The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Chongqing Noodle Diaries

Posted on August 16, 2015

Introduction

It is early but everyone is alive. Chongqing’s famous hillside stairway alleys are hustling with people, barkers, animals, and shirtless porters carrying cargo with bamboo sticks. Climbing these stairs necessitates a constant meandering, hopping, traversing, colliding; it is early but you feel alive too.

Shouldering these paths are vendors of all stripes. You know it’s a food joint if it’s enveloped in a cloud of smoke, a noodle joint in a cloud of steam. I am searching for a noodle place with enough customers so that I can see the variety in their meals and then point to the bowl that looks best.

This dark stair alley bottlenecks and opens out onto the main drag, chaos of a greater breadth and caliber. We are now playing with rushing fifteen-ton trucks and stacks of fat boxes reaching for the birds. None of this captivates, though, as everything blurs in my periphery and I zone in on a noodle place across the street.

A large man hunches over a tiny table, slurping up a potent concoction of noodles shining in the sun. I gesture towards it, take a seat, and watch the wheels turn.

Method

Stations! A young woman in yellow crocs stands before a giant stainless-steel pot. She oversees the noodles, boiling them in individual colanders. She’s got three going at once and looks half asleep while executing her job precisely and mechanically.

The next woman prepares bowls with the ingredients of each respective order, each waiting for a sweet marriage with nests of hot noodles. She’s piecing together my bowl and – my god! – in goes a full ladle of chili oil! A large dash of Sichuan numbing peppers – dry little devils that make eating fun and visceral – make the cut, sinking one by one into the bright orange oil. I only see this woman’s back and how her arms are waving wildly, reaching and grabbing for anonymous bottles and spoons of various spice and throwing them into the bowls with a flourish, like a manic witch dancing over her bubbling cauldron. She then gingerly places three pieces of lettuce into each bowl, positioning them with purpose and care.

The noodles are ready! Noodle lady lifts one strainer from the boiling water and heavily shakes it, heaps of starchy water pour through. She quickly drops them into the bowls – one two three pow pow pow – and now the spotlight moves to the Boss of the Operation.

A humorless woman with a sagging face and sharp eyes, the Boss commands the territory of four pots, each with choice special ingredients. I’ve ordered, I think, chickpeas and shredded beef marinated in more chili oil. Two big spoons of chickpeas roll onto the mountain of steaming noodles. A dollop of that beef piles on top, pushing everything down with its heft. Chopped scallions are tossed in like confetti. And then the Boss turns.

The bowl is practically thrown at me, set hastily on the table; the thing slides across the wet surface and stops right under my face.

Analysis

The restaurant becomes silent, downtown Chongqing moving on mute. My noodles and I stare at each other. It is my job to mix these worms all together, slathering each one with the due flavors. We aim for homogeneity in color.

With chopsticks I start stirring everything around, lifting bottom up and back and forth. But these noodles are too goddamn heavy, staunchly tied together so that I can only pick up the entire oil-dripping blob! My hand is cramping! It’s a titanic fight and the wooden chopsticks feel dangerously strained under the pressure.

Ah, homogeneity.

They taste of smoke and inferno, of earth and salt. The chili oil takes on the harsh flavor of deception; at first it’s mild but the aftertaste kicks the back of your throat and burns all the way down and up again. The beef is slightly sweet, pairing nicely with the innocuous mushy chickpea. Those gingerly-placed lettuce leaves are perfect conveyers for any excess sauce. Everything in this bowl of mine belongs absolutely where it is.

A powerful breakfast, noodles that squash all challengers swiftly and without ambiguity. I am hunched over a tiny table shoveling these noodles into my mouth, I inhale them, I destroy them, it is like a cheap thrill magic act called, Watch the Noodles Disappear. I scan the joint with a mouth and chin dripping with chili oil and all patrons would relate to the words above, each with a waterfall of noodles hanging out of their mouths.

Conclusion

I walk out into the street chaos, into the steaming Chongqing morning. I am dizzy with happiness and I don’t feel anything when someone rushes by and suddenly pushes me into the wall. It’s probably what the numbing peppers are for.

Hunan Looking Glass

Posted on August 11, 2015

A young man lifts my broken bicycle into his tiny red truck. The day is ending and he is heading towards town now, and he picks me up nonchalantly like all his other deliveries. The industrious little engine begins to buzz and cough, the wheels roll forward, and the man smiles.


