was all Cambodians there. They were there because they wanted to be. Some had their children, there were food vendors and there was a large area covered with straw mats that couples and families had gathered on and were grouped eating a picnic or something they bought. In front was a large stage and a man singing in a sort of soaring power ballad style, again with a man in back with a synthesizer but this did seem somehow more indiginous and less pandering, in fact not pandering at all really. At the end a group came on of men and women slightly reminiscent of a group I saw in Siem Reap, performed a series of folk dances. They did one here as well, men dressed alike and women dressed alike. But this was for them, not for tourists. Make no mistake, they were eager to sell me anything they could, but there was an auro of innosence that is missing in Thailand. The people are really nice but thus far I am surrounded by tourist culture and not Thai culture, hopfully that will change.
Today I went on a boat tour of Bangkok that started off in a typhoon which sounds to me a little more dramatic than I thought it was. There certainly was a loud electrical storm and some pouring rain and then it tapered off to mere steam. First one boat took us up the river one way and then up a split in the river and then let us off at a ramp where we stood around for five minutes and got on another one, a "rice barge" which didn't resemble what that sounds like to me. There was a guide telling us everything we were seeing but on the first boat I couldn't understand anything he said due to the loud motor and poor amplification and bad speakers. I didn't mind, I just wanted to take pictures. Since I was alone there was no one to be annoyed. At least not in my immediate vicinity. I probably did annoy some people but I didn't have anything else that I wanted other than to collect images from the opportunity to do so. Coming back in the van we sat in traffic for an hour and a half before being invited to walk the rest of the way. I would have walked a lot sooner but I thought I should stay put. It turned out OK.
In the morning Wan (my guide) took me to a tailor so I could get somethings made and altered I wanted attended to by a competent tailor. Of course he sold me a suite and some shirts as well and I guess that's what credit cards are for since I haven't had an occassion for wearing a suit really in years, other than meeting some people in Washington DC who I thought were going to seal the deal on the television series, but even the suit then didn't make any difference. Anyway, this is a suit of a different color, altogether. Grey, wool, three buttons, cuffs and pleats on the pants. Probably I'll have an opportunity to wear it in the next ten or so years if my life follows the pattern it has for the last ten.
So I've been thinking about the last day in Phnom Penh. I went back to the Genocide Museum because it spoke to me. I took a lot of pictures that no one I know will want to see for the most part but I think is incredibly important. Suddenly an Imam is calling the faithful to prayer outside. Weird how the cross cultural currents of this trip are interweaving themselves. The Cambodians are a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist and their language is based on Sanskrit. Hows that for throwing a loop around my naive California ignorance?
Anyway, this museum, which preserves the location of the torture prison of Pol Pot (I guess it was his Abu Grabe) is stark in it's matter of fact reality.
I've been readingthis article on Cambodia since I left that I found in the April issue of THarpers called Cambodias Wandering Dead. It has a great deal of objective facts and details that are very illuminating. The article is timed to coincide with the begining of the attempt to hold some kind of atrocity trials on the half dozxen living elderly people still culpable of the foul deeds. Pol Pot managed to die never apprehended in the '90's. The article also describes in detail what the Genocide Museum is like. I guess everyone has a different attitude about these things since the author saw fit to describe the place as an "entertainment for tourists". To me, that's to suggest that there is some kind of pornographic titilation about the exposure of this kind of abuse and trauma to a nation. Personally I don't see it that way. I think it is the best thing they could do, given their limited resourses and lack of power on the world stage. It is in my mind akin to sexual abuse being brought into the open in the Catholic Church, or for that matter sexual abuse of any kind. Public exposure is the best kind of immunization against repeat. I saw there was a museum of terror in Budapest and something similar I think in Prague. This is not entertainment and it is far from titilating. It brought me to tears. Tears of sorrow that so many people were treated so inappropriately and so needlessly and to absolutly no achievment at all. I could say the same thing about some of the personal relationships in my own life but thats a diatribe for another day. Besides no one wants to listen. Which is exactly why I took so many pictures. Because the place resonated for me, despite my own scars being of a far different and less (comparatively speaking) dreadful nature. The difference is I wasn't killed, I just have wanted to kill myself instead. Consequences are what they are.
The two images here are from one of the few survivors of this episode who was an artist and illustrated what he saw and experienced.
