Friday, December 31, 2010

Resolution Roundup

Here is what I resolved to do in 2010 and whether or not I did it.

1. I will follow a physical fitness program to maintain strength, flexibility, and endurance, plus I will run a six and a half minute mile and a 45 minute 10k.

Ha ha, well that was a terrible overestimation of my abilities. I already revisited this one a few months ago, to remove the speed goal, concerned that I would injure myself. I did maintain a daily physical regime until late in October when there was a bit of a disruption to my routine, but I picked it up again in December, except on indoor gym equipment, so I can't compare speed in a meaningful way. I'll assume that I made the adjustment before the course drop deadline and award myself a C+ for the amended schedule.

2. I will contact someone I know in real life but don't work with or live with every day. That can be an e-mail, a postcard, a phone call or a visit and it has to be a hundred different people over the year.

This was intended as a way of maintaining contact with long term friends, and to keep me from cocooning in a strange hotel room, or just vegging out and catching up on recorded TV when I got home from work. I did the daily contact diligently for three months, and out of that came a cross-country airplane trip that wasn't for work, and two long road trips to visit friends unseen from as far back as the 1980s. I revisited the medevac pilot who didn't fly me out of the untracked north because her airplane was broken, but who instead provided emotional rescue at the time. Those reunions alone were worth the resolution. Sometimes you see someone again after a long time and they turn out to be even better than you remembered.

There are lots of people I still haven't made enough effort to see, and sadly some bounced letters and e-mails sent to people I now can't reach. I was adding up the contacts to see if I made my hundred when I realized why I'm so bad at keeping track of who I should keep track of. A few of you will remember a few life epochs ago for me when I had almost everything I owned stolen by a small gang of teenagers and wasn't able to catch them despite calling the police and limping after them until I passed out. One of the things taken was a pocket computer (I think it was a Windows CE PDA, but I called it a Palm Pilot) and while I lost very little data, I have never since collected all my contacts into one place. so I have Facebook friends and e-mail friends, and other e-mail account friends and paper address book friends and friends whose address must be either in that directory for that organization I joined, or else their business card is in that box over there (please tell me I'm not the only one with one of those scary boxes), and friends I have a phone number for stored in that old cellphone that doesn't have a plan anymore and stupid as this sounds, even friends that I can only contact through intermediaries. As in "hey Jennifer, let's get together, see if Kevin can come too." Because Jennifer and Kevin used to live next door to one another, see, so I only needed to ... okay it's incredibly stupid, but that's what happened.

So, combing through my various lists in mid-December I counted only eighty unique people I knew in real life before the year began, whom I had reached out to in 2010. So I started to give myself a bad mark on this item, when I realized that December is tailor-made for saying hi to and inviting over people whom you haven't seen all year. I'm writing this on the 14th and I'm up to ninety-four, so I'm confident that I'll reach my target by the end of the year. I don't get an A for this because I did cocoon a little, but I think I deserve a B+.

3. Any day I don't fly IFR in real life, I will fly at least one approach on my flight simulator game, and I won't blog until that's done.

And that was a complete disaster. I did this so rarely there is no way I can get above an E grade here. That's the lowest grade in my alphabet. I didn't want to practice doing things incorrectly, so I did things properly, but the tasks of setting up the simulator to do what I wanted to, finding charts, planning the flights, getting the joystick working or working out the keyboard commands made it not fun. For the few occasions I kept this, I blogged several days entries after one sim session, just to avoid having to reconfigure the computer every day. Suggestions welcome.

4. Whenever I get home on a break from work I will, in addition to the usual litany of perennial maintenance tasks, assign myself one new project to complete.

Ha! I just found a big loophole here. I did assign myself projects to complete, every time. Now ask how many I actually completed. Oh I'm so funny. I can't believe I didn't catch this when I assigned it. I'm usually very careful about rules. Do I dare give myself an A+ for loophole exploiting? I think I'll mark this as "incomplete," just like that curtain I bought the fabric for in about 2007.

What thinking about this brings home to me is that there is no such thing as a permanently completed task. Either it's "end world hunger" and it's never completed, or it's "steam clean rug" and it will need doing again next year. Permanently incomplete.

5. I will not let this list of responsibilities, nor other lesser pastimes, stand in the way of new adventures.

And this one is the payoff! I blew off everything in sight to go to two foreign continents for fun this year. In unreported stories, I rode a helicopter to the top of a mountain, a horse up and down mountainous trails, and a rented bicycle over cobblestone streets. And believe it or not I'm usually the one who misses adventures because she has bound herself to responsibilities. An unqualified A+ for this one.

For the year, I think that's a B- average. I mark these pretty easy, don't I? I'll try to do better next year, both with loophole-free resolutions and keeping them. If you're short on accomplishments for the year, you can always use T-Rex' method.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New York ATC

New York's JFK airport was closed for a few hours due to snow, and when it reopened, taxiways and aprons were still a partly ploughed mess. Someone I know recorded their air traffic controllers' famous sense of humour.

Aircraft being handed off to ground by the tower were being told words to the effect of, "Welcome to New York. Good luck finding your gate. Contact ground on point niner."

An Iceland Air flight landed and called ground for taxi. The controller asked them if the winterscape "looked like home" to which they responded "it looks more like home than home looks right now."

Monday, December 27, 2010

Boxing Day

I'm not doing well on the "taking a blogging break" thing, but I keep finding things I want to announce to the world. A month ago today an Internet friend of mine got "the call." There are a lot of situations in which there is a "the call." This friend was not a Canadian pilot, so it wasn't a place in a groundschool at Air Canada. It was even better than that. Those of you who read the tags before the post already know how much better. "The call" came in as he was hooked up to a dialysis machine, telling him that a matching donor kidney was available.

He received the transplant, and although they say that the donor organ has not entirely woken up yet, he is feeling better than he has in a long time. I've never met him in person. He lives on a continent where I've never been. But the person who decided to sign that donor card and the family that okayed it make me so happy that I'd better stop typing this post or I'm going to cry and wreck my make-up, and I'm just going out to a party.

So to everyone who ever took the trouble to indicate according to their local regulations that they were willing to donate organs after death, you not only do it for the recipient and to ease the minds of your family who might otherwise be asked to donate the organs not knowing your wishes, but you also do it for everyone who knows that recipient, even a little bit.


Oh, I called this post Boxing Day, not just because it will still be December 26th in Canada when this posts, but also because in my family the origin of the term "Boxing Day" was said to be the tradition of boxing up the things you no longer need, and giving them away to someone who can use them, just what happens to donor organs.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Night Before Christmas

I don't mind the original poem, but I don't like 'Twas the Night Before Christmas parodies. So I'm not giving you one. Here is a new, original, aviation themed Christmas piece written by a Comics Curmudgeon reader I know only as Old Goat

The following is an excerpt from a CVR transcript:
Capt. S. Claus (15:26:37): Uh what a view of the Bay today.
First Officer B. Elf (15:26:42): yeah.
Elf (15:26:52): Skids up please, after takeoff checklist.
Claus (15:26:54): Skids up.
Claus (15:27:07): After takeoff checklist complete.
Claus (15:27:10.4): Birds.
Elf (15:27:11): Whoa.
(15:27:11.4): (Sound of thump/thud(s) followed by shuddering sound.)
Elf (15:27:12): oh (expletive).
Claus (15:27:13): Oh yeah.
(15:27:13): (Sound similar to decrease in reindeer noise.)
Elf (15:27:14): Uh oh.
Claus (15:27:15): We got one rolling — eight of ‘em rolling back.
(15:27:18): (Rumbling sound begins and continues until approximately 15:28:08.)
Claus (15:27:18.5): Giddy-up deer.
Claus (15:27:32.9): Mayday mayday mayday. Uh this is uh Sled One hit birds, we’ve lost power all reindeer turning back towards Pole Field.
North Pole Departure Control (15:27:42): Ok uh, you need to return to the Pole? Turn left heading of uh three six zero.
(15:27:43): (Sound similar to shaking noise from reindeer harness begins.)?___
Elf (15:28:02): Airspeed optimum restart. Three hundred knots. we don’t have that.
Claus (15:28:05): We don’t.
Departure control (15:28:05): Sled one, if we can get it for you do you want to try to land runway one three?
Elf (15:28:05): If three nineteen…
Claus (15:28:10.6): We’re unable. We may end up in Hudson Bay.
Departure control (15:28:31): Arright Sled One it’s gonna be left traffic for runway three one.
Claus (15:28:35): Unable.
Traffic Collision Avoidance System (15:28:36): Traffic traffic.
Departure control (15:28:36): Okay, what do you need to land?
Elf (15:28:37): (He wants us) to come in and land on one three … for whatever.
Predictive Windshear System (15:28:45): Go around. Windshear ahead.
Departure control (15:28:46): Sled One runway four’s available if you wanna make left traffic to runway four.
Claus (15:28:49.9): I’m not sure we can make any runway. Uh what’s over to our right anything in Canada maybe Nunavut?
Departure control (15:28:55): Ok yeah, off your left side is Nunavut airport.
Elf (15:29:00): No restart after thirty seconds, reindeer master one through eight confirm …
Departure control (15:29:02): You wanna try and go to Nunavut?
Claus (15:29:03): Yes.?___
Departure control (15:29:21): Sled One turn right two eight zero, you can land runway one at Nunavut.
Claus (15:29:22): We can’t do it.
Elf (15:29:24): Is that all the power you got? … number one? Or we got power on number one.
Departure control (15:29:27): Kay which runway would you like at Nunavut?
Flight Warning Computer (15:29:27): (Sound of continuous repetitive chime for 9.6 seconds.)
Claus (15:29:28): We’re gonna be in the Bay.
Departure control (15:29:33): I’m sorry say again Sled??___
Departure control (15:29:53): Sled One radar contact is lost you also got Saskatchewan airport off your ten o’clock about one hundred miles.
Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning system (15:29:55): Pull up. Pull up. Pull up. Pull up. Pull up. Pull up.
Elf (15:30:01): Got skids out.
Elf (15:30:03): Two hundred fifty feet in the air.
Ground Proximity Warning System (15:30:04): Too low. Terrain.
Elf (15:30:06): Hundred and seventy knots.
Elf (15:30:09): Got no power on any deer?
Radio from overhead commercial plane (15:30:09): I think he said he’s going in the Hudson.?___
Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning system (15:30:15): Caution terrain.
Elf (15:30:16): Hundred and fifty knots.
Claus (15:30:21): Got any ideas?
Elf (15:30:22): Actually not.
Departure control (15:30:23): Pole One if you can uh …. you got uh runway uh two nine available at Saskatchewan it’ll be ten o’clock and about ninety miles.
Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning system (15:30:24): Terrain terrain. Pull up. Pull up. (“pull up” repeats until the end of the recording).
Claus (15:30:38): Brace!