You walk into a train station, let’s say in Changsha, and beyond the large words ‘Ticketing Hall’ above the entrance doors, there is no English written or spoken. You are met with a long hangar filled with a thousand echoes. The back wall is covered with an electronic timetable showing arrays of fire red Chinese characters, a code you can’t access. You think you’re a little smart and you’ve got a piece of paper with your destination written in Mandarin, as well as the words ‘tomorrow’ and maybe ‘please.’ You clutch this piece of paper with fierce conviction. You know it’s more of a security blanket, a life raft in a sea of questions practical and existential, and your first and last chance.

Some people turn away in my presence, but many are enthusiastic to help even if they are incapable of doing so. It seems that my goal today in the Changsha railway station is lofty and complicated; no one gestures to any direction or points to any line, they all seem to need to explain something. Maybe I am at the wrong station? Maybe there is no train at all. They seldom know any English and they most always look sorry for it. And I’m like, My God, I’m the alien here. I essentially dropped from the sky into the smack middle of China, and I chose to do so without studying Mandarin beforehand and, to be honest, with very little knowledge about the culture and way of life. This is all my fault, and now we’re standing there together and I’m making them feel bad for not being able to help me.

I’ve got to be better than I’ve been.


“We will find the good bank,” she says cheerfully and with determination. China has many a provincial bank with names like Fenghuang Rural Bank and Postal Savings Bank of China, most of which don’t recognize my American card. A young woman named Lin offers to escort us until we find one that works. A tourist in Fenghuang herself, Lin hops around, asking different locals where we could possibly get some cash. “He says it is far, one kilometer more. I will go with you.”


I linked up with two chill Polish guys; we decided to go exploring together. After a long series of convolutions and backtracking we arrived to a village twenty-five kilometers south of Fenghuang. This quiet place is home to a few dozen people at most. It is surrounded by a thick crumbling wall, a proper bastion for ancient malcontent intruders with a penchant for pillaging. Happily they let us three in for a small fee.

An old woman gestured towards stone steps; she wanted us to walk along the wall’s spine. On it we were among mossy tiled roofs and corn and chilies drying in the sun. An occasional cat darted away in our periphery, the infrequent curious face showed itself framed in a window or dashing through the alleys below; blink and you’d miss them. The place, inside and out, was teeming with hidden life but it felt abandoned, the paths scattered with debris and a deafening quiet. Through the large stone teeth on our right was a fine view of the Hunan countryside, at once still and swaying.

Centuries before the People’s Republic of China existed, most cities and many villages had such a defensive wall; the practice is as old as China itself. It was a way to establish dominions vast and narrow, protecting royalty, common people and their land from outsiders. Occasionally outsiders meant Mongol hordes, other times they meant interprovincial clashes and your random foreign aggressor. Beyond the practical, these walls, perhaps especially for smaller settlements, were symbols of independence and unity.

The sky rumbled as if giving a cue and soon the rain began to pound. The huge drops made craters in the soft earth, exploding clumps of dirt into the air. We climbed back down and sought haven under the main gate, sitting against colossal rusting doors that were permanently open, and next to some old men chatting and smoking together. The men communicated that they moved our bicycles into a dry shelter while we were gone. We waited together in a peaceful silence, the rain speaking for us.


There is a pregnant woman sitting on the side of the road. I gesture to my flat tire and hesitantly utter the words ‘bus station.’ She quickly runs away, yells something in the general direction of a two-story house. A face emerges in the second floor window, yells something back, and the pregnant woman disappears around the corner. She soon returns, waddling towards us with a tire pump in her hands, lifting it high above her head in glorious victory. It is clear, though, the tire is fucked due to copious punctures throughout, the air whistling as it escapes. I turn my back and turn it again, and a young man lifts my broken bicycle into his tiny red truck.


I’m sitting among plastic crates stacked high and a bicycle with a lame tire. Clean mountain winds and a slowing heartbeat and a dying sun. Cars and scooters honk as they sail by, waving to the outsider in the pick-up, a boy reaches out for a high-five, everyone laughs for there is everything to laugh about.

There is no world to seize, we are at the whim of it. No clear destiny to realize, as our paths are decided just as much by others as ourselves. I’m lost here, I can’t read the signs. I’m floating through this mist, this beautiful mess, this fantastic dream in the only way I can manage, by holding onto someone and hoping they hold onto me back.

Guangzhou, Again, Somehow

Posted on August 3, 2015

This is my second time in the city of Guangzhou. I was here exactly four years ago. It is not normally a place a leisurely traveler will choose with fierce intention, let alone twice. It’s one of China’s many megacities without much going for it, as far as the guidebooks will tell you, besides its Canton history and closeness to Hong Kong. Both times coming here it was a spur of the moment decision; though the first time was an exciting seizure of the unknown, while the second was fueled by a mellow curiosity and a penchant for the eternal question: How are things different?

