Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Most Secret Place on Earth


Kate Liana – Kaleidoscope

Appeared in Asia Life, June 2010

The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIAs Covert War in Laos

The imagery and psychology of the Vietnam War loom large in our collective memories and imaginations. Largely unknown and unexplored, however was the covert, parallel war that began five years prior in Laos. Researching ideas for a new project, filmmaker Marc Eberle traveled to Laos in 2002. "I saw the remnants of war everywhere, giant craters and scraps of metal from bombs." Laos was the biggest air war in history, and it was secret, its existence little known to anyone. Marc sought to understand how this came into existence, how you go about creating and maintaining a secret war and what it meant for the world and warfare in the future. He was disappointed in the way other books and films on the subject had glorified the war, with no thought given to the Laotian people who had been the victims. The Hmong, backed by the CIA to fight against the communist Lao and North Vietnamese had been abandoned by the Americans and shunned by their own government, and were now living in shambles as refugees .

During the time he was shooting the war in Afghanistan started, and he immediately saw the parallels. "I couldn't believe it, the tactics, the weapons, the political theory were the same. Laos was the progenitor of war in the 21st century: outsourcing war to private companies, no accountability to congress or the public, to the press. I saw it all happening again and thought this was the time to tell this story."

His research brought him to Long Cheng, the secret military base that served as the CIA headquarters. It had been closed to the world since the CIA evacuated in 1975, and Marc and his film crew were the first foreigners to gain access to it. That would serve as the emotional and symbolic core of the story, and the film is built around this base and its history. He made contact with the son of a high ranking government official, who had access to the base and was eager to show the world all that had happened there. An entrepreneur, he also had a financial interest to open the restricted military zone to tourists.

The film itself is a sobering, thorough account of the history and methodology that led to the atrocities. Chilling archival footage of bombing raids and decimated villages is juxtaposed with the lush mountains and valleys of Northern Laos that became the focal point of the war. It ends with a heartbreaking look at the refugees and scarred landscape left behind by the Americans' actions. It recently aired on ARTE, the German / French art channel, and has made the rounds of the international film festivals, where it was nominated for many awards and won an award for the best use of archival footage at the History Makers' conference in New York City. It will screen here at the Overseas Press Club and the new MetaHouse next month.


After studying history, media and culture at university, Marc was eager to create his own films. "I found it the most intriguing art form, and wanted to reach a lot of people, which film allows for." Instead of going the traditional route of film school, he worked at an archive, and studied images and documentaries. "Society is so fractured and disconnected now, I'm always trying to expose stories of what's going on in the world and transmit it to the public."

Marc first came to Cambodia in 2001 to make a film on the history of tourism at Angkor Wat and was blown away by the people and culture. "Their faces were like stories, you see the scars of war but also this intense warmth and purity." He felt like he had just started to scratch the surface of what and who Cambodia was, and was driven to go further. "This place is so evocative, there is so much tension. It's perfect for telling stories, don't need to construct that."

His latest project here is a documentary on the post-Khmer Rouge generation that are growing up now with no experience with the past that previous generations dealt with. He aims to show how this new generation will live their lives. He is heartened by the growing art scene and the number of young artists who are starting to challenge the old models, starting to look deeper and questioning society. "Foreigners come here and tell all the negative stories. I wanted to do a positive one"


He believes young people will start to use art as a vehicle for expression, and even at some point to talk about the Khmer Rouge era. They are already starting to break with the traditional ways of representation, and starting to view art as a vehicle for discussion, reflection, and expression. He is also working on a separate film about the Khmer Rouge tribunal that will focus on how modern Cambodian society is reconciling with the past and concepts of justice. And there are still many stories in Cambodia that he's burning to tell involving history, politics, religion. "Every stone you turn over here, there's a story."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Home: The body as place", Dance Performance by Noemi Lafrance

From "Home" (above)

From "Noir"

Question: Why can’t deer be strippers?
Answer: Because their clothes keep getting tangled in their antlers.

Thus the women in the performance “Home: The body as place”, all of whom had antlers strapped to their heads, struggled to pull their tops and dresses off. But it was only a bit of oddness in an increasingly odd night.

Upon arriving at the performance site - an apartment in Brooklyn, we were asked to put on a name-tag and wash our hands. I knew the performance involved bodies – did that mean we’d be touching them, or performing surgery? Dear God.

