To Be Independent

January 19, 2019, 19:21

Up at six, downstairs for a devotional with fried eggs and coffee on the side. Rhett & Link, seasonal drinks and science experiments. A banana, then sunscreen on skin reflected by a bathroom mirror.

Left turn, follow the paper map towards the market. Get stopped by a local on a bike who wants to take your money in exchange for showing you the city. He names his price in broken English, you think it sounds fair, and you put on his helmet and mount his bike. He takes you places, waiting while you go inside for pictures or whatever. He doesn’t care; he just waits and smokes. His father died in the war, and now he lives on tourism. He is old and weathered.

First stop, the War Remnants Museum where you’ll find tiger cages and pictures of blown up and bloated people. The effects of napalm and American war-mongering. You’ll think back to what you might have learned in high school history, realizing you know very little of the war except that we clearly lost and likely didn’t have a good reason to be there in the first place. So much death, but peace in the end.

Then the Post Office, where you can send a card to someone far away for 23.000 Viet Dong. Not too bad. You send one to your parents and one to your grandma and grandpa. They will be glad for it and miss you.

Unfortunately, the Notre Dame cathedral is undergoing restoration, and you cannot enter. So Han, the moto-taxi driver, takes you past the opera house and you snap a quick picture. Then to the Saigon River, dirty and brown with barges and boats for hire.

Next is the Independence Palace. You are getting close to Han’s three-hour limit, so you ask how much you owe. “Fifteen hundred,” he says, which after some clarification you learn means 1.500.000 (or about $64). You are caught off guard because that’s not the price you heard when you agreed to his service, and you don’t have that much cash on you, nor do you consider it a fair price. A complete rip-off, to be frank. You hand him what cash you do have and apologize, feeling sorry, angry, and confused all at the same time. He shakes his head at you and rides away.

Back to the Palace. Water fountain, red-carpeted stairs, modern design, national security council chamber, presidential office, meeting room, meeting room, dining room, meeting room. Rich. Living quarters and a greenery. Flocks of tourists. The president’s bedroom, the rooftop meditation-room-turned-dance-hall, and a camouflage helicopter. Cinema, gaming room, brown wooden grand piano, and another dining room. A library. Kitchen in the basement.

Final stop is the Ben Thanh market. It reminds you of the market in Querétaro your teacher took you to in the Spring of 2016, except this time you don’t know the language and the vendors know a bit of yours. English, the language of commerce, especially when there are tourists involved. You look for a necklace because that’s all you want, besides food. You learn that jade is not just green, but also can be red. Then you find the food and walk back to your hostel.

Tank 390

January 20, 2019, 18:05

Vietnamese production, revolution, currency, and marriage ceremonies. These are the things you’ll find in one of the many museums scattered about the city. But first, you meet a German girl named Hannah, whose last name you can’t pronounce, and who is only 18 years old. She graduated secondary school and wanted to work and be independent before she goes off to Uni, which is short for “University” and the more common European word for what my people call “college.” My people. Strange.

Misinformation. Donald Trump. Immigration. Poor white people. Blame. Scapegoat. Recession. These are snippets of a normal conversation you might hear in your hostel because the people who use hostels are young, often single, sometimes educated, mostly international, and always liberal. See you in Australia!

Today, you learn more about Vietnam. About Tank 390 crashing through the gates of Independence Palace. About 1975, the year this country became reunified. About the war and American intervention and support of the South, who lost, and the CPV. Then you go to the zoo. There, you find sad animals who don’t belong in those dirty cages. Animals who need more space and better company. Animals who should be watching humans, and not the other way around. Except for the hyenas, which remind you of The Lion King. You ask Hannah, who you are spending the day with if she knows this film. She doesn’t; you explain, but you can’t remember Simba’s name, so you just say “Mufasa’s son” and describe the circle of life. She listens, for real. You mention your discipline—English literature—and say that you admire Rilke and would like, someday, to study German literature. Hannah tells you the story of Faust by Goethe, of deals struck betwixt men and Satan and God. You tell her the story of Job. She listens, for real.