I especially like the recasting of the Hudson River as the Hudson Bay, and the resulting cameos by Nunavut and northern Saskatchewan, even though the whole of each province and territory gets one aerodrome.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cultural Window

I'm home from Cambodia but I keep wanting to learn more. I've paid a few dollars for iPod Khmer lessons and reading Cambodian news. I'm finding news stories about people killed on the Diamond Bridge during the water festival an interesting window into the culture, values and lives of the people of Cambodia.

This young woman dropped out of school after grade eight to work in a garment factory, to contribute to her family's income. Her mother wishes for her to be reincarnated in a rich and kind family where she can go to university and live a long life.

This young woman was Muslim, a member of the Cham ethnic minority. As far as I can see, her family look and speak the same way as ethnic Khmers. She was already an orphan, living with her grandmother.

In this video, monks place what look like offerings into a hole in the bridge, and issue a blessing before reopening the bridge to traffic.

And here is a play about the effect today of the time of Pol Pot. It's in Khmer, but there is a scene-by-scene translation of the dialogue. If you read just one, read Scene Seven. It sums it up in a way. It seems from my reading of the play that everyone in the country is carrying guilt. Everyone who remembers that time had to do something to survive, and carries the guilt of what they did, even if it's just a starving seven year old girl taking rice from her baby brother.

I'm oddly homesick for Cambodia, after being there only a short time, and I enjoy hearing the language again in these people's voices.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Winter Holiday

This post is scheduled as the sun is directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn, giving northerners like me the darkest day and the beginning of the return to longer days. No, I have no pagan upbringing. I like physics and I like understanding the model of the solar system that allows for a simple explanation of seasons, day length, and apparent solar and lunar positions. As far as I'm concerned, the reversing of the seasons is like the reversing of the Tonlé Sap river, an obvious reason to celebrate. Lots of people celebrate lots of things, about this time of year, and many of their festivals involve lights, probably influenced in timing if not in substance by the beginning of the end of the winter darkness.

I feel a little improper pronouncing to people what is in effect the blessing of a religion I don't strictly follow. Of course I do it sometimes, just as in Cambodia I gave many polite greetings and gestures that I didn't have the cultural or linguistic background to understand. I'm feel equally hypocritical wishing someone a happy Hanukkah or giving them Diwali greetings. I don't think there's anything wrong with doing so, nor in giving a religious greeting to someone who doesn't follow the corresponding faith. One Christian I know assured me that, despite the antics of some of his coreligionists, it is okay by him that not every joyous greeting or commercial activity in the entire month of December is labelled with the name of his God. In that vein, I will simply thank you all for reading, commenting, correcting, informing, and participating in what has turned into a quasi-community that I have the honour to host. I'm especially grateful to everyone who donated to the Cambodia effort, and I promise to continue telling you all about that next year.

I'll be back just before New Year's to see how I did on resolutions this year. I know already it's "badly," but a tradition is a tradition. It made me disproportionately happy when reader GPS Direct rolled off a list of silly and serious descriptors of me and admitted to knowing what my usual end-of-year topics would be. I think I didn't yet have "having people remember something about me" on my list of things that make me happy, but it should have been there. Thank you all for remembering my URL well enough to keep checking up on me for all this time.

In the meantime, enjoy anything you like to celebrate, and please keep an eye out for people for whom this is a season of pressure and loneliness. If you are someone who hopes only to survive this season, please hang on, and know that I at least am not expecting you to be automatically filled with joy and happiness just because of the date on the calendar, or the position of the sun with respect to the equator.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Re-Registration of All N-Registered Aircraft

In Canada when you buy or import an aircraft, or change any of the information (e.g. your name or address or the registration of the aircraft) you must obtain a certificate of registration for said aircraft. It's a piece of paper, about the size of a trade paperback, with another similar piece of paper stapled to it. The paper lists the basic information on the aircraft: make, model, registration, serial number, owner's name and address and commercial or private registration. The other piece of paper attached has the aircraft information and blanks for the name and address. If you sell the airplane or move, you fill in the new owner information on both pieces of paper, and send the main one into Transport. The secondary piece serves as a C of R until Transport sends you an amended one.

If you rent, borrow, ferry, or otherwise take command of an airplane, one of the things you do before flying is is check to ensure that the C of R and other key documents are on board and valid. Licence applicants are asked to list the required document and then asked questions like "when does this C of R expire?" They are expected to recognize that it's kind of a trick question, because it doesn't expire. A good answer would be, "It doesn't, but you need a new one if any of the information on it changes, or if this one becomes illegible." Most people keep their documents in a waterproof envelope, and it's pretty common to see a slightly dog-eared Canadian C of R that dates back to an aircraft import date in the 1970s.

I assume that the procedure is not completely different in the US. Except they're going to change it. It turns out that either Americans haven't been very good at sending in their aircraft registration cards, or that the FAA hasn't been very good at filing them and keeping their data entry up to date. Of the 357,000 private and commercial aircraft they do know about, they are aware of problems in the paperwork of 119,000, about a third.

This has come to light because, in pursuit of terrorists and drug runners, the US tracks the movement of aircraft based on their registration numbers. Not knowing who owns an airplane makes it less useful to track it. I guess you could say that right now the US tracks airplanes the way they track kids. You're expected to register them when you first get them, but they don't check back every year to make sure you still have that kid. The new system will make them more like automobiles, where you have to renew the registration every year. Canadians and Americans already do this every year with cars, with new licence plates or licence plate stickers (the Americans call them DEEcals), so it's not an alien concept, but I expect resistance.

Here's an anecdote from another news story, one I don't have a link to:

There have already been cases of criminals using U.S. registration numbers, also known as N-numbers or tail numbers, to disguise their airplanes. In 2008, Venezuela authorities seized a twin-engine plane with the registration number N395CA on the fuselage and more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine on board.

Soon afterward, airplane owner Steven Lathrop of Ellensburg, Wash., received a call from a reporter. "He sort of started the conversation with, 'Do you know where your airplane is? ... Your airplane's in a jungle in South America,'" Lathrop said.

Lathrop's Piper Cheyenne II XL was locked safely in its hangar at the Ellensburg airport. The smugglers had apparently chosen his tail number because the model was similar to their plane. "Anybody with a roll of duct tape can put any number they want on an airplane," Lathrop said.

The re-registration of hundreds of thousands of aircraft wouldn't eliminate that tactic. Just find an airplane that doesn't fly much, and that is similar to your stolen or re-marked airplane, and make your questionable flights under that registration. It would narrow the pool of suitable registrations, by removing thousands of derelict, abandoned or I've seen some US aircraft with registrations in tiny letters and numbers. Many do have large numbers. I suspect that specification of the required size of registration number included a clause that grandfathered existing ones until the aircraft were repainted, and some people never repaint their airplanes.

In Canada we send in an AAIR (Annual Airworthiness Information Report) on each registered aircraft, so if an airplane is sold, scrapped or disused, that information reaches Transport Canada through that channel. It's still possible, I suppose that Canadian records are in disarray, but they've always been okay for any aircraft I've been familiar with that I've looked up. If Canada instituted an annual aircraft registration scheme it would be awful: we would have to pay a fee and no matter how much they charged, the bureaucracy collecting the fee would cost more than it made, and they'd still screw up the database. Such confidence I have in government and in databases.

The FAA plans over the next few years to cancel the registration certificates of all 357,000 aircraft, and require owners to re-register. The first batch of notices have already been sent to aircraft owners. I expect American aircraft owners to be displeased.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Starting the Build

We were given the option to choose what time the vehicles would come to take us to the build and chose the earlier option of seven a.m. I don't know if anyone else was biting their tongue against suggesting "four a.m." There's something about pilots and black humour. Our transport is a convoy of vans because the rural roads aren't suitable for a bus. Our drivers are here punctually and sort themselves out in the narrow street for boarding. They made a fuss about "our cars aren't like your cars" and "our roads aren't like your roads" in telling us how long it would take to get to the build site, but honestly I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow if the same fleet of used but serviceable passenger vans came to take us to a Canadian farm. Most seats even had seatbelts. We have a further briefing reminding us not to touch the children, and don't compliment people's children either. They don't say why. Either it's more fear that we want to take them, or it's a society where so many children die young that it's bad luck to draw attention to their merits, lest the gods take them back for their own. I'm kind of lost for a way to make contact with a person with whom I share almost no language or culture. Can I admire their cows?

