Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ha-Long is 3 days

If you're in North Vietnam, it's virtually impossible to escape a tour of Ha-Long Bay. Everywhere you go, and I mean everywhere, they will try to rope you into one of these tours. And judging by Jack's comment this morning, on the last day of our 3day cruise ("well this doesn't look like what we saw in the brochure")you will have pretty much no idea what you are getting into.

Strangely, almost everywhere you go in Vietnam will involve relinquishing your passport. Sometimes this is used to extort things from you, mostly not. It is to be expected though. So don't be surprised when you are taken on board a strange boat with strange people (most of whom do not speak any English) and carted around to various places all under the coercion of "you'll be able to get your passport back wehen this is all over." It'll all be over in 3 days.

Admittedly the scenery is spectacular.

Let's try a little free-association game. I'll say a word and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Ok Ready? Go! First one-- ok, "America." Did you say "fuck yeah?" Apple pie? Democracy? The world's worst liars for politicians? Ok, let's try another one. Alright ready? "Christmas!" Just tell me the first thing that comes to mind now. Santa Claus? Candy Canes? Pine trees? Snow? Ok last one-- "Vietnam!" What do you think--what comes to mind? Napalm? Jungle? Agent Orange? Well think again!

To debunk one of your preconceptions, there are not a lot of people you can talk to who even remember the Vietnam war. Unless you speak Vietnamese, which is probably even harder than Chinese and I'm doing a pretty crumby job of learning even that. It has 7 or 8 tones instead of 4 and is dictated by sounds that English tongues really don't make. So when you go to Vietnam, learn the local word for "passport" before you learn the word for "war." It will be more useful.

So if studying war history is not your priority, what can you spend your time doing?When I say "Vietnam" surely you would not have free-associated "climbing." If you are in the dark about this though, you are overlooking what could definitely be described as a treasure trove of limestone cliffs and karsts, most unclimbed, all of very high quality-- a place ready for adventure and rife with possibility.

Be ready for some drama in getting there, but rest assured you will get some good use out of those rock shoes you brought all the way through the jungle and across the ocean, because Ha Long Bay is a climber's paradise.

Said Nate, "it really is a good place to sit down and write your novel." When you finish, they will give you back your passport.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Let Saigons be bygones

I teach the novel Brave New World, and often students don't understand some things about it. Notably, the main character Winston Smith is charged with the task of rewriting historical documents in keeping with the constantly changing party ideologies and shifting political alliances depicted in the novel. He literally rewrites history to match what “Big Brother” wants citizens to believe in the present. When students don't understand this concept, I will have to add the Hanoi War Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to the ever-expanding list of actual real world examples.

First of all, what we in America call the Vietnam War is called here the "War of Resistance Against the American Imperialists" and "the War Against the US and Saigon Regime" and of course the "War to kill all capitalist pig-dogs and purge the glorious motherland of polluting bourgeoisie petty fascist colonialist parasites (hahaha)." I jest, but only a little bit. Another museum, in Saigon, which I did not visit, details the American war in Vietnam and is called the "war crimes museum." It's clearly a matter of perspective.

We strolled among charming colonial era buildings painted a typically French shade known as "Monte Carlo” yellow to find a very soviet looking construction which housed the mummified body of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Despite his request for a simple cremation, in keeping with communist leadership precedent, they preserved the poor guy and now you can visit "Uncle Ho" as he is affectionately known, and admire his wispy Vietnamese beard which has not changed one bit, despite his being totally and completely dead.

A friendly fruit seller accosts us and asks us if we would like to take her picture. If she was upset with us being from the nation that destroyed her homeland and killed 3 million of her friends and relatives, her only reaction was to smile and over-charge us for pineapple slices.

You can visit Ho Chi Minh’s house as well, but don’t expect much. This was one very unhypocritical communist, for the “house” in which the father of modern Vietnam spent a good deal of his life looks as if it could have been built for about 20 dollars in lumber. “If you had a party here, you would have to call it a ‘Hodown’” says Nate. Jack and I agree, although it was hard for me to picture the Vietnamese president engaged in any “fun” of any kind. The pictures in the museum depict a studious man, writing letters in French, Chinese, Vietnamese and English lobbying for Vietnamese freedom. This separated him from his contemporaries in the US who were doing blow with strippers and hiding the truth of their political malfeasance from the American Public. But “Hodown” was a good joke anyway.

Elsewhere in the war museum we see samples of his speeches which preach that “revolutionary ideals must inspire the messes.” And what greater mess than the Vietnam War itself, which was prefaced by centuries and centuries of strife in Vietnam. In fact, the American War in Vietnam is just a funny little footnote in the epic tome of Vietnamese conflict. Pretty much they had been displacing invaders since long before forever, as the war museum indicated. When you first walk in, the pieces in the museum might remind you of Genghis Khan style warfare, chariots and swords and the like.

Departing from the American style “War is Kind” museum tradition, in Vietnam the articles on display were quite visceral. Some big knives in glass cases boasted captions like “this knife killed four enemies.” There was an old French helmet blasted full of holes, it’s wearer having suffered a horrible fate which I couldn’t help but envision. The caption read “steel helmet evidence of the failure of the French.”

