Sunday, November 15, 2015

Why Travel Will Save our Species (if we do it Right)

The species Homo erectus existed on Earth for nearly 2 million years. In that span of time its members developed basic societal rituals and rudimentary tools. Two million years.

In painfully sharp contrast, our species, Homo sapiens, has been around a little less than 200,000 years.

In that span of time, we have developed mind-bogglingly complex societal rituals and devised technology so intricate that many of us don't know how most things work. We just know they do.

Significantly, with our relatively short time on Earth, we have used our superior brain capacity to develop incredible technologies whose sole purpose is to kill other members of our species. We have devoted an enormous amount of thought and effort to the development of weapons whose only intended use is to kill ourselves.

It is doubtful that we will last as long as Homo erectus.

We will most likely wipe ourselves out well before we celebrate a 2 million-year anniversary. But there is something that we can do to increase our chances of good run: Travel.

If our species is to survive one of the major factors will be because individuals travel. I am not talking about going on a sight-seeing tour, being herded around like cattle, experiencing next to nothing of a foreign culture. The whole philosophy may sound hyperbolic, but it will hinge on grassroots, citizen diplomacy—one human being getting to know one other human. Then another. And another.

If the human race is ever going to quit destroying itself through violence and ignorance it will only be through first-hand experience of each other’s countries, cultures, and lives. Firsthand experience. That means we each get off the couch and make the effort to seek and learn from someone who is completely different. Here's the secret, though: Travel teaches you very early on that we are all much more alike than we are different. Most of us have the same basic wants. We all have the same basic needs.

As Americans, we have a responsibility to travel to defeat blind prejudice. It is much harder to hate someone once you have gotten to know them and the context in which they live. He or she may not become your best friend forever; you may not fall in love with him or her, or even really like them. But it will be much more difficult to hate and fear them, and they you. Simple understanding goes a very long way.

During my time globetrotting I have come face to face with my own preconceived judgements of other cultures which are often incorrect. I have been shocked and disappointed by the stark realization that my levels of tolerance and acceptance in certain settings were far lower than I had fancied before I started traveling.

But experiencing those peoples and places is precisely how I cultivate that level of tolerance, acceptance, and appreciation which is the way to a more peaceful planet.

I am much better off now for going through those moments of self-analysis and discovery that really only happen when I am in foreign environments, however hard they are.

Today, after a week in which terrorist groups bombed three cities—but sadly and ethnocentrically, only one made front page headlines and an endless news cycle—make up your mind to go out and get to know a person or a group or a place that you have never known before.

Don't allow yourself to fall into the destructive pit of hatred for any one people based on the actions of a few. And remember, they are the few compared to the Middle East region's population. 

International travel must be a part of the strategy at some point, but immediately, it does not have to be a trip overseas. Go to a neighborhood in your city that you have never been to before. Ask yourself if you never went because you were scared based solely on hearsay or because the people that live there do not look like you. 

Travel, even if just a few miles away. It is the only way to combat the ignorance and fear that is behind violence of all kinds. Travel with a purpose to get to know yourself and to understand, if not agree with, a completely different society.

Do not be irresponsible or place yourself in dangerous situations—I am not advocating anyone booking a flight to Syria tomorrow. But make a point to reach out to a person or culture that you otherwise would not. And by this, develop your sense of compassion so when you see a story about a bombing in Lebanon, or people drowning in the Mediterranean while fleeing terrorist strongholds, you feel just as much as when you see photos of Paris.

We all have the responsibility to reach out and prove that others do not always have accurate ideas of who and what we are and to make sure that we are not inaccurately judging others based on prejudice and assumption. 

We can mitigate radicalization to extreme ideology, but we must each make the effort to cultivate tolerance. It will be more difficult for some groups to do that. For others it may be too late. But we have to start because we do not have 2 million years to work it out.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Conversations in Yangon, Part II

"What do you want travelers to know?" 

"They must know the situation," says U Nyan Win, the National League for Democracy's spokesman and The Lady Aung San Suu Kyi's personal attorney.

I'd been in Yangon, Myanmar little more than a week when I found myself sitting in front of Win, with whom I'd gotten an interview for the Yangon episode at the 11th hour.

