Friday, May 30, 2014

Thailand Again

Once again the military has taken over the country, the 12th time since constitutional monarchy was established around 80 years ago. At first, they only declared martial law but when they brought the contesting parties together and couldn’t forge a compromise, they made it complete. Of course, compromise would’ve meant a legitimately elected government ceding power to a movement seeking its ouster; not something a legitimate government is supposed to do.
I am constantly struck by how much in lockstep expats associated with Thailand are on the subject of politics in that country. They echo the words and thoughts of the anti-government, yellow shirt protesters who don’t believe the reds have the right or are smart enough to govern. That makes it possible for them to discount the fact that Taksin Shinawatra or his aligned governments have won every election since 2001 by comfortable margins and that he was the first Thai leader to win an outright majority in parliament.
He paid for the vote is their answer. If you point out that paying for votes is a long Thai tradition, they say, well he’s rich so he could pay more for the votes. If you point out that he provided free health care to the villagers, they say the program is a disaster, the people hate it. If you bring up the development money he provided for the villages, they say, it was all stolen by corrupt leaders. The royalists are no slouches in the wealth department, if the rural poor only vote that way for the cash, why couldn’t the yellows come up with the money to match Taksin’s?
If you bring up the red shirt protests which an unelected government cleared out with the deaths of more than 90 people and a thousand injured they say, Taksin paid the demonstrators to be there. It had nothing to do, in their minds, with the fact that three legitimate governments that represented their interests were deposed, one of them on the flimsiest pretexts – a red shirt leader was booted out for a conflict of interest: he earned $50 for hosting a cooking show. They say the reds are apolitical, they only vote because they’re paid to do so.
Before Yingluck was deposed, partly on account of her failed rice purchasing scheme, the first thing defenders of the yellows said, Look, the farmers are marching against her because they haven’t been paid for their rice. Does that mean they would vote for the opposition? The royalists who hate them? Like Democrats who dislike Obama would vote for a Repug? The yellows prevented enough people from voting last February to invalidate the ballot, because they knew Yingluck would win in spite of her disastrous rice scheme.
An article in the Cambodia Daily on Monday, May 26 said, … the scheme (rice buying) was meant to cement rural support for Yingluck. Two things are amiss about that statement. One, she didn’t need to cement rural support, she was going to win easily. Two, many governments subsidize farmers, the US and EU being some of the worst in that department. And in the case of Thailand, why not? While the country has advanced tremendously in the past decades, the peasantry hasn’t hardly seen any of it. Before Taksin they were left to their own devices.
When the royalists protest, the military takes over and puts them in power. When the reds do the same, they’re murdered. But they’re not political, we’re told, just peasants collecting their stipend for voting red or demonstrating, besides they’re not smart enough to wield power. An opinion piece in the Cambodia Daily, Thursday, May 29, by a typical SE Asia expat is entitled, The Military Coup in Thailand Holds Promise of Democracy. My God, Orwell back from the dead!
You see, what the generals will do is ‘reform the system’ and then democracy will be safe again. While they’re at it they’ll have to make it safe from the majority, otherwise the cycle will just start over. The reds are not going to take this sitting down. They’re not going to go back to their villages, be content in their poverty and thank the generals for usurping another government they elected.
There has been a tiny little change in the elitists attitude since Taksin first won on a populist platform. This is represented by a quote from another article in the paper. A 30-year-old coup-supporter businessman is quoted saying, When people are sick they need medicine. It might be a bitter pill, but we need to swallow it. Medicine for the sick: A bitter pill. That has been my impression of the yellows right along: they hate the idea of their government helping the poor. It drives them crazy. I saw that attitude when I lived in Thailand more than 20 years ago, no matter how rich the society was becoming, the common people were treated like trash. The Repugs in the US are similar, anything that helps the poor is just buying votes. Tax breaks for billionaires is altruism, food stamps for the poor is coddling them. Being hungry will make them strong and self-reliant.
The Yellows don’t want to buy votes with populist programs the way Taksin did but they may have to if they ever want to actually win another election.
Taksin as a person is just plain reprehensible, there’s no way to defend him on principle. But if you say to a defender of the elite, Yes but he was the first Thai politician to ever do anything for the poor, they say, Maybe, but he never cared about them, he only bought their votes to increase his own power. That may be true, I can’t say, but he was a lowly cop on a beat at one time, so it’s not hard to imagine he might retain some feeling for the common people no matter what else you think about him or how awful he is on all personal matters.
He is so divisive, for the sake of the nation and the people he represents, he really should steer totally clear of any future involvement in Thai politics. Nonetheless, even if he were deep in his grave before the next time the reds win an election, the royalists would blame their defeat on him buying votes from six feet underground.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ergonomics 101

My dictionary defines ergonomics as the study of how equipment and furniture can be arranged in order that people can do work and other activities more efficiently and comfortably.
On that score Cambodia fails miserably, but that doesn’t matter much to the Khmer since they can sit cross-legged on a hard surface all day without even noticing they’re uncomfortable. Not so myself, I’m the canary in the comfort zone, not only because geezers need and like to be comfortable more than the young, pliable and adaptable, but also because my back always hurts from the heavy challenges I put it through in my younger days. There were times I couldn’t sit, stand or walk without the potential of excruciating pain if I wasn’t extremely careful of my movements: it’s not like that now, but still the pain is always there in the background.
Most of us here in Cambo can put up with discomfort since nothing is supposed to work just right here anyway and considering that living is cheap we don’t expect cushiness to be part of our everyday experience.
But if I’m at a bar or restaurant and the furniture is so poorly designed for comfort that my back is hurting, well, I’m not going to be able to hang around very long. That doesn’t matter so much in a restaurant since people don’t ordinarily spend much time eating, but in a bar where you might find yourself lingering for hours over multiple brews, comfort becomes important. As I say, some people hardly notice, still, if you’re the owner of a drinking or eating establishment, do you really want your customers to be uncomfortable? Most times there’s no difference in cost, you just need to know what to look for.
It’s not just the likes of Cambodia with dysfunctional furniture, sometimes I’ll be back in the states and I see furniture so poorly designed for comfort it’s a truly punishing experience. Sometimes designers will go through flights of fantasy in creating really beautiful, unique chairs that’re almost impossible to sit in.
‘Form follows function’ is a phrase coined by architect Louis Sullivan, who was mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright back in the early part of the 20th century. It’s an extremely simple concept but a lot of designers still haven’t gotten the message. You know, if you’re designing a chair, your first task is to make it comfortable, after that, knock yourself out, do any crazy thing you want. For instance, last time I was in Siem Reap some years ago I stopped in at the FCC – Foreign Correspondent’s Club. In the outdoor seating area they had these beautiful, sleek, ultramodern easy chairs which were amongst the most uncomfortable chairs I’ve ever tried to sit in. The seat was so long, if you tried to sit all the way back, you felt like a kid with your legs sticking straight out; also the back of the chair was so short it offered no support whatever. You had to sit all the way forward and pretend there was no back.
Chairs are the most difficult pieces of furniture to design because they require angles, rather than rectangles. Most of the padded wicker chairs one finds in Cambodia have seats that are flat, that is, parallel to the ground. When you sit back in one of those your bum immediately slides forward. If the seat is angled backwards, even just a centimeter or two your bum has a bit of an anchor. If possible when sitting in a chair with a flat seat I’ll move the cushion forward and fold up the front to raise my legs up and lower my bum, making it far more comfortable. At least wicker easy chairs and sofas are generally at the proper height, that is, when you sit down your feet rest comfortably on the floor. Dangling feet is a no-no, it cuts off circulation to your legs and in my case causes back pain in a few minutes. Some are designed with rounded tops and arm rests. They look great but are a serious detriment to comfort. Arm rests need to be flat, otherwise all the weight of your arm is resting on a bone rather than soft tissue. Also, the flat armrest allows you to place a cup or glass on it.