I remember how much I loved Guangzhou, but beyond this I remember very little. My memory reaches out for it, trying to grab hold of something real to no avail. I am only left with split-second scenes without context: busy pillared sidewalks, the wide smile of a small boy, the way the setting sun shed itself through the canopies, scattering dots and rays of light everywhere. Large billowing trees decorated with glowing lanterns. Hot bamboo towers whose steam poured out onto the streets. It’s nice. I’ve got the same company here I had four years ago, along with this sweet thought: good things don’t have to end.

Kowloon & Around

Posted on August 1, 2015

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I had a plate of roasted goose for dinner, Hong Kong style of course, with absolutely nothing on the side. The meat was succulent, dripping in goose juice and soy sauce, paired with a smoky chili oil dip. There was no English menu so an older couple began talking to me in Cantonese, pointing to items while explaining what they were. I didn’t understand anything so I just gestured to one of the roasted birds hanging in the window. They smiled knowingly and yelled my order into the air, and we clinked beers and ten minutes later you already know how it went.

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Invalid Portraits of Hong Kong

Posted on July 29, 2015

From the icy airplane window Hong Kong looks like an infection. High up we are afforded rare macroscopic glimpses of the Earth, its geology a painting and the plane’s small windows the frame. We puncture thick clouds and through the mist see what teases us down below – cerulean water and deep emerald peaks that surround and infiltrate Hong Kong City. And then there’s the city. Tall sharp apartment buildings arranged in vaguely swastika-like and diamond formations; even higher sky scrapers stand with presence as if surveying their dominion, one of the most economically advanced in the world. Scale is lost on this disease – what seems large from an airplane window is impossibly, swallowingly large from the ground. And these thousands of buildings look like an army invading something, erupting from the soil, crawling out from the sea, and then plunging a red lotus flag into The Peak. One has to ask: Who owns whom?


You know someone’s a tourist if they’re in a big city and they’re always looking up. I can’t help it. The buildings hypnotize; slice by slice they repeat themselves (the extent of this copy-and-pasting reaches 118 times). Here, though, the act of looking up is as much awe as it’s admiration. These structures are feats of engineering, beautiful in their purpose of sheltering humanity. I gaze at one apartment block and wonder what the people are doing in there. A grandmother could be watering her plants by the window, a daily ritual as a strong sun shines through. Meanwhile, a boy realizes that he’s forgotten his history essay on the kitchen table and dashes out of the closing elevator doors to retrieve it. The boy passes his neighbors’ open door, and sees the six-year-old twins won’t be attending school today because they’ve gotten each other sick, and are now fighting about who started it. Higher up in the building, someone is having a private morning moment over a cup of hot milk tea, half thinking about their tasks for the day, half wondering what it’d be like to be an astronaut.

And so it goes like this, apartment after apartment and around seven million times. The settings of these singular moments are intense by standards of aesthetics and enormity; the buildings are so different. Some appear Soviet, some completely decrepit, others glassy and new-age (though one of the larger buildings, the Bank of China Tower, was charged with “cast[ing] negative feng shui energy into the heart of Hong Kong”). Most look modern-Chinese in their utilitarian style, built in the last four decades to accommodate the continuous surge in population.

And what of the population I’ve experienced? I arrived in the late morning Tuesday and went straight to Sister Wah’s, a local favorite known for its gossamery beef brisket. The man taking orders there wasn’t merely nice, he was upbeat and interested in my origins and general purpose in the world, all while catering to a busy restaurant. Risky, a barista at a swanky cafe called Elephant Grounds, straight up introduced herself and started telling me how much she loves coffee. I sat down in a noodle shop on Sugar Street, looked utterly confused by the menu, only to be saved by an old woman chock full of recommendations and an eagerness to help. All of my (albeit limited) interactions with Hong Kongese have been of the same cloth, and from these fifteen-or-so collisions it is difficult not to resoundingly like all inhabitants of this city. I like people-watching here especially. Their styles are so distinct, their way of walking. I wonder where they’re going, where they’ve been, what they’re thinking, how is their relationship with their father, and what they had for lunch. Would they recommend it?**


I’m stupid tired after a long sleepless layover in Singapore’s airport. Nighttime is coming around and my only objectives are to get a good dinner and buy shampoo. While eating my ramen I’m operating in a half-daze and I can’t seem to put the noodles on the spoon. They keep sliding off and with a plink! disappearing into the opaque Tonkotsu broth.

