See Matt. See Matt blog. Blog, Matt, blog.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sobriety is a state of Original Sin

So said one of the three Irishmen I enjoyed a few pints with recently at the Smuggler’s Inn. Liam, “that Irish guy” in Zhanjiang, has met up with two of “his mates” from home, (specifically, two friends from his time with the Dominicans), and as I made the slow walk through Stanley back to the Maryknoll house late last night, I was called into the pub for a drink, which soon turned into five. All together it was a very Irish, very Catholic evening, it was funny as hell to hear these Irish guys rip on one another, and it was a good chance to have a good drink and a good chat with Liam and “his mates.”

Other day I made a helluva hike up the Wilson Trail, a well-trod path that snakes over the towering mountain-hill that silently mocks you every time you exit Maryknoll’s front door. I knew I would have to climb that damn hill one day, and after lunch last Saturday, the time had finally come. Peter, a fellow Maryknoll teacher and hiking/biking enthusiast, as well as Ted, one of Liam’s aforementioned “mates,” decided to join me. We at first intended to only climb to the “lookout point,” about three quarters up the mountain-hill, but decided en route to make the full climb (386m) to the top, followed by the slow winding descent to Repulse Bay on the other side. A great climb complimented with a soothing finish through the sandy bay.

My time in Hong Kong has dissolved like so much Kool-Aid in a gallon of water; only that sugary powder is time incarnate and that water is, like, Hong Kong, man. Take a minute, breath in the musk of that well-formed metaphor; savor it, taste the nuance; all right, we’re done.

Two weeks traveling in Cambodia and Vietnam stretch behind me in a gooey, memorable bubble of time, a two-week period where I saw enough to fill two months, and it almost feels like it was two weeks of another life, border-hopping and sightseeing and living out of a backpack. Now I’m back in China (well, still in Hong Kong, the Un-China, China Lite; I return to the mainland, the Real China, the “Original Recipe with Eleven Different Herbs and Spices and National Minorities” China), back to a routine, back to a lifestyle where I can plan very much ahead and know the bus schedules and anticipate what my trip into the center of Hong Kong will entail, and all that other pre-planned accident-proof modern-convenienced crap we put up with that takes the fun out of life.

Something feels lost. The spontaneity and carelessness of life on the road that I was really beginning to enjoy has been replaced with normalcy and familiarity. You can’t stay on the road forever, and traveling for too long would probably leave me feeling unhinged, but there’s still so much to see and do, so why come back and settle into that routine again?

Ah, but it’s a new semester, and it will be more fun than returning to any other job I could think of. And even as the wanderlust burns, I know I’ve been doing nothing here in Hong Kong, and I’ve been complacent and even happy of a week to just relax in Maryknoll with nothing to do but watch movies and maybe take a trip into SoHo or Lan Kwai Fong.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


I have no idea who these Flargin characters are, but they've got a fantastic little video that I'd like to share with you all. It's called "Koinoniphobia," and for some reason these people look familiar ...

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Little Taste

I won't be able to put up all my pictures from Cambodia or Vietnam until I return to campus, but for now, here's a short video from the highlight of my travels, the Bayon temple of Angkor Thom in Cambodia.


He walks toward the table, the sheen of aluminum and plastic in the beaming sunlight blinding him. He doesn't so much sit as he falls into the chair, in such a way that the word exhaustion feels like an understatement. He orders a cup of coffee, emphasizing the black; the Cambodians put a thick syrupy white goo in the bottom of the cup that they call cream; he knows this, and he orders with delicate English to the slow-nodding waitress.

The coffee arrives, the disinterested waitress placing the cup unceremoniously on the table, just enough force to cause a few brown drops to dribble over the edge and collect in the saucer. A small spoon, a petit cup, warm brown foam swirling lazily, he begins to stir. That foam, so impermanent, so temporary, like the foamy water crashing around the helm of the boats down the Mekong. Big smiles on poor people, living and working on boats their whole lives, tourists taking snapshots like they’re attractions in a zoo. The sun shone on the river that day, blinding and warm, and an old woman tossed melons overboard to a waiting boat laden with golden flowers.

