Where’s Home, Anyway?


I like the idea that home is where you are, not where your stuff is. Most of my stuff is still on the other side of the planet, but this is my current home. After too much travel, I don’t long for my Rubbermaid containers of stuff, I long for my bed.

Ivan Illich, the social critic and very-smart-guy who wrote Deschooling Society, Energy and Equity and Medical Nemesis, spent the last years of his life traveling through Indochina and Latin America, talking to villagers. He’d had enough of big cities and important people. Of course, he spoke ten languages, so that made the task easier. He kept chewing on one bone and one bone only, and that to deliver a warning. Don’t trust experts.

More precisely, it wasn’t so much experts that he despised, but the institutions they fronted. Once our institutions developed beyond a certain scale, they became perverse, counterproductive to the beneficial ends for which they were originally conceived. The end result of this paradoxical counter-productivity was schools which make people dumb, complacent and unquestioning; hospitals which produce disease; prisons which make people violent; travel at high speed which creates traffic jams; and ‘aid and development’ agencies which create more and more ‘needy’ and ‘underconsuming’ people.

So he felt most at home in the “Underdeveloped” world.  He died of mouth cancer in 2002, choosing to deny himself medical care and even an expert diagnosis. In his last days he kept a little opium pipe with him, sucking on it more frequently as time went on. One side of his face  appeared normal, the other was increasingly consumed by a cancerous growth. He died one afternoon while taking a nap.

Here, in Northern Thailand, where village life is still the norm for many people, I can imagine myself as Illich’s less-erudite brother, looking for pearls of common wisdom hidden among the hype of mass-produced nonsense we call popular culture.

Adventures Close to Home


I’ve been living in Chiang Mai for about five months now, and still don’t know much about Northern Thailand. Time to travel within Thailand. I’ve already been to Myanmar and Viet Nam, but still don’t know much about what’s down the road an hour.

A couple of days ago I drove my Honda PCX150 (the cadillac of motor scooters) down to Lamphun. It was a thrilling little jaunt, and what impressed me most was how quickly things change when you get just ten miles out of town.

Someone told me that Nan, the capitol of Nan province in North Eastern Thailand is a real gem. It’s up near the border with Laos and China. I checked the bus schedule and a bus leaves every couple of hours for the eight hour trip. My bags are packed! Even though I don’t know what I’ll do once I get there, I want to see something new. Maybe people look different so close to Laos. Maybe their Thai sounds different (though I speak so little Thai I probably would fail to notice.)

I figure someday I’m going to end up with some sort of committments and not be able to rush off on a whim, but since I’m completely carefree now, I think I might hit the bus station right after my weekly piano lesson on Wednesday afternoon.

An Endemic Lack of Accountability


RULE OF LAW

Sixty Minutes commentator Andy Rooney once did a piece describing how he sat at a red light late at night near his home in rural Connecticut, waiting in the middle of the night for the light to change, even though there was no other car in sight. He said he did it because he had respect for the law. If you respect the law, he said, you don’t make exceptions just because you’re not likely to get caught.

In order to respect the law, you have to feel part of a social contract. You have to feel that you have a say in the making of laws. If you complain to a policeman about the unfairness of a law he’s enforcing, he’ll advise you to write your Congressman. Police don’t make laws, they just enforce them.

In America, the police and courts have found it necessary to fill our prisons with a disproportionate number of people of color. Caucasians are a distinct minority in jail. The police will tell you this isn’t because of bias in policing, but rather because people of color are committing most of the crimes.

If so, then it’s obvious that more people of color disrespect the law more often than do white people. They feel left out of the social contract that makes laws in the first place.

I spent a great deal of my youth acutely aware that a bunch of old, white men, whom we conveniently called “The Man,” were willing to send us to Viet Nam or incarcerate us for doing recreational drugs. When I was nineteen I drove from Columbia, Missouri to Juarez, Mexico, and our car was stopped three times in one day by Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico state troopers looking for marijuana and demanding to see our draft cards. The sign at my local barber shop said “Love it or Leave It,” but the Man wanted to make sure we weren’t leaving.