The situation is this: The military government in Myanmar opened up in 2010 after roughly 50 years of deadly iron-fist rule and decades of false promises to reform and hold legitimate elections. Finally, civilian political parties were elected to -- and significantly, allowed to participate in -- parliament, ending decades of isolation from the outside world.

However, peaceful civil protests are still being broken up by violent police and vigilante force. And though the press is much freer than it once was, reporters are still being arrested at the whim of authorities they rub the wrong way. Ethnic minorities have been targeted by sectarian violence for years and the economy is splitting drastically. Billions of dollars of development investment are pouring in but that's creating a case of haves-and-haves-not on a biblical scale. This place still has problems.

For many years, the National League for Democracy, the leading opposition to the military government, called for a travel boycott of the country formerly known as Burma. It was nearly impossible to travel to or in the country without at least some -- probably most -- of your money going to the murderous government. When the NLD shifted position and the curtains were pulled aside on Myanmar, letting the rest of us look in, the party started advocating thoughtful, responsible travel. Not outright tourism. 

Throughout my 10 days in Yangon I had many conversations with locals of different generations. U Nyan Win, a lawyer, lived through the infamously bloody 1988 rebellion and went on to help found the NLD. He also spent three years in prison without trial for his efforts. His more famous client and friend, Aung San Suu Kyi, spent the better part of 14 years under voluntary house arrest. 

The owners of the guesthouse where I stayed are around my age and were children in 1988. They are active members of the NLD and are hopeful that things will continue to change for the better. Their 19-year-old assistant doesn't see anything changing any time soon. Since the leadership of the party is aging, one thing is clear: it cannot afford for younger generations to become cynical. 

With parliamentary elections scheduled for November, people seem weary. The progress of reform has slowed. The military still directly controls 25 percent of the seats in parliament through appointment. Though the NLD routinely wins a majority of seats in a landslide in these contests when it isn't boycotting them, its chairperson, The Lady, is still banned from becoming president under the 2008 constitution written by the military. In April, talks began which may lead to amendment of the article that effectively prohibits her from taking the office. 

Outside the sphere of politics, Yangon is a fascinating place in its own right. Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian Burmese share the sweltering half-decrepit, half-glittering port city with international diplomats, wealthy foreign businesspeople, poor foreign migrants, and ex-pats from all over.

Through, my favorite site for reaching out to locals, I met a group of ex-pat teachers working at various institutions -- usually international schools catering to the children of the aforementioned diplomats and business types. 

Some like it here, at least one hates it. None have yet bothered to learn any of the language, though one or two are about to start lessons. These are Americans and Australians who really enjoy teaching. Two of them are at a school with mostly Burmese kids whom they say they love for the children's outgoing personalities compared to other more docile Asian kids they've taught. 

One man, Ben, teaches English to well-off Burmese teens and adults. In a country where internet access was so expensive that only the wealthiest could afford it and was censored rigidly until 2011 regardless, he has had to supplement his language lessons with other subjects like geography and history.

"They didn't know where England was," he says of one group of teen and adult students that included a doctor. "They didn't know who The Beatles were."

Things most of us take for granted, even think of as trivial, are still new to society here. He tells me his students either didn't know how to use an online search engine or used it the least effective way possible. When I think back to a time I didn't know what Google was my brain sends out a "does not compute" message.

But now that technology is in, it's in. Everyone my age and younger has a smart phone in his or her hand. The recent crackdown on the peaceful protests was recorded by camera phones and video apps.

In the past, cameras belonging to the media would be confiscated during these kinds of events. They still are in some cases. But there's no way to commandeer dozens of tiny devices that get stowed quickly in pockets.

This place has problems. But people are still working hard to solve them and the topics make for great conversation. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Conversations in Yangon, Part I

“I like George Bush.” 

The young Burmese man standing in front of me has a bright orange sculptured coiffure that makes his head resemble a matchstick aflame. I like it; it's his statement that makes me do a double take. 

It’s a scorching 100 degrees as I set up the camera in Maha Bandula Garden in the center of Downtown Yangon. Sweat is stinging my eyes. The humidity is oppressive, but I didn’t make it out early enough to catch the four minutes of coolness at dawn and now I’m paying the price. I just need a few quick shots of city hall and the surrounding historic British colonial buildings then I can find some shade. 

He’s got a thick lisp but the young man’s English is quite good. He and a friend have wandered up to investigate and chat. We cover the niceties: I make a travel show, they’re university students. 

