The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

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?

Burmese Days

Posted on February 18, 2015

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These days I’m in Myanmar, and these days reliable Internet isn’t a thing anymore and neighborhood-wide power outages are very reliable. All my writing regarding this country so far is scrawled on the backs of forlorn receipts and tickets, and I’ve nowhere to put them (Posting a post about why I can’t post has taken me two hours.) For the best, though, as Burma is one of the most compelling places I’ve ever been and it would be a shame to squander it in a dusty Internet cafe surrounded by teenage boys playing World of Warcraft. So until I’m forced to leave this place that has so captured my heart, so much so that I’m seriously considering moving here, The Squeaky Robot will take to Instagram, where things are fast and food-filled!

Pookie

Posted on February 9, 2015

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I spent my last night in Bangkok watching older women doing Tai Chi in Romaneenart Park. I intended to sit there and read a little, but then Pukky (pronounced “Pookie”), a freelance business consultant, joined me. We talked for a long time about all things, and when her Tai Chi friends took a break, they sat with us too.

As much sensational attention as this city gets abroad – the Red Lights, the drugs, Khao San – these places in reality cover a few blocks of pavement out of thousands. What is left is everything else: a city just as chaotic and calm as the next, with people from more walks of life than our tiny brains can fathom, and troupes of smiling ladies doing light cardio together in the purple glow of dusk.

Phitsanulok

Posted on February 5, 2015

Phitsanulok is a place you go if you want absolutely nothing to happen to you. In the best way possible. A quick Google search of the small city will reveal that it was the birthplace of kings and the epicenter of central Thailand’s ancient military strategies. But the place is devoid of foreign faces, making it a sweet departure from the tour-ridden roads of Old Chiang Mai.

What was left was color and schoolchildren walking home and people carrying on, glimpses into a Thailand that is just for Thais.

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The cat wasn’t sure if I was real and I wasn’t sure if the cat was real.

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They were snipers in another life.

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There Can Be No Us

Posted on February 3, 2015

I’ve just now arrived in Phrae, a low-key town with airy teak houses and unpretentious local food. A car backfires in the distance every ten minutes or so. Locals emerge out of their dark shops as they see me walking by; they smile and wave while encouraging their timid children to do the same.

The lady who owns this guesthouse has a scattered mind. She is bustling around the place while posing me questions: What’s my name? How old am I? Do I have a boyfriend? she asks while absorbed in her tasks. No, I say. She stops her bustling and looks at me intently with thick glasses that make her eyes look comically large and says: Freedom.


I will never claim to be on a spiritual journey; I will also never attempt to “find myself” via travel. Knowing oneself has less to do with one’s geographical coordinates and more to do with mental work that is honest and unabashed and often ugly. Traveling with the intention of leaving your problems behind is like running from a grenade that’s still attached to you.

That being said, there are larger contemplations on my mind and it’s still unclear whether my journey through Asia will aid or abate them. I’m attempting to recover and heal from things that happened and didn’t happen, needing to square with uncomfortable flashbacks and haunting regrets that still make me shiver. I’m trying to reckon with my father’s miserable death not two years earlier. I want to know how I can be the best possible version of myself, and then even better.

These affairs are compounded by my resounding aloneness here in Northern Thailand. Beyond the cultural immersion and good books I’ve brought and compelling conversations with affable strangers, I am still utterly alone in my thoughts and steps. I think it speaks to the nature of my struggles. Just like I choose precisely what I do day to day – what I eat, what I see, whom I talk to – only I can make better what I deem in need of fixing.


My dental hygienist couldn’t believe my plans; much of my extended family was dismayed by the news that I was leaving again. They were probably scared for me, unable to see the value in solitude and travel. “America is the best country in the world,” my grandpa, who didn’t speak a lick of English, sagely advised. “You need to be here, with us.”


Two days into my stay in Bangkok I met a Brazilian guy my age. While I couldn’t – and still can’t – define my trip with sound precision, the rough plan and general purpose, our ideas operated on a similar wavelength: he’d given himself eight months to backpack around Southeast Asia and India before returning to Sao Paulo to pursue a career in civil engineering, maybe.

