Monthly Archives: December 2010

Yes, I’m a Real Person

Last Friday was surreal. Izel, the head of another school I work at called me up the day before and asked if I could go visit a Kindergarten somewhere outside of the city. Since I don’t work on Friday afternoons at the university, I said why not?

We met at her school, a private one run almost completely by her, and I was greeted by the three other teachers working there.  All of them happen to be from Africa.   Two of them, a younger woman and man from Ghana, and another early thirties guy from Kenya. They all work under Izel, who is originally from the Philippines.

I asked what the plan was and she said we were being picked up by one of her adult students, a chinese man who owns an export garment factory and two kindergarten schools. We were to go visit both of his schools because the children there had never seen foreigners before and he thought it would be a good idea to broaden their horizons.

We arrived at the first school, which was in Shiba, about an hour northeast of Huizhou.  Shiba is a very small town, more like a village where the wealthiest in town are lucky to drive cars and if you have a motorbike, you’re doing pretty good.  The kindergarten building was shaped sort of like a castle and had cartoons of Mickey & Minnie Mouse (among others) painted huge all over it. 

As an attendant opened the gate to let us drive into the courtyard, situational thoughts ran:   A Filipina, Kenyan, two Ghanaians and an American walk into a Chinese kindergarten.  Yeah, the joke’s on us.  There was a big red banner in Chinese that said, “Welcome American Teachers to our school!”  We were all American in their eyes. 

We piled out of the cars and stood in the courtyard, trying to figure out exactly what was going on.   An attractive Chinese woman in her early 30s came over to us and said hello.  She also happened to be one of the heads of the school.  She had a camera in hand and immediately started taking pictures of us; no doubt with the intent of publishing them to attract more enrollments. 

After our arrival photo shoot, I walked into one of the classrooms in session and introduced myself to the little ones.

“Hellooo!!!”  I waved with both hands and smiled as wide as my cheeks could go.

The 5-6 year olds immediately looked up from their desks and gave me a blank stare of reserved curiosity, the kind of look clowns are probably used to getting.  The Chinese teachers asked them to follow their lead, “Good afternoon Teacher!!!”

Nothing.  A few of the kids started laughing at me, others just gazed at this weird thing standing in front of them.  So, I put up a hand and happily walked around trying to give them high-fives.  A few of them held up their little paws, a couple looked on the brink of tears, and one boy even stood up on his chair and stretched out his hand, anticipating my arrival to his side. 

At this point, my six-foot-two colleague from Ghana, we’ll call him Terry, came into the classroom and let out a big “Hellooo!!!” to which the kids turned around and once again became dazed by this new being.  Unfortunately for Terry, some of the children started crying and screaming, yet most of them just looked on in surprise.  The Chinese woman with the camera was behind him taking shots of us left and right.

Terry and I went from classroom to classroom doing the same thing and with the same results:  crying, screaming, laughter, and bewildered curiosity.  I felt like some kind of strange being from another world.  One of the kids even pulled on my nose, as if trying to yank away my “mask”.

After making our rounds playing, singing songs and dancing (I did the moonwalk to amazed laughter), we were told that we needed to stand near the school gate to wave goodbye to the kids and their parents as they came to pick them up.  Of course, this was a bit of a plug for the owner as a way to show the parents his school was special in terms of learning english.

As we stood there smiling and waving, a crowd of people, young and old, started to gather outside the gate.  They all looked on with the same faces as the children we’d just met.  Some of them yelled “Hey man!” or “Nice to meet you!”  I must have posed for over a hundred photos with the children and their parents.  One grandfather rode in on a bike and was looking at us like he’d just seen a ghost.  He kept pointing at us, but mostly he was curious about Terry.  He kept rubbing his face with both hands, as if he was trying to rub something off.  Finally, he walked over to Terry and took a closer look.  Terry speaks pretty good Chinese, and he thinks he was saying, “Why don’t you wash your face?” 

