Saturday, December 30, 2006
Things continued onto my birthday, as I was supposed to go to NYC but had to cancel because Prime Minister Sharon had a stroke. Seems like so long ago. My birthday was great fun, as Alicia gave me a wonderful present, and took me to the symphony to see "A World of Music." It was a fantastic concert of the Houston symphony combining Irish, African and Latin Music, plus Riverdance stuff. It was also the first day that my Group Study Exchange met, an experience that would utterly change my life.
I was winding down my tenure at the Consulate, preparing to do a final victory lap on my last day, when I received a phone call at 6am. I immediately got worried, as early morning phone calls are never good. I missed the phone call, and said to myself, if it rings again, it's trouble. It was. My father had a heart attack, on of all days, Valentine's. Mortality on display as I caught the first flight home to be with my family (Thank you Southwest). My father had been in bed with my mom the previous night, and started feeling chest pain. My mom asked how long he had been feeling it, he replied for a month.
My mom and brother took him to the hospital. When he arrived to the emergency room, he told the orderly the problem. The orderly told him to have a seat, as there was a person in front of him with a broken nose, and another with a broken arm. My dad just laughed, told the orderly he was an idiot and walked into the emergency room. When they did tests, they realized it was serious, so they medivaced him to another hospital. There he had a quadruple bypass. When I arrived, my mother and brother had been up all night, and were still with him. After he came to, and we stayed with him for a while. When my mom was too exhausted, and it was time for him to rest again, she told him it was time for us to go, but that we loved him very much. Then my father did something I will never forget. With all the tubes coming out of him, with a breathing machine hooked up to him, he blew my mom a kiss to tell her it was going to be okay. Thankfully, he is better now.
A very different final day of work for me. After things calmed down, I flew back to Houston and packed up all my life from Texas and drove a 17ft uhaul truck complete with a trailer for my car back to Washington. I gained a great deal of respect for truckdrivers, as it is very difficult. Now my life is in my parent's basement.
I flew down to Florida to see my grandmother, and stopped in Miami to see my friend Dani. Dani must have made a deal with the devil for his apartment, because it is literally on South Beach, near the Armani mansion, and he pays nothing for it. While I was in Miami, I stopped at the Wolfsonian, an art deco museum that displays a beautiful gilded grill piece from the Norris Theater that was owned by my family once upon a time. Sad, because it was a beautiful theater that fell into disrepair and was razed for a McDonalds and ultimately a parking lot. Mickey Wolfson bought the beautiful piece, and stained glass windows for practically nothing at an auction. I sat there staring at what was lost to me, lamenting what could have been mine. My lamenting only lasted until I went to little Havana. On Calle Ocho, I sat with the old Cuban men playing dominos and smoking their cigars. Then I realized I had lost nothing. These people lost their homes and their livelihoods when Castro took over, while I was longing for something I never had. It gave me real perspective to see what loss really is.
From there, it was back to Houston for the opening of my photo exhibit at the Art Car Museum. The exhibit was in conjunction with Fotofest, a huge photo fesitival in Houston. It was really an honor to have my work on display at a museum, and I grinned the whole night as I watched people discuss my work. Pulled an all nighter to catch my plane to South Africa. The trip got off to a strange start, my group member Sandi was taken off the flight because she didn't arrive in enough time. We flew to Atlanta, to catch our connecting flight to Jo-burg. Barb, the team leader, told me to see if I could get a ticket from Jo-Burg to East London, our final destination. When the ticket woman looked at my passport, she told me I couldn't get on the flight because my passport didn't have a single blank page. I had plenty of room, but no blank page, which apparently South Africa requires. They took my ticket, and rerouted me to Washington. I watched in stunned disbelief as the flight took off without me. To add insult to injury, as I was walking to the Washington gate, the song "Africa" by Toto came on. In the end, I added pages to my passport, and arrived safely to South Africa, with my passport only receiving a cursory glance at SA immigration.
South Africa was an unreal experience. The first day I got there, I was taken to a lion park and played with little lion cubs. I also fed the cheetahs. A long way from Texas, was I. Over the course of the next month, I visited 15 cities. I saw townships, AIDS clinics and orphanages. I met with South African journalists and even had an article written about my group in the Afrikaans newspaper "Volksblaad." We stayed with families, who welcomed us into their homes and their hearts. I discussed the ongoing changes in South Africa, and saw places where tourists don't venture to. It was an amazing adventure. An adventure of a lifetime, wrapped up in a month. I spent another 2 weeks in SA. I spent 4 days in Kruger Park with my group, watching elephants eat breakfast, and giraffes cross the road. Then I saw Jo-Burg and Pretoria, and learned the beauty of Air Malawi and the funny way Africa works. After, on to Capetown, a beautiful city that is a cross between Rio and San Fransisco. I climbed Table Mountain in the worst possible fashion, and visited Roben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. I spent my last day in South Africa at the Cape of Good Hope, watching the waves break on the jagged rocks and laughing at seals and jackass penguins.