He lifts the glass high, eyes closed, inhaling deeply, a faint smile blossoming on his lips. That fresh smell of Asian coffee, slow-drip semi-sweet robusta, like the brown mud-sloppy fields outside of Can Tho, the green smell of dirt and growing in the Cambodian countryside, in the rice fields, even … the Killing Fields. Madness, insanity, words that you know the meaning of, words that were spawned to describe indescribable places like S-21 and Pol Pot and the revolution; words that can explain them only emptily, hollow phrases that provide no understanding or resolution, so much death, they killed everyone, how can they do that to, purges and torture, they even executed infants …

He shudders imperceptibly, the thoughts falling away like so many other incomprehensible ideas, how much was this coffee, one dollar so that’s four thousand riel? Aiya, that was her name, the high school girl with the excellent English, selling postcards and Lonely Planet bootlegs outside Angkor Thom. Her tuition is sixty thousand riel a month, what is that, fifteen dollars? He asked her why she wasn’t in school, she can’t afford it, she has to work, fifteen dollars a month on something as frivolous as education, even if she is gifted. Children too young to know what they’re saying, aping the others, “ok you buy from me” they say barefoot in dirty rags, and your heart gets crushed at just how impossible life is for them, and that extra dollar you pay for those postcards doesn’t matter, because it’s a cup of coffee to you and a future for them.

He opens his eyes, looking into the mirrored surface of the coffee. The world is better now, at least. Tell that to the high school girls in Iraq, the women selling melons there. No justice, but no war, not here at least, no more killing; what healing may come, it’s beginning, both in Vietnam and in Cambodia; half a lifetime ago they were bloody battlefields, and now you can travel, as a tourist and a witness, to see their history, the heart-stopping awe of Angkor Wat, the soul-crushing sadness of landmine victims and Viet Cong Punji sticks, the peaceful life of families and children along the Mekong and people that still smile.

He raises the glass again, bowing his head to an unspoken toast, and drinks.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Notes to Self

Plan your trips around Asia better, so you don't end up leaving Cambodia only to have to buy a new visa to come back for your return flight.

Further note to self: Vietnam is one of the best places you have ever traveled; return as soon as possible.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Mekong Sunset

I'm in Vietnam, in Can Tho, and I'm wearing a shirt that I got in Phnom Penh that reads "Heart of Darkness." It's the name of a popular bar in PP, but something about wearing this shirt in Vietnam makes me feel all Apocalypse Now-y.

I wish I knew how much I would love Vietnam before I made my plans for this trip. I would have spent a lot more time here, with a quick trip to Cambodia, and not the other way around. Yeah, Phnom Penh is an interesting little city, and the temples of Angkor are a wonder to behold; but with a little planning, I could have started in Northern Cambodia (Siem Reap, where the Angkor Temples are), made my way south for a little stop in Phnom Penh, and then made a slow and relaxing tour of the Mekong Delta in 'Nam and cruised into Saigon with time to spare. Now I'm enjoying the hell out of Vietnam, loving all the delicious noodle soups and cheap beer and New Years celebrations; the only problem is, now I'll be getting into Saigon late tomorrow evening, and if I can't find a cheap flight from Saigon to Bangkok, I will be forced to take the slow, grueling, and expensive bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh, so I can make my flight to Bangkok from there. This will undoubedtly involve more money for a new Cambodian visa, as well as twenty bucks for the “exit fee” at the PP airport. So a flight from Saigon really is an option; I just hope that I can find a travel agent with good connections and a little pity when I get to Saigon. There are worse fates, sure, but catching a cheap flight and enjoying one more day in Vietnam (and one less day on a damn bus) is always welcome.