It was a small space, only 20 people could attend each performance. We were led into a small room and seated around a long wooden table. There was a chandelier, bookshelves, sideboards. Oh yeah, and a naked pregnant woman with antlers lying in the middle of the table. It took a while to adjust: to the dim light, to be facing other people in the audience rather than sit side-by-side, to be so close to a naked pregnant woman. I felt dizzy and claustrophobic. Warped electronic music pulsed heavily, punctuated by strange sounds floating over top, like animal noises. The whole effect was rather crazy. The woman was hugely pregnant. She lay on her side and running down the length of her, from her rib cage over her hip and down her leg was an entire landscape, a miniature forest. Her skin was covered in a shiny, brown dirt-like substance, which was blanketed with tiny model trees. Closer inspection – we were given magnifying glasses for this purpose – revealed miniature flocks of deer and sheep, and some cows, none larger than a few centimeters.

The magnifying glasses got us over the initial discomfort – my first impulse was to look away and stare at my lap for the whole evening. She took a seat at the head of the table and stared at all of us, one by one, for untold, excruciating minutes.

As hard as it was, I liked this motif of making us as uncomfortable as possible. After all, isn’t that the idea with the Daily Show interviews, with Borat? It just took some getting used to. It was hard to formulate our reactions at first, especially since we could all see each other. She would do something strange, then something possibly funny, then something embarassing, like bark and hiss at us, and you had no idea whether or when to laugh or keep stone-faced. After all, she was extremely pregnant and extremely naked. I wished we had those electric, blinking signs from 50s TV shows that said “laugh”, or “applause”. Though I doubt they ever made one that said “avert your eyes in shame”.

Pregnant deer woman (who turned out to be Lafrance herself) announced that our bodies were temporary, and that we would all die someday. She then commanded us to stare at each other across the table, like a performance art icebreaker, and soon we were somewhat less embarrassed and freaked out by the whole thing. For a few minutes at least, until she slid back down the table, rubbing a cold, gel substance under our chins that I prayed was hand sanitizer.

The New York Times was not as charmed as I was. They hated it, which I found surprising because they loved another performance which sounded, from the review, to be just as wacky. That performance also started with the principle dancer announcing to the audience, “someday you are going to die.” Were they not as tickled as I was that there was a week in New York City where you could be told you were going to die at two different performances? How much had we all paid for this?

Pregnant deer woman left, and another deer-woman came in in a short, flared skirt with ruffley underwear and a slinky, fur-necked top and a feather duster, and stiletto heels caked in mud. She did a kind of strutting dance, pacing back and forth on the tables, occasionally petting people with the duster. When she perched at the edge of the table and stripped – it took a good two minutes to get her outfit over her rack (pun intended), and started doing laundry in a basin on the floor, I knew we had reached performance art nirvana. This is what people talk about when they make fun of performance art! It was like a caricature of performance art, or a Saturday night live skit.

She left - presumably to get her clothes into a dryer, and pregnant deer woman came back and sat at the head of the table. Her two assistants brought out a tray of tiny cups, a kettle of hot water and a bowl and strainer. She slowly performed a tea ceremony, dipping each cup in a bowl of hot water with tongs. She grabbed a clump of what I thought were tea leaves from a pouch, poured hot water over it into the kettle, then poured it into the little cups. Oh God, is she going to make us drink the kool-aid? Of course she is. It seemed petty and lame not to drink, so we all politely sipped. What's that flavor? It was rich, smoky… sencha? Oolong? A few sips later I realized it was tobacco. She had brewed tobacco, and we were drinking it. Each sip grew more smoky, it tasted like an ashtray, or like at a party when you pick up the wrong beer bottle and almost drink, the one everyone’s been ashing into. Except this time, you actually drink it. Of course, she didn’t drink her cup, she just poured the tea over her nipples.

I imagine pregnancy is a challenging journey for all women, but it must be especially bizarre for dancers, being so intimately connected and so hyper-aware and sensitive to every part of their bodies. A dancer friend of mine who was pregnant told me she could feel when things were changing with the baby, like an organ was forming, or when certain bones were fusing together or growing apart. If you ever go to a party with dancers you end up talking about your body for hours: every body part, every piece of food you put in your mouth, and every resulting biological reactions. Lafrance specializes in site-specific works. The first piece of hers I saw was on the spiral stairwell of the New York City Court Building Clocktower. The second I saw, Noir, was in a parking garage, and the audience sat in the parked cars. So this new piece was taking place, literally, on her own body, and not that far from ours.