Then I spent 6 weeks at home, working for Magnificent Publications (For the Knowledgeable Reader). It was an interesting foray into the private sector, as I spent my days working on AARP newsletters and other projects.
My summer commenced at Seeds of Peace, where I got to play peacemaker and troublemaker for Middle Eastern and Indo-Pak teens. I had the opportunity to return to a place of my youth, Camp Powhatan, and also be a kid again for the summer. I spent my days playing soccer, swimming in the lake and having resthour. Meanwhile, I watched kids who hated each other, realize that they were no different. Truly an amazing summer.
My fellowships didn't pan out, probably for the best. So I bought a round-the-world ticket to visit China, Southeast Asia, India & Pakistan, the Gulf and the Middle East. All this frenetic travel in six months. Meanwhile I spent another 2 months at home, working again for Magpub as I counted down my days until travel. Meanwhile, my grandmother had a heart attack too. She is okay now, but she quipped, "I give heart attacks, I don't get them." I also went to Costa Rica for my college roommate Julio's wedding. He is a Columbian Jew, she is a Costa Rican Jew.
I left November 4th for China, and arrived to Beijing. China was an enigma. I spent the next 5 weeks traversing the whole of China. I went as far as Mt. Everest base camp, and back down on a train from Lhasa to Shanghai. Meanwhile, my series "Tales of a Wandering Jew" was picked up by the Jerusalem Post, to go with the other Jewish newspapers I am writing for. They have published 4 article so far.
After I worked my way down China, I continued down Vietnam, through Cambodia and up Laos. That brings me to today, in Luang Prubang. Another year over. A year filled with wonder and excitement. I saw so much joy on the faces of African and Asian children. So much wisdom lined in the faces of the elderly people I encountered. In my year, I saw so much poverty yet so much beauty. It is hard to encompass all of the year I had, as it was an intense year. Rather than try, I will simply leave it to my good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote as the close of the "Great Gatsby,"
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night. Welcome 2007, and all it will bring. It will be an entirely different year, and only God knows where it will end. Shalom.
After dinner I hit happy hour at the Lao Lao Gardens, where I got two same-same sours for the price of one. A same-same sour is Lao-Lao (fermented sticky rice wine 100proof), honey, lemon and tabasco. So good. The place had campfires, and I was sitting by it, when I was invited over for bbq by a NZer and a Brit and his Thai wife. The bbq was an inverted metal bowl over coals, which we put raw meat on. They already had one, and invited me for the second. The Brit was a little off, conspiracy this and that. The only real conspiracy was that the drunken fool left without paying, foisting the bill on the Kiwi and me. Otherwise, just spoke all night with a Swedish girl and her Norweigen boyfriend.
Tonight for New Years, it will be back to the Lao Lao Gardens for a bbq and more same-same sours. Not too many cause I have to take a speed boat to Thailand tomorrow at 7:30am. If I miss it, I am screwed. Also the ride is not pleasant. Bumpy, and with a crash helmet. Should be a great way to spend a babalas.
So beer lao is fantastic beer. When the communists took over, they wanted to have something the people could be proud of. They decided on beer. They got an East German brewmaster to come out, set up and teach them how to make really good beer. Bless the Germans, I wish they had more colonies around the world cause they sure set up some good beer in remote places. Like Qingdao, which was a German concession in China. From Qingdao, you get Tsing-tao. It was taken over by the Chinese after the Germans left. Also a fantastic beer from Namibia called "Windhoek," after the capital. Windhoek was also crafted by the Germans, when they ran German Southwest Afrika.
Otherwise, climbed to the top of a small mountain in the center of the city to watch the sunset. It is a holy place for the Lao buddhists. The sunset was beautiful, except the sun disappeared too early. Now, off for dinner in the market.
Friday, December 29, 2006
I arrived to Luang Prubang after a stunning bus ride. We drove past mountains, fields of willows and palms. The willows were swaying in the breeze, and went up the mountains. On the side of the road, women and children were beating the willows on the ground to fashion something I am not exactly sure of.
When I got to Luang Prubang, I went to find a place to stay. The first place I went to had $5 rooms, but only until the 31st. As I am staying till New Years, I wanted a place I could reside in for the full time, so I went looking for another place. I spent the next hour scouring the city, trying to find a place. Everything was full. I decided to cut my losses, and go to the original, only to find someone beat me to the room by 5 minutes. Luckily I found a place, where I split a room for $3 with some Thai guys. They left today, so the room is all mine at $9. More than I planned, but I will manage.