The buildings are the skeletons, the blazing lights their skin. Impossibly bright, blinking with aggression and desperation of all colors. This is a normal scene at night in Causeway Bay, and I am wandering through this incandescent maze with dirty clothes and a very bad want for darkness.

I smell the cosmetics shop first, then see it. I reckon it could carry shampoo. “Do you have shampoo? I ask in a soft and pathetic voice. “Yes, of course,” and he leads me to a mirrored – mirrors everywhere! – section with shampoos that are minimalist and sleek in their packaging, and the cheapest one for twenty-two US dollars. I was tired but not yet so delirious as to spend this kind of money. So it went, shop after shop of gourmet shampoos.

I didn’t venture very far distance-wise, but this street, this world, was one I hadn’t known. Music thumping from so many places it felt like it had no source but the sky. The lights spazzing out everywhere, the buildings caving in, everything vibrating slightly. The people, hordes of people, floating by quickly all around you like specters, some looking neutrally ahead, some laughing in larger groups, some peering at you. You see them too, but it feels more like you’re looking through each other, trying to see what’s behind but there’s this goddamn person in the way. The apathy is palpable with these nanosecond-pseudo-collisions, and you adopt this ugly dirtbag version of yourself in the face of a gorgeous diversity, and think, “What’s one more?”

The cheap shampoo was hidden in a cardboard box in a back room; a sales clerk retrieved it for me. The people of Hong Kong are so nice.


**[The middle section of this essay was revised on the 31st of July, 2015, because I wasn’t happy with it. Now I am happier with it.]

Tale of Two Cities, or Good Bye Viet Nam

Posted on July 25, 2015

My last sights of Vietnam are from the humming nadirs of Saigon’s scraped skies, gazing up at this city in marvel with that flat smoky jungle Hanoi forever the backdrop of my mind. How different these cities are. There are even cutesy illustrations about how Vietnam’s pair of beating hearts differ in their consumption of pho, preferred altar fruits, work relationships with superiors and general communication patterns (the rough translation: Saigon’s talk is straightforward and efficient, Hanoi’s calls for finesse and indirectness).

I ask young locals here about their perceptions of Hanoi. Most answers implicate backwardness and a lack of excitement in Vietnam’s capital city, half the size of Saigon at around seven million people.

“I wouldn’t be able to live in Hanoi,” says 23-year-old Linda, manager of the popular nightclub Lush. “There is nothing to do there. I’d get soooo bored!”

A few nights ago I found myself among the audience of a hip-hop dance battle in a small dark venue. The performances were infectious, filling the room with a tension only alleviated by our own crude movements, and the crowd screamed at the end of each round when the announcer asked us which dancer we thought should win.

As I howled in support of one contestant named Small Lee (and he was indeed small but never challenge him to a break-dancing duel), I thought how such an occasion would never exist in Hanoi. We had a loosely enforced curfew in the north, you see, and beyond that the nighttime culture was smaller and more conservative, people tending to get up at the butt crack of dawn to wiggle around in parks to light techno.

Furthermore, the sleek glamour of Saigon is as foreign to Vietnam’s capital as a papaya to Siberia. Designer shops abound, a newly constructed and buzzing walking street in District One lies below lux complexes reaching for churning clouds, a froofy coffee culture where each cafe is at once quirky and modern and displays artwork reading “You are in the place you dreamed.” In Hanoi the fronts of shops are blocked by small commercial enterprises like drink stands and vendors of all varieties, and endless barrages of ill-parked motorbikes; any similar attempt at such a wide and long walking street would immediately be usurped in totality by amateur badminton players and toddlers driving and crashing small battery cars. And a cafe in Hanoi sometimes means sitting among sunflower seed shells and crumpled napkins in someone’s dark living room as they list all the things that aren’t available that day. Many Saigon youth dye their hair bleach blonde and pull it off, whereas in Hanoi I’ve never seen a successful attempt (they’d tend to stop the dying process at the bright orange stage).

In Saigon the people smile more – how many gap-toothed grins I’ve seen! The weather is better with usual sunny skies, tepid summer nights and the absence of a grim Hanoian winter with near-constant side-ways rain. Saigon streets may be foreign to me but the traffic is calmer, more predictable, plus most people obey traffic lights. This gives me opportunity and means to look up at a deep blue sky with huge frosty clouds crisp and low. In Hanoi the atmosphere is frequently of the “bleh” persuasion, and you tend to come home at the end of each day actively thinking about your lifespan and how you’re curtailing it. A day where you can actually see the far-off mountains is the day you go on that jog you’ve been putting off – though unlike Saigon’s clean riverside sidewalks, Hanoi is the world’s toughest obstacle course, obstruction-wise and poison-air-wise, and most days running and breathing heavily in that place conjures up images of putting your mouth straight onto the exhaust pipe of a local bus that has been running nonstop since 1996.

