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Old 10-21-2004, 11:50 AM   #31
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Pakistan!

Arriving from Jordan at the Karachi International Airport and clearing Customs.








Yes, that's the front of a bus.



Driving maneuvers in Pakistan are slightly more aggressive than in the restrictive West...





keeping me in an unsteady state of breathless anticipation.







Heavily armed Pakistani Highway Police kept a watchful except when inviting me back to their barracks for breakfast and tea.





Some very dangerous characters preparing for Ead during Ramadan in Karachi



The entire time in Pakistan, I was in a constant state of fear, surrounded by chanting mobs.












A very dangerous lot, these Pakistanis.








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Old 10-27-2004, 09:11 AM   #32
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India!

The India/Pakistan border



Husksters and Holy Men
February 19, 2005
Pushkar, India



While traveling anywhere in India, there is a photo op on every corner. But the best scenes appear at the worst times. If forgetting a camera, you are certain to encounter a wedding procession with grooms in elaborate costumes astride gold decorated, prancing white horses. Yet with steady access to so much stark fascination, you might debate whether to take the shot, assuming you will see it again tomorrow. You won’t, and later that night, you’ll kick yourself for opportunities missed. Even with thousands of digital photographs stored on my laptop, I only capture ten percent. Now, mere memory retains images of camel caravans in downtown Karachi or elephants humping in hotel parking lots.







On the route from Jaipur I encounter a typical sight throughout India--
stonemasons at work assisted by streams of graceful women laborers. Men stand around smoking hand-rolled cigarettes as younger boys help stack rocks on top of their heads. Dressed in traditional elegant saris and smiling through grimace, they accept their plight as second and third generation slaves. With futures determined by caste, if they are paid, it will not be much.







There is no second-guessing in Pushkar, these most colorful people of Asia provide endless action for shutterbugs. According to Hindus, Pushkar Lake was formed at the desert’s edge when Lord Brahma slew a demon with a lotus flower, ever since, it’s been a site for religious pilgrimage. Sadly, now it’s a colony of lazy, pseudo-spiritual, wannabes’ that take themselves far too serious. But they are also entertaining. Last night, there was a decent Sixties-style benefit concert for street children, featuring turbaned white-boys from France dressed in genuine local shirts. Groups of “recently converted” musicians strummed and banged under the stars using native instruments while aging scraggly hippies tried unsuccessfully to dance to the music.

I have finally determined why it seemed all the women in Israel were beautiful. They exported the homely to India where the population is infested with foreign, Rastafarian space-cases wandering about in Indian garb with matted dreadlocks and bloodshot eyes. Most are just out of the military recuperating from stress and unpopular politics, so they seldom speak to other foreigners. Curiosity overrides and I ask a weathered young woman. “So, how come there are so many Israelis here?”

“Hash, man. It’s a tenth of the price in Tel Aviv and if you bargain, you can live on two dollars a day.”

“What about the spiritual aspects?”

“Oh yeah, that too.”

The hundred-acre Lake Pushkar is lined with cement-block-steps into formed pools for bathing pilgrims. Colorfully costumed, scamming pimps on the street above, lure the unsuspecting with handfuls of flower pedals to toss into stagnant, sacred-waters as tributes to Hindu Gods. But spirituality is not free. Holy Men counterparts await lakeside, prepared with rehearsed prayers and demands for rupees afterwards. While those that ignored Lonely Planet guidebook warnings naively fling pedals at sunrise, prayer mumbling priests in dirty robes circle like vultures.



After the chanting, whichever way they turn, the hapless face a grinning old man with painted skin and open hands. “As you like...”

“What?”

Humble smiles accompany meek bows with outstretched palms. “As you like, Rupees.”

Twenties and fifties are handed back with sterner requests, “As you like---more Rupees.”