After I dropped my stuff, I went to Beit Chabad for shabbat services. When I arrived, I was number 8, not even a minyan. But a steady stream of Israeli backpackers arrived and we had more than enough. In total, there were more than 30 people for shabbat dinner. All scruffy Israeli backpackers. We had Israelis salads (including matbouha and humous), soup, challah and schnitzel. So nice, gotta love chabad as they are an outpost of judaism in far away lands.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
There was one Israeli, Modi, who I became friends with. We had the bright idea that I would take his camera, he would float and I would take some pictures of him from dry land. And vice-versa. So no problem with his camera, I put it in the dry bag and gave it back to him at the next stop. Then I gave him my camera. He took a few shots, and then put it in his dry bag and went on down the river. At the next stop, as he was getting onto land, he fell. Unfortunately the dry bag didn't work as well as it was supposed to, and my camera got a little wet. Now it is not turning on. I am trying not to freak out. I am hoping it will dry. Also the battery was almost dead, so I am praying that might be the problem. If anyone know what to do with a camera that gets wet, I would love suggestions. I have it all taken apart, and I am praying it will dry. It didn't get that wet (I am only a little pregnant). There is nothing I can do but pray. I will take it to get fixed if I need to, but I can't imagine finding any sort of camera shop before Bangkok.
My angst was tempered by meeting a cute Californian girl tubing on the river who loves Jews and is converting to Judaism. I offered to convert her myself, be it that I am the chief Rabbi of Lesotho, and we were on a body of water. We are having dinner tonight at Sababa, the Israeli restaurant.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Since i was up, I went running this morning. First time in 2 months. In China, it was too polluted and too dangerous with all the traffic. vietnam was even worse with all the motos. Cambodia was same-same. So here was the first time I got to go in a while. It could have been far worse.
Meanwhile, I am in the Laos version of Dahab. Every restaurant has mats to sit on and relax, while you watch tv. I spent the evening watching "Family Guy." Also every restaurant has "happy special food." Happy special pancakes, happy special pizza and happy special tea. Some just flat out sells bags of ganja, shrooms and opium on the menu. No worries, i have been a good boy.
Meanwhile, I am staying at a place that actually has hot water. I get a hot shower tomorrow! While I was in Vientiane, I was informed that there are no more atms throughout Laos. So now I am awash in kip. I took out 1.5 million kip (a little more than $150), and it came it in 10,000 bills. It was a fat stack o' kip. I am a kip brazilianaire. Someday, I will be like Scrooge McDuck, filling my swimming pool with kip, riel and dong. Till then, I have to go from prosperity to austerity, as I must conserve till Thailand and the next atm.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Vientiane is nice, but small. I saw the Presidential palace, and walked down their version of the Champs D'Elsyees. Vientiane even has its own Arc d'triumph. It is a hindu-buddhist version, constructed from concrete, donated by the American government to be used for an airport. I also went to a beautiful gilded watt called That Louang. Gilded spires surrounding a gilded tower, very pretty. Even prettier cause I sneaked past the ticket booth and saw it for free. Call it even for the misused concrete.
My back was hurting me from the bus ride, and a few panadol (tylenol) wasn't helping so I got a Lao massage. The only happy ending was for my spine. Probably much better that way, cause she was using tiger balm as a rub. Otherwise, just going to have some tex-mex food for dinner. There is a tex-mex restaurant next to the internet place I am currently located. I have lowered my expectation for what Lao Tex-Mex is like, so maybe it will be okay. I think I am moving on from Vientiane tomorrow to Van Viang. Van Viang is a little backpacker place on a river where you can tube down. Vientiane is only so big, even as the capital.
Monday, December 25, 2006
500 riel (12.5 cents) bottle of water
1,000 riel (25cents) baguette in the market with pickled veggies
2,000 riel (50 cents) cup of sweet milk coffee
3,000 riel (75 cents) fish soup and rice at local market stand
4,000 riel ($1) one hour on high speed internet
5,000 riel ($1.25) a ride just about anywhere in Phnom Penh
6,000 riel ($1.50) large angkor beer
8,000 riel ($2) one night's stay at the Happy Guest House in Phnom Penh
16,000 riel ($4) one night's stay in deluxe room in Siem Reap at Simon's Guesthouse
20,000 riel ($5) 6 hour bus to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh
32,000 riel ($8) 8 hour bus to Kampong Cham to Stung Treng
48,000 riel ($12) ripoff bus to Don Det in Laos that never appeared at the Cambodian border
80,000 riel ($20) one day entrance into Angkor Watt (free for Cambodians)
1,000 kip (11 cents) bottle of water
2,000 kip (22 cents) yummy pineapple
3,000 kip (33 cents) cup of sweet milk coffee
4,000 kip (44 cents) one hour of internet
5,000 kip (55 cents) ride to bus station from downtown pakxe in a tuktuk
6,000 kip (66 cents) rice, tofu, veggies and hard boiled egg in the market
9,000 kip ($1) shakshouka (a middle eastern egg dish that I was surprised to find in Laos)
10,000 kip ($1.11) big bottle of beer lao
15,000 kip ($1.55) tiny boat ride to Don Det Island
21,000 kip ($2.33) omelette breakfast and coffee overlooking the Mekong
36,000 kip ($4) ride on the roof of a bus to Pakxe from Don Det
45,000 kip ($5) ad-hoc transportation on moto from Laos border to Si Phan Don
50,000 kip ($5.55) 10 lbs of dirty laundry
130,000 kip ($14.44) VIP overnight bus from Pakxe to Vietntiane
I arrived to Vientiane this morning on an overnight bus. While I was waiting at the bus station for my "vip" bus, I was talking to a Lao guy. I asked where he was from, and he replies "uta." I asked where that was, and he said "Salt Lake City." Oh, Utah! On the bus, I sat next to a monk clad in orange robes. He was about my age, so I gave him an ear bud from my ipod, and we listened to hip-hop. Kind of a funny scene, one ear bud on the monk in robes and one ear bud on me. Now I am here, and checked into a lovely hotel called the Ministry of Information and Culture. My penthouse suite is $5. Now, I am flush with kip (currency), full from a delicious breakfast of a toasted baguette with an omelette, shallots, tomatos and sweet milk coffee and waiting for my laundry to return.
