Monday, December 29, 2008

Capital Christmas

Dear T,

I’m on a bus east out of Hanoi heading to Halong Bay, which I expect to be as shockingly beautiful as the other parts of Vietnam I’ve explored. I was flipping through one of my notebooks looking for the details and impressions that I recorded as I experienced them in Saigon, in Hanoi, in Sapa and the northwest mountains along the Chinese border. And then ‘The Killer’ shuffled to the front of the ipod queue, and I got swept up for four minutes in the great immolation of Life on the Run, and that seemed a sign to put some of those impressions in a letter to you.

You’d love Hanoi; it invites you to be submerged in it on its own terms in a way you’d eat up. Whereas in Cambodia everyone is out to make a buck off you and so all English and smiles, smiles, smiles, in Vietnam they could care less. They’re a society of post-Soviet communism, that in-name-only communism in which people rake in the dough from a liberalized market but keep lips buttoned tight under the scrutinizing eye of conservative single-party rule. But it’s their scrutinizing eye and that’s the bread and butter of it I think. The Vietnamese don’t need your tourist dollar and, “Oh, by the way, you ravaged our lives and our land, so you can just fuck off.” I have received more than a few hateful glares and a couple of instances where older men jab their fingers my way, spit words I cannot understand but whose resentment and disgust I can feel. That’s more than fair but it has come to kinda hurt my feelings. Silly.

The younger people, though, those under thirty-five, they’re thriving in their knock-off American brands and on gleaming new motos. I just don’t exist to most of them; I’m not a symbol of death and destruction, I’m just something moving too slow in their peripheral vision. People here are prideful and busting with new growth, new income, new ideas of what is possible to achieve. I can’t see the Vietnamese ever tolerating a return to the stagnation of a government-mismanaged economy. The young men dress sharp, the women are elegant and stylish, older men in crisp-cut suits remind me of my grandfather. You walk through Hanoi and it’s the living embodiment of my sense of 19th Century America, industry and commerce at breakneck speed, no traffic laws and no regulation on innovation, tip back the bottle at the end of the day, toss some money around if you got it and get up and do it again. This is all the greenest example of the Capitalist Good Life that I’ve ever seen. It’s plain that the Vietnamese are communist out of national pride - out of a means of self-determination - not ideology (which makes me think long on why people in other parts of the world flock to fanatical Islam.)

This is worlds away from Cambodia. There are national heroes here stretching back for centuries. We visited the Temple of Literature, a national university founded in the 11th Century, and inside saw row upon row of ancient stone tortoises supporting steles documenting the origins and lives of centuries’ most learned men. On Christmas Eve we went to St. Joseph’s Cathedral (religion was re-legalized in 1990) expecting a small mass in a half-filled church. Instead we got the multitudes crammed into a gated yard and spilling all over the streets, watched an hour of little girls dancing to a Praise His Name! folk song and then a bizarre Vietnamese-Spanish rendition of ‘Felice Navidad,’ people buying Santa Claus puppets and then attending a full mass in Vietnamese, the festivities of the high commercial season blending with The Christ Mass, everyone participating and high on the wave of something too unfamiliar for me to thoroughly decipher. Back out into the street and around the lake Hanoians raced at top speed on their motos, waved their red flags with the single gold star, screamed and shouted and rolled like a human lake across the plaza that caps the north end of the true lake, beat drums, a rally in honor of the national football team beating the Thais, a rally in honor of being Vietnamese and being hardcore to the bone, a rally of gold stars on red satin, gold hammers and sickles on red satin. Earlier that day we had lost ourselves in the city’s endless alleys and dead ends, the narrow passages no more than three feet wide and the houses stretching high all around, a maze like what I’d imagine in Cairo, in any city so close to celebrating its thousand-year anniversary, and hundreds of motos honking on the other side of every corner, swooping through the passages toward us as we’re flat against the wall, the sun setting and losing us in twilight warrens that spilled us out next to a reservoir surrounded by old tenements crumbling down, being built back up, a neon BAR flickering pink in the grey of sunset, spilling us out next to food stalls where the BBQ’ed heads of dogs were waiting behind glass to be served, lips charred back and leaving teeth and jaw jutting out like werewolves or strychnine victims, spilling out next to schools releasing kids into the evening to create traffic jams in their uniforms and oblivious happy chattering, next to bia hoi stands where men sat on toddler-sized plastic stools and drank fresh-brewed beer, next to that lake, a lake that in mythology delivered to a great Viet king the sword to drive out the Chinese after a thousand years of occupation, a lake that on that Christmas Eve was the hub for Hanoi’s masses to wave their banners to the sky in so much red.

