Thursday, February 19, 2009

How Easily Could It Have Happened?

Feb 18

I take a ride in the morning in Max’s row boat and take pictures of his guesthouse from the river.

I pack, and the van comes to pick me up.

The road to Sihanoukville is well-paved, all along on the right is the high peaks of the Cardamom Range, with cloud covering its tops, the mountainside covered in lush green tropical vegetation.

Who will imagine these mountains were the staging areas of one of the most brutal regimes in my lifetime, one that had cost over 2 million lives of men, women and children, a genocide that exceeds in sheer numbers even those committed by the Nazi Germany.

SIhanoukville is boring after Kampot. I am here only for the bus to Bangkok tomorrow morning.

While at lunch a little boy comes around to sell newspapers. I see that the front pages of The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post have Duch’s portrait on them—Duch is “the Lost Executioner”, the commandant of S-21. His trial began yesterday.

The entire Cambodian upheaval has occurred l in my own lifetime; I have come closest to it now. But as I read the beginnings of the Khmer Rouge and the involvement of idealist students and intellectuals early in its days in the mid to late sixties and their inspirations from the cultural revolution of Mao’s China, I shudder at my recollections of the late sixties and early seventies West Bengal and its Naxalite movement.

I remember a perfectly reasonable and respectable acquaintence telling me in subdued voice in 1970, “Keep quiet, don’t express your opinions easily. There are CIA agents everywhere in India. Even people like Amlan Datta and Amartya Sen are CIA agents; they have sold themselves to the capitalists.” As I read accounts of the prisoner’s confessions, little children and innocent villagers, whose photographs I had just seen displayed in Suol Sleng walls, were brought to S-21, tortured by whipping or the application of electricity, and made to write in confession: “I am a CIA and a KGB agent, recruited to pee and shit in the sewing machine factory and on clothes made for our base comrades so that our Kampuchean dream is undermined” and then they executed by their head “smashed” with an iron rod or their throats slit, I am reminded of that warning. I remember hundreds of innocent youths in Calcutta in the late sixties eliminated just because they were found loitering in the wrong neighborhood and someone shouted “khochor” (a police spy). Had the Naxalites won in West Bengal, would we have had an equivalent of Suol Sleng, where Amlan Datta or Amartya Sen or even my mother would be brought to sign a confession, implicate others, and then their heads bashed in or throats cut?

Were we really that close? I would like to think not, but human history has repeatedly surprised us on the narrowness of the edge between sanity and insanity.

Update: September 4, 2010. Tuol Sleng commandant, Duch, has been found guilty of crimes against humanity. (see John Vink's documentary) But many more remain at large, and even more have eluded justice by dying of natural causes before they could be tried, including the Pol Pot.

A Quiet Day

Feb 17

Today I had planned to read the whole day, but instead I get deep into the manuscript that Ranjan wants me to correct and spend half a day on it. Then of course is the book.

There are high cumulonimbus clouds over the horizon, behind he hill.

In late afternoon there is rain while the sun dips low. A light rainbow gives way to a subtle golden hue that bathes the entire countryside and the river is awash with that glow.

The Earth's Age

Feb 16

The French couple leaves me a bottle of betadeine, some sterile gauze pads, and a can of sterile water spray.

My last day with the rented motorbike, I go to town on fourth gear, eat my patent spicy lemon soup with prawn, then sip on iced tea with lemon.

On my return trip, I go to Lockie’s. He was out on the river on a boat with a couple. The guy is Russian and the woman is Kazakhi. They return as I enter his house. They dive from the deck and have a swim while to shoot Lockie. We settle on the upstairs patio, where they eat fried rice and I have a cup of coffee.

The Russian fellow, in his mid thirties, has a cross on his neck. He believes that the earth was created hardly 4 thousand years ago, and point me to Internet articles that cite errors in dating by radioactive disintegration. His main argument is that dating is an approximate science and that there are errors. I point out that there are errors but there are also margin of errors that are computable. He asks why do we need to answer questions about life and nature when all the religions have provided "all answers satisfactorily". I suggest that that is my main problem with religion: it professes to provide all answers, that one thing about science that is certain is that it is always incomplete but that it is self-correcting.

Lockie is a bit uncomfortable with our respective fortified positions, so we drop the debate.