Terry just shrugged it off and laughed and leaned in to tell me grandpa smelled like he’d been drinking all afternoon.  The old man went in to pick up his grandson and came back, slowly lifting him up and setting him in a seat on the back of his bicycle.  No he isn’t!  we both thought as he got ready to ride away, the little one holding onto his backsides.  They slowly wobbled away out the gate and disappeared.  Just to think, this is probably an everyday occurence for the little fella.

As the children started thinning out, there was still a pretty good size crowd of curious onlookers.  The woman with the camera tried to tell them to go away, but had no luck, only laughing when she was walking back from them.  We asked her why she was laughing so much and she said that one of the onlookers asked her, “Zhengde ren 正地人?”  Which roughly translates into “Are they real people?”

Terry and I burst into our own laughter and decided to start walking around like robots to add to the moment.  I couldn’t keep a straight face as the last parents and their kids waved goodbye to us. 

After about four hours of being something else, my cheeks never hurt so much.

P.S.  I’m trying to get a hold of the pictures to post here.  Fingers crossed.


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Fearing the Unknown in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan

What you’re about to read was one of the most terrifying nights of my life.  While traveling through Yunnan in China, I stayed at a youth hostel in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, a city that has historical influence from not only China, but also from Thailand and Laos.  Even though it’s still a Chinese city, it feels very southeast asian.

I arrived in Jinghong at the crack of dawn on a sleeper bus from Kunming.  I had written some information about a youth hostel here and asked a woman at the bus station where it was.  She pointed the way just down the street and I headed towards it.  After about a five-minute walk from the station, I found it and checked in.  The young woman at the desk didn’t speak much english, and she seemed very annoyed that I was bothering her for a room at such an early hour.  I paid 40 yuan ($6) for a dorm bed and made my way over to it.

When I opened the door and walked in there were four beds lined up against the wall.  I noticed an older western man sleeping in the second to last bed, so I tried to be as quiet as I could while unpacking and taking a shower.  When I got out of the shower, he had just woken up and was sitting at the edge of his bed.  As a backpacker, you know the situation.  The usual, Hello…Where you from?…Where you traveling?…blah blah blah.  I usually break the ice first, but I was so tired that I didn’t really want to deal with the usual banter.  He didn’t say anything.  He just sat and stared at the wall.  So I crawled into bed without a word and went to sleep for a couple of hours.

I woke up around 9 and got ready to go out to get some much-needed breakfast and look up some information about crossing into Laos.  When I came out of the room, the man was sitting on a bench outside, drinking coffee and listening to a small short-wave radio which was broadcasting some news in english.  I thought coffee was a good idea so I went into the office and got some and came back out to sit on a chair next to him.  I broke the ice with the usual conversation. 

“I’m from England,” he said without even looking at me, just staring out into the parking lot. 

I’m guessing he was about 60 years old and he was tall and slender with silver-white hair.  When I told him where I was from, he looked very surprised.

“Strange,” he replied.  “I don’t meet too many of you.  Seems like Americans don’t like to travel much.”

I agreed with him and told him that we’re few and far between.  While trying to talk with him, I say trying because he didn’t say much, mostly just minimal answers with no feedback, I found out that he had traveled around Asia for nearly 15 years.  He said he’d been in Jinghong for about a month.

“A month eh?” I said.  “So you must be doing a lot around here.  I’m only here for a day or two, can you suggest anything?”

“No,” he said and turned up the radio. 

I guessed that I was bothering him, so I got out my journal and started writing to show I was also busy and to curb the awkwardness.  But I couldn’t concentrate to write.  I felt strange.  When I was talking to him, he could never quite look me in the eye very long, just short glances, like a child telling a lie.  Maybe because he knew what his eyes looked like.  Cold.  A light hazel-gray that were as chilling as they were piercing.  I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it.  After each string of sentences, his lips would give a nervous half-smile. 

I couldn’t help but think what he had done here for the past month, let alone the past 15 years.  A 60-year-old man alone and socially awkward.  As a traveller, you meet the occasional drifter, someone you can’t quite put a finger on, as if they are hiding or running away from something.  He had that presence more than anyone I’d met before. 