While Saigon locals don’t dream of Hanoi, the opposite isn’t true, which underscores Vietnamese and International notions of progress. Here, it is said, there are jobs and opportunities, New Money to be Made, fulfillment of dreams ever a capitalist promise. There’s also fun: “Here they don’t think about yesterday — or tomorrow. They live in the moment,” says one ex-Hanoi transplant, while young Hanoians are considered sensible and future-oriented.

It’s widely said among expats how Saigon offers ease and diversity and openness, an active music scene and hobby-life, how here they’ve access to the tangible comforts of Home and even cheaper flights to destinations near and far. In comparison, they say, Hanoi is obscure and isolated and wrapped up in its own ideology. It’s where ‘things’ are harder to find and come at a higher cost, where everyday life is riddled with mindless convolutions and absurdities, and great, someone is pissing in West Lake, again.

In short: if there is a life in this country, it’s in Saigon.

My last sights of Vietnam are from the humming nadirs of Saigon’s scraped skies, gazing up at this city in marvel with that flat smoky jungle Hanoi forever the backdrop of my mind. After a collective year in Vietnam, I’m leaving very soon and I don’t know when I’ll be back. But let me be clear: when I am back I’m going straight to Hanoi.*

In My Hands, Beneath My Feet

Posted on July 16, 2015

The place was at once in my hands and beneath my feet. My map indicated the road between Buon Ma Thuot and Dalat was a major artery, it had that bolded yellow quality that typically signifies cartographical importance. But the spot where my motorbike – an old semi-auto with the words ‘Splendid Cruiser’ stuck to its side – was then rumbling, eager to dash forward, looked abandoned. It actually reminded me of the roads in Chernobyl town – domed and cracking, overgrown, the bush quietly reclaiming the land stolen from it in the pouring of hot tar. Stark evidence of mudslides also burdened this highway. At times you could only pass with two feet or so of pavement width, the rest covered in lumpy piles of dried mud, broken sticks and other floral debris. It was quiet but the hills were chirping softly.


The larger picture here: I embarked on a motorbike trip down Vietnam’s skinny spine, nearly 2000 kilometers from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. I was riding alone. The reactions to this never achieved a steep degree of variation from: “Isn’t that dangerous?” Read: stupid. I would laugh it off, saying Of Course Not. Let’s Not Envision Catastrophic Trajectories Before They Materialize. It was my way of saying they’re stupid for asking such a thing.

The truth was, to me, pace was precious. Pace was potentially everything – freedom to stay, freedom to go. Freedom to go fast and to go slow. In groups of two or more, you’re always bound somehow. For all the good things companionship offers – the security, the familiarity, the inside jokes, shared memories – you’re still bound.

The other truth was, I didn’t have many options. Go alone or not at all.


I speak some Vietnamese. I can especially manage myself in restaurants. But since leaving Hanoi on June 24, my abilities in talking direction and place have improved immensely. There was a woman on the side of the Chernobyl road taking a rest in the shade. I asked her where it went, worried I’d be met with a dead road that eventually just tailed off into the boonies, further obscurity. She was disinterested, caught in that gauzy ether between dreams and consciousness. “Keep going,” she mumbled.


From Laos, I arrived to Hanoi intending to stay a week. Somehow a week turned into a month. My brilliant friends made it easy, drunkenly and soberly convincing me to stay, stay – I see your beer is empty – stay. After four months of drifting around Southeast Asia, not knowing a hoot about anything much, I can’t describe the feeling of suddenly knowing things. Street names, directions, the prices of goods. The familiar air, Hanoi’s sprawling shape carved into my hands. It was like being home, the virtues of which are something I’d never admit until now.

I left Hanoi sobbing like I always do. Both departures the last face I saw was Hazel’s. It had nothing to do with Hanoi, really, just Hazel. Just our friendship, just the good times, which had been – and do not mistake this for hyperbole – unceasing in her presence.

The reasons for her greatness cannot be contained in any type of essay or book. Indeed, the construct of language would itself not be enough. Suffice it to say, I feel attached to Hazel and to many of my Hanoi friends, which, before Hanoi, was something I wasn’t sure I was capable of. How nice it is to actively miss someone, how sweet the feeling of being safe with them. There is freedom in it.