We drive off through some poorer areas of the city, and then through increasingly rural communities. It's really difficult to take pictures through the windows of a moving vehicle and impossible not to want to record some of the things we are seeing. All manner of goods are being transported by bicycle. There was a pair of yoked oxen pulling a large cart all hung with different sorts of reddish pottery. I recognized the same kind of platter we'd had our fish served on at the sitting-on-floor restaurant, for example. I can imagine that that identical scene, the oxen, the wooden yoke, the cart and the pottery being sold has repeated for a thousand, maybe two thousand years here. Could be more. Pottery has been made for millenia, and the skill probably came here with the initial human migration to the area? Domesticate the ox? Ditto. Manufacture wheeled vehicles? The same. I love doing things, even the simplest things like running barefoot, kneading bread, or seeing an ox cart laden with pottery, that have been done since before recorded history.

After an hour or so we turn off of paved roads onto a red dirt road. The clay won't need to come far. There's a busy and extremely interesting-looking market right at the corner of the paved road and the dirt one. It's the intersection of the things the people who come down the dirt road produce and the goods that they want to take home with them. We also pass a pony pulling a cart on which there is a dead cow. I wonder what the story is there. I would expect that you would walk a cow to slaughter, and that if a cow died in the field you would butcher it there, or burn or bury it there if the meat were considered unusable.

There are houses and people all along the dirt road. Some of the houses are very simple, at ground level and made of palm fronds and bamboo. Others are more elaborate than the ones we will be building, same style in that they are up on stilts, but larger and with fancy metal railings and painted shutters. I doubt anyone has plumbing. The road is crazy with potholes, but our driver is very skilled at going around them without excessive swerving or braking. In fact, Cambodians in general drive well. No road rage, sensible speeds, and excellent maneuvering in difficult conditions. I can't speak for their adherence to vehicle regulations, because I can't be sure there are any. Certainly there are no rules forbidding four people and a live chicken on the same motorbike.

We pass some flags in a field which someone says mark it as a minefield. There are chickens running around loose everywhere, chickens with longer legs and thinner breasts than the ones at home. The cows are quite a different breed, too. One person on the bus calls them water buffalo, but I know what a water buffalo looks like and these are Asian cows, they look like the ones that wander around India. Other people think the cows and dogs are abused because you can see their ribs, but they look healthy to me. The dead one back on the horse cart even had some meat on it. You can see my ribs and I'm not in any way starving. North Americans have become used to the shape of overfed animals, and of course these animals have much thinner coats than the ones that stand around in Canadian winters. These ones are all either yoked, tethered, or being tended by children with sticks, and the latter two sorts are all languidly eating what looks like lush vegetation. They don't have to get through a cold winter, either.

The van stops. We're here. We get out, surrounded by curious Khmer people, giving us just enough room to follow the Tabitha leader to our marshalling point, while they watch us. I give the "jum reap sur" greeting I've been taught and it is returned, but the experience is more like waving to the crowd than meeting a group of people. There are no introductions. Nari shows us where to put our belongings. It's a low platform made of strips of bamboo nailed to a wooden frame and covered with a mat. There is also a cooler full of water on he ground there, several more cases of water, plus there are hammers are on another table. By the time we can put down our bags and pick up hammers, we're being divided into subteams and led along the paths in the village to the homes that need completing. I say 'completing' because to ensure the project can be completed and for everyone's safety, local contractors have already poured the foundation, erected a frame, put on the roof and laid the floorboards in place. We climb up the wooden ladder and Nari tells us to put two nails in each floorboard at each point that it crosses a joist. She also tells us how to put the walls on, but I didn't do walls until later in the day, so I'll describe that later. Three or four of our six people put on our work gloves and start nailing floorboards down.

I wanted to take a picture of the frame when we began, and of all the building materials you bought, but I didn't want to lag behind and miss out on the instructions that were being given inside. Then once the instructions were given, it was just "go!" I'll take a "before" picture at the next house. We want to get this done and there have been warnings that the work is very difficult. I'm following one board across the house, driving two nails, shuffling backwards to the next joist, and driving two more. I put in about ten nails, straight and true, one after another. I'm setting them with a couple of taps, then using a goofy two handed hammer technique, because if I'm going to do this all day and all the next, a little girlishness is a cheap price to pay for a functional wrist tomorrow. I'm starting to think this will be pretty easy. The next nail bends. I pull it out and try again with a new nail. It goes in a little further, then also bends. I straighten it out and that works for a moment but now the head is bent and I can't hit it straight. I try a third, and bending that makes it three in a row. What the hell? Is my wrist worn out already? There's not a knot here, and the joist seems normal, too. I skip that joist and move on. The next nail goes in properly. The next one I notice before I start driving it has a manufacturing defect, a tail deformity. I knew in advance that the made in Cambodia nails were going to be a little less predictable that the ones I'm used to, but I consider these building materials to be something you have given me to accomplish a mission, and I want to use them well. I select a healthier-looking nail and drive it in. I try counting blows per nail, but I can only count to ten in Khmer, and sometimes it takes twenty hammer blows to get a nail in. Sometimes I hit the nail and it feels like I'm trying to drive it into an engine block. There's just no progress into the wood. I hold it with my pliers and bang and bang on it until it finally succumbs. Yeah, that seems pretty damned wimpy to me, too. I seem to remember that if I hold a hammer right, the nail should be flush in three or four blows. As I clean up my bent nails I realize that as a group we are producing a lot of bent nails. It's not just me. Others have hit the same almost-impossibly-hard spots, too. I had to wait until the the van ride back to figure out why it was so hard to drive a simple nail, but I'll let you in on it now. The boards are made of mahogany. Tropical hardwoods are hard.

I am being extra careful to get the nails all the way down. It's better to leave a hammer imprint around the head of the nail than to have any metal sticking up. Sure it seems like I'm building a tree house, but people's babies are going to be crawling around up here. Babies will probably be born in here. I don't want there to be anything poking up that could hurt someone, or even damage their carefully made bamboo mats.

It seems like a lot longer than twenty minutes before someone calls "water break." We've made good progress, though. The floor is at least half-nailed and the walls are up maybe a quarter of the way around. We guzzle some water and get back to work. There are a few really tough spots in the floor, like the one where I bent three nails, but we get two nails into every joist, and figure out ways to nail down the boards at the tricky corners, where the joist stops a little short of the concrete post or a nail has to go diagonally to hit wood. When the area that still needs nails is smaller than the hands and knees footprint of the number of people we have working on it, I go outside and see if the wall-nailing people need help. They have it under control and don't want to swap out, so I declare that I'm taking a photo break, and no one objects.

There are three mothers with children sitting in the shade of a palm-frond house quite close to the one we are building. I greet them in Khmer and receive the same greeting in return, then hold up my camera and say djaa?. That means "yes" said by a woman. The phrase for "may I please take your photograph?" was really long and I haven't memorized it. The women smile and have the children to look at me and smile. I photograph the first pair and then the mother urges the child to come up and look at the photo on the camera. Mom has seen this before. The first girl seems pleased with her picture, but the second child expresses discomfort when I raise the camera, so I don't take her picture, just lower the camera and say "okay, no picture." I try to talk to them, using the tiny number of useful words my guidebook has given me for this situation. I look at the construction of the existing house. It may not be as sturdy, but the construction has required far more skill. I try to ask if who made it, and only get across that I am interested in it. I understand from them that it is not so good when the rains come.

The wall-builders still don't want a substitute, so I nominate myself to go and get more water for the group. As I walk back with the water I notice a lot of plastic garbage on the ground, so I make that my next task. I find an extra plastic bag on our stuff-platform and start picking up trash around our house and around the village. Where did all this stuff come from? I don't think these people are using hair conditioner and contact lens solution, nor eating Chinese-branded junk food and candies in plastic and foil wrappers. My trash collection route passes by another house, in the same almost-completed condition as ours. The group leader is working on that one. I ask him if he knows where the plastic comes from and he doesn't. "Maybe they go through someone else's garbage looking for things they can use?" The villagers see me collecting the trash. I wonder if they think I'm taking it because I want to keep it, or if they appreciate that I am cleaning up. While I'm picking up the trash I step onto a grassy area between the road and the fence and then I realize what I haven't been doing. Mines! I told myself before I came that I would not step anywhere that was not obviously trodden. Obviously this area next to the fence had to have been stepped on when they were building the fence, and I'm sure people and cows step here all the time, it's just that I wasn't thinking about it. It's like when I land and realize that I didn't consciously do the short final check. I put the gear down, I checked it down, but I missed that last little check. No harm done, but if you can miss one check you can miss another. I think about what I'm doing and fill a bag with gum-wrapper-sized bits of plastic, then go to see if another group needs more hammer power.

Everyone has finished their floors by now and several people have splintered off to start floors on other houses. I find one of those houses and join them. As first there is a conflict, because while my original group was nailing all the way along one board, these people are nailing all the way along one joist. I switch to their way and we stop stepping on each other. I did some wall-nailing too, which I'll describe tomorrow. And then someone says it's time for a lunch break.

Lunch was actually the worst part of the trip. Not that there was anything wrong with the bread or with the food chosen by the committee. It was all excellent. It was turning our backs on all these people and eating baguettes and cheese and cured ham and bananas while they watch us. I have a choice between turning my back on them, looking at them and eating in their faces, or not meeting their gaze. They aren't starving. And yes, I understand that if people don't eat white bread and cheese and butter that they will get sick on eating it. But this makes me feel like an alien. The very least I can do to show you that I am a friend is to squat in the dirt next to you and share a meal. Couldn't we bring food we could share? How about if we bring a sack of brown rice and a basket of dried fish and the villagers cook a meal for everyone while we build. Sure it wouldn't be prepared to Canadian Food Safe guidelines but neither are the restaurant meals we get around here. If their water is so bad that it would irreparably harm us to eat rice that had been boiled in it for forty-five minutes, then we're working on the wrong project here. We may be different, but we are the same species. It would not be an impossible task to devise a way that we could all share a meal.