The Kazakhi woman, also in her mid thirties, is smart. She is a lawyer with the International War Crimes Tribunals. Trained at the bar in the Hague, she has been all over Africa; the last assignment was in Sierra Leone. She seemed bitterly frustrated at the arbitrariness and stupidity of how the United Nations handled the tribunals and the outcome in Sierra Leone. She insisted that some sort of internal reconciliation is an absolutely necessary outcome of these war crimes tribunals. She remains quiet during my sparring with the diminutive Russian.

Lockie shows the draft of a book he has been writing, an autobiographical account of his long imprisonment in China where he was traveling with his two sons in the early nineties. I grab a few quiet Leica shots while we chat on the patio. Later he looks at my black and white portfolio and says he is going to paint some of those later.

When I depart I say that I will send them the digital images in a few hours but that the film images on the Leica, which I took on the patio while talking, will take a few weeks. They were all surprised that I took photos during the discussion....this even impresses me--the legendary unobtrusiveness of a film Leica!

"Motorcycle Diary"

Feb 15

Peter leaves in the morning.

Max suggests I drive up river to the rapids and also take a dirt road up the hill.

The rapids are not very interesting. But going up the hill is kind of fun, and the view from the top is marvelous. I only wish it were later in the day, so the light was more favorable. But I have not brought the camera with me lest I fall and break it.

The drive down was pure terror for the first few seconds. I did not think the downward trip through, and as soon as I started the motorbike began to accelerate downwards without much help from the gas handle. I panic while trying to turn the gas down and instead I turn it up. The motorbike takes off at a frightening speed, a curve looms ahead, but I mange to correct myself and slow down in time. The rest of the trip was nice and slow, and at the bottom of the hill I feel as if I have earned the right to drive the motorbike.

Max had also suggested that I look up his artist friend Lockie, who leaves on the same road but closer to town. I go to town, to the same restaurant where I ate before and order the same dish. The girls have come to know me here. They smile knowingly as I enter and appear to be ratcheting up the spicy heat. Today I love the hot taste, but I begin to hiccup. They seem alarmed and bring me water, but I say I love the taste.

After lunch I go to Lockie’s house. The house is on the river, with a deck that looks out to the river, rattan sofas are spread around the deck, two hammocks. He asks me to sit on a sofa while he lies down on a bed he has on the deck. Wiry and thin, balding with some white hair, Lockie looks like in his late sixties or early seventies. A Scotsman painter, his work is spread everywhere in his home. An unfinished portrait on the easel lies downstairs. He takes me upstairs where his bedroom and the small sitting area are choked full with canvases and paints.

I tell him I will return next day with a camera.

Back in Utopia, I immerse myself into The Lost Executioner.

A harrowing account.

Max starts the music. A French couple is staying in the Bungalow. They are from Paris and have traveled all over India and Asia. Max insists I should show them my black and white portfolio.

I do a bit of portraiture of Max’s family with the Leica.

The music stops by 9:30PM. A toh kay beeps, TOH Kayh TOH Kayh some seven times. They seem to always beep some seven times. These funny looking lizards are about 8 to 12 inches long, with dark skin with red spots, a smiley face and beady eyes, are everywhere in Utopia and the surrounding jungle. Max says they are numbered and every room has its own.

Like last night I take a Tylenol to ease the pain in my ankle.


Feb 13

The moto driver is back at 10:30 in the morning. I jump on to the back and he takes me to a village of Muslim fishermen, of Cham enthnicity, who are apparently descendents of the ancient kingdom of Champa that once covered the south and central Vietnam and north eastern Cambodia.

The villagers are thrilled to have their photos taken.
I was offered a glass of sweet cold tea. The children are a bundle of laughter as they pour over my camera to see their portraits.
The young woman who serves me tea is not at all shy. Though she had her hair out at first, after a while she takes out a black scarf and puts it around her hair, all the while smiling at me while I take her photos, her husband glad to be included in the photo.

I go to Kampot town and have a late lunch, of lemon soup with prawn. What a fantastic soup—spicy hot and sour, light and huge, with some 10 huge prawns. The restaurant is totally Khmer run, and extends into the river beside the new bridge. The old bridge was evidently destroyed by bombing or by artillery fire—only a third of the span still exists, the remainder of the bridge is a pontoon.

I return to Utopia and take a nap. In the evening, I chat with Peter and Max.

Feb 14

Max suggests I rent a motorbike and ride it. Apparently these are all 100cc bikes that are semi-automatic, with no clutch but they have four gears. So I get a bike. Max instructs me how to ride one.

