Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It was probably a mistake on my part or an experience I wanted to have but something I should have known better than to dabble in but I went back to Soi Cowboy tonight thinking I would just have a beer and hang out for a while. The problem for me is that I take things too seriously sometimes. I walked all the way down and almost all the way back trying to talk myself into wanting to go into one of them. Listening to a cover band do Neil Young from After The Goldrush lp of the '70's just isn't my idea of what I think of as entertaining while in Thailand and I won't find out what kind of place to go to until I come back another time I'm afraid. So most of the way back and a pretty girl catches my eye and lures me in to her bar, which I quickly realize is deserted and I end up ordering a beer and a "lady drink" for her before I realize just how aggressive she is with crotch fumbling and nipple tweeking and I guzzled the beer and said I was going to look around some more. I beat it and went in search of my dinner which I actually found far more interesting. The whole sex business is really tiresome after a while. It's the pinnacle of pandering.
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.

Last evening at the hotel

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.

Siam Center and MBK Mall shopping

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


On my way back through the vendors closing up shop, past all these actual bars that are set up on the street complete with a few tables and the whole thing kind of impromptu I decided to go to the all night Food Way or what ever it's called to get myself a treat and a midnight sip and a snack. I got fascinated and had to take pictures in the grocery store too of course but to go with the three different cans of Thai beer I bought a bag of Poppo Joufu which said in English that they are Fried Corn Chips. Being a fan of Fritos from way back I went for the corn. The product that came out of the bag back at the hotel bed seems to be something that was once told about an idea that used to be called corn but before they reconstituted the powder that they created from the actual plant substance and reconstituted it into the shape of a chip, but they conveniently removed as much of the flavor as could legally be allowed and to still claim a relationshio to corn. The Rittersport Hazelnut with chocolate is the real deal though. And the beer, worth drinking if you're a beer drinker, I say, generally speaking.

LAst Night with the guide

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.

Forgive me friends

I have enabled "monetize" on my blog in the feeble hope I may actually make a little money. As I am now trying to shift my focus to earning money from merely making art and expressing myself I hope you will be forgiving.
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.

Thoughts about Bangkok

This city, I don't think I am the first to say this, has elements that make me think of the way the movie Blade Runner was designed to look. An amalgam of astonishing wealth and equally tragic poverty. The openness of the sex trade, and somehow not quite as vulgar as it seems in the states, along with the embrace of Buddhism.
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.

A club

So I was taken to a club as I said I'd like some live music. I forgot that every whim is angled toward catering to the assumptions of the tourist. There is nothing I can complain about because it was so well done, but I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone.
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.

The sobering facts

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

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.

Thinking back for a moment

I'm remembering moments and glimpses now of the last several days and weeks. The bell boy who picked me up on his bike in Phnom Penh, who was so friendly and generous with his time. He showed me a lot and if I return I'd ask him perhaps to take me around to take photogrphs in places I shouldn't go alone.
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.

Thinking back for a moment

Bangkok: April 26, 2009
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.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh April 25, 2009
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.
Siem Reap, Cambodia; April 24, 2009
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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Last day and last rites

So This morning I awoke to the knowledge that this was the last day and that Jesse was to leave early. I'd been fighting a bout of what was called "Egyptian Tummy" when I was a child and the Imodium wasn't quite taking care of the problem so I brought out the big guns and took a half tablet of some antibiotic they gave me at Kaiser before I left.
I saw Jesse off and went back to sleep. I woke up from a dream where a girlfriend from the past had shown up after a long absence and at first was not responsive but then suggested we go out together. I woke up feeling happy, even though I also feel so melancholy to be leaving Egypt.

I packed leisurely and negotiated sending a package home, checked out of the hotel, had them store my bags and went out for a bite to eat and an afternoon of photography.
I went to find the Muski and Khan el Khalili bazaar. I impressed myself by finding my way to it better than I had in the last ten days. I stopped by to say hello to a young guy, Saleh, who had sold me things before I went to upper Egypt. Being a nearly functional impossibily to avoid I bought some tea to bring home and some perfume oil in the smalled quantity I could get him to agree to. I wasn't sorry. I also stopped to buy a Turkish Coffee pot and a vest to go with my galabya. I found myself in the midst of a dense festive crowd devoid of tourist. It is a Pharonic holiday for four days starting last weekend.
Jesse and I visited a friend of a friend of his, a woman named Mona who grew up in Cairo and Washington DC as her father was diplomat. She took us to the Marriott which was once the palace of some prince and has been done over in semi predictable sort of Egyptian kitch, which is a sort of design standard for hotels built since the nineteen fifties. We sat in the garden and swapped stories and found out how they knew people in common and I found out I could definitely use her help in negotiating further attempts to import goods from Egypt. It's nice to have a sophisticated English speaking contact to perhaps work with in the future.

