Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bangkok, Thailand

Chatuchak Market from above
Back home again.  Bangkok still feels like home.  Today we took the Bus 3 to the Chatuchak Market, the Weekend Market, which is supposed to take you three days to explore.  In doing so we went past Phahayoltin Rd, the Rd my family used to live on.  I winked at the Victory Monument as I went by, I think.  It seemed smaller.

We’re staying at the Bluefin Guesthouse, where we’ve stayed for two other weeks throughout the course of this adventure, and has begun to feel like home.  We know the other residents, they have a storage unit where some left-behind gear was stored, and we have our favorite noodle vendors out front.  Last night a big group of us went to the barbecue restaurant where we’ve gone twice before, Thai-style with a charcoal grill set up in the center of the table.  You pick up meat and poach or grill it at the table, making a broth with seafood and vegetables and tofu or whatever else you find at the buffet.  I try not to think about what my travel doctor would say about all that room-temperature chicken.

Here internet is fast, fast enough for video, so we’re plunged back into the realm of YouTube videos.  But I love Bangkok.  Whenever we met travelers who had spent a significant amount of time in Thailand, they said their favorite place was Bangkok.  Cheapest?  Also Bangkok, Khrung Thep, the City of Angels.

We buy fruit from the trustworthy vendors and use the kitchen—ice in the freezer and in our glasses.  The table out front feels like the front step.  I keep thinking this time in Bangkok we’ll visit all the temples we’re supposed to, see all the sights, troll the neighborhoods.  Somehow we’ll be able to evade Bluefin’s gravitational pull.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Nong Khai, Thailand

Mekong River
12 April - 18 April

Nong Khai reminds me of Newburyport, a city built along the edge of a river.  Nong Khai nestles along the Mekong, which is wide and swift and deep.  It feels almost like a beach town without all that decadence.  Just barges laid out in the river as restaurants and bars, lights glimmering in reflection morning coffee on terraces looking out on slow-moving water.

All the good things about the beach minus the sand.  Here we hit songkran full blast and it bowled us over.  People who don’t understand songkran, the Thai water festival at the time of the lunar New Year, somehow don’t think it’s possible.  You go around with a super soaker and it’s okay to shoot cops and old ladies.  Cops and old ladies dump buckets of ice-cold water on your head in return.  You are soaked from head to toe, all the way to the inside of your underclothes.  You wander the streets and borrow buckets of water from families to heave at pickup trucks, their backs filled with entire families.  Thai families offer you food from their roadside dinners as you walk.

It’s a mind-bending experience, a beautiful celebration of the hottest point of the year, when all you want is to have water heaved at you.  After it was over, we walked past a lady watering her garden from her driveway.  I wish it was still songkran, I said.  Then I’d be able to be splashed by water every day.  We celebrated in and around the Mutmee Guesthouse, with a vibrant group of expatriates, a surprise in what I thought would be a backwater town—German-Turks and Filipinas and Brits and Guinea-Portugese travelers or “work vacationers” as they call themselves, people who had lived there for years sometimes, teaching or doing development work.

Here I watch, for the first time, the Buddha procession, where people splash Buddha statues and priests with flower-scented water.  Yes, even them.  Statue after statue parades down the street, some hundreds of years old, on the backs of pickup trucks or strapped to the tops of cars, decorated with flowers and garlands, with laughing prepubescent priests alongside, throwing water down on us as if it were rain.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Vientiane, Laos

Lao bus station
In Vientiane, the streets are white hot.  In all of Laos the streets are white hot.  On the tuk-tuk going to the bus someone splashes me with a bucket of water—my first songkran blessing.

We find at least a couple of street food stands with sohm tam—which in Lao is tam sohm—and we cower against the sun.  The hotel room we settle on is on the third floor and rising upwards is like going into Dante’s innermost pit of hell.  They have free water refills on the ground floor, which, comparatively, was all garden and cool tile.  But I rise with the heat, up one floor, and then the next, and then to our little box with open windows facing the sun.

The market is along the Mekong, mainly Lao clothes vendors and Lao teenagers holding hands.  I find one shirt I almost buy and should have, in retrospect.  It says BOSTON MBSESTCHBTETSS or something like that.  I would have rocked that shirt.