At sunset, I seek secluded steps free of gawkers and hawkers for a moment of meditation. Once settled into a balanced lotus posture, the relentless tapping of tabla drums merging with fluctuating whines of Indian string instruments echoes inward, drawing me deeper. Half expecting a miracle or brief glimpse of nirvana, none occurs. No holy man approaches to slap my forehead reeling me into enlightenment, but I surface in time to stop mischievous monkeys from scampering away with my helmet. Still, the show is endless.



Juggling musicians and creative beggars compete at the waters edge, each plying a proven trade. A cunning old man with a bamboo violin and his tiny daughter win. While sawing out off-key tunes of Indian folk songs, his ragged little girl sings at the top of her lungs. Smudged face and twinkling brown eyes persist. No matter which way you turn, she scurries around to face you, belting out verses while staring deep into your eyes. Even the most hardened tightwads buckle, surrendering crinkled bills of rupees.



Back on the street, animal dung dumped from cows, pigeons and monkeys is trampled into stinky clouds of clinging dust while beggars and tourists equal in numbers. Some of the more experienced don’t bother to rise, merely sitting in family circles sipping tea next to plates of cash as indication of your obligation. Retorts of “Sorry no small-money” are met with rubber-band-wads of bills waved in the air. “No problem, I can make change.”





Despite the circus of hucksters, excuses to stay another day come easy. Time on an Indian road is time in hell. If the buses and trucks don’t get you, a heart attack will. There was a spanking new triple lane freeway stretching down from Jaipur that was even separated by a raised concrete median. Still, every tenth vehicle hurtling through the rush was a bus with blaring horns roaring forward, directly in my lane. The only option was to grab the brakes and head into a field. In Turkey, I stopped frequently to recover from the cold, here I halt to recover my pulse and wait for the shakes to pass.

But everyone has weak spots, for me it’s giggling street children skipping circles around my motorcycle anxious for invitations. As the new-found sucker for rides, I am constantly waylaid. If agreeing to a lap of Main Street, soon, three excited youngsters pile on back urging for horn beeps and wheelies. As the word spreads, a crowd grows. I don’t give them money but a few bucks buys enough oranges to appease my army.



Indian pilgrims, also tired of shams and hustles, consume my afternoons with questions of “which are the places from which you have come.” Reciting a list of countries, I end with a shout, “and then, INDIA!” After applause, I return with queries into their lives and professions.

Shopkeepers, doctors and factory workers all have stories of family and religion. Delighted a foreigner wants to know of them, soon they shove handfuls of scribbled addresses my way with offers to visit their towns.



As a Hindu holy city, in Pushkar, animal protein is forbidden. But someone has taught locals the art of Italian cooking and basic hygiene. Too bad I can only eat a limited amount of pizza and raviolis for breakfast and my supply of smuggled boiled eggs ran out yesterday. Yet, the overcooked flesh of unfortunate chickens tempts me onward. In the morning, I’ll re-pack freshly river-laundered riding clothes and head southeast to “determine the direction for which will be the location of my approaching destination.”














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Old 10-31-2004, 09:39 AM   #33
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Impressions
March 14, 2005
Bodhga, Bihar
No matter the first impressions of a country, the last ones affect our memories most. Excessive red-tape or bad attitudes at border crossings can set the wrong tone entering, but subsequent experiences, especially interactions with natives, imprint the deepest recollections. Yet there are so many highs and lows in India that even when re-reading my diary, emotions are scrambled. One day the Indian manner of speaking with faces uncomfortably close has me grating to leave, and the next, I’m overcome with emotion when strangers have selflessly offered me aid.





This was my second journey to India. The first was in 1989, when I rented a jeep and drove the cease-fire line with Pakistan along the Indus River into the northern province of Ladakh. There was an ugly situation brewing in Kashmir as the fighting broke out with Muslim Separatists and Indian troops. Bus stations blown up and random acts of terrorism against civilians eventually became routine. Experiencing the senselessness of religious violence was disturbing enough to make me move from Asia back to California. At that time, I had no intention of ever returning and if India didn’t stand between Pakistan and Nepal, I wouldn’t be here now.



