Tuesday, August 03, 2010

How did they manage to get Obama to sell out on Nukes?

On most environmental issues, I'll listen closely and openly to the other side of the story, but there are three issues that I have a difficult time providing slack to.  These are water fluoridation, nuclear power, and the (current) biotechnology industry.  Water fluoridation is a hidden issue protected by layers of pseudo-scientific evidence and tacit public acceptance in the USA and a few other countries; nuclear power is protected by historical subsidies and, lately, green re-branding; and biotechnology, which has potential if carried out responsibly, is sold as a high-tech solution to solving our moral responsibility to the hungry of the world.

Without going into the details, here's a few vignettes to create curiosity in the subjects:

a. If fluoridated water is supposed to help our teeth, why do we fluoridate entire municipal water systems, which is an expensive practice mind you, when 99% of that water will go onto our lawns, down our toilets, showers and sinks, and into our washing machines?

b. Would you learn to live in a world that only contained green granny smith apples? A similar dilemma faces anyone from the tropics who goes looking for bananas in a grocery store in the West.  In an export industry that has been entirely captured by industry, the world of export bananas (thousands are held at the ITC in Belgium, as one example) has been distilled to the Cavendish variety (and formerly, the Gros Michel).  The biotechnology industry (for crops) is much more threatening, as it aims to reduce diversity not just in export-crops (like the Cavendish has done) but for local crops, all with the risk of transferring unwanted genetic material to native crops.

c. It is a testament to the nuclear energy industry's marketing abilities that an uneconomical energy source born of Cold War-era subsidies (which, to an extent, they've largely maintained) is now a contender for flashy new 'sustainable energy' subsidies by Barack Obama.  It doesn't take much investigating to discover that nukes do not bring us any closer to solving the green house gas issue, but they do bring us closer to nuclear weapons proliferation, taxpayer moral hazard, and radioactive pollution.  There may yet be hope for nukes in the way of fusion power, but fission has simply got to go.  The following video is right to the point and addresses some of the "myths"

http://www.blip.tv/file/3946822

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Improvising Cambodia, Part 1

Anyone who has been to a poor country, or even a poorer part of a richer country, knows how deeply improvisation is institutionalized.  It's a matter of saving money, managing without the proper supplies/tools, and, as we find out, a matter of culture as well.  In this series on improvisation in Cambodia, I'll be highlighting some stories that are not just "wow"-moments but also illustrate something perhaps a bit deeper.

The first story takes place on Sihanouk Boulevard in Phnom Penh, around 9pm.  For the late evening, traffic is unusually heavy in my homeward direction but eventually I navigate my moped through the tangled mess of bikes, motorbikes, cars, trucks, and pedestrians, and reach the source of the problem. A bus is broken down in the left (passing) lane and the right lane is also partially blocked because they are arranging to use two vehicles to tow the bus onward.  First impression: they're crazy -- it's hard enough towing a small vehicle with another, let alone towing a bus with two cars.  But besides their willingness to engage in such a difficult maneuver, there are a lot of juicy elements to this situation that one can look into.

Firstly, the necessity.  The broken down bus in question belongs to one of the biggest transport companies in Cambodia, so they probably have the resources (either equipment or money) to tow their buses professionally.  But then again, "professionally" is a relative term in Cambodia and powerful tow trucks are much more difficult to come by even around the big city.  Perhaps the most likely answer is that, against all odds, professional tow truck companies have shut their doors for the night and their employees are out drinking, or the company is demanding an extraordinarily high fee for the special evening service.  Along comes an employee who promises he can arrange to do it with two cars and cha-ching, the cheap late-night solution.

Secondly, the logistics.  What kind of tow cars are they using?  One mini-van and one light truck.  What kind of tow cables?  Well, honestly, a mixture of different kinds of rope (fabric-based and plastic) anchored using t-shirts at the tow-points for extra support.  How are the drivers of all three vehicles communicating with each other? Well, an extra helper is sitting on top of each of the towing vehicles where he can see the cables but is still close enough to relay messages to and from the driver.  Now, the point is that the various factors have not actually been calculated in any meaningful way.  Is the combined power of the two cars (given the angle they are towing) enough to move a bus?  Are those ropes enough and can t-shirts really secure the anchor points?  The quick answer, from my observation, is no.  I arrived when lots of engines were being revved to no avail and t-shirts were flying into the air when their capacity was breached.  And judging by the chaos of the yelling, communication was harder than they hoped.  The other question: will they succeed?  Eventually.  At some point enough help (maybe even a third or fourth car) and enough pushers will arrive at the scene to accomplish the goal.  A lot of chaos and yelling will ensue and many lengths of rope will have to be replaced, but the bus will get where it needs to go.  Even in the countryside, when a bus gets stuck in the mud, entrepreneurial villagers emerge from the woodwork and, in sufficient numbers (50-100 people), can manually push or pull a bus from the mud.  (Stories of those nature will come in a subsequent issue of Improving Cambodia).

