Monkey Business 2/2

For Part 1, click here.

Assuming you’re caught up, you’re likely reading this in search of monkey stories. Let’s get right back to it.

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The Batu Caves of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, turned out to be quite the host the largest concentration of monkeys I’d yet seen. The Batu Caves, a thoroughly interesting land formation — one of those massive limestone mountains with intense weathering characterizing its walls and with a toupee of jungle the summit — had a ten-story staircase leading up to said cave entrance. Through this one can continue on through a chasm, leading eventually to the back end of the caves, where looking up one could see the sky through an immense, weathered opening.

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It felt like walking into an empty volcano, and someone, long ago, thought it was a good idea to build a Hindu temple here. While the temple itself doubltess attracted tourists, the monkeys held our attention as much as anything else.

Doubtless related to the macaques I’d seen a bit north as in Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, this Malaysian variety had the characteristic long tails that people like to associate with our simian cousins. And at the Batu Caves, there were a lot of them.

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On our way up the steps, I remember pausing to regard the city beyond – clear air stretched on between my vantage and the far reaches of that view, for my visit came at a lucky time. The smog from the 2015 Indonesian Fires had lifted a day before my arrival, and locals were telling me stories of how one could barely see across the street. Looking out now at the afternoon haze, one could hardly guess that huge tracts of land had been set fire in a neighboring island country.

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My companion, Lan, brought a bottle of juice with her and held it placatingly toward one of the monkeys as we scaled the stairs. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the thing ran up, snatched it from her grasp, and set to work opening it with its teeth. The monkeys found here and all around Southeast Asia have long since learned the value of stealing food; it’s comparatively energy efficient to be a thief than it is a farmer, after all, and these guys were brigands.

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This’d be the charming bandit that stole Lan’s drink.

I watched one Japanese tourist notice a monkey approaching him. The guy decided he would have none of that and simply placed his drink on the ground, scurrying away as the monkey didn’t bat an eyelash taking his 7UP. The monkeys’ll take anything edible, and when if their nose or eyes do not bring them promise of easy pickings, they’ve been known to steal other things.

Sunglasses off your head, iPhones out of your hand, even sandals off the feet of small children being carried in the arms of their mothers. Nothing is sacred, and the monkeys will hold fast to whatever percieved-valuable item they’ve pilfered until such time as they are presented with a morsel of food. The exchange complete, they’ll let loose whatever human-made thing they held (often dropping it like a forgotten toy), take the food it won, and scurry to a higher vantage before its colleagues can pester him for a bite.

They get pushy sometimes. They say you aren’t supposed to make eye contact in the animal kingdom, but as a self-described animal I found myself abundantly curious of these things. Staring at a monkey an arm’s length away rewarded me with bared teeth and a false charge — more than enough to make me jump away. Groups of tourists — locals and foreigners alike — posing for photos often had monkeys make cameos, strolling up towards them with expectant little hands. They sometimes saw the monkeys approach, illiciting a thumbs-up or bigger smile on part of the tourist, while other times, as someone posed for the shot, a monkey would approach them and nobody would issue a warning. Every time the tourist jumped, and sometimes the monkey would make off with something.

They have learned behavior that cannot be unlearned; once one sees it happening, doubtless their friends spread word and the stealing-exchanging cycle perpetuates itself. Elders perfect the art while the young observe and imitate. Whether I’m talking about the tourists or the monkeys here is up to you.

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In one of the central provinces of Viet Nam, a region and city known as Dak Lak, I and two travel mates perused a souvenir boutique as we waited for our overnight bus. This would be at the tail-end of a several-day-long adventure the likes of which I happened to be eager was ending.

After a brief walk through the initial room — the boutique stretched in much further than it looked from the outside — I came across a cardboard box no larger than milk crate. Inside there peered up at me a baby monkey, the same widespread species of macaque you find everywhere. A little chain went to its neck and it looked small enough to have been torn from its mother prematurely.

I signalled to the attendants as to whether I could play with it — they nodded their head, and I kneeled by the box and extended a finger. Tiny hands grasped me and the monkey’s eyes locked with mine. The thing about looking into the eyes of another human is that there is, usually, this general common understanding of sentience. With most humans you meet, you probably regard them as a creature with its own independent emotions and motivations. One usually does not encounter this in something non-human, aside from dogs and cats and birds that many families have adopted, and given enough time around them, anyone will come to associate anthropomorphic qualities into it. We do that with cars and dolls, so why not animal companions?

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Little do you realize this is in fact same-sex marriage.

But the thing is that monkeys come with litereal anthropomorphic traits prepackaged. That little baby primate stared at me with legitimate sadness in its eyes, and in those brief moments I felt his little fingers holding mine, I might have felt a sense of desperation. When the time came and our bus arrived, it would not let ago, and I entertained fantasies of snapping the chain loose and smuggling the thing in my coat.

As it happens, keeping a monkey as a pet is generally a bad idea, and more than once I’ve rationalized that I don’t lead the right lifestyle to keep a full-time animal companion in my home/life. Especially one of a species shown to have the emotional and problem-solving intelligence of a small child.

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But I’ll never forget the Dak Lak baby monkey’s silent plea for release.

Monkey Business Part 1/2

Posts have been lacking. Apologies. More are in the works and on the way.

Much has happened, and yet there’s been a lot of not happening. It is a curious conundrum.

Perhaps chiefest among the big events would be visiting my home-area if Upstate New York for a month after 1.5 years away in Viet Nam. I find myself repeating the same stories, sometimes with details forgotten, only to be remembered later. The following is a brief dissertation of my exposure to the primates of South East Asia.

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One of my favorite shots from outside the Batu Caves; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I’d seen monkeys on television and YouTube videos. Most of us have. I’ve seen monkeys in zoos, imitated them as a kid (and adult), read about their symbolism in various mythologies as tricksters, or scientific studies as test subjects. It should come as no surprise to any sentient, *sapient* being of the modern era that these things have a lot in common with us.

I’ll never forget the time traveling with a group of friends in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Monkeys ruled the trees and the streets like squirrels, seen picking through garbage bins and tussling with stray dogs.