We went back to the hotel and were asleep before one.
So I found myself self-consciously alone after Jesse departed. I was now confronted with what Jesse described as my need to shift gears with his departure. Now I will go to two countries I've never been to before and have to negotiate all my transactions whatever they may be. I'm a little anxious.
This afternoon as I wandered in the bazaar the crowds were interestingly largly local and few tourists in sight. I followed the crowd and found myself hearing some music unlikely to be coming from a recorded source and soon found myself wathching a group of musicians and a man dancing with a cane. The instruments were drums and a reed instrument, the dancer flailed his cane at times and at others engaged in ritual combat with another man. I remembered this time that I had a cell phone in my pocket with video capabilities and taped a 30 second snippet to show what I saw as soon as someone can help me get it out of my phone and onto a more public place to share. I guess it will wait until we come home. After missing taping the singing on the island in the Nile on my birthday I was pleased to have another chance to record thirty seconds of the dancer and musicians in the Muski. Then I walked back to the hotel and took no false turns and in fact found my way easily. I stopped for some Tamarind drink and remembered that we'd been told a few days before that people would be giving away what they could afford, whether it was juice (which I was invited to share in twice) or roasting a whole lamb which Tawfik, a merchant I bought some things from told us would be going on.
I have had the benefit of coming to Egypt as more of an adult than I was in 1976 when I last was here. I saw things I hadn't seen before and bought some things I had'nt bought before. I also missed some things again I wanted to see, but began to remind myself that I had to leave things to do and to buy for next time and intend that it not take another thirty years. Hopefully no more than even thirty weeks. Time will tell.
In less than two hours I go to the airport to fly east again for the next leg of this adventure. I feel incredibly indulgent, that I am wasting my resources and need to conserve my dwindling reserves. I think I'll make it but I am desperate to find a way to feel confident that I am making more money than I am spending. This is a new way of thinking for me.

In the Egyptian Gazette it was announced that they may be on the verge of discovering the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. That should certainly drive tourism to Alexandria in waves if nothing else does.

In an hour I have to take a cab to the airport at Heliopolis and fly east at ten, to a totally unknown week of further adventures. The one thing I do have planned is a visit to Angor Wat in Cambodia, a visit to Phenom Penh and a visit to Bangkok. It's hard for me to believe I will ever feel the way I feel about Egypt about another country but who knows, the unknown is just that. Iwish I was sharing it with someone more immediate than a computer. I guess I'll be writing when I get settled in Siem Reep (misspelled?) but who knows. Until later then.

Monday, April 20, 2009

We arrived in Aswan four days ago. Took the over night tourist train from Cairo with sleeping cars. When I was a child we took this route then run by Wagon Lits (French Co.) and I had to sleep in a compartment with an elderly French woman much put out by a small American boy asleep in her upper berth. In the morning I found her asleep with a French edition of Readers Digest on her breast.

This time it’s just me and Jesse going to Aswan to see Abu Simbel and take a felucca ride. So we arrived in Aswan in the morning of the fifteenth and soon were taken on the tour of the high dam and Temple of Philae. I have been following developments in Egypt all my life and remember all the press about the moving of Abu Simbel in the sixties as well as the dyking and moving of the Temple of Phylae.

When I was here as a child my mother and I were in a boat on the Nile viewing what could be seen of the Temple of Phylae which was then under water partly due to the Nile flood seasons. While there a farmer approached us from a row boat with his small daughter and offered my mother a baby chick as a preliminary to the negotiations of suggesting that his daughter and I someday marry. My mother was charmed, flustered and amused and gave the chick back with apologies. I’ve always wondered what happened to that little girl and where she is now.

This time we were in a tour bus to see the dam (not the kind of thing I come to Egypt for) and the Temple which I wanted to see how it had been relocated after dyking and restoration. It was actually really well done and a total pleasure to experience with Jesse.

We returned to our hotel and had to arise at two something in the morning to catch the convoy to Abu Simbel. That evening we went on a trip via Nile motor boat (sort of like taxis on the Nile) and went to a Nubian Village to have dinner. Our guide, Ahmed who did all our arrangements in the area accompanied us and as we approached the village a half an hour or more by boat south of Aswan and in sight of the old dam, there was a convoy of camels through the village which we photographed copiously.