I left the island this morning by speed boat. I am on my way to Vientiene, by way of Pakxe. The ride to Pakxe might have been one of the most interesting of any trip I have ever taken. It wasn't a bus to take us to Pakxe, but rather a sawngthaew. A sawngthaw is a flatbed truck converted into a sardine can on wheels. They piled 30 people into the back of a truck smaller than a suburban. There were three benches, one on each side and one in the middle. People were literally hanging on the edges. There were a few people who didn't get seats, so they were riding on the roof. I decided it couldn't be any worse, so i climbed up and joined them. Best decision I could have made. Rather than sit in squashed misery, I sat in bliss on the roof with the luggage. I held onto the side rail, and hooked my feet into a net, and rode my charriot to glory. It was a fantastic ride, kind of like being in a convertible only better. I was joined by a French guy and 3 laos. One of the Laos was rolling and chainsmoking handrolled cigarettes with old bus tickets as rolling paper. His nails were painted, he was a tad off.
About 30km outside of Pakxe, we had to get down because there would be police and only the luggage guy is supposed to on top. So we bunched in the sardine can. I first didn't have any room sitting on the back latch, so I lay back horizontally on the legs of some French and Laos women. I told the women to feel free to fan me and feed me grapes. I was comfy for a while, but they weren't so much, so I got back to my spot of sitting on the back ledge. It could have been the longest 30k ever. Finally we got to the bus station and got a tuktuk into town. Except the tuktuk broke down and we had to push it to the closest petrol station. Now I am in Pakxe, killing time before my "VIP" overnight bus to Vientiene.
As I want to avoid the heat, I will dispense an observation about Laos. The Laos women are beautiful in a very exotic way. The look like they are out of a Gauguin painting. They were bathing in sarongs in the lake and I felt like I was staring at a painting I had seen before. They not as dark as the Cambodian women, but not as light as the Vietnamese women. They are much more full-figured than any of the SE Asian women I have encountered. Their faces have a roundness to it that is rather beautiful. Also, lots of the eyes are often round not almond shape.
The Lao people have a quiet charm to them. They are nothing like the gregarious as the Chinese, or the boisterous Vietnamese. Very interesting folk, I will enjoy this country. I also think I will be in Luang Prubang for New Years. I was planning on Bangkok, but it would be a hectic trip to see all I want and get to Bangkok at least 5 min before auld lang syne. There is always Bangkok for my birthday...
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Today, I hopped a ferry and what was supposed to be a minibus to Si Don Phan in Laos. Arrived to the border no problem, but our connection on never appeared. Once we crossed, paying our small bribes, we got bikes to take us the rest of the way. I had no problems getting into Laos on the visa I had, it was no problem. Meanwhile, a latvian guy got turned back cause he didn't have a visa already, and couldn't buy one at the border. So a NZ guy and I got moto bikes to take us the rest of the way. We went down a path that could barely be called a road, but after a bumpy while we emerged on the main road. Then caught a ferry to an island called Don Det, and now I am in paradise. I am staying in a bamboo bungalow for $2, with a hammock on the porch. I am overlooking the lake. Tonight, an Aussie and Italian girl are organizing a xmas party, and invited me so I won't be a lonely jew on christmas. Tomorrow I will look for a movie and chinese food, as all good jewish xmas go.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Thursday, December 21, 2006
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I spent the day at Angkor Watt, and I must say I am stunned. It was absolutely without parallel. One of the wonders of the world.
Such a strange juxtaposition of humanity. Just two days ago I spent the morning at the Killing Fields, probably about as close to the dregs of humanity, then the afternoon at the King's Palace. The King's Palace was beautiful, different styles of Cambodian towers and gold statues. Really very amazing. Now today I was at the Angkor Watt, which could rank up among the apex of mankind.
I can do little justice for Angkor Watt by my words, so I will get the pictures up quick. I first went to the Bayon temple, which is ruins that have four faces carved into columns all over the temple area. There are also different hindu and buddhist carving in the walls. Then I saw a giant carved elephant relief. I went to another temple with huge trees growing through the ruins, and met a beautiful Israeli hippy chick lying on a tree, who I am having drinks with tonight. Then I ran into a friend from home, Dan Soneklar. He is a friend of my sister, who i became friends with over the years. He is the first friend from home I have run into.