I finished up my coffee and stood up.  I had some clothes I needed washed, so I got them and gave them to the woman at the desk.  Again, she looked annoyed and just threw my clothes in a bag.  I told her I might be checking out tomorrow, so could she please have them finished by then.  She just nodded her head and disappeared through a door behind the desk.

I went back in the room to get ready to roam around the town.  When I came out he asked, “Where are you going?”

“Just going to see what I can find around here,” I replied.  He gave a half-smile again and said, “See you later.”

With that, I headed out and wandered a market taking photos.  I then headed to the Mekong Cafe to get some breakfast and get on the internet to plan my crossing into Laos.  After finishing breakfast, I wandered aimlessly around the town and headed across a bridge to try to find a large buddhist temple I’d read about on the internet.  After walking for about an hour, I gave up looking for it and headed back into town.  The rest of the afternoon I just walked around, tiring my legs and absorbing the sights.  It started to rain so I headed back to the hostel to put my bag away and get some dinner.

I stopped by the front desk to ask about my laundry and the woman kept saying she didn’t understand what I was talking about.  In my broken Chinese, I kept asking where my laundry was.  She just kept saying, “Tien putong.  Tien putong.” (I don’t know.)  Finally, she angrily pointed up towards the ceiling and disappeared through the door again.  I walked upstairs and found a ladder going to the rooftop.  Sure enough, there were all my clothes, hanging on a line soaking wet in the rain.  Now I knew why she was saying that and acting strange.  She was trying to save face because she forgot about my laundry.  I took them down and went back to my room to try to wring them out in the bathroom sink. 

Thankfully, the man wasn’t there so I could avoid more eerie awkwardness.  After getting my clothes as dry as  I could, I hung them up around the room on a few chairs and turned the fan on them.  After that I headed out to get some dinner.  It was still raining so I took a book with me to read and sat on a covered patio while eating some spicy chicken and drinking a cold Harbin beer.  The wait staff didn’t seem to mind, so I sat there for about three hours reading and ordering more beers.  Finally, around ten o’ clock, I headed back to the hostel.

I opened the door quietly, thinking the man might be in bed, and came in.  The light was still on and he was sitting up in bed, his shirt off with the covers over him.  He turned and looked at me as I walked in.

“Where have you been?” he asked in a parental-like tone.

“Just walking around seeing what the city has to offer,” I replied as I set my bag down.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said with a wide smile.

“Oh, uh, you didn’t have to wait.” 

He sat there with his eyes on me the whole time.  I wanted to take a shower again because I had decided to catch the early morning bus to Laos.  But I didn’t know what to do with the light on, his cold eyes eyeing every movement.  I didn’t say anything else while I gathered all my half-dry clothes and put them into a plastic bag.  As I packed everything, he just sat there in bed, staring without a word, just a strange smile on his face.  I didn’t know what to do.

I went into the bathroom and locked the door.  As I took a shower, paranoid thoughts raced through my mind.  I started to think about the situation.  I hadn’t seen any other travellers at the hostel.  Only the annoyed woman, the old man and myself.  Why had he been here for a whole month and couldn’t tell me one thing to do?  15 years traveling Asia?  What was up with the woman’s attitude?  Then it hit me.  The cold eyes, the socially awkward mannerisms, the short answers.  I remembered I’d asked his name that morning and he steered the conversation away from it.  Who was he?

Serial killer.  The thought kept creeping into my head.  I couldn’t help it.  The cold eyes you see in the mug shots when watching shows about killers.  He had them.  

No, c’mon Lance.  Get real.

But what if he was?  What if I just forget about these paranoid thoughts, but if I’m wrong, I won’t wake up tomorrow.  I kept thinking about it as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror.  Why is there no one else staying here?  Maybe he’s got some kind of deal going on with the strange desk woman, where he possibly rapes and kills young travellers coming through here and she’s in on it, keeping a low-key. 

I must have stood there for about half an hour trying to get a clear head.  I thought maybe I should change rooms, but how was I going to explain that to the already disgruntled woman.  I kept telling myself that the guy’s just a weirdo, nothing else.  But no matter how much I told myself it’s all just situational paranoia, I kept fearing the unknown. 