I roll on, tentatively. I try the foot break and the hand break, and try to think through the reflexes in case of a quick response if needed. I leave the guest house, wobbling badly on the sandy stretch. I dare not go above the second gear on this stretch, but as I hit a stretch of deep sand I fall. I clamber up again, and get the bike straightened and start again. Upon hitting the road, I try my breaking reflexes again and again, and try out a bit of dodging potholes and gear changes, both up and down. It seems fine, but I still dare not go to the third on the road which is mostly gravel. Then the stretch with the construction zone come, where I take the right hand strip of dirt trail, with other motor bikes zooming past me. I survive that stretch, some three kilometers long, then the road is nice and paved. I go to town, first to the restaurant where I ate lunch yesterday, and order the same items. After a sumptuous meal of spice sour soup with prawn, I decide to explore the town a bit. I discover a used bookstore, Kepler, and get a book called The Lost Excecutioner, by Nic Dunlop, a photojournalist who tracked down the Commandant of S-21 (Suol Sleng), and a book by Noam Chomsky written in the 60s (and since updated with appendices) on the folly of US policies in South East Asia.

Just beside Kepler is a nice café, where I order an iced tea with lemon. After a hot day, sweating with tension at trying to drive the motorbike for the first time with a swollen ankle and a raw heel, the iced tea tastes heavenly. I begin to read The Lost Executioner.

A gripping account.

By early afternoon I return to Utopia, take a shower, then back to reading the book.

The mishap

Feb 12

Last night there was sound of distant thunder and lightning beyond the hills. This morning there is a dark cloud cover on the eastern horizon and there is a light drizzle. I am supposed to leave Utopia this morning for Phnom Penh and then another bus to Kampong Chnanag, which is near the lake Tonle Sap. After that it is still uncertain. I wanted to go to Veal Veng, but they say there is drug resistant malaria and security situation may not be good. Another possibility is to go to Battambang, not too far from the Thai Border before returning to Bangkok, but Francis (Furachan) has already warned that Battambang is dismal, not really worth going. So I leave Utopia reluctantly. Why am I leaving this paradise of quiet waters and lush vegetation?

Max and his family says goodbye. I climb on the back of the motodupe. I say that I can easily carry the backpack on my back, but the driver is insistent that it will be ok to keep this huge bag between him and me on the seat. I sit awkwardly, with my legs splayed on both sides. The motorbike starts, then skids a few times on wet sand before reaching the road. The road is wet, with red slush; construction trucks have taken most of the center and on the two sides there are two narrow dirt trails where motorbikes run. We go about three kilometers, then the road gets slightly better, and the motorbike picks up speed. As it passes a little village, it lurches sharply through a pothole and my right foot slips so that my sneaker gets caught in the rear wheel and I feel a violent pull towards it. As I try to wrench it away my heel gets banged sharply and repeatedly by the spokes; I scream at the driver to stop. I clamber out of the seat; my foot is still encased in the sneaker, which the driver takes out by pushing the sneaker off. I limp to the road side. The sock is torn at the heel and it is red and blue, with roughly two square inches of skin gone. I feel a dull pain on my ankle. The heel looks terrible but I am more worried about the ankle—is any bone broken. I decide on the spot to return to Utopia. There must be doctors in town.

We are back to Utopia in less than 15 minutes. Max quickly washes off the wound with mineral water, then puts antiseptic on. Then he puts ice into a tumbler and orders my right foot into it for 2 hours. After two hours he pats the wound dry and sprays Hansaplast liquid bandage on. Then he fixes me a stiff gin and tonic. The pain is already much less. I push the ankle around and flex and rotate my foot. There was no obvious problem, except for the burning sensation due to laceration. I decide to stay in Utopia for the remainder of my Cambodia visit. Why run after a mirage when I am in Utopia.

I shuffle around whole day on the deck, working over my photos. In the evening I meet Peter, a young fellow from Brisbane who has been traveling in Scotland and now in Asia for the past ~ two years. A quiet chap, who likes Camu, Sartre and Kafka. I tell him to look up Bruce Chatwin and also Coetzee. Peter swims in the river. I dare not in fear of infecting my wound.

The cloud disperses by the day’s end. Peter and I eat Gao’s fish soup. Max puts on an eclectic collection of music that even has a little segment that sounds like Lata Mangeshker in a jazzy beat. There was another female Hindi singer who did nice assimilation of Latin into Hindi. There was a Baul, singing in Bengali.

Before bed, Max sprays another shot of Hansaplast on the wound. I sleep fitfully, with my foot raised on a pillow.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"They had a plan!"