We had lunch together. I had a fish and tomato curry-cocanut milk soup with rice, which is a local speciality. While we were eating, these adorable little girls came up to sell postcards. They asked where we were from. When we replied "America," they chimed together "Washington, DC-capitol, 300 million people." So I started quizing them. They knew their capitals. Morocco, South Africa, Bolivia, Brazil, etc. I asked one girl what the capital for Botswana was, and she quickly replied "Botswana City." Nice try, but then they asked me and I couldn't remember (Gabarone, I found out later from a girl I met whose parents were in Botswana). They even knew state capitals, although not South Dakota. I forgave them for that, and was so impressed, I bought a few postcards and necklaces for two bucks.
After lunch, we went back around the temples. Beautiful structures with hindu goddesses carved into the old walls. Again more fun with the hawker kids. One girl trying to sell me something asked where I was from. I said "Cambodia." She replied "you lie." I explained it was a joke, and told her that a joke was a lie when you are kidding. Ah, I am a modern day missionary, spreading good Christian values to the natives.
Anyway, I went on to Angkor Watt itself. I spent some time admiring it, eating pineapple with chili-salt on it, its kind of a flavor explosion of sweet, salt and hot. As I was walking into the watt, I ran into Steve and Marsha again, the SOP folks who I bumped into in Vietnam. I was surrounded by the three people from home that I knew in SE Asia. Funny. The Angkor Watt was amazing too. I climbed up to the top of the watt, and snapped a lot of pictures. Funny thing is the goddesses carved into the walls had boobs coming out, and that area was a lot darker than the rest of the statue from the oil of people's hands. People had been feeling up Shiva! On the way back from Angkor, the King of Cambodia passed me in a caravan.
Tomorrow on to Laos. It should be interesting, as my visa has to be used before Dec. 25th, but I have a 15 day visa. I am not sure if I have 15 days, and just need to use it before, or it actually expires on Dec. 25th. I went to the Lao Embassy in Phnom Penh, and the guy looked at it and told me it had expired already and I needed a new one. He was pointing to the date it was issued, which I tried to explain to no avail. We'll see how this works. Journey on.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
I first visited the Toul Sieng Genocide Museum, also known as S21. S21 was previously a high school, and was turned into a torture facility and interogation center. The classrooms became jails and rooms of unspeakable torture. Rows of prisoners were shackled, beaten and killed. The Khmer Rouge used axes, hoes and sadistic devices on the people. The walls are still stained with blood. Over twenty thousand were imprisoned in S21, behind barbed wire and corrugated iron walls.
Then I visited Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields. Those who weren't killed at S21 were sent there. Over 86 mass graves litter Choeung Ek, with another 43 that are still untouched. Men, women and children were beaten to death, beheaded, drowned or buried alive. The Khmer Rouge didn't often shoot people, because they wanted to "conserve bullets."
It is a place of unspeakable evil. Choeung Ek is the most notorious, but Cambodia is littered with scores of places like it. Meanwhile, the mass graves are littered with pieces of clothing of the victims. In the middle of Choeung Ek is a stupa, a buddhist monolith that has rows and rows of skulls that goes seventeen levels high.
The South African writer Alan Paten wrote "Cry, the beloved country" about South Africa, but I will borrow it.
Cry, the beloved country for the horrors that poor Cambodia witnessed. Cry, because we failed you. Cry, for the men, women and children who were brutally tortured and executed. Cry, for the rape. Cry, for the horrors and misery. Cry, for the pain and suffering. Cry, for innocence lost. Cry, for the wounds that will never heal. Cry, for humanity.
Cry for the trees of Choeung Ek, that babies were hurled against. Cry, for the lake that became a watery grave. Cry, for the butterflies that flutter around the mass graves not knowing where they are. Cry, for beauty found in a place so defiled by evil.
Cry, for the children soldiers who were brainwashed into perpetrating these crimes. Cry, for the leaders who promised support, then left them to die. Cry, for the fools who said the Khmer Rouge were simply "left bank marxists" and could be dealt with. Cry, for those who knew and did nothing. Cry, for those who said "never again," only to see it again and again. Cry, for that lie. Cry, because it continues today.
Cry, because my words fail me. Cry, with my heart and soul. Cry, because I feel hollow and empty. Cry, because I know this feeling too well, as I felt it at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and at the Boer concentration camps. Cry, because I can't stop crying. Cry, because tears fall like rain. Cry, because I can't cry anymore. Cry, because there is nothing else to do but cry. Cry, simply cry.
Monday, December 18, 2006
I crossed into Cambodia and was struck by the difference in the people. They are dark skinned and look more like Indians than Asians. Phnom Penh is a super hustle city. Everyone is jockying and jostling for dollars or riels. I am staying at a hostel on the lake. Full of dreadlocked travelers, and the smell of ganja wafting through the air. I am staying far away from the green, as I am deathly allergic to Asian prison. I sat out on the lake, drank fruit shakes and watched a beautiful sunset past pagodas and fishermen. Tomorrow I am going to the Killing Fields, to pay my respects. I will get into that in another blog, as I want to devote a lot to it. Scary stuff went on here, I will give a full description later.