But like other detours so far, everything’s turned out for the best. Because of delays in the Middle East, at the time of arrival here, there was only a half-month left on a non-extendable visa. But an unusual granting of another four-week-stay increased that to six--hardly enough for a few cities and far too much riding through maddening chaos. But India is so intense, a day is a week and it’s impossible to be idle for a minute, even when sitting still.




It takes years to understand the shock of what travelers witness in India and time is always in the way. Difficult choices of what to see are made based on studying guidebooks and interviews with fellow wanderers. “Glen, you really need to hit the beaches of Goa and Kerala.”

“What would I do there?”

“Nothing. You just relax and drink beer.”

At this stage of my journey, the notion of idling in paradise was enticing, but given time constraints and twelve days to come and go there, that would be misused opportunity. Yet the price for choosing backcountry roads and less-visited villages became a damaged suspension and more nerve-wracking close-calls than I care to consider.



Although Bodhga lacked the circus-like hustle of other Indian holy towns, that was mainly because this Mecca for Buddhists is so far out of the way and the tourist season is over. The daily temperature is rising quick and devastating Monsoon storms are only a few weeks away. Even the ever-so-persistent touts were too lazy to annoy the few remaining temple-hopping backpackers. Two weeks ago, every hotel was fully booked. Now, Bodhga, is like the Middle East, empty of travelers.

As the site where Buddha reached enlightenment, Buddhist countries have built temples and monuments here to honor the sanctified land. Even the sacred Bodhi Tree outside the Mahabodhi temple has grown from four generations of saplings cut from the original. Streams of peaceful pilgrims pay silent homage with meaningful, slow garden walks and offerings of fragrant garlands. With obnoxious vendors walled out, sunrise meditations under the Bodhi’s canopy were moving experiences that touch one’s soul.

Although each famous locale held unique significance, the people of India leave the deepest impressions. When asked by natives why so many foreigners visit their country, I explain, “It’s because your peculiar beliefs and ways twist our minds. To free our own thinking, we seek that which is furthest from our own.” Ideas that confound us also deepen our thoughts. In that regard, India is as far from the West as you can get without leaving the planet.

Maintaining a sense of humor is the only way to enjoy Indians. Disparities in customs carry scents of fresh bouquets of exotic flowers or are fingernails-across-a-chalkboard clashes of culture. With a rapidly rising middleclass, overnight, there has been a proliferation of new vehicles on already gridlocked roads. Four million motor-scooters alone appeared this year, with few of the drivers licensed or skilled. Anyone, of any age, who can afford a scooter, is allowed to drive one, and carry however many passengers will fit. This accounts for the constant light colliding and numerous near-death experiences.

But Indian men are always around when you need them, and often when you don’t. In the most densely populated land on earth, concepts of space or privacy are unknown. When stopped by the side of the road, it never takes long for inquisitive men to approach me offering assistance. Still, far too often, when stopping to rest or merely to pee, an audience accumulates and halfway through my chores they still stand five feet away, staring. Yet the women are more reserved.

Like Arab females, for whatever their reasons, Indian women are quiet in public. Although seen much more often, they hardly acknowledge a foreigner’s greeting. Typical of developing nations, India is undoubtedly a man’s world. As women toil in fields, a frequent sight is jabbering men standing by smoking cigarettes. Occasionally, younger boys will assist in piling heavy loads on top of the heads of grimacing female workers severing as human wheelbarrows. Yet not even their balanced staggering under the burden of brutal labor detracts from their femininity and exquisite stately poise.







Whether laboring in agriculture fields or stepping from luxury cars in uptown Delhi, Indian women exude uncommon style. Draped in brilliantly colored saris, the dignity of their compelling composure suggests histories of royalty no matter the reality. In cities and villages, emerging through choking clouds of blackened exhaust fumes, they casually step over cow dung, fluid as fabled princesses. Peeking through transparent veils of silks and chiffons, whatever their caste, they convey mythical elegance through glistening chestnut eyes. From festivals to palaces, even considering the Taj, my most moving impressions of the country were of the remarkable grace of the enduring Indian women.
















































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Old 11-04-2004, 06:28 AM   #34
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After a friendly adios to India, it was off to Nepal.



