Friday, January 23, 2009

Ko Kradan

We are living day 11 of 15 here in island paradise. There isn't much in the way of internet access here...there is only one motorbike on the whole island...thus the relative blog silence. Here's a photo we found online, which is actually far less beautiful than the reality. We have taken TONS of photos that we'll post as soon as we return to civilization.

Now, back to my banana shake in the hammock...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Flashback: Hoi An

Hoi An is a coastal town, charming, smaller and in the southern part of central vietnam. It is about thity five kilometers south of Da Nang, a famous landing place for many American soldiers.

The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site, chock full of tailors, french architecture, shops, cafes and pagodas. That sounds more European than it is--the streets are completely fallen apart, it is gritty in many ways, and there is dust and mud everywhere. But it is very charming, nonetheless. Some of the surrounding areas are cleaner and nicer, but with a little less character. Even though many westerners stay in these outlying areas (not us, we don't have that kind of money!), they still end up spending their time in the old town.

We've spent about 12 days in Hoi An. It has been a great chance to relax, recover from our sickness, celebrate Christmas and New Years, and to just check out for a while. It rained a LOT here, and so we have not even seen the nearby beach...but that is just as well. We have plenty of beach time coming up in Thailand.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Flashback: Christmas #2

We got to pretend we were home for Christmas. This helped us feel sorry for ourselves only minimally.

We talked on the phone to my family's Christmas Eve party for an hour, and then Trina's family party for an hour as well. Her family sings a Danish Christmas Song (I cannot spell it)--pronounced "New Harve (soft r), yule-i-gan (like hooligan)" and dances around the tree in concentric circles. My father in law (Ron) held the computer and we got to join in the dance. We loved it!

We also got to talk to our families again on Christmas day, and I had the chance to talk to my sister who was in California with her in-laws. Our parents got through it, and so did we, none the worse for the wear. We wondered how it would go, and although we had pangs of sadness, we really made something out of it (and ate way too much dessert, but still way less than we would have).

It's strange to be away for Christmas, but it must be remembered what a gift it is that we are away. We are traveling around the world, for goodness sake!

Flashback: Christmas in Hoi An

We spent Christmas in Hoi An, a lovely little town in central Vietnam on the coast.

On Christmas Eve, we found our way to a Christmas service at a local Catholic church. We had no idea what we were in for.

There was some sort of pageant taking place, with hundreds, maybe thousands of people, squished into this courtyard/pavilion, spilling out into the streets. They escorted the tourists to the front rows in the middle of the show (embarrassing, but wonderfully hospitable, nonetheless). We were in the second row.

All the requisite items were there (plus some loud Vietnamese music). Cute kiddie angels, one of whom tried to grab the Virgin by the neck with her garland. The sheep who wandered out of place and had to be chased by the shepherd. The angels, Baby, the lucky couple, kings from the east, etc. It was quite a vivid piece of storytelling. We were given English programs, which was helpful.

Then came the mass. Still outside, in the rain, we took the Eucharist on the eve of Christ's birth, at least the official eve. It was a rich and wonderful experience. And, after three hours, we were quite done!

I bought a foot tall Christmas tree earlier that day, which lit our room so nicely. We listened to Christmas music, had a nice dinner, and went to bed, so we could get up and call our families on their Christmas Eve.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Have you ever worn an Ao Dai*?

*Ao Dai is the traditional Vietnamese costume

Halong Bay: A disappointment

Because Trina was sick, we had to cancel our trip to Halong Bay. We had opted for the two night, three day jaunt around the enormous bay. It is full of limestone formations, beautiful waters, caves and other natural beauty.

We were to spend a night on a boat and on Cat-Ba island.

We were told, yeah, it's fine, you can have your money back. Great, we said. We scheduled the one night two day one. Then we had to cancel it, because I got sick.

Funny thing, this company was highly recommended. If you look online at Halong Bay tours, this is where the Hanoi scams are epitomized. People get ripped off pretty frequently, and there is no way to know what quality you are going to get, as the agents are all brokers who don't have their own boats (but it's very difficult to get to the actual owners) and so the quality of the ride and crew change daily.

But this company (ODC) seemed to have the best reputation. After it hadn't worked out, and we were researching alternatives, we discovered that in 2006, and ODC boat sunk. Many of the people were hospitalized. And this was the most satisfied group of customers...sheesh. We are actually kind of glad it didn't work out. We learned that it is pretty, but it is a tourist choked attraction...