Sorry for the lack of pictures in a while, it has been impossible to find a place to upload. I am trying, and will have some good stuff up soon.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Then some days are sublime. I met my Vietnamese friend from last night for dinner. I almost missed him as I couldn't find the point I was supposed to meet him. He took me for a Vietnamese lunar new year special at a local place. First off, I was the only foreigner in the joint. Second, the adorable waitresses in white miniskirts just kept flirting with me. They kept playing with my curls and telling me how handsome I am (not like lady). Then the food came. It was a whole steamed fish. My friend kept making me these delicious wraps with fish, mint leaves, lettuce, tomatoes, chilis, starfruit and noodles, which I dipped in fish sauce. It was phenomenal. For desert, I ate these fruit called "longen" which have the consistency of eyeballs. As he is an English teacher, I taught him very good words. We laughed about different phrases like "live and let live" and "like water off a duck's back." I'm leaving Vietnam tomorrow, Sai-gone, but I really like this place. Again, not a place I could see myself, but really an amazing time. On to Cambodia. Journey on.
Today, I woke up with a babalas and went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These were the tunnels that the Vietcong lived in, smuggled weapons and fought from. Crazy stuff. These tiny little tunnels were there residence for twenty years. I got to the place and watch a ridiculous propaganda movie about stuff like the "Hero American Killer" award given to a VC girl. Meanwhile, the tunnels were really tiny. Not a place I would want to spend more than 5 minutes. The boobytraps were ingenious. These spike pits and fire-hardened bamboo spikes covered with excrement to ensure infection. Nasty stuff. There were kitchen caves that had compartments for the smoke to leave out, through four chambers and just ever so slighty out a pile so that pilots couldn't detect them. You really saw the Vietnamese grit and determination in these caves. The place was even more surreal as there was a shooting range right there. You were walking around booby traps, and out of caves, with AK47s cracking in the distance. Creepy.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
4,000 dong (12.5 cents): 2 side-of-the-road spring roll and peanut sauce
5,000 dong (15.62 cents): cup of drip coffee with condensed milk
6,000 dong (18.75 cents): fried eggs and french baguette
8,000 dong (25 cents): local beer (bia Ha Noi)
10,000 dong (31.25 cents): pho bo (beef noodle soup); a motobike ride most places
48,000 dong ($3) dorm room in Hanoi
50,000 dong ($3.06) steak et frittes, salad bread and heineken
80,000 dong ($5) room with balcony in Saigon
392,000 dong ($24.5) regular sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue
666,000 dong ($41.62) first class sleeper train from Hue to Saigon
I tried to have lunch in what I though was the dining car, but they wouldn't serve me. Turns out it was the workers dining car. There was a Vietnamese guy who spoke spanish, and we talked. He convinced them to let me eat, so I had some yummy soup and rice and some fruit I have never eaten before. Not sure what it was, but it was tasty. The meal was even better as it came free. The ride went past rice paddy after rice paddy with little Vietnamese women in conical hats, bent over in the marshes.
I arrived at the crack of dawn in Saigon, and hopped on the back of a motobike to find a hotel. My $4 palace consisted of a small room with no air conditioning. I decided to upgrade to a room with a window. The upgrade cost me an extra buck, and now i have a balcony. I dropped off my laundry, which has since been turned pink due to a Beijing 2008 red t-shirt. Then I went to the Laos Embassy to extend my visa, which expires on Dec. 25th. I got to the embassy, and the guard told me to come back in an hour. I had a delicious breakfast of fried eggs with chili sauce in a baguette, sweet milk coffee and ginger flan. I went back to the embassy and the same guard told me it was closed. Ah, its Saturday, happy shabbas.
I left and went to the Reunification Palace. I ran into some Seeds of Peace folks, the first familiar faces I have seen on my trip. Steve and his wife Marsha do facilitation for SOP. They were on my tour of the Presidential now Reunification Palace. The Palace was where the South Vietnam President and government dwelled. It was built in the sixties, and really looked it. So retro, I expected Austin Powers to jump out. Sitting in Saigon, I am struck by the parallels to the situation in Iraq. There I was in the Saigon Green Zone. The situation was that the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) was supposed to stand up, as we stood back. We kept propping up Presidents, while the graft built up in the governments. Save a few brave battalions, the local; soldiers couldn't fight, and the generals were corrupt. Sounds too familiar, eh. I am trying to sort out all the parallels, but I will discuss it more as I digest.
Anyways, I had lunch with my SOP friends. They treated me to pho and a beer, a very nice treat for this backpackers. I then hopped on a bike and went wandering through markets in Cholon. I have been zipping all around Vietnam on the backs of motobikes. Lots of fun, a little scary at times. Truly the best way to see the cities here.
