Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mantis Attack

This video was shot by my friend Sara from outside our bungalow in Koh Tao -- literally, "turtle island" -- Thailand.

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is the world's biggest shopping mall. This place has more Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Valentino designer shops than (probably) NYC and Paris combined. It's the ideal location if you want to buy a $250,000 watch.

Why such extravagence? In a word, oil money. We paid homage to this yesterday by journeying to the viewing platform of the Petronas towers, which used to be the tallest towers in the world until, recently, a tower in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, took away that honor. (Petronas -- like "petrol" -- is a multinational oil and gas company).

Leaving Thailand was bittersweet. We spent a total of 2 months in Thailand on this trip, and I could easily turn around and spend yet another month there. It's a paradise of beaches and islands and jungles. It's not "cultural travel," so to speak (its so full of tourists that in some places you could easily go 24 hours without seeing a Thai person), but when you're on a 2--year trip in some of the world's most difficult places to visit, you sometimes just want a utopian slice of heaven that gets away from it all. Thailand is that place. Now we're back to "reality," in K.L., but only for a moment. We fly to Bali tonight.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Now I'm a mermaid

It took six days, private coaching and a remedial course-for-dummies, but I finally got my darn scuba-diving license.

But man, it took forever.

The ordeal began when I innocently signed up for a 4-day class that certifies students to dive unsupervised down to 60 feet. About a zillion people I know have this license, and they'll all universally agreed that it was an easy class.

I should mention that in Thailand, there are certain islands where there's only one thing to do; there's one theme that draws visitors. People go to Rai Leh and Ton Sai to rock-climb. EVERYONE there is a climber, and if you're not, don't bother going. Similarly, people go to Koh Tao to get a scuba-diving license. It's not the best place to dive if you're already certified -- there are areas on Thailand's Andaman Coast with more coral life -- but thanks to warm waters and zero ocean currents, it's the best place to take classes.

I should also mention that Koh Tao looks like a postcard. Crystal-clear turquoise waters that run royal blue over the reefs. Blossoming scented trees. Coconut trees that entire porches are built around. Straw rooftops. Young, beautiful people. Our hotel has a deep blue swimming pool with infinity edges, where introductory scuba lessons are held, and hardwood floors, and banisters made from teakwood logs.

Should be paradise, right?

It was until Day 3 of the class, when our instructor, Julian, took us 6 students into the ocean on our first dive. The instructions sounded simple enough: deflate your buoyancy control device, achieve neutral buoyancy, equalize your ears and sinuses, descend a meter, equalize again, don't forget to breathe through your regulator, check your air levels, and adjust the inflation levels in your vest as needed.

Okay, the instructions sounded complicated. But manageable.

So I went under, a few feet at first, and then a few more, until finally I was about 20 feet underwater. I was breathing through my mouth, since my nose was enclosed in a mask. It felt fine at first.

But then water flooded my mouth. I blew it out. More water flooded it. I coughed it out. I reminded myself that my mouthpiece was designed for coughing in; I could even vomit into it if I needed to. But then an enormous amount of ocean saltwater flooded into my mouth, more than I could cough out. I couldn't breathe with a mouth was full of saltwater. I needed to clear my mouth to be able to breathe again. I tried swallowing it. I coughed some more. I swallowed again. No avail. There was too much water inside my mouth.

I signaled to the instructor that I had a problem (you obviously can't talk underwater, so you're trained to use specific hand signals to communicate). The instructor, who had 5 other students distanced between 5 feet to 60 feet underwater, wasn't looking anywhere near me. I decided to ascend. It felt like the only way to clear my mouth.

I came up sputtering, breaking the surface of the water with a cough that cleared my mouth. A minute later my instructor followed me. He was angry; the veins in his temple showed it. "Back on the boat," he barked.

I swam back to the boat ready to cry. I had just flunked out of scuba school. I had ascended when everyone else stayed underwater. This meant I couldn't get my license.

It's okay, I tried to tell myself. Lots of people drop out of high school. Lots more drop out of college. You made it through both of those. You'll just be a scuba-school dropout. Or, rather, a flunkee.

A couple minutes later, Nicole, a sweet and tiny German girl in my class, came up behind me on the boat. She had tears in her bright blue eyes.