Out back they had a huge pile of airplane fuselages burned and destroyed, remnants of the jets that had been successfully shot out of the sky by the NVA. They had turned the detritus into a sort of grotesque sculpture, the whole thing kind of crumpled and melted, like a Salvador Dali clock.

If I were to add museums like this to my list of examples of historical revisionism, I would have to ponder the idea that our government was likely to have fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which began our escalated involvement in the war. Yet today it would seem that we read this as historical fact—that we were indeed attacked while innocently cruising around Vietnam, provoking attack. I would also have to consider the angle from which a story is told. From my angle, I have only heard about what the war meant for America. The war meant the tumultuous 60’s, internal strife in America, a divided nation, lies and political deception, racism and the civil rights movement, noble veterans dishonored by their discredited cause. All of the movies I have seen and books I have read depict these issues. For the Vietnamese, we were just another aggressor, and our war is remembered as such.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Singa-poor is just FINE

I dislike rules. I dislike rules of any kind really, including those rules which regulate grammar, which is why I have been known to praise sentences like the following which I read in a student essay back in 2004:

“If Anne Frank was so innocent, tell me why were they hiding in an attic again for?” It's hard for me to conceal my amusement with a sentence like that.

Like many Americans, my lack of knowledge about Singapore is what characterizes my understanding of Singapore. I know that they don't allow gum or spitting and that they caned a teenager once for spray painting a wall with graffiti. Other than that I don't know much.

The gum thing is true. A cab driver yesterday paused in his lament over the People's Action Party (he called them the “Pay And Pay” party) to warn me that I faced a 500 dollar fine for the gum chewing. It is a myth though, he explained, that farting in public is illegal, which I thought was particularly charitable.

A casual stroll along the river toward an upscale neighborhood called “The Quay” revealed what looked to be a scale model of the Titanic atop three 57 story towers. Clearly all of the rule making had not encouraged the triumph of common sense regarding what was to be considered architecturally and aesthetically pleasing, but the “eyesore” nature of this building nonetheless encouraged closer inspection. We took the MRT system across town (note to Durian lovers-- eating this fragrant fruit in the metro is punishable by a fine of 500 dollars) and walked along a concrete path by the bay. The “esplanade” (this means “to try to explain something while drunk”) was lined with modern art stainless steel irrigating tubes which sprayed a fine mist over the tropical shimmer of the nearby water, making walking in the sun very nearly tolerable. This led to a mall, which wound through a casino, which led to another mall, which led to a series of security check-points requiring that we have shoes (have you seen how hot it is outside?) and passports. We vowed to return later.

When we finally got up to floor 57, which was only accessible to us if we were guests of the hotel or willing to pay 14 dollars for a beer, we were rewarded with a view of the most spit and gum free city I have ever laid eyes on from an expensive penthouse bar. Somehow though in our enjoyment of money, we three educators were noticeably aware of things which we desired—watches, furniture, coats made from the finest endangered species, or perhaps a live lion cub as underwear such as the one worn by actress Julianne Moore in the storefront window. We were cognizant of being watched and being identified as foreign invaders like “projections” in an “inception” dream, or viruses among helper T cells. That and the fact that we couldn't spit from the top made us retreat from the penthouse bar and into the safety of the Hard Rock Cafe, which was pretty much classy enough for me. As we were walking over there, my colleague stepped into a wad of gum which stretched away with comic elasticity from the sole of her shoe. Singapore would have been significantly less amusing without that one wad of gum.

Similarly, in my role as newspaper editor for the daily publication of The Hague International Model United Nations (THIMUN), the best sentences were the result of comical grammatical errors. The only way to ruin them would have been to improve them, which was (unfortunately) my lot in life. “Some of the topics the assembly wilt focus on in the committee included the crisis terror of Nepal and the lack of government, the implementation of resolution to-for-to concerning is real, Cote D'Ivoire, and the peace keeping of Cypress” becomes “some of the topics the assembly will focus on include the formation of a constitution in Nepal, implementation of Resolution 242 concerning Israel, facilitating the implementation of the 2003 peace agreement in Cote D'Ivoire, and the fate of the UN peace-keeping mission in Cyprus.” Sure it's shiny, polished, non-offensive and nondenominational, free of gum and spit, but it clearly lacks personality and that indescribable flair that can only come of free will. In that sense, a sentence like this one is right at home in Singapore.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Eye of the beholder

It was the day of the fashion show and anyone with a sense of the absurd would have been forgiven for thinking that aliens had invaded. But these were not people with any sense of the absurd. They were fashion enthusiasts.

In the lobby of the hotel, scores of women waltzed around proudly crowned with what looked to me to be 8th grade science projects-- a DNA double helix, butterfly wings, Papier mâché flower petals and Adam's Family inspired coifs. I arrived on the scene a bit late owing to the fact that I had a desire to sleep in. I expressed over a text to a friend back in the real world who inquired as to my whereabouts that since I was unimportant to the proceedings, that I got to sleep in. He replied that I was not unimportant, but that I needed to regain control over what he called "the sense of narrative."

But there is no place more appropriate than a fashion show to understand that all sense of narrative is a fleeting illusion. This truth is easily understood when the smell of nail polish so strongly permeates the open air as to seem like a weather system, a heavy fog that obscures all sense of meaning.