I was wandering around Can Tho this afternoon, with four striking young Swedish ladies, and we were ducking in and out of the markets, big open-air butchers and fruit stalls and everything in between, the fish struggling in their tiny prisons and splashing water all over, the smell of fish and pigs and cows being cut and served to order giving the whole place the rotten smell of sweaty gym locker rooms, the street so clogged with walking, moto riding, and New Years costuming that you could barely move. The drum began to beat, slowly and faintly, as a small band of young men, dressed all in red, moved into view, the drum being wheeled on a cart chained to a bike. Out of the crowd burst a giant smiling Buddha, behind him a tall red dragon of a man, costumed boys that floated and danced into each store, the drum beating a steady rhythm, dancing and moving and then they move on, back into the crowd, into the next store; I watched the whole thing as I peeled mandarins, sharing them with the shyly greedy hands of kids on the street. The dance passed us like a wave, we saw it coming slowly, rode the crest of activity and excitement and wonder for a moment, and it passed, crashing into the madness of the market behind.

The Swedes went back to the hotel to get out of the sun, and I walked further along the market streets, to the riverside, where I randomly met Bonnie, a nice Virginian who needed a companion for a sunset boat ride on the Mekong. Why not? I made my way clumsily onto the tiny barrel of a boat - I love water, I love swimming, but when I'm in my clothes and with my camera daring me to get wet, I become a very stupid boarder of boats - sat down next to Bonnie for optimal balance, and we were off. We stopped by a crocodile enclosure to have a look, and then got back on the boat, a slow and gentle cruise through some canals, under a bridge just beginning to be built, and we turned the corner of a large island and there it was, all burning crimson and orange and settling behind the peaceful blue of the sky, and we talked politics and war and America as we shared an orange and watched a slow sunset over the peaceful Mekong.

Today was a great day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

It Really Is True

What can I say about that last post?

Moving along.

It's interesting just what is "true" about Cambodia from my extensive research* before my trip. True: Cambodians will not accept tarnished currency. I tried to pay my moto driver at Angkor Wat, Mii (he told me his name was Mii and I decided to spell it with two "i"s because I can) with a generously-used fiver, and he wouldn't accept it. Considering that some of the yuan I've recevied (as both change and as real money from those new-fangled ATMs) was without a doubt an emeregency sanitary napkin at some point, I can't imagine why you'd object to a peach-fuzz Old Abe. Also true: the little kids do indeed run around and try the "sooshine one doll-luh," as well as trying to sell you flowers and books. Hell, a woman approached me the other day with a cage full of birds and wanted me to pay to let them free! Now that's diabloic. She got my dollar. Other Cambotruths® include constant offers for pot and hookers from moto drivers, as well as offers to go shoot cows with surplus AK-47s left over from the 70s.

Maybe I just look like a hooker-happy, pot-smokin' gun-shootin Yankee-boy Americunh, but I get these offers fairly often.

Also true: every moto and tuk-tuk driver will ask you at least once if you need their services. You could be walking into your hotel, into a shop, hell, you could be riding on another moto, they'll always ask, just in case.

Well, my intentions for a big long myth-busting installment petered out fairly quickly, no? I think I should go get ready ... I ship out to 'Nam in the morning.


Drunk on a Couch in Phnom Penh

... in a duplex near the reservoir. I'm back in Phnom Penh, and I've been searching through various honkeytonks for the right place that's the right place to be: a good happy hour and a dark corner. Alas and alack. Tomorrow I'll be taking a bus-and-boat combo to Vietnam. That's right, I'm off to the land of slow-drip coffee, off to the land whose blood runneth orange. Just wanted to give a shoutout to all the other asshole foreingers here: I hope you all die in a fire.

PS: I'm drunk.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Done with Siem Reap

I finished my three days at Angkor, and while there is certainly more to see (isn't there always?), I'm leaving Siem Reap tomorrow morning and making my way back to Phnom Pehn. Then I'm hopefully going to get an express visa to Vietnam and spend a little time in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon, before its back to Phnom Penh and a quick flight to Hong Kong. If getting to some of the more remote sites of ancient Angkor wasn't such a pain, I could easily spend a week more here. But the fact is, it's a good $60US a day to hire a car to take me the hundred odd kilometers to and from the sites I'd want to see, in addition to admissions and food and accommodations and assorted other costs. That’s just too much for me, and Vietnam should be much cheaper.