"I'm out of the class," she cried. "I got too much water in my mask, and I couldn't clear it out very well. I had to surface. He yelled at me."

I was glad to have a fellow flunkee to commisserate with. We moped for the rest of the afternoon, waiting on the boat while our classmates finished their underwater tests. We both went home feeling like crap.

But my two friends back at the hotel, both of whom have Advanced Diver licenses which certify them to dive 130 feet underwater, had a different reaction. "How can he throw you out if you feel uncomfortable on your very first dive?" they said. "It's your very first dive! An instructor is supposed to instruct!"

At their urging, Nicole and I appealed to the head of the school, who assigned us a new teacher; a South African named Nick who spent the next two days working with just the two of us.

I honestly didn't think getting a new teacher would help; I thought the problem was me. I figured I was just a bad athlete. I'm the slowest high-Himalayan trekker in our group, I'm too scared to lead-climb most routes, and we all know how ill-fated my Spanish bicycle trip was. And Julian, the dive instructor who flunked Nicole and I, confirmed this fear: "Some people aren't meant to scuba," he said, "just like some people aren't meant to drive a car."

Oh crap, I thought; I'm also bad at driving a car. I hate driving at night, in the rain and in snow. Geez, can't I do ANYTHING? Am I just bad at EVERYTHING?

But if there's one thing I've got going for me, it's persistance. With Nick, my new instructor, I practiced scuba drills again and again and again in the hotel swimming pool. I dove 10 feet underwater, exhaled every ounce of air from my lungs, filled my mouth with pool water, and practiced clearing my mouth so I could breathe through it again. I took my mask off underwater, dropped the mouthpiece, and located it blindly. I went through everything -- everything that was so-called 'easy' to do by the zillions of people who came before me -- until I had it down, better than any other student I observed.

And then I went back for another test in the salty open ocean. And now, after six days, private coaching with Nick, and endless practice, I finally have that license.

Well, not THAT license, exactly. I aimed for a lesser license, one that certifies me to dive 40 feet underwater instead of 60 feet underwater. But hey, the devil's in the details. I'm licensed. As my friend says -- "now you're a mermaid!"

And Julian was wrong. Some people ARE meant to scuba -- with a little extra effort.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cambodian Killers

Note: I'm back in Thailand, but I want to say something about the 10 days or so that we spent in Cambodia in March. Also, I added new photos of the Water Festival to the previous post.

Imagine seeing a human skull.
Not an ancient skull. Not some fossil in your anthropology class. No, a very recent human skull, belonging to a woman who was murdered thirty years ago with a blunt force blow to the head.

Now, imagine seeing two of these skulls. Both belong to murder victims.

Now imagine four.

Imagine eight.

Imagine, if you will, an entire platform, six feet by six feet, blanketed in skulls. End-to-end.

Had enough? We’re not done yet. Now picture 17 of these platforms, stacked vertically from the floor to the ceiling, like some grotesque bookcase. Now imagine that every single platform is covered in skulls.

The platforms that are at eye-level have only one layer of skulls, for the benefit of the viewer. The shelves below and overhead have mounds of skulls, two feet thick. Skulls piled haphazardly on top of skulls on top of more skulls.

Signs hover over each section of the platform, labeling the skulls “female, age 20-40” or “male, age 40-60” or “female, age 10-20.”

Welcome to Cambodia. Home to one of the worst genocides in recent memory – the indiscriminate slaughter of 3 million people from 1975 to 1979. Half as many people died in Cambodia thirty years ago as the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust sixty years ago.

Yet we never seem to hear about Cambodia. We never read books on it, or study it in school, or watch movies about it, or hear pop-culture references to “Khmer Rouge” the way we hear pop-culture references to “Nazis.”

Some people say we hear more about the Holocaust because it happened in the “civilized” world, in Europe. But the genocide in Cambodia was 1) carried out by Paris-educated elites, and 2) extremely “civilized.” Every victim was photographed, numbered, and documented in exquisite detail.

So here's a primer on what happened 30 years ago:

The Khmer Rouge – French for “Red Khmer” – was founded by Paris-educated Cambodians who sympathized with Marxism and Leninism. They fantasized about creating a utopian Cambodia in which everyone is a farmer.