We had arrived in the late afternoon, having taken a morning bus from Sai Gon, Viet Nam. The five of us moved as a group, following the rough advice of a half-remembered Google Maps coordinate along some haphazard streets of the city. Compared to Sai Gon, my chosen city of residence, Phnom Penh stretched on as a sleepy, unhurried city full of inhabitants as eager to smile as they were to stare.

Near the de-facto center of Phnom Penh there lay a round, mountainous park, encircled by a roundabout and topped off with a dollar-admission temple to gods whose names I may never know. Trees shaded out the sun, and we welcomed the respite, but the monkeys walking leisurely along park’s floor caught our attention above all other things.

A gangly-limbed specimen drew close to use; I can remember my General Animal Instincts being overpowered by White Man Tourist instincts as curiosity filled me. The monkey showed no fear, its interest chiefly focused on the garbage seen either discarded along the sidewalks or collected in rubbish bins.

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Anna always had a way with bonding with the natives.

One of my travel mates, Anna, took a seat to get some zoomed photos, and the same simian we observed came quite close, electing to take up a perch on her shoulder with a vigorous hop. Like any benign cousin it preened through her blue-dyed hair, doubtless in search of grubs, and though she laughed (as I caught the event on video) one of us caught sight of a patrolling local signalling us — gently — to let the monkey be.

“That is a human,” one of my travel mates, Will, had remarked after we left. I watched the monkey stroll off and tussle playfully with a stray dog.

Seeing a monkey online or on television or in a book is certainly one thing. To see a monkey — and realize that it *sees* you back; at first with assessing the danger, then assessing your worth, and then disregarding you entirely — is quite another.

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The following day, after we arranged a plan to take a riverboat up from the capital toward Siem Reap, another travel mate — Will — and I decided to take a stroll on the streets of Phnom Penh in an attempt to get a good look at the monkeys again. Seeing as it was our last evening in the city, we knew not when the chance would again present itself. Returning to the same park, we found none, and we opted to return back to our hostel but took a slightly longer route for the sake of exploration.

The sky deepened with the tangerine and apricot shades of an approaching sunset, and as the two of us swaggered our way along, remarking on whatever hooked architecture we saw or what mad things we had seen up until then, movement along the rooftops caught my eye.

“Will,” I said, nudging his shoulder with one hand. He followed my other hand as I gestured above us. “We are being watched.”

The orange sky quickly faded to dark velvet blue, and the silhouettes of small, thin-limbed simians could be seen stalking the two or three stories above us. At first I felt unnerved, imagery of the Jungle Book, in one of its several film incarnations, coming to mind, but I quickly realized the monkeys above cared about as much for us as people on a tour bus might care for poverty-stricken locals through whose villages the vehicle passed.

Monkey Business Part 2 next week.

 

Seven Days On A Vietnamese Farm

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit a friend’s hometown in rural Viet Nam, near the central regions. Three of us traveled; a university student from Tazmania who I’d come to befriend, the girl whose hometown to which we were headed (also a dear friend), and myself.

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The following is a brief recounting of what happened, and how it has – in ways both surprising and unsurprising – it has influenced my writing.

And, it should be noted, that this marked the first time an American or an Australian (or any foreigners for that matter) had ever visited this part of Viet Nam and, furthermore, weren’t just passing through. I heard that once, and only once, since the War, had there ever been a foreigner – a Chinese person – visiting this area, and he had been denied any lodging and sent on his way.

So, to state it more clearly, my friend and I were the first Westerners to ever come to this part of Quang Tri Province since the Vietnam/American War.

We took a 1-hour flight from Sai Gon to Hue, the historical capital of the country, then took a taxi to the bus station. From there we boarded what they called a bus, though in truth it was a van that served the same purpose. For a the equivalent of a few dollars each, we traveled as far as it was from my old hometown in Upstate New York to New York City (a fair I fondly recall costing as much as $25.00, one-way) — 3ish hours of bumpy under-construction highway and, after turning off the main route, we came upon dusty, sometimes-paved roads.

We passed through the narrowest part of Viet Nam, where I could practically see the border on one side and the coastline on the other. I could look out the right-side window, to the east, where rice fields stretched across flats that seemed to end at the horizon, where an unseen ocean acted as a border. Looking out the left window, to the west, I could see the mountains of Laos.

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After finally arriving, our host-family treated us with royal hospitality, and any translation responsibility was left entirely to my trusted friend. My and the Tazmanian’s Vietnamese is limited (and furthermore, the pronunciation of the local dialect varies greatly from south to central regions), and the English skills of the family hosting us was virtually nonexistent. To our great enjoyment, the Tazmanian and I learned a host of new words in a very short time.

Vegetarianism is not common in the region, though to my relief they did have some concept of what that meant. Word was sent before our arrival that I don’t eat meat, and as such local-made tofu was prepared for me every day. Legit, local tofu – đậu phụ (dow-foo) – I even visited the neighbor’s house in which the stuff was boiled, churned, and pressed.

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Also they had a buffalo. Those were around.

The woman there made it every day, and appeared to produce it for the village. Bricks of it cost us quarters, and the first time they wouldn’t even accept payment, happy as the lady was to provide me with something to eat.

The area was populated almost solely by farmers, and Communism has destroyed any sense of spirituality (except for the worship of Ho Chi Minh, of course), such that Buddhism is pretty much nonexistent – thus few if anyone practiced vegetarianism by extension. In any case, the host-family was more than willing to accommodate me, the tofu eaten being hands-down the best I’ve had in my entire time spent in Asia.

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The vegetarianism was much easier to understand than my lack of fondness for drinking.

They drink beer every night, and loudly, and proudly, proclaim that they “drink the most beer in all Viet Nam.” I’ve heard this rhetoric in other regions, leaving me no choice but to conclude that the Vietnamese people to derive a sense of honor/pride from what privileged foreigners might label as widespread alcoholism. Recognizing that everyone says this, usually with a beer bottle in their hand at any given time of day, I merely shake my head at why this is something to be proud about in the first place.