A different deer woman, fully dressed in skirt, blouse and jacket, and glasses came out and laid towering stacks of white paper at the head of the table. She passed out black, oily crayons and gave us our instructions: paper would be passed around one sheet at a time and we were to write one word then pass it to our right. We started off, but were too slow because she kept yelling at us to go faster, to keep a steady assembly line of word-writing and sheet-passing. When the sheets reached her she would read our random stream-of-consciousness words. She yelled at us to use punctuation, to start making the lines look like sentences, and she kept barking at us to go faster. The words grew increasingly frustrated and involved many curses and longings for her to leave us alone and shut up.

We were all bent over our papers frantically scribbling, so it was only when she started hurling the paper at us directly that we looked up and noticed she had stripped down to bra and underwear. She climbed onto the table and slid across on her back while the assistants passed out glasses of water. I'm still a little unsettled that, by that point, we were all completely on board, and without any prompting we dutifully began writing on her body. Some people gleefully began covering her arms and legs in words and drawings. I felt bad for her because people had written on the inside of her thighs, and her chest was also filling up quickly. Jump, sky, Julien, Amanda, bird, purple, kiss, stop, why, pictures of birds, cats, arrows, words in French and Spanish. I was more reluctant, but managed a few words: fur, fever, full moon, and I drew a naga on her arm for protection.

She slid off the table, then returned, this time with no antlers. The assistants placed bowls of liquid in front of us – I thought water, and gave us what I thought were washcloths. That’s nice, I thought, we’re going to clean all this crap off of her. Silly me. It was paper mache and strips of gauze. We were going to mummify her. Thankfully the assistants had to prompt us on this one - we were not so brainwashed and high on cigarette tea that we could collectively entomb her on our own. Thankfully, it was also the finale.

Was Lafrance successful in communicating the strangeness of pregnancy? Beyond the initial shock value - I worked in family planning and have seen numerous pelvic exams, not to mention abortions, and I was pretty shocked - it was hard to get a sense of her intentions and what her deeper meanings might have been. It was more performance art than dance, but I still feel like she created something unique and amazing. The most compelling aspect was, unlike other performances I've seen, I was much more affected viscerally. All of my reactions were shortcutting my brain and happening within my body, instead of my passively viewing it from the safe distance of a stage and processing it first, then deciding how I felt. And I was more charmed than annoyed by the weirdness factor. I love the idea of her turning her body into the landscape for her ideas, but I'm not sure I loved watching the result. It was a brave, bold and strange concept, but I'm still looking forward to seeing her return to a slightly more formal form of dance.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The 4,000 Islands


Si Phan Don, Laos

The narrator flees the Kingdom for the misty mountains of Laos, luring an unsuspecting Aussie and Finn along to do her bidding. It is P'chum Ben, the feeding of the ancestors holiday, big deal in these parts, and the three of us have a week's vacation.


The Aussie: slick lawyer from Melbourne, racking up karma points in Phnom Penh representing garment factory workers in their struggles; talented runner; forthwith known as the Koala, due to her penchant for munching leaves and hugging people (I've only seen cartoon koalas, so this description may be slightly inaccurate). Bad habit of allowing herself to be dragged along on my adventures when she can't muster a good excuse (stay tuned for our recent motocross fiasco).

The Finn: bubbly blond alcoholic (these are her words), can be seen zooming around town on her moto working tirelessly for victims of land grabbing or hunting down the best happy hour specials for her after hours job writing for the local magazine (though she was involved in alcohol-related research even before the job). Currently working in the Netherlands (these are my words – she prefers to say she's producing the Vagina Monologues in Phnom Penh. Actually she prefers to stand on a table in a crowded bar and screech, "Who wants to see the Vaginas!"

And finally the Narrator: hails from New York City (note: not America, they really are different countries), aspiring novelist, and the best Pilates teacher in all of Cambodia (mostly because I am the only Pilates teacher in Cambodia). Personal goals include showing up to my Saturday morning classes on time and with no glitter anywhere on my person, and making more than one blog entry a year.

Day 1:

Is getting there half the fun? Many stiff, cramped hours on the bus finds us, finally, on the other side of the Japanese bridge (1 kilometer outside the city). Do not attempt to leave Phnom Penh during peak holiday time. Do not patronize Hua Lien bus company, which stops every two hours to eat. We're stopping again? Who could be hungry? We scratch our heads as everyone scrambles off and hits the food stands with a vengeance. And we only stop at backwater gas stations. When we reach Kratie, a lovely town with a proper bar right next to the bus station (according to the Finn, who has the skinny on every watering hole up and down the Mekong), suddenly we are in a great rush and must forge ahead. Luckily most passengers disembark there, so we have room to spread out and sulk in sober comfort. For 20 minutes until we stop at another gas station to eat.

12 hours later we hit Stung Treng. About that one-moto town I will say as little as possible. However, if you find yourself there, stop by the Riverside guesthouse and restaurant, as it's the only option in town.

