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.