To give you a sense of what it looks like, here's a picture I found on the internet

I wonder how far we will have to go to find the pristine and untouched combination...

(Wait, wait, Norway, I remember it!).

Destination: Cappadocia

Located in Central Turkey, Cappadocia is completely otherworldly. Natural earth formations made from soft rock and lots of wind created this moonscape. One of the most unique and my favorite places I've ever been.

Take a look here. For photos of the nearby town we stayed in, Goreme, click here.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Flashback: Sick in Vietnam

My poor wife. Two years ago she puked her brains out on Christmas Eve.

This year, in our favorite town, she did it again, although a few days before Christmas. She woke up early in the morning, doubled over in pain, and had to spend a lot of time caughing up indescribable substances produced by the gall bladder. She said it felt like her throat was reaching down into her bowels in search of something to produce.

I caught the same illness, but didn't end up vomint. Just laying in bed, groaning, in abject pain. It wasn't fun. We got some DVD's, mostly Smallville (I know, it's ridiculous) and West Wing. We watched about fifty nearly hour-long episodes.

We ended up moving hotels for our last few days, which wasn't so bad, as the second was closer to a dependable restaurant, no where near worms or snakes (which was nice to not see when you are sick). Our sicknesses both morphed into nasty head colds (much better than a stomach bug, though!), and we paralleled each other from there on in our healing.

It has actually been pretty nice being sick and doing nothing (well, not nothing, but way less than we would have) for a couple weeks. It helped us hunker down for Christmas. We've really had a break because of it, and I'm pretty grateful for that.

Destination: Cesky Krumlov

This small town in the Czech Republic has been compared to other preserved medieval places like Rothenburg in Germany. It is full of cozy guesthouses, affordable "bohemian" food and downright charming buildings.

Take a look at the full set here.

Destinations - A New Feature

Here in Bangkok, I found an internet cafe with rocket-fast internet and have been uploading photos like crazy. As you might recall from many, many months ago we started a flickr site and posted all trip photos. Now, we're back!

So, every day or two I will post a photo and a link to an album of a place we have visited. Hopefully we'll add a few places to your places to see before I die list!

Thai Islands

Tomorrow we fly to Krabi and the next day we take a boat to a small island called Ko Kradan. We have no idea what internet access will be like, so we may be silent for a week or two.

You can be sure that when we're back online we'll have some amazing pictures!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Flashback: Hoi An Tailors

Hoi An tailors are internationally renown for their talents, and their willingness to work for cheap prices. There are over 400 tailors (I don't know if that is people, or shops) in this rather small town. It is amazing. As you walk through old town, if there are eight fronts, six are tailors, one is a cobbler, and one is a restaurant. They are everywhere.

Also, although the Vietnamese are very hard working, and these tailors are no exception (long, unremitting hours), these aren't sweatshops. These are family businesses, taking place in houses, and they are a joint effort between brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. They take a lot of pride in their work, and I suspect they command a wage far above their peers (although I'm sure the world economic situation will hit here hard).

That said, you can get a lot for your money here. You can get a fabric blend (5-15% polyester, the rest cotton (cashmere, I'm told) and wool suit for about 50-55 bucks. That is tailor made for you! I figure that would cost about 250-300 dollars here. If you want a nicer fabric, and more of a quality guarantee (better fabric backing, lining, tailors with a well-documented history online) you pay a bit more (well, three or four times, actually). Fortunately, the travel community documents their experiences online (it's scary picking someone when you are going to drop this kind of cash). But, these suits are probably worth more like 800 bucks or more, if you tried to buy them in the US.

We went crazy. For those of you who know us, we aren't shoppers. We hate shopping. Actually, I hate shopping, Trina LOATHES it. I can hardly get her to go to the grocery store. And she hates spending money (man, I'm a lucky guy!).

But this was more like an art project (I hate those too!). Pick a color, a style, the nuances, and have them build it for you and test it, and adjust it, test again, adjust. This works especially well for my short wife who can never find pants that fit correctly.

That said, our previous professional paths wore our dressy clothes to the nubbins. Trina needs pants, and other items, and since I'm going in to law, I need an array of suits (and you start interviewing and internships less than a year in to school). My suits (gifted to me by my father in law for the most part) are starting to actually get holes in them.

So, we spent a lot. I don't know if I should say, as certain shocking things should not be repeated in public. Whatever the case, I will tell you what we got.

I got seven suits. Six with nonblend, extremely high quality fabric and one without (black, black pin stripe, dark olive, dark brown, tannish, navy and gray for the cheapie). I also got pinstripe pants and two pairs of khakis.