Meanwhile, I am shedding kilos. Probably from my Asian diet of soup, noodles and rice. Also lugging a 50lb bag around. I am replenshing myself on lots of fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, soooooo gooood.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
I'm in Hue at the moment, about to hop on a 16 hour train to Saigon. I arrive at 4:30am to Saigon, not a lot of fun. Hue was nice, overrun with tourists but okay. I met an Aussie on the train down, and we ended up sharing a place here. We found the only italian restaurant in Hue, and I had some great linguini for lunch and a couple glasses of Vietnamese red wine. Since it was raining, we hung out at the place for a while, playing pool with a couple of Vietnamese girls. I thought they were going to hustle us, but we ended up beating them on my, ehem, masterful pool shark skills.
After, we went to a citadel and the old palace area for the Nguyen dynasty, the Vietnamese Royal Family. It was done like the Forbidden city, but really over run. Later, I had some yummy pho soup for dinner, and found a cool Belgian bar with great Belgian beers. I was the only one there, so I sat chatting with the owner Bruno from Bruges. Later went to the DMZ bar to hang out with some other travelers I had met earlier, and watch the pool sharks circle.
Now, bring on Saigon.
I will simply leave my favorite Pablo Picasso quote:
"When I was younger, my mother said to me that if you become a soldier, you will be a general. If you become a priest, you'll end up as the Pope. But I wanted to be an artist, so I became Picasso."
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
PS: The Simon Rockower Award is an award for Jewish Journalism, named for my great-grandfather. It's the Pullitzer Prize of Jewish JournalismI had the honor of being keynote speaker and mc two years ago, and gave a quick address (on-the-fly) last year.
Meanwhile, I caught myself thinking in "vinglish." I thought to myself, "Tomorrow, I go Lao Embassy," then I realized I had been in Asia too long.
I just had the most amazing $3 meal ever. Steak et frittes- smothered in a garlic sauce, salad, fresh french bread and a heineken. I should have paid ten times the price for it.
Otherwise, I am running for my life when crossing the streets. I thought China was bad, but this is even worse. The swarms of bikes are true peril. I would hate to lose a leg in Nam, thirty years after the war ended. The last American casualty.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Last observation from China, on Chinese eating habits. The Chinese don't so much eat as they inhale. They shovel food into their mouthes using the chopsticks as a catapult. They eat like there are 1.3 billion people behind them, waiting to snatch any morsel they might miss.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Meanwhile, Lassie escaped. My attempts to have scruffy stew were thwarted by my inability to find the canine corner, the section of town where they serve poochie. Unless I accidentally ate it before, there has been no dog on my plate. I even went up to people, made a sign to eat, and then started barking. I had to settle for a fast food chicken place called "do me." There is always Vietnam...
Surprisingly, I haven't been able to escape the christmas spirit. They blare cheesy christmas songs, and plenty of places are decorated for the season. Bah humbug, I thought I would be able to avoid it in a communist, buddhist country.
As this is my official 150th entry, I am curious to how many people are actually reading my ramblings. If you read my blog, please drop a quick note. You don't have to say much, I am just trying to get a tally.
Sail over rivers of red ink and past lakes of mercury, and you can reach her jade palace. It rests on the back of an elephant, with spires that reach the sky. From each level, there are silk flags that proclaim her mercurial glory.
Cross the gardens of pearls, and the lapis bridges that walk you over the ponds of quicksilver and her throne may be found. The throne room is made of gold filigree, and the Empress Muse sits upon a mother-of-pearl and mahogany throne.
She is clothed in purple silk, holding a jewel-encrusted scepter of a brush. She spends her days writing calligraphic ideas to implant in the minds of those who will listen. She whispered in the ears of the Boxers, to convince them of their invincibility against Western weapons. She convinced Dr. Sun Yat Sen of his higher purpose than medicine. The Muse walked with Mao on his Long March across the hinterlands of the Middle Kingdom. She has lately switched her allegiance, as she stood behind the students of Tianmen, telling them not to fear the tanks rolling in.
Our sweet Muse whispers her dulcet words to me, and tells me that it is time to leave the red dragon nation. I leave with more questions than answers, but with something more precious than Marco Polo's spices and jewels. Her gift is ideas.
(If this doesn't make sense, refer back to entries called "The African Kingdom of the Muse, and the Kingdom of the Muse)
Saturday, December 09, 2006
As for the ride, I think Tom Petty sums it up best in "Saving Grace,"
"I'm passing sleeping cities, fading by degrees, not believing all I see to be so. I am flying over backyards, country homes and ranches, watching life between the branches below.
And it's hard to say who you are these days, but you run on anyway, don't you baby. You keep running to another place, to find that saving grace, don't you baby.
I'm moving all alone, over ground that no one owns. Past statues that atone for my sins. There is a guard on every door, and a drink on every floor, overflowing with the thousand day mends.
And it's hard to say who you are these days, but you run on anyway, don't you baby. You keep running to another place, to find that saving grace, don't you baby."