The next morning we board a minivan and drive two hours to the doorstep of Laos, but the van isn't allowed to drive further, so we cross on foot. We walk 200 meters to a little hut, scattering a pack of grazing goats and chickens hanging out outside, to the awesome fierce power that is the Lao border. The Finn gets right nasty with the guards, making a huge caterwaul over the $2 they are charging to stamp our passports. I play smiley, conciliatory American, on the unlikely chance they'll go all China on our asses and string us up by our ankles in some backwoods prison.

Bribes paid, guards appeased, we board another minivan that drives to the wooden fishing boat that will ferry us to our destination, and finally, we are there.

Si Phon Don, Laos, the 4,000 islands, where the Beer Lao flows like water, and the water flows like my Dominican boyfriend in high school, dark and fast. The only Lao words I know are hello, thank you, ice, hot, very hot, and spicy. It's low season, so the tiny island, usually thronged by scruffy backpackers is rather sleepy and laid back. We find bungalows on the river on the "sunset" strip of the island, passing on the "sunrise" options. Who wants to see sun at that hour? Given the lifestyle of the backpackers that populate the island I am surprised that side has way more guesthouses.

We grab a quick lunch at one of the cafes (3 hours in Lao time), and head off towards the old French railway bridge that connects Don Det where we are staying to Don Khon, a larger island with more attractions and upscale accommodation. It's rainy season and the flowering trees are lush and in full bloom along the red dirt path that skirts the island, running alongside the river. There are puddles everywhere and the ground is muddy; and a light mist hangs in the air. We pass thatch roof houses, small rice paddies, guest houses, and water buffalo parked on everyone's front lawns. We are almost waylaid by a sign advertising BBQ catfish at a backpacker restaurant, but keep going.

Upon reaching the bridge the Koala and Finn plonk down and refuse to go farther. The Finn needs to rush back to the hammocks and the Koala is nursing a sprained ankle. We agree to rendezvous at the hammocks in 1.5 hours, and guided by the spirits of some very well-fed ancestors I take off for an afternoon run.

Back across the bridge, and with a quick stop to pick up Beer Lao and water, I reach our bungalows in time for sundown. The girls, sacked out in the hammocks, gratefully accept my offering. "You got our telepathic messages!" they cry, popping open the icy cans, and I dash off for a cold, twilight bucket shower before rejoining them. I practice the Zen art of balancing a novel and a beer on my stomach whilst lying in a hammock, and read in the fading light.

When the beer runs out we eject ourselves and search for dinner. We stop at the Pool Bar and Restaurant for a pre-dinner drink, but by the time they're delivered we're hungry enough for dinner. The problem was we kept ordering drinks from the menu. 15 minutes or so would pass, and they would come out to inform us they didn't have the ingredients. No gin, no tonic. No vodka, no soda, no wine. This happened 2 or 3 times, until we stumbled upon a winner: beer. We suggest they remove the word 'bar' from their sign, and wait another hour for our food, then stumble home.

Day 2:

Though cows cover every square inch of the island, there is no fresh milk to be found. Only the sweetened, condensed milk that looks like Elmer's glue is available, so I take a small spoonful to cut the bitterness of the coffee. We sit overlooking the river and plan the day. The girls hire bikes to explore the larger island, while I plan a similar trip on foot.

I originally wanted to take this trip alone, needing time to myself. But am glad I ended up with two friends, so I could have company at times, and pawn them off on each other when I want to wander off on my own. And they proved themselves worthy traveling companions. Despite packing way too much (Laos is no place for a bra), the Koala arranged our visas, booked bus tickets, researched guest houses, and even covered my bribe at the Lao border. The Finn supplied me with soap, toothpaste, torch, socks, and a host of other items that one generally doesn't leave the house without, much less the country. Hey, I didn't get this far in life worrying about things like toothpaste. Thank god I moved to a country with such affordable dental care.

I retrace my steps from the day before, and pass more pagodas and rice paddies until a rainstorm strands me at a cafe for a lunch of hard boiled eggs and Beer Lao. There is supposedly a big waterfall, so I follow the wooden signs, until I find the spot. It is not so much a waterfall as a giant set of rapids from the Mekong. I dodge the tourist vendors selling t-shirts and woven bags, and the Korean tour groups (they seem to travel in groups of no less than 50), and sit by the thundering river. After the concrete and traffic exhaust of Phnom Penh it is blissful to sit amongst trees and water.

