The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Posts tagged “writing

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…

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…

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.

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…

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…

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.

The Spring of Magical Thinking

Posted on October 28, 2014

I began with translations. My friend Phuong and I would sit in the Manager’s office discussing the nuances of our ancient text and which English words would be the best to communicate them. “Around the mountain of Hong Linh, silver clouds disperse. The Lam River is formed by two flowing branches, one transparent, one opaque. Night falls on the river, lie and listen to the sloshing of the waves.” The scripts were replete with such prose, heavy on folkloric scenery and the most noble occasions in Vietnamese history – battles won, maidens saved, lands conquered. Always a lotus in a distant mist, forever a drum ringing through still mountains. Consuming these banal narratives for hours on end, it was not difficult to see why…

Conversations with an 8-Year-Old Hanoian

Posted on October 14, 2014

“I like to read about histories and dinosaurs and the universe!” she says wide-eyed. “Teacher, remember the video we watch? The universe is getting bigger and bigger as we talk!” Her arms stretch high over her head as she illustrates the vastness of the cosmos. Then she collapses into her chair, exhausted by the mysteries of our existence. “There could even be aliens,” she exhales. I see Hang three times a week, Saturday through Monday. I tutor her privately and in a group lesson. She’s also my Teacher’s Assistant for a raucous bunch of six-year-olds. Although she’s only one or two years their senior, she speaks and reads like a proper fifth-grader. Sometimes she takes her role as a TA very seriously, marching around…

Lanterns on Quang Ba

Posted on July 29, 2014

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Maybe you don’t know yourself as well as you thought or, perhaps more accurately, you are your own source of surprises. Before Vietnam I would tromp around loudly declaring, “All I want is travel! I have permanently itchy feet!” and a host of similar yet colorful varieties of this. I remembered how it used to be on any given trip, the thrill of the journey, the dirt that didn’t matter, the tranquil uncertainty of choosing left over right for no reason. It was this feeling of controlled falling I craved, and the lessons and adventures that were inherent. Hanoi would only be a juncture in my grand scheme, for the whole point was unrelenting, intrepid exploration across the Asian continent and beyond.

It’s been five months and I haven’t left Hanoi, save for one hour outside, twice. And I don’t feel that pressure building up, the one that tells me I should be heading somewhere newer, the same one that presses on you as you’re running towards the edge of a cliff about to plunge into a turquoise sea. Rather, Hanoi is a winding finite place with surprises everywhere like a dense Easter egg hunt, and it has kept my restless soul from boredom longer than anticipated. Navigating similar roads everyday, I feel at peace; this traffic, this maze but a game. Being able to give directions and recommend street food fills me with immense pride. I enter classrooms and I’m greeted with the familiar shrieks of kids whose aptitude for learning English constantly impresses. In these routines I feel the delight that my small students show when they run up to me with a drawing of a ship or an elephant that is particularly on point.

But every Easter egg hunt has an end, and I’ll be gone from Hanoi in October. In the meantime things will be business as usual, and this means ignoring the lofty abstracts of plans and time and dealing only with tangible goals and problems. Where should I fix my bike? What should I do about the student who clings to my legs like a hyperactive monkey? What neighborhood haven’t I explored? When will I go? What food haven’t I tried yet? Where can I find it? Unlike at home where everyone asks me what I plan to do that day, that week, that year, here it seems none of us have a past or a future; we’re just enjoying Hanoi together until the eggs run out.

Every night along the lake the women come out with their carts of drinks and snacks. The straw mats are rolled out and flattened, the lanterns lit. If you find the good spot, you’re next to stairs that lead straight into the water, black like sloshing oil. Some groups gather around the light and talk politics while spitting sunflower seeds into the water, others are silent as they lean on each other and look onto a mellow humming cityscape. It’s one of the many places in Hanoi where I forget before’s and after’s, for there are mats to lie on and stars to count.

Crickets & Cubs

Posted on June 12, 2014

I sing to myself while driving my bike. No one can hear me in the wind and the rumbling purr of my 1982 Honda Cub, lime-green if you want to know. But on my way to meet with a new student, the purr became a thunderous rattle, and I couldn’t hear my own voice anymore. After the short meeting, the Cub was completely shot. The kickstarter shook loose, the brake pedal was jiggling but somehow also stuck. With every attempt at the gas the rattle grew louder, opaque exhaust spewed into the air. The quiet black alleys of West Lake reached new heights of emptiness as I solemnly rolled the machine forward. What could I do? Mechanics were all closed at this hour. I…

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