The hotel was called the "Shangri-la" but as a name which would reveal the sense of theme intended by the proprietors, it was ineffective at best. The inside of the place looked like something off the set of "water world" with fountains and pools of carp which the non fashion inclined chose to fish out of. I had some inkling that the design of the hotel was intended to convey a sense of fairy tale fantasy though, with it's scarecrows near the facade, and a giant windmill that wound round a path next to plastic sculptures of mushrooms like the ones from "Super Mario Brothers."

Nearby a cafe along the banks of the river which stretched from the mountains of Yilan to the nearby ocean, there stood a group of young women posing for a photo indicating the rudimentary "peace sign" which seems to be the signature of so many poses in Taiwan. They all smiled at the same time and looked right at the camera, the implication of their attempt at narrative (we all became suddenly happy at the same time) seeming anachronistic against the backdrop of the rainy river and the cafe which later proved to be locked and empty, cobwebs in the corners.

I laid down on a few chairs which I had pushed together, and enshrouded in the fog of nail polish, I wafted into sleep. From some very strange dreams, I awoke abruptly. Momentarily, I was not cognizant of where I was. From "where I am I?" my mind wandered to "what am I doing here?" and this question, sadly, was not a query which wakefulness could answer. "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow" [...]

If you were to ask Melissa though, she would spin a yarn of the youngest nail-work artist ever to win the "most original" prize, of youthful energy stymied by the established order, subversion of the dominant paradigm the sort of which Melissa, the tattoo artist, exhibitionist, perpetually scornful of established social norms would be in support of... err, well, apparently she's no good at doing nails.

The story, told in frustrated tones, went something like this:

Two years ago, Melissa was asked to be a model for the up-and-coming child prodigy nail artist in Tai-Chung, whose mother, like so many scary stage moms, had groomed her to be Taiwan's youngest nail art champion. Melissa was the only "foreigner" model at the competition, which included hundreds of competitors from far away China, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and other south Asian countries where they take their fingernails, very very seriously. To include a foreigner model, and to bill oneself as the youngest ever nail artist in the history of Taiwan was, by Melissa's perception, merely a publicity stunt, albeit one that worked smoothly enough to win the then 10 year old nail artist the prize of most original. But regrettably (again, according to Melissa) this was at the expense of the dignity of her (Melissa's) fingernails which suffered an onslaught of chemicals and ended up looking "awful, just awful" to connoisseurs of such things, who obviously overlooked certain elements of sloppiness and awarded most original to the young girl anyway, much to the outrage of those older and more wizened veterans of the craft.

Those same wizened veterans were busy creating the most elaborate and dare I say "gaudy and pretentious" nails which had ever been glued to human hands. Some of the danglies, bobblies and various accoutrements, were longer and larger than the fingers themselves, and in sum, larger and more clumsy than the hands themselves. Just for fun, I walked up and offered one nail model a beverage in a teacup, just to watch her try to pick it up which she couldn't. She probably would have died of thirst if the contest had lasted longer. One woman had little bowties glued to her fingers. "Cute" would be the word, provided that you would also apply that word to some sort of bird species whose overly elaborate plumage caused other birds to avoid mating with it, suspecting it to be crazy.

I am asked to pose for an array of photos, Melissa standing nearby. I think "of those so close beside me, which are you?" and I smile. Another photo, and another and another, until I have slipped into another time and place, somewhere else entirely. A handshake, another smile. "Wo ting bu dong." Smile. Exchange business cards. Smile. Nod.

Later, in the night-market, we saw a sweatshirt on which the phrase "what the fuck?" was indecorously printed. Now that's my kind of fashion.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ele-phant shoes

She was an artist, and I liked to pretend I was an artist and we both had little else going on love-wise, so it seemed an acceptable level of risk to declare ourselves married on facebook as an artistic statement, the proposal having stemmed from an offer to be models in a bridal show for a Taiwanese wedding planner. The Mandarin word for “model” sounds like “mah-tuh.”

She told me that a trick she would play on her students when she was trying to get them to quiet down was to ask them to read her lips. “But we don't know how to read lips!” they replied.

“Here, I'll teach you.” (mouths silently the word “hello”).

“Oh! I know! You said 'hello!'”

“Yes, that's right. Now what am I saying?” (mouths silently the words “my name is Melissa”).

“Oh, oh! You said 'my name is Melissa!'”

“Yes, now what am I saying?” (mouths slowly and deliberately the phrase “I love you” taking care to feel each morsel-syllable as it moves across the quiet tongue silently forward to the lips).

(every student goes crazy) “I love you!”

“Noooo Silly! El-e-phant shoe!” (laughter). Not withstanding the fact that elephants don't wear shoes and that it makes no sense to say “elephant shoe” to someone, I wondered if whether I would have the strength and conviction to say “I do” when the time came, if it ever came. Maybe I would just say nothing with “lips [that] began to move, forming soundless words” to quote Salinger out of context.

The Taiwanese wedding planner told me that in a tuxedo I looked like Jude Law. He pronounced it “jew-duh luh.” The cameras flashed and people spoke words we didn't understand, while we spoke words which they probably didn't understand.