Thirdly, the context.  The traffic was light enough that, given half a lane, there should have been no backup of vehicles.  But in true Cambodian fashion, rubbernecking passerbys were creating a 'gawkers block' that almost entirely blocked the road, leaving motorists a small and tricky passage over the sidewalk.  In total, I estimate that about two hundred people and their modes of transportation (mopeds, cars, bikes, tuk-tuks) were gathered around the scene, some even watching from the other side of the median strip (thereby creating a bit of traffic in the opposing lane as well).  Like rural people around the world who see little out of the ordinary, Cambodians (even, or perhaps especially?) in the city are, to put it frankly, nosy as hell.  One could use the more neutral term "curious", and I have been encouraged to think in this fashion by others, but I still chalk it up to unabashed nosiness.  For me, the line between curiosity and nosiness is drawn when people take their innocent observations into the non-innocent world of gossip.  In the case of this bus, I'm betting it is more curiosity than nosiness but there will still be many mealside conversations discussing not only the "incident" but creating unjustified judgments about the bus company and their questionable towing practices.

Fourthly, respect.  Cambodians are well aware of the ruckus they will create by initiating an extraordinary display of towing on one of the main boulevards in the capital, even as late as 9pm.  As a result, it is as if they intend to work under conditions that complicate the situation.  Consider the din created by rubberneckers, and the pressure created by having a few hundred eyes on your operation.  And what about the poor motorists (like me) who are in a hurry to get home and find 9pm traffic inconvenient?  All of those issues can be solved by hiring a police officer to clear the area and direct traffic.  It is not bribery - you just throw him another $5 or $10 and he gets off his couch, puts on his uniform, and shows up dutifully to wave a baton around.  Hiring out a police officer to de-pressurize the situation would also be a form of improvisation -- but apparently too much of an improvisation for guys who would dream up towing a bus with passenger vehicles...

(see you next time)

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The coffee that was (not)

At some point, the words "Java" and "Sumatra" became imbued with a mystique that seemed to automatically lend credibility to any coffee-related product bearing those names. I'm here to discredit that appellation a bit and sit down for an honest discussion on so-called Geographical Indicators for global agriculture.

First, the good news. Sumatra and Java do have at least one thing going for them in the realm of coffee. Here, I'm referring to kopi luwak (or civet coffee), the beans from which have a unique kick deriving from their having gone through the civet cat's digestive system.

Second, the surprising news. Sumatra and Java are unfortunately not mystical islands in the Caribbean inhabited by descendents of Atlantis who have grown majestic coffee in rugged jungles for thousands of years.  Rather, they are islands of a rather corrupt Southeast Asian nation (Indonesia) that are being rapidly settled, deforested and saddled with feudal-style monocrop plantations of oil palm, rubber, and yes, coffee. Fairtrade has done an admiral job of raising attention to some of the most egregious issues here, but by and large, the romance of Java and Sumatra does not correspond with the reality.

Third, the bad news. There is nothing in the soils of Sumatra and Java that automatically leads to good coffee.  Sumatra, for example, is a massive island, the 6th biggest in the world, and the largest producer of Indonesian coffee. There are pioneering farmers in the uplands who produce that romantic Arabica and usually deserve your romantic devotion. Then, there are massive plantations in the lowlands that churn out tons of generic coffee (mostly Robusta, though I won't judge Arabica vs. Robusta, just the farming system) that might find its way into instant Nescafe. Location of origin, in the end, often has little to do with quality. A diverse island with mostly industrial coffee plantations can somehow garner the same reputation as the artisanal upland farmers.

The above three points were mostly known to me, but my real inspiration for this rather cynical piece is a recent trip (March 2010) to the islands of Sumatra and Java that really pushed me over the edge.