And I gotta say, I've had my fill of Siem Reap for quite some time. Maybe it's because I've been traveling alone, but this place seems to just be a cold shell of a town, with nothing to do beyond emptying your wallet. Everything's expensive, everyone is trying to soak you for money, and the impression I'm left with is a loosely-contained theme park, where everything is overpriced and you're at the mercy of those behind the counter. I've been to some incredibly poor parts of the world, some rural areas of China, Morocco, and Jamaica, but Cambodia seems to sink its fangs deep.

I was tired of spending money, so this afternoon I walked along the river that flows through the center of Siem Reap, the river that feeds into the legendary Tonle Sap Lake. I was just sitting in the shade, watching the traffic go by, the methodical compressed-air whiz of nail guns firing on a building under construction across the river, tuk-tuks and motos scurrying to their destinations, slow and concentrated chisels and saws working in the myriad furniture shops along the road, all the while the stinking muddy waters of the river lazily floating past.

A nice little scene. But within ten minutes, a group of four schoolgirls, no more than ten years old, spotted me, opened up their backpacks, and pulled out those staples of Cambodian commerce: postcards, bracelets, books on the bloody revolution and Lonely Planet knock-offs. The same wares being hawked all over the country, the same shit you have to avoid around every fucking corner within Angkor; these girls went to school prepared. I talked to them for a bit, which is always a good way to defuse the onslaught (they can count from one to ten in many different languages ... it's the postcards, they count them out for you all the time), but before long, they slid out of the conversation, and it was just more pressing to buy their stuff. I was getting ready to go when a young guy, maybe twenty five, approached and started to chat. He told me he worked for a non-governmental organization (an NGO, which are quite prevalent here). We began a pleasant little conversation, but eventually he slipped into his sales pitch, took out a big fat notebook full of email addresses and monetary pledges from others. He gave me a photocopy of his NGO pamphlet, and when he asked for my email, he pressed me to make a donation "for his students," where he pulls out a big dirty plastic bag filled with wallet-sized photos of kids. And he just keeps pressing you to write down a sum, five dollars, ten dollars, on that sheet of paper, because once you write it down, you’ve signed the contract and you gotta hand him the money. He just wouldn't leave me alone: "Come on, my friend, five dollars, for milk for de chill-dren!" I had to lie, I had to walk away, there's just no way to be left alone here. Every foreigner is a target, it doesn't matter if you're a rich German businessman with a family or a solo English teacher "making the big bucks" in China.

But what do you expect? You’re a traveler, you have the money and time to take a holiday to a foreign country and spend a week playing Indiana Jones, spelunking through these old temples. When I was in Jamaica, there was a similar atmosphere, of poverty so crushing that people had to be confrontational and aggressive just to eat. It annoyed some of the people I was with, and I in turn was annoyed at them, at how simple-minded they were being: this is how people make their living here. They don’t have a nine-to-five, they don’t have holidays or vacations, and every day is a struggle.

This remains true. And yet it’s oppressive here, I hate it, and I am glad to be returning to Phnom Penh.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Elephant Smiles

Cambodia is great, if a little tiring, beguiling (that's right), and trying. I woke up early this morning to be at Angkor Wat (the temple to see in Cambodia, it's like the Machu Picchu of Angkor), and I was there in the pitch black at 5:30 am to nab a good spot in front of the reflecting pool. I wish I had some pics to share, but alas. Just as well, because the sunrise was one of those hour-long spectaculars that no single picture can ever do justice.

My experiences here in Cambodia are a lot like that: seeing a picture is one thing, but being here, seeing that sun rise, crawling and clawing your way to the top of one of these ruined and abandoned temples, and standing under the elephantine trunks of the spong trees that have deformed and destroyed said temples over the centuries ... they're all experiences and images that you really have to witness yourself. Seeing pictures just won't do.

I know a lot of things are like that, especially when it comes to traveling. You can see however many pictures of the Sistine Chapel as you want, but actually seeing it for real, in person, truly is breathtaking. But to be honest, I was getting a little worried that some of my more recent travel destinations were like living in postcards. All the energy and excitement of the place and culture seemed to be exaclty what I was expecting; in short, I was bored, because I was living some cliche, some bullshit Margaritaville version of that country and culture. I don't know why that is, or what's changed, but it's certainly nice to be awed again.