February 11

At 8 in the morning my motodupe driver arrives. The woman from Perth in Siem Reap to Phnom Penh bus had told me about salt flats near Kampot. We travel some 12 kilometers to a flat landscape divided into myriad neat rectangles, nearly all of them a shallow glass bed of salt water from the sea. People were pounding on the dry rectangles’ to make the dark soil as flat as possible; then they open a little inflow into the rectangle and salt water flows in. The heat dries by the water fast, leading to super saturated brine, and salt crystallizes out of solution. These crystals are then brushed into pairs of heaps. Then these are brushed on to two flat bottomed containers made of woven bamboo, which are hooked onto a yoke, shoulders placed underneath, lifted and carried away into a large hut for drying.

I am thrilled by the possibilities of composition and reflection—rectilinear shapes everywhere, broken by figures of workers being reflected on the mirror-like salt beds. I take out the Leica and try to get the nearest person, a slender woman of some thirty odd years into a geometrically strong composition.

But as I peer into her, I notice she is pointing at me and then back at her baskets and the yoke. I understand that she wants me to come closer and try lifting the yoke. I ask the moto driver whether it is ok to step over the salt bed, and he nods in affirmative. I go closer, and see the glint of smile in her eyes. Without thinking I take the yoke from her hand and try to lift it.

That was the first surprise. I couldn’t even budge the baskets with both hands placed under the yoke and pushing up. They were impossibly heavy. She started laughing, as other men and women in nearby field started laughing at me. Not to let this get out of hand, I put my left shoulder under the yoke and heaved up. The baskets were airborne, but I had not anticipated the incredible weights of these two containers filled with water-laden salt crystals. She signs me to put them down, but I start to walk towards the hut, some hundred feet or so away, my cameras swinging wildly on my right shoulder and from the right wrist. She runs after me, but I make over the slight slope into the hut and put down the baskets near the pile of salt gathered inside. She talks excitedly to the moto driver who is quite amused at all this. I am quite winded. I take a few shots inside when they empty out the baskets, which also is not a simple affair because it is impossible to lift them separately by hand, so one has to swing the yoke such that both baskets are emptied together in one fluid motion.

This gives me a totally new perspective on what people do for a living. I asked my moto driver to find out how much do they get paid for this job. 200,000r for five people for a five hour day. That makes it $10 per person per day. I do an estimate of the volume of the salt crystals in each basket, which is approximately 15 liters. Since sodium chloride is three times as heavy as water, each basket should weigh around 45 kg, making the total weight around 90 kg or close to 200 lbs. Allowing for even 25% error on the high side, its weight could be minimum 150 lbs. Imagine having to haul 150 lbs over few hundred feet over soft grounds every 10 minutes for five hours a day, and getting paid $10 for the job. If one is lucky, the moto driver points out, because no one gets this job all the time. Often, when there is rain or cloud cover for example, such that the evaporation rate slows, one does not make as much salt and so the salt field shuts down or works at reduced forces. The amazing thing for me is that a slightly built woman can do this seemingly effortlessly.

I continue shooting in the salt field. The men and women there are suddenly a lot more accessible to me; but because they pose I have difficulty catching them in good composition. They keep asking me about my home and family. I struggle on with catching them at work. After a while I give up.

It is better to remain somewhat remote if you wish to take good photographs.

After the salt flats we visit a cave with limestone stalactites and stalagmites, with an eighth century Hindu shrine with a Shiva lingam inside a terracotta construction that is partly encased in calcium carbonate crystals. This is probably one of the oldest signs of Indian influence in Cambodia, predating the oldest of the Angkorean complexes (the Roulos group) by at least a century.

A group of three young boys, ages 10 to 12, take me to the caves with a flashlight. Just before the rise of the hill, there is an area closed off with red tape with scull and bones drawn on a post—mine, they say. I just cannot believe there would be mines there, because it is squarely on a dry field of rice paddy with bristles of last season’s straws still on the parched soil. I ask incredulously, “Are there mines still there? Really?” They say yes yes in an airy way that leaves one doubtful. One normally walks up a steep flight of stairs hewn into the stones and then down into the limestone cavity, and then returns along the same path. I see an English couple following me there. But the boys encourage me to come with them out through another route, one through which we scramble up and down steep and slippery rock faces, with tiny footholds and little ledges to grip with hands. My metal lens hood bumps hard against the rock and gets a dent. The kids are horrified, and help me put away the camera inside the bag. I follow the kids through utter darkness, scampering over rocks and holes. At the bottom there is a shallow stream, on the calcite ceiling there are bats hanging, which get disturbed when one of the kids, A’p is his name, shines his flashlight. The kids talk incessantly; what do I do in my spare time—I take pictures—“I play football”, says A’p. We begin climbing again but it is a very short way up. At the end is a shallow opening through which I will not pass with the camera bag on my back, so the kids take it from me and go through first. Then they excitedly take the camera out and asks me to fix it so they can take a picture of me emerging. The take two shots. I think those are the best shots of me in ages.