Miss Her

January 22, 2019, 19:09

I sit in the front room of the Lovely Jubbly Villa in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Reggae, happy hour, a swimming pool. “A chill place,” Brooklyn, A.K.A. Trevor would say. He had tattoos and talked about getting “shit-faced” (as Hannah would say) and hanging out with his pals in seedy strip clubs. “Did you know,” he says, “that Portland is the strip club capital of America?” I didn’t know but wasn’t surprised, either. Nothing surprises me, just like nothing surprises my father.

I think traveling is just as much about the places you go as it is the people you meet. Linguistically, the southern Asia hostel-staying crowd is quite diverse. I’ve met Russians, Germans, Brits, Swedes, Australians, and a chap from New Zealand named James. When I asked if he had any national secrets after he lost a round of Jenga, he said, “It’s not as nice as it seems. New Zealand is known over the world for being beautiful and scenic, but under the surface, things aren’t as nice… pollution and such.”

I miss Hannah, oddly. She was pleasant, smart, could play the piano quite well, and mature for being only eighteen. Her parents were sort-of-Catholics, and she worked in a café bar and as a tutor before going to Melbourne for travel. She’s having a gap year before going to Uni, where she’d like to study physics and philosophy. She told me about an app that hides or bounces your I.P. address when your surfing the web; people use it when they want a little extra privacy—she uses it when she looks up recipes for weed brownies. She told me to message her if I ever go to Munich. I said I would, but it might be ten years from now.

The bus here was green and tall. We stopped three times: twice for the W.C. and once for lunch. It took about eight hours. I read Osnos on the ambition and contradiction of China. I listened to Erre on predestination; RadioLab on John Scott the hockey goon and NHL all-star; Jordan, Jesse, and Alison Becker on gift-giving and family time over the holidays. (Podcasts, boi.) Arriving in Phnomh Penh, I hired a tuk-tuk to take me to my hostel. I only had Viet Dong, and in Cambodia, they take the Riel or USD, so I needed to exchange my cash. What I exchanged wasn’t enough to pay him, so he took me to an ATM that charged 20% on withdrawals. I paid him extra for the trouble of escorting around a dumb tourist with a too-big suitcase containing his life in Shanghai. He was happy and spoke decent English.

Death, Death, Death

January 23, 2019, 22:36

A day of genocide. Pol Pot and the S-21 torturers, maimers, murderers. A sad day, for one finds it hard to enjoy walking over mass graves, seeing a tree upon which the brains of babies were dashed, walking through a school-house-turned-interrogation-center. But this is what the tourists see when they come to Phnom Penh. They pay $6, $8, $10 to listen to horrible stories of indescribable loss and evil before returning to their hotels and hostels. I paid, but my payment is pale and silent compared to the payment of the Cambodian people.

After a morning jaunt through the city center and along the relevantly developed waterfront, I found myself at the gates of the Royal Palace. It was closed when I arrived, so I negotiated a tuk-tuk with a thirty-something man named Wanda. In ten minutes, I was riding through trash-filled streets of dust, rock, and sand. Then came Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng. I don’t wish to dwell on what I saw and heard. Death. A failed attempt at extreme Maoism. Dystopian horror and brutal mantras: “To remove a weed you have to dig up the roots.” Fourteen unmarked graves, all that was left when The Organization abandoned their post to avoid the oncoming wave of Vietnamese soldiers and Cambodian defectors. (Also, America dropped more bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam war than they did during the entirety of WWI.) Rebar shackles, boarded ventilation, brick cells, and barb-wire anti-suicide guards. Prisoners stabbing themselves with pens and pouring kerosene lamps on their heads to end their own suffering in search of an early grave.