I get sucked into these things and I miss you ‘cause I know how we’d go about it. Of all my tribe, your appetite and stamina for the world is closest to mine. You got to come. We got to go everywhere. All in good time.


Friday, December 26, 2008

Cambodian Cash

Dear Ryan,

Cambodian paper notes are called riel, and like a lot of countries’ money, they come in all the colors of the rainbow—an indigo shade for the smallest 100 riel bills, pink and burgundy for the 500, blue for the 1000, and so on. But it doesn’t take very long to realize that the national currency is really just for show. I rarely buy anything larger than a snack on the street with riel. For all intents and purposes, Cambodia runs on the pure green of U.S. dollars.

On a personal level, this is very convenient. I haven’t had to spend any time thinking about exchange rates. ATMs will spit crisp prints of Jackson and Grant at you with the push of a button. One needs only to be careful that the bills don’t get carelessly left in a pocket or the bottom of a purse. I was confused by the way cashiers fastidiously examine every millimeter of a bill for tears and imperfections, until I realized that trading in a currency not really your own means that you have no easy way of taking money out of circulation or putting more in. Why it is U.S. dollars rather than euros or yen, I really have no idea. I suppose it is because (at least until recently) it was the most stable currency around. But I am just guessing, as I do about most financial matters in Cambodia.

One thing is certain—Cambodia has embraced capitalism with wild fervor and, with it, an almost manic striving for wealth. To step outside the front gate is to be immediately bombarded with people trying to sell me something—a tuk-tuk ride, a massage, a piece of fruit. And that same desire for money is on every rung of the economic ladder. A Western friend asked a Khmer friend who the Cambodian people considered heroes, and the Khmer couldn’t come up with a good answer. All he could say is that most Khmer would consider anyone with money to be a hero.

I am not trying to bash the Cambodian people. They have been pillaged and picked apart for centuries longer than the U.S. has existed, and the fact that they have scraped together even a semblance of stability and normalcy just one generation after a mass genocide is nothing short of miraculous. But it exhausts me, sometimes, noticing how much further they have to go, in matters both large (a mess of an education system, poor health care) and small (the postal service seems more inclined to hold packages hostage rather than actually deliver them). It’s like America in the early nineteenth century, except with more cell phones. And for them to move from the third world to the first one is going to take a lot more time and money. Which begs the question, where does the money come from?

I’m no expert on the Cambodian economy, but it doesn’t seem like they’re thriving in terms of manufacturing or exporting goods. There’s no way they can compete in that department with surrounding countries. There’s tourism, I guess, but Angkor Wat is the one big attraction, and everyone here in Siem Reap who owns a business is expecting a dry spell due to the economic crisis the world over. So a lot of Cambodia’s money is still coming from foreign aid. And while I’m not begrudging them that and feel like it’s worth it if it keeps things from crumbling into chaos again (Cambodia has not yet turned me into a Republican), it’s frustrating to see signs that the money is being misused or mismanaged.

A lot of foreign money gets poured into NGOs, some of which seem to be little more than scam operations. There are plenty of reputable, upstanding NGOs, too, but even they seem sometimes misguided. For example, I went with a newly-founded organization as it was making its first delivery of school supplies to a poor rural district. The kids were excited about the books and pencils, but word had spread through the village and there wasn’t nearly enough to go around. The NGO staff were also handing out candy, and as I watched I couldn’t help thinking, "These kids’ teeth are rotting out of their heads and we’re giving them candy? How about toothbrushes?" A feeling of utter hopelessness took root in my stomach when the NGO leaders started to ask the villagers about how to expand the school and their basic response was, "Why? Whether you finish first grade or sixth grade, you’re going to be working in a rice paddy." A part of me kept thinking that maybe they should spare everyone the trouble and just divide up the Western staff’s salaries among the villagers so they could all go buy a house someplace else—instead of teaching them to fish, just give them the damn fish, already. All I’m saying is that even with the very purest intentions behind an enterprise, it often seems like the blind leading the blind.

But any trespasses of the NGOs pale in comparison to that of the corrupt government. It’s taken as a given here that everyone and his brother is skimming a little (or a lot) off the top. And if government officials are getting rich that way, what incentive do they have to make their country a more pleasant place for the masses? Giant billboards of the prime minister, Hun Sen, and his top two lackeys are everywhere, and Jason and I have come to refer to them as the three stooges. Nonetheless, Hun Sen seems to be remarkably popular, even though he’s a former member of the Khmer Rouge, a fact that everyone seems to conveniently overlook. That’s like if, in the post-Civil War U.S., Robert E. Lee took over the presidency after Lincoln got shot. Or maybe like if Osama Bin Laden renounced radical Islam tomorrow and we thanked him with a prompt appointment to the Supreme Court.