On the way they show me this and that. I ask whether seriously there are still mines there, and they smile and say, that indeed there were mines there but those have been removed. They show me an egret, and a small mint garden, and gives me a little bunch of mint leaves to take home as a memento. They ask me repeatedly to bring my family here next time, so they can take them into the caves.

Back at the moto, they show me a huge tamarind tree and as my eyes light up, they throw stones and shoes into the trees to drop ripe tamarinds to the ground. They break one and offer me. I eat without wincing—that is my specialty—and the kids go wild. They keep feeding me tamarind, and then packs me a whole bunch to take with me. I give them a dollar for the trip and the flashlight, and move on.

We drive another 10 or so kilometers to Kep, the seaside town where Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese army had showdown in the early eighties and that encounter had wrecked the town. I see huge compounds with intricately curved ironwork gates but with nothing inside, facing the sea. An island looms in the distance. Along the beach are lines of restaurants. I eat a calamari soup, while the moto driver eats fried rice. I try to pump him about his days during the Khmer Rouge times. Here at last is a man who slowly opens up during my hard grilling. Perhaps because he had seen me carry the salt bags, perhaps because he had seen me eat tamarind out of the boys’ hands. But he began to describe what it was like.

“Very early in 1975 they came to my village. They separated my sister, who was 15 at that time and me, 12, from our parents. Our parents were taken very far away, and separately. I did get to see them, about three, may be four times in the three years until the Vietnamese army broke up our camps. My sister was in a separate camp a few miles away, and I did see her about once in two months or so. It was very hard. Yes, of course I cried. What do you think? It was very hard work, from morning until late in the evening. No work, no food. Sometimes the bad ones would even beat us.”

“What if you walked away from the camp one day?”

He has difficulty understanding my question first. Then when I persisted, he was incredulous. “Oh kill! Just kill you!”

After the Vietnamese came, my sister and I walked home. It took us eight days of walking. When we came to the village, my parents were there, they had walked back earlier.”

“Did they cry seeing you and your sister?”

He seems embarrassed.

“How about the guards in your camp? Did they not have any brother or sister or children of their own? When they mistreated you, did they not think that someone could be doing the same bad things to their brothers and sisters?”

“I don’t know.”

“But” I say, “you were from the village, you are a Khmer, why did they do that you? I thought they were against the city people! Why did they separate you from your family?”

He struggles at first. Then he spreads his arms expansively, and says, “They had a plan, that’s what they said. They had a plan”.

I rest my case: A faith in determinism, that you can plan your life and your social structure according to some elementary ideals.

Back at Utopia, Max is cross. He doesn’t like the untimely rain. Where is the rain, I ask, it is only a drizzle. “This is not good. The whole damned weather is changed. The last rain was on December 31, can you imagine! It normally does not rain after November until June or July.” “Do you get guests even during the rains?” I ask. “Yes, but fewer; Phnom Penh professionals, fewer tourists, who want to get away from work for a while.”

You cannot get a better place than this to get away from it all. The sunset was unobservable because of dark cloud in the west. We discussed Cambodian history, and Max’s travails in the 70’s. He had run away from home at 13, then traveled all over Europe during the seventies. “A coastal person,” he described himself. He spent a lot of time in Spain and Italian coastal towns. He had spent a year in Katmandu. Ultimately he had found his calling in Indochina, choosing to marry a Cambodian woman and settling down in this little out of the way place. “There was nothing here before the French came. Just pirates. The Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Siamese, no one was interested in this area. Until the French began to establish their weekend getaways in this area.”

A glorious moon rises through a hole in the clouds. We both take photos of it, but have uninspiring results due to the deep darkness surrounding the single beacon of brightness. Frogs croak and the river sleeps as we chat in the semi-darkness over two glasses of gin and tonic. “Very colonial,” he offers. “Good against malaria,” I try. “That’s what they say, but I think it is rubbish,” declares Max.

After a bit of listening to my story of the driver, Max says, “You know, that’s what you get when you combine Taoism with Maoism”.

I don’t understand Max, so I will have to read about Taoism.