One of the images is of several variations on the theme of waterboarding. A subject only described in the press and never illustrated that I have seen. This was George Bush and Dich Cheneys contribution to American history. When do we get our "war trials" ? Enough said.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
My guide, Wan, is a middle aged Thai woman who is accustomed to giving western men tours of Bangkok with a decidedly sex tourist angle. I am interested only in so far as I want to see what there is to see without further expense or involvement. She is somewhat confused by my interest in the food and street culture that tends to be what attracts me. I found the short exposure to the sex bars last night really uncomfortable. It seems considerably more straightforward here than in Cambodia, but seeing so many western men, they look like they're lumbering overweight Germans or Aussies to me and in reality there are probably just as many Americans. There are also a lot of Arabs but here they are with their wives also to some extent and now they look like tourists instead of inhabitants as they did in Egypt.
Seeing a white girl with her tatoos and multiple piercings makes me wince as much if not more than at home. I have no doubt the people in the countries I have visited don't quite know what to make of the man with two earrings either and in truth I feel like being as invisible as I can, as identifying myself with the flip flop shod, baggy shorts and printed tee shirts on the over sized men with skin as white as mine is something I find disheartening to confront.
In one of our last conversations in Egypt (I think it was) Jesse laughingly called me an elitest and maybe I am, though I certainly don't see myself that way. I simply don't identify very strongly with the ephemeral nature of passing fads. I think of an elitest as someone who imagines themself to be superior in some way and if anything I struggle with the opposite most of the time. I identify with the ones I see struggling, even though to them I must look like I live like a king. In material terms, perhaps I do, and I need to see my way to a much less expensive cost of living than I have in the states. It is a constant struggle to know where to fit in, to ask myself if I am only ogling another culture as though I were going to the movies to seek some exotic entertainment, or if I am learning and enriching myself, which is how I tend to view these expereiences generally.
The asian attitude towards sex is certainly more matter of fact than America, there are endless vendors offering new dvd's of pornography. In that conversation where I was observed as an elitest (or perhaps it was a different one) the observation was that American women had more power than Egyptian women. Perhaps they do, but then the Egyptians don't show the obsession with sex that Americans are always trying to reconcile and is that power or is that exploitation?
I take for granted the social equality of women in my culture and in fact bridled at the traditional expectations of a homemaker that my mother and sister embraced. The spectre of a woman as a luxury object a man affords to raise children and show the world he's prosperous to me is not the same as the man and woman actually sharing most of the same burdens equally.
Men come to Asia to find a sexually compliant and subservient woman, at least that's the common assumption. I cannot see the cultural and linguisitc complications as anything but barriers to the kind of intimacy I have sought in relationships, whether successful or failed, but tried all the same, perhaps it is naive of me at this point in time to expect intimacy to be on a human and emotionally vulnerable plane. Perhaps I am the one who is an elitest to expect such lofty assumptions as emotional honesty and an open hearted caring for each others well being.
There is lightning flashing and thunder crashing and the rain is pouring down.
In Egypt there were thousands of cats in the city, I wanted so to pick them up and did once or twice but it was obvious they were not clean given the environment in which they exist and an economy that can ill afford pets commonly as a luxury item as we do in the states. I miss my cats terribly. I even thought about adopting a cat in each country I visit, but that's an indulgence beyond my means.
I am supposed to take a boat tour in some canals this afternoon and it has been rumbling thunder for the last hour and now is pouring rain. I brought no rain gear. I'm sure it will be interesting what ever it is.