Finally, I opened the door and came back into the room.  He was still sitting up in the bed with the light on. 

“Why were you in there so long?” he asked.  “Is something wrong?”

“No. Nothing’s wrong,” I left it at that. 

I could feel his eyes on me as I made sure everything was ready to go and set my alarm on my phone. 

“Can I turn off the light?”  I asked.

“Sure.”  He showed his yellow teeth smiling again.

I shut out the light and crawled into bed.  I could see the silhouette of his outline through the street light coming in through the far window.  He just kept sitting there, upright in bed.

I got up and went back into the bathroom.  My shaving kit was still in there and I grabbed my razor, an old-fashioned one that barbers use.  I took one last look in the mirror and thought, This is it man.  If he wants to try something, I’m fuckin’ ready.

I walked back out with it clasped in my fist and got back into bed.  His silhouette was still there, sitting up.

I lay there watching him with my eyes almost shut, my heart jumping against my chest.  My palm was sweaty against the razor.  Bring it old man.

I didn’t sleep.  I watched him the whole time.  For two hours he sat up in bed and I could see his head moving about, as if trying to see if I had fallen asleep yet.  I kept thinking, it’s either you or him…it’s either you or him.   

I was jolted awake by my alarm at 5:45.  I immediately looked over at him.  He was sound asleep.  Jesus. I smiled in relief.  What a weirdo.

I put the blade away and gathered all my stuff.  As I was walking out he turned over and let out a long yawn. 

“You heading out?”  


“Have a safe trip,” he said.

“Thanks.  Same to you.”  I opened the door and walked out.

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War Remnants Museum – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

August 14, 2010

I’m sitting on a “bench” made in the U.S.A.  Actually, it’s a seven-foot long bomb casing outside the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  I just went through the museum and now it’s gloomy and raining, a reflection of the atmosphere inside.  I arrived by bus from Phnom Penh last night about 8 pm and quickly found a cheap room and went to sleep.  I woke up this morning wondering about my plan for the day and I saw on a map that the museum was only about a 20 minute walk from where I was staying.  So I set off towards it, but first stopped by a food street vendor for some breakfast and iced coffee.

It’s the loudest meal I’ve ever had.  Packed clusters of beeping motorbikes veer pass while a truckload of chickens unloads next door.  In fact, I’m surrounded by chickens:  chickens in bamboo cages, a few chickens pecking their way around my feet under the table as I eat…yes, chicken morning glory and rice and I can’t help but wonder if these chickens are pecking the same meal as I.

I finish up and pay 20,000 dong ($1) for my meal and walk on to the museum.  When I enter the courtyard and buy my ticket (75 cents), I’m surrounded by U.S. helicopters, tanks, and fighter jets.  I feel strange as the only other place I’ve seen U.S. military equipment is of course in my home country.  As I enter the building, there are black and white photographs hung on all the walls depicting the various atrocities committed by the U.S. military and Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnamese government.  Picture after picture are images of troops setting fire to villages, capturing and evacuating whole families, holding the decapitated heads of the Vietcong, and on and on.  There’s also a large series of photos showing the various deformities of the victims, mostly children, of Agent Orange and other chemical dioxins used by the U.S. to clear jungle foliage.  The images almost make me sick:  children missing limbs, enlarged and deformed heads, paralysis, cleft palates, all among too many to describe.  For each photo in the museum, there’s a caption of information describing the who, what , where, when, and how. 

After walking the floors and walls, I can’t help but feel that the portrayal of the pictures is very biased.  They show nothing but atrocities the U.S. committed against the people of Vietnam.  Of course, I knew of some them such as the incident at My Lai before coming, but nothing prepared me for such an onslaught of violence, aggression, and outright inhumanity that the photos and captions suggested.  One photograph in particular that haunts me is of a young U.S. soldier dangling half a mangled torso of a farmer who was viciously blown in half by a bomb.  There are countless other gruesome photos that I don’t even want to describe, but I’ve never seen anything like them in my life.