I finally figured out what you get with "first class." Privacy. While the beds are marginally softer, rather than an open train car with 75 of your closest Chinese compatriots, you receive a private cabin of four. It comes complete with a door to shield you from the outside world. In China, you pay a premium for privacy.
Meanwhile, the ride was beautiful. Through bucolic countryside and past pastoral chinese farm life. Rice paddies, farms and mountains. Very pretty.
Friday, December 08, 2006
For lunch, I went to a chinese fast food place called Kung Fum complete with Bruce Lee's moniker. It fancies itself as the global chinese fast food establishment. Not like any fast food recognizable. Duck and mushrooms with rice, (American!) Ginesing soup and soy milk to wash it down.
Since I have a little time till the train, I thought I would recount a few stories that didn't make the blog.
Shanghai: I extracted my revenge on the annoying bag sellers. When I was leaving town with my big daypack, whenever someone would come up and ask "you want bag?" I would back my big daypack into them and say "you want bag!"
Datong: I was waiting for a night train out, and I wanted to power my ipod, so I went to the only lounge I could find. It was the handicapped lounge. The woman in charge of the lounge dutifully recorded all who were in there. The blind, old and infirmed, deaf amd retarded. And me, for all intents and purposes, a chinese deaf mute who can say 10 words. I made friends with the retarded girl by giving her a Texas pin and letting her listen to my ipod.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Instead, I went to a museum to the Taiping (Boxer) rebellion. The place served as capital when the Taiping rebellion was in full swing. In the mid19th century, the chinese rose up against the foreign devils plundering their country and went on an extermination of all foreigners. They believed themselves to be impervious to Western weapons and went about seiging western compounds. The revolt was at first supported by the Imperial court, but the Boxers aimed against them too in an attempt to overthrow the landlords and redistribute the land. The revolt a few years, but following massacres of foreigners in Beijing, Western nations moved in to violently put down the revolt. Fascinating stuff. The museum had edicts, scrolls and money from the Taiping government.
Finally, I went to the mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat Sen. It was a beautiful marble building with blue tile roof, on a mountain known as "Purple Mountain." The ride up was beautiful, as I rode past gnarled tree that looked like gnarled hands. The red and yellow leaves hung softly on the finger-like branches, waiting to fall. Dr. Sun Yat Sen was the founder of modern China. He helped overthrow the imperial family, and set up the first Republican government. Both the Communists and Nationalists claimed him as their leader. Sun Yat Sen wrote of the "Three Principles of the People." His principles were: Nationalism, Democracy and People's livelihood. Interestingly, here in the PRC, they translate the middle principle to "People's Rights."
Gotta go catch a train to Hangzhou, one of the prettiest cities in China. Happy B-day E-Rock, and Larry Bird.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Having lost my guidebook some 2 weeks back, I wondered how I would find my story on Jewish Shanghai. Yet sitting on the train from
At the turn of the century, Ashkenazi Jews began flooding
In the lead up to World War II,
With the coming of the Japanese occupation of
With the end of World War II, and the rise of Communist China, almost all of the
Today I am moving on from Shanghai, to Nanjing. Nanjing was formerly known as Nanking, as in "The Rape of Nanking." It was host to some of the worst atrocities during WWII. I am going to pay my respects.
Monday, December 04, 2006
A note from Tibet, the sun doesn't rise there until 8:30am. One China, one time zone. So Lhasa is thousands of miles away from Beijing, but on the same time. However Hanoi is far closer, yet an hour behind. It is strange to see the sun not up until so late.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
So, on to Shanghai. The Shanghai surprise. I just left a bar straight out of the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Shanghai is a trip. Working girls here speak better english than anyone I have encountered thus far. I saw more foreigners on my trip from the train station to Col. Kurtz's place than a whole week in Tibet. I needed a starbucks latte just to cope.
Jazz and single malt scotch, Shanghai is my type of city. The people are tall here. Yao Ming was from Shanghai. People aren't that tall, but more than the rest. The girls here are beautiful too. Very well put together.
The plague of ideas is back, and it is due to the lights of this fair city. Lights and glitz, capital and sleeze. In short, an Asian New York. Girls keep inviting me to have coffee, I'm curious how much the coffee costs, but somehow I think I will pass on the cup. Juan Valdez, where are you?
And then there is me. Spitting bubble tea balls at western imperialism. I hit a McDonalds and a pepsi sign. The bubble tea is warm here, so strange. As is the rarity of a place that takes my credit. So is a bookstore with every Lonely Planet title, except for China. Chile, Croatia, Cuba. I think that about sums up the city.
I had to fight for a table at the jazz place. They wanted a 50 rmb cover ($6), then put me at the bar with my back to the band. Said I, if I am paying cover, I'll have a table. Over a crust-less chicken sandwich, Macallan scotch and jazz, I remembered all the other jazz joints I had frequented. Redutta in Prague. I think I saw jazz in Paris, but I can't really recall. Nice to hear jazz and not Kenny G, which they blared incessantly on the train. So it goes for Bogart in Asia. I'm now a long way from Tibet.