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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Traffic in the Mourning

For the third morning I come to out of a precarious sleep before dawn woken by a tinny voice warbling through a loudspeaker somewhere nearby. The first morning, in a confused fog, I thought the trill piercing the thick air was coming from the minaret of a mosque. Then I remembered I'm in Cambodia, and though there may be a few Muslims here and there, it's a Buddhist country and the voice most likely was chanting in Khmer, not a Middle Eastern tongue. 

"It's a funeral," Peter says. "It will last three days. Maybe five depending on who was the person." His name isn't Peter. His name is 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. He's the son of the owners of the guesthouse at which I've parked myself for the nine days I'm in Siem Reap, Tourist Trap. 

The prayers are broadcast through the neighborhood at just-before-dawn and sundown. The utilitarian, commercial business neighborhood doesn't seem to take any notice, but the decedent's family certainly wants everyone to know. Why it has to be amplified no one can say. Later, in the countryside around the Angkor temples, I'll hear the same rites over a similar loudspeaker.  

From my breakfast spot at the end of the block I can see the funerary gathering place diagonally across a very busy intersection at Wat Bo Road and Route 6: a large, open banquet tent set up on what passes for a sidewalk. It's in front of a Samsung shop on a street lined with second-hand furniture stores, electronics shops and cheap guesthouses. Traffic, most of it on two wheels, flies by at the speed of light in an astonishingly crash-free frenzy. 

Inside the tent are many tables set for big meals. It's got light-colored drapes around it and it makes me think of a wedding instead of a funeral but for the white Buddhist banners on either end signifying the passing a person and the loudspeaker up a tall bamboo pole. My waiter tells me this all usually takes place near someone's home. Unless the person lived in the Samsung shop, I can't see anything that looks residential. 

But -- aside from the loss of sleep -- I'm grateful that I'm witnessing this ritual. Because although Siem Reap is in Cambodia, Siem Reap is not Cambodia. At least, not anymore. It's what Cancun is to Mexico, what Times Square is to the United States; vis, one doesn't get an accurate impression of the country based on what one sees here. This manifestation of mourning is the most Cambodian thing I've witnessed outside the temple ruins. 

I read that in the 1950s and '60s, Siem Reap was the place to be in Southeast Asia. Celebrities of all sorts came through here, charmed by the French colonial development and the ancient Khmer temples to the north. Norman Lewis wrote of his visit to Angkor Wat serenaded by traditional musicians with Apsara dancers beguiling everyone by torchlight. Now, the serenade comes in the form of a hundred remorque drivers shouting, "Hallo, Ladeee! Tuk-tuk?"

It is a tourist town. feel like a tourist here and that's not a sensation I’m comfortable with. It's sole purpose is to act as the landing pad and launching platform into the Angkor Region. A necessary thing, but nonetheless uncomfortable. 

There’s a distinct separation between the Cambodians and the rest of the crowd. I don't see locals and foreigners socializing here like in some other tourists hotspots I've seen. The Khmer working in hospitality here are polite, but there's a definite timidity. The smiles are not forced, but they don’t come as freely and easily as some places I’ve been. Shy people doing jobs for which shy people aren't meant. There seems to be a weariness -- I sense a feeling of gratitude for the jobs that have been created, pulling people out of the provincial country and allowing growth -- but also a slow tiredness of the nonstop flow of strangers from the East and West by the busload who don’t bother to ask them about themselves, their lives, their experiences. 

The town is even more stratified than I'd imagined it would be. There are places for the well-heeled, middle-age crowd on tour buses. Older Westerners and Asians of all ages wearing medical masks who go from a sterile hotel to a temple straight back to a sterile hotel for a safe meal. There are places for the backpackers -- bohemian cafes run by expats -- who, like me now, lounge about with their computers and ignore the Cambodian service staff until it’s time to order. They are not unkind to locals, but seem content to not engage. 

I like my breakfast spot because it's full of Cambodians starting their day -- lots of men in the customary uniform of a registered Angkor tour guide -- comparing notes, swigging coffee and smoking cigarettes seeming, somehow, to ignore the bleating of the prayers. 

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Purpose of the Visit: Tacloban

“What’s the purpose of your visit?”
“Where are you going to?”
“Manila and Tacloban.” This answer gave the Filipino immigration officer pause.
“You want to see the devastation?”
“I want to see what’s been rebuilt of the devastation.”