The hotel room is intolerable so we only spend one night and take another tuk-tuk to another bus station and ride it back across the Thai border, thus squandering our thirty-day $35 Lao travel visa.  Thais came across for the day just to buy big bags of baguette.  Lao bakers know how to bake real French baguette, Thailand barely sells bread.  Another effortless border crossing, although my heart always does clench a little as I meet the officer’s eyes.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Luang Prabang, Laos

The cool park at the top of the hill
Baguette in the white-hot sun.  Traipsing down the main street past French cafes and tour agents and elephant posters, trying to get to the temple or the museum or the cool park up the hill.  Food is horrifically overpriced, but the baguette stalls way down the gauntlet of pavement reflecting 120 degrees up at our faces, the sun beating a burnt patch on our faces and the top of our heads, are cheap.  I buy a hat to dodge the heat.  It’s only farangs out in this madness, girls in bikini tops and shirtless boys on motorbikes.

We have to buy eight bottles of water a day in order to stay hydrated, and they cost $1 apiece, and there’s no way to refill them.  Our budget goes down, my plastic guilt goes up.  We fill up an entire corner of our room with plastic bottles.  It’s also impossible not to buy them, as we’re sweating out the equivalent amount and often more—sometimes, often, I am dehydrated anyway.

Nevertheless:  drinks above the Mekong.  Climbing to the top of the hill and surveying the town from above, all the French red-clay roofs.  Walking one night way down to the tip of the peninsula and realize that it’s for really, really rich people, like $1000 a night rich people.  They can afford the water.  We can’t.

Our guesthouse has a terrace and we can sit out there at five pm and watch the monks begin to play music, a drum gonging the welcome and then everyone thronging to take their turn on instruments.  Priests in Luang Prabang are somehow more photogenic than the rest of Southeast Asia, teenaged boys from the provinces with black umbrellas and mismatched robes, chattering as they walk down the street together.  I understand why people try to take so many pictures of them, and I cannot bring myself to.  I try, nerveless, from behind.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Luang Prabang, Laos

Main street in Luang Prabang
So there’s this other thing that I’ve been thinking about, traveling in a foreign country, and that is money.  Maybe it makes sense that it’s what I’d start to think about, traveling through one of the world’s twentieth poorest countries.  A country that is the most bombed per capita in the world.  By the United States of America, my own government, in a “secret war” against communists.  The one on which Apocalypse Now was really based.

Or maybe I’m thinking about money because at our guesthouse room in Nan the other day, on satellite television, played a very faithful movie adaptation of the Ayn Rand classic, Atlas Shrugged.  A book that I last read when I was in these latitudes.  A book that kept me from believing in the concept of love until I was 22.

If you don’t know Atlas Shrugged, consider that Ron Paul named his son Rand after its author.  It’s a paean to capitalism, an exaltation of self-involved greed as the highest good for society.  Here’s the speech that I flipped to the movie, on my all-English-movie satellite station:
‘Oh, so you think money is the root of all evil?  Have you ever asked yourself what’s the root of money?  Money’s a tool that allows us to trade with one another.  Your goods for mine.  Your efforts for mine.  The keystone of civilization.  Having money is not the measure of a man.  What matters is how he got it.  If he produced it by creating value, then his money is a token of honor.  But if he’s taken it from those who produce, then there is no honor, and you’re simply a looter…’
    ‘Señor D’Anconia, we all know that money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak.’
    ‘What kind of strength are you talking about?  The power to create value, or the ability to manipulate?  To extort money in backroom deals, to exercise pull?  When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men.  Blood, whips, chains, or dollars, take your choice.  There is no other.’
This speech entranced me, before I realized what movie it came from, exactly the way Atlas Shrugged entranced me 28 years ago.  It’s a beautiful idea, and true, I think.  If money is produced by creating value, then it is honorable, with no moral pollution.  In the speech, he’s speaking to crony capitalists and government flunkies—comparing them unfavorably to himself (the scion of a copper mining family) and another dude that mines coal.  They’re both good guys, escaping an evil communist empire.