Most wooden chairs and many wicker ones are way too high, especially considering how short the locals are. However, Cambodians are so accustomed to chairs built too high, they’re not comfortable in those cheap plastic chairs which are the correct dimensions so they’ll stack them up so they can have their legs dangle. To each his own. Once again Khmer are so used to being uncomfortable, they don’t even know the difference. Hard wood seats need to be scooped out for your butt, otherwise all your weight is resting on your pelvic bones, rather than on soft bum tissue, but that requires a lot of work and talent compared to leaving them flat. Adding a cushion solves that problem, but that might exacerbate the height problem. If the chair is intended for sitting upright then the seat is okay flat.
Bars are one of my favorite topics, which is not surprising considering how much time I spend in them. Therefore it’s especially frustrating to see how almost all of them are poorly designed here. The first, biggest mistake is height: 95% are too tall. There probably isn’t a bar in the entire US of A that’s as tall as the average here in Cambodia. If you don’t actually take the time to research proper height, then the natural tendency is to make it too high. This is similar to the first time you try to juggle: you always want to throw the ball forward rather than straight up. It’s an automatic response.
‘Belly up to the bar’ is an old saying. On that basis the bar should come up to the center of the average person’s belly, which means when that person is standing up leaning against the bar they can comfortably rest their arms on it. However, since most bar patrons are men, designing for the average man is probably right. On the other hand, when you also consider the average Cambodian is short and women also go to bars, it’s best to err a bit on the short side. Yes, tall men will be at a disadvantage, but you can’t please everybody and besides they’re always at a disadvantage and are used to it. Taking all that into account, the maximum height of a bar should be 110 cm or a bit more than 43 inches. Anything more makes no sense whatever and yet I’ve been to bars taller than my chin where Cambodian staff couldn’t even see over them.
The other glaring fault with the typical bar here is the lack of a proper overhang or the ability use a proper one because of the configuration of the footrest and stool. When you push your bar stool all the way in you should be able to rest your arms on the bar without leaning forward. By the third or fourth drink you (I) need something to lean on. The overhang should therefore be at least 30 cm or 1 foot; similar to what you have sitting at a dinner table. Otherwise to put your elbows on the bar you either have to sit on the edge of your chair and forego the comfort of the chair back or strain your back leaning forward. Yet most bars in Cambo have almost no overhang at all. It’s supposed to be a bar top not a counter top.
Sometimes the problem is that the footrest sticks out too far and/or the stool is slanted backwards preventing the chair from going all the way forward. Rails solve that problem or you can design a footrest similar to an overhang. Either way those are key calculations required for a bar to be comfortable. Some bars here have no footrest at all. Take a look at the contortions people go through with their legs when there’re standing up at a bar with no place to rest one of their feet.
The only way to partially compensate for lack of an overhang is to have stools with arm rests, but they take up more space at the bar. Which brings up the subject of proper stool design. The cross members that give the stool strength and stability also need to be placed at a level which allows you to comfortably rest your feet; that is, without being so low it leaves your legs dangling or so high it forces your knees up around your chin. Taking a clue from those cheap plastic chairs, the cross member should be 16 to 17 inches or 40 to 42 cm below the seat. Khmer chair builders place them without any thought to where feet need to rest. It should be possible to tell the wood or wicker shop where you want the cross members to be - you’re paying for them after all - but sometimes they’ll just ignore you and put them where they’re used to putting them; which is exactly my experience.
If you also want your bar to work efficiently for staff there needs to be an underhang or cutaway at the back, essentially a shelf at a lower level where drinks can be conveniently mixed. Having local staff who are almost uniformly short mixing drinks on top of a tall bar or trying to use a lower shelf without a cutaway by bending over and contorting their bodies does not lend to efficiency. Khmers will never complain, but it’s a small matter to do it right.
Finally on the topic of bars, there are often serious disconnects in the way the rooms are designed. There are several establishments in Kampot which call themselves bar/restaurants but when you walk by you see a room full of restaurant tables with a very small bar at the back of the room just big enough for 4 or 5 seats with punters showing their back to the street. With my tired old eyes I can’t tell who’s there so I won’t go into a bar like that unless I know who’s there beforehand, otherwise I may walk in and find that I really don’t want to hang out with the people there. I’d probably still buy a beer to avoid an embarrassing U-turn, but then I have to sit around bored trying to drink it fast. If you sit at a table you’re looking for privacy, if you sit at a bar you’re looking to be sociable. If you call yourself a bar then the bar itself needs to be the full length of the room so that passersby can see who’s there. Tiny little bars as adjuncts to restaurants can’t achieve critical mass of boozy energy and are generally patronized only by close friends. The tap is best at the front so potential customers can see what you’re serving and so staff can see who’s entering the bar when they’re pouring mugs.
The problem arises from most shophouses being 4 meters wide which means if you have a full length bar and leave yourself a little space to maneuver behind it, there’s not enough room for full-size tables on the opposite wall. Essentially, you can’t do justice to both at the same time.
Most bar patrons are men and we tend to piss more often then women so a bar owner saves a lot of trouble by including a urinal, especially if it’s in a separate space from the toilet. Here in Cambo that’s easy as you can just hang it from a wall without its own room. Flush toilets, especially the cheap ones sold in Cambodia, don’t hold up well after being flushed 100 times or more per day and there’s hardly anything less fun than fixing a dysfunctional toilet which might be full of old shit or piss. Besides you offer better service; nobody wants to hang around standing in line waiting to pee.
I’m also a great fan of industrial ceiling fans. One ceiling fan moves the equivalent amount of air of 4 or 5 wall fans and does it with far more comfort. Except when it’s on high power it provides a gentle breeze with a lot less noise than wall fans. And it’s important to note that fans are not just for cooling: with the amount of cigarette smoking that goes on here in Cambo it’s essential to keep air moving.
Ultimately, ambiance trumps comfort. The better the atmosphere - lighting, music, vibrations - the less important the ergonomics become. But that begs the question, Why punish your loyal customers with discomfort?
One final note on bars. Many are equipped with wicker stools. They’re cheap and they look good but they can occasionally be dangerous. They’re handmade and not always consistently fabricated and they also sometimes loosen up. About 5 years ago I came close to a serious injury from one. I was leaning over backwards, as I often do, when the stool, which was seriously unbalanced toward the rear, sent me hurtling to the floor. I knew I couldn’t let the back of my head hit the hard tiled floor so I turned as fast as I could and bounced my nose, which was sore for more than a week, off the floor instead. I could’ve easily gotten a concussion or worse if I’d let my skull do the bouncing.
A friend who used it later remarked right off that it was unbalanced. I wanted the stool to be retired immediately and was almost ready to totally trash it so it couldn’t be used again, but the owner just blew off the danger and left it in place. For a lousy $25 dollars, the cost of a new stool, he’s taking an unnecessary chance with his patron’s safety, in this case could even mean death. There is, however, a silver lining to this particular story since my nose, which had been pointing to the left from a much earlier break is now facing straight ahead. It’s not all that straight itself, but at least it’s pointing in the right direction.
Finally a note about ergonomics and computers. Most people nowadays have laptops, notebooks, ipads or such. They’re very convenient but are impossible to use ergonomically without a proper computer desk and auxiliary keyboard and maybe monitor. If the laptop monitor is at the proper height so that you’re looking at it straight ahead rather than looking down, then the keyboard is going to be too high and possibly cause carpal tunnel problems in your wrists. Conversely, if the keyboard is at the right height, then you’ll be looking down at the monitor. If you’re young and/or you don’t use it too long at a time, all that won’t matter much, you can get away with poor ergonomics. Otherwise do yourself a favor and buy a computer table, and while you’re at it a back-saving well-designed desk chair: Ergonomics means comfort and efficiency.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

An Old Car is Like a Wife

I get attached to cars and since I’ve never had the wherewithal to own a new one, they’ve always been old and cranky. They’ve always had their share of dings, marks, rattles and quirks, but I’ve never cared much about outward impressions. As long as their hearts and moving parts are in reasonable or fixable state, I just carry on. If it’s a Toyota, like my ’88 Camry, you kinda feel like it’s a pretty solid machine that’s worth putting money into and maintaining. Wherever you go and especially in Cambodia, the most popular cars will be easiest to keep running just because of spare parts and dependability, but that doesn’t exempt you from a myriad of bewildering and mysterious problems, more of which I’ve encountered with my car than any one human being ought to have. Just like women, bewildering and mysterious.