And so lastly, the heartbreaking news. The denizens of the mystical lands of Sumatra and Java, rather than being awash in aromatic coffee, have a rather dismal coffee culture in their own right. Admittedly, some of this has to do with history and poverty but certainly not all. And there are, of course, the exceptions who sit around and sip bitter AAA (treepehl AH) and might know something about coffee. But by and large, they drink over-sugared, low-grade coffee out of a water glass and don't even bother to filter or steam it. I suspect they care little for the roasting, storage and grind, and likely dream of Starbucks Christmas Blend with caramel syrup. Okay that was harsh, but it reflects how dramatically disillusioned I was with the coffee situation here in Indonesia.

I suppose I was seeking some kind of validation based on my past experience with romanticized foods and drinks. Something like the Arabic/Turkish copper coffee boiler with cardamom or the Mayan/Aztec chocolate blends. Instead I found a few denuded islands exploiting an historic appellation and boasting little to no local passion for their agricultural product.

Consider the increasing subtlety and localization of wine and beer quality in Europe. French wine farmers have some of their proud production specified down to the square meter of land on which the wine grapes are grown. Belgian beer brewers have their fermentation specified down to the airborne bacteria in a certain attic space. Japanese Kobe beef producers can trace a steak back to a specific cow. And yet somehow the coffee from a feudal plantation owned by a corrupt Indonesian commander shares the same reputation as a small-scale upland farmer?

And then of course, location matters even less when one throws in the consequences of processing, transport and preparation. Coffee, in particular, is vulnerable to storage, roasting, and grinding conditions. And once it reaches your home or your neighborhood cafe, cooking matters considerably as well.

So, if location can be misleading and the farm-to-home adventure of the coffee is hard to control, what can a poor consumer do? It all seems too complicated to manage.

Well, first, use your nose and your mouth and your eyes. Coffee has a fragrance (before it is prepared) and an aroma (after it is prepared). The shape (or rather the geometric regularity) of the beans is important. And tasting is, contrary to popular Starbucksian belief, something that you, as the consumer, can learn. And if all else fails, find a local company that you believe knows something about coffee and let them do the work for you. Don't ever fall for packaging that claims to have the "best" quality or "finest" beans. And for g-dssake, don't fall for the Sumatra or Java romance. You've been warned.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Stories and adventures as representation

Although I have the means to travel comprehensively in Cambodia (language, knowledge of transport and prices, risks, dangers, etc.), I realized recently that I have surprisingly few bonafide independent 'adventures' under my belt. Honestly, I am not sure if that is a concern necessarily, as the whole concept of 'adventure' is a shifty subject that, as I now understand, is wholly dependent on publicizing ones experiences in the specific manner to a sympathetic audience. Indeed, the 'adventures' that I refer to are those that have historically been defined by backpackers and expatriots of the past few decades, and before that British travel writers. They have crystallized the essentials of a story about an adventure and we are largely paying homage to them with each story we relate to our friends and family. I hate to be prosaic (and my colleagues in the Development Studies department back at Oxford would cringe to hear me say this) but, indeed, 'adventure' is socially constructed. My uncle Avi, a master story teller and a good critic of others' stories, kept up a long series of exchanges with me that he aptly titled "How shit works in Cambodia". For him, anthropological depth and perspective are key ingredients for filling in adventures. For others, a bit more danger or suspense is required for a good adventure. Whoever the audience, the important ingredient is not the exotic or the dangerous that is, in itself, intriguing, but how that adventure is woven into a story that is ironically about oneself rather than the context (even if the storyteller is not an actor, he can be present in a good aventure by means of being the analyst of the context). By that, I posit that storytelling is essentially a subtle means of endearing oneself to an audience and explaining something about oneself without being overtly self-centered. So yes, this blog is indeed tainted by my own self-centeredness (I mean, why write a blog anyway?).