The problem comes, of course, when one realizes that creating value does not equal looting land.  Why do all of these brilliant creators have so much land anyway?  How is it valuable to take stuff out from beneath the ground?  How did they get this land?  Who does land belong to?  Who does its resources belong to?

Who knows, in the fictional universe of Ayn Rand.  But here, on this earth, I know.  The land belonged to Indians, who didn’t believe that land could be owned.  The idea when the invaders managed to make it understood, was obscene to them.  They believed it belonged to everyone, that is was sacred.

“The Inuit language has no difference between he or she, or between mankind and animal,” she adds. “They’re all equal.” —American Nations, Colin Woodard

But the Indians were killed at rates of ninety percent, a mass extinction event.  A genocide.  Then us, their successors, systematically stripped the land, above and below, of all its “value.”  We turned the value into money.  We created nothing except waste.

Even today, the reason certain people own vast stretches of land is that their fathers were wealthy, and their great-grandfather before them.  That their families have been wealthy for so long that they had original land grants.  My family and my family's family are the inheritors of all of the wealth of the New World--all that fur and wood and coal.  It’s the reason that I can still afford to pay someone to clean my bathroom here, as I stay in guesthouse after guesthouse.  I watch the housemothers sweep the floor, and I think about somehow our histories being different, that this is the exchange of resources between us.

Laotians, according to sources in Luang Prabang, also have no word for mine and yours.  The words are the same.  They believe, shockingly, that everything in their land belongs to everyone.  It’s a communist country, still.  Ha!  The Randians say.  And see how little value they create!  See how poor they are!

And then we realize that no.  They’re poor because of ten years of illegal, illicit, secret, and relentless bombing by the United States of America.  They’re poor because of the following twenty years of futile embargoes.  They’re poor because of the refuse of colonialism. And still their land is being used by those with money—Chinese building massive smog-shrouded power plants that we drove by. 

Which brings me, of course, to climate change.  The last two brilliant Atlas Shrugged capitalists are a train builder and a metal smelter, who builds the high-tech rails for the train tracks.  The original screeners of the movie, for the American Heritage foundation, had as their major criticism that trains as an effective method of transportation are unrealistic.  Never mind that Hank Rearden (one of characters who could be designated an actual value creator) has invented an ultralight ultra-strong super-metal.  Never mind that gas costs $42 a gallon (as it should).  Never mind that we already have the technology for mag-lev TGV (ultra-high-speed) trains that go 400 mph with virtually no friction, no drag on the rails, and a fraction of the energy that it takes us to drive anywhere.

So the movie treats a coal-miner as a hero and gas at $42 as an outrage.  But then also treats scientists and inventors as saviors.  Never mind the irony of the brilliant scientist working in his public university lab, the sole genius creator, funded by government grants. But those who hold to Ayn Rand’s doctrine (Rand Paul, for one) refuse to believe what scientists are clearly saying, and refuse to listen to the inventions that could save us.  They refuse to use the free market and entrepreneurial spirit, the best tools at our disposal, to solve the problem they don’t even admit exists.

I don’t know to explain it clearly, without using incendiary propaganda myself.  I want it laid out stark.  Carbon dioxide is a waste product from burning things that contain carbon.  It is causing climate to change, in ways that could murder billions of people, in ways that could cause a mass-extinction event, in ways that endanger civilization.  A free market only works if people are asked to pay the true price for things.  It is crony capitalism if a certain producer, a certain company, or a class of companies, do not have to pay for the disposal of their own waste.  For the results of their waste.  If we do not have to pay the true cost for what it costs for us to burn carbon.

If one is able to dump lead in a river, or avoid the expense of a septic system by shitting on a neighbor’s front lawn, that is not a free market.  That is a system where manipulation, chiefly of people’s minds through doubt and misdirection, is in power.  Not liberty.  Not creators of value.  Not even the all-powerful market.

The book itself is seductive propaganda.  It’s so beautiful to believe in a world where all anyone has to do is make money, and the poor magically disappear, taking care of themselves.  It’s like believing in Santa Claus. 

I read Ayn Rand’s books, and I read my grandfather’s book, The Labor of Love, back to back.  His, by a Greek self-published exegete, analyzing the epistles of Paul.  Hers with their seductive vision of pure humanism, desire for money.

