Sunday, September 16, 2007


I always knew I liked animals. I get excited at zoos. I can’t help pointing out birds to anyone near me when I see one. When I was little I fought hard for a hamster, and then another hamster, and then another hamster, and then a dog. But I’ve never really been an “animal person.” Practically speaking, I’d rather not have anything relying on me to care for it at this point. I am selectively fond of other people’s dogs and cats. I ate dog meat in China with only a few qualms. Okay, a lot of qualms, but I still ate it. That’s why I was surprised by the animal love evident in the pictures from my myriad travels. It seems I chased at least three puppies around, trying to capture the cuteness on film. Then there were the puppies in the box. I almost tried to smuggle a little white one home with me. Even cats, which I typically ignore, showed up with no small infrequency in my pictures. Oh look, a cat…and another cat…oh and there’s me holding a kitten. There were baby chicks, roosters, elephants, dogs, cats, fish even, but according to both photographic evidence and memory, nothing tops my excitement for monkeys.

I love monkeys so much. I think it’s those big eyes and the teeny tiny human hands covered in fur. I love the way they snatch things, and the way they pry open bananas with focused determination. They are mean little things, but also so cute I could hardly stand it. The first time I got to play with monkeys I could barely contain fits of joy. In my twenty minutes spent with monkeys in Cambodia I accumulated triple the number of pictures I have for my whole time in Vietnam. Plus video. Women were shoving monkey food into my hands and demanding pay. Normally I get frustrated with this kind of ruse—here hold this, oh, and pay me two dollars. But not when I played with the monkeys. I happily handed over dollar bills, overwhelmed by the impossible cuteness of a baby monkey clinging to his mother’s chest.

I have a video from a couple of years ago of one of the babies I watch meeting a Disneyland character for the first time. She keeps bursting into these little nervous giggles, as if the world is just to exciting in this moment and it’s all bubbling into laughter. I think it was the raccoon from Pocahontas. That’s not even an especially famous Disney character. But her reaction is hilariously adorable, as she babbles in incomprehensible enthusiasm. Silly Kate. And then I listened to the video of myself taping the monkeys. Oh…it seems I laugh like that too, and chatter on about “eeeeeeee, soooo cute” until I can’t stand holding the camera anymore and I have to run off and feed some more monkeys.

It’s good to be back. There are so many reasons I’m glad I’m here and not there at this point in time. Avocados are reason enough. But I have determined that California needs more monkeys. Too bad you can’t hand feed pelicans. I do love pelicans.

Friday, September 7, 2007


I’m still trying to remember. It seems that I have about ten pictures from my time in Vietnam. Partly due to lack of memory card space, but partly due to a serious case of traveler burnout. Vietnam was country number four. It fell at the end of month three. And after two solid weeks of plane flights and visas and finding places to sleep, I was Done.

There is the kind of traveling where everything is planned out and done in groups and organized for maximum efficiency. This kind of travel might involve matching hats. Then there are two nineteen-year-old girls with four sets of plane tickets and a lonely planet guide. This kind of travel is done in survival mode. I had done my research. I knew all the safety stuff, all the scams to look out for, all the emergency numbers. But getting on a plane, or a bus, or a train always felt a little bit like jumping off a cliff: trusting in the parachute of tenuous plans, and maybe an extra credit card.

I was tired. I had been tired for months. I didn’t even realize how tired I was all the time until I got home and rediscovered a life not burdened by constant exhaustion. And Vietnam sure knew how to kick me when I was down. Vietnam has energy. It never stops lighting up and making noise. Car horns were made to be pushed. So much loudness all the time.

You know what you shouldn’t do when you are already annoyed with a country? You should not visit the Museum of American War Crimes. Okay, I get it, we did a lot of awful crap. Agent Orange, well, yes, that was probably a bad idea. Destroying the forests for generations to come, brutally murdering women and children, that is some horrible stuff. But I have to say, Vietnam, I still think your slant on the war is a tiny bit biased. At first I balked at every display, shocked at the pictures of destruction. But soon enough I had to roll my eyes at the over-the-top nature of the photo captions. Let me sum it up: “Here are some more evil American soldiers doing more evil things to innocent Vietnam victims.” Followed by a day at the Cu Chi tunnels, my indignation only increased. Yes, let’s celebrate the slaughtering of “American devils.” Let’s glorify the horrible injuries inflicted on US soldiers by jungle traps involving large metal spikes.

I don’t believe these extremist views have any representative ties to the actual beliefs of actual Vietnamese people. It’s government propaganda, and I’m sure that Vietnamese citizens have a wide range of feelings surrounding a very painful war. Mostly I was tired and grumpy and in need of a snack. And then I fell down a war tunnel. The cave was dark. There was a hole in the floor. I fell hard, catching myself on my left ribcage. Then I was choking back tears, climbing out of a hole covered in dirt, breaking into painful little sobs as my face burned with embarrassment and fury. One of the Australians in the group handed me a wet wipe. The tour guide made a joke about catching an American in one of their traps. “It hurts…really…bad,” I whispered to Blaine. “I know,” she said, pushing me along with the group as she helped me wipe the dirt from my wet cheeks.

I know it's a little bit crazy, but I still want to go back. Even though the next day I walked for blocks and blocks with a broken-ish rib just to get to the most disappointing tourist attraction I have ever seen. (“This is the Jade Pagoda? Seriously?” “Ya, I was definitely expecting something more jade. Or pagoda-like.”) Even though I wanted to cut the wires to every horn in every Vietnamese car and bus. Even though it was scary, and overwhelming, and more of an “experience” than a vacation. Because I tasted pho from an open market in Ho Chi Mihn city. I listened to a Vietnamese taxi driver quietly sing to himself as if there weren’t two other people in the car. I watched dozens of teenagers play hacky sack for hours in a city park. I crawled through a war tunnel.

Killing Fields

If you ever get a chance to visit the killing fields of Cambodia, do. But know that the name is quite literal, and the experience is quite nauseating. I can’t write out the violence. I’m fairly certain that I couldn’t do justice to the graphic nature of the thousands of deaths, and it seems disrespectful somehow to try. Whole families were killed, mothers, babies, everyone. Few bullets were used. Gardening tools were less expensive.

In America, the whole site would be excavated. The remains would be tagged and stored away except for the few used in a memorial display. But this is Cambodia. Clothes, bones, and teeth still surface in the mud every rainy season. “That is bone,” said our guide matter-of-factly. Oh, that white hard stuff I’m stepping on. Of course it is.

It was a simple display, thousands of skulls piled up in a glass case. Life goes on all around. The sickening fields of bone and rubble are just a big stretch of land in the middle of rice patties that feed the still struggling country. It’s the same with the high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a sinister prison where everyone was guilty on arrival and the punishment was always death. Now there are shops and houses and life happening next to this place where visitors struggle to understand the darkness.

To me, Cambodia is the place where dads rock little babies in hammocks. Where bus drivers play WWF videos to entertain their passengers. Where tourists from five star hotels roam through shops that sell Kate Spade purses. Where monkeys swing from trees in city parks. Where people smile and help and behave with the kind of grace that hides deep scars.