Then he asks if I like Obama, a question I’ve gotten nearly everywhere I’ve been in the world since he was elected. On the night of President Obama’s first election, an Irish immigration officer at Dublin’s airport wanted to know why I wasn’t “back there votin’ for Obama?” He seemed satisfied to let me enter the country when I told him I’d voted absent tee. 

Yes, I like Obama, I tell Orange. I give him a few examples of his successful foreign policy, such as Obama being the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar. Usually, at this point each person who brings up Obama extolls the way he’s brought the image of the U.S. back from the brink of ridiculousness. But Orange remains thoughtfully quiet. That's when he professes his appreciation for Bush. This grabs my attention, since in all the years I’ve traveled no one from any other country has ever had anything positive to say to me about George W. 

“Why?” I ask. 

“Because he’s brave.”

I decide the best course of action is not to pursue a line of questioning. I’m only slightly less surprised to learn that Orange’s name is Jonathan. “My Christian name,” he says. That explains the Bush reverence. O.J. is a practicing evangelical Christian. Certainly a minority in Myanmar but not unheard of. 

Though this is a predominantly Buddhist country, Yangon has a healthy blend of temples, churches, and mosques. I hadn’t expected the diversity of Christian denominations I’ve seen. As it is, we're standing across the street from a Baptist church, something I only see regularly when I'm in my home state of Texas. I've got a sneaking suspicion that a conservative pastor told O.J. that George W. Bush was brave, seeing as how he's never been to the States. 

Since it's midday on a Thursday my next question is why aren't these university students at university? It's closed, they say. Been shut down by the authorities because of the student protests that have taken place twice in the past month, resulting in brutal beatings of protesters by the police and scores of arrests. 

Those protests were not at their school, nor led or even organized by students from their school as far as they or I know. That's just what the government does when the students march here. In 1988 when students took to the streets many were gunned down by the military, so as backward as it is, this is progress. 

The most recent round of demonstrations, two days ago, was 90 miles north of Yangon but it makes no difference to the pseudo-democratic government, still heavily controlled by the military. If one group makes noise, all the universities are shut down, they tell me. O.J. is confident that the campus will be closed for at least two weeks which is why we find ourselves sweating together in the middle of the city. 

As far as I understand the legislative bill that these people are protesting, it would allow the government to limit and censor curriculum. They're fighting for their right to unfettered knowledge. In a country that only stopped censoring the internet in 2011, this looks to be a long battle. 

But, Myanmar is used to long battles. Student-led movements that turn into expansive political pushes to overthrow the government have been going on for many decades. They are a large part of the reason that Myanmar has come as far as it has, though many here are expressing their frustration that democratic reforms have slowed, or even reversed, since the military let go some of its control in 2010. 

As we talk about the politics of education Jonathan mentions that he once worked security for "The Lady" Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party that has been fighting since the late 1980s for a democratic state. 

O.J. and I have moved to a small restaurant off the park for a cool drink and some shade. He's 26 years old, and as we talk, I begin to fully realize how significant it is that we can have this conversation about his political opinions and his work for the NLD in public. How fortunate I am to be able to experience this momentous point in Myanmar's history firsthand and share it for a split second in a personal way. Yes, the country still has enormous, and enormously serious problems, but to simply be able to travel here and engage in the act of free speech, openly, without fear, in the middle of a public place with a local is historic and awesome in the real definition of the word. 

He must have been born within a year or so of the 1988 uprising that would lead to the formation of the NLD and the repeated imprisonment of its members, including famously, Aung San Suu Kyi's prolonged house arrest. Not long ago speaking openly could get you killed. A generation ago, if you were arrested at a political rally, beating and imprisonment were only the beginning. Many disappeared for good. 

There is so, so much more work to be done. The leadership of the NLD is aging. They need people Jonathan's age to continue to push. But there is will. 

A few days after meeting O.J. I find myself sitting in front of U Nyan Win, the NLD's spokesman and The Lady's personal attorney. He is soft-spoken and kind, but serious as a heart attack when he says: 

"We will not surrender." 

Monday, April 06, 2015

Yangon: New Millennium Dreams

British colonial facade, Caribbean colors, in Downtown Yangon 

In the late 1920s, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called Yangon, Myanmar “a city of blood, dreams and gold.” Almost 90 years later, his description is still apt. When he lived here the British Indian colony was called Burma and the city, Rangoon. 