I do not know how to feel walking among the tourist crowd of French, German, Swiss, Spanish, Chinese, and people from all around.  Somehow, I feel like I am the only American here.  Is it guilt?  Anger?  Sadness?  I don’t know which one.  In the lobby there is a boy with no eyes, only skin covering the sockets.  He’s playing Vietnamese music on a cheap keyboard and I can barely watch him without feeling tears well up inside.  Beside him are other blind young boys sewing together various trinkets made from brightly colored beads.  The proceeds go to charity for these young men and others with disabilities. 

I can’t help but feel grateful for everything I have.  Just that I have every limb, my sight, clean water and food to eat everyday, everything we take for granted.  I don’t want to toe the line and say it’s because the U.S.A. protected my freedoms and way of life after what I just witnessed.  There’s no excuse or justification for the murder and atrocities the United States government committed to “protect democracy”.  How do you protect democracy and human rights by viciously carrying out a war against people who only wanted to defend their own homeland and way of life?  Sometimes I wish everyone in the world could travel outside their homeland and live somewhere else, anywhere, for at least one year.  I think the immersion into a different culture creates an understanding that knows no thoughts of fear, hate or violence. 

I have utmost respect for anyone who has served or serves any nation in uniform, but I don’t respect self-interest decisions made by governments to put others in danger.  A few million Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian civilians and over 75,000 young American, South Korean, Thai, Filipino, Australian and New Zealanders were not only stripped of democracy and human rights, but of a whole lifetime of possibility and humanity.

I’m still sitting here on this U.S. bomb, as the buzz of Ho Chi Minh flys by, waiting for the sun to come out and dry the rain.

Medals donated from a U.S. soldier. The plate inside reads: To the people of a United Vietnam - I was wrong. I am sorry.


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Cambodia Journals

I spent about 15 days in Cambodia, where I met Jay and Gibby in Siem Reap, marveled at the glory of Angkor Wat, then headed down to Sihanoukville, over to Kampot and Kep, and ended in the crazy capital Pnohm Penh.  I didn’t write very much there, but now wishing I would’ve because it is one of my favorite countries I’ve been to.  I’ve never seen so many smiles in my life anywhere else in the world.  After everything the Khmer people have been through, especially the Pol Pot Regime, they seem very warm-hearted and resilient.

On the other hand, they are also very hard to understand; as Serge Thion portrays in his book Watching Cambodia:  “The country is like a labyrinth. . .But there’s no final word, no hidden truth at the end.  That would require entering all the gates of the labyrinth at the same time.”  From my short-lived experience there, to me, the Khmers are a mystical people.  Of course they are living in the modern world, but it’s as if they transported from the distant past into it.  This might have something to do with their strong beliefs in reincarnation and superstition.  There’s a very supernatural quality about them, something almost untouchable or at least unfathomable through western eyes.

And the music.  The music is a great example of this mysticism.  I picked up a Cambodian rock box-set about a year and a half ago, and every time I listen to it I’m taken to another plane of audio existence.  In the late 60s and up till the Khmer Rouge years, dozens of Khmer artists shaped rock music into an almost tribal, yet ethereal mix with traditional Khmer rhythms and scales.  Add on the garage-rock rawness of the recordings and it’s something completely rewarding. 

One of my favorite moments of the trip was when we travelled from Sihanoukville to Kampot in a hour-long taxi.  The driver was playing some CDs on his stereo and I asked him if he had any Sinn Sinsamouth, the king of Cambodian rock.  No doubt he did.  He just smiled and popped the CD in.  There we were, cruising with the ghost of modern Khmer music as a soundtrack to the idyllic scenes and people of the southern stretched countryside.  Plowing water buffalo, palm trees lining the horizon, half-naked children staring into distances, and the King crooning over it all.  It was a drive I’ll never forget.

This first entry was written in Siem Reap, but is actually about southern Laos.