But better than buying a KIA Sportage. I’ve known two guys who bought them. The first had fuel injector problems which could only be solved with four new injectors at $450 a pop. When a second friend bought one I hesitated to break his heart with the sordid tale of the first Sportage debacle. I only broke the story after he recounted how he couldn’t leave town with his because of certain disaster if it was driven very far.
For this comparison I’m not suggesting your wife, or cohabitating girlfriend, is equivalent to an old beater car (though she might well be) but rather the kind of hell she regularly puts you through just because of the nature of the beast. In this case the more beautiful and snazzy they are the more likely they are to give you the most shit. (To be fair, it’s not like we don’t also put them through some trying times, but they’ve got to make their own analogies.)
You wouldn’t dump your wife every time she asks you for a new bangle or bead, or breaks down in tears for unfathomable reasons or freaks out for (what seems to you) trivialities so why begrudge taking care of such a handy device as your car just because the bugger needs new brakes or an alternator or a battery or a new headlight switch once in a while. Even when it eats up three right front CV joints in six years and only 18,000 miles - twice happening on the road – you just grin and bear it. However, I wasn’t so smiley when it stranded me 40 kilometers from Kampot without the money to pay for the repair. When the mechanic who I managed to locate, with some difficulty, found out I could only pay half of the $65 repair job, he put me on lowest priority and made me wait from mid-morning till nearly 5 pm before he returned to finish the job. It turned out okay for him since I made up the shortfall with everything of value I was carrying with me: a rim and good quality tire, jumper cables, set of wrenches and a jack. As I discovered later when I went to replace the tire and rim, they alone were worth about $50.
But that was truly an excruciatingly, mortifyingly embarrassing episode. It happened on a bypass where a new bridge was under construction, so everybody on Highway 3 had a chance to see the morose barang struggling to smile and be nonchalant as they filed slowly by. The only saving grace, other than the mere magical fact that the mechanic actually did the job not knowing what he’d receive in return, was that a giant overloaded truck, which had even been elongated by two meters, but which only had a single rear axle, got stuck in the soft bypass road surface trying to climb back up to the highway. It was a sight to behold and took hours of unloading his cargo before he could get the thing unstuck.
Now I wouldn’t travel without a spare C-note or two in my pocket except in direst emergency. To top it off, I was forced to drive home at night which is a terrifying experience on Cambodia’s highways. You’ve got pedestrians, bicycles without lights, slow moving carts, diesel farm tractors and such which you can’t see until you get real close – at least I can’t with my tired old eyes – combined with giant trucks which blind you with their high-powered headlights. Besides, I gave the mechanic every riel I had so went the last 10 kilometers with the gas warning light on and (I’m convinced) made it up to my driveway on leftover fumes and angelic intervention.
The second time the CV joint went out on the road was a piece of cake in comparison, not that any breakdown on the road could ever be pleasant. I broke down in a small town and found a mechanic who had worked for the UN for 14 years and spoke good English. Not only that, but there was a hammock out back overlooking a small river to wait out the repair time.
If you’re planning a road trip with your old beater, you thank your lucky stars when it breaks down just before you leave, rather than on the road. In similar vein wouldn’t you rather be berated, yelled and screamed at at home, rather than have the old lady barge in while you’re having a peaceful beer with friends at your favorite suds depot and start screaming insults there?
Dealing with Khmer mechanics is also a lot like dealing with Khmer wives or partners. If that’s your situation, you’ll understand when I tell you about replacing my master window switch. Power windows are a great convenience but a big problem when they stop working, especially if they stop working when the window is stuck in the down position in rainy season. Having spent a lot of years as a mechanic, though of the untrained shade-tree type, you get to see which parts break down the easiest and where the vehicles are most vulnerable. The master window switch is one of them, especially here in the tropics where constant heat and humidity play havoc with electronics. It would work fine for a week or two and then just get locked into place. Sometimes it would start working again after a day or two. Other times I’d have to go to my Kampot mechanic and he’d take it apart, clean it up and it would work again… but only temporarily.
At first my Phnom Penh mechanic (they are definitely not available in Kampot) said a used one cost $50, but he couldn’t find one since they were prone to problems, so I asked about a new one; at $280 that was out of the question. Later he located one that was used in America but new to Cambodia at $80. It’s from a ’91 and the wiring’s a little different, he says, but he’s the primo electrical man so no problem. Fine, I say, it has to be done. I go to pick it up, the driver’s window now has an automatic switch, which is very convenient, actually, but when I closed the door the automatic shoulder seat belt – a feature of American cars – doesn’t work. (The majority of cars in Cambo were brought here used from America when they were about 10 years old.) Without it you only have the waist belt, which really isn’t enough if you actually want to be safe, so I ask why it doesn’t work. You didn’t tell me to do it, he replies. WTF? It worked when I brought it there, but according to his logic I was supposed to remind him to hook up everything that worked previously just like it did before. Khmers will say anything that comes to their minds when they don’t have a proper answer. The switch has been okay with minor problems except nobody else but him understands the wiring so when my Kampot mechanic looked at it, he was completely befuddled… so shit out of luck if anything does go wrong with it.
Then there’s the headlight switch. You know, you’re riding merrily along and totally without warning your headlights go off. The brights continued to work, but it’s not a great idea to blind vehicles coming your way. Then it’d work for a few days and same thing would happen. Mechanic takes the steering column apart, cleans up the switch and it works for a while. Finally, after doing that twice and the problem still reoccurring, I asked how much for a new used one, new ones again being prohibitively expensive. $28? For that little why am I messing around trying to make the old one work? However, it wasn’t that long before the ‘new’ old one started acting like the ‘old’ old one. I had the new one cleaned up recently and now it seems to be working.
The humidity here corrodes electrical parts with abandon. Now the thing to remember about the headlight switch is that it’s always hot, that is, it has power going to it whether or not the key is in the on position. Which means if there’s a short somewhere in the switch it’ll drain your battery. In my case it used to take only two days without driving it to kill the battery and I took to unhooking the battery after every time I drove the car… a real bore.
 Of course, this is nothing new since the lovable rattletrap has not started when it was supposed to at least a hundred times in the six years I’ve owned it and maybe a lot more… I lost count a long time ago. At this point I always carry a set of jumper cables and battery charger with me, just in case. Actually, I should also have an extension cord in the event the nearest plug is not close or people nearby don’t have one. It wasn’t always the switch that was the culprit, just in the last couple years I’ve replaced everything having to do with the starting and charging systems. It’s got 140,000 miles – 220,000 kilos – so you have to expect things to break down, though this car has really tested my patience.
I asked a friend who has an identical Camry about his. Very dependable, he says, in four years it’s started every time he turned the key. I was incredulous. He did have to do a few things to it, he said, so I thought I could do a ‘gotcha’ with CV joints. First he said 6 or 7 but then thought about it and said 4. So my 3 in 6 years is not so bad after all. One of the other things he had to do was replace the engine for $400, so, old cars, like wives, you just gotta deal with them.
I’ve heard guys say they bought an old jalopy, drove it for two years never having put a penny into it and then dumped it when it broke down. That’s never, even remotely, been my experience. For me they always need something, at least partly because I’ve spent enough time with cars to know when things are not working right and partly because I always want to correct the problem, which in some ways is easy here since it costs so little in labor to repair them. Unfortunately, low cost also implies low talent, even if highly intuitive, and the absence of diagnostic equipment so that many mechanics here are no more than shade-tree types like myself.