Cambodia is poor, and travling to so many minor temples today has really shown just how poor. Every new temple (they're maybe half a mile apart) has entire families worth of women and children shoving postcards, t-shirts, and drinks in your face. "Hello mister you want cool drink? You want postcard, OK you buy ten for one dolluh, good price for you Ok you buy OK." It's depressing as all held to literally wade your way through these mobs all goddamn day. Even when I do a job I hate, nothing makes it worse than when people treat you like you're not even there, so I can't help but respond with polite "no thanks" all the time, and that little bit of interest sinks their teeth in and they walk with you for a half a mile. They're kids, so it's easy to chat with them and ask them questions that deflect the sales pitch long enough to make them laugh, but it's still terrible. Then there are kids and students that hide within the temples and assualt you with salvos of greetings upon entering, and before you know it, a simple hello has turned into a guide of the temple, with payment due at the end.

In short, to see what you came to see, you have to be an asshole just to be left alone. And that's not right. And it's certainly more not right (shall we say less right) that these kids have to do this for a living. They actually tier the schoolday so that some kids go to school in the morning and work in the afternoons, while others work in the morning and go to school in the afternoons. With that kind of concern coming from the government, I don't think Cambodia will be getting tough on child labor any time soon.

What else? You can ride elephants here. I think that if you ever get to a point in your life where simply seeing an elephant doesn't make you smile, you should go lay down, because man, you're already dead.

Avoid slow-drip Vietnamese coffee. It's like Coffee Lite, plus kitty litter extract.

Tomorrow is my last day at Angkor, and I am still trying to arrange a motorcycle trip to Northern Cambodia, to see some wild stuff up there. Everything's going great, and this place is a lot moure tourist-safe (I'd almost say too tourist-safe) than my Lonely Planet guide had me believe.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Where our hero repels Cambodian women with the help of the X-Men

Traveling alone is, to be brief, very weird. You get to see a handful of strange things as you're just silently overlooking a riverside balcony: the little kids that hound you at every turn with a basketful of books strapped to their sides begin to act like kids, playing hide and seek behind tuk-tuks and motos and darting in and out and dangerously callous traffic; you see the harrassing call of moto drivers and their incessant hounding of any Westerner that leaves a cafe of restauruant; you can look in on a neighboring cafe-cum-brothel and watch the pale shaved heads of foreign men being leaned upon by petite and uncomprehending Cambodian women. And I'm just sipping my coffe and looking out at all the weird shit happening below.

Speaking of thinly-veiled brothels, the pub advertised as Martini sounds great on paper: a beer garden-type place, with a bar, an open-air seating section that shows movies on a big screen, and cheap little bites (from nachos to pizza to fried noodles) to grab at any time.

What that lying son of a bitch paper won't tell you is that Martini is little more than one of those "special" massage parlors, only here, it pretends to be a bar (albeit with a unqiue movie-showing gimmick). To be fair, the piece of paper in question was my Lonely Planet guide, and while it did indeed state clearly that there were working girls at this beer garden, it was (even by my liberal if nascent prostituion-measuring standards) pretty ridiculous.

Walking in, I was patted down by security, but despite a rather thick brick of a book being in my pocket, and my pocket knife dangling from the patented Matt Smith™ belt-buckling carbiner, I had no problems at the door. As soon as you walk in, though, you see it: it's like some kind of late-night picnic, but not in the fun, haha, flashlight tag and potato salad kind of way: it's like a late-night picnic, but with hookers. Lots of 'em.

So you walk, slowly and distractedly, toward the bar, taking in the scene: one ABC Stout, my good man, you may say to the bartender, and, beer in hand, you turn to look for a seat amid the massage madness, but all you see are foreign men getting neck rubs from one woman, their arm draped around another and even (for the truly brave) a third girl bouncing on their knee.

I sat alone, drinking my beer and watching the end of some insane Hong Kong action movie. I wanted to see what was up next, and it was X2, and trouble.