I eat rapidly and then leave the food behind to try to talk and take pictures. Someone has a better phrasebook and manages to ask a woman how many children she has. "Buan." No "braun." Five. That's nice. I guess. Having lots of children is good in this culture, right? Five is lots, right? We don't know. Maybe five is not enough. We all smile happily at having achieved some sort of communication, and the little conversation gets discussed down the line in Khmer for the people who couldn't hear or understand it the first time. I don't know if the hardest part of a conversation is knowing the words, or knowing what words you need. They probably feel the same way about us. And at least we have the context of being able to see pretty much their whole lives in front of us. They have no idea what our lives are like.

These kids were all sitting on a log next to the main track through the village. You can't see it in the picture, but the kid nearest me, has an infected toenail. Even though the living conditions are so different than home for these people, everything is so different that I'm having to consciously hammer it into my own head that this is the Third World. People in the Third World die of simple things like infections. Ergo, this kid sitting right here on this log might die because he kicked a jagged rock and then stepped in cow manure, or whatever kid-normal thing it is that he did. I have a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide in my bag over there on that platform, not four metres away. But you don't touch people's kids, so you most certainly don't pour strange foaming stuff over their toes. And disinfectant isn't magic. It's just part of the whole medical apparatus that I have become so accustomed to, I still don't appreciate how much it is lacking here. It's going in about as slowly as those nails into mahogany.

Another floor done and it's only two o' clock. We move on again and have to synchronize nailing systems with another group of people. We're not quite done that on. There's a board that is too close to another one at one end, and partly nailed down, but we managed to work together and lever it away so the boards are not overlapping in the finished floor. That was a good bit of teamwork. By two-thirty they're declaring it time to get back in the bus. "But that wasn't a whole day!" The group leader doesn't want people to get tired and have accidents. We tidy up and get in the vans. Everyone shares the experience of ridiculously hard to hammer wood. Mahogany flooring. Wow. It may not be super straight and some of the nails are bent and then hammered in flat anyway, but do you know anyone with mahogany floors?

The van we're in has worse suspension than the one I rode out. I should have worn a sports bra. We pass a truck laden with women all in matching headscarves, probably coming home from a factory job. It's not so much a truck as a long wooden box with slats across, the women all sitting on the slats, like on the thwarts of a canoe, and the box pulled as a trailer by a motorcycle.

That evening I bought a Khmer phrasebook from a street vendor, and I'll tell you about that, later.

This is a lot of work putting these posts together and I have a lot of things to do, as I imagine many of you do. I'm probably going to take a break from heavy-duty trip-report posts until after Christmas. There will be a few intermediate ones on current affairs and my usual end-of-year topics, then I'll return to the rest of the build and the other parts of the Cambodia trip in the new year.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Depressingest Day

This is not a cheerful post. The faint-of-heart may wish to skip it and read about happy cute children, tomorrow.

The next day I come down to the breakfast room at 6:30, when breakfast is scheduled to start, but it's not open yet. I go out into the lobby to find out if there is a problem and before I can say anything some members of my group say, "You haven't heard?" Uh, heard what? They gesture at the TV and tell me: hundreds of people were killed and injured last night during the fireworks.

The bridge that I saw night before last and realized must go over the river I was looking for was the site of last night's carnage. There's an island in the river, a festival site, and the police were trying to set it up so there was one bridge to the island and one bridge from the island, but policing, as I've unintentionally documented, is stretched thin and not in your face. I think in a culture that was so recently so devastated by brutal police action, it's important for the police to not be party killers. People started going both ways on both bridges, causing a human traffic jam, like the one I was in the night before. All it takes at that point is for someone to faint or otherwise fall and people to push over them and trip, and you have a pile-up and people trampled. Tragically the police tried to clear the logjam with water cannons, while people were trying to escape by grabbing onto the electrical wires overhead, leading to electrocution as another cause of injury. I see by this article (I know it's from an unorthodox source, but it gives most of the other information as I know it) that officials deny electrocutions, so that is not confirmed. Some people jumped off the bridge to escape and were injured or drowned that way. This Guardian article has an interview implying that some people may have drowned without realizing they could stand up in the shallow river.

It's so Third World. You hear some kind of news report like this at least every year. Hundreds of people killed in a firetrap building or a ferryboat sinking. We gasp and murmur about how it wouldn't happen here because we have safety standards, then the news moves on to the stock market report or a by-election in Sudbury. But now it is here. The TV is tuned to a local station, showing the grisly remains on the bridge after surging crowds trampled some people and others were electrocuted by overhead wiring while trying to escape. Desk staff switch the TV station to CNN in English for the foreigners. CNN moves on to catalogue other mass deaths at public events and we switch back to the Khmer station. This is footage from last night showing people being carried away from the scene, dangling by their arms and legs. Local television live coverage shows some close-ups of the bodies laid out on the ground like so many items in the lost & found, as relatives walk between the rows, looking for missing loved ones. The customs of what media show are different here. In Canada they would take some footage of the shoes, clothing and souvenirs that still litter the bridge, and interview a bereaved family. Here we see the actual victims of trampling and suffocation. Another detail that struck me from the English language newspaper story is the actions of bystanders trying to help. It said that they placed pieces of cardboard over the faces of people who were obviously dead, and used pieces of cardboard to fan those they felt might be alive. In Canada it would have been jackets or blankets. The generic thing that an untrained or unequipped person does in a first aid situation in Canada is to cover the victim with a blanket or jacket to keep them warm. I wonder how many first aid manuals have that advice, oblivious to the fact that the opposite may be called for.

The Prime Minister is announcing a national day of mourning. After breakfast I Google for local mourning customs and then change into a white shirt, it's a pilot shirt, the only white I have.

We get on a bus and go to the Tabitha headquarters to be briefed on the project. We go in through the store, upstairs past all kinds of brightly coloured silk items and up to the roof where chairs are arranged for us under a cardboard awning. Some women are sitting up there working on handicrafts. Someone hands out bottles of water for us and Nari introduces herself. Jean, the founder and head of Tabitha is not here because she is in hospital. She would normally give this briefing. Nari is Khmer and apologizes in advance for her imperfect grammar and accent, but is perfectly understandable throughout.

There have been 1053 houses built this year under Tabitha's auspices. I don't know how many have been by clumsy foreigners and how many by local contractors. She teaches us and has us practice a formal Khmer greeting jum reap sur and good-bye jum reap lea. Ground rules include a strict admonition not to touch children: the parents may think we want to take them, and may actually offer them over, producing bad feelings all around when we reject them. We must not cry out or show pain or anger if we are injured during the building. It's bad luck for the house. Smile, walk away, and seek first aid at a distance. There will be a latrine for our use. Bring toilet paper. Eat salty food for breakfast on the morning of the build and be sure to drink at least eight bottles of water--that's four litres--during the day. Take a water break every twenty minutes. Wear sunscreen. Tabitha will have bread and water for us, it's up to us to buy sandwich fillings if we want them. (We want, and already have a committee organized to do that). Do not leave food behind: the villagers don't know how to eat cheese and butter and other foods that we consider normal. There will be a table provided for us to put our personal belongings, where they will be safe. Don't stash things elsewhere in the village, because they can't vouch for things not being touched there. Get permission to take photographs. No gifts for anyone, unless we have the same for everyone in the village. The Cambodians will finish up at the end of the day if we are unable to.

Today we have some mandatory sightseeing so that we understand the context of Cambodia's situation, and Nari is going to send us off with her personal story. In 1975 when the Khmer Rouge marched into the city to overthrow the government, people welcomed them, believing that this would mean the end of the civil war and the US bombing attacks. The army announced that the city was to be evacuated immediately because of an imminent attack. Nari's family took very little, both because of the short notice and because they were told it was to be a three day evacuation. She was gone for three years eight months and twenty days. During that time, young Nari was immediately separated from her parents, and there was no school, market, banks or hospitals. They had to work from four a.m. until nine p.m. in the rice fields then walk back to their camp. Sometimes soldiers came in the night with flashlights to take people away for interrogation. If you answered their questions properly you were okay, but the interrogation might take until four a.m., meaning no sleep before you had to go back to work. As she tells it, it's almost as if she's willing to accept those working hours, even willing to endure interrogation, but that stealing her sleep is the last straw. She's clearly still angry at that. She uses the two syllables "Pol Pot" to refer to the whole episode. "In Pol Pot" means "during the Pol Pot regime" and "the atrocities perpetuated by Pol Pot" and anything else associated with that time.

In 1979 she was allowed to leave the camp and went straight back to Phnom Penh to find her parents. She went to S21, where our tour group will be going next, when the blood was still fresh on the floor to look at mugshots. Nari was the only survivor of her whole family. She still fears the night. They have stolen her sleep permanently, not just for those almost four years.

She says that Tabitha is not about giving people things, but getting people who have become passive from occupation and abuse to do things for themselves. She describes the first time that she was sent to greet an arriving build group at the airport. She didn't speak English, she wasn't used to foreigners or strangers, but she was just told to go. The anger at that is still there, too, but she says she went, with a sign and found the group, and so on from there. I assume from the fact that she is giving a briefing normally made by the head of the organization that she is a senior administrator, but she doesn't have any more airs about it than the women who sit on the floor behind her, occasionally checking us out as they work.

She thanks us, and we thank her, and offer her the formal goodbye that she taught us. We have a few minutes to shop in the store before we go, buying beautiful handmade silk things at factory polyester prices. I buy Christmas presents. And how about a new handbag to go with those shoes? We hang onto those colourful pieces of silk, because they are the bright spots in a pretty grim day.