I’m not fan of beer, and this is something many Vietnamese have great difficulty understanding.

“You’re a man. Therefore, you drink beer.”

There really isn’t room for argument as far as they’re concerned, since it is such an embedded ritual at this point that beer is drunk with most meals (and often in between). To have a visitor – particularly one of a rare and unusual-looking breed such as myself and the Tazmanian – inevitably called for drinking beer from one house to the next much in the same manner as people go bar-hopping.

As such, I am repeatedly thrust into the situation of “Hey, you’re a foreigner, drink beer with us.” And after repeatedly making it clear that I don’t like to drink (I am especially sensitive to when someone forces it on me, something that happens frequently here), there is at least half a chance that they’ll disregard my odd and clearly unmasculine behavior as some oddity among foreigners.

My Tazmanian comrade, on the other hand, drank more often than me, which mostly placated their incessant desire to fill me with cheap, disgusting alcohol. I knew, of course, that nearly every gesture of this sort was made in an act of welcome and hospitality, but the concept of “No thanks,” to drinking beer is about as clearly understood as “No thanks, I’m full,” is understood when at the dinner table visiting your grandmother’s house.

It takes anywhere between hours and days for this concept to sink into the heads of people I meet.

Many roads between each villagers houses were connected by dusty roads like this, with trees lining space between plots.

Many roads between each villagers houses were connected by dusty roads like this, with trees lining space between plots.

The house in which we stayed was a mere fifteen minute walk from the beach, where we went almost every day for a swim in warm, bathtub-temperature saltwater. The beaches were far from pristine, and more than once I witnessed local farmers’ children playing with hunks of styrofoam in the water as makeshift toys; garbage washed ashore from the sea or cast aside by locals.

You could erect massive statues made of the all the empty bottles we stepped over, and the thought crossed my mind, and seeing as this was even remotely a tourist area, there could only be one source left from which the trash accumulated. Sun-bleached propaganda posters looked to do little in preventing locals from littering or cleaning up the beaches.

The dunes were quite unmolested, though.

The dunes were quite unmolested, though.

In spite of these unignorable details, I loved going to the beach, and as I said we went almost every day – once even late at night, where I discovered to my initial horror the bioluminescent plankton. It was mode rad.

We were awakened by roosters nearly every morning, and my Tazmanian buddy had the presence of mind to bring several sets of ear-plugs with him, and only on such mornings as I employed the little foam wonders was I able to sleep later than 6:00am. But not before developing a distinct lack-of-fondness for a particular rooster, however, that sounded like nothing short of a dinosaur.

That one godsdamn chicken sounded – no joke – just like this fellow here, an orc from Lord of the Rings. (1:42 – 1:44)

This in fact inspired a section of prose for my novel-in-progress, where a character is rudely awakened by an intrusive chicken. It served to fill a hole that otherwise had me stumped for months, and after inadvertently being accosted by the crowing of proud chickens, I managed to get through another of my frequent Blocks.

No building in the entire village was made of wood. In what I have learned to be the typical Vietnamese fashion, every structure is built of rebar-enforced concrete. I even came across “picket fences” along the road that were designed to look like your typical wooden fence as seen on T.V., but made out of slabs of painted cement bolted together.

No doubt the better to withstand the yearly typhoons I’ve heard stories about.

One of the plots behind the house in which we stayed.

One of the plots behind the house in which we stayed. They do biodiverse farming, with various fruit trees having pepper-plants crawling up each trunk.

Days before being assured that no rain would come to the region during our stay, a perpetual downpour came upon us that lasted for half a week. During this time I found myself largely confined to the house, which was much to my enjoyment as the air got significantly cooler and I, at last, had some time to simply do what I hoped to do on this excursion: spend some time writing.

I did manage to churn out about 2,000 words of prose, which is pretty good compared to the last few months, and some, like I said, was in part inspired by that godsdamn chicken. But nary a moment passed when I went unbothered, whether by the family summoning me to play cards games like Blackjack, eat a meal, play with local children or just to accompany someone on an errand.

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Some errands were more scenic than others.

I met the Town Drunk, a man who spoke slurred gibberish that was “Not Vietnamese.” But much to my own amazement, another individual, a boy of fourteen who, from a clear though unidentified mental handicap (he was taken out of school on account of his inability to learn), fit the trope, cliche, whatever, of the Village Idiot. I found myself wondering whether this was something uncool to ponder, because regardless of the boy’s condition, there was only one like him, and the setting seemed apropos for the stereotype. He, also, was described to “talk a lot but he doesn’t actually say anything.”

As someone thoroughly familiar with mental handicaps (which has instilled in me a deeper-than-average sensitivity to the word “retard”), I found him interesting, but there were more barriers between us than culture and language.

I ate tamarind on the roof of their house, saw a seaside sunrise, played with kids (both that of villagers and goats), walked along dry riverbeds and drying rice paddy fields, and traversed massive sand dunes. We even delved into what remained of an old Viet Cong tunnel, dug under a hill and still quite stable, a place where sound and light did not travel more than ten paces, and using nothing more than the lights of our smartphones, we plumbed its depths before having to turn around and come back out.

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The experience was about as Freudian as it gets.

Through it all, us foreigners were met with warm greetings and frequent invitations to eat, drink, and play. I had very little time to myself, which was expected and oddly appreciated.

From this experience I derived a small pile of inspiration, as well as simple “down to earth” concepts of how things are made and how people live in a less-than-urban setting. These aspects of life readily and easily translate to writing fantasy, which more often than not takes place in a medieval-esque world devoid of plumping, laundry machines, and freezers.

Even just going somewhere, like the dunes or the tunnel, brought more reality to how I might later describe such scenes. Sand squeezing between my toes or damp air pressing against my lungs, a spike of seething, genuine hatred towards an unevolved fowl.