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While passing through the city of Vinh I had to visit the local hospital for the most dopey reason: there was something stuck in my eyelid and I couldn’t extricate it. It was a spooky building. The hallways were dark, all the beds were occupied but hardly a staff member could be seen. I sat down in a random chair and a curious Vietnamese woman with excellent English quickly approached, asking about the nature of my visit to the hospital and indeed Vinh, which was not on any tourist’s radar.

“I’m on my way to Ho Chi Minh with my motorbike.”

“Doesn’t it get lonely,” she asked sweetly, as if with concern. I’ve grown to become embittered by this question. What is the point of it? At its best I’m being made to answer something the asker already knows. At worst I’m made to say it out loud.


The last bit of road to Hue was through the wetlands, a mix of ocean and fresh water sloshing together among vibrant green grass. It was also an expansive cemetary. The tombs there looked like mini royal palaces and giant stone beds. From afar the tomb pillars huddled together looked like a regal ancient city, its people forever citizens.

The sound you hear while riding a motorbike is deafening. It’s a vacuum. All you can hear is the whistling wind bouncing around the cavities in your head, there is no room for any other sounds. Especially in those wetlands, where you’re catching the cross breezes of the whole sea and the world is howling.

My world, the small world contained in my helmet was howling, but everything else ceased, became crystal: The salt winds stopped but the salt remained, the sky and land held their jewel green and blue, a man on a Honda Dream zoomed past me, his crisp white shirt, rumbling furiously with speed, froze in mid-air.

Land of a Million Elephants

Posted on May 9, 2015

While in the small city of Pakse, a man named Akamu told me a story. We sat in a noodle shop at lunchtime draining our hot bowls of their contents. Every ten seconds a rotating fan found our table, blowing our dirty napkins away.

“It’s a story about a giant jar in the sky. How Lao people came to the earth.”

He said how a ‘big evil’ grew from the land, and at its end hung a jar that blocked the sun, casting darkness unto everything. “The gods came to cut the big evil, to give the world light.”

Only when the big evil was vanquished and the jar fell, presumably, could humans emerge from the jar. Then came the animals, the “rocks like gold and silver,” filling the world with beauty and life. The people and animals dispersed, which is supposed to account for the vast range of diversity found in Animalia, but the point of the story, Akamu said, was that “we all come from the same place.”

Akamu left soon after because he had a dentist appointment. But as he paid his bill, he added in good humor: “It’s a nice story. My father shared with me and I will share with my son. But sometimes I think of the ‘big evil’ and I think of America.”


I’m at the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Center in Vientiane. COPE is a local non-profit that works to rehabilitate the physically disabled – they outfit people all over Laos with prosthetic limbs and physical and occupational therapies. A link on their site reads: Buy a Leg!

Prosthetic limbs are valuable currency all over the world, but especially in Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, despite the 1962 Geneva Agreements that declared Laos a neutral party in the U.S.-Vietnam conflict, the United States dropped over 270 million bombs on this tiny nation. For perspective, that’s “One bombing mission every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day for nine years . . . the US dropped more bombs on Laos than it dropped on all countries during World War II,” according to Legacies of War: Cluster Bombs in Laos, a 2009 report by Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell.

Of those 270 million bombs, over thirty percent failed to explode at the time of deployment. Present-day Laos is littered with roughly 80 million active explosives. Though the aerial assaults officially ceased in 1973, thousands of civilians have died since then – a farmer might strike a shovel in an unlucky spot, the rainy season might erode the soil and reveal an interesting metal toy to children, you could just fucking step in the wrong place.

The 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest shows an interview with a villager from the Ta Oy Province, one of the most obliterated regions in Laos. He was towing his land when he detonated a concealed bombie, ripping off his leg, mid-shin bone down. “I’m alive,” he says, “but my life is nothing.”


It’s March 23, 1961; John F. Kennedy speaks at a televised news conference: I want to make a brief statement about Lay-oss. Here he aims to officially state the U.S. Government’s position concerning Laos:

I want to make it clear to the American people, and to all of the world, that all we want in Laos is peace, not war — a truly neutral government, not a cold war pawn, a settlement concluded at the conference table and not on the battlefield.

Kennedy – such a charmer! As he addresses the nation with his epic rhetoric, his people are amassing intelligence (Read: fear) regarding the Pathet Lao, Laos’ communist organization, equivalent to Vietnam’s Viet Cong. It’s 1961; the struggle is young but the President has fingers dipped into many different pots of boiling water – Cuba, Berlin, and now the Far East.