I thought of how funny it would be as performance art to declare my marriage on facebook, complete with photographic evidence of bride and wedding gown. But somehow picturing the comments from ex-girlfriends and my mother dissuaded me a little from the committing the hoax, though the message I would convey would be nonetheless important. We always hurt the ones we love.

As a kid I was told repeatedly the story of the boy who cried “wolf.” But somehow I never grasped the moral, thinking that if I cried “wolf” loud enough, that it would have the power of incantation, that it would become true. With lips that continued to move.

Probably he would suffer the loudest would be my father whose amusement at repeating such aphorisms as Mencken's “marriage is an institution. But I'm not ready for an institution” or Oscar Wilde's “the proper basis for a marriage is a mutual misunderstanding” has always been akin to that of a child playing with a favorite toy. By getting married, to my brother I would have effectively died.

We filed languidly between rows of enamored onlookers to the melody of “Ave Maria” or something, and I was convinced momentarily, and the spell lasted throughout the photo shoot that ensued. All because of a song.

I thought of a conversation I had with my mother. She said “so I spent the day with David and Shannon.”

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Well, they're my adopted Grand-kids, since I know that I'll never have any of my own!” She laughed, but it was a laugh that betrayed a certain earnest longing, which she has been enthusiastically expressing since I hit puberty. I wondered whether I could fake this on facebook too.

It's a funny thing, the way we know each other but don't know each other. This postmodern paradox that we are continually “in touch” with pictures and newsfeeds available at the push of a button, but authentic living has gone to seed on the sacrificial altar of personal advertisement, the facebook page that proclaims what Freud described as the separate “selves” of who we are versus who we want others to think we are.

In a departure from Freudian psychology, Jacques Lacan theorized that our “unconscious” is structured like a language, and that the self of “who am I?” versus the self of “who do I want others to think I am?” could be perceived as the difference between “I love you” and “elephant shoes.”

The Taiwanese wedding planner was proud of how the show went, and was effusive with his praise of his “mah-tuh(s).” He even shared a rather personal tale, telling us that his father had withheld words of praise almost his entire life, but on that night had told his son that he was proud of him. To over-praise an underling, in Taiwanese society, constitutes a loss of face, albeit a useful one.

In looking at the images from that day alone in my bachelor's den, a month after my performance art marriage, I lingered on a few images, momentarily convinced of the magic incantation. I closed the computer's screen on itself and sat down with a book in a dimly lit corner. I felt the apartment start to shake--just a tiny earthquake, one of many.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why learning the language is an excellent idea

Last night in Bangkok I was lingering uncertainly in the hotel lobby waiting for a flight when it dawned on me that the employees of the hotel where I had been uncertainly lingering were having a laugh at my expense. People in a place like Thailand can expect, reasonably I think, that most foreigners they see will not speak Thai. Most Americans have a strong aversion to learning another country's language, as if doing so would be a traitorous action, an affront to those who "talk 'merican" making sure to always buy inferior products supposedly manufactured within the perpetually fractured union. We have a reluctance to learn the history of other countries as well, I thought, reflecting on Charles Dickens' "classic" A Tale of Two Cities, and realizing that I had no idea what he was talking about. This thought was interrupted of course by the three Thai ladies who were making fun of me, quite loudly I might add, making reading this Dickensian crap impossible.

We Americans dismiss the idea that we are a bunch of ignorant, arrogant, provincial selfish hicks by listening to songs with lyrics like "Don't know much about history/Don't know much biology/Don't know much about a science book/Don't know much about the french I took/But I do know that I love you/ And I know that if you love me too/What a wonderful world this would be." Well, it takes more than love to make a wonderful world. It takes diplomacy and a little knowledge of history and world affairs. It takes the ability to stomach a little bit of sushi without puking in the Japanese ambassador's lap (Senior Bush) or without claiming that "Africa is a country with many problems" (Junior Bush). It takes a strong command of language, which I am afraid to say, Americans just don't possess. In full awareness of the logical fallacy I am comitting here, I am using the same song as evidence for another point--"La ta ta ta ta ta ta/(History)/Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh(Biology)/La ta ta ta ta ta ta/(Science book)/Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh/(French I took)." Those aren't even words! How can we entrust the creation of this "wonderful world" to a nation of people who speak like cave beasts? When you ask the average American a question with a yes or no answer, he will often insist on using a series of grunts "uh-huh" for yes and "uh-uh" for no. If confused, he will say "huh?"

The Thais know this. They know we don't speak any other language and we arrogantly assume someone of a different nationality to be a dolt when he speaks English with an accent. "O My gawd! Where's that guy from? Like, check-lo-slovenia?" "I know, huh." So it comes as no surprise to a traveller like myself when he realizes someone is making fun of him in another language, assuming correctly, that he won't understand.

It came to a head when they started taking pictures of me with their cell phones and pantomiming my gestures, so I used the tactic of the grinning idiot. This just egged them on.