Siem Reap, Cambodia – July 31, 2010

Got up yesterday at 6:45 am to catch a cross-border bus to Siem Reap.  But first, let me tell you about Pakse, Laos.  I rented a 150cc Suzuki motorbike and rode around the Bolaven Plateau, a large rural area full of waterfalls and untouched countryside spotted with small farming villages.  It was incredible.  I had no idea how to get there because the edge is about 70 km outside of Pakse, so the kind lady at the motorbike rental gave me a map and just pointed down the main street and said, “Go this way.”  OK, simple enough. 

So I hopped on and set off through the congested motorbike traffic, which is more akin to a line of ants stopping, swerving and merging into one another.  I had little experience riding a motorbike, but I learned very quickly going through the no-right-of-way and no hesitation swarms of the gasoline clusters.  The fuel tank was a little under half full when I left so about 40 km outside of town I stopped at a filling station.  I was greeted by three shyly smiling children waiting at the pump.  A small, about 10 yr old girl with long black hair pulled out the nozzle and put in 20,000 kip worth to fill it up (3 liters at $1 each).  The other kids just stood there looking at me with curious intent.  It was completely quiet there, a peaceful quality you would never associate with a filling station.  I gave her the money and with a quick ‘Kop jai!’ (thank you), I set off down the road again.  Although I had the map, I still had no idea where I was going or what I would run into along the way, but I didn’t care.  The sun on my arms, road breeze on my face, and the grass hut lined road was all I needed to enjoy the complete sense of unknown freedom.  I couldn’t help gunning the throttle every now and then while letting out a loud hoot and holler to let the world ahead know I was coming.  This is what Kerouac must have felt as he aimlessly hitched across America in the 50s.  I had to honk and swerve around dogs sleeping in the road, cattle leisurely walking across, and the occasional pig heavily trotting along. 

I was completely free.


Coast of Kep, Cambodia – Rabbit Island Beach – August 8, 2010

My paper is bright white today with clear sunshine on my chest and sand under my toes.  Almost a week since the last entry because I haven’t had much down time.  Not a bad thing because every moment has been ridiculously beautiful.  To back up a little, Jay and Gibby arrived at the airport in Siem Reap and I was there to pick them up with Kresna, our tuk-tuk driver.  I met Kresna that morning in the guesthouse I stayed at.  Turns out, he was also the young man who was sleeping on the pool table and watching midnight soap operas while I was on the lobby computer the night before.

I told him I wanted change guesthouses and go to go to the 13th Villa Guesthouse.  I figured he worked at the one I stayed at the night before, but found out he had no affiliation with that guesthouse, they only let him sleep on the pool table.  Interesting.  Anyways, he didn’t know where the 13th Villa was, but there was something about him that told me he was a cool guy.  So I showed him a map and we set off.  Keep in mind, this is the place that Jay had booked on the internet for the three of us to stay at. 

We headed along the Siem Reap river, bypassing small tin-roof shacks with people selling mostly fruits, drinks and cigarettes.  After driving around for about 30 minutes and winding down muddy alleys looking for it, we finally found the 13th Villa.  It was dark inside and I asked a man about booking a room and he said they were closed.  I told him I had a friend who booked a room here over the internet, but he just said, “Sorry, we are closed for remodeling.”  So Jay booked a room for a non-existent guesthouse and they were supposed to pick him and Gibby up from the airport later that day.  So, Kresna, being the great soul that he is (I knew it), said he could bring me to a better guesthouse that was closer to the old market area. 

We went on down the river again and arrived at the #10 Lodge Guesthouse.  I told Kresna I needed to go to the airport to meet my friends and he said no problem, he could take me there and pick them up.  Anyways, when we got to the airport it was a hilarious scene.  About 15 Khmers, all dressed in formal wear, were waiting at the exit holding up placards with various Korean names and tour groups.  At least I knew the plane from Korea hadn’t arrived yet.  And of course they would be there, because Koreans almost always travel in huge groups doing the safe, comfortable, “mega-tours”.

So, to fit in, I got some paper and a pen and made my own sign in Hanguel, complete with my buddies’ names on them.  They finally arrived and of course were the last ones to get out because, as some of you know, Koreans take no time in getting off an airplane.  I knew it was the first sight of the next nine days to come of debaucherous enlightenment.

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