Saturday, April 2, 2011

When you wash your clothes in the toilet I’m not sure if it makes a difference.

“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”

-Ben Franklin

When you wash your clothes in the toilet I’m not sure if it makes a difference.

A cramped, three-quarters of my ass suspended in the aisle affair, the bus ride from Phnom Penh to the beaches of Sihanoukville, Cambodia turns altogether unpleasant when the young girl sitting across from me begins vomiting. Four spewings in five hours. Resting on her brother’s lap, ski pole skinny, her right eye aligned awry, forever skewed to stare at her right ear. The heaving anticipated, she’s changed out of her clothing each time by the ten year-old she rests on, a boy whose patience is all man.

The final outburst catches the smartly dressed Cambodian sitting next to the siblings and his reaction, it’s so odd. So peculiarly un-American. He simply registers his shirt, his pants, the rice-mango-unidentifiable-meat steaming stew that now covers them, gets up, and walks to the rear of the bus. No outburst, not even calm disgust. Just acceptance and rational reaction.

In Southeast Asia social harmony is ensured by the concept of ‘face’; avoiding embarrassment of yourself and others. Anger, frustration, and offending speech are avoided. Losing one’s temper brings unacceptable ‘loss of face’, shame to the individual and, even more unforgivable, to his or her family. Which is why when the bus breaks down—and it almost always breaks down—passengers, at least the Asian variety, calmly file out and wait. When a young girl with apparent epilepsy who has no business riding the bus vomits all over your shirt and slacks, you calmly move out of the spray zone.

Sihanoukville sunsets are sublime. The moto-taxi mafia isn’t. I quickly discover they’re all drug-dealers on the side. After refusing a fare with the requisite seven ‘no thank yous’ their solicitation turns illicit.

“Marijuana? Got good weed, my friend.”

No thank you.


Hell no.

“Yama?” (Known as ‘yaba’ in Thailand, methamphetamine often laced with heroin and toxic substances like mercury and lithium, sharing its name with the Hindu god of death.)

No. I’d like to live to see tomorrow. I’m pretty sure there’s one of those killer sunsets scheduled. As Salvador Dali said, “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.” Nothing brings ecstasy like the natural world.

“You want boom-boom?”


“Happy time with girl?”

Not unless the service comes with a nuclear contamination suit.

Drugs are always dangerous, but much more so in Southeast Asia, home of the Golden Triangle. Because opium is so abundant it’s cheap and comes in a far more pure, more mind-altering form than most foreigners are used to. Unsurprisingly, several backpackers die of overdose every year. Prostitution, again always dangerous, is much more so in a place where if protection is used, it is often of inferior quality. Many Cambodians suffer from AIDS. Many are unaware.

The Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) moto-taxi mafia operates similarly. Declining a ride leads to an offering of any sort of vice the mind can devise, some of which I didn’t know were in existence.

Don’t ask. You’re much more attractive with that naïve look about you.

Saigon buzzes, it hums, a city whose energy instantly envelops and pulls and consumes. With eight million people and four million motorbikes crossing the street brings one within ninety-five percent of their maximum heart rate. The pedestrian puts his fate in the Triple Religion, or Tam Giao, a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Then the pedestrian craps his pants. Overwhelmed by the cycles, he can’t see his intended target, can’t catch a glimpse of the other side of the street through the moto-bike bee swarm. Lost at sea in a fog of aluminum and tires and exhaust.

Guess its laundry night.

Saigon’s War Remnants Museum houses a brutal, propagandized perspective of the Vietnam War. With exhibits like ‘Aggressive War Crimes’, ‘The World’s Support of Vietnamese Resistance to the U.S. Imperialist Occupation’, and ‘The Aftermath of Agent Orange’ this is a place where, when asked, you say you’re from Canada. Pictures include a U.S. soldier holding the upper half of a grenade-obliterated Vietnamese carcass and the bullet-ridden bodies of pregnant women from the Mai Lai massacre. Especially atrocious is the defoliant, or Agent Orange, exhibit. The U.S. military used the stuff to incinerate jungles, the chemicals were crop-dusted to eat palm trees and elephant grass to limit the North Vietnamese Army’s field operations. Publicly, the military decreed it safe for humans. The legless-cyclops-three-finger retardation that persists three generations from the infected suggests otherwise. Contaminated American troops and families were awarded a large settlement. Infected Vietnamese and families have a room in the museum. You can shake their three-fingered hands. You can give them donations.

