The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

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.

Projects

Posted on April 8, 2015

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The clouds were whipping by and I was having doubts. The feeling was compounded by my ominous setting: I stood at the flat peak of Bokor National Park in the midst of a colossal development project that was set to take off but never did, like a dead bird in an open cage. This collection of structures and points of interest provoked various degrees of depression. A half-empty mega resort whose lobby smelled like damp rice, a waterfall that totally succumbed to the dry season and was instead small pools of sticky green water, and the place where I then stood, outside an abandoned concrete casino. The views of the surrounding hills were painted by a thick curtain of light gray, a daunting canvas in a sky with no beginning.

There are moments in travel when I’m not sure I want to do it anymore. This is a painful thing to write, like saying something unsavory about someone you deeply love. But that unsavory something escapes your mouth anyway, and you don’t regret it entirely.

It was Easter Sunday, and I was people-sick for my mother’s laugh and food-sick for my grandma’s steaming pot of zurek, a thick sour rye soup with hard-boiled egg and smoked kielbasa, so rich it’s practically still smoldering. I wanted nothing more than to hug my dog and take her for a long walk in the mellow spring. I wanted to put on fleece pajamas and play Bananagrams with my siblings. I wanted immediate answers to my most pressing and difficult questions. I wanted to know precisely what I was doing there at Bokor National Park in southern Cambodia, and for the first time my usual answer of “Just to see what’s there” wouldn’t fly. Vulnerable in blinding opacity, in the fog there are no facades to cower behind. And I am too self-aware for most brands of self-deceit.

I filed into the abandoned casino with a dozen domestic tourists who quickly dispersed. I stood in the main hall, a space that was only grand because of what it could have been, like those deep-sea scenes of a rusty Titanic slowly merging into a marvelous candle-lit ballroom, alive with twirling petticoats. The hall had a hollow square dent that once promised to house fires and a tall looming ceiling that oozed a grandeur undeserved. In short, the casino echoed with the subtle terror of unrealized dreams.

I began harboring harsh sentiments towards Casino. I was angered by its futile existence, by its jagged walls devoid of color, its chaotic slapdash blueprint. The thought of this particular project – ill-timed, ill-planned, ill-funded – was suddenly infuriating, the incompetence and waste of it all. I thought of all the avenues that could have benefited from this money but instead sat at the top of this godforsaken mound in the form of ugly vertical concrete blocks glued together in haste and false hope.

What was it doing there? What was it for, I wondered with a furrowed brow. Did it realize how pathetic is was as a building that served no one? I desperately wanted Casino to answer me, and I wanted an answer that was so decent and whole it would relieve me of my own burdens. I stood alone but the room swarmed with my projections.

The air up there in Bokor was alien. Down below, down where water slaps the land, the air was hot and thick and subject to the unrelenting sun, and everything took on an orange hue. Up high the clouds obscured everything, whole monuments even, and you could watch them careening around the mountain like drunks looking for something to hold on to.

One of these clouds came with a forceful icy gust and I rattled in my light beach clothes. I looked in a glass sheet leaning against the wall. If my eyes were murky gray before, they at once looked crisp and turquoise.

I rubbed one of Casino’s dusty walls as bits of debris fell at my shoes and whispered: “I’m so sorry Casino. It’s not your fault you were abandoned.” And I eased my tense shoulders in palpable remorse.

As I walked to my bike the sickness, the demands, the questioning resolved themselves without any resolution. They dissipated like the clouds in which I floated, destined to come and go in the tradition of most things.

February in Myanmar

Posted on April 5, 2015

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A man grills and feeds us delicious fish, complete with a homemade sweet sauce and charred greens. Street food in Myanmar is notoriously dirty, but health concerns can generally be quelled if you go to places with high turnover! Insein Road, Yangon.

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A child monk in the village of Man Loi. Especially among impoverished families, it is common in Myanmar for children to be at least partially educated in the local monastery.

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Children play in the streets of downtown Yangon.

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A rice farmer, five kilometers outside of Hsipaw. We rested in the shade of his house while he offered us homemade rice wine.

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It is easy to feel small in the expansive symmetry and disarray of Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest of its kind in Yangon and Myanmar.

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21-year-old newlyweds in the village of Tan Sang. They married to save face during a courtship that went awry (they went to nearby Lashio together without the approval of either’s parents; the village began speaking ill about the girl). What’s more, the girl’s family disapproved of this union so deeply that they refused to attend the wedding and told her to never again come home; the groom’s family was unable to pay the egregious dowry demanded by the bride’s parents. Their wedding was the day before this picture was taken.

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We stayed with this woman and her family. She’s had fourteen children in her lifetime, seven of which passed away due to malaria and lack of healthcare. They are now doing well, however. They continue to farm rice and host foreigners on the side. New infrastructure in rural Myanmar means there are nearby health clinics and better roads, which they can access easily by motorbike. Related and unrelated: it was the sweetest thing watching her interact with her youngest daughter, eleven-years-old. I could tell they were beyond mother and daughter – they were friends!

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A visitor admires one of Bagan’s awe-inspiring temples. Bagan is a strange push-pull experience like that: you are torn between looking up at the history and looking down to avoid stepping on rat shit with bare feet.

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The Matriarch of Pam Kam village.

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My mountain guide, Win, hopes to catch the wind for a hairy phone call from his friend’s living room.

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A group of nun girls pay their respects at the Kyikethanlan Pagoda in Mawlamyine. The crowds were dressed formally in reverence of the full moon.