Fixing My Sandals

A 12-Minute Read.

~~~

So I went to Cambodia again.

I saw Angkor Wat again.

And again I ate of the delightful mangoes that country has to offer.

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How many kinds of fruits you see here is directly proportional to the number of reasons why I enjoy living in this part of the world.

 

While passing through Phnom Penh – that mad city of tuk-tuk drivers, charlatan monks and sparrow-catchers – I decided I would get myself a pair of sandals of higher quality than your standard flip-flop variety. More often than not, I frequent markets in an attempt to simply look and browse, and am pretty much the opposite of an impulse buyer.

As I always like to explain to my Vietnamese students, “I am the kind of person who likes to keep the money.” This translates into haggling more than the av-er-age bear, much to the chagrin of merchants and sellers who would otherwise see me as an easy target to price-hike.

Obscure reference is obscure.

In any case, I found a decent pair and talked the stubborn seller down to $12. The label said “Made in Viet Nam,” much to pride of my travel companion – a Vietnamese – and the seller of course assured me of its quality. Off I went, wearing awesome high-quality footwear.

The next day, as I emerged from an overnight bus-ride to Siem Reap, one of the straps broke. With an exasperated sigh, and a sense of stubborn pride, I came to the resolution that I would have the things repaired, rather than simply replaced.

I sought someone to do said work, and while I am no stranger to stitching, often enough I see cobblers on street corners or people in the markets in the process of mending someone’s sole.  Using body language as well as English, I asked on the outer periphery of the Siem Reap Central Market.

“Inside,” one of the sellers told me. I went in, asking another shoe-seller. They shook their head.

“Outside,” someone else told me. I emerged out the other end, asking various people, and following the pointing fingers of a number of sellers – as well as a friendly tuk-tuk driver or two – I made my way to a street just off to the side of the Central Market.

“Down street,” another person said with a gesture. “Unda da trees.”

We continued, until at last finding some lads sitting on tiny, plastic chairs. Their workstation included a coffee can full of various small tools and a key-copying machine.

I demonstrated through hand gestures that the sandal strap was in need of repair, and it took them all but half a second to understand my need. My companion soon discovered that the two boys could apparently speak Vietnamese fluently and, as they began to work, we sat with them. Chatting ensured, though I was, as is the norm, part of possibly 6% of the total conversation.

Turns out the boys’ mother is Vietnamese and their father is Cambodian, and apart from their parents’ mother tongues, they boasted of speaking fluent Burmese as well. Being trilingual is a valuable skill in any crossroads cities, as one might imagine, though their English was extremely limited.

I watched them work, and had bits and pieces of the conversation sporadically translated to me. They were aged fifteen and sixteen, two brothers, though by all appearances (whether a result of genetics, malnutrition, or simply my own lack of ability to guess, I could not say), I would’ve estimated them to be around ten or eleven.

But it was only in outward appearance that these two resembled adolescents. I watched the way they spoke not only to my companion, but to other people – adults or otherwise – who rolled up on bicycles, motorbikes, or sedans to do some form of business or other. Turns out the two kids were quite well-known, able to perform repairs not only for shoes, but the mechanics of motorbikes as well. I saw a multitude of people seeking them out for various purposes.

Through translation and simple observation, I learned that the two young men knew how to do many things, and many other people knew this as well. These were the guys to whom most people seemed to go when they needed something done, and much like how I arrived at their “shop without a sign” they were probably known simply by word-of-mouth.

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The older of the two brothers, sitting and chatting it up as I sat quietly in the shade wearing my tourist-pants.

 

I found the experience rather eye-opening, as well as simply interesting. I saw them hand a pair of shoes that looked noticeably more expensive than my multi-strapped sandals to a car-driving businessman; I watched the older brother pay off a patrolling street guard (common practice for anyone operating a small entrepreneurial — illegal — business like this), and through my companion I asked a few questions.

“Do you go to school?”

“No,” was the translated answer. They said they quit school to work. And I soon found out why: according to them, they made as much as $50 a day doing their various work. Even if these are the hyperbolic words of an emerging teenager, and in fact they made an average of about 20% of that, this is still nothing to sniff at for Cambodia. Indeed, I found myself struggling to reason why anyone in their position would continue going to school when they had a business to run that — proportionately — brought in more cash than jobs I’d done back in America earned.

Hell, if you know where to eat, $50 can feed you for a month in Siem Reap.

They seemed savvy and street-smart, not the type of children you see advertised on television commercials stating “If you send us just $1, you can feed this child for a day.” They played mobile games on a new-looking 5-ish-inch Samsung Galaxy (the exact model of course I could not know), though they wore shoes and clothes tattered and dusty.

“Do you have plans for the future?” I asked them.

“No,” was the simple reply, though the younger of the two brothers said that maybe one day he would try to go to America, where he would do the same work of cobbling shoes. They were quick to jump on the prospect of work, and even quicker to laugh and smile. If there’s one thing that continues to intrigue me about Cambodia, it is the attitude of the people living there. People will over-charge you without a second thought – it is expected and customary, especially in the tourist areas – but there are just as many who’ll gladly give directions or recommendations for “the best” place to go, like where to buy mangoes or get a decent exchange rate for converting money.

“Are Vietnamese shoes good quality?”

“No,” was the laughing reply with a vigorous head-shake.

In any case, meeting the two Cobbler Boys whose names I couldn’t possibly write here with any accuracy, I reached a minor realization while watching these “adults in the bodies of young people.”

Whenever reading a YA novel or watching a movie based off one, or even simply a film written for the Young Adult audience, I always had difficulty swallowing the premise of characters who spoke and acted like adults. I always felt like novelists wrote such characters more because they were, themselves, adults, and the best they could do was write child-characters as “small adults.”

Perhaps I found my suspension of disbelief strained on account of bad acting, or perhaps indeed due to inept writing, but I will also unabashedly admit that my experience with children (or teenagers who, gods be good, are half my age) is probably limited. Perhaps I simply haven’t met a lot of street-smart young adults to which to compare to characters of which I read in books.

The two Cobbler Brothers had a sense of independence and responsibility about them that I am quite unaccustomed to feeling from people so young. Living in a country as famous for it’s abject poverty as it’s nasty, bloody, recent history, it would appear that these guys are doing pretty well for themselves given the obstacles that a foreigner such as myself might otherwise find discouraging and overwhelming.

In fiction, a few immediate examples come to mind. One being Locke from one of my all-time favorite fantasy books The Lies of Locke Lamora. Another being Liesel, from the The Book Thief. Last, for the purposes of this list, is one of my least favorite characters (at least initially) from A Game of Thrones, Arya Stark. She got awesome later, don’t worry, I ain’t hatin’.

Each of these characters were thrust into situations where they were forced to leave behind their childhood faster than most people reading the books would ever encounter. People who got street smart – fast, and for different reasons – or they would have died early (like many of their peers who simply didn’t grow up fast enough). At various points in their respective stories, I sometimes found myself thinking “Would a child really be talking like that?” They each have their supports, of course.

Locke has an origin making him a bit more than an average human (as revealed in the third book).

Liesel had one of the most wonderful and encouraging adopted fathers in a story I’ve ever ‘met.’