Officer B. looked around, casually making sure no one else official was within earshot and hesitated for a moment. Then he lowered his voice and said, “You want me to tell you the truth?”


“Ten percent. Maybe. That’s all that’s been rebuilt. That’s how slow things get done in Asia.” Then, shrugging his shoulders, he added, “as long as we have this government….”

I left Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila resigned to come to Tacloban and see nothing but a wasteland more than a year after Super Typhoon Haiyan, known here as Yolanda, hit the island nation of the Philippines in November 2013 killing more than 6,000 people.

Four days later I was sitting in a pristine Western-style coffee house — part of a chain — in downtown Tacloban talking with Jacques Palami, the young owner of a very hip bar-in-a-truck called Na Ning. He came back from abroad to do some good after his family home was destroyed by Yolanda. He parked the truck on a vacant lot in the city center, let a pop-up kitchen open next to it and is making loads of cash while creating a handful of jobs for his fellows.

Na Ning, Tacloban City Center.

We’d been discussing charitable organizations and the major impact they’ve had on the area. I’ve seen some of the hardest hit slums already and when I asked if the government, on any level, is actively participating in the recovery process with these NGOs he says, “they’re participating,” and makes air quotes with his fingers. He’s the first person of several who will tell me that the government seems happy to let the organizations do the heavy lifting so it can wash its hands of the matter. More than a couple wondered aloud where the billions of dollars in international aid has gone. Up to the pope’s visit in January 2015, there were still tent cities lining the road to the airport. The government did manage to level them before His Holiness saw the blight.

One Tacloban City Council member told me how helpless the council really was at the height of the emergency in the days following the storm. Since council members don’t represent districts, officially their hands were tied because orders came only from the executive branch of the city government — the mayor. “And he’s a high school dropout,” the councilor said. “If you study law here you become a lawyer, not a politician. He was against a curfew [after Yolanda] because we don’t have enough space to detain people in cells, as if you arrest people for violating curfew instead of just sending them home.”

So, the NGOs came and those that deal with more than initial disaster response are still here. When I hopped into a jeepney that happened to have one other caucasian in it he asked who I was working for. It dawned on me that if you’re white and in Tacloban, it’s taken for granted that you’re a foreign aid worker or volunteer; occasionally media, but they largely cleared out for good after Typhoon Ruby threatened to tear the place apart again in December 2014 barely a year after Yolanda. During the news cycles of both typhoons, you could swing a cat and smack a journalist or reporter. The driver that took me into the city from the airport had been Anderson Cooper’s driver during Yolanda coverage. And that I am, technically speaking, media was in the back of my mind the whole time.

I spoke to a woman who echoed the sentiments of not a few locals when she said that she’d felt exploited by all the news coverage, the constant circus of crews with cameras and microphones looking to interview devastated people mourning their losses. She gets angry when people want to talk statistics. 

“These are not statistics to us,” she said. “They were people. Friends, family, neighbors.” There is no one I talked to who has not lost someone. I filmed the opening standup to the episode on a stretch of the coastline where shacks had been rebuilt among the enormous ships run aground by Yolanda that are still there. A young woman came down to watch and when she agreed to answer a few questions on camera, she began by telling me her mother and her sister died in the flooding from Yolanda. I felt like an ass with the camera in her face, but she seemed not to mind. 

The hull of a ship among shops in Barangay 68, Tacloban, Philippines.

Which is the flip side to feeling exploited. Though the callousness of media coverage turned some people off, willingly talking about their experiences openly with strangers is a regular occurrence. The city councilor said it was an integral part of how Filipinos heal. “You don’t do that. You go to therapists, but we don’t.”

“Locals don’t mind sharing stories,” said Mike Ball, project director for All Hands Volunteers, one of the NGOs sticking around for the long haul of recovery. “They are proud to say they’re survivors.”

For its part, All Hands, which will feature prominently in the episode, knows that there is no simple solution to the problems in Tacloban. The group, founded by an American and based in Massachusetts, has moved its focus from disaster relief in the first days to transitional shelters for those in the No Build Zones along the coastline and, recently, to rebuilding permanent homes for the poorest of the poor in one neighborhood.