Or you can actively avoid the room and curse the damn Americans, eh.

I always preferred Maple Syrup over Miss Butterworth.

Oops. A glance through the window, a glimpse at an arm-less torso, at a walking face, at ‘Chunk’ from The Goonies. One of those not-really-a-mistake mistakes. Repulsively curious and paying for it with tears in my throat. Choking on snot and saliva, I scuttle off to the ‘Tiger Cages’ where Vietcong were tortured by the removal of fingernails and finger joints and fingers altogether. Their testicles singed, their penises meeting the fate of Mr. Bobbit’s.

Ahh, that’s better.

The War Remnants Museum mesmerized. I transform from a drifter to the most appalling form of tourist; the museum freak.

Next up, the Reunification Palace, built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace and seized on April 30, 1975 by the North Vietnamese Army, about two years after the United States withdrew its combat forces. Still in the same condition as when seized, not a rug removed, the symbol of a country united in communism.

Welcome to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

This communism thing, it sure smells a lot like capitalism. Everyone trying to get ahead, everyone out for themselves, everyone endeavoring to extract as much dong (Vietnamese currency) from the Caucasoid tourist as possible. The same touts, the same tricks, exploiting the exchange rate, distance misinformation to conjure a taxi fare, promises of excitement and euphoria that even an oil-sheik billionaire couldn’t deliver on. Ho Chi Minh’s image and his espoused collectivism may grace every dong bill, but it’s the global capitalist system that dominates street life.

The media, that’s a different story. Transparency International ranks Vietnam 121st out of 179 countries surveyed on their corruption index. Right next to Nigeria. Sitting in a park, observing the neon-lit nightlife, I end up talking to a young Vietnamese man for several hours. He addresses a complaint. He’s frustrated with how little he knows of his government’s dealings and operations, particularly with the corporate world. Newspaper, television and internet content are monitored by Big Brother. To publish an article requires the Republic’s approval. This young man, he suspects his government guilty of corruption on various fronts, he just doesn’t know how.

Only a wise man knows the extent of his ignorance.

That’s why I’ve been trying to steady the mind by emptying it. If I can just turn into the imbecile my mother always wanted I’ll gain true insight. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood meditation’s purpose.

Perhaps its purpose is to illuminate a purpose-less path.

Ahh, just another Caucasoid attracted to the simplicity, poverty and purity of Southeast Asian cultures without any genuine push to detach from his own, to unattach from the books and country music and films featuring Angelina Jolie. Sure, I can live well without more than a backpack containing two shirts, a pair of shorts, and a swimsuit, but only so long as you give me books about interstellar space travel or the wizarding world of Harry Potter. 

Vietnam history, with its thousand year struggle for unification, is also sufficiently diverting.

So it’s off to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon’s History Museum, The Fine Arts Museum, and The Museum of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine. Desperate for more input, desperate for a fix, I even go to the zoo. At sunset it turns into a circus. A contortionist balances on her hands while handling a bow with her feet. She shoots an arrow through a balloon twenty meters away. Afterwards she sits on her own head.

For a final act a gymnast balances his skull on another’s. It’s cranium to cranium contact with one gymnast’s feet on the ground and the other’s pointing to the clouds. They run through the crowd, the legs on top flailing, the head on bottom gasping with exertion. The one at higher elevation, somehow he somersaults off, the two flex their biceps, they work the crowd for tips. There it is, right before me: socialism giving way to the almighty dong, twenty thousand of which will fetch a dollar bill.

As Ho Chi Minh’s image is passed from salivating women to the gymnasts I see the man on the money grimace.

Keep drifting.

[computer/internet/Blogger is refusing picture upload]

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