So we had dinner which was chicken and rice and tea and a totally charming experience undoubtedly designed to give tourists a more intimate experience in this southern Egyptian area. It was good, it was cheap and it was produced in a really friendly and relaxed manner. I’d do it again anytime with anyone.

He told us to buy extra water and toilet paper and took us out to smoke Sheesha and drink tea with him in a café in Aswan with his friends. It was really great and the guys were really open about talking about their lives. It turned out Ahmed was actually moonlighting as his university education was as a social worker (badly needed in Egypt) and his work as a tourist guide helped him subsidize the other job where his heart lay, but didn’t pay as well.

Back at the hotel we had to be prepared to sleep for a few hours and then get up, stash our bags in the lobby of the Memnon Hotel, a somewhat shabby but otherwise thoroughly acceptable (to me) standard of hotel room, especially considering we were using it mostly for taking a nap and then storing our bags for a few hours.

We rose in the middle of the night to get into a mini bus with a dozen or so other western tourists for the three hour drive to Abu Simbel. You arrive at about seven thirty, they give you a box breakfast which in our case consisted of a hard boiled egg, some of the typical soft white bread roll some fig jam, some cheese (of the Laughing Cow processed gruyere style) and hope it will tide you over. When we got there shortly after seven in the morning after a three hour drive through the desert, there were dozens of other buses and mini vans with western tourists in similar states of sleep deprivation. We even ran into a family group from Idaho we had chatted with days earlier on a tour of the pyramids and Saqqara.

Then by nine we were back in the van and headed back to Aswan where we arrived, were met by Ahmed who took us to the felluca we had contracted to sail down the Nile on for the next two nights. He led us to the boat and introduced us to Ayob (pronounced Ayoob) who owned the boat. He was a spectacular host who was delighted to learn of my affection for Egypt and to learn that my birthday was to follow the next day.

We met our ship mates and were indoctrinated into the protocol and expectations of life on a felluca sailing down the Nile. It took a while for all the sailors to be rounded up and amongst them was an Argentian couple, a pair of men from Colombia, an Englishman, a couple from Australia and Taiwan and also a couple from France and Denmark in another felucca owned by Ayob and a single woman from New Zealand.

We commenced to sail before sunset and drifted down the Nile laconically tacking back and forth to take as long as possible. It was heavenly. We had all paid for an appropriate quantity of beer before sailing so there was an adequate amount of beverages to augment the water we were instructed to have for ourselves. The deck was covered with an endless foam mattress covered with a printed cloth as well as a number of pillows.

Dinner was produced by a first mate and a helper who were also on board. Ayob disappeared at some point and reappeared with some of the eventual members of the passenger list already described above. Eventually we all got very cosy and he was excited by my return to Egypt with my son and it being my birthday and promised me a fantastic birthday. He did not disappoint me.

E eventually we all slept and I awoke at five in the morning to watch the first mate in his prayer ritual kneeling and reciting his prayers. I wished I could unobtrusively photograph him but I knew it wasn’t going to happen and that it would be rude to do so. I went back to sleep eventually instead.

I was addressed with birthday greetings by most members of the group and the Argentinian and Colombian contingent had defected with some sort of confusion that left the rest of us glad of their departure and sad that they didn’t feel as at peace as the rest of us. Ayob asked me what I really wanted for my birthday and I told him I would love to have some time in a village, I’d love to buy myself a classic standard mans galabya (the mans garment in Egypt) and I would love a traditional Egyptian dinner with Molokia, a specially prepared leafy vegetable dish I recalled hearing about as a child that I wanted to experience. Of course I wanted ayeesh baladi too. Ayob anchored our boat at Darao, slightly south of Luxor and near the village where his parents live and he grew up. A local taxi met us and took us down country roads where he stopped to show me a cow turning a pump I had inquired about. As a child I had seen a device called an Archimedes Screw that allowed a farmer to raise water from a canal to his field by means of a device that consisted of a large screw inside a cylander with a crank to turn it at the upper end. I saw what appeared to be the modern decendent of it but never actually saw one and concluded that cheap gas powered pumps had probably replaced them. By now our group had dwindled to only Jesse and me with the Kiwi, the young woman from New Zealand who at first was only to stay on the boat for one night but decided to stay for two.