Our plan is to meet at the catfish restaurant we saw the day before. On route I am waylaid by a gaggle of saronged women selling pashminas. They look like the usual tourist shlock, but one catches my eye. The shimmering gold thread laced through the turquoise and coral design catches the sun, making the fabric look like it's caught fire. Two peacocks face each other, their tails spreading out across the ends of the shawl. I decide I can't live without it, and though it's only $4, I'm almost broke. I don't bother to haggle – it's cheap enough, and the big, toothless smile the woman gives me when I pay her is worth the extra cash. As I'm hiding it in my bag so my friends can't see and working out the best way to ask them to float me some cash until we get home I suddenly realize why the dollar tanked and everything that's wrong with Americans.

I join my friends at the end of a long table; at the other end are a band of backpackers. Of course there's no catfish. At least we're getting better at turning up to restaurants a good hour or two before we're hungry. All is not lost, as it turns out the backpackers are all Finnish. The Finn proceeds to converse with them for the next two hours in Finnish while the Aussie and I catch up in English. We have much to discuss, including her issues at work and my issue, whether break-ups are easier or harder when the reason is that someone had to get on a plane. Answer: yes.

Near midnight we take our leave of the Nordic pack and head home. The rustic, scenic dirt path we traveled that morning is of course pitch black. And they still have their bikes. And no one has a torch. Guided by the blue, heavenly glow of Polaris and the Koala's mobile, we slowly, painstakingly trudge back, trying to dodge puddles, mud patches, and water buffalo. We stumble along, cursing and laughing and reach the bungalows covered in mud.

Day 3:

I'm starting to really like this condensed milk. Every cup of coffee I add a little more, wondering what those chemicals will do to my body. Muddy and hung over, we compare mosquito bites and wait for the boat to take us back to the minivan that will deliver us back to the Kingdom. The Cambodian border guards are so sweet! They chat us up as we wait for our minivan driver. We skip Stung Treng and head to Kratie for the night, which we hope will prove more exciting.

We are somewhat right. After checking into a cheap guesthouse, we go for a lunch and then wander along the river. Almost as small as Stung Treng, Kratie has much more charm and atmosphere. It is also home to the famed Irriwaddy Dolphins, a rare breed of nearly extinct dolphins that live in the Mekong. Most people go to Kratie to see the dolphins.

Is it wrong that I don't care if I ever see these dolphins? I want them to thrive and multiply, I just don't feel a burning need to see them with my own eyes. We wander past a large Ministry building and notice some kind of giant creature. It's a deer, in fact a whole herd of them. Unlike dolphins, I am captivated by the deer and thrilled to see them. Some of them wisely back away, others stand their ground and eye us warily. I have a brilliant idea, and hold out the bag of prawn chips I'm holding and slowly, steadily approach a large deer with a huge rack of horns. My instincts are correct, and after letting him sniff my fingers, I feed him a few chips and he lets me pet him. Soon we're having a proper love fest. The Finn snaps a few shots; the Koala is too disgusted, and wonders aloud whether the local hospital carries rabies shots. They finally drag me away and we wander some more.

We stop by the local market – same assortment of fruit, kramas, household goods, sparkly flip-flops, clothes that are too small for any Westerner, motorcycle parts and fried meat on sticks that every market teems with, but we are not inspired. Which presents a dilemma: it's 5:00 and we've have exhausted all the entertainment options in town. The Finn comes up with the brilliant plan of Khmer beauty parlor. I choose one underneath our guest house and the Finn goes to one around the corner. The Koala declares us both nuts and heads to the room to nap.

When I sit in the chair in front of a dusty mirror, the woman disappears and a 10 year old girl emerges. She pours a bottle of shampoo onto my dry hair and starts scrubbing with all her might, her tiny claws raking my scalp. She is laughing maniacally while I try to suppress my screams. It's like being attacked by a squirrel.

"Um..." I try to say to the woman who's returned with a couple friends and sitting next to me, flipping through a Khmer tabloid. "Tuk?" Water? I am wondering if the squirrel intends to use any water in this 'hair washing' torture. Everybody laughs. I'd be laughing too if it wasn't my head. Finally the girl pulls me up and leads me by the hand to the back where I lay down with my head in a sink and keeps scrubbing. She also keeps up the high, shrill laughing, and is trying to talk to me. "Madame...(something in English I can't understand)" "Madame... (something in Khmer I can't understand). I start laughing with her, if only to keep from crying. I wonder if anyone knows I'm back here, or will come rescue me.

Finally she wraps a musty towel around my shoulders and we return to the front room. Now a small crowd has gathered, someone's set up a table, someone else brought a radio, and they are all ready for the show: me.