And Arya had the outrage of a murdered family to fuel her will – which in and of itself isn’t unique as stories go, but she seems to stand apart from all the other vengeful young people we see in fiction all the time.

My encounter in Cambodia gave me first-hand experience with street-smart young adults that made me rethink my earlier ideas, and my future perceptions, of such characters. Perhaps such people may even appear in my own fiction-to-come as a result.

Fear Of The Finish Line

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Not long ago, I had a strange epiphany-like moment. It happened when I was mulling over precisely why it was that I haven’t been writing fiction like I used to.

In the not-so-distant past, I eagerly strode out of my home to one of a myriad of cafes within walking distance and would sit down for hours at a time, drafting, editing and scrivenizing raw prose. Sometimes it was arduous, and sometimes it flowed like a cluster of frog eggs from your adolescent hand during a hot summer’s day.

How’s that for a visual?

So naturally, life distractions happen. Every writer’s bane is the internet itself, for all its usefulness. I have YouTube channels I like to follow that release daily content, all manner of websites full of interesting articles, and of course Wikipedia. Perhaps worst of all is Facebook, the ultimate time sink.

In case it may interest you, I’ve recently restarted using an app for Google Chrome called StayFocusdUsing this deceptively nifty little extension, you can limit how long you browse certain webpages. If you’re anything like me, and you easily lose track of time while browsing or “doing research,” it’s a great tool to help limit the internetical meandering.

By the way, no one gives me anything for this little endorsement.

Anyway, throw in any excuse with which you are most familiar. I have responsibilities, I don’t have enough time, I have a boy/girlfriend, I have appointments, deadlines, — whatever. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling one’s self these things, as though to excuse one’s self from actually working on one’s personal projects. The world is full of distracting things.

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Turns out I had the time, and still do, occasionally, have an extra hour or two between busy-ness and business. Granted, I have been monumentally distracted, but had I focus, I could turn those spare moments into productive writing time. I will gladly and freely admit that I am a fundamentally lazy person, but have endeavored to change my behavior to become more productive.

It has worked. Over the course of the last few years, I’ve effectively turned myself into the type of person that gets extremely antsy and anxious if I’m idle for too long. I’ve got more projects in my life now than I know how to complete. As far as writing is concerned, this includes:

A short story for my writer group, the Sky Writers, a short story for Masque & Spectacle (Vietnam Edition), any number of whimsical blog posts, and, of course, the all-consuming, all-powerful novel project.

The truth is I have had the time to work on any number of these. Energy, on the other hand, is arguable. Willpower has waned. So I’ve been getting very introspective, repeatedly asking myself the fundamental question: Why?

I, like many writers, think we need (or possibly delude ourselves into thinking we need) to be in the right state of mind in order for our time to be conducive to creativity. In other words, lots of us just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike us, which I’ve come to believe is most certainly the wrong way to do things. I hear it all the time, and the result is always the same: they aren’t actually writing anything.

Steven King, a man I cite often here, is a notoriously prolific writer, and in the book I cite just as often (if not more so) than the man himself, On Writing, King makes it clear that you can’t wait for the muse; you have to train your muse to know where to find you. That means making the habit of setting aside time, honoring it, and sitting in front of a notebook or a screen with a pen in your hand or a keyboard under your fingers. Make it habit. Personally, I like to have a cup of ice coffee nearby.

Elizabeth Gilbert makes a counter-intuitive point to the idea of “your elusive creative genius” in her TED talk. This is among the top TED Talks that have left the greatest impression on me.

So even while knowing these things (even though I haven’t been putting them in practice quite as often as I would like, or would otherwise have you think, considering the preachy nature of this blog post), I still found myself asking the question: Why?

Then it hit me.

I think I am afraid of completing the novel.

Schmendrick

Bear in mind that, once finished, this would be my first, and were I to buckle down and write the last damn final chapters, the manuscript could be completed in something like a week or two. You would think that with the end in sight, I would be rushing to the finish line, but as it happens, I think I discovered an unexpected hurdle.

You see, I’ve been working on this thing for years. It’s conception first came about like the result of a prom night gone wrong, and about as long ago. That’d put the earliest bits of development around ten years before this post — but I’ve only recently taken my writing seriously as of about two or three years ago. Before then, my stories and ideas were but musings of an idle mind. Since then, the writings have taken on various incarnations; the novel I started is far different than the novel that will be finished, as it has been scratched and started anew several times.

In fact, almost nothing in common with the original story remains, except a slight sense of familiarity. It’s like an old computer you’ve had for ages, but you’ve gone about upgrading the hardware and software over the years. At which point does it, or did it ever, cease to be the same computer you started with?

The point of all this is this:

I discovered in myself that I might have actually fallen in love with the romantic ideal of “working on a novel,” rather than actually finishing it.

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The project has been in development for so long that more than once I’ve actually lost sight of the end! I mean sure, as per the reassurances of my writer-peers, I can and will always get involved in the next book.

Like I said, there’s a series planned. Standalone fantasy books are an excellent gulp of fresh-air, but that’s not what this particular story arc is.

The problem isn’t inspiration, or a lack of time, or even being in the dark about what will happen next in the manuscript. Usually what it comes down to is forcing myself to a place where the muse will find me: in a cafe somewhere, wearing giant headphones and with one or two drained coffee cups nearby, my laptop open and my notebook at hand.

I’m in fact emulating that as I put the final touches on this post.

Swallowing that strange thing that I can only describe as a fear of finishing.

Have you ever reached the finale of a game you’ve loved? Or a T.V. series? Or even a sequence of books or movies? There is always this sense of emptiness afterward. I’ve felt this after turning the last page of a few books, but in fact I’ve felt it strongest at the end of an anime or a classic JRPG of old.

Some of the most influential games for me were Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, Chrono Trigger. Mario RPG was one of the greats, as well. Each of these games I had beaten several times, but the first time I saw the credits roll, I sat and gazed at all the foreign names, letting the magnitude of my experience sink in.

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I can even remember a sense of depression after seeing the credit rolls halt, and reading a final “~FIN” or “The End” or “Thank you for playing.”

And writing about this has actually inspired me to dig up and start a new one. I haven’t played a JRPG in years; perhaps it’s time I see what all the hallabaloo is about Earthbound.

It ended. It was really over. Sometimes there would be looping music. Sometimes dead silence. Always stillness.

Now what?

book-hangover

Substitute the word “book” with “RPG” and it rings just as true.

 

Every now and then, I regain the encouragement or wherewithal I need to remember my purpose. I swear, half the things I write about on this blog are about why I’m having trouble writing and what I do in an attempt to combat that. But I wonder how many others ever have felt this same anxiety?

The truth is that once I am completed with one novel project, there will always be another one to write, whether it’s a sequel or a separate piece.

It’s just merely a matter of getting over myself in order to write the blasted thing.

Funny how we are our own worst critics, our biggest hurdles, and our own only hope.

Do let me know whether you’ve experienced anything like this in the comments.