He took me to Martinis, a bar in some neighborhood you enter into a courtyard, past the begging of a dreadfully deformed dwarf who spoke disconcertingly good English. In the courtyard were tables and chairs and some vague music in the background, with a light crowd. At a glance it seemed like a pleasant place and then he took me into another space off the courtyard, dark, a bar clearly, throbbing hip hop music, strobing light somewhere and girls standing around that seemed to suddenly start dancing as we appeared. The girls seemed to be all remarkably young, mostly quite pretty by western standards and many of them looking in my direction. We bought beer. After a time some western men came in accompanied by other females. Then, in the dark, with the trobbing beat I hesitate to call music, it became dreadfully clear that this was quite literally a meat market with buyers drifitng in to view the goods. I've heard about this, read about this, never seen it. I feel like the character in The Mission, who represents the Vatican and who comes to South America to decree that they will abandon the mission in the jungle they established to keep the natives free from the slavery of the plantations. During the first part of the film he is impassive and imperious in his decisions. When after he has been pleaded with by his young Jesuits to not give up on what they began he brushes them aside. A blood bath ensues with total destruction of the civilizing aspects they had brought with them as the natives go to war against the Spanish and Portugese. At the end the Vatican emissary sees what his decision has wrought, he is horrofied and beyond chagrin and how wrong was his decision. I feel like that man viewing this crowd of girls I could have been in high school with at another time in my life and I see the horror, the "heart of darkness" here in these predatory circling men, middle aged, unshaven, in shorts and tee shirts and sandals as they prepare to buy their choice prime for the evening. As we leave I cannot pass the deformed dwarf and his pleading again. I stop and give him all the Cambodian currency I have. By the way the only way you end up with this currency is as change for your dollars. Hence you never receive anything but less than a dollar in change as they try to make all purchases in round dollars. I gave him my "change" a pathetic offering to this bright faced, determined survivor, begging at the door of what I see now is a brothel, he looks up at me with infinite gratitude and thanks me profusely for my nearly nonexistent gift. I want to cry.
Later I'm taken to another bar, a little less harsh for my taste and I am serenaded by The Monkees singing Daydream believer. In this part of the world it seems so hard to excape some of the worst of America. I guess like so many, we keep the best for ourselves at home. That's not what I'm traveling to see though.
The next day he took me to a stretch along the river where there are obviously a string of western style restraunts and he chooses one where we sit. A pleasant looking Caucasian girl is at the next table alone. I smile and she smiles back. I speak and she speaks, so we sit with her. It is so nice to hear my language and be understood and listen to someone elses perceptions.
She lives in Taiwan with her boyfriend teaching English, she came to Cambodia alone because her boyfriend had been and didn't want to return. We discuss the fact of how neither of us likes traveling alone and how important companionship in the experience. We trade stories of our backgrounds, she of Ukranian extraction grew up near Toronto, went to college, things where I live in the states is paradise and has a sister in northern California. I talk about myself too much and can see she is feeling weary. She admits to getting sick and feeling the weight of being a female traveling alone. She came not for vacation but to volunteer for ten days at an orphanage. There is a great deal of presence of agancies revolving around children here, pediatric hospitals and groups of orphans taken in by a single person. I met such a group at Angor, a wizened old man with one tooth in front and a dozen or more small children in tow. He had found them all in the street and was trying to care for them with donations. I took pictures and he gave me his card. The young woman and I part after the tree of us share a meal and I am taken on to see another piece of Phnom Penh nightlife as well as the facinating view of the city at night from the back of a motorcycle.
I landed here breathing a sigh of relief that I’d gotten out of Cambodia intact. The exit fee kind of surprised me a bit, I don’t think I’ve ever been charged that before. Especially in light of the fact that Thailand doesn’t charge me anything at all to come in and I’m sure it won’t charge me to leave. Just like home.
So I took the taxi into town and was told at the taxi desk that it should cost no more than 400 baht. At 35 to the dollar that meant no more than around ten bucks to me. The cab driver spoke no English though I showed him the card with the hotels name on it and after paying two toll fees and having to ask directions once (like in Cairo but this place is as developed looking at first glance as London). So when he found it and the meter read 225 baht and I added in the tolls of 70 baht I decided I’d give him 350 baht. When I offered it to him he acted like he didn’t understand and put on some kind of a confusion act but when I pointed out to him the fare on the meter and mentioned the tolls he suddenly realized I actually knew what I was talking about and became very grateful. I seem to have that effect on cab drivers in foreign countries, cab drivers are essentially the same everywhere and either they’re human beings or they’re idiots that look like human beings. I can tell the difference usually.