We get back on the bus and stop at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Yeah, it's going to be that kind of day. This is a former high school in an urban area, but when the Khmer Rouge closed all the schools and evacuated everyone from urban areas, they converted it into Security Office 21, a detention and torture centre. Everyone who had an education, a profession, spoke a foreign language, or even who wore glasses was a suspect. Our polite tour guide, probably born more than ten years after S21 closed down, recites graphic details of the meaning of each room and artifact without a hint of sensationalism. It's not as if he's trying to shock us, definitely not to be dramatic. More like he's trying to convince us that these atrocities really happened, and convince us in the most scientific manner possible. Later I read the brochure I was given at the beginning of the tour and see that that is precisely what they are doing. The mandate of the museum is to collect and preserve evidence, for eventual trials, or to prevent people from denying it happened. The brochure says, "preventing new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere else on Earth," but I know that there's no amount of documentation that will prevent the next systematic genocide.

This might mean no laughing or no smiling. It didn't matter, as I had no urge to do either.

I don't really want to write about what went on at S21, but I didn't include details in yesterday's history post, so I suppose I have to. We toured first through the torture rooms, furnished with iron bedframes with shackles and various everyday implements made sinister by their presence here. It is still easy to see that the rooms are ordinary classrooms divided in half with brick walls, but most classrooms do not have such dark stains on the checkered tiles. They also put glass in the windows to minimize the screams escaping the facility. When the Vietnamese took the city in 1979 the guards and prisoners were all gone with the exception of fourteen decomposed murder victims still chained to these beds. I remember one of my group members saying, "They killed him with a shovel, and left the shovel." The guide was not making remarks that specific, but rather presenting the evidence and allowing us to draw the conclusions. One of the fourteen was female, and when we are in the room where she was found he says there is no way to know what torture methods were used on which prisoner, but that there was a mosquito net in this room, and not in others, and they would not have used mosquito nets for the benefit of naked prisoners. Each room contains a black and white photograph of what it looked like when it was found. Other than removal of filth and human remains, the rooms are pretty much as they were. I can't imagine being a prisoner. I can only just put myself in the shoes of the people who discovered the facility, going from room to room discovering and documenting what they found before they burned the corpses.

He shows us a chair that looks like an implement of torture, but is actually just the chair where prisoners were photographed. Many of the mugshots are displayed around the walls. They look at us, the captors, with fear, resignation, confusion, defiance. They're all individuals. One of them has a t-shirt with cute little bare footprints across it. I think I had one like that in 1979. Some of the prisoners are children. Some women hold babies. In the early pictures the prisoners hold simple numbers. In later ones they have more elaborate mugshot data with the date of arrest and prisoner number. The guide insists on showing us the range of numbers on a particular day, proving that there were sometimes hundreds of arrests a day. If someone was arrested, they took their whole family, even children, to avoid retribution later. If a prisoner died during torture, the guard was suspected of colluding to keep their secrets, and also arrested. Perhaps that is part of how Cambodia is not consumed by hate. It wasn't really one group of people doing this to another. It was a horrible epidemic that swept people into doing and having done horrible things.

While they were not being tortured, prisoners were housed either in individual cells, each 80 cm by 200 cm, tiny bricked sections of a classroom, or upstairs in unconverted classrooms, all shackled together in rows by the feet. He shows us the shackles, a photo, and a painting by a survivor. Approximately 20,000 people, including children, came through this facility. There were seven people known to be released alive. One of them was the founding curator of this museum and still works to train the tour guides. I can't even stand to tell you all the details of my visit, and this guy re-lives it for the guides. I can't really listen to it all. Fortunately, it's a little bit of work to understand the guide's accent, so after I have had enough I stop making that effort and just look at the pictures. Every once in a while a phrase filters though and I hear, "and that is how they killed the babies" while being aware that the words "sharp stick" are still in my mental buffer.

Above: A view of one of the individual cells. The black metal pieces have been added by the museum to prevent the poor brickwork from collapsing. Below: A room where the cells have been removed, but marks on the floor show the cell size relative to the people standing on it.

Part of what made it so horrific was that it was a high school. Everyone has high schools. Movies tend to make torture facilities some dark dank dungeon or high tech sterile room. It's more insidious for the imagination to make it a high school, because you're going to see those every day. The construction materials for the conversion are the same kind of bricks we see every day in construction projects all over the city. This piece of apparatus was originally used for the kids to do gymnastics. They repurposed it. It's not a gallows: executions were not conducted here.

In another room there are untidy shelves overflowing with skulls. There used to be a map of the country made out of skulls here, but they moved it to another museum. I feel uncomfortable not about the presence of human body parts, but because I understand that Buddhists believe that the body must be treated with respect in order for the soul to be at peace. Even without Buddhist beliefs, it seems a little callous. If prisoners were still alive after about four months in this facility, once they had confessed to being spies for the KGB and CIA (even though they'd probably never heard of either entity), they were blindfolded and removed in a truck. We'll follow the path of those trucks later. First, a light lunch! Yeah, who scheduled this?

We don't think we're going to want to eat anything, but we do. I guess it's a way to confirm that we're alive and healthy. "So what do you think, Aviatrix?" asks someone. There's more than one thing to think about this? We're a nasty species.

The bus ride takes us out to a more rural area and then stops in front of a gate where we pay a small admission fee and break into groups for another guided tour. A sign requests that we remove our shoes at the memorial, and observe five minutes of silence out of respect for the dead. The area inside the gate is an uneven field with grass growing on it, a few small buildings, and an ornate tower at one side. This is a Killing Field. No euphemism or hyperbole here. It's a field, and it was used for killing. The guide shows us where the trucks parked and unloaded the prisoners after S21 was done with them. He says that the prisoners didn't do any work here, were simply led to the edge of a hole, killed and buried. I suspect that it wasn't the guards who dug the holes, though.

The tower is called a stupa, and is a traditional style of memorial to revered people. This one is constructed in multiple levels, with victims' clothing displayed on the lowest, several layers of skulls, then other bones on higher levels. The guide details the types of bones on each level, no doubt translating a solemn catalogue of bone names from Khmer, and he probably deliberately chose colloquial over latin names for most of them, but it does sound like the song about what bone is connected to what bone. There are over 8900 skulls in the stupa, along with a roughly corresponding number of other disconnected bones. He takes us up to the stupa and I take off my hat and shoes to walk around the interior in silence. The skulls are catalogued in sets: "juvenile males under 15" "mature females 41-60" "senile male over 60." The letters L, R and N at the end of a word in the local accent is pronounced very subtly. "Senile" and "senior" probably sound identical. When I have completed the five minute silence, my tour group is nowhere in sight. I wander off in search of them, picking up on the periphery of other tours, people not in my group, and some in languages I don't know. I linger, pretending to read a sign while listening to other people's guides. They're mostly talking about the ways prisoners were executed. You'd think they'd have it down to an assembly line procedure but this guy is pointing out the sharpness of a particular kind of palm frond, which can be used to slit people's throats, and that guy is talking about smashing heads, while the other guy is describing the versatility of DDT. It's a lethal agent and a deodorizer. They didn't shoot prisoners because bullets are expensive and noisy, compared to naturally sharpened palm fronds and shovels. I find my tour group coming back the other way, at a pit where they recovered I think it was 66 headless corpses wearing Khmer Rouge uniforms. Maybe it was 166. Sufficient to make it clear that no one was safe. This blog entry includes enough photos to give you a virtual walkthrough of the site. Don't miss the baby head-smashing tree.

There's a film inside another building, another hats off, shoes off site. I notice female Muslim visitors who do not remove their headgear. It's interesting how one culture's respect is another's disrespect. You probably would be frowned on for entering the Washington Monument barefoot, and I've been cautioned to wear a hat to attend a religious ceremony before. Even in religions as close as Judaism and Christianity men have opposite requirements for head coverings in a place of worship. I'm guessing any conflict between hat removal and headscarf wearing has been resolved during a thousand years of a Muslim minority in Khmer territory. The movie interviews someone who lived near here, and who came back home in 1979 to see new buildings and tools at what used to be a Chinese graveyard, and didn't know why. There were nine foreigners killed here. European foreigners, I think they mean. They were journalists. I wonder how long they held onto hope of filing a story about this place. The museum refers to a "sealed" tower, but as you can see the walls have been slid open in places so you could reach out and touch the skulls if curiosity outweighed respect. I asked about what became of the Chinese people who had once been buried here. The guide said that a few bodies were found who had died of natural causes, but didn't say if there had been an official relocation.

Here we see the garb of people inspired by a charismatic young communist revolutionary about whom they knew little. And on the left, the uniform of the Khmer Rouge.

I have two consolations today. The first is that the stupa is dedicated as a measure of proper respect to all those killed by the regime, soothing my concern for the effect of casually handled skulls on the eternal souls of the dead. The second is that only seven people had to live very long with memories of this place.

Back on the bus, there are kids outside the windows. Someone realizes that they are asking for empty water bottles, and tosses them one. It's on the other side of the bus, so I can't see the kids, just the people tossing them out the window. Someone cheers that the littlest girl got a bottle. "That's sadly like feeding ducks," I say. You know how you always try to get a big piece to the shy duck at the back? And how the mean duck always chases it down and takes it away. Apparently one of the girls knocked down the girl and took her bottle. Later the bottle throwers will be chastised for disobeying the "give nothing to anyone" rule. I suppose the kids fighting over the bottles were demonstrated proof that it just leads to strife. And I'm told one kid had a big wad of dollar bills from begging, too. The kids were playing and dancing until they saw the tourists, then they all put on their sad faces to come and beg. They should be in school, learning a real trade.