So if stories are the means by which we publicize adventures, why and how has humanity let itself be carried off on the winds of the subjective? In their book "Animal Spirits", George Akerlof and Robert Shiller (two American economists) describe the contradiction between economists' view of the rational human and the fact that irrational stories have had an enormous influence in people's economic behavior. I am frequently reminded of this whenever I get into a discussion/argument/fluster about the Palestinian/Israeli situation. The narrative of either side is often so radically different while at the same time being more-or-less factually correct, that the result is indefinite gridlock. And ramming facts into people's faces is often counterproductive because the various stories behind those facts are the basis for the emotions people have, which are not easily changed. And the longer those stories (i.e., the stories that distort the facts) fester, the stronger they often become. Israelis are always good for an example, so I will choose them yet again. In this case, I'm looking at the horde of young post-Army Israelis who will most likely visit India, Thailand, or somewhere in Latin America after their service is over. The casual justification for these post-Army travel binges is the stress of the Army and the need to get out of tiny-little Israel. The real reason, these days, is more likely that one has been fed stories of adventures in India through her breast milk and by her friends for so many years that the social pressure for traveling in an adventuresome way (i.e., not being a tourist) is very deep. Stories upon stories continue to feed this trend and no "fact" such as "the longer the trip after the Army, the poorer one's job prospects are afterward" will stem this flow of Israelis to India.

So without further ado, let me launch into a somewhat stereotyped story about an adventure that I had this week. It includes all the essential ingredients of a good story except one thing -- that I prefaced the story with another story about how stories work. Just think about the past two paragraphs as you read the next three.

One of partners in Cambodia is a traditional healer who lives up on the holiest mountain in Cambodia, Phnom Kulen. He moved up there in 1992 after 13 years of helping rebuild and repopulate Phnom Penh after Pol Pot was removed from power by the Vietnamese in 1979. Although much of Cambodian medicine was ignored during the revolution because of its relationship to Buddhism and the pagoda, Mr. Heim was still sought after as a healer while he lived and toiled away in his native province of Svay Rieng. Of course, he had learned much of what he knew of plant botany and herbal remedies during his 12 years as a monk. Medicine and a more spiritual way of life were something he missed while living in Phnom Penh and they were a big part of his reason for moving up to Phnom Kulen in 1992. He says he would have gone earlier, but Kulen was one of Pol Pot's last holdouts and was not demined until 1992. On top of Kulen he has carved out a life for himself and now is respected and known simply as "Grandfather Heim". But most of his family is still in Svay Rieng and he is bound by his own familal piety to maintain a strong connection with his home province. This year marked the one year anniversary of the death of his father and he was organizing a big festival in his parents' honor back in Svay Rieng and he graciously invited me to attend, as his god Son.

My journey started rather lazily at 9am, when I set off for the taxi station at Olympic Market under the foolish assumption that his hometown was a measly one hour away and I would be there in time for a shower and a nap before things got underway at 3pm. After being dragged left and right by some taxi touts, I ascertained that a car heading for the specific district I needed wouldn't set off for another hour. I walked to a nearby cafe and slurped through an iced coffee for an hour and came back, only to find a disheveled van filled with yapping villagers and over-ripe mangos. As per the custom, I loaded myself in and sat there sweating for a while to help the driver create the illusion of having a "filled car, ready to go". 20 minutes later we set off -- well, we set off for another 10 different markets in which we picked up one or two passengers each and some random cargo. After two hours, and at around noon, the car finally jostled its way onto the national road heading for Svay Rieng. At this point, I had learned that not only would the ride by a minimum of three hours (not one), but would involve a rutted out road for the last hour. I just hoped I would make it in time to avoid making my sweaty appearance in front of every guest at the ceremony. Instead of hurrying on, the car stopped in some other villages to pick up more passengers, in total squeezing 5, including me, in the front bench (with a stick shifter). Three dusty and yappy hours later, we pulled into a little village whereupon a motorbike driver approached me and said he was sent by Grandfather Heim to bring me to the festival. His story seemed credible, so I jumped on and 20 dusty minutes later, arrived just in time to have the whole ceremony turn and lapse into silence as a (disgruntled and exhausted) foreigner showed up. After being whisked from one table to another and "sompya"-ing (palms together greeting) a hundred guests, they allowed me to freshen up. All I had time for was to throw on some baby powder and change my shirt. Upon emerging from the toilet, I noticed that my shirt had already been smudged by dust and moisture and I tried my best to rub it out, only managing to drop my phone and crack the LCD screen in the process.