This is represented by a persistent problem I’ve had. From the start it has had the shakes at idle and especially stopped in gear. It’s not a big fault, just really uncomfortable. I’ve taken the problem to three mechanics. All three started with timing, no problem there. Then the air intake was cleaned out and the plugs and wires replaced. No change. While the PP mechanic was doing other stuff he noticed that the transmission made a strong clunking sound when put into gear and suggested maybe I needed a new one at $240. He even assured me that that would correct the shaking problem. I didn’t really believe him but it was a time when I had money in the bank and since I knew that wouldn’t last it seemed a good time to do it rather than wait until it broke down with me broke also. Being a Toyota it’s entirely possible that it might have kept going long after I was in my grave even with the clunking sound, but I didn’t want to take the chance. Of course, it made no difference whatever to the shaking.
I think it has to do with the valves, though nobody seems to have a compression gauge, let alone a computer to do diagnostics and taking it apart to check would cost some money. Meanwhile, after all the peripheral work that’s been done, it runs really strong once it’s out of idle range. Hit the gas and it flies. And it’s really comfortable on trips and the upholstery is perfect and original - not that fake leather - and a pleasure to relax in, so I’m in it for the duration, it’ll probably last as long as I do. Believe me I haven’t begun to exhaust detailing its troubles, but I have run out of space in this article.
So whatever it needs, I’ll do my best to placate it. Trading it in for another old beater could be courting disaster, at least I know what I’ve got and what to expect. Relationships are always a hassle, whether it’s a car or a wife; no matter how compatible you are, you’re going to have a lot of learning to do. And valuable learning at that. All you wives, wives-in-waiting and girlfriends out there, I hope you don’t take offense, I don’t mean to belittle your contribution to our personality development. Having done the husband thing three times myself I can attest to its importance regardless of the torture it sometimes put me through. Though my most difficult ex is still giving me shit 40 years since we parted – we have a kid to connect us - whenever her fickle sanity dissipates, which fortunately, at least towards me, isn’t very often, I begrudgingly have to admit she also taught me the most.
In some ways it’s easier to go without a wife than a car: once you’ve gotten used to having wheels, you feel deprived without them, even when you don’t use the car that often, whereas you can take or leave being a husband. On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to get rid of a car than a wife, it’s just a machine which can easily, if expensively, be replaced. But regarding a wife, if you ever cared about her, your parting will be extremely difficult, so until then it’s, Yes dear from now on I promise to pick up my socks from the floor and be more considerate of your often inscrutable feelings and listen to your nagging without going apoplectic with frustration and turning to the evil drink for solace.

Monday, January 6, 2014


An isolated inlet of still water in a moving river. Lots of activity nearby but very calm in the backwater; thus I was a bit surprised when a friend referred to Kampot as such. He’s an artist and finds a lot more interesting subjects to draw in Phnom Penh. And truth is Kampot isn’t on the way to anywhere, excepting only Bokor Park, so there’s a kernel of truth in that description.
And being ‘nowhere’ has its advantages; for one, traffic, tension and high costs don’t bear down on you as they do in the capital and it isn’t overrun with tourists as in Siem Reap or Sihanoukville… some of my long-time Cambodia friends are positively repelled by touristy places.
That makes it a lot easier to create a community feeling; as opposed to the tourist magnets where faces are changing every day and the local expats are a small part of the total feel of the place. Backwaters also let you get closer to what’s happening and know most of the long –term residents. They also are great incubators of gossip, but you can’t have everything.
Our little burg is nonetheless changing fast and so there’s the inevitable debate about growth and what the influx of new residents and additional tourists is going to do to the town. Fortunately, we’re so small to begin with it’ll take a long time before traffic reaches a point of feeling oppressive; what’s more, it’s possible to live on the edge of town, you know, in the proximity of rice paddies and lotus ponds, and still go anywhere in less than ten minutes on bicycle. The many new people are also bringing a wider choice of restaurants, bars,  entertainment – live music, etc – and things to do. David, aka Climbodia, is doing rock climbing tours – we’ve got those limestone karsts all around – and Anne is doing paddle boarding tours; for herself and another enthusiast she’s planning a fundraising trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, so you know she’s serious.
There’s an old saying that goes: If you find the perfect place don’t stay because it’ll no longer be perfect. Many people who come either want to stay or have plans to return later. Regardless, it’s a great place for my needs and I’ll stay as long as the changes stay within reason. Maybe even longer while lamenting how great things used to be. Meanwhile, all told, our newcomers tend to fit right in.
One thing you see here is expats working service jobs for not much more than local wages… how’s $7.50 for a 5-hour bartender shift sound? I haven’t worked for that little since 1960. Most people doing that have other resources and are using the work as a supplement and/or just to be there meeting people and/or to have something to do to justify hanging around. One factor that makes that more acceptable is the cost of housing. I know lots of people living in new one-room apartments that rent for $40 per month – and that’s the Barang price. In one single-story row of seven units there are 6 expats. The apartments aren’t spacious, just a kitchenette, bath and a room big enough for a double bed, desk, chair and a few odds and ends, but still would rent for upwards of $1000 in New York, London or Hong Kong. There are other apartments being built that are much nicer that rent for about double the cheapies.
The above has been made possible by Cambodia’s open-door visa policy. Anywhere else in the region you’d need legitimate paperwork or money in the bank to stay, which would exclude a large portion of the expats here, including myself. We still contribute a lot, even if not enough for the likes of uppity Thailand. That also gives Cambo a younger, livelier, more interesting set of expats.
This year saw the second annual river clean up day in which hundreds of school kids riding in locally offered fishing boats go up and down the river picking up random trash. They expected 200 kids, but 600 showed up. This year they dispensed with the music and free food of last year – too much work – and concentrated on the trash pickup. You still see lots of their T-shirts around. More recently, an expat fundraiser was held with the theme of traffic safety in which $1600 was raised; I was duly impressed. The event included a roast pig, with dinner costing only $3.50, an auction, backgammon tournament, trivia quiz and a DJ spinning tunes later on. It was held on the first floor (second floor American) patio at Moon River Guest House, south of town on the river, a perfect spot for fifty or so people to gather. All had a great time and more events will come regularly – I’ll attend for sure.
The new ‘old’ market – who knows what to call it now? – has now rented all of its outside stalls and quite a few vendors have opted to extend their shops into the inner space, the owner offering a discount, wisely deciding they weren’t going to go at the full price. It’s got a mix of shops oriented towards locals, expats and travelers and it’s really enlivened the area. In other news of local Khmer exploits, a night market has opened on the main durian traffic circle replete with a food court, ring-toss games, kids’ carnival rides and the ubiquitous clothes shops. Once again ‘progress’.
Ecran, our ‘art house’ cinema has moved to a better location just opposite the new old market close to the river. In addition to showing a very wide range of international films, cult classics and all time favorites like Taxi Driver in the upstairs theater, Stephane has opened a handmade Chinese noodle and dumpling shop on the ground floor. It’s great stuff and draws in enough patrons to insure enough income to help keep the theater afloat financially. I go at least twice a week but sometimes attendance is very sparse. Twice weekly showings of The Killing Fields brings in the traveler crowds and also helps pay the rent.
It’s a great gift for the community and for the variety of films shown is better than anything one might find in the states, at least anywhere I’ve been. I know most people today prefer watching films on their smart phones or tablets or small TV screens or big TV screens but if it isn’t on a theater-sized screen – Ecran’s is 4 meters wide – I’m not interested. I can’t even barely make out what’s happening on a small screen and besides the idea is to be immersed in the action, not watch a movie as a distraction or time-killer. The other cool thing about the theater for me is all films are subtitled in English, including the English ones. Considering the state of my geezer ears and the way so much dialog in American films is incomprehensibly mumbled, subtitles tremendously enhance the experience.
High season is here and we now have live music 7 nights a week, though the big events are at Bodhi Villa on Fridays and Naga House on Saturdays. Both are river resorts not far from town and both bring crowds of upwards of 50 people who are drawn from the traveler crowd as well as expats who go to meet up with friends. Live music starts early and goes until around 11pm or midnight when they switch to DJs and rock all night.
Friday night has been a long tradition at Bodhi, but unfortunately the space is inadequate to the task; too small and poorly laid out. Sometimes there are so many people on the dance floor there’s no room to dance. For my taste it’s also way too loud, but I’m a fogey so that’s understandable. It’s somewhat paradoxical but the worse your ears get the more that loud sounds become uncomfortable bordering on insufferable; without earplugs impossible. I especially can’t stand it when the treble is turned up… I feel like a power drill is boring into my skull. Naga House has a much larger and more usable space with extensive use of very thick slabs of wood for the bar and tables, it’s beautifully done.