I was met at the hotel by the guide I was told would meet me and after taking an hour to clean up and restore myself after the flight (and anxieties that they wouldn’t let me bring my two carry ons with me because they kept announcing that only one was allowed due to “security” but the clerks at the Bankok Airways desk told me it was OK) anyway, I made it and got myself refreshed and met the guide in the lobby at 7:30. We went to dinner. I began to get my first real impressions of Bankok. Obviously to a Western white male there is one thing that stands out. The girls, young and a lot of them and a lot of them with middle aged white guys. I find it somewhat depressing to tell the truth. Pretty is pretty, but the stark industrialization of the sex trade here is a bit overwhelming. Some of the girls even look like they’ve had their adult teeth for a while. That’s a Raymond Chandler paraphrase. After dinner she took me to a complex of bars, sort of like a mall of bars you might say, the weather is really mild at night and there are all manner of exotic life on the streets, from beggars with hideously deformed bodies to a man with an elephant we kept running into. The streets are lined with vendors of a wide range of goods, most of it looking to me like crap I wouldn’t buy at home for the most part but a lot of food vendors that I really want to photograph. A lot of food vendors, maybe even more than in Phnom Penh. The contrast is startling. This place is prosperous and the other is not, that’ just on the general first impression scale, not anything statistical. The fact is, I don’t know shit about these places, that’s why I’m here, to get a first impression and to decide if there’s a reason to return.
After she showed me the bar scene (a lot of adolescent bodies in minor bikinis occasionally gyrating to a mechanized (and to me highly annoying)hip hip beat with out any melody to speak of or purpose or beginning or end. I decided I had other things that interested me more and suggested she show me something else. Like a supermarket. I wanted to take a bottle of something to drink back to my room and after concluding that my choices were rather limited by both price and choice selected some Thai whiskey which I will consume in a small quantity to avoid the day after and also a slice of “nut corner” from the bakery counter, some Togusto Nuts (broad beans and cuttlefish), some peanuts, dried mango, yogurt, and a quart or so of Tangerine and Orange sac juice. I’m not sure what that means but it tastes OK to me. Maybe I should have also gotten the roasted almonds with anchovy. Next time I will. Now I’m back in the room winding down, I’m supposed to meet the guide around ten or ten thirty in the morning to find out what else Bangkok holds in store. I have a feeling there will be a lot of surprises here.
When I came back from Siem Reap I was met at the airport by the bell boy from the hotel who had befriended me. I thought he'd have a car. Silly me, he had a Honda 125 which I hopped on with my two bags and we chugged into town through streets flooded from the downpour while I was in the air.
I was disoriented as the day began. Thought I slept badly, loud air conditioner and general anxiety. When I woke up I was convinced I had overslept by hours as my watch read two forty five. Then I looked at the clock at the hotel registration desk and it said almost nine. Then I realized my watch had stopped because I forgot to push the stem back in last night. So I didn’t oversleep or miss my tour. I was really glad I didn’t because the guide was a really marvelous woman. She took me to the Kings Palace and showed me all about the Cambodian royal family, took me to the art museum and to a major Buddhist shrine. Then she took me to genocide museum and the battery in my camera died. The place had me close to tears. As tragic and horrific as the worst atrocities of The Holocaust, Rwanda, The Congo, Bosnia, shall I go on? There’s more to add. We live in the most incredibly comfortable country in the world and have no idea what it means for a little country like Cambodia with lots of identity and pride to be constantly under some kind of assault from bigger more powerful countries. At Angor Wat I was shown botched restoration efforts that had irreparably ruined sections of a temple. It makes it easier to understand why they seem so nearly militant about making tourists pay nearly American prices for many things. I don’t really mind all that much and I gave the guide and the driver each ten bucks at the end of the tour yesterday and today. They really worked and gave their all. I couldn’t recommend either one of them higher and you probably could do no better.
So we go to the Genocide Museum to see where Pol Pot did his dirtiest work. An old school complex turned into a torture and detention center. I was so pissed that my camera battery died and I didn’t have an extra (it was charging in the room) that I decided to go back tomorrow. The place made me cry and I didn’t want to leave it out because I didn’t charge my batteries on time. Photos of the detainees, photos of corpses, manacles and a series of graphic paintings documenting what one of the rare survivors saw with his own eyes and illustrated after being freed. The woman who was my guide was very emotional about the subject and told about being relocated to the country side when she was five and about not having enough food to eat. It made me think of the Museum of Terror in Budapest that I regret not visiting. These countries are right to enshrine these horrors lest they be swept under the rug of history. Americans are good at that, tomorrow is exciting and yesterday is passé. Onward to the next new thing and forget about the past. One reason I intend to return to the Genocide museum is there are several illustrations of “waterboarding” variations and I think it’s a good idea to have a document on hand of what our last president and his henchmen were defending. We must not forget that he dirtied Americas reputation in the world. Now we’re no better than those our leaders have sneered at, not that more than a few of us didn’t know that anyway, or at least suspect it, but now it’s come to life in lurid black and white. The stark truth. I intend to go have one more look to make sure I don’t forget.
