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.

Monday, June 25, 2007

What country am I in?

As we watched the sun begin to rise over one of the seven built wonders of the world, Angkor Wat, the serenity was broken by a group of college students. A professor enthusiastically gave instructions: “Okay, we’ll stay here until 6:30. Until then, feel free to wander. You can get some good shots over by that lake.” A girl turned to her friend, “So…which wat (temple) is this?” I rolled my eyes as if she had just asked, “So…which wall is this,” while standing before a certain Chinese wonder. And then Blaine told me to be nice. There are actually a lot of wats close to Angkor that are often called by the same name. Besides, I’ve been there: “So…which palace is this?” “So…that’s the king?” “So…when is lunch?”

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Play Dough Rings

We were walking up a hill. She was there on the path stretching out her hand. When we walked back down after the sun had set, she was still there, twirling her fingers in the dirt, staring up at the stream of tourists. She had a cup or a bowl, I can’t really remember, holding a few coins. I do remember that it was dark, and that I walked past her with a feeling of helplessness. It was a conscious decision, not giving money to any child. I’m still not sure it was the right one, but the books told me it made things worse not better, feeding an industry of child labor that should not exist. So I looked away and walked down the hill, sure that no child should be ignored that way.

Then it was an uneasy dance every time. How do I extract myself quickly from the young hawkers of postcards and trinkets? “You are seven,” I wanted to explain. “You are too young to be working, too young to be begging, too young to be talking to strangers alone.” I did try that once. “I can’t,” I said as she showed me a cold water bottle, and then a stack of postcards, and then a book on Angkor Wat, hoping something would catch my attention.” “I can’t,” I said, “You are too young to be selling things to me when you should be learning things in school.” “You can,” she argued, “If you want to you can.” I turned away from that crowd of little girls too, unable to offer anything but incomprehensible moral arguments.

Every meal was a new set of children circling close to our table, bobbing in and out as restaurant owners shooed them away. Blaine and I would stare at each other sadly, unable to focus on any conversation as we feebly tried to ignore the memorized sales pitch. This time it was two little boys who watched me buy a card from a woman in a wheelchair. Angry at my purchase from his competition, one little boy swatted at the woman. Clearly used to squirrelly little boys, she pulled out a sharp rock and batted towards his chest. The other little boy just pointed to the first boy, then to his head, as he whispered, “He’s cra-see.”

Really, he was just angry at a world that ignores him. That tells him he is not worth attention or time. That looks on him with pity and refuses to help him. Big eyes and a sad face sometimes win him a dollar or two, so the corners of his mouth turn down. His eyes plead. And he is angry.

That was it. I couldn’t ignore anymore. I was prepared with mini containers of play dough, but somehow these kids seemed too old for it. They looked young, but they talked like little used car salesmen. It was almost scary, thinking about engaging these kids instead of walking purposefully away. And then I kicked myself. Because scary is sitting on the side of the road in the dark as strangers hurry past acting like you don’t exist. Scary is not handing a child a toy and asking how old he is. No, you can’t eat it. Look, here’s how you make a snake. Wow, that looks great. You are ten? You cannot be ten, you look five. Is that Mickey Mouse on your shirt? Kids in California like Mickey Mouse, too. Suddenly these used car salesmen forgot what they were selling.

It always took less time to interact. Even when the play dough ran out, it took less time to ask kid questions, and get kid answers, than it did to ignore and try to walk away. I admit to being bothered by it. To feeling like these constant demands for money were cutting into my vacation. Then I remembered, or was reminded, that I was only being confronted with something that always exists. In my world, I don’t have to listen to children begging, because I’m too far away to hear them.

She picked out the pink play dough, prying off the lid with determination. She followed us around the temple ruins for a bit, ducking behind stones and popping out again, finally settling on a rock to examine her new treasure. As we walked away, I laughed at her handiwork, five tiny pink play dough rings with more in the works. And she laughed, too.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Before I try to write the million words it will take to unravel the last two weeks of traveling, I thought I’d give some of the musical highlights of our journey through Cambodia and Vietnam. Things started off well enough. The cab ride to the airport featured the international (translation: American) station. I’ve been away from the US long enough to appreciate any music with English lyrics. So Beyonce at 5 am? Sure, I’ll sing to that.

There was the taxi driver in Saigon who made us sing Hotel California. The Eagles had no idea what power their words would hold over South East Asians for decades to come. The first time a street vendor said, “Ohhh, where you from? Ohhh, California…Hotel California!” I thought it was hilarious. He knows the song, how random and fun! It turns out, everyone knows the song. But I don’t think we’ll ever top the rendition we offered in that cab, when the driver belted out the chorus with us as he swerved through the streets of Saigon.

And we won’t soon forget the mid-80’s soft rock tunes played for us on the two hour trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Apparently “Michael Learns to Rock” is experiencing a major comeback in Asia. Our bus driver put the album on repeat. There is just some music you should never be forced to learn by heart.

There were also the cell phone ring tones, which remain one of the great cultural mysteries in my mind. It seems that “Happy Birthday” is to Vietnam what “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is to Thailand, which is to say, it is the ring tone of every third person in the country. Our boat tour guide broke apart from the crowd, choosing a tune that threw me back to eighth grade every time his phone rang: Vengaboy’s creatively titled hit “Boom Boom Boom Boom.” The Vietnamese man who sat next to us on the plane played us his full ring tone--a sappy song called “I’m Proud of You.” Not the ring I would have paired with a forty year old business man, but like I said, cultural mysteries.

The best had to be the trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. We recognized the tune, but the words were in Khmer. “Is this…”Play That Funky Music (White Boy)”?” And it was. The music video karaoke version. A young Cambodian pop star danced on the screen as a psychedelic snail floated in the background. Blaine and I just stared. “But why a snail?” I asked. “But why this song?” She asked. And then we shook our heads and sang the chorus in English.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

This Way

My family often mocks a deep observation I made when I was eight or nine that "every road leads somewhere." Well, Cambodia lives by my philosophy, and offers helpful road markings to help you find your way...somewhere.