~~~

This post’s music comes from an OverClocked Remix of Final Fantasy’s Prelude, a part of the Balance and Ruin Remix Album for Final Fantasy 6. It never fails to remind me of my dreams as a writer.

Thai Adventures Pt. 3: Bangkok

After my experiences in Phnom Penh and my adventures in Siem Reap, a crossroads lay before me.

My original party of five had dispersed. One pair returned to Sai Gon, where they would spend their remaining days in Southeast Asia during Tet Holiday, then head back home to New York.

The other pair were headed north, to Laos. I had no particular inclination to go in either direction.

Thus the opportunity arose where I instead head east – to Thailand.

This would not be my first time venturing into the Land of the Thais, as some months ago I paid a visit to Chiang Mai to meet an old friend. This time in Thailand, my time would be spent in the mad city of Bangkok, a place legendary for things those of us in the West use as the fodder for juvenile puns and crude jokes.

I can assure you that much of what you have heard about Bangkok is probably true.

I spent less than a week there, with the intentions of meeting another (different) friend of mine, and as it turned out I got there early, and had about two full days of free time to myself before their arrival. This left me with ample opportunities to sample the cuisine at my own pace.

Cranston McHattery looking stylish as he stole my sunglasses again.

And yet, while hoping to enjoy Pad Thai the way I keep expecting it to taste, I was once again disappointed.

To understand Bangkok – I don’t claim to except superficially, as a tourist – one must first take the phrase “East Meets West” and take it a step further. Thailand is a fascinating blend of Indian and (South)East-Asian influences. There were many empires (of which Angkor Wat stands as a remnant) to attest to the rich history of this part of the world. Yet, when we say East Meets West, we often think of the Crusades in the poorly named “Middle East,” or perhaps those wondrous melting-pot cities like Jerusalem and Istanbul.

Though I recently read the opinion of a rather prolific traveler in regards to how culturally diverse the Dubai airport is.

Bangkok is no exception, and the phrase “East Greets West” feels more apropos. Thailand is a highly developed country and it shows in the capital city. I won’t spend time here contrasting to Viet Nam, or Thailand’s little brother Cambodia, as the socio-political intricacies require a degree of precision in history such as I am – currently – incapable of providing in a clear and unbiased context.

Suffice it to say that Thailand opened its gates to the outside world long ago, and has prospered as a direct result. While still retaining aspects of its cultural identity, I could not help but see incredible levels of globalization in Bangkok.

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Modernity with a dash of camouflage.

It is an interesting discussion about how the more “developed” a country becomes, the more “Western” it appears to be, from the fashion trends, to infrastructure, and sometimes even aspects of the government (more on Thai administration later).

But it is profoundly Western-centric of me to assume anything along the lines of other cultures wearing skinny jeans or dying their hair as an attempt to “look more Western.” This is a debate the likes of which I’ve participated many times in the past, and have since come to adopt the opinion that it isn’t “Western” style (whatever that is) that we see around the world, but more of a global style, usually accompanied by individual cultural flavors.

Thailand has no shortage of flavors of its own, and I saw this first hand in Bangkok. The people — while predominantly (assumedly) Thai, are extremely diverse among themselves. This city is, during my limited globe-trotting experience, the very definition of cosmopolitan and metropolitan.

In fact it was very reminiscent of Manhattan. Which is probably why I’ve since decided I don’t like it there.

Cosmopolitan and metropolitan are noble words to have ascribed to a city, but not my kind of city. Although while I compare Bangkok to Manhattan, I believe that Bangkok is significantly more globally-minded. This could be seen in, of all things, some of its most prestigious landmarks: the shopping malls.

This is probably the only shopping mall - styled after an oldschool market - that I actually didn't mind checking out.

This is probably the only shopping mall – styled after an oldschool market – that I actually didn’t mind checking out.

The people of Bangkok – Bangkokese? Bangkokers? Bangkokians? – appear to be largely more concerned with keeping up with fashion trends and expressing their individuality. I was, of course, spending a lot of time in the direct city center where shopping malls stood as legit tourist attractions as much as actual shopping centers, and the mighty Terminal 21 – a mall designed to resemble an airport, which each floor having a different theme based on various interesting cities around the world. Istanbul, Tokyo, San Francisco and Paris come to mind.