Unfortunately, the canned music in both places is rarely to my taste – techno-house type tunes leave me lifeless and limp, they are too technically based, repetitive and devoid of feeling or warmth or even proper rhythm for dancing that includes any sensuality. Of course once again, being an old fart, you might guess my tastes don’t jive with the younger crowd... too bad because dancing is great exercise and I still love it. Madi Bar on the river in town also has a disco following live music on Thursday nights. Cheit, a young Khmer fellow who also owns Naga House, alternates music I can dance to with the awful stuff.
My problem is getting to be that there’s too much happening at night to stay up so late and drink so much so often. I’m having too much fun. I try to stay home two nights a week, but usually it’s a lost cause.
My favorite watering hole, where I can’t help going almost every night is O Neil’s on the river. I have lots of bar-owner friends who I like to stop and visit, but gravity invariably pulls me towards Neil’s. For one thing, it’s got the best ambiance around. He started off building a thatched shed roof between two buildings. It was an immediate success, only dampened by the buckets of water that managed to find its way in during every rainfall. It took five tries at bolstering the roof’s rain-shedding capabilities before it actually worked. It also was extremely vulnerable to small-time thieves who took beer and soft drinks but left the expensive spirits. He took an embarrassing number of hits before he was able to make it thief-proof.
By then it was time to move to a real building. He took all the décor, including the thatched roof with him, maintaining the bar’s cozy island-like setting. That also made it acoustically superior, enhanced by 15 speakers – three $50 sets and six extra tweeters – that surround the room. Most of his music is geezer-pleasing blues and rock from the 60s to the 80s.
The move also made it possible to double the length of the bar, which, by the way, is decorated with coins from around the world - one of the favorites is a triangular coin from the Cook Islands.
The lighting is superior to most bars because the bar itself is lit up with spots, while everything else is subdued. The walls are covered with concert shots and posters and intimate photos of all your favorite old artists. Finally, while the ergonomics are far from perfect, it’s still more comfortable, taken as a whole, than almost all other bars in town, which doesn’t say much for ergonomics in Cambodia.
I feel a bit odd at times about by-passing my other friends’ bars so often but you gotta go where your feet take you, so I have little choice. With new places opening every month, it’s getting worse, there just are not enough days in the week.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Some Like it Cold

After being so long in the tropics, you just naturally feel superior about enjoying our endless summer, but I was reminded back in the states that a lot of people can’t take the heat.
But first a final note on beer available back in Oregon and a sort-of apology for my first beer article. I forgot to mention a beer I tried named Swill. On the label it says, Beer guy, don’t take yourself so seriously. It was a lager flavored with citrus and, well, I have to tell you it lived up to its name, at least to my taste. I wouldn’t buy it again, but I’m sure there are a lot of people like myself who have to try it at least once, so I expect they’ll do alright.
Thinking back on my first article on beer titled, They Don’t Like Good Beer, I have to admit that was pretty arrogant of me. A friend characterized my attitude as harsh or maybe brutal was how he put it. I did try to make clear that there’s no accounting for taste and everybody is different. I mean, you can’t help it if you like swill. It’s just one of those things. Moreover, being a geezer means I have special privileges and can get away with saying and doing things not allowed for you young’uns. We old farts have lots of space to be as ornery, opinionated and cantankerous as we wish. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, lets move on.
The night before I left Oregon the temperature got down to 40ºF – -4ºC – quite cool for October 9. Except for a few days in mid-September when it was hot and a few more near the end of my trip when it was just warm enough to be friendly, I felt chilled most the time. Still, for a lot of people cold is far preferred over hot. A friend, who said her body temperature was naturally high, told me she got positively ill when the temperature reached up into the 80s – above 27ºC. I told her she could only visit Cambodia at night in December and January. When it got above 90F – 32C – almost everybody was complaining... while I could finally relax. At least I didn’t feel cold. Becoming old and decrepit is also a factor, it just gets harder to deal with the cold as you age; hot is simply a lot easier for us. If it’s really baking you can hit the hammock and make yourself a breeze. Other people here have to have their air-con but still prefer here to coldness. Personally, I don’t care about the heat, I continue on as I would otherwise; I won’t purposely choose to ride my bike or take a walk in the hot mid-day sun, but I also won’t think twice if it needs to be.
Before I go on I need to put in a plug for Fahrenheit, though I know it’s a totally lost cause – only the US and four other small countries around the Caribbean still use it. In all respects other than ambient temperature, the metric system is the only way to go. Sadly, in doing research for this article I was disabused of a notion about Fahrenheit that I’d maintained all my life. Until Wikipedia straightened me out, I was convinced that old man Fahrenheit, who lived in southern Germany, measured the temperature at his home for 5 years and placed the lowest temperature at zero (-18ºC) and the highest at one hundred (38C). It sounded totally plausible but turned out to be completely wrong.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was Dutch. He placed 0º at the freezing point of brine and 100º was body temperature. After some minor fiddling around to match up freezing at 32º and boiling at 212º, body temperature turned out to be 98.6º F. I still think in inches, etc., but only because I’m used to it, not because it makes sense, but I think Fahrenheit is a better scale for everyday temperatures. Zero to 100 makes more sense than -18 to +38 and being a bigger scale allows for more accuracy. 28C could be 81, 82, or 83F since temperatures are rarely quoted in decimals. And if you say 70sF you know it’s cool to warm; whereas if you say 20sC you’d be talking about cool to hot. You’d have to qualify it by saying low 20s, etc. At any rate, here’s a simple conversion: 28C is 82F, 35C is 95F. And don’t mind me if I can’t help thinking in Fahrenheit, I’m just set in my ways.
Back on track, I can’t imagine anyone actually saying they like it hot, especially hot and humid. That includes everyone who’s here to escape the cold. We accept it and deal with it but it isn’t something we love. There may be one exception. Some years ago in Portland I was selling recycled metal at a scrap yard on a hot summer day over 90. One of the funky guys working there was wearing a padded vest so I couldn’t resist asking him why. He said he had a back problem and the only time it didn’t hurt was when he kept it hot. Otherwise, it’s really just a trade-off. I’ll accept the unpleasant hot so I don’t have to deal with the jittery, shivery cold. Besides, the times when it’s almost insufferably torrid here with sweat running out of every pore when you’re not even moving are balanced by the times when it’s a perfect balmy 80 or 82 degrees or so. Add a coolish breeze coming off the river here in Kampot and, well it just doesn’t get any better.
Portland’s climate also has its good points. It doesn’t freeze very often, so you rarely have to bundle up. Summer’s great with only a few really hot days and hardly any rain and except for those few hot days it feels fresh, bright and clean. For that you have to deal with six months of cool, dark, cloudy, misty, rainy, cabin-fever winter. In a cold climate, you generally keep your house cool to minimize the contrast to the outside and to save money and energy. As a result you (I) almost always feel a little chilled and edgy, without being able to fully relax.
In my earlier days I sought out the cold. At 18 I left my family in LA (we had just moved there a year or so earlier from Ohio) and migrated to New York. It seemed that the only thing people in California could talk about was how great it was to live in a warm climate, as if that was the only valid reason for choosing a place to live. It felt so vacuous and intellectually stultifying, especially when added to being in pastel fifteen-suburbs-in-search-of-a-city Los Angeles.
Cold is challenging, it’s brisk, fresh and energizing and if you’re prepared for it, no big deal. I spent years working outdoors in Portland. Even if it’s only 5 to 10C (40 to 50F) you don’t feel it if you’re working and staying active. On this last trip I was out on a day when a big storm came through. It was blustery, sideways-rainy and cold; altogether miserable is the only way to describe it. But also no big deal, if that’s what you’re into. Most people would hide away indoors on such a day, but I also saw people out riding bikes. I walked about 100 meters in the heavy (for Portland) rain and barely felt wet compared to being out in a Kampot downpour for about 5 seconds. At the Oregon coast, those stormy days carry a real punch: it rains a lot more and the winds routinely get up to 70mph – 110kph. It’s great fun…but only for a short time until you are thoroughly soaked and chilled.