In my rant on American language (speak 'merican, dammit) I used, in the last paragraph alone, no less than two nonsensical idioms, which adds to my point. Not only can we not understand anyone who speaks another language, but foreigners attempting to learn to speak American will doubtlessly fall upon several "stumbling blocks." If you used the expression to "egg someone on" in school for instance, teaching ESL, you would be met with confused stares, as I have. Looking it up on the internet reveals nothing in the way of etymology. We learn that a synonym for "egg on" is to "goose." Oh sure-- now I get it. People, neither geese nor eggs can "incite." Diligent Chinese students attempting to learn English will be laughed at as soon as they apply their precise diction in a business meeting with stupid Texans. It will only be later, when they are all drunk when these Texans will throw the guy the bone of respect and say perhaps "you're all right, shorty." We can neither understand other cultures nor can we make ourselves understood. God help those Chinese students if they look up the idiom "come to a head" on the porn-laden internet.

Which brings me back to the Thai ladies in question. After I had noticed that they were taking pictures of me and laughing I then participated in their game by making faces and speaking in English for a few words at a time. Pidgin English is a technique all foreigners use to communicate when in parts unknown. That and we speak more slowly and raise our voices when someone doesn't understand English. "yeah, funny! Me! So funny! Ha ha!" I said. It was all in good fun.

I remember distinctly another incident in which I was on a flight from Taiwan to Hong Kong. The flight was not full and there were several empty seats. My knowledge of Mandarin was burgeoning slowly so when the flight attendant came up to the man who was sitting next to me and spoke to him in Mandarin Chinese, I was able to discern a few words. I heard the Chinese word for "sit" which I knew very well from telling my younger students to sit the fuckdown, goddammit! I heard what I thought was the word "stinky" learned from ordering a dish known as "stinky tofu" something I only did once, and which I remembered. I most definitely heard the word for "foreigner" which I had by then heard many times and learned to recognize. I cobbled together the pieces of what the flight attendant had said to the man sitting next to me and discerned "are you sure you want to sit next to this stinky foreign devil?" The man got up and changed seats shortly therafter. I can't say I blamed him.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Imagine all the people working in the rice paddies

It was striking to me how quickly and easily the school was turned into a prison. I have experienced a feeling, many times before in my life as a teacher, a feeling that I would liken to being somehow trapped or incarcerated. In this instance, they simply added bars over the windows and mortared some bricks together to make tight cells which would be solitary confinement chambers. The swings and bars upon which the school children would play were converted hastily and cheaply into a water- based torture device through the use of a small amount of rope. The prisoners hung suspended by their feet from rope tied to what used to be a swing set and were lowered head first into large vases filled with stagnant water until they confessed to imagined crimes at which point they were shot at point blank range in the head and buried in mass graves 18 miles outside of the city of Phnom Penh. Toward the end of the war, when bullets were more valuable, they were strangled with plastic bags or beaten to death.

In one hall of the old prison, converted now into a museum, there was a row of pictures of those who had been executed as enemies of the state or counter-revolutionaries. Strangely, on one wall every visage seemed to grin, holding some secret or perhaps unaware of the horrible fate that awaited them. What I took for subversive vitality, grinning at their captors, was actually, I came to learn in later interactions, a body language characteristic of many peoples of Southeast Asia. Grinning or smiling expresses uneasiness, which is one reason vacationing Chinese will seldom smile in pictures in front of monuments or points of interest. They look stolid and unmoved because they are expressing happiness, or emotions not pertaining to discomfort.

The pictures are there because, like most autocratic regimes interested in annihilating all opposition to the revolution, the Khmer Rouge was careful to document the victims before and after they were killed. As legacy to the atypical level of depravity and sadism involved in the genocide, Pol Pot’s men photographed their victims both before and after death, bodies mutilated all in the same fashion, with incisions made across the throat and down the abdomen. The routine bordered on behavior that was compulsive to the point of being almost religious. Next to the room where the grinning faces appear, you can meander through a room which depicts those same faces, very demonstrably dead.

I went there because I wanted to see the depth of human folly that had caused the deaths of one fourth of Cambodia’s population in the late 1970’s. I wanted to understand how this beautiful country, filled with smiling vibrant people could have been ruined by a revolution which to me seemed to make so little sense, and how the American government of Kissinger and Nixon, most definitely culpable in the history of the conflict, could do so little with respect to aiding the innocent. Seeking understanding, I found, as is typical, only more mystery, as in opening Pandora’s Box. By the end of my self guided tour I felt defeated and exhausted--my faith in the goodness of mankind very seriously shaken.

Near the periphery of the prison a sign announced in a dictatorial tone the rules of interrogation that “you must answer accordingly to my questions. Don’t turn them away. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me. Do not be fool for you are chap who dare to thwart the revolution. While getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry at all.” A cryptic sign which stood above a whitewashed doorway displayed a grinning face with a red “X” over it. No laughing.

When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in the spring of 1975, they ordered the population to leave and the teeming former French colonial city became a veritable ghost town in which the party goons were free to conduct whatever mischief they felt would best foment a complete cultural and ideological change. Feeling the cities to be fountainheads of modernity and other inherent sins not directly associated with pastoral living and a strictly agrarian communist society, everyone simply had to abandon their former lives and go to work farming rice out in the countryside. The theory behind leadership like this seems to me to be less “socialist” in nature and more of a nihilist bent, and it was hard for me to wrap my brain around it all. Clearly, impractical ideas like this would have their opponents, and that was presumably the purpose for places like the Tuol Sleng Security Prison number 21, or S-21 as it came to be known.