And wealth, manicured lawns, silver floors. The Royal Palace. Quite beautiful, a bright contrast to the bleakness of the rest. Cambodia (or maybe just Phnomh Penh) was known as “The Pearl of Asia” before conflict tore it apart. The Pol Pot regime was responsible for much, yet was dealt only partial justice for its crimes. Brother #1 died while on house arrest, some twenty years after 1979 when his plans failed. The rest were slowly found and brought to trial for crimes against humanity.

“I did this on my own; it’s the only way… Reconciliation is not about talking to each other; it’s about the obligation and responsibility of each of the victims to put all the pieces back together” (Jok Chan, leader of DC Com, collecting info and raising awareness of Pol Pot and genocide… look him up for proper spelling and quote.)

Bicycle /// Angkor

January 26, 2019, 22:02

I’m in Seam Reap now, and I got in a bit of trouble at Angkor. I climbed the wrong thing and was taken to a covered area to be talked to by a security guard and a man wearing a “Police” hat. They were nice and talked about heritage, while also reprimanding me for my actions. “I’m sorry, I did not know,” I repeated.

There are four salamanders/geckos on the walls in my hostel. I’m sitting at a table in the bar area, and there’s some house music playing, but I have my headphones in, and I’m listening/watching LTAT, the Saturday episode of Rhett & Link.

12:12

This is nowhere I ever thought I’d be

Beside a tree, sitting on the banks

Of Trapeang Srah Sang

A little lake several kilometers

Northeast of Angkor Wat.

I took off my shoes and socks

Waded in, snapped a photo.

Prayed a poem, wrote it down

After fingering the dirt and mud

Between my toes.

14:18

Sitting cross-legged on Ta Keo

A temple-mountain-pyramid

Possibly the first to be built

Entirely of sandstone by ancient Khmers.

I’ve seen what I came here to see—

            but maybe there’s

            more to come.

My Giant mountain bike has carried me far—

            through a dark jungle

            on roads of pavement & sand.

I will read, now, before heading “home.”

17:44

“Am I annoying you?”

“Yes, honey, you are.”

“Humph.”

A bad joke, I know.

It just sort of slipped out

While waiting in line for Phnom Bakheng.

(The wife asked a question to her husband

I answered for him, a stranger.)

This ride better have a loop-de-loop

It was like waiting for something at Disneyland

Or the DMV (that symbol of waiting).

But this sunset is worth it

(I’ve seen better—thank you, clear Oregon skies.)

Milk Jug

January 29, 2019, 23:02

Well, I’m not going to Chengdu and Xi’an. No pandas, no Sichuan spicy food, no Terracotta warriors. Too expensive and it’s Chinese New year, making travel difficult. Overloaded railways and I’m on a budget. Plus, I think there’s only so much big-city-hopping I can take. So, Chiang Mai to Kunming to Wuhan to Shanghai.

Chilled and walked around Siem Reap on the 27th, took a day-long bus to Bangkok yesterday, met Jon Lott in line at the Cambodia-Thailand border. He’s twenty-seven and has done some cool things: hitchhiked across America and wrote a book about it, searched for the lost treasure of Forrest Fenn and totaled his car, teaches in Chengdu. His mother runs a nonprofit in Africa somewhere, and his father is a handyman. His brother works for a college, and his sister does something I can’t remember. Jon and his friends created a sport they call “milk jug.”

I lost Jon Lott in line. I was wearing shorts (not allowed) at the Royal Palace of Bangkok, and they forced me to buy some pants. In the process, Jon went ahead, and we were separated, likely never to see each other again. He’s going to learn how to sail, and I’m going north. He was a nice fellow, full of exciting ideas and a wish to run a polyamorous, open commune when he gets a little older.

The Palace was pretty and crowded. It was gilded, golden, green, yellow, red. RICH. There was a reclining Buddha longer than any statue I’ve seen, an emerald Buddha draped in his winter garb, and thousands of tourists and Thai’s. Queen Sirikit’s Museum of Textiles was elaborate and French. Cocktail dresses, evening gowns, lace, ornate, beautiful.

An Incomplete History

January 30, 2019, 13:15

A history of Chinese immigrants to Thailand, as told by the Museum Under the Golden Buddha of Bangkok.