We go home and have supper. As I watch people in the street and in the café I see them, and I also see their little skulls. Human skulls are quite small, really. A lot of the face is flesh, the back of the head hair and neck muscle.

The makeshift patient transport above was recorded by a photographer who was in Cambodia in 2008. There's no Cambodian who has worked in hospitals for forty years, and no one who has been locally trained by someone who was. They had nothing and had to make it all up from scratch, because almost every doctor in the country was killed in the Khmer Rouge purge. Last night there must have been a terrible feeling of helplessness among emergency workers, and everyone involved. I understand that many of the dead were removed from the bridge alive, but that the hospital infrastructure was so overwhelmed by all the casualties, they were releasing bodies directly to families without them being registered as deaths.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Historical Background

Cambodian history is a little confusing because there are so many players and they keep changing sides and positions. The names Cambodia and Kampuchea are simply different translations of the same Khmer word. Khmer is the name of the language and also of the majority ethnic group throughout the area's history. It's taken a while for me to work out who was in power when and whom the Americans were supporting or bombing at any given time. If you read this five page article you'll know about as much as I understand of modern Cambodian history, and I summarize it here, along with some ancient history that I have from the museum.

Khmer Kingdoms

The first Khmer kingdom was the Funan from the first to the sixth century AD. It was absorbed into the Chenla state which ruled from the 7th to 8th century, and then in the 9th century, King Jayavarman II established himself as god-king, ruling from the northern capital of Angkor over a Khmer Empire that eventually encompassed lands within modern Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. In 1432, Angkor was sacked and the capital was moved to the south. The Empire continued to wane over the next few hundred years, losing territory to Vietnam and Thailand.

French Protectorate

In the 19th century, King Ang Duong fended off the invaders by negotiating with France to make Cambodia a French protectorate. The French did little development work, just built roads and railroads that allowed resource extraction, and maintained the monarchy as puppet kings. Cambodia achieved independence from France in 1953. In order to make the transition to a democracy, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated as King and successfully ran for president in 1955.

Civil War

During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Vietnamese communists used Cambodia as a safe base. King Sihanouk tried to steer a course that would not upset either the Americans or the Vietcong, because he felt the Vietcong would eventually win the struggle and knew he'd have to live with them after the Americans left. Cambodian communists, known as the Khmer Rouge, were relatively weak at that time.

In 1970 the Sihanouk government was overthown in a coup led principally by Sihanouk's pro-American General Lon Nol. The new government was immediately recognized by the United States. Sihanouk joined the Khmer Rouge to try and get his country back.

The Americans had already been bombing Cambodia to get at the Vietcong, but now with a sympathetic leader in Phnom Penh, they were free to fight more extensively on Cambodian soil, effectively fighting Cambodia's civil war on behalf of Lon Nol's government. Casualties, of course, included non-combatant Cambodians, who blamed both the Americans and Lon Nol, and wanted their king back.

After years of fighting, the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. The man who would call himself Pol Pot was the real leader, not King Sihanouk. He evacuated towns, executed all perceived opposition, and indirectly killed almost two million people through mismanagement, slave labour and famine. Pol Pot blamed the Vietnamese and went to war against them, plus accused pretty much everyone of undermining the glorious revolution, resulting in more executions. Tomorrow's post will give many more details on the Pol Pot regime, and the purpose of this post is to put that episode in its historical context.

Amongst those who fled to Vietnam to avoid being executed for imagined treason were Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, whom the Vietnamese installed as the Cambodian leader and Foreign Minister when they felled the Khmer Rouge government in 1979.

Vietnamese Occupation

The end of the Khmer Rouge and the resulting flood of refugees into Thailand allowed the rest of the world to see the shocking conditions in the country, but it was so disorganized it was difficult to deliver aid. The Khmer Rouge continued guerrilla attacks, and meanwhile former King Sihanouk left the Khmer Rouge and founded his own resistance movement while Son Sann, Lon Nol's former PM, formed a third resistance movement. The only way they could get support from the US was for the three resistance groups to join together, with King Sihanouk named as the leader. This left the US and the UN supporting what was effectively still the Khmer Rouge, the Communists, against the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese finally withdrew and UN peacekeeping forces tried to restore order.

The prohibitions on this sign were fairly common. We hoped that fewer people were walking around with hand grenades than hats.

Constitutional Monarchy

Elections were held in 1992, bringing Sihanouk's son Norodom Ranariddh to power as in a constitutional monarchy that returned his father to the throne. The election was contested such that Ranariddh was forced to share power with Hun Sen as co-prime minister. The Khmer Rouge, still led by Pol Pot continued to disrupt the country until Pol Pot's arrest in 1997. After some friction within the government coalition, partly resolved through intervention by the King, Han Sen is today the Prime Minister and Ranariddh Head of the National Assembly.

What a resume for Sihanouk. From puppet king under a French protectorate, to King, to Prime Minister, to Communist guerrilla leader, token king again, founder of a different revolutionary movement, leader of a revolutionary coalition, and in the end back to King in a modern democracy. He is listed as the 1st, 12th, 16th, 20th, 23rd, 25th, 26th, 27th, 35th and 36th Prime Minister of Cambodia. And the guy is still alive! I think after all that you deserve to know that his full name with titles is Preah Karuna Preah Bat Sâmdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk Preahmâhaviraksat.

And here's a picture of four people and a live chicken on a motorbike.

We saw a bike with more live chickens on board, but weren't quick enough with the camera.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Appreciation of Multiple Arms

We enjoy another great breakfast at the hotel. They don't have the noodle dish today, instead something that is labelled Chicken Porridge. Porridge to me is something principally made of mushed grains, but to this translator it is apparently anything served hot in bowls. It's chicken rice soup. Also good. And I eat vast quantities of baguettes with French butter. And juice, which I realize now is Tang. Kind of a shame with all the fresh fruit around, but Tang is actually pretty tasty. We were supposed to go today for our indoctrination at the Tabitha centre, where we would get information about the families we would be working with and to make sure we all understood cultural instructions and NGO rules. Because of the water festival however, they are short-staffed and have decided to postpone it until tomorrow, shortening the Tabitha indoctrination and combining it with our visit to a couple of historical sites necessary for understanding Cambodian history. So today is an unexpected "free day."

I tag along with a group who have similar tastes to me. The early morning tuk-tuk ride reveals piles of garbage on the street, but they are neat piles awaiting collection. Someone has swept them there, by the looks of it. Many people are sleeping on the sidewalks, or just waking up to open their sidewalk-based businesses. My roommate photographs a man sleeping on a parked motorcycle, lying back on the seat with his feet up on the handlebars. Some kids come up and wake him up, apparently to tell him she has done so. There is no social safety net in Cambodia. You work or you die. So people work, at businesses with minimal capital outlay, sitting on the street selling things other people have discarded, or that they have made themselves out of found materials. Food does grow on trees here, and someone with nothing doesn't just walk to where there is a papaya tree and eat, they collect fruit to sell. They can't profit much, because other people can walk to fruit trees too, so there is competition. You see value-added service like pineapples already peeled and scored so they come apart easily to eat. They may then be able to invest their minuscule profits in a cart or a bicycle to increase the amount of fruit they can carry. So long as they don't get sick. Here's a well-capitalized service station. The gentleman operating this has a wicker chair on which sit bottles of gasoline, a compressor for inflating tires, and a small pile of tools with which he can effect roadside repairs. I saw several people using the services of such businesses, and I'll have more pictures of them in operation later.

First we go to a store where they make custom shoes. I could feel guilty for such a luxury, but part of the rationale for us coming here and not just sending donations is to participate in the economy. Buying locally-made items is going to do more for the people here than my sanctimoniously going home and paying five times as much for a pair of ill-fitting shoes made in China. I wonder how many people they employ in the show store and factory. The store wasn't so much like a shoe store, as like a lost and found, a big jumble of shoes and boots of all kinds, displayed somewhat haphazardly. You pick out a pair that is in a style you want, then there's a big box of heels all different shapes, heights and widths, so you pick out your heel, then they have a big ring of leather samples, different colours and weights and you pick out the leather you want. It was paralyzing having so much choice. I finally ordered some strappy turquoise ankle boots and some two-tone pumps. My roommate chooses a really interesting leather for her boots, but fortunately the clerk happens to mention that it is elephant skin. Oops, we don't think we can legally import that back to Canada. She chooses a 'cow skin' sample instead. We get to pick our shoes up up in a week, after we come back from the building project and visiting Angkor Wat.

Our next stop is the National Museum downtown, fortunately still open despite the holiday. Photographs are forbidden inside the museum, so I'll show you this Ganesha statue from the garden outside, and these soldiers in front of the entrance. Hinduism was the first major religion that came to these lands, with Buddhism coming later, but Buddhism seems to leave a lot of room for worship, as I saw statues of cows and of Shiva apparently venerated in different shrines.

The first gallery in the museum is of bronze statues, generally hand-sized up to calf (my calf, not a baby cow) -sized, with a few larger ones, of various gods and goddesses. The labels were very simple, barely more than accession tags, in Khmer and French, with English also on many, probably the later acquisitions. Without knowing the story, I just had to look and imagine the relationships among these figures. Mostly they were seated in the full lotus position or cross-legged, often atop the coils of a naga snake. Some were elephant-headed Ganesha, like the one outside, some were of Buddha, but generally a slimmer Buddha than the stereotype, and some Buddhalike, but female. A common one had many faces, ethnically Khmer. One that I tried to sketch in my notebook had eleven faces and twenty-two arms. The faces were in three tiers of head, and the arms all came from the same shoulders but curved away in different ways. Try to imagine the model for this sketch as liberally bestowed with grace and beauty as it is with limbs.