But what’s the alternative? I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this except that I think Cambodia needs some sort of uber-financial consultant—some big mythic version of you who will come along and tell not just individuals but the whole country what to do with its money. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could take this mess and with some deft computations tidy it into a nice secure investment portfolio? Because even I, the member of the family with the least financial acumen, can see that when it comes to Cambodian cash, something always smells fishy, and it’s not the Tonle Sap lake.

With love,

Friday, December 19, 2008

Re: Stadium Cambodian



Dude, I’m listening to ‘Boys of Summer’ and I know I don’t need to tell you how perfectly awesome it is. Shannon hates it; I mean she C A N N O T S T A N D it. Every time it comes up (which is fairly often, actually) she lets out this long groan. No amount of explanation of how the guitar in the bridge sounds exactly like seagulls, nor how the keyboard rhythm section sounds perfectly like sunset in a beach town – not a rosy, tropical sunset beach town but an All-American, Eastcoast, twilight between hazy-afternoon-glare and neon-boozed all-the-trash-you-can-be nighttime sunset – none of that makes a lick of difference. Man, the tune’s a good testament to what you could do with arrangement in an ‘80s pop style… Ha, she just walked in to tell me that what she thought was bamboo when she bought it at the market was actually a kilo of shredded ginger, and when I turned up Winamp (stick it, Apple) she flung out her arms like a bird and scrunched her shoulders up like a palsy victim and fled out of the room. I can’t sell her on AC/DC either. Anyway, this all reminds me of how Emily just didn’t get Red Dawn.

I put on ‘Boys of Summer’ because I was going to write you a letter about a Khmer pop concert, needed a little accompaniment, and then got distracted scrolling my way to Pat Benetar. Now ‘Shadows of the Night’ is on and the keyboard bombast is pretty spectacular. You know what else is spectacular and even more ludicrous? Stadium concerts in a country just getting the hang of sponsorship and showmanship.

A little bit ago Shannon and I rode our bike – me pedaling and her shotgun on the little package rack on the back – northwest out of Siem Reap. We’re looking on assignment for the Cambodian Magician, a ropey guy who leaps through hoops of knives for captive Khmer audiences. A moto driver pointed us toward the road out of town and soon we’re out into No Man’s Land, miles of flat dirt and scrub unlike the typical lush scenery. Huff and puff, huff and puff, and as we’re both starting to think of bagging the whole thing, we turn a corner and blam!, the horizon holds what on first look seems to be some kind of castle, as odd a thing to see as if you were wandering across the Mongolian Steppes and came upon a Navaho Casino. Turns out it’s a stadium-sized stage and in a few hours the last show of a three-night get-down ends the ten-year-anniversary party Khmer TV3 is throwing for itself.

The show has what all stadium shows have: a massive stage decked out with tremendous lighting rigs and two jumbotrons, the throng milling about a giant gravel parking lot, sponsor banners four stories high and company booths lining the lot, people hocking disposable bits of plastic that flash and whiz for half an hour before being tossed on the ground. The primary sponsor is Colgate, and their banners feature a white doctor looking confident next to an as-white-as-possible Khmer family grinning sparkling white teeth. The Colgate company booths are selling Honeysuckle Salt-flavored toothpaste to an endless crowd. On the vast, grey gravel, people have set up roulette wheels made of index cards and chopsticks and a woman illuminates her three-card-monty table with flickering candles. At the edges, where Colgate has turned the shuddering candle light to the blasting pink and green of neon tubes, players throw darts at balloons tacked to the wall, trying to win bottles of squid sauce or liters of Sprite.

The music on stage is atrocious, soft nothing with an airy whine substituting for melody. The dancers, however, those guys are something to see. They’re more or less on par with Van Halen in the ‘Hot for Teacher’ video. Watching them clunk and stagger through their moves, studmuffin grins on their faces, I realize that this, like seemingly everything in Cambodia is done jackleg. It is as if everyone from the choreographer to the performers to the producers all have the general idea of what they want to do (in this case ape routines from New Kids on the Block) but none of them really know how to go about it. In keeping with the modern Khmer spirit, no one is an expert but collectively they reach some semblance of competency, at least to a level acceptable to the crowd packed shoulder to shoulder in front of them.