Today, the dreams are different: new millennium dreams exhibited everywhere by high-rise construction shooting skyward at a break-neck pace between decrepit colonial buildings, the gold in the form of foreign investment gushing in since the military government let loose (some of) its iron grip in 2010. If one sits looking at the horizon for a length of time, a building will appear before one’s eyes like a blade of grass in a time-lapse video. 

A smoggy day in Yangon town -- once dominated by
Sule Pagoda (center),  downtown is now commanded by high-rise construction

As for blood, whatever he saw then, I wonder whether even Neruda, who would witness war in other parts of the world, could have imagined the kind of bloodshed that took place during the 50 years of military rule in the country beginning in the 1960s. For so many decades imprisonment without trial and the killing of of civilian protesters by the military was the norm. No one was safe, not even Yangon’s monks who are, as a whole, quite politically active. 

Even last month, peaceful demonstrations by students and their supporters against an education bill were met with violent police and vigilante force. Cynically, I could say that there’s been progress because this time no one was murdered, only beaten and arrested.

Although democratic reforms have been instituted, fought for during the last several decades by opposition parties like The Lady Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the military still has much control since the constitution guarantees it 25 percent of the seats in parliament. The military, of course, wrote the constitution. The dream of a true democratic state, complete freedom of press, and basic humans rights still a long way off but you’ll be able to live in a deluxe apartment in the sky. 

Neglected colonial buildings with plant growth cozy up to
modern glass and steel architecture downtown  

As I spend most of my days on foot going through neighborhoods for adequate coverage of the city for the episode, the streets produce a sometimes exquisite, sometimes nauseating oscillation of odors: aromas of wonderful street food one moment and clouds of fumes from open sewers and filth the next. But, block after block the sidewalks are ripped up and men are working in those sewers upgrading infrastructure in the smoggy, heavy, 100-degree heat. They wear no shirts and only flip-flops on their feet or no shoes at all. I notice at large building sites — the skyscrapers popping up — workers have on protective footwear and hard hats although workers on the fringes of these sites will still be in flip-flops, albeit with hard hats firmly in place. 

My couch surfing host, an American expat working as a school teacher, tells me that in the past six months or so he’s noticed things getting cleaned up. The smells are better. For all the political turmoil that still exists and the progress yet to be made in this, the former capitol city, the gold fueling the capitalistic rush is flooding the place. It makes me wonder whether on some subtle level it’s meant as a diversion from the coming year-end national elections. “Look what our reforms have given you,” I imagine the military saying.

Not-so-deluxe apartments, old and new. Downtown Yangon

In one of the 25 poorest countries in the world, it’s telling that at a big development site on the eastern edge of Inya Lake, in one of the more genteel neighborhoods which houses diplomats and international business people, there is no Burmese language whatever on the marketing materials around the site. Only English, extolling how luxurious, how “prestigious” living at this address will be once it’s completed. Blood, dreams and gold, indeed.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Will the Party end in Vang Vieng (Again)?

Morning view of the Nam Xong, Vang Vieng.
A dark party scene may be re-emerging to wreck this idyllic spot. 

The bucolic silence is ripped through by a couple of high-pitched motorcycles screaming down the dark street. Vang Vieng, Laos is about to turn into Cancun spring break on a river. 

"Rich kids from Vientiane up for the weekend," says the owner of Le Cafe de Paris in a thick French accent -- one of several Continental-owned enterprises in the small riverside town. A testament to French Indochina being alive and well in small clusters.

The searing heat is melting into a comfortably warm night as I sit at the bar sipping the first decent glass of wine I've had in weeks thinking of the Buddhist funeral I crashed earlier in the day. Suddenly I'm reminded of what Norman Lewis wrote of the French officers he met in Laos during his trek through Indochina in the early 1950s. 

They all espoused the way of life in the country they called an Eden, he wrote. They promptly took Lao wives and went as native as they could until they were out of the military and could complete the job. The owner of the cafe has lived in Vang Vieng for more than a decade and took a Lao wife years ago. He sits at his bar every evening in shorts, a baggy T-shirt, with a jaw covered in stubble and a cigarette dangling from his lips pouring drinks, chatting with guests, curating the music selection (Elvis, Édith Piaf, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, 80s-era French rock) from his computer and keeping an eye on the tables while his wife runs the place. 