They gleefully watch as the squirrel roughly dries my hair; then they take out the straightening irons and the real work begins, transforming my wild, unruly hair into sleek, long tresses. I should say now that I have a lot of hair. The crowd eats and talks, but keep their eyes glued to me. After the first hour the Finn pops in – her hair is shorter and thinner than mine, so she is long done. She buys us beer, and through a mix of bad Khmer and sign language, gets one of the women to apply her makeup.

If we were a novelty before, we are now a full-blown, three-ring circus. More people turn up, livelier music is played, and with little encouragement they go to work on us, not sparing the glitter wand for a moment. The Finn goes early 80s with bold blue eye shadow, false lashes, heavy eyeliner and sparkles galore. I opt for a shimmering seafoam green, and heavy rouge. After another hour my hair is done, and they all gather around to view the final product. The Finn looks like one of the Go-Gos. I look like Janice from the Muppets, if she fell on hard times and had to sell it. We both could pop into a karaoke joint and do a couple numbers and fit right in – and I know I could use the extra cash. All of this has cost us an exorbitant $2 each, and we run upstairs to scare the Koala, who is indeed horrified. We do a quick photo shoot on our seedy beds, and then hit the town and go for dinner at a Khmer bbq. Of course, we run into a table of expats, a couple of whom the Finn knows.

"Uh... you guys look... pretty." they manage. We're just being ironic! Get it?! They don't seem convinced, but they let us eat with them anyway.

Day 4

Glitter does not come off easy. In the harsh morning light we look like faded disco queens. We arrange for a share taxi to get back to Phnom Penh, not wanting a repeat of the bus fiasco. We find one who will take us for $12 each, but knock it down to $10 because the driver won't let us put our bags in the trunk. He won't even let us open it. Good lord, what's in there? Bodies? Drugs? Dolphins? We cramp into the back, bags under feet and sweat all the way back. The traffic jam on the way home is even longer, and though we can see the city from the car we sit for three hours on the road.

Stay tuned:

Will the narrator kick her addiction to condensed milk? If you see a shadowy figure crouched in an alley fiendishly licking a golden can the answer is no. Will the border guards seek vengeance on the Finn? Will the Koala remember not to pick up her phone when I call? Will the narrator ever stop asking herself redundant questions and then answering them? Not any time soon.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Greetings from Phnom Penh

Suosdey everyone,
Hopefully I just said hello. I'm in Phnom Penh now, where apparently I'm a pilates teacher. If you're wondering how that happened, I'm right there with you. I taught my first class this morning, thank you and sincere apologies to all who attended. I was supposed to start teaching Monday, but due to misprint on schedule, people showed up for class at 9am this morning. I was out late last night drinking with Christiane Amanpour at the FCC (well, she was sitting next to me, but you could tell she really wanted to talk.) I spoke with one of the guys she was hanging with, a freelance Khmer journalist, said she's covering issues of genocide and the trials.

I'll give a full report later, still trying to get my bearings. It's 33 degrees Celsius, which in Fahrenheit is a million. Presently all of my energy is devoted to figuring out how to cross the street and how to get coffee. I stayed at a nice brothel my first night, a little hectic, but cold beer and I can say around the world in twelve languages. Now I'm living at the yoga studio where I teach until I find apartment.

Before that, I need to find shoes. Sneakers too hot, flip flops died because I used my feet as breaks trying to learn to ride motorcycle (I've ridden three times and only fell off once, at that rate I'll be dead by next Tuesday). Nothing in this country fits me, I didn't bring workout clothes and had to teach pilates in my bathing suit. My goal is shoes, then find out who's hosting superbowl party (it's showing here on Monday at 6am), then maybe take up smoking.

More to follow...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Family Affair

Happy Birthday Alisa and Diana. You are one years old today. You can almost walk but you cannot speak yet, in Thai or English. In January I will come to visit and we will swim in the Mekong and play with the dogs on the farm. I will sing you to sleep at night, like I did in the hotel in New York last year. Sleep well, love Kate

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Greetings From Boulder

As some of you know, I spent July, 2007 in Boulder. The following is my account from that month.


My cousin, her husband, their baby, their friend Jeff, and cats Nukie and Torah.

Lots of dreamcatchers, feathers, tapestries, antlers, acoustic guitars, plants, hammocks. They said they don't smoke pot, but I'm still afraid to eat the brownies on the counter for fear they'll come home from work to find me naked in the backyard communing with the tomato plants.

Everyone is really tan and buff and healthy, even the homeless people.