But the truth is that humans are much more complex.  Desire for money is simply a twentieth century concept.

I met a bitcoin capitalist in Chiang Mai, a libertarian, a defender of “liberty.”  A denier of climate change, who believes the whole thing exists to siphon money from poor to rich.  And it will do that.  Everything does that.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen anyway, unless someone, poor or rich, decides to do something, from the best power within them.  He doesn’t down the evil of Monsanto, though—not the GMO crops themselves, which are fine—but the things they can now spray them with.  But what should we do about it, if Monsanto has the liberty to spray what it will?  If doing otherwise would inhibit its brilliant capitalist entrepreneurialism?

Liberty has many definitions.  American Nations, a book I read last year, continues to haunt me, in its argument that
"from the very start the country was divided by the northern states’ Germanic idea of “Freiheit” and the southern states’ Latin idea of “libertas.”  "Essentially, Freiheit (“freedom”) holds that all people are born free and equal before the law, that they all possess at least certain minimal rights that have to be mutually respected, and that they are capable of self-governance.  Conversely, libertas (“liberty”) holds that people are born into bondage, that liberties are granted as a privilege, that most people are not capable of self-governance, and that only a very few, governing elite can or should enjoy the full blessings of liberty."  --Daily Kos
Another Colin Woodard find is this quote, from Virginian John Randolph decades after the American Revolution. “I am an aristocrat.  I love liberty; I hate equality.”

I keep thinking that what I am is a communitarian like the Yankees in American Nations, whose governments built schools, churches, community centers, courthouses, grange halls. As if living in a Massachusetts town, a Commonwealth, was a place where the wealth was common—where if something would benefit everyone, it’s cost should be shared.  They believed in collective good.  They wrote laws to protect us from other people, from them murdering or raping or torturing us.  Those laws stand today.

Simply put, one does not have “liberty” to dump someone’s garbage in a place where it does other people harm.  As Benjamin Franklin said, my freedom stops at the end of somebody else’s nose.  And murder can be more subtle, if it comes as an invisible gas.  The example I use is piles of shit on a sidewalk.  In an ideal Massachusetts town they’d build a sewage treatment plant, pool their resources to clean it up.  But what if the shit weren’t brown but invisible?  What if it were floating all around us in the air?

Andrew Guzman says:  
If you push on someone who doesn't want to take action on climate change, the place they end up, if they're reasonable people, is exactly the question: why should we spend money now to solve this problem, instead of either spending money later when we're going to be richer, assuming economic growth continues, or just living with it later? So there are a lot of answers to that. The answer the human being makes is that the economic gains from this pollution—which is what it is, the greenhouse gas that we're putting in the atmosphere—are falling to us. We're getting the benefits.

The economically well-understood principle is that the cost of the thing should be tied to its use. That is, we will get better allocation of resources if the person who uses a resource has to pay for it, for its full cost. In this case, including this pollution. That suggests that we should have to pay for it when we use it.
But even money isn’t the root of all evil, according to the Bible.  The love of money is.  That’s what gospel said.  That’s what Christ said.

Ayn Rand addresses this too, in her own work, not in the shortened screenplay speech:
Did you say it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil? To love a thing is to know and love its nature. To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men. It’s the person who would sell his soul for a nickel, who is loudest in proclaiming his hatred of money–and he has good reason to hate it. The lovers of money are willing to work for it. They know they are able to deserve it.
But I disagree.  I can love the best power within me without loving money.  My work comes from that best power inside of me no matter what our culture chooses to financially reward.  Never mind that even loving the best power within me, even love maybe, is a kind of desire.
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.  —John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey
Or science tells us, in a recent Ted talk, that money as a motivational tool is a myth.  For factory work—repetitive, endless labor—money can work.  But for any kind of creativity monetary rewards actually depress performance.  And what are 21st-century problems if not problems that demand creativity?  Do these brilliant capitalists wanting us all to work from the “best power” within us want us to have factory jobs?  Or sweep floors?

Watch it if you don’t believe me.  Human beings aren’t driven by money after all.  We’re driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  We do worse with a profit motive.