I ask him if the dark party scene that blew up here in the early 2000s, and was quashed, is coming back. "It's coming back," he says. "But not for long." 

Unlike it's more sophisticated cousin to the north, Luang Pranbang, Vang Vieng has no UNESCO World Heritage Site protection -- and accompanying curfew -- so throughout the first decade of the new millennium the rowdier element of the backpacking crowd flocked here to party 'round the clock. Bars built huge platforms on the water for raves and the once-idyllic spot where a few travelers came to smoke a joint and relax with locals attracted harder drugs and trashier travelers. By 2012, one guidebook reports, that on average an estimated 20 people per year were dying from drug overdoses and drowning in the river. In August that year, the communist Lao government came down hard on the businesses and put a stop to the debauchery. There's a rumor around town that the Australian government had a hand in it too, since it was the country with one of the highest death tolls. Shut it down or lose Australian economic aid. 

There's a sense now that it's only a matter of time before the reins are pulled again. But for many aspects of the town, there's no turning back. There are enormous, ugly hotel blocks popping up between sweet little guesthouses. There will be a high-speed rail line run through Laos with stations in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng in the next decade -- a project of the Chinese government which Laos has heartily embraced. The place will be something completely different in the next 10 years, party crowd or no. 

It will continue to cater to the tourists, but rather than elevate parts of Lao culture, specifically exceptional Laotian food, to the high-end like Luang Prabang has done, Lao restaurant owners here still seem convinced that foreigners want pizza, pasta, and burgers. When I want local food (which has been every day) my only options are the street-side stalls that intimidate the hell out of the tour bus set with the dirt, dogs, and lack of air conditioning. My French buddy says he's tried to convince Lao restaurant owners to do Lao food in an upscale environment, but so far it's been useless. 

A part of me feels guilty for taking refuge in an Anglo establishment, eschewing the sumptuous Lao food in the outdoor stalls for a plate of French cheese, baguettes, paté, and olive tapenade but I cycled 20 miles today and I just want a glass of wine. Even though it's not French. According to my new friend, imports of all sorts are taxed at about 40 percent and getting wine in from France is "very complicated" though getting cheese isn't. The glasses on the menu are Californian and Chilean.

As with nearly all the destinations I've spent time in within the past couple of months in Southeast Asia, Vang Vieng is experiencing its own growing pains and quirks. Last night just as I grabbed the shower faucet to turn it on the electricity went out. Nothing out of the ordinary in this part of the world, but a reminder that even the most modern buildings can't function properly without up-to-date infrastructure. Whether the basics will be upgraded with the building of a state-of-the-art railway remains to be seen. 

On one hand Vang Vieng is more customer service-oriented than most of the places I've seen so far; a relief for exhausted travelers. On the other, though this little hamlet has scores of guesthouses, hotels, hostels, and all the entertainment a traveler could want, there's not much for the locals to do when they aren't working in hospitality. So, "they drink," my friend says. 

The natural landscape is incredibly beautiful, but the amplified Western Top 40 party tunes blaring from the waterfront bars destroy the gorgeous tranquility. The growth will not stop but how that growth is controlled, if at all, will be interesting to observe. Laos has been so poor for so long no one is stopping to forecast how all the unchecked growth might destroy the culture. All that matters for many in Vang Vieng, understandably, is that they can finally afford to feed their kids even if it means the quaint spot turns into Cancun's Hotel Zone. 

For now, it's all I can do to finish my glass and step out into the warm light of a full, deep blood-orange moon over the river and the whining of motorcycles drifting on the air like the buzzing of flies. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Head-Smacking Good Time

“Is this,” I pause, trying for a word that might be easily understood. “A party?”

“Party? No, we come to make foods things for when the people dead.” 

The gears in my head start to slowly click as the young Lao woman with braces says,”My grandfather has dead.” 

I have gatecrashed a Buddhist wake. But, oddly, I don’t feel embarrassed. I won’t have that head-smacking moment until later. 