So I have some sympathy for people who don’t feel as Andy Rooney did, that we’re all in this together, that our laws deserve respect.

Here, in Thailand, nobody respects traffic laws. It also doesn’t seem like most elected officials view their positions as anything more than a license to dispense favors to rich people. Recently, the Transportation Minister’s house was robbed while he was attending his daughter’s wedding. The police apprehended the culprits, who had about a million dollars worth of cash and gold. The burglars confessed that they had left much more behind. Huge sacks of money, more than they could possibly carry.

It turns out that there was about thirteen million dollars in cash in the house. When asked about it, the Minister said he had no idea where it had come from. One of his functions as Minister was to approve road construction projects, but he suggested that maybe his house keeper might know where all the money came from. He has been transferred to an inactive post. Not fired, mind you, just transferred.

Recently, the Thai military purchased a whole lot of hand-held bomb detectors from a small company in England. They paid quite a bit for them,but they don’t work. They’re little more than dowsing rods. The English police say they’re ready to make an arrest as soon as the Thai military files an official complaint, but that’s not going to happen, because then the Thai military would have to admit that they spent an obscene amount of public money on something they didn’t even bother to first test. They would have to say they made a mistake. And that would mean that somebody would lose face. So the money is gone and lost forever.

The National Chief of Police recently flew to Hong Kong to visit with Thaksin Shinnanatra, the deposed prime minister who fled the country after being found guilty of billions of dollars worth of graft. When it was suggested that it was the Police Chief’s sworn duty to arrest a fugitive from justice, he laughed and said “what can I do? He’s my brother-in-law.”

Bangkok police recently decided to stop issuing so many traffic tickets and simply issue warnings after drivers complained the tickets were hurting their finances. One motorcycle taxi driver told the Bangkok Post reporter that he gets several tickets a day for driving the wrong way down traffic-clogged streets, and it’s hard for him to support his family and pay the fines. Never was it mentioned that maybe he should stop driving the wrong way.

Here in Chiang Mai, they’ve installed walk lights and zebra-striped crosswalks at certain intersections, but they’re just a sick joke. Pedestrians foolish enough to trust that traffic would stop for them deserve to be hit.

Gone here are the days of girls on bicycles holding parasols. During a simpler time, it probably didn’t matter as much if one respected traffic laws, or not. But now that traffic is the major factor in public life, it matters a lot.

No Zoning, No Problem


I’m no fan of government regulations, yet I expect others who have more money and power than I do to behave in a way I find tasteful and responsible. Obviously, I have set myself up to be disappointed. Here in Chiang Mai, where I rent a house in a chaotic neighborhood where rapid growth roared unchecked, this raging, ill-considered orgy of development left a warren of tangled, un-named streets, inadequate sewers, and those few sidewalks that exist glutted with motor scooters.

Even though I’ve never had enough money to have anything built, I’m sure I would howl at the first zoning or building regulation I came at odds with. Here, no one need howl in that way. Those with influence and desire always have their way. Who knows, there may be no planning or zoning boards. Even if they had laws regarding development, no regulations on the books would be enforced. If building codes here are anything like traffic laws, then anything and everything is fair game.

I guess this all comes under the category of “acceptance,” as in “if you want to stay and be happy, you must learn to accept your new country, warts and all.” After a little over six months, the pink cloud has dissipated. 

Rainy Season Begins


Rainy season has begun. All of a sudden, relying on a motor scooter for transportation doesn’t seem like such a good idea. It’s been raining continually for over two days, ranging from a soft drizzle to a moderate downpour. Nobody seems surprised by the suddenness of the change in weather, so I’m not sure if it’s going to be like this for the next four months, or if this is just the dramatic opening movement followed by an occasional sleepy adagio.