Noodles later, the crowd started dispersing for various elements of the ceremony - some for meditation with the monks, some for fireworks, and others for negotiating whose daughter/son would be marrying whose son/daughter. I wandered between all the stations, almost getting married off at one, almost falling asleep at another, and almost being immolated by fireworks at another. More noodles ensued for dinner and dancing began, which I was of course obliged to do. After 20 some-odd Cambodian weddings, I was already used to this madness and just went with the flow, being dragged from the dance floor to the rice wine table and back to the dance floor at regular intervals. Various nieces of Grandfather Heim tried, in turn, to wink and flirt with me in their own ways and various gay members of the family also gave it a go. At some point, I extracted myself for bed, awaking to rice soup and prayers with the monks. After a lavish event in which Grandfather Heim gave away a mountain of gifts to the 20+ monks in attendance, they loaded me into a van full of monks bound for Kompong Thom (by way of Phnom Penh) and waved goodbye. The ride was exceptional. Not only is it rare to see monks sweat, but a few parts of the trip were punctuated by monks fainting from heat exhaustion and being roused with menthol rubs. Most of the monks were in their teens and were clearly still struggling with their holiness and their childishness. They cat-called at many a cute passing motorist to the chagrin of the monk superior. We stopped for lunch, which is the monks' last meal, and I got to see them all gobble down three, four, sometimes five plates of rice in preparation for the evening fast. A rest break in Prey Veng province followed by a prayer session and a fruitless hunt for ripe mangos in the village gave my body time to cool down and get ready for the long, hot, ride back into the Penh. Our last moment was particularly bizarre. They dropped me off on a road not heading for Kompong Thom and wished me goodbye. As they drove off, I called out "Where are you going now?", expecting everything else but their response: "To Sovannah Mall!"

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A dirty reminder of home

The title of a frontpage article from the 17 February 2010 Phnom Penh Post seems innocuous enough: "US warship in Sihanoukville". Naturally, the article is full of references to joint maneuvers and navy training exercises and whatnot, but it fails to mention that the appearance of a US warship also means the arrival of the 7,500 sailors and soldiers.

Having grown up in Portland, Oregon, the home of the fabled Rose Festival, I know what the dramatic appearance of several thousand sailors means for the level of prostitution in the innocent and welcoming host city. It's the same every year. Prostitutes from as far away as Maine, Canada, not to mention Mexico eagerly await the docking of several warships in the Port of Portland, because this entails not only many customers but perhaps a slightly more "escort-oriented" slant to their normal occupation. Prostitutes become "companions" to the lonely sailors and accompany them to parties, dinners, and on whatever drunken escapades are typical of the Rose Festival. This is usually matched with a resigned grumbling on the part of Portland residents and their casual avoidance of a few choice areas of the city.

Now, with the prostitution scene being what it is in Cambodia, one can only imagine the scale of things when a fat juicy warship docks in a town that is already rife with prostitution and, to beat, is only 10 hours away from almost every part of the country. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Vietnamese prostitutes weren't getting in on some of the action.

Although I am vaguely curious, professionally speaking of course, about what exactly this looks like on the surface in the town of Sihanoukville, I don't think I'll be able to muster the time and courage to make my way down there. And indeed, I'm sure there are plenty of good-willed masters students busy lapping up the naughty details as I write this, which I can then pick through in a most academic way down the road. I can, however, make one rather anecdotal observation from my ivory tower in Phnom Penh, namely that the number of meandering prostitutes populating the capital seems to be at a minimum. My interpreter says the profit ratio on sailors is probably 10-to-1, which does seem to be a sizable enough incentive to uproot from their usual haunts and get in a crowded taxi down to the coast. I imagine those taxi drivers are having a good time and are already gearing up for some unfair price increases for the Sihanoukville-Phnom Penh stretch when they hear about the departure of our friendly neighborhood American sailors.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Locality of Contradictions

High up on the holy mountain metropolis that is Cambodia's Kulen Mountain during a particularly lackluster Chinese New Year, I was once again accosted by an old demon that has plagued our (mostly White) kind since the early days of empires and colonial rule. Although the passage of time and the emergence of 'development' from the ashes of 'civilizing savages' have transformed it somewhat, white privilege still haunts me down wherever I go in the less fortunate parts of the world.

On this particular occasion, I was having a rather cheerful coffee with my assistant and two elderly men when the proprietor of the establishment decided to pick a fight. I saw it coming from a distance and arguably, I could have avoided being sucked in but my adversary was particularly persistent. He clearly had a bone to pick with some white tourists or something and, being able to communicate his anguish in Khmer seemed to embolden him further. It started as it often does with a casual, "So, how many hours does it take to fly from your land to mine?" The conversation should follow roughly this path: "Oh, that's a very long time. And how much does it cost to fly all the way?" ; "Wow, that is a lot of money. So many people in our poor country could live off that. I guess development agencies never thought of using their money that way." Usually, the conversation ends rather lamely with a critique of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which blew wads of money on an election that also brought HIV and corruption to Cambodia in a big way. But this particular chap ended with a resounding personal attack of, "...maybe you should think about that the next time you decide fly to Cambodia."