Trina bought seven pairts of pants in everything from khaki to gray, black, striped, brown, etc. in about four styles. Probably five of them will be good forever, two are very trendy.

She got two coats, and she looks adorable in her cozy wool coat. I got one as an overcoat for my suits.

We each got a traditional Vietnamese costume (for future speaking engagements, when we promote our book, of course).

I got three pair of shoes. Trina got four.

Trina bought three dresses. One cute, one sexy, one "evening gown"

We each had five dress shirts made, of a more marginal quality fabric (I have to say this--these tailored shirts were 12 bucks each!).

We had some bartering success, since we spent so much. But today that was eviscerated by the postage. We mailed our stuff home today for a measly four hundred dollars. I think that was about our monthly budget for Vietnam.

Those suits better stay looking perfect for a long time. And I better not gain or lose (yeah, right) a lot of weight either! I hope I never have to shop or spend money again.

Also, we put together an album (yes, I know we are way behind on this) Flickr...if you'd like to check it out. The lighting is bad, and everything is very wrinkled, as it had already been packaged up, but still, if you want to see it, here you go...

For all 137 photos...visit our flickr page.

Flashback: Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Loa) and Government Propaganda

Now this was a strange experience.

We visited the prison where John McCain was held as a prisoner during the Vietnam war. Another of many sobering experiences.

But most interesting was the way that bias and information control works.

First, the prison was built by the French. It was used by the imperial government to imprison, torture, and execute political dissidents. There was a vivid history presented, and it was indeed horrifying. This continued to be true until the early fifties, I believe.

But there was irony as well. This prison was used to house POW's in the American War. Now, I'm not going to get into who was right and wrong, as that war is a hot button issue and (although I love hot button issues) now isn't the time. I will say that most people can acknowledge that it wasn't a clear good guys versus the bad guys scenario. It ruined a lot of people in America, and a lot more people in Vietnam, and it is safe to say it was an ugly time.

Given that, I appreciate hearing the other side of the story. We certainly were exposed to that at the War Museum, and at the Reunification Palace. But here we were exposed to blatantly false propaganda.

The prison was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by the POW's, and this was done ironically. This is touted in the brochure as evidence that the prison was humane. We were told that it was free of torture, and was an example of humane treatment of prisoners. Fascinating, given that McCain tried to kill himself twice and cannot lift his hands over his shoulders because of the torture he underwent.

It gets you thinking. How much is hidden by governments... How this is even more obvious when the governments control information and the press, as in a Communist country. But how we do it too, especially when it comes to national security--we truly tend to think the ends justify the means. But we all end up acting barbarically and covering it up with near hilarity in the end.

It's like the Japanese refusal to apologize for war crimes against the Chinese to save face, or the denials that Abu Gharaib has anything to do with political leaders, etc. Humans are humans the world wide, and they are capable of great good. But they are capable of great ugliness too, and then they act like children who got caught stealing.

It makes you think.

Shackles used to hold prisoners in a mass cell.
Uniform worn by John McCain when he was captured by the North Vietnamese.
Photo of North Vietnamese capturing/rescuing John McCain from the water after his plane was shot down.

Friday, January 09, 2009

How to Help

I have so many thoughts and such inadequate words related to the poverty we have witnessed in the past month and a half. I’ve spent quite a bit of time avoiding writing a blog about it because the topic is so unanswerable and uncomfortable.

There is much written about what kind of generosity is systemically helpful versus crippling (for example, giving anything other than opened food to children begging encourages a “pimp” system of abuse; opened food – ie, a peeled banana – cannot be resold, and is often “allowed” to be eaten by the hungry child). And, of course there are innumerable “scams” (the woman with the “broken leg” who stands up, checks her cell phone messages and walks home at the end of the day). But, that doesn’t make it easy or right to walk by person after needy person. I feel painfully aware of the complexities of aid work.

One thing we have discovered in three separate locations bears mention. Rather than simply offering money or assistance, several organizations run businesses that train, support and launch needy kids to self-sustaining futures.

We first encountered an organization called Sozo in Saigon. They run a Western-style bakery that employs deaf Vietnamese and uses all the proceeds to provide education to street kids.

In Hanoi we found KOTO (Know One Teach One). It is a fascinating organization that takes in street kids, provides housing, mentoring, education and job training. They run several high-end Western restaurants that cater to tourists and use the sites as basically “internships” for them before they graduate. When they have completed the program they are very well equipped to support themselves with job skills in the highly coveted hospitality industry.