Maybe if I stay here long enough I’ll begin to think this is normal. When I see a hairpin turn on a steep mountain road, I instinctively think, “boy, I’m glad I’m not on here when there’s ice on the road.” Then I remember that there’s never ice on the road. To my way of thinking, here there are really only two seasons, wet and dry. Hot is a matter of degree. There’s hot, hot and muggy, and intolerably hot. What they think of as cold weather, during December and January, seems to be a bracing spring morning.

Post from Myanmar (Burma)


LETTER FROM MYANMAR

I had only been here for a few hours when I noticed that our apartment, which we share with our hosts, smells like phenol. I hadn’t smelled phenol since I visited the Soviet Union, in 1968. It must be the Communist disinfectant of choice.

My first impression of Yangon is that it’s dark and steamy. As the flight from Bangkok landed, I couldn’t believe we were landing in this country’s main city. Where were the lights?

Our hostess, Hla Hla, had her students meet us at the airport, and then we all packed into a taxi, which had seen better days, and drove into town. They drive on the right side of the road here, but the steering wheel is on the right, as it is in places like Thailand, or England, where they drive on the left. The driver drifted from lane to lane, seemingly oblivious to any road markings.

Our apartment building is newish, and a soldier with an AK-47 guards the front gate. It looks to me like a Soviet apartment complex, only a little nicer. No graffito. Our windows are open because of the heat, so mosquitoes come and go as they please. Someone has been banging away on a rock or a pipe all night long, rhythmically, as if they were working, but dispassionately, as if they were working for hire. When dawn comes, the paths are full of people shopping for breakfast ingredients. There are also a lot of cut flower vendors.

The night we arrived, we walked along a lake, which is apparently the nicest spot on town, and Hla Hla pointed out the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, the most famous person in Burma, winner of the Nobel peace prize and one who has emerged after fifteen years of house arrest to engage once more in political life. This is the same lake that a psychotic American swam a few years ago on a delusional and self appointed mission to rescue Aung San Suu Kyi. With some intervention from the Americans, he was eventually set free. When I asked if the lake was swimmable, my hosts replied that the water was not clean.

Since I don’t speak the language, I can’t tell if people here are as friendly as they are in Spanish-speaking countries. As we walked down the path that rims the lake, we passed several couples trying to eke out a place for romance, and they didn’t greet us on the way, but I forgave them for their preoccupation.

So far, if I had to compare Burma to a place I’ve already visited, I’d say it reminds me of Nicaragua. I’m probably just getting that impression from the similar lack of development. I don’t know if “poverty” is the right word, because poverty implies a severe lack of something needed, and although this country is certainly less developed than say neighboring Thailand, here the common citizen may be not really that much poorer.

Here, people smear something that looks like pancake batter on their cheeks before they go out in the morning. Almost all young women do it, and many young men, as well. It’s supposed to be good for the complexion, but it’s not something you wash off. They think it looks good and keep it on all day.

Many men wear wraparound skirts, tied in the front with a big not over the navel. If they have a wallet, they tuck it in the back, where it looks dangerously perched to fall. I don’t know if they wear underpants. I haven’t been bold enough to ask, and besides, I don’t speak the language.

Just when I thought I had the country and the city of Yangon pegged as hopelessly backward, I visited a fancy shopping mall in the center of town. There, in a camera and computer store, I saw three Buddhist monks, clad in crimson robes (unlike their Thai brothers who wear saffron) and debating the pros and cons of an Iphone. Beneath them, in a glass case, stood a tiny statue of Steve Jobs, who had his arms stretched upward, imploring them to join the wave of modern computing.

There’s no McDonalds or Burger King in Yangon yet, but “yet” is the operative word. The nicest part of town is that which surrounds a huge, golden temple, which sits like a burnished Hershey kiss coated in pure gold. It’s not just painted gold, it’s made of gold. In this humblest of nations, that’s one big chunk o’ patrimony baking in the sun, surrounded by a lush park. I imagine McDonalds will opt to place the golden arches as close to this landmark as possible.