Having encountered this issue on numerous occasions, I prepared to unleash a number of defenses when, lo and behold, a black Lexus 4x4 with tinted windows saved me from most of the heavy lifting. Indeed, the timing on the arrival of said black Lexus was so spot-on, I could swear G-d was winking at me. With his window down, I could make out a Chinese Cambodian wearing a military fatigue at the wheel. And just when I thought the situation couldn't turn more in my favor, a mini-van loaded with (illegal) timber careened by following the Lexus, spraying us and our poor coffees with dust.

Just to provide some of the cynical background to this situation, let me elaborate on the Lexus phenomenon. Firstly, the Lexuses (what exactly is the plural of Lexus, anyway?) we, as privileged Whites, generally think of are the sedan variety, usually beige or tan, with some old rich bastard or his wife behind the wheel. The Cambodian variety, which is an adaptation meant for brutish drivers who are often forced onto bad roads, is the 4x4 variety with the brand name "Lexus" emblazoned in letters as big as fashionably possible along the side. Secondly, as a share of all motor vehicles, Lexuses (and other luxury cars) are probably five times more prevalent in Cambodia than, say, Switzerland, but maybe only two times as prevalent as in some Gulf countries (the rest of the passenger cars are primarily Toyota Camrys and Grace mini-vans). Thirdly, as with cell phones, owning a Lexus is a priority put above having a decent abode; having a big house is, ironically, more often seen (and criticized) as a luxury of the rich than a Lexus. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see people role up with their Lexi and bully their wife and children out of the living room or kitchen so they can park their car in what amounts to half of the house's living space. It is just that important.

But let's get back to the holy mountain. The general picture we are exposed to, as bystanders, is a corrupt military official who has abused his role to make himself rich and is, in front of our eyes, pillaging timber from the holiest mountain in Cambodia. With a mixture of glee and sad resignation, I turned back to my adversary to continue our discussion. Naturally, he was a bit more demure towards me now. I took that as a sign that I had won without -- and done so without even having to pick up a weapon. I smugly thought to myself that, surely, the waste and corruption of his own people must horrify him more than a foreigner who is surviving on scholarships and is, in the long-term, interested in the development of his country even as he pursues his own career. I was dead wrong.

After a quick murmur about how "...that guy probably didn't pay the 50 cent admission fee to the mountain [note: foreigners cost $20]", he turned back to me, expecting my answer to his earlier accusation. I was dumbfounded. How had that Lexus not succeeded in nullifying his hostility to foreigners to some degree? As I sat there, trying to think of what to do, he continued his calculations by saying, "...and even the tourists who think they are helping by bringing money here - they probably gave more money to some foreign company for the flight and bookings than they will give to Cambodians here." At that point, I realized that whatever prompted his hostility toward me was not about me, but about foreigners in general. While the general picture is that he sees foreigners as wealthy bags of contradictions, the trauma here is of course deeper than that and goes back, in all likelihood, to the Vietnam war and Cambodia's revolutions, and Cambodia's more general exploitation by foreign powers (Siam/Ayuthaya (Thailand), Yuon (Vietnam), the French, the Americans, and the Chinese) since the glorious Angkorean golden era. With current border disputes boiling over on the Vietnamese and Thai sides, it's no wonder that the frustration with foreigners (and not pillaging Khmers) galls him as much as it does.

Of course, there is also a counterpoint to this which restls primarily on various historical lenses and more current endeavors by foreigners, but I am pointing out here that the trauma here is beyond those rationales and, being fundamentally psychological in nature, is not about convincing anyone with fancy oral justifications. It is about shutting up and trying to do things more ethically than those that came before as. With that, I sipped my coffee and and sat in silence.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The parts we never heard of...

Phsar Depot area, Phnom Penh--Cambodia. I suppose we take it for granted that cows have a complex system of internal organs, many of which do not resemble "beef" as we know it. Although there are undoubtedly small-scale farmers and restaurantiers who are aware of this "gray area", most of us in the West are pretty much used to three or four parts of the cow. I'm not sure if the terminology applies, but I suppose everything else gets lumped into a rather forsaken category known as "gibblets".