Like mosquitos converging on a sweaty fat man rolling in bacon, it was only a matter of time before I had a few girls grabbing my arm, asking "you wan baa rub?", and the inevitable exclamations on my size. They had just put on X2, and dammit, I wanted to watch it. And watch it I did, despite Rénee and her cohorts. Rénee appeared out of nowhere and seemed to take a real shine to me, despite our having just met, because she immediately sat down next to me and invovled my arm in some kind of Cambodian death grip. This alone wasn't so much a problem, but it was the hand I was using to drink, so on top of being awkward and illegal, it was also rude.

"Excuse me, Rénee," I said, rolling that r inanely and shifting my beer to my right hand, "I ... um, I have a girlfriend. No, no want back rub." A little squirming and pulling, "please ... LET GO ... of my arm ... thank you." Right about now, Magneto was escaping from prison, and it's a cool part of the movie, so naturally, I was watching it. "Hey, you like TV more than me, why? Ahh, nevermind! I so hungry, hungry for rice," Rénee pouted. Each complaint followed a tugging on my arm, which meant less attention on Magento. This was a bad thing. "I'm sure there are a ton of guys here who would just love to buy you some rice, Rénee." Roll that r! She got the message, I got another beer, and stayed to finish X2.

I saw four Chinese girls walk in, smoking cigarettes and talkiing on expensive mobile phones: patrons, I guessed rightly, some Taiwanese girls that "knew the boss," one of the waiters (an English student in the afternoon who works a day and night job to get by) told me. In the distance, I heard them speaking Mandarin; I worked over the lines a few times in my head, a nice little Chinese opener that wouldn't fool them into thinking I could actually speak putonghua but was just good enough to catch their eye. Alas, I couldn't get up the courage to talk to them, I shrugged it off as four less drinks I'd have to buy, and got back to watching the movie.

Just as the film was going into high-action climax, I was accosted by two more girls, one of them clearly impatient: "You know you me go boom boom any time one hour?" Aw, shucks, that's awfully sweet of you, Faceless Cambodian Prostitute #274. As I got back to the movie, another girl edged closer, introducing herself as Jessica, and she began to speak English that went beyond what appeared to be the limited English vocabulary of the sex trade. She taught me a few words in Cambodian (thank you: a hunh, hello: so si'dye), and I genuinely began talking to her. She kept apologizing for her "little English," but consdiering the circumstances, it was remarkable how she could keep a conversation going. She said she liked school, but "school in Cambodia, no." I didn't know if that meant there was no school or if she wasn't able to get in, but I'm guessing it has something to do with economics: an education is so secondary when you consider that just surviving can be an exhausting day's work. The movie ended and I got up to go, encouraging Jessica to find a way to practice her English and get a "good" job. She had really sympathetic eyes, and I think she knew exactly what I meant.

How have we let the world get this way? What policies grounded in greed, exclusion, and explotation have made some people so rich and others so awfully, disgustingly poor and desperate? In a world of multi-trillion dollar budgets and billions of dollars squandered on fighting wars and killing people, when will we as a race take a step back and re-evaluate our priorities? Travel overseas, witness real desperation and poverty, put a face on that poverty, see what it does to people, and then tell me I'm dreaming, that I'm asking for some hippy fantasty world where we spend that money on more food and more medicene. By all means, let's drink Coke and build another bomb.

Ah, it wouldn't be me without a half-assed left-field political rant. Enough for now. Tomorrow I go to Siem Reap and see what I came to see: the temples of Angkor.

Enter Cambodia

When I first got to Phenom Penh, I had to pay a security guard $5US to change my 200 yuan into $20US. 200 yuan is about $25, so I took a $5 hit. Note that there was an ATM mere steps beyond the customs booth, where I would have been knee-deep in surcharge-less money. But I couldn't get to the ATM because I needed that $20US for my damn Visa.

Welcome to Cambodida.