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Not to mention it was the Lunar New Year, so they had a bit of a China theme happening.

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No shopping mall is complete without a giant golden dragon.

Thailand, with the evident desire for self-expression and individuality in its inhabitants, makes for what I can only assume is a very open-minded community. I saw just as many Thais walking around with dyed hair as those who kept their hair black. There were piercings, tattoos, and quite a bit of androgyny about in terms of dress.

These things did not come as a shock by any means, but they did stand in stark contrast to my experiences in Viet Nam where, much like the East-Asian neighbors of Japan, China, and S. Korea, conformity is, expectedly, the norm.

And then, of course, there are the ladyboys.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone's throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone’s throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Even as a backpacker tourist, I managed to avoid the famous Khaosan Road, though I now wish I had passed through it at least once. I feel as though I haven’t missed all that much though; the more seasoned travelers, backpackers and expats alike, tend to avoid these tourist havens.

Oh right, the ladyboys.

They are exactly what it sounds like, and exactly what you’ve heard about.

And no, sorry, no pictures. You can look that up on your own.

Nothing compares to walking down Soi Cowboy, that mad carnival of a street, and being hawked by gaggles of sexily-dressed waitresses and gangs ladyboy prostitutes.

I learned after having stayed there for a night that the area in which my hostel was apparently smack-dab in the middle of what I can only respectfully call a huge prostitute zone.

And after a few days of sight-seeing, I found myself starting to look at all this and regard it as normal.

It is true that prostitution is a viable career path in Thailand, and as such it’s kind of a big reason for tourism. Furthermore, I expect it’s difficult for people to explain to their friends and family that no, in fact, that isn’t the reason they’re visiting Thailand.

At any rate, it was a fascinating thing to see the fusion of traditional spirituality and fast-paced commercialism. What I can only describe as open-mindedness towards self-expression and sexuality was apparent wherever I turned. Women dressed like men, men dressed like women, and loads of people dressed like neither – who also happened to be equipped with similarly androgynous faces, leaving my subconscious labeling system as “person” rather than man or woman.

I suspect the LGBT community is big there.

And there are, of course, many other wonderful things to be found here.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

The gods are not so cruel.

Cambodia – A Tattered Nation

I have returned from quite the journey. This is in part why my posts have been lacking. And, having returned, I have a number of stories to tell from my travels.

Living in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, the Lunar New Year (or rather what many other nations know as Chinese New Year) loomed over this country much in the same way Christmas and [Gregorian] New Year’s does over the nation I left behind. They call it Tet Holiday here, and it is undisputedly the number one event in Viet Nam.

As such, many locals take this time to flee the city and return to their hometowns around the country to visit family. Most people have up to one week off, while others sometimes have as much as two. In a city where I’ve met people who work seven days a week with one day off per month, coupled with the layers of tradition that so permeate the culture here, pretty much every aspect of life, many weeks before the holiday, is geared towards the holiday itself.

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This is what happens when a profound hat-wearer, such as myself, encounters something Tet-Holiday-related that is profoundly in need of a hat.

 

Naturally, foreigners living here such as myself are affected by this, as much of Sai Gon empties of locals during Tet. Most expats are allotted vacation during this time as well, whether they work for official companies or their jobs are a bit more independent – such as in my case, where much of my student base is out of town anyway. Thus, the annual stage is set for vacation for many, and my case was no exception.

The plans began with the arrival of four friends flying in from New York, beloved peers I had left behind when I set out from home Ashitaka-style. Fast-forward eight or nine months, and I was waiting at the Tan Son Nhat Airport of Sai Gon after midnight. They landed, made it through customs, and I embraced each of them in turn around 3:00am.

Subsequent days were spent touring Sai Gon, and I was able to show them a few delights of this city I’ve come to love. Vegetarian restaurants, a surprise Cat Café I did not know existed, and the positively divine mango smoothies available. Not to mention the usual landmarks; Ben Thanh Market, the Post Office and mini-Notre Dame, and the usual motley of mad things to be seen in this city that I’ve gotten used to seeing.

Mad motorbike traffic, motor-bike taxis sleeping on their bikes in the middle of the day, people cooking food on the street. The cacophony of horns, the occasional smell of sewage drifting up from grates in the street, the glances from locals that are just as often smiles as they are scowls.

Boy, I love this town.

You wouldn’t guess from its appearance, but a little alleyway filled with cheap blue plastic chairs, located just off Bui Vien Street (the center of the center, in terms of tourists and backpackers), happens to be the best smoothie place in town.

In any case, the real adventure began when we established an itinerary to Cambodia. Having lived in Viet Nam for as long as I did, I actually have done very little traveling. My only understanding of Cambodia was: just some country nearby. I saw it once – passing over it in a plane to Thailand – and getting there was remarkably easy.

Many foreigners living in Sai Gon, with intentions of extending their stay, make runs to Cambodia to hop over the border and return with a fresh three-month visa, so I had heard about it often enough from them.

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My party and I took a bus from Sai Gon to Phnom Penh, and crossed the border at the Moc Bai gate without incident. Throughout this entire journey, I could remember the words written to me from family many months ago, concerned about my mental health for even mentioning going to Cambodia. For those expatriates seeking to merely renew their Vietnamese tourist visa, the process is simpler and does not even require continuing to the Cambodian capital. Our goals were different, of course, as the star event of this journey was the fortress temple of Angkor Wat.

But this post is not about Angkor Wat. Not yet. Nor is this post meant to describe our journey there in any great detail. Not yet.

This post is intended to be about Cambodia as a country, and why it’s a place you ought to know more about.

There is something universally abhorrent about genocide. But it is also easily written and understood as “a word that means something really bad.” We find it instead easier to focus on matters that directly affect our lives – as opposed to the lives of people on the other side of the planet.

This is natural. This is human.