There's a room dedicated to the art of Khmer dance. It's a very disciplined dance with body positions as strict as ballet. It pleases me that the French, who founded this museum, seem to have recognized this. It's also fascinating to see proof in the ancient inscriptions and artwork that this art form is over a thousand years old.

My favourite part is the history of Khmer writing. I look at the old inscriptions and try to see if the shape of the language has changed. Perhaps the old characters are longer and loopier than the modern fonts, and the old ones may have more serifs. Or perhaps that's just to do with stone inscriptions. There's a thousand-year-old tablet setting out a list of regulations and the penalties for violating them. Sometimes the rules really are written in stone. The early Khmers had a religious custom that historians should get down on their knees to give thanks for. In dedicating their temples--which admittedly did not necessarily coincide with completion of construction--they made elaborate inscriptions giving the exact positions of all the planets they knew and of other astrological features, making them extremely easy to date. They also listed the donors to the projects along with an inventory of their donations. Some things never change. The lists of what constitutes transferable property and how much of it wealthy people had available to share gives valuable information on the culture. There is a list of the names of slaves on one tablet. I like the fact that someone who worked without reward all those years ago can be thought of an honoured by name today.

The museum is not air conditioned. They just leave some windows open for a breeze. Most of the artifacts are stone, so not sensitive to minor temperature or humidity changes, but there are some later ones that are wooden, such as some royal palanquins and the cabin from a fancy boat. Nothing is in cases and many people do not respect the multilingual and pictorial signs asking visitors not to touch. Near the end of the exhibition there are some signs explaining that the museum was closed up during the Pol Pot years, and that the Australian government contributed to its restoration. I don't know what ties Australia has to Cambodia other than proximity, but thank you, Australia. I like that Australia has a hand in preserving cultural heritage at their end of the world.

We leave the museum and walk and talk through the throng of people and interesting food vendors, stopping for a snack (I had a strawberry milkshake or something resembling one). I hope it wasn't made from ice of untreated water. I haven't quite got the guts to buy a frog on a stick. Some of the street food looks like it still has the organs in it, and I don't want to eat a frog that still has the guts in.

The crowds are increasing again for the evening, and we can tell the police must be stretched fairly thin when we see boy scouts directing traffic. We have another group meal, this one at a traditional Khmer restaurant where we take off our shoes at the door and eat sitting on the floor. I take time again to appreciate the texture of the tiles. The first dish is served on a big platter with multiple little domed lids, each over a little indentation in the platter, in which is a spoonful of the dish. It's fish in some sort of sauce. Tasty. I'll later learn that the spice is called amok, and take 500g of it home with me so I can have fish amok all year. Khmer food is served like Chinese food, where you get a bunch of dishes for the table and everyone shares them. This is a set menu, so they just keep bringing food and we all eat it. Or at least I do. The people at my table are kind of squeamish, it turns out, so I get to eat everything that has tentacles or legs or any kind of unusual presentation.

And you probably thought this post was going to include a lot of information on landmine victims. I've actually noticed far fewer people than I expected with limb amputations, and hardly any young people. I hope that a combination of eradication and education is decreasing the incidence, but it's more likely that cultural and economic factors mean that few are in the streets where I am. It's possible that everything around me is so new and different that the part of my brain that processes visual information and would normally flag a person with fewer than four limbs as notable enough to pass to consciousness is just so busy looking at everything and trying to make sense of it, that it hasn't managed, especially if people have prosthetics or are otherwise masking the injury. I did buy a handbag for a friend from an organization that provides retraining and employment to landmine victims. This is an excellent short video on the landmine issue, but watch it even if you don't need any landmine education, just to see the country and the people. It's a very accurate representation of what I saw, and not preachy or gross.

Some people were going to go down to the water festival again tonight, but it was so busy last night, and we're up early in the morning so I pass.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Markets and Festivals

The hotel includes a breakfast buffet consisting of some western food and some local foods: baguettes, real French (as in imported from France) butter, sliced pancakes, French toast, fried eggs, noodles with chicken, fried rice with vegetables, fruit juice, and excellent coffee. The noodle dish and the baguettes were really good. The French colonial masters burdened this country with their style of bureaucracy (there's a reason that word has a French origin) but tempered that with French architecture, city planning and baking. Parts of the city are reminiscent of New Orleans, which is only odd until you realize that the French had a hand in both places.

After breakfast a group of us hire a tuk-tuk, a motorcycle with a trailer (seats four Canadians, or approximately fourteen Cambodians plus a live pig) to take us to the Russian market. I suppose the market takes its name from communist times, either because manufactured goods were mainly imported from the Soviet Union or because the Russians were the ones who had the money to shop there. It's now a huge complex, not a mall, just a whole lot of ordinary vendor stalls grouped along dark, narrow aisles by type of product and absolutely spilling over with manufactured goods and foodstuffs of every description. At the entrance we came in, the vendors had tourist stuff like t-shirts of the local signs and beer brands. I can't remember if slogans went quite as low as "Someone I know went to Cambodia and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" but it wouldn't have been out of place. I remember being startled by a sandals stand, because all the shoes were displayed with fake feet in them. A young man is selling large silk cloths embroidered with elephants and his come-on describing their use amuses me because he is accidentally demonstrating a feature of the Khmer language that is confounding me. There are two separate b sounds, one like English and one that does not involve exhalation of breath. The phoneme is written in my guidebook as "bp" and I can hear the young man urging me to consider his product as a "bped cover" or "tabple cover." I have lately noticed the decrepit condition of the things covering both my bped and tabple, and they are both reasonably priced and gorgeous, so after a little bargaining I have two for $12. Other people try to sell us jewellery, scarves, wooden carvings, pretty boxes, incense, handbags, books, and more. I'm not sure if it's cooler inside the market than outside because of the shade, or hotter inside than out because of the confinement. It's hot, maybe mid-thirties. I buy a light wraparound skirt and a top that matches.

While I am negotiating for the skirt and top, a woman comes up selling cards made by landmine victims. The country is absolutely riddled with landmines that not even the soldiers who laid them have records of. Someone who tries to care for his family by clearing land for crops or grazing may end up crippled by a mine. The woman is herself a victim of something, not a mine, but she has been severely burned. Her eyes have been spared, but the flesh of her nose is completely burned away and I can see mottled scar tissue down her chest, too. Could be a cooking accident or maybe an acid attack. It's something you see, and then stop seeing, because she doesn't physically carry herself like a person disfigured, or otherwise seem to expect anyone to waste any time over it. I look at the cards. They are watercolours of local scenes. I ask if there are any with tigers, or other animals. I like tigers. There aren't, but she flips through and points out oxen and birds in various scenes. The cards are pretty, and I need something to send home anyway, so I buy a package of ten. She counts out ten envelopes to go with them. If you sponsored the house building project and requested a postcard, you may have received it in an envelope with one of these cards. And these stamps.

I've seen people wearing thongs (the shoes that have a strap between the toes) with socks here: they have special socks with one toe. I ask the vendor if she sells those, or knows who does, and she tells the landmine card woman where. I follow her through the various aisles of the market in search of the right socks. At one point she leaves me and comes back with a vendor and socks, and I choose a couple of pairs. It's good to be able to wear thongs, yet have some protection against sun and blisters. And I like strange socks.

We wander through the aisles of the market some more, switching from shopping to sightseeing. We have seen enough repeats of the same carvings and crafts that we realize we'll see these all over the country and don't need to buy right away even if we see something we want. The card woman comes back and finds us again, this time with an armload of placemats featuring tigers. They would have been the best thing ever when I was about nine years old, as they are plastic and feature 3D images, with lots of depth, the tigers jumping right out of the jungle at you. My tastes have moved on a little since then and I have to turn her down, but I'm impressed and appreciative. If you go to a place like this, a personal shopper is pretty useful. In some cases a tuk-tuk driver will be able to come and help you find or ask for what you need.

We wander deeper into the market and find ourselves in the food market area. A lot of the food is still alive, fish flopping in baskets and shrimp escaping down the corridors. There's no refrigeration, meat just hangs on hooks the same way handbags and second hand car parts do in their respective parts of the market. The meat picture is by permission of my roommate who has more skill and a fancier camera than I do. Mine wasn't capable of capturing images at the light level inside the market.

We get back in the tuk-tuk and go to another market, the Olympic market. This one is in an actual two-story building as opposed to an area mostly roofed in patchwork tin. There I buy another suitcase, as it's already evident that souvenirs are going to overwhelm the one I brought, and a pair of light cotton trousers labelled XL, and falling to about mid-shin on me. I'm not entirely sure they were designed as capri pants, but they'll serve that function for me. It's a conservative country and we've been warned not to wear shorts or tank tops, especially in the village. I don't really want to wear shorts, and risk getting that much sunburn, anyway.

It's time for lunch. We buy a couple of pastries from a stall on the ground floor, and then go outside and look at the food displayed there. There are a lot of dried fish, and they smell good, but they are entire large fish, or dried really hard such that they would have to be boiled to be reconstituted. They are such interesting shapes. I'm reminded of the discovery of the coealacanth. Only the fishermen who caught this stuff know what wonders lurk in the Tonlé Sap. We buy a couple of meals by pointing at things displayed and then nodding in response to questions we don't understand. Between us we have fish with noodles and a variety of fried things with rice. The food is displayed on the counter and then they deep fry it after you select it. It's tasty and we have delicious coconut pastries for dessert.

In the afternoon we go to Wat Phnom, the hill temple, as are many of the people in town for the water festival. It's not an ancient temple, but it's probably an ancient site, the latest of many rebuildings. The whole scene is completely analogous to any number of public holiday events I've attended in good weather in Canada or the US: lots of people in a park with things to buy and eat and just milling around smiling at people. There's a big garden clock near the base of the hill, paths up to the temple at the top, and vendors all around the paths at the base.