I'm helping with the baby and general housework. The baby is sweet and happy and hardly ever cries. Also likes the grateful dead, rubbing food into her hair. I'll also be working for the mayor and his wife, babysitting and household help. I was impressed that my cousins were friends with the mayor, but they told me he's the first mayor they've had in years with a working zipper on his shorts, I guess politics are different here.

HOT and sunny, daily afternoon thunderstorms, occasional hail

My cousin is breastfeeding, so I've seen her breasts (well, one of them) numerous times, her husband likes to walk around in his underwear, Jeff, shirtless, and I'm still waiting for an occasion to unpack my bras.


horses, cows, 2 chipmunks, 2 llamas, 1 elk, 1 raccoon, 1 giant deer w/ antlers that walked down the street past the house yesterday, 1 buffalo named Ralphie

Probably compost

I wish I packed more flip flops and fewer bras

4 out of 5 songs on the ipod are the Grateful Dead, but it's the best thing on there, for sure.

Mountains, Boulder Creek, more Tibetan artifact shops per capita than anywhere else in country, Jon Benet Ramsey house, hippies!

Look up what 'per capita' means, learn how to ride bicycle and work dishwasher, try crystal meth, try rock climbing

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Summer of Love, Or: How I Learned to Stop Watching Law & Order re-runs and Love the Novel

I spent July in Boulder, Colorado, living with hippies: my cousin, her husband, their baby, and some guy named Jeff. I went there for peace and writing time, and to avoid legitimate employment for another month. After my semester had ended in May, I had survived on a steady diet of Law & Order re-runs. It got bad: I cancelled dinner plans and skipped parties, not wanting to miss an episode, though I’ve seen them all, many, many times. I needed help, and a safe space to dry out, so I headed west to detox with books.

At first I was disappointed by my lack of nightlife: my cousins went to bed by 10; Jeff was out doing hippie things with his hippie friends; and the baby, forget it. She’s a blast when awake, but you don’t want to mess with her after 8pm. She loads up on breast milk and gets mean, screaming in your face, wobbling around like a drunken sailor. So I read.

But then I came to embrace this new life. The word ‘wholesome’ kept coming to mind, a word that has never been attached to my activities or lifestyle. Friends would call, to make sure I put on a bra at least once a week and hadn’t traded in my return ticket for a share in an organic performance art collective, and, upon hearing about my new chaste life, would say, wow, that sounds so… wholesome… in a strange, hesitant voice, like it was a word they had had little practice or reason for saying themselves.

But then I became addicted. The stuff on my cousin’s shelves was decent, but sparse. I hit rock bottom one night, while reading a short story collection by “women writers” on “failed relationships” that they had recommended. I think it was the line, “Pablo, I’m only in Costa Rica for one more night – then I have to meet my boyfriend in Detroit,” that pushed me over the edge. Next thing I knew I was rummaging through my cousin’s purse until I found her library card. I hid it under my pillow until the next morning, and then dragged my feverish, wanton body over to the public library. So much for wholesome.

1. I started with Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, because I was too embarrassed to go another day without having read it. I usually nodded and smiled when people made references to it, but knew that would get me in trouble sooner or later. I loved it, and it felt good to read, like taking vitamins. Wholesome even.

2. After that I moved on to The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart, because I went to high school with him and was tired of bragging about that, then having to admit I hadn’t read the book when people inevitably asked how I liked it. I did, very much.

3. Very little of Debutante takes place in Russia – only a few childhood flashbacks, but I stayed close to the motherland, choosing Dancer, by Colum McCann next, and being a frustrated, aspiring dancer I had always wanted to read it. Told in a series of vignettes from the point-of-view of those closest to Him, including He Himself, Dancer follows the story of Russian ballet star Rudolph Nuryev. There are stories from his first ballet teacher’s husband, his sister, Margot Fonteyn, his long-time dance partner after his defection to London, a poet who housed him during his years at the Maryinsky, his lovers, best friend, shoe maker, and French maid that paint a vivid, intense portrait of life for artists and those around them during that period.

4. I’ve long had a fascination with the 60s and 70s, being the child of hippies, and the sections from Dancer that sparked my interest most were the stories of New York City nightlife, during what Hunter S. Thompson calls the 20-year golden period between the advent of the birth control pill and the tsunami of AIDS. To continue in that vein, I tried The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez, which takes place in New York City, at Barnard College, at the end of the 60s. It follows two roommates on the paths they take which lead to prison, motherhood, fashion magazines, Harlem, the ballet, and a speed-fueled diatribe on The Great Gatsby. My favorite line is a character’s description of using heroin for the first time, “I thought God had bent down from heaven and kissed me on the lips.”