Dan Pink:  Puzzle of Motivation

“Blood, whips, chains, or dollars, take your choice.” said D’Anconia.  “There is no other.”  But of course there’s another choice.  There's love, as an operating principle.  Autonomy, mastery, and purpose—all kinds of love:  of self, craft, calling.

We stood at the mouth of a Buddha cave in Luang Prabang today.  I crept inside, alone.  I didn’t want to bring my (10,000 kip) coffee inside, in its plastic bag, so I waited till I could leave it outside with K. and headed in alone.  Ever the revenant I am but still there’s this feeling of terror in heading inwards alone, this sense of going into a sacred space, into the holy of holies.  It’s terrifying.

I wrote this in my journal when I passed my first temple on this trip, on Kho Phayam: I had that same feeling of power from the statues, or silence, or quietness, or peace, or brooding strength--the feeling that made me panic as a teenager.  It's odd and unexpected.

But I can write about it now on a computer worth a piece of land in Laos.  This is one of the twentieth poorest countries in the world.  And still to hike to the top of the mountain cost us 20,000 kip.  And then there’s the amount of how much food costs, and how much my daily income corresponds to a person here and a person can go crazy.  Our water budget here is insane.  How much to just keep myself in water.

Still I feel poor here.  I am poor here.  Laos is bleeding us dry.

Buddha teaches us about money in that he teaches about suffering.  Do not desire money, is what he would say, as you should grasp after nothing.

The gatekeepers at the temple give us evil eyes to make sure we pay our $3.  At the top of the mountain is a simple stupa.  We go down into white-hot heat and dust.

What Buddha said doesn’t seem enough to me.  It’s not enough to desire nothing. I also need the Holy Ghost inside me.  Meditation and mindfulness are good for focusing on where the Holy Ghost needs me to be.  Yoga helps too.   My father preached a sermon in Maecherim about Jacob meeting the angel and wrestling him, about wrestling with that Spirit for your own name, for your own answers.  Money does not help me in that fight.  Nor does desire. 

I love money.  Help thou my love of money.  I try not to love money, but I do.  And I try not to desire, as Gautama taught, anything other than what is.  Lord I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.

I remember the prayer given to me every time I take the rail at St. Anne’s in Mars Hill:  This is my body, given for you.  I begin to take that literally.  This body, that I’m living in, is His body.  It’s given for me, my self.  A gift.

As is grace, as is forgiveness, as impossible as I find it to live inside of that place.  I love him, I love my partner, I love my self, and I love this broken world, and I try to make my way around it in love.  I love the life I’m living through.  Can’t I love it more than money?

Even today, though, the guy glares at us as he sweeps our room.  He’s the teenaged son, sent upstairs by his mother, in a spotless starched shirt and carefully ripped jeans.  He has to sweep our room of my hair, the room we stayed in for a week.  Somehow I have exchanged my money for this service, the ability to have him clean up for me.  I exchange the result of my best labor for his, and I hope he can work from the best power within him, too.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Hong Sa, Laos

Hazy skies above the Mekong in Luang Prabang
Nan, Thailand:  1 April - 2 April
Muang Ngoen, Laos:  3 April
Hong Sa, Laos:  4 April

I’m trying to write sixteen-sentence prose sonnets about the cities we’ve visited, as it seems to be all I can manage:

A Chinese power company town.  We drive through in a minivan, from one the border town to this middle-of-nowhere place, and asphalt roads and ATMS sprout up from nothing.  Off the main road are chickens and ducks and dust, ladies in patongs and bamboo.  But in Hong Sa are giant cooling towers looming above the road, a sky perpetually coated in haze.

I want to write about my experience of the place before doing my research.  Somehow I hope against hope that it is a good power plant, and not a bad one, but I fear.  Is it wrong of me to quantify power in that way?  If it were hydroelectric, or geothermal, or solar, or wind.  Even if it were nuclear, which I have come around to.  But somehow I think it is putting more carbon dioxide in the air.

I have this new idea to carry around an Onset Computers data logger and log the carbon dioxide everywhere.  Yes, it’s 400 ppm in Hawaii, until they lose their funding.  But what is it here?  In Laos in summer when they’re burning the trees?  As we go among the countryside the sky is gray, but I also see fires burning everywhere, smoke heading towards the sky.