Ten minutes ago, I was sailing through the countryside about eight miles north of Vang Vieng, Laos on a mountain bike looking for a place to stop for lunch. I spent the morning riding out to the first of several caves I want to see that are scattered throughout the limestone karst mountains north of Vang Vieng on the west side of the Xong River. Some extend miles into the formations and are famous for reasons ranging from religious to piratical.  

Sweat was dripping off my chin and running down my torso in torrents when an older woman with silver hair shouted “Sabaai dii!” (Hello) from the open gate of a property with a good crowd of locals settled around half-a-dozen tables in front of a building, eating. In this part of the world people sitting at tables in front of a building on the side of the road usually means restaurant. 

I’d pedaled past, but not finding anything closer to my next cave turnoff, covered in a layer of grit with sweat stinging my eyes, I wheeled around and cruised back to the roadside eatery and pulled my bike up between a couple of scooters parked in the shade of the main building awning. 

I don’t see the woman who’d said hello, but ahead of me to the right, a table of women around my age are smiling and nodding, if with somewhat curious expressions on their faces. I figure it’s because most foreigners in this neck of the woods are not alone. Normally, the travelers they see along this road are zooming past in groups mushed into buses and kayaking tour trucks heading upriver. 

A middle-aged woman appears and says something in Lao, friendly. I smile, making the sign for “drink” and ask for water. She heads off and to my left a man springs out of his chair at a low-slung table surrounded by a group of about eight men of middle-to-old age. They’ve seen me ask for water and there’s a great waving of hands and much gesticulating as a couple usher me over and offer the empty chair. The long table is loaded with traditional Lao food, including my favorite dish, laap. I say “sabaai dii” and fold my hands in the traditional Buddhist greeting. I do my best to say “I’m sorry I don’t speak Lao” in Lao, careful to say “khoy” — meaning “I” — with a downward inflection, rather than an upward as I had been when I arrived in Laos. “Khoy” with an upward inflection is “penis.”

They all light up even more and three or four start chattering at me all at once. I can also say “I don’t understand” in Lao, and that’s mostly what I get out between all the questions they seem to be asking. 

Water shows up, but I realize dimly that I don’t see menus on any table. Someone has summoned a man from inside the main building who speaks a little English and he and I cover the basics. I’m from the States. I’m out here looking to explore the caves. I like Laos. He needs to get back to the people he was with inside so in a moment a pretty young woman in her early 20s with braces sits down in his place. Her English is better. Her name is Gaan. She lives in the capitol city of Vientiane and studies hospitality at university and her grandfather has dead. No wonder the first table of ladies was looking at me like I was an oddity. 

A man in a red shirt sitting across the table with a large water bottle in front of him is her father. He pours a small amount of clear liquid from the bottle into a shot glass and hands it to me. Rice alcohol. Alcohol of any sort is not what I need in this heat, but there’s no way I would say no. I drink it and they all laugh as I make the “wow that burns” face. 

As we talk, a plate of crackers, cookies, and small packets of sticky rice and beans wrapped in steamed banana leaves is placed in front of me. Someone brings more water. A few yards away, the land slopes up a short grade where three or four more long, folding tables are lined with mostly women. Everyone is laughing, chatting, men come and go from our table, doing fly-bys. These are my new friend’s uncles, cousins, aunts, family friends. The funerary ritual lasts three days. People will come and go from the widow’s home, bring symbolic offerings, food, money, and good cheer. I didn’t feel instant mortification when Gaan told me where I was because the whole thing has the atmosphere of a summer barbecue and because no one batted an eye when I wandered in looking like a half-drowned rat. There’s no sadness, no mourning, there’s only gracious, welcoming openness. 

Theravada Buddhism, the predominant religion in the land, teaches that death is simply a change, not an ending. Other belief systems of ancestor and spirit worship blend with that and therefor Grandfather is simply in an afterlife that functions something like this one. 

Several people insist Gaan take me partway up the steep hill behind the family home so I can appreciate the incredible view of the limestone range across the river. My friend has already encouraged me to take pictures, though I have not told her what I’m doing in Laos. 

As we come back to the gathering, I realize that there will be no way they will accept money for the food and water, let alone shots of rice wine they’ve given me. By this time I understand that the matriarch widow is in the main house, and I’ve seen the short, decorative silver and gold foil trees with monetary offerings pinned to the leaves so grandfather can buy things wherever he is. I dig out a few thousand kip and Gaan leads me into the house where the first man who spoke English is quick to pull one of the foil trees aside and show me an altar with a framed picture of the deceased, his father. 