Although we didn’t get a chance to visit it, we discovered Friends in Phnom Penh that has a similar model of providing work training through a restaurant and proceeds used to help needy kids.

We were both impressed and excited by these organizations that are combining creativity, generosity and practicality so well.

Photos from KOTO...

Trinidiom #16

"You almost sentenced me to a fateful death!"

The Mother (er, Father, of all dreams).

I don't know if I'm going to do this justice, but I'm going to try.

We've discussed Trina's vivid dreams on this blog. They come from her Father. Not like int the Obama Dreams of My Father sense, but as a genetic inheritance. Trina's dreams, as you have learned, are bizarre, abstract, detailed, and hilarious. But they pale in comparison to her father, who has walked his dreaming road a lot longer.

He told us this story when we spoke on skype the other day.

I was sitting at this round table full of knights, like King Arthur's round table. There were all these other knights, fully armored, even over their faces, with drumsticks in each hand. These drumsticks weren't the culinary type--think snare drum. Each guy had a stick in each hand, with the base facing straight down at the table. Soon everybody started banging their drumsticks on the table (not drumming, but hitting the table with the bottoms of the sticks, with their hands around the middle, like they were banging silverware on the table), louder and faster. I got up to go the bathroom and walked out the door.

As I stepped out the door, I was wearing one of those old deep sea diving suits, with the spacesuit helmets, standing next to a little treasure chest with small bubbles coming out of it. I was in a fish tank. The castle was behind me. Soon this little net came down and I was picked up by the head/helmet and pulled out of the water and set in a '63 Cadillac convertible (in the passenger seat) driving down the Arizona freeway going 70 miles per hour. I still had my helmet on, and bugs kept pinging my mask.

I asked the driver to pull over so I could take my helmet off. I did, and it made a very loud airy whooshing sound when I took it off. The noise woke up hundreds and hundreds of prairie dogs, whose little heads popped up from the ground all around us. They had little spoons, like those little collector spoon, in their hands.

They each came up to me and put the spoons in my head (which was soft like velveeta). It didn't hurt. They kept putting more and more spoons in my head. The windshield started to go up, and push on my neck. It got higher and higher until it actually cut my head off.

My head started spinning and flying up into the air into the clouds. There were these wispy clouds everywhere, and I kept going higher and higher, more wispy clouds. The spoons in my head were hitting (plucking was the word used) the clouds, and each producing a musical sound, faster and faster until it was some sort of music box sounding song.

And then my head floated up to the moon.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Haven't seen one of these in use before...

Flashback: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum & Presidential Palace, Hanoi

You have probably heard of Ho Chi Minh. He is kind of the Vietnamese Abraham Lincoln. He protected his people from Japanese invasion, successfully “repelled” the US imperialists and unified his split country.

We visited the Presidential palace complex that includes a large palace, a compound of several small buildings around a lake, a museum, some pagodas and the HCM Mausoleum.

One pillar pagoda. Isn't it cool?
Lake at the center of the compound.
House where HCM lived and worked.
Presidential Palace.

I found it interesting that he specifically requested that his body be cremated, but it was instead embalmed and placed in an enormous mausoleum that allows visitors to view his corpse.

Flashback: My Generous In-laws

When I was accepted to Harvard while staying in Malaysia, my dear in laws arranged to have champagne sent to us.

Well, they tried at least. I think they spent like an hour on the phone, trying to work it out. First, Malaysia is a Muslim Country, and so alcohol, though it is sold, isn't exactly easy to find. And then there is the language barrier. Our front desk transferred them to the concierge (our only concierge on this trip yet, I think), and he transferred them to the restaurant, who transferred them to the front desk.

Nobody would tell him our room number, but they refused to do anything for us without the room number. So he was stuck. He said he didn't care what the room number was, he'd just give them our names, and they could give the gift to us. He'd be sure to pay all they needed to arrange this.

Ron finally thought they had it clear, but then they repeated his instructions back to them. "Okay sir, we go into Ron Davis room and take a bottle of wine from them" (his champange ambition had long been given up).

Never mind, he said, having racked up what was likely an epic phone bill.