As I rounded the corner up the stairs, I noticed bats hanging from the ceiling and clinging to the walls in the corridor. This harbinger would preface the images of the upper floors in which torture devices sat on the floors of lonely rooms—c-clamps through which iron bars were thrust, forming crude shackles for hands and feet, electric wires and medieval “racks” where prisoners were bound and tortured with water. Interrogation techniques of this nature, inhumane as they might be are successful at producing confessions and extracting information, as the Khmer Rouge learned. However, the information gleaned from torturing in this manner is not reliable, because the victim, guilty or not, will say anything to stop the pain, even if it’s an invented tale of conspiring against the torturers. Of the 17,000 people to have passed through the S-21 Prison, one of many of its kind, only a score survived, having been found “innocent” of their alleged crimes.

There is a poem on the wall of the museum which reads like an extended version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Unlike Lennon though who describes good times right around that same time period with “ev’rybody had a good time/ ev’rybody had a wet dream/ev’rybody saw the sunshine/ oh yeah” the poem on the wall of this prison describes all of the things the Khmer Rouge outlawed. Entitled “The New Regime” by Sarith Pou, it reads:

“No social gatherings./No chitchatting./No jokes. No laughters./No music. No dancing./No romance. No flirting./No formication. No dating./No wet dreaming./No masturbating./No naked sleepers./No bathers./No nakedness in showers./No love songs. No love letters./No affection./”

John Lennon most certainly would not have approved. Possibly scarier yet—even scarier than a society with no wet dreams—is the fact that the regime may have been successful had they managed to cooperate more effectively with Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and cultivated good relations with their neighbors in Vietnam. Had they remained isolationist, they may have even recieved aid from the United States for controlling their “drug problem” as was the case with the Taliban, initially lauded by Premier Bush for having so completely stopped the flow of opiates. As long as they were calling themselves the “Democratic Republic of People’s Kampuchea” and stanching the flow of drugs into America, it probably would have gone unnoticed that they were systematically murdering their own people.

A German friend once told me of a certain affliction, known to the modern German. The malady known as Weltschmerz, chiefly existential and intellectual, affects those who are often so overwhelmed by the capacity of human beings to be cruel to other human beings that they suffer from frequent bouts of unbearable sadness. The phrase, roughly translated, means “world pain.” I stood alone, having lost my father earlier, and stared through the bars of a cell at the palms and acacia trees outside doing a lazy sway in time with the wind, that rolled through now as it always had. My prison then was one of selfishness and helplessness. What kind of person am I, living the life I do, when things like this are happening at this moment? I thought these things but wondered what exactly, I could do about it, and I decided that the answer was nothing. I stared out through those bars for a long time.

Motion has always had a certain remedy in it, so I moved onward downstairs which was where I found a massive pile of human skulls. Just there. Human skulls in a glass case in various states of disrepair showing blunt force trauma and bullet holes and some which were remarkably intact and piled in neat symmetry so as to give the illusion of collective mass, this enormous pile, this ceaseless senseless human suffering piled there in voiceless testimony to the revolutionary ideals that had caused so much needless, and ultimately ineffectual—insofar as it failed to create the desired change-- destruction.

I was glad then for the presence of my father. In my heart dangerous sentiments had started to build like cumulus clouds prefacing a storm. At the periphery of my thoughts were ideas about human-kind consisting not of the noble-savage, but of some much darker and more sinister thing, something naked and bestial and capable of unimaginable violence. I can’t remember what he said, but he talked me down like he always does and somehow I went back to “normal” if such a word could ever apply to me.

I have a picture which I did not take myself (my camera was stolen later that day when, in my reveries, I failed to guard it properly) but which was taken by my father. The photo is of an artist’s depiction of water torture techniques used at the prison. What interests me about the photo is not what is in the drawing itself, but what is reflected in the glass that covers the art. Reflected there you can see my father, holding out his camera, commemorating what for him was surely something monumental, something that had an impact. This photo conveys the importance of an effort toward reflection. Those inhumane acts, those senseless deaths—they are meaningful when they are reflected upon the living insofar as they illuminate our progress, our cultivation of a more sensible future. Or so I hope.

My Dad and I went to leave and we heard a distant cry of distress. We followed it to its source and found a kitten, mewing desperately for some kind of savior, from within the confines of a very much locked and sealed jail cell. I thought of Amanda and how for her the human tragedy of the place would doubtless be outweighed by the desperate feline struggle unfolding now. We tried to reach inward but were met with failure. Though I wanted to do something, my arms would not achieve the small space, and the kitten was just out of reach. I tried to tell the staff at the entrance of the “museum” about the kitten, but my entreaties fell on deaf ears, the language barrier impeding any real communication. I try to do something, but there is nothing I can do.

Outside there is a pleasant tropical breeze and the air is redolent of the sweet nectar of some unknown equatorial flower. A slant sunlight falls over the gravestones of 14 corpses found there in 1979, representing the last 14 people to have been killed at the S-21 prison before those responsible fled, changed sides, or found employment with another war somewhere. Yellow and white blossoms litter the concrete floor out in the courtyard, the wind blowing them out of the tall trees overhead. There are almost no sounds save for what was caused by what I think was a group of children playing in the street nearby. I suppose it could have been laughter.