Giddy with the Gods
March 16, 2005
Chittawan Royale Park, Nepal

Although news of escalating violence in Nepal was distressing, it was not deterring. Since trekking the Himalayas in 1981 before it became trendy, I have had subtle yearnings to return and rekindle fading memories of authentically spiritual people. Witnessing firsthand the sincere humility of the natives in such a sacred landscape provoked a profound internal awakening, stimulating a re-examination of my Western sense of materialism. Over the centuries, many a wandering foreigner has been stunned by the generous nature of Nepali mountain tribes. In those days, money had little meaning as long as everyone had food and their particular religion.

From ancient prayer wheels to manicured thousand-mile trails lined with hand-chiseled boulders, the experience was far too intense to absorb in one visit. Since learning the wonders of Buddhist culture in the guiding hands of intensely loyal mountain Sherpa, California has never been the same and for the last nine months, it’s been hard to resist counting the days until returning. As in every country, my itinerary was vague until reaching the border--I didn’t have a Nepal guidebook until swapping for one with an outbound traveler this morning. Yet as long as monsoon storms are trailing, anywhere in Asia is home.

Crossing between India and Nepal was the usual Developing Nation congested mess of old, groaning buses and broken down trucks vying for drastically limited road space.



But because foreign motorcyclists are in a class of their own, we’re usually bumped to the front of Customs lines while officials scramble to determine what to do with us. Three hours later, after the last of the reviewing and stamping, I was permitted to enter into an immediate deceleration of hustle with a glide into bliss--better roads and an end to aggressive, suicidal Indian drivers. From the first second across the border, a relieving warmth from the heart and soul of the Nepalese people transmits on contact.





Trapped between giants--as Mongolia languishes in poverty between Russia and China, Nepal trembles under pressure from Beijing and Delhi. An ethnic blend of lndo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burmese, Hindus occupy the lowlands and in the mountains, descendants of Tibetan Buddhists subsist as they have for a thousand years. Lack of natural resources or industrial base makes those living in the land where Buddha was born, some of the poorest on earth. Twenty percent of their income is from war-ravaged tourism that is now at an agonizing standstill.

Halfway to Katmandu lies a cutoff for the Royal Chitwan National Park and a convenient choice to split a nine-hour ride to the capital. After reveling in a day-ride of relative calm, upon a saggy old smelly hostel mattress, I tumble into sleep with dreams of rhino hunting elephant-back and awake to the tantalizing lure of the mighty Himalayas. Formed by colliding tectonic plates sixty million years ago, the windswept, icy peaks are still on the rise, six inches a year. That notion alone had me giddy with anticipation, soaring through mountain curves until sundown. The asphalt is wavy but smooth and alas long empty straight-aways provide welcome expanses for the Blue Beast to stretch its legs. Once overtaking convoys of tanker trucks, a steady spiral upwards from the Indian Plains leads into the forested foothills of Everest. With some of the best scenery in Asia, Nepal is home to ten of the fourteen highest mountains on earth.

Since it’s the end of dry season, lowland jungle terrain is parched and golden. Seasonally lush, green rice fields are now multi-acre, patchwork squares flattened into cracked cakes of mud. A mountain fire burns somewhere unchecked, resulting in distant hillsides enshrouded in a brown smoggy haze. Busy battling rebels, the government lacks adequate resources to fight fires, and so they rage. Cement-barrel, Checkpoint-Charlies are manned by young friendly soldiers waving me to pass. The only agreement between warring factions is that foreigners are not intentionally targeted. With murderous revenge, they ambush one another, but leaders on both sides understand, without the flow of tourist dollars, their deteriorating economy collapses further until everyone starves—which is happening anyway.