There are foods and flowers surrounding this picture with money pinned all over the altar and the several foil trees around it. His widow is pleasant, kind, and doesn’t seem surprised or even to think it’s bizarre in the least that this strange woman has wandered into her house. I’ve greeted her, seated myself on the floor with the relatives across from her and I ask my friend to tell her family that I apologize for intruding and I meant no offense, I was simply confused. The widow smiles warmly and dismissively and her son says, “It’s OK! It’s OK!” 

He passes me a plate and Gaan tells me to put the money on it. I start to pass it to her grandmother but her uncle stops me and they tell me to hold it to my forehead. The matriarch starts to intone something and Gaan tells me she’s saying a blessing. When she’s done, she takes the offering on behalf of her late husband and Gaan’s uncle hands me a parting gift of prepared food wrapped in a plastic bag from a bundle made for visitors. I sit quietly with the group as another local woman comes and goes through the same ceremony. 

As I leave I give Gaan a quick hug, something I almost never do with people I meet back home after knowing them for an hour. But, it’s something I’ve done in Southeast Asia a couple times during this trip, I realize. Distilled human connection. Then I get back on my bike and pedal off for the next cave. And, laughing, smack myself on the forehead. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Flowers and String

The sky is its usual soupy, dusty pale peach color as I sit in one of the open-air food stalls inside the grounds of Angkor Wat, letting the sweat dry. The woman trying to sell me scarves from one of the clothing stalls stops with the rehearsed pitch when I answer her in Cambodian. 

"No one who comes here ever speaks our language," she says, smiling. She seems tickled when I ask her about her life and I get the impression it's not something the tourists ask her about often. 

She's younger than me, lives with her family in the country nearby and has five children. She sells scarves for the shop owner and gets a 50 percent commission. Many days, she tells me, she has no sales. It can be hard to feed everyone though her husband works too. Her small son, about 5 years old, is cruising through the stalls selling postcards and magnets. He goes to school in the morning and helps his mother in the afternoon. 

I ask all the many children who hawk things around the temples their age. No one I meet is older than 8.

Back in Siem Reap: Tourist Trap, the small city that feeds and houses the never-ending parade of visitors to the Angkor region, there is more social stratification between the locals and foreigners than I've seen in any other tourist hub. I'm not surprised that no one asks the vendors around the temples about themselves. Tourists and backpackers keep to the tourists and backpackers. Though, to be fair, most of the Cambodians I interact with exhibit a timidity that makes me feel like I'm assaulting them instead of asking questions. They are friendly, but not outgoing. Shy people who are ill-suited to the hospitality industry personality-wise but grateful for the work because there are few viable alternatives here.

At the Garden House Guesthouse I've booked into for the duration -- a family-run operation -- one of the adult sons tells me that he doesn't like helping to run a hotel, it's exhausting. Peter came back to Siem Reap to work in the family business because, though he has an IT degree, he found it nearly impossible to live in Phnom Penh on the wages an IT worker earns. Two hundred dollars a month doesn't go very far but that cheap labor is why much of that work is sent to Phnom Penh by foreign companies. (His name isn't Peter. It's a word that starts with the letter P and has two syllables neither of which I pronounce correctly when I try to say it. I cringe when I do it, but I try. In my mind I call him Peter.) 

Later, as I'm sipping a beer from my perch at one of the western-style restaurants along the Siem Reap River in town -- a place where the Khmer staff are wallflowers and the tourists ignore them until time to order or pay -- there's commotion from the courtyard of the Cambodian People's Party compound across the river. About 30 Cambodians are taking an outdoor aerobics class at the political headquarters. Which makes me think of something else Peter said. 

Young people are moving away from the party. There's too much cronyism, too much corruption and favoritism. The older people, he says, are loyal because it was the CPP who saved them all at the end of the Khmer Rouge insanity and war. But, 30 years of the same party in power is becoming enough. Cambodia's government may be a parliamentary monarchy, but there's been one prime minister since the mid-80s. The fact that about 70 percent of the population was born since 1979 is a bad sign for the party. This is a young nation. Maybe that's why they're trying to attract people with group fitness classes. 