Cold, perforce brings innovation and requires energy. There are lots of homeless people in LA where it’s almost always warm and quite a few in Portland where it’s uncomfortable for much of the year but not really cold, but in Saskatoon or Fairbanks, where the temperature easily gets down to -40 (F and C meet at -40) there is no such thing as being homeless, at least not in the winter.
In a cold climate, you must have heat, survival depends on it. In a hot climate you don’t have to have air-conditioning: You’ll certainly be uncomfortable, but you can live without it. You don’t even need four walls, just a roof for the rain and sun and something to keep the wind from howling through.
The following story illustrates the attitudes of some, possibly many rural Cambodians and maybe countryside people in other tropical countries. A do-gooder type set up a little factory in a small village with the idea of providing steady employment and paying the villagers well. He trained them in the work and was going to improve their lives. Everything went well in the beginning, he paid their first salaries, he was proud of himself. But the next day nobody showed up for work. When asked why they didn’t go to work they said that he paid so well, they had enough money to last for a while and that they’d return when they ran out of money.
I’m not sure where I remember that story from; it could well be a myth, but it does reflect an attitude that’s possible in a tropical place where life is naturally easy. Easy in the sense that it doesn’t take a lot to survive, not that rural people don’t have it hard in many other ways. The number of rural Cambodians who spend long hours working in garment factories belies the truth of that story to some extent, but it’s still a plausible scenario. There are, of course, lots of hardworking Cambodians, including many who out in the hot sun, but it’s still somehow easier than it would be to do the same work in freezing conditions.
In contrast, here’s a story from my time living in a hippie commune in southern Oregon. We lived in the mountains in homemade houses. It’s rarely very cold there because it’s relatively close to the Pacific Ocean so has a marine climate. As a result, many houses were not very tightly constructed, you know, plenty of air spaces through the siding and of course no insulation. One fellow spent a lot of time bragging about how great it was to have fresh air coming through to the inside. Besides, he would say, if it’s a little cool inside you can always hang out by the wood stove. Then one of those rare frigid air systems from the interior came barreling through with temperatures of 15F (-9C) and pushing the marine air out to the ocean. You never saw anybody work so diligently and speedily plugging all those fresh air holes… even though the frigid air was only going to last a few days.
Cold demands action while hot is conducive to inaction. Cold puts you on your toes while hot sets you flat on your back or in that idyllic hammock. Cold sets your teeth on edge and numbs your toes, heat brings sweat to your eyes and nose and clothes.
When I finally left New York for good, after bouncing back and forth between there and LA for ten years, I set off for northern California where the hippie commune, back-to-the-land movement was centered, besides I had friends there. I soon discovered that it was too expensive and close to the big city to allow for a truly self-reliant country lifestyle, so I moved further north and away from the city in stages till I landed in southern Oregon. Each stage was an improvement but still not enough for me; I wanted something colder, hardier and more remote where urban influences had less sway and masses of people couldn’t descend on you and hang out forever because the climate was so mild. You can’t lollygag when it’s really cold, you’ve got to get with the program.
From Oregon I made about a dozen exploratory forays out to the cold interior Pacific Northwest, mostly on my thumb. Probably half to two-thirds of the 70,000 miles of hitching I did from 1968 to 1980 was for the purpose of finding that perfect cold-country place. I was out in all weather, including in very cold places, and without money since I was a bona fide penniless hippie and that was the only way I could go. For all that, I never found my frigid fantasy homesite and was fated to live in cool, rainy Oregon for the next 22 years. As it happens, it was the perfect place for me for a lot of reasons and another lesson in going with the flow, which is not so easy when you’re young and trying to make your place in the world. What you really want may not be what you cosmically need and the more you fight against reality the less likely you are to find happiness.
And now for twelve years I’ve been here in forever sweaty Cambodia where the temperature rarely goes below 20C – 68F. There’s a time for everything, but I sure hope that doesn’t include returning to the ‘cold’, even if it’s only ‘cool’ Oregon.
My latest book, A Hitchhiker’s Tao, is based on my extensive thumbing experience and a large part is focused on my cold quest. It’s available only as an ebook and most easily purchased from… Look for Stan Kahn.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Back to Sweatland and More

What a welcome relief it was to step off the plane in Phnom Penh, after spending five weeks in a naturally cool place that was even cooler than normal and SWEAT. Oozing out all over, it was. The cold wasn’t all that bad, or wouldn’t be if one actually liked it, but in my waning years, not my cup of tea. That however is a story for another article…
First Portland, whose slogan lately, cooked up by a longtime, old-line record store is, Keep Portland Weird. It’s all over town in bumper stickers, etc. For instance, many bus riders say thank you to the driver as they exit. Weird huh? I might’ve chosen another word, like quirky or eccentric or unusual or trippy or odd or peculiar, but it wasn’t my idea so weird will have to do.
Certainly, if I had to live anywhere in the US, it would have to be Stumptown, so named because when the city was first developed in the 1850s the giant conifer trees that blanketed the area were easy enough to cut down (relatively speaking) but the huge stumps leftover were much more difficult to uproot so were left in the ground to naturally erode away, a process which took decades.
In the five years I was gone, two important streets were renamed. One for Caesar Chavez, fighter for farmworkers’ rights and the other for Rosa Parks, who famously refused to move to the back of a segregated bus in Alabama in the 1960’s. Portland never had the racial problems of many American cities for two basic reasons. One is that its minority population has always been so low – lowest proportion of any major American city, now about 20% – that white people never saw blacks as a threat. Even thirty years ago when the city had a definable ghetto there was always a large proportion of whites living there. Today, it’s been so upgraded and gentrified and peppered with cool, hip new shops and restaurants, it hardly qualifies as a ghetto, though there still are African-Americans living there. Secondly, there’s always been a sector of the population that’s fiercely progressive, liberal, integrationist. Height of ironies, they invaded the ghetto to the point where minorities can hardly afford to live there anymore.  
Being in Oregon also makes a difference. It was the first state to decriminalize marijuana in 1973. Assisted suicide was approved by the voters about 15 years ago… the only place in the world outside of Switzerland to enable it, though I believe some other countries are now coming on line. Oregon’s entire coast up to the vegetation line is public - compared to most of America where coastal property owners can build fences up to the high tide line – and there are 600 access points in 300 miles of coastline. In California, which has a spectacular coastline, you can sometimes drive 50 miles before finding a place to access it. Some years ago a group of Californians bought a remote oceanside Oregon property with the intention of bringing in boats loaded with weed. Unfortunately (for them and their plans) they had no idea about how things worked in Oregon so they built fences out to the high water line. Too bad… it looked highly suspicious to the locals and they got busted with the first shipment.
Portland doesn’t look all that different from the average mid-sized American city with some exceptions. It looks better than most because it’s so well taken care of which includes large areas of preserved older housing; it has all kinds of light rail trains and streetcars roaming around its vibrant central city; there’s lots of street sculpture strewn around and it’s growing in density where most American cities its size are spreading far and wide in typical suburban sprawl. It’s metro population is about 1.7 million, around the same size as Phnom Penh. It covers two or three times the area of PP but only half the area of other American cities of equivalent population.
Dense or otherwise, after my week on public transportation hobnobbing with the (un)usual characters, I spent a lot of time driving. Having wheels is very convenient, but other than a leisurely drive on a bucolic country highway, driving is a giant bore and hassle and mental frazzler. At least in the US it makes more sense: stay in your lane, keep a safe distance, watch for brake lights and you can zone out with your mind on some other planet. At first, when a car would come up to an intersection with me driving along a larger road I’d get a Cambo-based reflex half expecting the other car to dart in front of me. It took a few days to get that out of my system.