The whole country is like this. Our washer was busted and when the two teenager boys sent by the landlord couldn’t fix it, they hefted it out of the front door. Oh, I guess they have a truck, I’m thinking. No. One dude climbs onto his motor scooter and the other guy gets on behind him, balancing a full-sized washing machine on his lap between them, the thing looming a foot and half above their heads as they weave out the gate and off through the gullies. Public trash at even the big hotels is beyond spotty and public maintenance of roads consists of dumping loads of dirt after five months of monsoon rains have made those gullies, so people use rubble and coconut shells and trash to smooth out their moto rides home. A friend took his grandmother to the hospital because her blood seemed to be clotting, making her lightheaded, and what did the good doctors recommend? A good massage to get that blood flowing, or else to push the clot to her brain, everything relative to education, understanding, the tools at hand. Society here is a kind of wonder. There is not enough infrastructure, leadership, or skills to successfully assemble all the pieces of daily life, yet collectively some workable system is developed. It’s like assembling scattered audio tracks of a Beatles song into something by Sonny and Cher. You recognize that things aren’t really the way the should – or maybe could – be, but everyone makes do in a relatively cheerful and oblivious fashion.

The only exception I’ve detected is the machinations of the government. Those guys have their society down cold, knocking out opponents and consolidating land, money, and power with only loud words spoken calmly and the slow and steady reconfiguring of what is and is not legal. Those guys have learned from the failure of the Superpower to their north and the success of our Superpower to their west. “Common criminals” is something I read a lot in reference to them, their peers in the north of India and Pakistan, leaders all across the African continent. That quality of leadership seems to be an intrinsic characteristic of Developing World societies, and as I reflect on the similarities between them and our Wall Street and K Street criminals, I am reminded of an Op-Ed piece I read, I think in The Wall Street Journal, that was the Developing World’s welcoming of the U.S. to their family.

I guess we have more or less ignored our homegrown conmen for ten or twenty years. Or maybe we just have felt powerless or unqualified to address them. Either way, that means we have something in common with jackleg Khmers. We make do with what we have before us. Anyway…

This email went in a different direction than I intended. I still want to convey the kind of jolly bumbling quality to so much of life here. It’s worth ending, then, by telling you that those geniuses that worked with Colgate to put on that show saw fit to top the male headliner with a Jennifer Aniston hair cut, cover the bass player’s head with a Seattle-style stocking cap, and have the female headliner rough-riding the air at the end of the stage, going to town cowboy style and singing, “Oh, I want it, Oh, I want it,” in between long strings of Khmer.

Love you,

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Running on Two Continents

Dear Deanna,

I knew, even before the starter’s pistol went off, that this letter would be for you. You’re the one who ran a half-marathon before, the one who sent me information about how to train. But it wasn’t until someone asked me why I was doing such a thing that I realized that I’d never asked you the same question, nor could I provide a very good answer for myself.

Not having a good answer caused terror to set in just before the race began. Did you experience this, joining the crowd at the starting line in Columbus? I was standing in front of the imposing steps to the causeway of Angkor Wat, and my hands were trembling so badly that I could barely safety pin the number to the front of my shirt. After all, you know that I am not really an athletic sort. I have never learned to ride a bike, become uneasy and clumsy the instant a piece of sporting equipment is placed in my hands, and have always been picked last for every team, from preschool Red Rover to Dunlap family reunion volleyball games. My body is not going cooperate, I thought, not for 21 kilometers. Why am I doing this?

The easy answer, the one that I use most often, is that I do it for the runner’s high, and that’s at least partially true. Maybe you use this explanation—being the mother of three small children is undoubtedly stressful, and maintaining a thirteen-year marriage (even if it is to my adored brother) must have its difficulties, too. I started jogging on a regular basis when I first moved to New York and felt lonely, then more when my relationship with Jeremy started to hit the rocks, and more still the summer after we broke up. Running through the streets of Jersey City could sometimes flip a switch in my brain, could allow me the luxury of daydreaming about how the next day would be better. But we both know that the runner’s high doesn’t always cut it, that sometimes you need life to cooperate. I remember a day a year and a half ago when I crumpled onto the living room floor in tears after a run, wondering why I didn’t feel any better. A few hours later, my friend Jason came over to hang out. A movie, a bottle of wine, a kiss, and suddenly the race course had taken a sharp turn, went stretching out in a different direction, one that led, eventually, to Cambodia.