Not a cold war pawn.

Lay-oss is precisely that in this age of hollow promises, true conspiracies and toppling empires. And LBJ will turn up the fire.


I’m still at COPE, though now I’m in a dark air-conditioned room because I’m watching Bomb Harvest. This film follows a team of local trainees learning how to safely rid villages of unexploded ordnance.

The film cuts to a raw shot of American B-52 pilots gathered in group prayer. A blonde buzz-cut with thick-rimmed glasses holds a text with soft hands: “Our gracious heavenly Father, we give you thanks for the ability to be used as Thy servants to seek freedom from the world as we know it.” The inflection in his voice, the slight pause – this emphasis on we seems at once acknowledgment of an American solipsism vis-a-vis the Reds and, therefore, rationale for imminent annihilation.

A senior official with a square head says: “Have a safe flight.”


Laos is the bearer of some miserable superlatives. Perceived to be one of the most corrupt, according to Transparency International (Laos’ score of 25 sits at the same table as Papua New Guinea and Bangladesh). Among the most poor, says the Human Development Report, where over a third of the population is beneath the international poverty line, making $1.25 a day or less. “The most heavily bombed country on the face of the planet,” says lead disposal expert Laith Stevens in Bomb Harvest. These things are absolutely interrelated. According to Legacies of War: Cluster Bombs in Laos, the residual bombs not only result in direct casualties — My life is nothing — but also kill indirectly “by contributing to the perpetuation of poverty, hunger, and a lack of services.”

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Traditional pathways to economic development and improved livelihoods are obscured by the littered explosives. Land-locked Laos is a mountainous country with very little arable land, and about 75 percent of its people live in rural, remote areas. The bombs complicate the building of necessary infrastructure – roads, electricity, schools, health care facilities – rendering developments more expensive in an already low-income country riddled with misappropriated funds.

The bombs exacerbate hunger: “The US military made a conscious decision to bomb civilian villages, crops, and livestock . . . The goal was to remove all means of livelihood for the communist troops,” say Khamvongsa and Russell. The farmlands targeted then are the same ones people rely on now, even though up to 50 percent of this land remains contaminated. The poor are cornered. Should I face the one in two chance of being blown up or should I starve?

Victims who are also parents – if they survive a detonation, if they reach the inadequate health clinic five hours away – are often unable to work, leaving the burden of income – the burden of survival – on their children, who then cannot attend school.

The obstacles are intricate and self-sustaining. It becomes clear that a thorough and sweeping clean-up would act as a flood-gate of betterment, resulting in immediate, tangible impact as small as “I can now walk over there” to as large as a bolstered economy and higher standards of living.


I’m now outside Vang Vieng, staying on an organic mulberry farm. The owner, Thanongsi Souranghoun, or Mr. T, lived in a cave in the Vieng Xay Province from 1970 to 1972 with 60 other people. “Everyone was given a gun; we were all soldiers for the Pathet Lao.” He was thirteen at the time. “They gave me a Karabiner!” he says laughing. “It was bigger than me!” he says with arms outstretched.

In response to the incessant attacks – the incessant death – villagers moved into the forests, into the caves, into holes in the ground.

“What was it like?”

“Humid, dark, quiet. We couldn’t make any noise; we could only go out at night or when it was raining.”

He continues, staring through me: “My dream was to have a big farm – get a good Soviet bulldozer, make irrigation systems. But there were so many bombs! I didn’t want to die for this dream.”

“How do you feel about the U.S. today?”

“I don’t turn it onto you, my dear.” He smiles and lightly slaps my arm.

But then he turns serious: “I want an apology from the U.S. They ignore history.”


The larger point of Bomb Harvest is to show the immense residual effects of the bombings across generations. As the team works to detonate the bombs safely, the explosions provoke flashbacks for those who lived through the terror – the numbing anticipation, the hit that stops hearts, that colossal echo. How the clear vast sky is neither safe nor transparent, how torpedoes fix on you and you alone. It must be torture.

Among the youngest: an alarming rise in the scrap metal trade contributes to fatalities, 40 percent of whom are children. They play in the forests, stumble upon some bombies, round like oranges, thinking they’re toys or wanting to take them home to sell. Finding a large intact cluster bomb, hundreds of pounds of metal, could mean feeding your family for two or three months. The kids know this. As the team loads another missile onto a pick-up, there is longing and sadness in their eyes, the kind of a possibility lost. (The film poses one boy as having a different opinion from the rest, gathered around a metal tail jutting from the red earth. “They don’t belong to us,” he says with urgency, “and I want them to take them back.”)