Friday, May 28, 2010

That which will not make me stronger can only kill me

Todd Skinner once warned that "there's nothing more dangerous than an easy mountain." This is presumably because an easy mountain does not demand the full attention and survival resources of the alpinist. From the beginning I knew that Kyazu Ri was within my ability to climb, and within my ability to guide, but this season the mountain gods bedeviled my path with a series of obstacles and portents, the first of which was the measles.

Upon nearing the Kyazu Ri basecamp a week after my first illness subsided, we learned of a Danish expedition which had met with an accident due to rockfall. The Sherpas down valley warned of the danger and expressed their concern for us travelers by relating in Pidgin English the heartbreaking tale of the father-son mountaineering team which had been struck by misfortune somewhere en route. The tale involved a desperate struggle for life and limb culminating in a helicopter rescue and eventually including the didactic moral of the story in it's final conclusion-- "he die. very bad.you very careful." I was picturing Aeneas in his flight from Troy carrying his father on his back as he fled the flames of his great city, wondering if I would have the strength to do the same. Recurring thoughts like this made it all that much more alarming when my father failed to show up at the appointed place when returning from Kyazu Ri basecamp.

I frantically searched for him, retracing the steps I had taken when I ditched him earlier, of course regretting having ditched him earlier. I went from tea house to tea house asking if they had seen this man, quickly pantomiming a beard and glasses, each Sherpa face communicating a concerned "no." Finally, after I had started to sort of hear what I thought were his desperate cries for help, but which was probably someone shouting at a Yak, I attracted the attention of a Sherpani woman who asked me about the situation and where I had last seen him. "Up by the monastery" I panted. "Well" she replied "I suppose we could call them." She then whipped out a cell phone from the folds of her traditional garb and had a 30 second conversation with the devout monks upon the hill who had renounced possessions of any kind except apparently for their cell phones. "Your father is safe" she announced "and he is sleeping soundly. Care for some tea?"

I would not think about the father-son Danish mountaineering team again until Peter, Carter and I made the ascent to the col on Kyazu Ri. Just before an easy 5th class rock step which one must negotiate to attain the col, the team must travel through a narrow and marginally steep gully choked with boulders. Above the gulley, a hanging glacier threatens to dislodge debris which has rested precariously atop its icy surface for centuries. It is logical then, that at certain times of day when the weather has been warm, that crossing through the gulley could pose a significant rockfall danger. Midway up the gulley, I stopped Carter. “Does that look like a backpack or something up ahead?” He agreed. This was an easy determination to make considering the fact that any contrast in the lifeless landscape would have stood out to even the colorblind among us. We approached and found a pack and some scattered clothing and equipment and what looked to be an unbelievable volume of blood. There was a sleeping bag lying among the boulders near the pack. A paperback was torn into pieces and its pages were scattered to the wind. A used auto-injector, presumably a steroid, was lying next to a small mound of brownish gauze frosted in a thin coating of ice. There was a glove coated in blood and matted with human hair. It was frozen into a contorted claw as if grappling at some invisible form of the Platonic world. My mind usually turns to comedy at a time like this and I was reminded of the place-holder text seen so often in the Onion, “America’s Favorite News Source” when there were too few words to fill a column—“passersby were amazed at the amounts of blood passersby were amazed at the amounts of blood passersby were amazed at the amounts of blood.” It was a thin consolation. I could tell by the looks on the faces of both Peter and Carter that this reminder of mortality was not strengthening their resolve, so I acted in a manner befitting a police officer at the scene of the crime and moved them on. Nothing to see here.

We moved up through the rock band to the col. Peter remained in the rocks below, having lost a crampon earlier that afternoon, giving up his bid on the summit. Carter and I stood atop the flat col, buffeted by winds, our attempts to communicate blown away in the gale.



We went lower to the rocks a hundred feet beneath the col.

“Do you think we could pitch it there?”

“Over there? No… we’d have to anchor the tent in just to avoid slipping downhill all night.”

“There? Over by those rocks?”

“Too sharp. We would shred the tent. Not to mention not sleeping.”

“At the last belay?”

It would not have occurred to me to pitch a tent there. I slung a boulder for the belay when the rope went taut at the end of 50 meters. The icy platform was barely big enough for the three of us to stand.

“It’ll have to do.”

After 20 minutes of chopping the bullet ice with blunted adzes, the three of us were spent as if we had climbed the mountain twice over, and we had barely succeeded in widening the slope enough for a tent, to say nothing of making it flat enough to sleep. Though the effort was keeping us warm, we were nearing the point of apathy that comes with exhaustion and results often in incompletely chopped tent ledges and a slanted sleep. We anchored the tent with rocks and an ice screw and settled in for the short night which would end for Carter and I at 2 am for the summit push.

I manned the stove and melted chunks of ice into the tiny pot placed gingerly on a rock inside the vestibule. I have always liked the work of manning the stove. Over the years it has become an art—knowing when to add more ice, how much can be added before the pot will overflow or the stove will lose efficiency, keeping the canister warm—these are all exercises which occupy the mind at altitude and distill the world into a safe cocoon of simplicity where the more pressing problems of one’s everyday life fade into the obscurity. I find now that I have difficulty paying bills on time, completing business with the DMV, remembering appointments, filling out paperwork. I discussed this idea once with Fabrizio Zangrilli and he expressed understanding—saying, “if it’s not a serac hanging over your head, it just doesn’t seem to matter.” I pondered this as I struggled for sleep and listened to the stove simmer.