A trip to Viet Nam


IS COMMUNISM REALLY JUST ANOTHER LIFESTYLE CHOICE, OR IS IT CREEPY AND EVIL?
I know it’s a loaded question, perhaps a false dichotomy, but my purpose is to get us to think about the vast and fundamental difference between communist and capitalist governments. Some people in China, Russia and Viet Nam certainly enjoy some of what capitalism offers, but the story stops suddenly when it comes to freedom of expression. And the poor saps who grow thinner by the year in North Korea or Cuba know first-hand what total dependence on a centrally planned economy can mean.
Here, in Vietnam, the communists won the war, and in 1975 the Hammer and Sickle were proudly raised over Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City. To a cacsual observor, things seem OK here. But I read newspapers more carefully than most. Following find two news articles from the July 17, 2012 issue of the English-language Viet Nam News.
Saboteurs get 13 years in jail
Three people were sentenced to a total of |3 years imprisonment by the People’s Court of Bac Gaing, for conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.
According to the indictment, the three had repeatedly lodged complaints to the authorities, and had established contact with other local people who had protested against the State. It was also claimed that they had contacted foreign newspapers and radio stations and provided incorrect information against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. The three men prepared documents, gave interviews, collected and stored libellous documents that smeared the Party and the State leaders and caused division between the People and the Party. The three were also accused of inciting protests that affected political security, social order, and safety.
National Theater festival begins in Hue.
The 2012 National Theater festival is open to plays related to revolutionary heroism, patiotism, and socio-economic achievements.
Gee, how do I get tickets? I’d better remember to applaud heartily at the end of the show, or I might be charged with causing a division between the People and the Party.
Sure, capitalism isn’t perfect, and the resentment we have over the bailout of Wall Street while the rest of us watch our incomes slide is a perfect example of the flaws built into that system, but capitalism doesn’t enforce complicity with quite the heavy hand that Communism does.
I found I wasn’t enjoying myself or prospering in the States, so I moved across the world to Thailand. I spend my free time online encouraging others in my position to do the same. I don’t fear for my life or property for daring to say what I see and feel. The landowners who faced firing squads commanded by Che, Fidel or Lenin might have once enjoyed my freedom, but they lost it when the Hammer and Sickle replaced their former flag. And the last thing they heard was “ready, aim, fire!”

But the revolution that’s underway now in Viet Nam seems to be of the “a rising tide raises all boats” variety. People are getting richer faster than ever before. The millions of bicycles that crowded the streets ten years ago have been replaced by tense of millions of motorscooters. In five more years, half of them will have turned into automobiles, and then there will be gridlock and the lack of parking will have turned the streets into clogged arteries.

Here in Vietnam, all drivers of any vehicle beep their horn every five seconds. The motorscooter riders drive like fish in a school. Anything and everything is tolerated, cutting across all lanes of traffic, going the wrong way…but it’s all done slowly and smoothly. Here, the center line isn’t even a concept that’s being disregarded.The notion of right of way doesn’t exist. They’re all driving and trying not to hit one another. Period.

Most streets are fronted with broad sidewalks, but you can’t walk on them because they are being used as parking lots for millions of motorbikes.

One of the most visible remnants of our ten year misadventure in Viet Nam lies in the gene pool. Our waitress at lunch looked Caucasian. We asked her if she was Vietnamese. She glared at us and said yes, she was Vietnamese. I figure she was in her early forties. That would make her the probable daughter of a GI involved with a Vietnamese woman. I’m probably the age of her father.

Vietnam has a population of 89 million, yet is the size of Montana, which has a population of just under one million. This is to give an idea of just how crowded Indchinese countries seem to the average American. Over half the populace is under the age of thirty. Just ten percent are over the age of sixty.

Maybe in a few years I’ll visit again, and if I do, it will be interesting to see if my predictions about the horror of future traffic come true.

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