In Darao Ayob had also taken us to the home of a man and his wife and children, the mans father had been an artist and made things from the date palm tree. There was a profusion of objects, lampshades and wall coverings, and all manner of other odd and delightfully unexpected usage of the date palm. I bought two small items his father had made and Ayob made a birthday present to me of another object, all of them of traditional Islamic design. Then we moved on to the town proper and sat in a café which is usually a mans province and the three of us sat there while Ayob went off to buy groceries for our dinner and to find me a place to buy a galabya. He came back and told me to follow him and we went to a stall (as were most of the shops) wide open to the street and closed only by means of a metal roll up door, where the proprietor dealt exclusively in garments and yardage. I was shown a traditional garment, the appropriate under garment and pants. I was fitted and I bought them all. Finally we had all we needed in the town, along with dozens of surreptitiously and openly taken photographs.

So we brought our groceries and personal purchases back to the boat and found that we now had company in the form of the passengers of another felucca who were in the midst of a party on the river bank. We joined them and soon found the group seemed composed of the other passengers and some locals who were drumming and bizarrely enough singing some kind of pseudo reggae variation on the American folk song “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” except it had to do with smoking marijuana. Jesse commented to me during this phase that it seemed we had run into the international hippie Diaspora. I got his drift immediately and found myself largly indifferent to this kind of pandering. Aside from all that. It seemed the passengers from the other boat didn’t really care about anything in as much as they seemed to be standing around awkwardly more than anything else. The next thing though changed all that. Ayob came and sat next to me, a man on my left had been singing lustily and to his left were a couple of more Arab drummers. Ayob had been drumming more than adequately but when they finally finished the hippie tourist anthem I asked him if they could sing any Egyptian folk songs, as that was what I really wanted to hear more than anything else.

A moment later in a rapid fire exchange of Arabic and body moves the drum changed hands to the man on my left and they began a real song. The man on my left was a superb drummer and the rest of the men next to him sang and drummed as well. Ayob sang verses and they sang response choruses.

Because I don’t speak Arabic I did not understand the words but Ayob was a magnificent singer and his friends obviously really knew what they were doing as the total effort was absolutely mesmerizing. I realized I was entranced by it because it was a few moments into the song before I realized how absolutely incredible the moment had unfolded to become. Both Jesse and I mourned later that we were so stunned and caught off guard that neither one of us thought to use our cell phones to record even a crude video to share with our friends and it was a moment intensely worthy of sharing. Sorry.

We went back to the boat after that and had a feast of molokya, camel meat, fuul (fava beans) and various mixtures of tomatos, cucumbers, cilantro and sweet peppers on the deck of the boat. All washed down with Egyptian been Stella. That was the best birthday. In the morning we woke up on the boat and after breakfast were taken to Kom Ombo and Edfu Temples before being taken to Luxor. Our new friend from New Zealand decided to join us for the day and we spent it visiting the Temples of Karnak and Luxor. I had looked forward to seeing Karnak again and it lived up to my memories of visiting it fifty two or so years earlier. It is a temple complex so vast and so stunning in it’s architecture and lay out that it defies words. This is one of the most important and visually exquisite treasures available today in world monuments. Words are really inadequate but mentioning that the area comprises a total that equals half the size of Manhatten (according to the guide) and that the capitals in the famous Hippostyle Hall are so big on top that at least fifty men (women and children) could stand on top of one alone. That there is still some visible paint left on the columns after thousands of years, also leaves me speechless.

We were pretty worn out by the end of the day Saturday (only seeing four temples) and after a meal at a corner small restaurant Egyptian style we found a place for a beer and called it a night eventually/.

In the morning we were scheduled to take a balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings and so we rose at four in the morning to take a short taxi and boat ride and another taxi ride to a field near the Collossi of Memnon where we realized there were a dozen plus balloons being inflated for a crowd that stood around in the early dawn. One after another of the big balloons was successfully inflated, the basket attached and the passengers loaded and took off. We photographed all the stages of the process as the sun rose and balloons filled and people got on them and floated away. Except for us. We were last and we were not so lucky. The basket for our balloon turned out to need repairs and so we did not get to float way. Instead we went back to the hotel and ate breakfast, discussed with the travel arrangers the need to refund our money and took the chance for a catching up of lost sleep instead.

After all this our new friend took off on her own, we took a taxi to the Valley of the Kings, the Queens, an alabaster factory, the Collossus of Memnon and around five in the afternoon of what had been a remarkable hot day we concluded the sight seeing in Upper Egypt and headed for a lot of cold beer.

By nine thirty we were back on the train heading back to Cairo and our last full day together. Egypt has exceeded both of our wildest hopes and dreams and the costs have been astonishingly cheap across the board. Just ask and I’ll tell you who to contact.