At 9 pm I awoke when Carter sat up with a jolt, as from a skirmish in dreams, breathing heavily. He told us he couldn’t sleep because he couldn’t breathe. We told some stories and tried to relax and thought about how we would someday all laugh about this incident. I told them about my friend Will from Alabama whose stories would invariably begin with the expression “so there I was.” We postulated the beginning of the Kyazu Ri story of that year—“so there I was, stranded in a 2 person tent sandwiched between two climbing partners, trying to breathe, trying to sleep on a tiny platform, on a bed of other men.” Things are funny at altitude which wouldn’t be funny elsewhere.

I have no recollection of sleep, but I do remember sitting upright for much of the night just to be able to breathe. I started the stove and soon I was counting my own footsteps, trudging through the snow of the previous night up past the col in the cold dark of the starry Himalayan night.

We belayed at the first rock step. I pounded a few pins into incipient cracks and gave Carter a brief tutorial on their removal. As I began the belayed climbing, I moved past one of the pins I placed last year, aware that neither Abe nor Philip could remove it. With Arthurian skill, I pounded it a few times and it popped out. I placed it again, maybe even more securely this time, cognizant of the fact that someone who has never cleaned a mixed route will encounter some difficulty. I shouted down to Carter “don’t spend more than 2 minutes on any single piece of gear!” I knew that to keep moving quickly was of the utmost importance on this route.

The dawn sped toward us as Carter inched his way up the second pitch of mixed climbing which begins in a flaring chimney with ice delicately plastered to the narrow constrictions in back. I stemmed up the step ground, finding rests here and there and overcoming short cruxes by hooking my tools on tiny edges and burying them in cracks. I decided to avoid the crux ice section which had slowed the team’s progress the previous season by staying to the right of a steep serac and veering onto moderate ice.

My lungs crackled and I found it painful to breathe with what I recognized as the onset of HAPE and possibly pleurisy, no doubt brought on by my weakened immune system and measles and all familiar from previous high altitude climbing. I knew what the onset felt like and how long and how high I would be able to climb before I started coughing up gobs of viscous goo. Carter was moving quite expediently, but was solicitous as to my condition. He also had the courage to share that he was not feeling well himself, citing fatigue which increased with every pitch we climbed. I was feeling it too. There’s something about summit day which always requires me to dig deep, and I was doing it—I was finding that limit once again.

I swung my tools into the hard ice and knocked dinner plates down toward by stoic climbing partner, the two of us the last of an initial team of 5. Careful to place gear every so often in order to stave off the fatigue that could cause a fall, I used my axes in dagger position and gingerly edged upward on four tiny front-points. It is at this juncture where all thought falls away. Anxiety over the future and guilt over the past are replaced by the beating of my heart and the rhythm of breath like a compass pointing upward. Swing, swing, kick, kick. I am careful to place each belay in a sheltered enclave away from falling ice, following a map of the route I had chosen the previous year. For rhythm sake, and to avoid the temptation to hold still until I could catch my breath, I thought of a drum beat in my head which corresponded roughly with the pounding of my blood through my swelling brain. I added the words of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, as a sort of drum-beat mantra as I stabbed by way up each icy pitch. “No, what my heart will be is a tower,/and I will be right out on its rim:/nothing else will be there, only pain/and what can’t be said, only the world..” And the beat of a drum. Every fiber of my being screamed for me to stop and rest. I told myself that I could rest at the belay. You can rest when you’re dead. Upon reaching the belay though, my drumbeat sound-track had all the energy of a tape player with low batteries, the beats fewer and farther between, the voice a low register death rattle. I coughed and coughed and hyperventilated for the several minutes it took Carter to reach our belay.

“I’m out of gas, man.”

“I think it’s just 2 pitches to the summit. Have a GU and rest for a bit while we make up our mind.”

“I can’t even think.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“Cleaning those pins wore me out.”

“Just sit and rest. Ok, one long running belay and one hard pitch.”

“I’m at the end of what I can do. I don’t know if I could do another hard pitch.”

“Just sit and rest and then we’ll decide.”

As I threaded the 5 mil for a v-thread, I realized I was retreating at the same point as last year. “Abe and I stared at this exact same view when we decided to retreat short of the summit.” I mentioned. Mustering the energy for a symbolic gesture, I took out the necklace I had been carrying with me to place on the summit. I wanted rid of that thing, summit or no.

We rappelled for what seemed like a long time, taking the time to place a v-thread and a backup anchor at each rappel. Upon reaching the col again at 2pm, though my body felt better, the sense of relief was tempered by a vague anti-climax. We reached the tent where Peter coked for us and I napped inside the sun-warmed tent exhausted until Peter roused me and we descended to the better air.

I woke up the next morning at our Advanced Base Camp coughing and rubbing my raw frost-nipped nose. I treated myself to a nalgene filled with hot tea and an extra package of instant oatmeal. We would have a clear day for the hike down. Peter leaned his head inside my tent, smiling. “Happy birthday” he said.