So my guide and driver kindly adjusted the schedule so I could drop by the hotel to pick up a fresh battery and then took me to the public park where the origin of Phnom Penh is enshrined. The city is traced back to one woman who found a stature of Buddha by the river and came and made a shrine to it on top of this knoll. Thus in Cambodian Phnom means knoll or hill and Penh was the woman’s name. Pol Pot dumped the statue but the shrine on the hilltop was one of the few he spared. The park around it is bucolic, wild monkeys beg for food and there is an elephant named Sambo, which means something in Cambodian that I’ve forgotten. The shrine on top was lovely with a gorgeous Buddha and dozens of smaller ones, a statue of the woman Penh and vendors outside selling little birds to release as good luck after a prayer. I asked how much and they were fifty cents so I suggested I pay for two and my guide and I could each release one. It was a thrill to wish, like on your birthday, but instead this day, and just because. I commented to my guide that she had brought me from a place of hopelessness to a place of hope and peace, each with it’s own mural illustrations of it’s story, the one as demonic and nightmarish as any fiendish blood bath dreamed up in Hollywood and the next one as serene and calm and beatific as the other was not.
Then we drove outside of town to The Killing Fields themselves. This has to be seen to be grasped. It is so simple, so stark, so utterly mind numbing in the inevitable banality of evil. If there ever is evil in the world then this kind of thing is it. I tend to write a lot of stuff off to psychosis or sociopathology of one form or another and there is nothing to be said here other than the simple facts. There is a “stupa” in the field, with glass windows filled with skulls. There are excavations dotting the site, with rain water in the bottom, nothing overtly horrific. That is until you notice the clothing in the mud here and there, sort of like clothes we see in the gutter in a poor part of town, except these are next to paths between the excavations that periodically have obvious bone fragments showing through. There is nothing to think of but sorrow and suffering, of people who fell through the seams of life and into the hands of a madman as insane, chaotic and blood thirsty as any of the dicatators that have spiked the stew of history in the twentieth century. I couldn’t help but feel weird that Pol Pot rolled into town and began his reign of terror on my birthday in 1975. This is really serious stuff and we’re so insulated in America from these bald faced realities that it doesn’t hurt us to extend our hearts and minds to these people, any people who have had to endure atrocities such as these. At least that’s how I feel, you’ll have to make up your own mind.
I went back to the Genocide Museum today first thing took a Tuk-Tuk that waited for me while I took pictures. I was glad I did, it felt like an important thing to do some how, and it’s totally subjective.
At the airport I had to pay another fee to leave the country, $25 to leave! There are obviously some frustrating aspects for a westerner to life here. It has it’s own version of being half way in and out of the third world, at least at a glance. I am actually glad to be leaving and eager to be home. I’m almost broke and made some foolish expenditures and was ripped off a time or two. Oh, well. I’m a “rich” American who is not sure how I’ll generate income when he comes home. Now there’s a violent electrical rain storm outside. I wonder if I’ll leave on time. I hope so.
Sitting waiting for my ride to the airport back to Phnom Penh, the desk clerk is watching a video of Korean hip hop music and I’m drenched with sweat. It’s raining now. I arrived yesterday and took a wonderful tour around the town, saw a crafts collective where they teach young people traditional Khmer crafts such as stone carving, wood carving, silk painting and so on. One group was made up entirely of deaf and mute students. There was a large store for the tourists to visit and buy the successful products of the school’s students. Then I was taken to a boat that took me out on the lake that Siem Reap is located on, the largest lake in Cambodia I think, and was taken far out to the floating village of hundreds of small boats with people living on them and fishing. There was a special boat with a school for orphaned Cambodian and Vietnamese children. I was invited to buy them some notebooks and pencils, it was obviously a fundraiser as the stack of two dozen or so notebooks was fifteen dollars and the small dozen or so bundle of pencils was five. I bought then but told them to give me their address and I could do better from home. Here’s hoping I can follow through because I sure would like to do something more meaningful.