My experience in Cambodia thus far has mostly shattered that holy ignorance. The days of being "grossed out" by my mother's opting for cow tongue at the supermarket have been replaced with an almost daily experience with new and mostly unfamiliar cuts of cow. Now let me just say that I've been incrementally picking up the Cambodian words for various parts--I count about 10 new words added to my dictionary. But most of the time, when I inquire about the cow "part" I'm consuming, I end up having to learn a new word! Anyway, I should say now that the week-stomached should not read on.

In the first week of arriving I decided to take my friend and interpreter out for cook-it-yourself-beef soup. I've grown accustomed to this soup arriving with a few succulent and marrow-filled shanks stewing in it, but this time I was caught a bit offguard. The soup, which was very tasty in a gamy way I couldn't really associate with beef, came with slabs of a meat with a sheen on one side, and a strange "hair" on the other side. Visually, the hair reminded me a bit of a rubbery doormat. It's texture, however, was succulent and soft and I found myself enjoying it immensely. Eventually, I did inquire as to the part of the cow. My interpreter, caught by surprise himself, translated that we were eating cow teets. Indeed, upon closer inspection there were nipples and areolae and the shiny side did indeed have that striated look of teets. The first thought to go through my head was: given the popularity of chicken breast, why hasn't cow breast at least made it a little bigger? The answer is probably a combination of funky-looking texture and, more generally, the aversion to non-steaky beef.

Now, I had heard a bit about mountains of pigs feet being shipped from foot-averse Europe to foot-loving China, but... may I ask, what happens to all the other parts? Is the world market equipped to move that kind of product around or are we just wasting massive amounts of obviously edible meat?

The "temple phenomenon" in Cambodia

Dear tourists to Cambodia,

I dearly respect that traveling and/or backpacking is not what it used to be. Being only 25 years old myself, I cannot hope to understand the raw adventures available to itinerant Westerners in the early part(s) of the 20th century, nor can I even imagine the sort of encounters we have come to know so well in Rudyard Kipling's classics about India. But remember and consider that the model of tourism emerging from Las Vegas, Caribbean resorts, cabins in the Alps, and cosmopolitan skyscraper hotels was not practically intended for underdeveloped places with patrimony to protect. These places have attempted to engineered their environments so as to avoid large scale exploitation and/or they embrace it as part of an historical narraitve (e.g., Las Vegas). In Cambodia, we are essentially borrowing our raw experiences of temples we visit from the environment, local development, and from the integrity of the Cambodian patrimony itself.

I am aware of the trade-offs: tourism also brings awareness and funds for restoration and, in some channel or another (though perhaps not he best one), some foreign currency into the country. While I am sure that every footfall on the grounds of Cambodian temples wears away at the stone, I am not suggesting that tourists should be banned from the site (although consider the fact that the grounds of Stonehenge have a buffer of some 10-20 meters). I am, however, suggesting that models for tourism at least nominally aim to provide some sort of balance between the expectations and demands of tourists and the need to consider the long-term restoration without distorting imperatives from visitors. In other words, I want to avoid a situation in which Cambodia, as a developed country in the 1950s, looks back at the damage to its temples and says, "was there a different way?"

The temple of Banteay Chhmar is one of the more far-flung of the Angkorean establishments and I believe the restoration is aiming at a far more thoughtful equilibrium. Consider this New York Times article. In the meantime, we throng to the blockbuster sites, which are actually sacred religion grounds, all hoping to achieve some sort of raw experience of antiquity. Ironically enough, we crowd now because we think the crowds in the future will be more intense. But crowding is crowding, and Angkor Wat is a rat race, whether we experience it with 1,000 other tourists or 3,000. But, to get an experience of the exploitation being wrought, visit a thousand-times-touched elephant relief in Preah Khan or, better yet, visit the untreated sewage flowing into the Tonle Sap fishing villages. Visit abandoned fragmented villages and paddy lands surrounding Siem Reap sold off by farmers, and outfitted with walls and weeds, awaiting some unknown glory days while their residents crowd the towns.

If I've made you feel bad, just remember that there are countless Thai generals out there with concrete stolen patrimony rotting in their gardens. Their respect for Cambodia and its history may be less than ours, but the aggregate effects may not be much different if we don't begin rethinking models for antiquities tourism with an ecological and culturally-sensitive stance.