Got into my hotel late, put stuff away, and prepared to explore. Found a great little bar, had a nice cold ABC porter (why does China lack decent beer?), and my first Cambodian meal: grilled fish in a coconut milk and lemongrass curry sauce, and hot damn was it delicious. A few more meals here and this place is earning a spot on my favorite ethnic foods list.

Now I'm in Phenom Penh, and slowly touring the city. Tomorrow morning I am going to Siem Reap, the place to be in Cambodia, because there's where the breathtaking temples are. I can't wait to get there, and I am enjoying the slow custom pace of seeing this city on my own. While traveling alone can certainly be isolating and boring at times, it also has its benefits, and I like being able to lose an hour in a book shop or read the local English rag at my leisure over lunch.

Seeing so many foreginers here is strange. After living in China for half a year, and knowing every non-Chinese within a hundred miles, to see so many westerners is throwing off my rader. I still look and almost gawk if I see blond hair, and I still can't get used to speaking English to Cambodians; I just expect shrugs, like I get in China when I speak English to Chinese.

There is some really crushing poverty here, people living in public parks and everyone vying for your dollar for a moto ride, but it's made all the worse when you see all the amputees and landmine victims. Things are improving, yes, but good lord, there is such a disparity in wealth.

On that somber note, I'll be going. If my tour of Northern Cambodia doesn't work out, then I will head back to Phenom Penh and try to dip into Vietnam for a little while. We'll see.

Now to find another good beer ...

Friday, February 02, 2007

You got your Lianjiang in my Zhanjiang

I spent the last few days visiting the home town of one of my students in Lianjiang, a city with a (shall we say) indistinct relationship with Zhanjiang. An hour's drive over barren highway and then you're in what appears to be another big smoggy Chinese city, full of not-so-high rises and motorcycles and the like. But is this a city? A town? Is it still part of Zhanjiang? These questions and more will not be answered in the next installment of this blog.

Steve and I bought a liulian (that is, Durian) that we didn't eat tonight, and it's stinking up my place something delicious.

Lianjiang was nice, if a little familiar. Desiree, her classmate Kaly, and I were lucky enough to get a ride to the city from one of Dez's old classmates, who was in Zhanjiang with her husband (and his car ... hence the ride). I was able to tour some of the middle and high schools, which I actually found interesting; they're on full-on campuses, and they have a helluva lot of sports and activities that you often only see in colleges in the states. I also learned that Chinese students, before college, spend almost their entire day in school. They are there at eight in the morning, class until eleven, home for lunch until around two, when they go back to class; home for dinner around five, back to class at seven and there until almost ten.


Their evening classes are little more than homework done in the classroom, but still; that's a demanding schedule.

What else? Climbed a mountain, saw an amazingly beautiful sunset augmented by the smog, the reds and blues and the final dusk being greedily sucked into the air and then torn away mere minutes later. We watched the city's lights come to life, then walked down the mountain using fireworks and sparklers to light our way.

I ate all sorts of strange things: duck tongue and brain (and all the other, more traditionally delicious parts of the duck), more dog (sorry Duke), and the "everyone has two" meat of various animals (that'd be kidneys, a word Desiree and Kaly just couldn't remember).

I let Dez's brother play my DS, and aside from having a lack of basketball games to play, he loved it; he even had an audience going for Elite Beat Agents.

I visited the village of one of Dez's friends. Her Chinese nick name is "xiao niu," meaning "Little Cow;" trust me, it's endearing. "That was affectionate ..." Brent might say. Her grandmother was quite old, perhaps a little senile; I don't think it registered to her that I wasn't Chinese, because she kept yelling for me to sit down and relax, drink some water, boy is the weather nice, all in Cantonese or some local dialect I couldn't even begin to name. I was able to walk around the vast fields and watch the farming going on, manual labor and buckets of water for acre after backbreaking acre, brushfires and little kids herding cows because they've already given up school. The work some of these people have to do is heartbreaking, and when you see that it's all to send just one child to school, so that their life will be a little easier, well, you can't help but be awed.

And I sang karaoke, and I must say that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a really great, really short song to sing, should the situation arise.

Well, I'm sure there's more, but that's all for now. In two days I leave for Cambodia. Angkor Wat, here I come.