Traffic was horrendous at peak hours, partly because Portlanders have absolutely refused to allow any new freeways to be built or roads expanded and over the years car lanes have been reduced while bike lanes have increased. It’s what I call the ‘Let them stew’ theory of traffic management. If you make it hard enough for drivers, a lot of them will switch to alternatives; meanwhile you haven’t spent a ton of money and used a lot of valuable land to increase roadways.
Needless to say driving there is not at all like in Cambo where you have people on all manner of vehicles coming at you from all directions and nobody has actually stopped at a stop sign since the birth of the country, though some will actually look and others even slow down. In my car here I feel like a big fish with lots of little fish swarming around me and I try mightily to not be distracted because in a split second of letting my eyes wander some teenage kid will cut right in front with centimeters to spare and you know: KABOOM. Another big difference is that hardly anybody gets bent out of shape here for driving transgressions… even if you crash a red light and force others to stop for you. Try some of those tricks anywhere in the States, and even in Oregon and you’ve potentially got a livid road-rager to deal with.
Another of Oregon’s unique traits is its landmark land use law, passed in 1973 and still the only one of its kind in the country. It required that every city have a line drawn around it – an urban growth boundary - encompassing the already urbanized area. Until a city’s population grows to the point where additional land needs to be included inside the line it is nearly impossible to build urban type developments outside of it. It took 25 years of growth before the Portland metro area needed to expand the line and that boundary is now so clear you know immediately when you’ve crossed it. Urban to rural, like night into day. That saves valuable farmland and makes cities more efficient.
The contrast to Cambodia is stark; here you can build anything anywhere… as long as you don’t discomfort a bong tum – big man – in the process. That’s what happened at Martini Pub’s second location. Martini’s is a longtime local nightclub institution which has a large outdoor setting. A VIP living nearby didn’t like the noise and they were forced to move. The only restriction here is how close you can build to a public road. One of the reasons why we expats like living here is the lack of rules and restrictions, still, it’s not a great idea, for instance, to have noisy factories juxtaposed next to where people live. Included in the need for change is the way large factories are being built in the countryside in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, it seems like zoning and land use laws for Cambodia are far in the future. I believe there are building codes of some sort for Phnom Penh, but most people don’t bother to get permits so it wouldn’t matter much. A couple years back it was noted that less than half of builders got permits, though most of the larger projects were permitted.
America is the land of giant refrigerators and the immense supermarkets used to stock them. Shopping in one of those double-football-field sized stores is so distasteful, disagreeable, even demoralizing, you can’t help but want to stock up to avoid having to go back too soon. I tried to avoid them, but when it was necessary, I’d spend half an hour wandering around in abject frustration trying to find what I was looking for. I’ve never taken kindly to supermarkets. When I first starting getting high, you couldn’t coax me to go into one if you tried all day. Rather, you’d have to drag me in kicking and screaming. Just being in the parking lot gave me the willies.
And why does anyone need a thousand different breakfast cereals to choose from? Here in Cambodia we get whatever the wholesalers can pick up cheap and that means a constantly changing stock and since it includes products from a wide array of countries – New Zealand, Argentina, Germany, France and Egypt as well as the US – we actually have a greater choice; in particular when it comes to GMO free ones.
The one exception I’ll make to the choice thing is beer, there can never be too many available. As it happened the local store nearest where I stayed in a middle class part of town, which originally sold mostly food is now mostly beer and wine. They have a mind-boggling variety of brews so I was curious (and wanted to know for this article) about the number and asked the clerk how many different beers they sold. ‘Too many to count’, he responded at first so I pressed him, ‘500?’. ‘Oh no’, he says, ‘We have more than 500 domestic beers and maybe 1000 imports’. It was harvest time so they had at least a dozen pumpkin flavored beers and others spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. I spent way too much money drinking quality brews knowing I’d be returning to the land of dearth of choices. Upon returning, however, it seems like our low-cost beers are pretty good in comparison to America’s and with brewpubs and microbreweries opening up, we may yet become a beer-lover’s paradise, though maybe not in my lifetime.
One of the best events I enjoyed while in Portland was the swiftlet bird show in Swift Park. It is named for a small corner of a park surrounding an elementary school in Portland and provides a great bird show. Starting about thirty years ago vast numbers of swiftlets – very small birds who spend almost all their time in the air - have turned the school’s big chimney into a stopping-off point in their migration from the Pacific Northwest to Central and South America. They roost by clinging to the inside of the chimney.
The school sits in a hilly part of town so in the process of making a flat place for the building and surrounding playing fields there’s a steep hillside in back of the school which, when you’re sitting there, places you at about eyelevel with the top of the chimney. Every afternoon starting at the end of August and lasting for about 5 or 6 weeks, somewhere between 5000 and 30,000 birds start gathering there an hour or so before nightfall in a swirling mass that looks like a funnel cloud. Meanwhile at least a thousand people bringing blankets and picnic food gather to watch the show. If it starts to get cold before the end of the migration and the time when the school can fire up the furnace, the kids just wear extra clothes and tough it out for the duration.
As part of the show there’s often a falcon or hawk or two who show up, causing much temporary dispersion and consternation to the swifts, as they pick off a little bird for supper. That, as you can imagine, really gets the crowd exercised. There’re plenty of swifts to go around, they’re in no danger whatever. The climax of the show is when they begin diving en masse into the chimney right about sunset. Wow, what a show.
As it happens swifts are no strangers to Kampot, though of course a completely different breed. Ours are called German’s swifts and are closely related to Edible-nest swifts which inhabit other parts of southeast Asia. All over town and out in the nearby countryside are specially constructed 3 to 4 story bird houses. They sometimes dress them up a bit with fake windows or porches. They play a continuous loop of bird sounds to lure the swiftlets, only changing the songs a bit around sunset. A friend who lived near one was driven half crazy by the unending chirping… he was a bit too sensitive.
Their nests are small semi-circular cups which they attach to the inside wall and are made up exclusively of their hardened saliva. For some strange reason they are prized by the Chinese who will pay $35 to $100 for a bowl of soup made out of them. Wholesale they bring somewhere between $2000 and $8000 per kilo, depending on the quality and color, and thus the reason why bird’s nest producers can afford to build multistory structures to house them. They are sprouting all over town. It’s one of our biggest industries.
I had a great time back in the States, especially after 5 years away, and really enjoyed seeing the kids and grandkids and friends of a lifetime. I also enjoyed seeing Portland changing and progressing, but 5 weeks seemed too long. Three would be plenty. I wouldn’t mind going back, but certainly not for at least a couple of years.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Back in the US of A

Well they finally let me out, after five years in Cambodia interrupted by only one night in Ha Tien, Vietnam, the closest border town to Kampot, I’m experiencing the other world, the outside world; in this case: The Indispensable Country, The Exceptional Country, you know the one that gets to make up its own rules and show off its superior weaponry whenever it feels it might be compromised strategically or economically, which seems to happen with regularity. At any rate I’m back in the belly of the beast. It may no longer be my home, but having spent the first fifty years of my life there, it’s something that I’ll never to be able to shake off, besides the US having a lot of good points, in spite of everything.
Meanwhile, I’ve been totally relaxed and complacent in the funky laid-back little Eden of Kampot, to the effect that I’ve had no need or desire to go anywhere else. But I came into a little money from sale of a small piece of land and figured it was now or never since the land money wasn’t going to last all that long under any circumstances and I hadn’t seen my kids and grandkids and lifetime friends for what felt like a long time.
Bought my ticket in June for an early September flight from Phnom Penh to Portland, Oregon. The cheapest flight was on Korean Air - $1,230 – but it would’ve cost $250 more if I’d flown two weeks earlier in August. The trip – Phnom Penh to Seoul to Seattle to Portland – included a 12 hour layover in Seoul but I’ve got a friend there and the visa is free and it’s a relatively cheap ride into downtown Seoul - $4.50 - so I had to check it out and wander around town a bit.