First we go up the hill. There's an admission fee of one dollar for foreigners. We'll see this kind of thing a lot, and I don't have any problem with contributing my share to something the others probably support with their taxes. Right after I pay my dollar, for which I receive a receipt, an old woman in white robes offers to tie a red string around my wrist. For a moment I think this is the equivalent of a fairground plastic wristband or hand stamp, and then realize as it's being tied that it's an optional service, a good luck blessing in return for a donation. It even matches my hatband, and the donation is about 30 cents Canadian.

At the top of the hill is a tiled terrace and a roofed pagoda housing a large number of Buddha statues. I take off my shoes on the terrace and realize that as this is a culture where you take your shoes off indoors, even in public places, the floors are very important. The texture of the terrace is very interesting to my feet and I'm glad to feel it. I wonder what else my feet have missed. Inside the pagoda there are musicians playing on the concave xylophones we saw at the restaurant, people praying (kneeling and bowing low with their hands pressed together fingertip to fingertip and palm to palm), people leaving offerings of fruit, flowers and money on and around the buddhas, and incense burning in pots of sand. We go back outside on the terrace and wander down the paths on the other side. There is another smaller temple a little lower down on the hill, with Chinese-language banners.

At the base of the hill is the most exciting part, the food. We didn't know what most of it was, and didn't have enough language in common with the vendors to ask. A popular item was eggs containing half-developed foetal chicks. I don't think there was ever any possibility of us deciding to sample those. A borderline item was what looked like very large frogs barbecued while held in split bamboo sticks. While trying to rationalize these we discussed our own fairground food. "They're frogs-on-a-stick, like corndogs ... cornfrogs!" We did not sample cornfrogs at this time. Our excuse was that a group meal was planned, and we didn't want to spoil our dinners. We did try some kind of roasted insect, they looked like grasshoppers or crickets. They looked exactly like grasshoppers or crickets, large ones, too. They were tasty, spiced with something good, but the hard parts of the insect stuck in my teeth for hours, the way the seed coating does with popcorn.

We just had fun walking around and looking. At one point I felt a hand and turned, suspecting a pickpocket, but it was a little kid being carried who had just reached out from mom's shoulder to investigate this strange milk-coloured person. When I turned, mom realized what was going on and stopped him, but I smiled to show no offence taken and then we all laughed and the kid turned shy. We sat down on the base of a statue to eat and people watch. A family came up to sit next to us and I made sure I made room for them all, but the littlest girl obviously wasn't sure she wanted to sit next to the scary foreign people, and sat on mom's lap. I caught a Khmer word I knew, thom meaning big and a gesture around the end of the mother's characteristic flat nose. They were discussing the looks of these peculiar strangers. I grinned and echoed the word and gesture with my own nose. Djaa, yes, I agreed, inducing giggling in the kids. I don't actually have a big nose, by Western standards, but it's not flat and broad like theirs, either.

I bought a small bag of crickets to take back and share, but got few takers. Not knowing the shelf life of roasted insects, nor how to tell if they have gone bad, I threw some away. That's the first time I've felt badly about putting dead bugs in a garbage can.

Dinner is at the FCC --Foreign Correspondents' Club-- obviously a fairly longtime enclave of privileged foreigners amongst the natives. I imagine it's the sort of place one can get a gin and tonic. I'd rather get frog-on-a-stick or barbecued Mekong eel or something else I've never seen before, but I also want to bond with my team, so a European meal won't hurt me. There's a group walking and another group taking tuk-tuks to the FCC. I elect to go with the walkers, but somehow get my times crossed and miss their departure time. Never mind, I'm a fast walker. I get directions and set out. "Straight down the main boulevard to the river, then turn left and just ask for the FCC. Everyone knows where it is." I clarify that it is the Foreign Correspondents' Club or if it has another local name, and am told no, just say "Eff-See-See," they'll understand.

The main street quickly becomes extremely congested with people, mostly walking, but a few embedded in the crowd on bicycles and motos, and occasionally beggars sitting on the ground in the midst of it all. The streets are partly taken up with booths, selling food, or mobile phone services, or things I can't figure out because I don't read Khmer. Again it's typical festival booths, just translated into a different culture. Many of the booths are blaring music or announcements. One might be a bingo game as I recognize a lot of numbers being said. Or maybe when numbers constitute over half the words you know in a language, everything sounds like a number. There are too many people on the street to move at a normal walking pace, but I've given myself almost an hour to go a couple of kilometres, and it looks as if I'll need every minute in this crowd.

I can see a decorated bridge ahead with people standing on it. (Fortunately I'm tall and everyone here is short, so I can see well, even in big crowds). That must be the river. As I try to keep going forward towards it, I'm not certain that it's a road that continues this way. I may be in a riverside park now. There is a Ferris wheel and other fairground equipment straight ahead, but I think that may be on the other side of the river. I turn left. There is too much noise from all the loudspeakers for me to easily ask anyone about the FCC, so I just go a couple of blocks, looking. There's a gated building with a security guard but while he's clearly willing to be helpful he doesn't understand my guidebook Khmer rendition of "Please, where is the FCC?" The thronging crowd presses me up against a metal barricade across the road, but I just need to make my way across to the gap in the fence. It's a roadblock stopping vehicles from coming this far into the festival. I repeat my FCC query to a police officer who is supervising the crowd, but he doesn't know either. He finds me another officer who speaks some English, but he also does not know what is this FCC of which I speak. He wants to know if it is a hotel. "It's a restaurant." It might be a hotel. "It's a big restaurant, lots of Europeans there." Europeans means white people here, the way Africans means black people in the US. I get uncertain directions to continue the way I am going. It's possible that there are out-of-town cops here for the festival, but this is the biggest city in the country. Most of them must be from here.

A few blocks later--or maybe it was half a block and just felt like a block--I spot a tourist information building. They speak English and have heard of the FCC. They mark it on a map and say it's about four hundred metres on, just past the National Palace. These sound like great directions and it's only when I'm back in the thick of the crowd that I realize that I can't see any street signs because of the crowd, that everything in this country looks like a national palace to me, and I couldn't read the words National Palace in Khmer if they were suspended on a two metre wide banner over my head. Which they probably are, but it's getting kind of dark now.

The river is on the right and I can see incredibly decorated barges sailing back and forth. Each barge has a superstructure which must be the height of a three-storey building, depicting a temple or a Buddha or a goddess, all illuminated with electric lights, probably LEDs judging by the precision and brightness of the lettering and designs. This festival dates back at least to the eleventh century and probably to the seventh, so at one time these boats must have been decorated with candles or bonfires or something. I pass something that looks like it could be a national palace, so I study my map. Wait, according to this map, either the FCC is on the other side of the street, in the other direction, or the person marked the map incorrectly. I think the last. I make my way to the sidewalk and ask again. A "European" (actually, judging by the accent, a southern United Statesian) is in earshot of my question and he knows where the FCC is. I suspect that my informant's "everybody" (who knows where the FCC is) consists of all European-descended people who have been in Phnom Penh more than two days. He didn't consider that I was going to ask locals. Silly Aviatrix. I'm told now that the FCC is about another block on, on the right, big white building, can't miss it. So I relax about being able to find it and struggle slowly through the crowd, appreciating the festival for a bit longer. It's remarkable how quickly it gets dark in the tropics. Fireworks start over the river. I know I'm late now, as part of the purpose of going to the FCC was to see the fireworks from their balcony. I hope they aren't worried about me.

After what I'm sure is well over four hundred metres past the tourist place and more than a block past the American, I still haven't found a big white building that says FCC or Foreign Correspondents' Club, so I ask again, this time smartening up and asking a white person. A New Zealand accent tells me that it's back the way I came, "You could miss it." This time I don't. It's easier to see from this direction, being kind of halfway around the corner onto the side street. By the time I arrive, everyone has pretty much finished their dinners. Some people were worried about me, but the group leader knew me well enough that he was fully confident I'd turn up eventually, so it wasn't too bad. I apologize for my tardiness and get a great meal out of sampling other people's leftovers. There are geckos running across the ceiling eating bugs. I wonder if they would have liked my spicy roasted crickets.

We all walk home together, as it's now much too crowded to get any kind of taxi or tuk-tuk down here. We start out on some back roads, which aren't too bad, and must have been the way the other walking party came, but then we merge with the main road and it's even more packed than it was on the way down. Now it's like the area in front of the stage at a concert, hot, everyone pressed up against one another and happy, smiling. Lots of people step on my feet, but they're all wearing sandals or thongs and they don't weigh very much. The motorcycle going over my toes is going to leave a mark, though. It gets to a point where we can hardly move at all. We've been trying to go the short half block from the main street to our hotel street for over half an hour. It's disconcerting when I realize that there are some food vending carts in the crowd--and I know the technology they use to heat things on the card is concrete pots of hot coals. We're packed tightly enough that there could be a real problem here. I don't know enough to Khmer to be able to yell something useful to prevent people from pushing forward if there was fire, or a child fallen, or something. There's a car embedded in the crowd near me. I could jump on it and grab children up to safety, hope people understood. I know how to say "Help me," and as there are no noun or pronoun cases in the language and it follows strict SVO word order, I can reverse that to declare "I help." A siren starts to wail and I realize that one of the embedded vehicles is an ambulance. There's not a chance of it moving. There's nowhere to get out of the way. People walking with bicycles or astride motos make it impossible for the crowd to push sideways, and there isn't any room anyway. We're already right out to the sides of the street. "Now you see why I was late!" I explain to the people still within earshot, but admit that it wasn't this bad on the way down.

We all get home safely and watch the crowd, festive searchlights, and more fireworks from the roof of our hotel.