“Chinese traders travelling by junk from their homeland came to settle in many parts of the Thai kingdom.” I assume “travelling by junk” is a poor translation referring to the type of boat they would sail into the port of Bangkok.

In 1782, Rama I founded Rattanakosin and many Chinese had to move to a different part of town, but there was a labor shortage within the Thai community, so the government turned to Chinese recruitments. During this time, the Chinese were the only people group allowed to enter the country freely, in part due to their “unrivaled endurance and diligence” while being “adept in trade.” When a Chinese person entered the country, they could either become tattooed at the wrist or pay the “phuk pi”—a government tax—to become like Thai citizens, able to work and move freely.

Under Rama II, Bangkok became a hub for “junk building” and trade, generating much wealth for Thailand. Rama III followed in his father’s footsteps, adding to the Royal Treasury. He also had a special interest in Chinese art, influencing its popularity in Thailand. During his reign, in 1825, Great Britain sent Captain Henry Barney to compel the Thai government to abolish its foreign trade monopoly policy.

Fertile Thailand. Those coming in for the first time “relied on help from relatives or acquaintances hailing from the same villages as they struggled to settle in the new land.” Many found work as “coolies”—unskilled laborers—or peddlers of cheap products or food. Grocers, sellers of noodles, rice gruel, porcelain, paper lanterns. Some of the Chinese who became wealthy started “Chao Sua”: houses for incomers in need of patronage. From these houses and the family system they produced came many secret Chinese associations.

At the end of Rama III’s reign, the steamship gained ground allowing for Thailand to trade with the West, in turn decreasing the Sino-Thai trade coming from China. But that wasn’t the end of it, as the steamship also brought in more immigrants looking for work. Eventually, the Chinese community became quite established, and a new road was built called “Yaowarat” which became the center of Chinatown in Bangkok.

Dad Move

February 2, 2019, 14:49

“The things one notices,” says Rebecca. She likes to talk this way—academic and distant—because she has a Master’s degree and is used to writing in the tense of “one” instead of “I” or “you.” She studied linguistics and education; she wants to be a primary school teacher. So does Lia. They are both German, in their late-twenties, and my roommates, here, at GongKaew HuenKum Hostel, which is popular for Chinese visitors. It’s a cute space: outdoors and open. But there are mosquitoes, and it’s quite warm.

I bought a fanny pack, which I wear over my chest instead of on my waist because that’s too much of a dad move and it’s how all the tourists do it. More convenient and less sweaty than a backpack. It holds a map, my phone, some cash, my keys, and my brother’s Canon PowerShot A2300 HD digital camera. I can’t tell if it takes better photos than my iPhone SE, but I’ve always wanted to use a real camera. (Just looked it up: the Canon is 16MP, and the iPhone is only 12MP).

Joe is here with his family. Good to see him. Some of his former students are attending Chiang Mai University, so he spends time with them. He’s staying outside the moat but will move to my hostel tomorrow morning. I want to meet the rest of his family; his mother seems nice, and the two of them like to josh and jest.

J. B. reminds me of my Gramma: he talks about the energy of the universe and healing and a bunch of hippie noise. He grew up in Illinois, lived in Hawaii for 37 years, and has since been hopping around Asia. He is quite knowledgeable about the Thai people and culture, and he certainly likes to talk. Once going, one can only nod their head and mumble assent as he lets loose a barrage of fun facts and advices. But I enjoy listening to his voice, and he invited me to toss the Frisbee around if I was interested.

Falling /// Rising

February 3, 2019, 18:03

A Voice Memo

It is six o’clock, oh-three, on Sunday, February third. I’m sitting on a carved out stone—carved, flattened stone at a high point of Wat Pha Lat waterfall, west of Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s about four miles from the old city. My Chrono says forty-eight minutes: that’s how long it took me to run slash walk-hike up to this point.