I’d been there for a short time back in 1993. I’d spent the whole of ’92 traveling in Asia and didn’t want to go back home and was running out of money so I was expecting that work teaching English would save me from the dreaded return to America. I’d met lots of teachers on my travels and had pumped them for information with the conclusion that Taiwan and Korea were my best bets for work considering they paid $25 per hour as opposed to teaching in Bangkok which started at a measly $4 per hour. Japan was also a possibility, but it just seemed like a strange place to want to live. The Japanese I met traveling were cool enough but all were also ultimate quirky.
So I’m off to the Taiwan embassy since a visa in advance was required then and applied for a two-month visa, the longest term available. Went in for my interview and the fellow said, “Why you want two months? Taiwan small country, nothing to see.” How do you reply to that? He had sized me up and assumed, correctly, that was intending to work illegally, and refused a visa.
Okay, plan B is Korea, so I’m off, in January, to Seoul. Found a cheap place to stay in a kind of guest house where the rooms were heated from under the floor and there were shared kitchen facilities but they were outdoors, so hardly convenient when the temperature went down to 12°F – minus 13°C. Getting around on the subways was easy but finding a destination was a real bear: Buildings are numbered by whole block (all four sides) but there are no numbers on the buildings themselves, besides very few people spoke English back then. Finally found a school to apply to; couldn’t miss the big sign on the front of the building. The headmaster sized me up and assumed, correctly, that I didn’t know what I was talking about – I had had no experience - and asked me to come back the next day with a lesson plan.
Lesson plan? Well, I knew what the two words meant separately as well as put together, but to actually do one? I was clearly and totally out of my element, besides, I’d spent many hours trying to find thermal underwear to ward off the chill, to no avail whatever. I did get a chance to ride the train down to Pusan at the tip of the peninsula. It’s smaller, prettier, warmer and much preferred but it’s even harder to find work there. Korea back then was impressively formal: half the men on the train were wearing suits and ties… just for the ride. So after 10 days in the hermit nation – most homogeneous country on earth – I’m back to Bangkok. Called a number of an English school, said I needed work. Lady at the other end of the phone said great, I need a teacher, come tomorrow at 10am. No questions were asked but at a paltry $4 per hour they didn’t have a lot of options. Over the next 10 months I earned as much as $8 per hour, which still afforded a life of penury; however, that experience was just enough to give me the confidence when I returned eight years later to know I could find work.
At any rate, I found my way to central Seoul easily enough. The Airport express ends at Seoul Station, a nine level complexity accommodating all manner of transportation options. With the help of a local who saw I was completely flummoxed and a tourist map, which somehow disintegrated within an hour of use (not a great selling point for tourists) I found my way out and in the right direction for a little walk to my friend’s place not far from the transit hub. Hung out with her a bit, wandered around the nearby park for about an hour and headed back to the airport. Made my way back to Seoul Station and found a subway to Incheon, which happens to be the name of the airport. Except that Incheon is 15 miles across the water from the airport Incheon and way too far to swim, especially for someone who can barely make 15 meters before he begins to sink. Fortunately, I’d left myself plenty of time to get there so had no need to get stressed out.
The place is wired, with the highest penetration of broadband anywhere. At least 2/3rds of the people on the train were playing with their smartphones. (In fact, they shouldn’t be called telephones, because they really are small computers, which also can be used to make phone calls.) The center city is crisscrossed with giant boulevards, but in between are these personable, interesting little alleys. The Korean people have a distinctive look, very unlike the nearby ethnic groups. As I understand it, they are a combination of yellow and red races. As the reds were being pushed out of Asia by the ever expanding yellows and across the land bridge through the Bering Strait into the Americas, a remnant was left in Korea. It’s a very interesting place, certainly worth a 12 hour visit.
Okay, now I have a 6 hour layover in Seattle. Across from me in the waiting area a oldtimer a little further down the line than yours truly sits down and says to the middle-aged African guy (he was speaking his native language) who was sporting a kid’s backpack and telephone, “Don’t get old, it’s not worth it, it’s only trouble”. The African guy was either ignoring him or didn’t understand or hear him, but I couldn’t help responding that I was also old and didn’t think it was all that bad. He then recounted how his body was falling apart, everything was going wrong, he was spending a fortune trying to stay alive, he didn’t have any family and thought it might be time to die. I agreed, saying, if life is all pain and problems, then might as well move on.
He then went on to tell his story. He was fine until a year before when his kidneys and lots of other internal organs started failing… except he’d weighed 380 pounds – 175 kilos – even though he was only my height, 5’6” – about 168cm. Seems he’d had a stomach bypass fifteen years earlier. That allows you to eat as much as you want without gaining weight, since everything just passes through without being digested. He said he ate 90 pills a day, mostly supplements to make up for getting nothing from the food he ate. What got to me was the idea that he could think all was okay while being grossly overweight and eating mountains of pills everyday. The fact that he made it to 74 under those conditions is quite amazing. When you’re obese everything you do puts extra strain on your body, all of your joints and organs have a lot of extra work to do. Fat people in wheelchairs and electric scooters who can no longer get around on their own two feet is a common sight in America. Not everyone is fat, but the typical mountain of lard is nearly ubiquitous. (If you’re one of the lardasses referred to, forgive me, I mean no harm, everybody has their challenges, yours is just a lot more visible.)
So then I asked him how he felt about his life. He said that he’d had a full and rewarding life, had accomplished a lot and been very successful in business. All the more reason to wrap it up, I responded, knowing you hadn’t missed out or been insufficient or lacking in this life. If you’re going to go out, I suggested, do it with a smile; if you’re going to hang around, might as well try to make the best of it.
My mother tried to make it clear as her end was in view that she didn’t want heroic measures taken to keep her alive, she’d even made a video to that effect; still, when the time came, the doctors were unaware of her wishes and spent tens of thousands of dollars in the last couple of days in a futile and wasted effort. At the same time, millions of people die every year from lack of health insurance. Futility and Waste, along with Inequality and Unfairness, the hallmarks of America.
When I first get to Portland, it usually takes a few days to get some wheels together. In the meantime, I ride the buses and trains. I actually like public transportation; you are relieved of the stress of driving and get to witness a cross-section of America in your fellow passengers. The problem is that it takes god-awful long to go anywhere and you’ve got a curfew since transit is rare at night. So I have to have a car if I’m going to accomplish anything. The buses are full of characters; a couple of times early on I’d be waiting for a bus and I’d see a guy chattering away to himself a few feet away. A couple minutes later he’d stop by to talk. The first guy led off with how he had high blood pressure, but he really like salt, he wasn’t going to give up his salt. Well, why don’t you try using just a little, I suggested. He then pulled a package of sliced salami out of his pocket. Salami, as we know is half fat. What’s your cholesterol, I asked. Two hundred is average, he says, while his is 260. Wait… a… second… 200 is not average, it’s the limit of relative safety. Anything over that is asking for trouble.
Americans are hardly the only people who eat unconsciously, but the attitude here epitomizes self-destructive eating habits. A very large part of that is marketing. The root of all evil hews much closer to marketing than money itself. That is exemplified by a study done some time ago in which 3- to 5-year-old children were given McDonald’s burgers in a company wrapper and a plain wrapper. They were also give fries in the two wrappers. Three quarters thought the offerings in the corporate wrappers tasted better. Children are being taught to like trash. The children were also given baby carrots in both wrappers, which McDonalds doesn’t serve, to the same results. What if equal time on the airwaves was given to advertising veggies and a healthy diet? Clearly a far healthier population would result.
An hour after I arrived on September 5, Portland was hit with a cold, windy, sideways rain. The weather report said there was a 1% chance of that happening on that day and just a week later it was 90° to 95° F  - 32 to 35° C. Whenever it gets down to the mid 60s – around 18 C – I go for the thermals, and still feel cold. In fact, it isn’t that bad, I could manage if I needed to, but I’m sure glad I don’t need to, I much prefer it hot to cold. (Besides, it’s still summer!) It’s especially disconcerting and dismaying therefore to go from a perfect 84° outside into a freezing (relatively speaking) bus. And that’s besides the fact that air-con costs money. Of course, part of the reason for setting the air-con down so low is the number of fat people riding the bus… all that extra insulation, you know.
September 21
This is already a bit dated, more soon...