I spent three full days with him exploring the city. It was so easy to be around him. We saw eye-to-eye on most things philosophical and personal, we were both very energetic, eager to see as much of Bangkok as we could, and we even walked the same pace.

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In that situation, it would be easy and natural enough to continue on together for at least a couple more stops. But in our connection, there was also this unspoken mutual understanding, the way I understood it. Our journeys were not to be shared. The people along the way mattered but they also didn’t matter at all. Whatever he and I were trying to achieve, the mere lengthened presence of another would tarnish that somehow, some way.

It’s me, not us.


I said my goodbyes and set off without looking back. A familiar serenity overcame me, the one that tends to accompany my brand of detachment. With no one around, I could be in my head again for better or worse. I could sit and observe and wonder and dream; I could think about my dad, as I’m still unsure how I want to remember him. I could take the knowledge that addressing one’s issues is a matter of going deeper into them, sifting through them, facing them, accepting them, before they could become benign fixtures of a past long gone. Companionship at that very moment was the most overrated thing in the world: it was just me and my backpack, large but light; there could be no secrets between the two of us because it already knew what I carried.

After navigating the Sky Train into Bangkok’s center, I found the small bus station and hopped into the back of a local pick-up truck. We started rolling as soon as I entered. A little girl sat across from me, wind whipping her long black hair into swirls, as she coolly stared at me, my backpack, at me, my backpack. A few stops later, she smiled and waved goodbye as her mother ushered her off the truck.

As the girl grew smaller and smaller with distance, I wasn’t entirely sure if I was on the right ride. But I didn’t worry. I didn’t care. If I didn’t know where I was going, anywhere was alright with me.

Sweet Waan

Posted on January 27, 2015

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In the ancient capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, crumbling ruins, palaces and monasteries decorate the earth. Decadently-carved prangs, a Khmer-type tower common in Buddhist architecture, protrude over tree tops and buildings. Their deadness suits this sleepy river town, and their lofty presence coexists in modern life with impressive nonchalance.

One of the most grandiose sites to see is Wat Chaiwatthanaram, built to commemorate King Prasatthong’s victory over Cambodia. It was once the King’s home and later a royal cremation tower. Royal people would go there to become royal ash, like Prince Thammathibet who was beaten to death in 1746 because he indulged in scandal with one of his father’s concubines.

Inside such a weighty and resplendent monastery, the hallowed grounds of venerated kings where powerful people lived and burned, sat two tiny people eating tiny bananas: yours truly and a seventy-year-old named Waan. She sat in the cool shade of one the prangs, only in the company of a giant stone Buddha adorned with flower offerings and ceiling murals of wood and black lacquer. She was selling these bright yellow flower necklaces to the tourists who would sporadically file in, for the place was mostly deserted save the 120 gilt lacquered maravijaya Buddhas that lined the square periphery (maravijaya, my one-dollar guide book tells me, is a pose that Buddha adopts immediately following the triumph over death and evil).

She called out to me, pointing to her flowers. She told me in rough English that they’d give me luck if I gave them to the deity who sat cross-legged over her shoulder. This seemed like a good deal to me, so I bought one and dressed the Buddha.

I couldn’t think of anything else to do in that specific moment, so I sat down and started talking to Waan. She was an enthusiastic conversation partner, asking about my age and origins, career and travel plans. “How many children do you have?” I inquired. “8,000,” she said smiling, showing off the gaps in her teeth. We continued to talk at each other for a while in a playful way, when she hurriedly began opening her bag of mini chartreuse bananas. She gave me one and she gave herself one, and we ate them together like feasting kings in a happy, thick silence that couldn’t be described, only felt.

Welcome to Bangkok

Posted on January 21, 2015

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I left Hanoi over two months ago. There was no real reason I left, other than my mom said she missed me. So I flew home.

And now I’m back. You can expect some photos and some words regarding Southeast Asia, both mainland and maritime, and probably definitely beyond. I’ve obviously got none of it planned. This lack of commitment is deeply satisfying.

Here is a picture of some monks in Wat Pho preparing for their Pali examination (Wikipedia tells us that Pali is a “dead language that is widely studied because it is the language of many of the earliest extant Buddhist scriptures.”) It made me think: how different I am to a monk! And: what can someone like me learn from their lives of steadfast dedication?

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