This stop was the reason I came to south east Asia in the first place. This one day is the day the others after Egypt all revolve around. Although I don’t recommend traveling alone because it’s so much better to share the experience with someone you care about, I didn’t have any choice and half a loaf is better than none at all. So here I am. It has been I’d guess in the mid nineties. Highly competitive with a bad New York or Washington DC summer heat wave. In half an hour I’ll be on my way back to the plane to return to Phnom Penh and another tour.
Today I went with the state tourist authority’s guide and driver in an air conditioned car and if I can’t be with someone special then being alone is preferable to being with a group tour as far as I can tell. He took me to four different temples in the large group of temples known as Angor Wat. I’ve wanted to see this site for a long time and now that I have I’m glad, I am richer for it and my guide made the experience personal and gave me a great historical and political context for who what why where and when, over the last several centuries. I had not realized the combination of Hindu and Budhist interests nor the age (roughly 12th century), and that it is built mostly out of sandstone and volcanic rock cut into blocks. I came here to find out if I’d want to come back and I think the answer is yes, but when it’s a little cooler preferably. I like it cool.
I took maybe hundreds of pictures and he only showed me four temples plus the land mine museum which politely and graphically spelled out exactly what the gift that goes on giving has done for Cambodia. The gift we manufacture and delivered as well. The gift our government lied to us about and took our money in taxes to make the world safe for democracy. Thanks Johnson, Thanks Nixon, Thanks Reagan. I hope I live long enough to forget you all but I doubt the little boy in the market with one leg will.
After taking the tour of the floating village on the lake (and handing out tips every time I turn around and not really minding except for worrying what it will be like when I get home, will I be broke?)
This thing about beggar children is troubling. You can’t be a total bleeding heart unless you want to be taken for a fool too and where I come from there are plenty of both. In Egypt there would periodically appear children making eyes sadder than a Walter Kean post war orphan tableau with a starving cat foraging in the background. They make a motion with their hands to indicate they’re hungry. They all do the same thing. It’s suspiciously thematic. I was disinclined to give in as I also am incapable of rescuing every lost kitten and puppy. But a one legged boy no more than eight years old dressed only in ragged shorts? This was at the large market in Siem Ream that I was taken to after the floating village. I brushed the boy off at first, cynical memories of the child beggars in Egypt. I then thought about it for a moment and decided there was no faking the loss of a leg in this scenario and went back and gave him a paltry dollar. It was a miserably poor excuse for a moral clause but better than none at all. The next day on the way to the amazing temple complex known as Angor Wat I was taken to the Land Mine Museum. There really are no words I am capable of here, because the horrors governments heap on the populations of less fortunate nations pretending that liberty and not oil or imperialism is the battle cry, I can only stand mute and stare at what I already knew, experience all over again the sense of helpless rage in this quiet matter of fact and unassuming little place. This could be a small regional museum in the Napa Valley, but it’s not, it’s merely a reminder of the travesty of “liberty” our government has tried to put over on us in it’s relentlessly cynical drive to separate wealth from people who had none to begin with.
My guide was well trained and spoke better than average English. He also was unapologetic about his distaste for the Vietnamese and the usurping of his country by the government of Thailand. He asked me if I knew what Siem Reap meant and pointed out that the first word was in direct reference to the people of the country I first heard called Siam. Point made. His pride and love for Angor Wat was unashamed as was his great pleasure in the making of the film The Killing Fields as well as (sorry, this isn’t up my alley but now I have to see the damned film) Tomb Raiders with Angelina Jolie. Seeing the iconic Banyan trees growing out of the temples, planted from the seeds in bird droppings and now overtaking the sites structures in many places. It is easy to see how a Hollywood film company would seize the opportunity; it could have been Indiana Jones or King Solomon’s Mine, which predates the former by seventy or eighty years as far as adventure fiction goes. Apparently she spent a lot of money here and he felt deep gratitude. For all I know it may be justified, but I have the jaded cynical posture of one now inured to the glamor of movie stars and it’s hard to hear them praised as great humanitarians some times. It’s a little like the person who just stole your cab offering you a free bus ticket sometimes. I would rather not know about it. My good deeds go unknown, unreported and unimportant to anyone but the recipient and I don’t see why anyone else should be any different.
So now I sit and wait for the domestic prop jet to take me back to Phnom Penh and the tour tomorrow of the killing fields museum, some palaces and pagodas. Then I’m on to Bangkok and home. I’m feeling a little travel weary, a little financially depleted and anxious as to what the future holds. Somehow I expect my world to be pretty much as I left it.