Even when shaking down trekkers for funding, gun-toting Maoist rebels politely issue receipts so reluctant donors will not be war-taxed twice by another patrol. While Nepali warriors butcher each other, they still smile at tourists and so far, none have been shot. The suffering inflicted by their own has broken the heart of many a visitor. Never a kinder people existed and if anyone’s ever behaved in the image of God, it’s the simple folk who dwell within these mountains.

With tourism accelerating downward, competing businessmen forlornly accept whatever you’ll pay. Just outside Chitwan, three bucks a night rents thatched huts on the riverbank, including breakfast in the morning. The water level is down but so are the mosquitoes and my ears have almost stopped ringing from the bloodcurdling screams of trumpeting Indian truck horns. In the serenity of the southern Nepali jungle, gone are the cold-sweat awakenings at midnight with images of converging headlights.

For recharging fading batteries, there are electrical outlets back by the road right next to an impossibly slow Internet terminal. Chunks of just-caught river fish fried in garlic sauce enhance an already glorious sunset while another fifteen bucks schedules a pre-dawn elephant ride and half-day trek to spot crocodiles. Guidebooks warn against walking, as park rhinos are known to charge—they can trot 30mph and sprint even faster. For now, it remains to be seen if Vikings can take photos climbing backwards up trees.










And onto Katmandu







For some Hindu poster paint festivals...



Where everyone who is out on the street gets nailed.






































Even though everyone knew Chinese border guards were denying entry of private vehicles, I had to try, if nothing else just for a heartier dose of Himalayan scenery. The super-highway to Tibet.











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Old 11-04-2004, 08:05 PM   #35
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Riding North
April 9, 2005
Bangkok, Thailand

Like stepping into a sauna of steamy tropical flavors, the first thing to sense when the aircraft door unseals is an overpowering gulp of fragrant, waterlogged air. Throughout the city, millions of massive air conditioners pump around the clock, sucking out tons of moisture while altering the atmospheres of contemporary office buildings and multilevel shopping malls. Walking outside trying to inhale is like attempting to breathe underwater.



Welcome to Bangkok, capital of Thailand--The City of Angels in the Land of a Thousand Smiles. Silently communicating with practiced facial gestures, depending on preceding events, a smile can mean, hello, goodbye, go to hell or let’s make love. In ancient traditions of saving face, Thais would rather yield than risk conflict and humiliation. In the West, traffic mishaps result in road rage, at the least, venting with jabbing middle fingers. Here passivity redirects negative energy and confrontation is avoided—also fundamentals of Asian Martial Arts.



Thousands of makeshift alleyway food-stalls conveniently appear wherever humans coagulate. From outside government offices to busy street corners, sweet smelling fresh fruit stands and sizzling mini-barbeques tease the senses for closer inspections. No need to pack a lunch when going to work—beyond factory entrances, lines of vendors peddling what’s listed on menus of expensive Thai restaurants, dish out delightful bargain meals from improvised kitchens with rickety curbside tables.

Piercing scents of fresh cut vegetables and sinus clearing spices permeate thick humid air while skilled street chefs deftly combine secret ingredients to produce flaming flavors soon to explode inside your mouth. Sizzling woks with boiling meats and stir-fried noodles emit clouds of scorching vapors strong enough to burn your eyes. None are idle, and there is always a wait for drooling patrons. Only the best survive; inferior goods or services fade quickly down the smoldering backstreets of a pitiless city.

Bangkok, capital of Siam is also world capital for the dark side of foreign intrigue and international espionage. From black market weapons brokers to hedonistic pleasure palaces, you can purchase either a shoulder-fired rocket or sexual favors from well-trained, perfectly formed women or men of any age. Hidden down smog-choked alleyways, discreet signs appear advertising to satisfy every need and massage whatever body parts ache for relief.



Yet spirituality dominates the culture with ancient beliefs and sacred rites. Reclining Buddha statues and elaborate temples corral the faithful in the most spectacular display of religion on earth.