There's a sweet smell in the warm evening air and I try to ask my young waiter in English what the fragrance is, since he seemed to speak Restaurant English OK. The conversation dies when we can't understand each other, and I'm left waving my hand under my nose making exaggerated sniffing sounds with a smile on my face. After I've eaten I attempt a few Cambodian phrases. He is also surprised and pleased I speak some of his language. A few minutes later, he's back at the table holding a frangipani blossom out to me. A gift that he'd just plucked off a nearby bush -- that sweet smell on the air. 

These, then, are the small, quiet moments bridging the great divide between Tourist Trap and human community. They happen simply, amongst the frenzy of tourist buses and tuk-tuks.

The next day, another of these moments steps in front of me. Although the temples scattered over the Angkor region are ruins, they are still places of Buddhist pilgrimage and worship. There are often makeshift altars and shrines tucked away in nooks, sometimes with a monk or nun in attendance, sometimes not. I'm filming Ta Prohm, best-known as the Tomb Raider temple, when I wheel around a corner and find a low, small altar on a pile of stone being cared for by an equally small nun. I ask her permission and take a still photo of her. Then I turn off the camera. 

"Pray, pray," she says -- her only word of English. She motions to the altar decorated with the bottom half of a stone Buddha (a holy statue is a holy statue) nonetheless carefully wrapped in his gold cloth, flowers, bamboo, a candle, incense, a bunch of short lengths of braided string, some neon yellow and some red, and a donation plate. It's impossible to guess her age. She's got a slight hump back and a shaved head, and she smiles kindly. 

It's unusually quiet for a moment, a rare thing, without more tourists tromping through this corner of the structure as she hands me a joss stick and shows me how to hold it between my hands. She motions for me to mimic her as she faces the Buddha, folds her hands and quietly says what I assume is a prayer. I make the motions and she reaches for a yellow and a red braid, a string bracelet that she ties around my wrist, muttering something in Khmer that again sounds like a prayer or blessing. I hope it is. We stand maybe a foot from one another and with her eyes down, I scan her face well. There are no lines on it anywhere, her skin wonderfully smooth. She stands shorter than me and that's quite a feat. 

I light my incense and place it in the pot with others to burn. The TV producer in my head is screaming to turn on the camera, but I can't. It's such a personal, quiet moment I'm loathe to force it into the situation. It doesn't feel right, too intrusive. I stand with her alone for a moment and then several white foreigners wander through quickly, cameras swinging off their necks. "Pray, pray," my tiny nun says. The strangers don't acknowledge she's there, but keep walking, looking for the next amazing photo op. I leave a small offering in her donation box and she grins widely. I only see three teeth in her mouth.

My views on spirituality have shifted during my adult life. I view much of religious philosophy and certainly dogma as so much superstition. But I do believe in humans. Traveling extensively has had a lot to do with that. My innate cynicism has faded -- some -- and my faith in people and my trust in them has been strengthened as a result of what I've seen and the places I've been. 

Who knows, with so many of the tourists disregarding the little nun, maybe what she whispered while tying on my bracelet was something along the lines of, "You damned tourists, I hate the lot of you, I wish you'd all drop dead." But I don't think that's what it was. And though I don't think a higher spiritual power has any, well, power when it comes to what she said, I do believe her kindness has power. I believe her human qualities of goodness, sharing, and her ability to connect with a strange woman whose language she doesn't understand has plenty of power. That's the real blessing. 

One of many makeshift altars hidden through
Angkor temples, this one in Ta Prohm. 


Outside Ta Prohm, the circus of tuk-tuks, vendors, stalls, heat, and dirt fuse together and I'm back in the Cambodia of Siem Reap. It's an interesting blend of modern convenience and inconvenient quirks. Like new, clean toilet facilities with toilet paper in dispensers at the sinks for drying your hands. An effort to cater to the comfort of the people keeping the local economy going, but a disconnect from those people.

There’s a lot to the region that I haven’t seen and won't be able to see. There are floating villages on the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and country orphanages, fundraising for which people in Siem Reap approach foreigners at the popular city sites. I haven't seen what Cambodia is. That will have to be an entirely separate trip. But I have seen a tiny glimpse of who Cambodians are. You must dig a little deeper with them than with, say, the outgoing Filipinos and Vietnamese, but the flowers and string are worthwhile rewards.