And of course the middle crowd: those who are training for profoundly important and dangerous work to bring peace to Laos. They are evaluated on knowledge and technique, of course, but mostly on leadership – Are you prepared to take all responsibility for the limbs and lives of your team? Does your voice hold steady while your insides scream?


Some Thoughts

I think of Akamu and the Big Evil, and the B-52s that blocked the sun for nine years.

I think of Mr. T as a gun-strapped child living in a cave. Humid, dark, quiet. I didn’t want to die for this dream.

I think of the good news: “In 2014, the U.S. government will provide $12 million—a six-fold increase over the last five years—to clear 40-year-old unexploded ordnance in Laos and to support the victims of these bombs.”

I also think, Is this enough to ensure that, one day, schoolchildren won’t be sad seeing the bomb go away?

Bioluminescence

Posted on April 11, 2015

I ventured to Koh Rong, a highly-rated undeveloped island twenty-five rocky kilometers from Sihanoukville, only for the bioluminescent plankton. I experienced these glowing micro-organisms about a decade ago in Puerto Rico, and so I was propelled by an innocent but somewhat misguided hunt for an experience that was probably once in a lifetime, as all experiences tend to be.

I hopped off the creaking ferry into a den of beautiful Europeans who above all wanted to party and they wanted to do it now. The main beach vomited neon with strings of shacks competing with each other, all claiming to have it all – Dorms! Bar! Food! Wifi! Laundry! – and while it was only ten in the morning, each blasted its own variety of shitty Dubstep. I walked along the bustling beach looking for accommodation, trudging through wet sand that was too far from the water to be wet but was somehow wet. The only people who smiled back at me had red eyes.

Through the noise I immediately spotted a two-by-four plank with “$5 ALGAE TOURS $5” painted on it. I approached the gentleman in the booth for details. Five dollars. Be here at seven. Fifteen-minute boat ride from the island, one hour of swimming with plankton, we have snorkels, if you break it you buy it. Five dollars. Pay now.

Five minutes before seven I waded to the boat and introduced myself to eight people who weren’t listening. I was a bit too drunk to absorb the slight: the only redeeming quality of my shit-hole hostel was that they offered three dollars worth of free drinks between the hours of six and seven. With a high head I took this up in the name of economics.

Eventually one of the guys went around offering beer, which I happily accepted. I asked where he was from. “I’m Colombian, but I’m also half Yugoslavian,” he explained with endearing sincerity.

“Interesting,” I said. As I threw my head back and downed the warm can of Klang, a boundless constellation of stars winked at me. I winked back.

The fifteen-minute boat ride was in truth five minutes. We set out from Koh Rong’s main pier straight into the darkness, chugging along for two kilometers. El Capitan, the boat driver of maybe seventeen years, turned up his music and turned off the lights. The others began chatting about the state of their respective stock markets.

I plunged into the breathing sea. I felt the warm water completely swallow my being, like a baby still in the womb – the jet world suddenly reduced only to what I could feel. I plunged once and remained there, suspended in the obsidian nothingness of the night’s ocean. I existed there under the water for a time I couldn’t perceive, sustaining myself with newly sprouted gills. During this long while I twirled in circles like the most feathery ballerina, creating a whirlpool of hot white sparkles in the black infinity with me at its center. My body danced on its own, at once the puppet and master, emanating glowing brush strokes of scintillating paint with each arched swing of the leg, each lithe position switch of the arms.

I watched my fingers trace circles as the glowing plankton trailed behind. They followed me and I tried to catch them but we couldn’t find each other in this game; though I found solace in our contented coexistence.

The bass of El Capitan’s Khmer techno drowned out along with everything else, everything, every thing. Muted sound in water, an absolute lack of any and all impurity, the total vacuum of it. This beautiful chasm made me forget ugliness.

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I floated up for a quick breath, back to the other universe. I floated horizontally with only my face and toes peeking out from the dark water. The blinking stars shone true and bright like my plankton, but perhaps in a more serious way. They were stable and omniscient, while the plankton teased and danced.

I looked up a different way and saw everyone in the boat, wrapped in colorful beach towels.

“But it’s only quarter to eight. We still have fifteen minutes with the plankton!”

El Capitan revved his engine.

The stars stayed with me until the late evening when, surrounded by the buoyant shrieks of people on holiday, I fell asleep dreaming of a light found and found again.

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