In their ideal society, there would be no labor divisions or social stratification. Everyone would plant and harvest the land. Each person would be allotted about .85 kg of rice a day, and the rice surplus would be taxed by the government and exported to other countries. The money generated from these exports would pay for imports of farm equipment and machinery. There would be no education; there would be no need for it.

Even if that theory could have worked, it would have had some massive downsides. A society where everyone is "equal" and "works with the earth" is a society devoid of poets, artists, lipstick, popsicles, magazines, music, restaurants, chocolate, books, videos, and finding your favorite pair of really warm winter socks.

In practice, the Khmer Rouge's "agrarian utopia" economic theory couldn’t pan out. The people couldn’t harvest enough rice to feed everyone. The rice tax had to be paid first, and the meager leftovers didn’t provide enough food for the workers. Thousands starved to death.

The tax, they said, was necessary for buying farm equipment. Without that equipment, even less rice might have been produced, and even more people might have starved to death. It was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.

A social stratification grew between the lifelong farmers and the city-slickers. The city-slickers, less talented with the land, quickly became viewed as second-class citizens and as worthless, inexperienced farmers whose presence was more a burden than a blessing. This only added to their malaise, which began when they were forcibly ousted from their city homes and displaced to a farm.

The government assigned only nominally-trained people to work in medical clinics. Thousands with illnesses and injuries died at the hands of these untrained medical workers.

This disasterous economic situation would have been bad enough by itself.

But to make matters worse, the Khmer Rouge decided that it wanted to crack down on anyone who might be bold enough to oppose their communist ideology. The people who were most likely to do that, they decided, were the educated ones – the privleged class, who had the most to lose.

So they began summarily rounding up every learned person in the country – teachers, doctors, anyone who spoke a foreign language, anyone who wore eyeglasses.

First, they tortured them. They tied them to beds and beat them with steel rods. They hung them upside-down until they lost consciousness, then dunked their heads in cold water to revive them, then hung them upside-down again, repeating this cycle until the prisoners went crazy. They forced them to live in solitary cells and blocked their ability to commit suicide as a means of escape.

The torturers extracted a forced “confession” in which, under severe duress, the victims accussed neighbors of allegedly bad-mouthing the government’s policies.

Once they “confessed,” however accurate or inaccurate their information, the torture stopped. And the killing began.

To save the cost of bullets, the KR forced the victims to line up on their knees in front of a mass grave. They struck the victims in the back of the head with a heavy blow, murdering them by blunt force. They pushed the body into a mass grave – these sites became known as Killing Fields.

From 1975 to 1979, the KR killed a whopping 3 million people, out of a total population of 7 million.

Many Cambodians, scared of getting killed, decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. They enlisted to work for the government, as torturers and executioners, in the hopes that this would spare their own lives.

That tactic failed. The paranoid and suspicious KR leaders began executing their own executioners. They increasing suspected their own staff of harboring secret anti-communist ideals. Their goal was to wipe out every living teenager and adult, whose minds have already been tainted by capitalist ideals. Then they could re-start a new society of babies, who would grow up learning nothing but communism and agrarianism.

They nearly succeeded.

Today, walking around in modern Cambodia, its evident that just about the entire population is under 30. As we walk down the streets, ride buses, and eat in restaurants, we rarely notice anyone older than we are.

One of the beggars I saw was the most pathetic-looking human being I have ever laid eyes on.

In India, you see some extremely pathetic beggars; people so crippled by disease that they have to crawl on all four (or three) limbs, clutching their begging bowls in their mouth. But even India didn’t prepare me for this.

Cambodia has almost no beggars. Most would-be beggars have been killed. But the few who live are extremely disfigured. The heartwrenching beggar that I saw had half his face melted off and one eyeball gouged out. I don’t remember how many limbs he had; I was too repulsed to count.

But what’s magical about Cambodia is that everyone is smiling. I mean, truly smiling – beaming from the heart. Grinning so wide they have crinkles of laughter around their eyes.

Why they smile, I have no idea. How they’ve found reason or hope in this crazy world, I can’t explain. But you look at the smile of a Cambodian, knowing that literally every family has lost at least one person to the genocide, and you can’t help but think that every stupid little problem in your own life is a hollow figment of your dark imagination. If these people, who have every reason to frown, can find reason to smile, there’s no excuse why we all can’t be grinning.