Ah well, it's the thought that counts. What great inlaws I have. Really, what a great life I have. A wonderful wife. I trip around the world. Great law schools accepting me, and I have good inlaws. Somebody pinch me!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Killing Fields

A quick review of the recent horrors of Cambodian history. In 1975 a leader named Pol Pot came to power as head of the Khmer Rouge (Khmer is the ethnicity of Cambodians, Rouge is French for Red…as in communist). He implemented the most dramatic form of communism in recent history. He immediately abolished money, declared it Year Zero, forced everyone out of the cities and onto the farms. He decreed that they would produce twice as much rice as the previous year. He considered anyone who lived in the cities to be “new people” who were to be suspected (for not being loyal to the agrarian goals of the society) and people living as farmers to be “base people” and were superior. (Consider that many, many people had fled to the cities from the countryside because of the recent civil war.) In the following years, Cambodia exported mass amounts of rice to China while the citizens were starving. Adults and children were forced to labor for the “goals of the collective.” Intellectuals, anyone who spoke a foreign language or had a specific skill (for example, a doctor) were among the first to be executed. Children and illiterate women were “trained” in medicine for a few months and then designated the medical providers for the area. Families were disbanded and sent to work in disparate “cooperatives” across the country. Ultimate loyalty needed to be to the government and the government-created cooperative, not family.

Please be aware that the following several paragraphs contain graphic descriptions and images.

The Pol Pot regime set up several prisons, the most famous (and deadly) one being S-21 in Phnom Penh. It was formerly Tuol Sleng High School, but used for four years as an instrument of torture and death.

The nearby Choeng Ek “Killing Fields” were used to dispose of the bodies of people killed at S-21. Many others were transported by truck to the fields where their hands were tied behind their back; they kneeled at the edge of a mass grave and then were executed by axe, hoe head, bamboo rod, neck slit by sharp palm leaves, or hung from a tree. The moans of the dying people who were hung from the “Magic Tree” were broadcast across the fields to discourage others from making noise during their imminent death. Babies were killed by beating their heads against a tree. Some were not killed by the above methods, but simply thrown into the mass grave and covered in a chemical called DDT that would help them die soon after being buried alive.

Today, S-21 houses the Genocide Museum. It contains hundreds of photos and descriptions from those who survived, those who were kidnapped as children and indoctrinated to carrying out the plans of the Khmer Rouge. The history of the regime’s rise and fall is well documented. In 1979, the Vietnamese (whom the Khmer Rouge had been invading) invaded Cambodia and on January 7, 1979 took Phnom Penh. At this point, the Khmer Rouge was technically ousted. However, they did not leave the country. They continued living in the hills and organizing acts of terror through the late nineties. Up until 1993, the Khmer Rouge represented Cambodia at the United Nations because the government set up after the invasion of Vietnam was considered a “puppet government” of an external nation. The UN has now organized trials to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders for war crimes. At this time, the trials are underway, but not nearly complete. In an infuriating turn of events, Pol Pot died a free man in 1998.

The Killing Fields house a tall building with the skulls of 8500 victims. The place today is strangely peaceful. 86 of the 126 mass graves at the site have been opened. It is estimated that 20,000 people are buried at the Choeng Ek fields. There are killing fields and mass grave sites throughout Cambodia in various states. They are still identifying new sites.

Walking around the Killing Fields thigh bones, teeth and shards of clothing are all visible in the dirt. The whole site is smaller than I would have imagined. But, the graves were often 6 meters (18 feet) deep, so the footprint didn’t need to be large.

Somewhere between 1.7 and 3 million people died, out of a population of 8 million. Conservatively, 1/4th of the population was systematically killed between 1975-1979.

Headshots of victims of Tuol Sleng.

Some of the "results" of excavating the killing fields.

Torture and death at Tuol Sleng.

Tower containing 8500 skulls.

The fields are littered with bone remains.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge government (January 7, 1979). Unfortunately, the suffering is far from over.

Phnom Penh is Beautiful!

Wasn’t expecting that. When you say “Cambodia” most people immediately think Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and Killing Fields. This recent painful chapter was certainly horrific and is barely over, but in the course of the history of the Khmer empire, it was so small. If I was Cambodian, I would feel it important to remember and honor the recent horrors, but I would also feel that something was continuing to be stolen by the perpetrators if they also stole my country’s identity. Please know that Cambodia is far richer and deeper than the recent huge scar.

Phnom Penh has been called the pearl of Southeast Asia and I certainly know why. The city is full of fantastic architecture – you can see both Chinese and French influences, the air is fairly clear (compared to Hanoi or Saigon) and the whole thing feels quite developed.

What really sealed it for me was the Royal Palace. See post on it coming soon.