Running in Cambodia is different than running in the US. In some very straightforward ways, it’s difficult to train here: stray dogs and chickens chase me wherever I go, moto drivers tease me, and it is always either muddy or dusty, resulting in red-stained sneakers and frequent coughing fits. But it’s difficult in subtler ways as well, producing some mutated reversal of the runner’s high. Cambodia is simultaneously beautiful and ugly, pure and corrupt, friendly and forbidding, and to run through the streets is to force yourself to see all of that. For a long time, I wasn’t sure how I fit in here, what I was supposed to be doing, or even if I wanted to stay. There have been many days when I couldn’t write about this place, couldn’t even think about it, but at least, I thought, every time I put my running shoes on, I was seeing it.

I think that’s why the idea of running the half-marathon through the famous temples appealed to me: that somehow I would see them differently if I looked at them in this context and understand the ancient and complex fabric of this place better. That’s not exactly what happened. There was so much adrenaline, so many people—it was hard to meditate on the secrets of the Khmer empire. All I had time to process was that, after weeks of feeling as though I was stumbling into obstacles, it was all a little easier than I thought it would be. My body did not fail me; the training you suggested had done its job and I ran every step of the way. But there was something else, too. I was used to the climate, I didn’t need to take a hundred tourist’s snapshots during the race, and I could speak some words of Khmer to the children who had come to give the runners encouraging high fives. This is a strange place, I thought, looking up at the carved stone faces that are over six hundred years old. But it is also a home.

And so, even after crossing the finish line, the running continues. That is the best answer that I can think of right now—that we run because there is always more ground to cover. We are in different hemispheres right now, and for now my course stays in Cambodia, but someday we will run a race together and prove to ourselves one more time that we are tougher than we think.

With love,

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Re: Holiday Fowl and Khmer Kitchen


Dear E.A.,

We had a good Thanksgiving. Shannon and I got all jazzed to have four or five Khmer friends over for as good of an approximation of the holiday as we could fashion. We ended up inviting 9 people in addition to ourselves and our roommate. Then we realized that we only had 2 stove tops and a toaster oven that is 30 centimeters wide. Well, we assembled a brigade of borrowed toaster ovens and went to town, doing a good job of sneaky beans (string bean-mushroom thingamabob), mashed potatoes, stuffing, salad, fruit salad, etc. In lieu of turkey I went out and found what I thought were chickens. Turns out they were ducks. So I took those 2 ducks I'd purchased and went and found actual chickens. They're all over the place here in the afternoons and evenings, killed fresh that morning and cooked until they're the color of dirty tallow. In a communication breakdown, I asked the sellers to simply cut off the heads, but they instead went Thor-style with a meat cleaver and tossed everything into a bag. "Oh, there's the right side of the head...oh, there's the left...oh, there's a piece of eyeball." When re-heating the birds in one of the toaster ovens, I made sure to pull the bills from out of the assemblage of parts. The Khmers were all about this big platter of bird I’d assembled; the Westerners took the occasional wing and went to town on the sides. A lot of it ended up going to Sheba, the dog of a French friend.

Also, I won a gift certificate from this business called Cooks in Tuk Tuks, which takes you to the local open-air market, explains all the exotic foods and herbs (referred to as "fertilizers," for some reason), and then takes you back to a nice restaurant where they make your food in front of you and let you participate. (I feel it’s worth noting that I won the gift certificate at a culinary pub quiz when I responded to the question What is another name for Sago? with the answer Sago the Wise. Apparently sago is sea tapioca but it sound Middle Earthian to me.) Anyway, back from the market the cook made us all this good grub and, after a desert of sweet potato with sago (!) in coconut cream, he pulls me up to help make prohoc. What is prohoc, you ask? The cook holds up individual bowls of grey fermented fish goop, garlic, salt, chilies, sugar, some other ingredients that escape me now.

Then, the last bowl: "Rat ans," he says.

"Red anne?" we ask.

"No, rat ans."


"Rat ans." He gives the bowl to Shannon, we both look down.

"Oh, red ANTS!"

Tiny in their bowl they looked like three-dimensional stick men broken and heaped upon each other at the bottom of a ceramic mass grave.

"Adult rat ans," he says, pointing at the stick men. Then he points at the little white specks tossed in to the mound. "Rat ans children."

"Red ants’ children?” we ask.

"Yes," he says, pointing at the larvae. “I catch the ans in the garden and put them in the freezer.”

I follow the dude’s directions and make and eat the prohoc. The ants have a bit of tang to them. “Why do you add the ants?” we ask.

“You can use lime if you have no ans.”

“Good to know.”

“The ans are sour, so prohoc is not too sweet.”

Awesome. My palette is coming along nicely.

- R.J.