Cambodia is a struggling South East Asian country whose recent history is rife with conflict. I don’t claim to be an expert on the histories of the Khmer Empire, or the current monarchy, or the Khmer Rouge himself, but I have read things, seen things, felt things.

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, "Wow, wouldn't that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne...wait..."

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne…wait…”

Those of us from the West most readily associate the word genocide with the Holocaust of World War 2. While it remains a staggering and breath-stealing example of what humans – not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans – are capable of, the Holocaust is far from the most recent on such a wide scale.

In fact, even to me – a huge fan of the story Maus by Art Spiegelman, and myself a former Jew – feel very little personal connection to the Holocaust. The mists of time have fogged a screen over it, relegating the Holocaust to a historical event from a long time ago.

But in the history classes of my so-called education, I don’t think there was a single mentioning of the Khmer Rouge. No one talked about Nelson Mendela or Rwanda, either. I wonder whether the excerpts of these things have appeared in public school history books at all, and I wonder whether I don’t recall mention of them simply because there was no personal connection from me – and thus, I simply forgot.

As of this post, I am approaching my 29th year of life on this spinning marble. But I’ve had more life-changing experiences in these last two years than the rest of my life combined. I’ve written about one or two of them.

There is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, known simply as the Genocide Museum. Most of the touristy hotspot things to see in Phnom Penh revolve around the former dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge; the Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, things of that nature.

I and my party decided that, as visitors of this country, we felt an obligation to see this museum. Most tourists came to places like Cambodia to have a good time, and the landmarks of Phnom Penh are far from uplifting – and there was universal agreement that we should expose ourselves to the truth and the bad, rather than keep ourselves wrapped up in tourist bubbles as most people tend to do.

To call the museum a tourist attraction would be like calling Auschwitz an amusement park.

Long ago, this place was a school for children. Then when the Khmer Rouge took over and commenced his genocide of educated, artistic people (especially targeting those people of certain ethnic persuasions), the school was converted into an interrogation camp.

Pay the fee, take your ticket, pass through the gate. The sounds of the city behind us faded as austere silence permeated the courtyard. Birds tweeted, wind rustled the branches of the trees that dotted the concrete walkways. No one spoke among us and my party dispersed about the main square.

It took some time for me to organize the mix of emotions and cognitive thoughts swirling in my brain while walking from one room to the next. The rooms themselves were mostly barren, save for an occasional lone bed-frame with a few rusted chains and manacles upon it. Upon the wall of some rooms, a large photo could be seen on display, showing the unidentifiable body of a man or woman who had been subjected to the interrogation.

These were pictures taken presumably after the place was stormed and the guards fled. I could see the black and white depiction of a tiled floor  — the same tiles upon which I stood upon, gazing at the image — covered in blood. I saw limbs strapped to the bed-frame, a dripping, heavy metal rod nearby. The imagery was the very definition of the term graphic.

Other rooms had walls covered in photos of people who died there; mugshots of Cambodian men and women and children, some of them smiling. Display cases bore small piles of “clothes worn by prisoners,” and when walking about the rooms one had to watch one’s step, as there could be found the occasional steel ring hammered into the floor.

I can remember feeling my eyes get misty. I can remember hearing other tourists walking and chatting as they passed from room to room. My friends were each affected heavily by this; as it was our second day in Cambodia, but their fifth day in South East Asia. The direct-exposure to poverty on this side of the planet affected everyone, though I know I had gone through that initial shock mothers prior.

The museum instilled each of us in turn with strong emotions.

One among us found herself so nauseated she had to find a bathroom, where she emptied the contents of her stomach.

Another found himself so overwhelmed by what I can only describe as the energy of that place that he had to leave. I didn’t see him go, but I later learned that it took about fifteen minutes for the emotions to overwhelm him before he went to wait for us outside the entrance.

I, for one, found myself increasingly worn with each room. There were at least two main buildings, each with five or so floors – I barely got past the ground floor on each building before I couldn’t handle it myself.

I found another travel-mate outside in the courtyard, sat a book’s chuck distance away. After awhile I moved closer, saying only “I don’t know why, but I don’t want to sit alone.”

I remember feeling simple animal kinship in that moment. As though despite any differences in upbringing, creed, bloodline, education, or preference were all invented as a means to divide us and forget a very fundamental fact:

Human animals. We are all human animals.

We waited quietly for the rest of our group, unsure where everyone was at that moment. I sat thinking about whether it was appropriate to break the silence. Eventually I did, expressing that very thought.

My companion informed me that while he had been walking, he happened by a group of other tourists. They weren’t nearly as affected as we were. Some even pointed at the photos and laughed.

Whether these people were making light of the severity in order to cope with what they were taking in, or they were genuinely insensitive people, I will never know. Regardless, their mere utterance of words in that place seemed taboo to me.

There was a time when I wondered whether I was an empath. I used to feel things other people couldn’t – or maybe it was my imagination at work, inventing reasons to feel more special in a world of mundanity.

The Genocide Museum (among other places) did not instill me with anything beyond what my cognitive senses brought me. While my friends might have felt them, I certainly didn’t feel any “ghost residue” as I had been half-expecting.

No, the Genocide Museum is a place of solemn recollection. Seeing bedframes used for unspeakable tortures, photographs of victims before and after, or passing under trees in the courtyard whose bark probably drank of the blood of those lashed to them … it leaves an impression.

And in spite of it all, this recent history, the people of Cambodia struggle on. The people of these various war-torn countries exemplify a resilience such as I can scarcely imagine.

I remember walking with Thorneater later that day, and we talked of our experience. Only one word came to describe that afternoon.

Awe.

Awe at what humans — not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans — can do.

And what they, for whatever reasons or under whatever pretexts, they cannot feel.

And yet I’m increasingly convinced that people are inherently good. We are all just animals, this I heartily believe, but when men, women and children from countries that suffered atrocities of immeasurable horror can be so open and welcoming to strangers, it gives a sense of hope such as I’ve never really felt back in New York.

I decided before, and though brief homesickness and life obstacles shook me once or twice, that I can’t go back and leave this all behind.