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Art imitates life at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

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A girl relaxes on her balcony in downtown Yangon. The city is covered in British colonial buildings, most of which are decrepit and abandoned (for more information on this, look up Yangon Heritage Trust). But there are also many original structures used as regular apartments for locals.

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My hostess in the early morning. Man Tan village.

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A boy plays with a wooden cart in Saddan Cave, a huge Buddhist shrine 17 miles outside of Hpa An.

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Play time!

The Spectrum of Conveyance Connections

Posted on March 28, 2015

There are days in which I choose to fly. One of those days was in Hpa An, in Myanmar, when I zoomed around on two wheels from cave to mountain, mountain to cave, sweet wind-whipped apexes to moldy cool nadirs. Another one was in Ko Lanta, Thailand, as we circumnavigated the island like cushy explorers in hot pursuit of diamond water. Today was yet another one of those days when I flew around the greater area of Battambang, Cambodia, holding promises of ruins and Buddhist enlightenment in my pockets.


It was 125cc’s of torque. It was a black Honda Future. It was a rental. With it I set off from central Battambang, a sleepy ‘colonial’ (that’s supposed to sell me?) city with long riverside parks and packs of territorial schoolchildren.

As I raced out of Battambang proper this morning, waving a giddy goodbye to the French, I felt at home. Home here is an empty winding road, home is a street-side drink stall run by a sassy old woman, home is leaving a place you’ve been and ending up somewhere new. Home is all that, and the house is two motorized wheels, four gears and a full tank.

I drove to Wat Ek Phnom – a kind of catch-all Buddhist sanctuary with a giant buddha, a modern temple and decrepit ruins that look like chocolate cake melting in the sun – after a long lunch. The road was perfect. It was residential, kind of busy but smooth like butter. Overtaken by green in most areas. Sharp bends. At the end of this road was Wat Ek Phnom.

A group of girls waved me Hello excitedly, and I yelled the same back. And I thought about my theory. I theorize that, in travel, the slower you’re physically moving, the more chance of ‘connection’ (whatever that may mean to you) you have with the place you’re moving through, and perhaps even more chance of truer, more thorough perception of that place (again, whatever that may mean to you). The slower you’re going the more time and notice you can pay to your surroundings; walking a long distance will likely yield numerous interactions with local people and astute observations of things like indigenous botany and architecture, while flying in an airplane at twelve miles high will afford none at all! I call it the Spectrum of Conveyance Connections, inspired by two friends who are on a pan-Asia bicycle trip and who declared that bicycle is the best means of long-distance travel primarily for this reason.

It made me think of my dear black 125cc Honda Future rental – where did it stand on the Spectrum of Conveyance Connections? Certainly between Bicycle and Car. Fellow motorists often engaged me en route; they smiled and laughed and asked where could I possibly be going? With a motorbike I could stop anywhere on the road easily enough and sip on cold tea in the company of old people, it was true, but also why would I dismount my black 125cc Honda Future rental if I didn’t have to? No, the breeze was too good, the momentum too intoxicating. And so its variant easygoing and limiting natures must be accounted for: between Bicycle and Car it firmly sits.

As such the girls waving Hello were there and gone. They had jumped into my consciousness and then jumped right back out, like a finger to boiling water.

My musings landed me at Wat Phnom Ek suddenly and with the disdain and disillusionment that occasionally await me at the end of a road. The temple and ruins were unspectacular, just imagine being presented with melted brown ice cream cake on your birthday, but I enjoyed photobombing the local teenagers’ group pictures and then promptly running away from them. I was in and out within the hour, happily though, for it meant sweet reunion with my black 125cc Honda Future rental.

I headed to town the same way I came. The sights all looked different on the way back, the curves of the road in mirror image, the houses at different angles and facades. The world instantly seemed slightly off, like entering your house and finding all the furniture had been moved three inches to the left. But I forgot it quickly, and I negotiated the turns and crooks of the butter road with glee.

And then I arrived at the girls again, the same ones as before, I was sure of it, except now there were about fifteen of them on both sides of the narrow street. I made nothing of it and continued driving forward listening to the hum of the black 125cc Honda Future rental. But when I rolled nearer, I saw the girl who waved Hello to be holding a bucket. I suppose she was always holding a bucket, I just hadn’t paid notice before. As I looked to her she yelled, “Stop! Stop!” while pointing to her bucket. This all happened within a couple seconds so I didn’t think about it much, but as a rule I don’t give money to kids, and I certainly don’t pay private tolls on public domain! But I did think that I’d like to pull over and talk to them. Just to see what the hell was up.

As I proceeded through the crowd to pull over behind them, a little boy in Spiderman pajamas jumped out of the group into the center of the road. I was approaching dangerously fast and he began jumping side-to-side, trying to block my way like the white bar in Pong.

I swerved to miss him, gliding awkwardly past him on the left, and then from nowhere (or was it?) Spiderman produced a water balloon and whipped it at my torso with the full force of an extended arm and pure resolve to hit a target. I, flustered to say the least and now in a completely soaked T-shirt with a sore oblique, swerved some more and then zoomed off while the girls screamed and gasped. It was too bizarre of an incident for me to be angry, but if that was their business model, good luck to them.

As I sped away, I immediately knew that my black 125cc Honda Future rental and indeed all Motorbikes had to be nudged toward the direction of wholly impersonal Planes on the Spectrum of Conveyance Connections. Money buckets? Water Balloons? Who knows what the hell else I was missing?

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