I walked around and took some photos of the temples and the sculptures, and then I ventured down the waterfall to see if there was an actual waterfall; I found that there was not, that the waters must be low at this time. The rocks are metallic, kind of shiny, my guess because of the components of the water that flows over them. There are many dogs, here.

Venturing down the waterfall, I had two paths to take: the left which had the water and the right which did not. Of course, I took the right, seeming the safer route. I took my right foot, and I lowered my butt to the stones, crawling like a backwards crab. My left foot did not gain traction when it looked for a spot, and I slipped and lost all control, and I fell, and I slid down some slippery rocks for about ten feet before coming to a stop. I scraped my right knee, my right elbow, my right forearm, but otherwise was unharmed. I am dirty and sweaty, and the sun is going down.

Ten minutes till sunset. I can see the city of Chiang Mai, the shopping mall where I worshipped this morning at The Gathering. The shopping mall where, in the basement, there is a food court. The shopping mall where I ate rice from The Brown Rice Ladies alongside a man named J. B.

I see a large airplane now—I saw it before I heard it—departing from Chiang Mai airport heading North, likely into China. This is my route, come Wednesday.

I thought about taking an oath. Today I read of Jacob and Laban, and the covenant they made at Mizpah. A departure, a compromise, a peaceful end to a relationship fraught with deception and lies and theft.

There are five covenants made in the book of Genesis. I’m learning that covenants are often used to make peace because they require something of both parties. God uses covenants with Abraham and Noah and David, signifying the coming of Jesus who would be the ultimate peacemaker. Isaac and Abraham both make covenants with Abimelech over land and boundaries. Jacob and Laban make a compromise over flocks and wealth and material things and family.

I thought about making an oath, about using this place as a witness between God and me, vertically. But what oath would I make? What oath can I make that I could ever keep? I am a mere man, made in the image of an Almighty God. I am small in this world, this vast world.

I’m sitting on a flattened, carved stone. There is water running about me, and it gets darker now. The wind begins to chill my skin, drying the dampness from that water from my fall. The hairs stick to my skin on my legs and my arm. It dries in my beard from when I splashed water on my face.

What oath could I make that I would keep? What covenant could I make that I would keep? What do I have to offer God that he does not already have? I offer my life. I offer yesterday, and today, and all the tomorrows stretching into eternity, into the end and the beginning of all things new and good and holy. I offer my life, as it is, as it will be.

I put the pen back in God’s hands. I want to obey. I want to hate autonomy. I want to need God and a relationship with his son—a right relationship born on the foundation of love and mercy and grace. I want to believe.

Purple is my favorite color; I see it now, mixed with blue and yellow and orange, and a very hazy sunset over the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I see green—I see a green God. I see serpents and Buddhas and idols and false gods. I see a bridge between them. God sees me; he is my witness in all things. I give him.

Monkey City

February 7, 2019, 21:05

Had a Thai massage from a woman named Angela. Learned more about my back—the lower part, specifically, which I can now say is injured. Not her fault. It’s been like this for several months now. Don’t know what caused it. Might need physical therapy if it gets worse.

Flew from Chiang Mai to Kunming. Got cash from an ATM, bought a metro ticket, walked several blocks and found “Cloudland International Youth Hostel,” where I’ll be staying for the next five days. Walked around today. It’s the Chinese Lunar New Year, and the city is weirdly quiet. Many of the shops are closed because their owners have departed to be with relatives until the holiday is over. Lots of fireworks in the night.

Back to using a VPN for internet access. I didn’t miss that. Now whenever I want to post something or check my email or do a simple Google search, I’ll have to wait for ExpressVPN to do its magic. It takes time, that’s all. And it usually doesn’t work on the first go.

Played pool with Toby from Finland who studies engineering in Nanning. Where else would I be able to do such a thing? We both need pool lessons or more than a bit of practice. He wanted to go to Tibet (as did I), but unfortunately, things are dodgy there for tourism unless you have an agency to tailor the experience. Lhasa would be lovely; I’d like to see the Potala Palace someday.