I toured several of the transitional shelter sites with Mike. The problems of land management for the sites, ownership issues, and relocation of hundreds of families is a complicated ball of knots. The government was willing to give land for relocation, but that meant moving thousands of people from the coastlines in town to well north of the city, away from jobs for the few that were lucky enough to have them before Yolanda. We’re talking about the poorest people in the worst shanty towns.

“It’s not as if there were jobs before and now there aren’t,” Mike said. “Most of these people didn’t have them before.” Now, for those few who are bread winners, the commute into town can take an hour-and-a-half. People who made their living or subsisted by fishing now live too far from the ocean. Drinking water is trucked in and though there is electricity being installed in some sites, most don’t have it yet. There was no plan to put it in initially because these were transitional constructs, meant to house people for a year or two until a real solution could be found. But that’s not how they’re being built.

Each home All Hands builds is made to last at least six years and some within the group see them lasting a lot longer. There’s a feeling that they’ll have to last longer because the government entities have an out of sight, out of mind philosophy. The mayor of Tacloban toured one site after Ruby hit in December and apparently was thrilled that the shelters stood up so well to another typhoon. He can rest easy that all these people can stay where they’ve been put though that’s not what the sites are meant for. It’s likely that some families will never move out, effectively creating new shanty towns in the end.

Some organizations focus exclusively on livelihood development for the people that have been moved, teaching fishermen carpentry or other trades but, as one native Filipino who is volunteering with All Hands pointed out, some of these internally displaced persons have been in the same family business for generations and family continuity is very important in this society.

At one site, Mike and I saw a government representative giving a presentation to the community on economics. Time after time I spoke to residents of these new not-so-temporary villages and each one said that the biggest problem now is that there is no work though they are much happier in these places than in the tent cities that popped up in the wake of the storm surge that wiped out their shacks. 

All Hands Volunteers Leyte project director Mike Ball and me
after a day of volunteering and touring sites.

In a Herculean effort to bring more than simple housing solutions to the game All Hands has begun a pilot program in one existing neighborhood — known as a barangay — that searches out the neediest families affected by the typhoons and builds new homes for those that apply and meet certain criteria. This approach eliminates the issues of relocation, loss of livelihood and community. 

A new home made of concrete and wood costs about $5,000. That’s more than the transitional shelter made of the same material, but compared to the costs of relocation with the possibility of those sites becoming new slums that will eventually be wiped out by the next super typhoon, the cost is marginal.

Volunteers from all over the world do backbreaking
construction work, many for moths at a time.

And there will be other typhoons. Ruby was, as one aid worker put it, a good dry run for the area. She was afraid the city had become complacent and although Ruby — a weaker storm — did take a few lives, it was an effective test of preparedness. It forced people to exercise emergency procedures that weren't during Yolanda. Everyone evacuated in time and things worked as they should, letting many of the locals, volunteers, and aid workers I spoke with know their incredible effort has been worth it and that Tacloban is not a wasteland.

Volunteers work side by side with local carpenters that are hired by All Hands.

Monday, February 02, 2015

The City: Tacloban, The Place: Na Ning

Brain child of Jacques Palami, a young Taclobanian entrepreneur, Na Ning, known around town simply as mobile bar or truck bar is just what it sounds like.

Palami was traveling abroad when Super Typhoon Haiyan destroyed his city 2013 and he knew he needed to come back and be a part of the recovery.

"It felt wrong not to be here, some of my family was still here." he said. His family home was destroyed in the storm surge along with much of the area. The youngest of 16 children, he wanted to help the family bounce back and create a few jobs while he was at it. He got hold of a short semi truck, fitted it out with all the fixings needed for a libatious lori, threw a few tables and chairs in front of it and now has a loyal following. The crowd is an even mix of local urban Taclobanians and foreign NGO workers who all appreciate the blissfully soft, mild Filipino nights after sweltering days.

Not long after the truck rolled up, the kitchen popped up. Two friends, both from the restaurant biz, set up a counter next to the truck and serve up some scrumptious gourmet burgers. Rumor has it that one of these ladies was a chef at the Ritz before setting up her grill. It's a perfect symbiotic relationship.

In the beginning the truck moved frequently Palami said, but he's trying to keep it in one spot for now and it's being installed in Paterno Street at the time of this post. Just tell a tricycle driver to head for the truck bar and he'll know what you mean and where to find it.