5. My fixation on the 60s now firmly in place, I headed to Drop City, by T.C. Boyle, to hopefully cure myself of a fervent desire to live on a commune. I describe it as: Sex, Drugs, Rock-and-Roll, goats, Alaskan frontiersmen, septic systems, white guilt, venison, whiny hippies, prom queens gone to seed, sled dogs, bridge, benzedrine, children on acid, tree houses, early date rape, seaplanes, and lots and lots of pot. Even this list doesn’t do it justice.

6. Not wanting to come down from my free-love high, I picked Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill, a novel that looks at the 60s from the point-of-view of a young, aspiring model. Is it still considered free love when you’re using it to procure employment? You can debate exploitation vs. empowerment all the live long day, but all I know is they were having more fun than any of us at Oberlin ever did in the mid-90s.

7. Chuck Palahniuk brings together sexual perversity, insurance fraud, and historical- reenactment theme parks in Choke like no one else can (not that anyone would want to). I met a man on an airplane once who described a vivid sex-scene in an airplane bathroom from this novel, and I had wanted to read it ever since. This was one from my cousins’ bookshelf, purchased because my cousin’s husband had gone to school with Palahniuk and wanted to support him, but never read. They, like EVERY SINGLE PERSON I met over the summer, from the mayor of Boulder to truck drivers to hippie surfers to San Francisco dot-commers, were reading Harry Potter. I actually don’t mind at all, I’m just happy to see people reading.

8. I had been planning a trip in August to Wyoming, a state I had thought was next to Texas before that summer, so I figured I should brush up on my Annie Proulx to orient me to the region. I started with Heart Songs, by Annie Proulx, a short story collection that I assumed took place in Wyoming. The snowy hunting mornings, the condescending, rich estate owners, the trout fishing – I pictured it all with the mountains of Wyoming (which mountains, don’t ask me), in the background. I did wonder why characters frequently made road trips to Quebec, wasn’t that a four-day drive, at least? And one of those rich, estate-owning assholes was from New Jersey, but lots of assholes come from New Jersey, I figured these ones liked six-hour plane rides with several transfers and a long car ride at the end. At some point I noticed the jacket cover said the stories took place in Vermont, and things made much more sense. After that I read Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, by Annie Proulx, stories that took place, obviously, in Wyoming. While reading them, I kept expecting to fall in love, and never did. However, months later, I still recall certain phrases, images and scenes from her stories. They have stayed with me more than anything else I read that summer; she must be doing something right.

9. I don’t remember how I came to Billy Bathgate, by E. L. Doctorow. I’m trying to read all of E. L. Doctorow’s books, and so far I’ve gotten to: Loon Lake, The Book of Daniel, Sweet Land Stories, and Ragtime, One of the more interesting moments of reading Billy Bathgate was realizing that the obscure “number square” puzzles created and practiced by the accountant was Sudoku, or at least a close cousin.

10. Vegans and locovores (or whatever the local-grown food movement calls itself) got you down? Sign up for The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, by Louise Erdrich, and the wonderful world of slaughtering animals and making treats from every part of their bodies, inside and out, all rendered in her loving, insightful, heady details. You’ll never like tripe as much as you like it here. There’s the usual love, betrayal, addiction, cultural mish-mash that pervades all of her work, and it is brilliant and beautiful, as all of her writing is, but I could read Love Medicine over and over, for the rest of my life. I haven’t found anything I like as much yet.

11. Hunter S. Thompson died of a self-inflicted gun-shot wound on February 20th, 2005. I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, like many a pretentious teen-ager wanting a taste of anything bad and forbidden, and fell in love. I was young and impressionable. I later read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and the attraction deepened, grew serious. He is frequently called meglo-maniacal, solipsistic, self-aggrandizing, stale, adolescent, irrelevant, and all of those have been true (except the last) at one time or another, but he is also one of the greatest voices of our time. In this era of cool detachment and ironic self-loathing, it is refreshing to read someone who is passionate and angry. As David Plotz describes in his Slate essay, Thompson was ferocious, and ferocity is not comfortable (or popular) these days. I found Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century, at the library, which starts with a story about Thompson destroying a mailbox when he was nine, and being questioned by the FBI. It gets better and worse after that. Some of it is challenging to read, to say the least, but it’s worth wading through the tripe to get to the good stuff.

When the librarian tried to help me locate his books at the library in Boulder, most of them had been stolen, a phenomenon she hadn’t seen with any other author. This might be more of a statement about his fans than on Thompson’s popularity, but I prefer to believe that he must be doing something right.