Still, it’s a brutally overcrowded city and a biker’s frightmare of clogged traffic arteries and stifling heat. Yesterday afternoon, the Blue Beast was serviced and refurbished with fresh tires so by the time Brad arrived we were chomping at the grips to ride north into cooler, less populated regions of tribal highlands. After four hours of confusing departure attempts, the elongated dual lane highway empties as we twist our throttles for a blast into the haze of a fiery sunset.



Bangkok bustle evolves into meandering country roads and smiling rice paddy workers strolling home from laboring to live. Herds of hulking water buffalo lounge roadside as ominous reminders to remain alert. Speeding motorcyclists would have better luck colliding with brick walls.
Spiritual Thais celebrate that which represents life. The weeklong holiday of Song Khran marks beginnings of the Thai New Year with festivals of water wars and painted faces. To wash away sins, mini-trucks packed with giggling teens scoop buckets of water from fifty-gallon drums to fling at one another and those in between. With cameras zipped inside our jackets, we white-line between cars, ducking sprays from refreshing waves and gleeful shouts of pearly-toothed, laughing children.









Once again, time is the most significant concern. In nine days, Brad reluctantly returns to the rush of corporate America so we milk the most from every moment. A brief foray into the Kingdom of Siam begins with a soul-gripping blend of colorful celebration on the outskirts of a wanderer’s paradise into the majesty of tribal life.











Everyday, new tribal villagers welcome us in unfamiliar languages as the men from Mars in space-age plastic clothing, while inquisitive youngsters constantly surround us. Graceful, Longneck women eyed us with suspicion, and no matter our effort, couldn’t be coaxed into a ride. Each year Kayan tribal women add additional solid brass collar-rings below their jawbones in an effort to create a longer neck. But in reality, the metal tubes only push their shoulders down creating that visual effect. Having shouted the praises of Asia for years, my dream is being fulfilled sharing these scenes with Brad. Northern Thailand provides the ultimate contrast in a provocative cultural buffet with spicy aftertastes that lasts a lifetime. Crossing worlds plants the deepest seeds.



A thick overcast sky protects us from a blazing tropical sun as we spiral upwards, spinning our tires over dizzying mountain dirt tracks while kicking up layers of powdery orange clay. Hugging the Burmese border as close as we dare, we’re careful not to drift too far. Refugee tribesmen have directed us over trails not shown on maps but the black triangle on my GPS indicates we’re nearing the forbidden line. Amidst the chaos of ethnic feuding in the heart of opium country, it’s unlikely intercepting army patrols or drug warlord mercenaries would accept any explanations.




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Old 11-11-2004, 12:00 AM   #36
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Khmers



Onward to Cambodia



There are few certainties regarding adventure travel. In developing nations that definitely applies when predicting political stability, riding weather or road conditions. With no pavement leading away from Thailand or Laos, those attempting the Cambodian interior are subject to the careless whims of nature. Even if recently graded, a few days of Monsoon can erode otherwise tolerable dirt track and undermine surfaces, collapsing critical bridges.















"And three little piggies went to market..."


Winding through the jungle over deteriorated improvised bridges and rice paddy levies, led through impoverished Khmer villages and unsowed fields of caked mud. Warnings to never stray from the road to till their fields became understood at my first meal stop. Three of the five young men at the next table bore artificial legs, presumably from stepping on one of hundreds of thousands of remaining landmines planted during thirty years of harried civil war. But everyone shares in sorrow.



Even when challenged by their own misfortune, as a hobbling old beggar woman approached, the legless men dug deep to share a few coins. As Cambodia slowly emerges from the aftermath of genocide followed by famine, the bodies of the people are wounded but not their hopes. A simple gaze into the tormented eyes of docile peasants reveals a forgiving sincerity and a bashful smile from the heart. Like Latin American campesinos it’s always the kindest who suffer the most.






S-21 Prison
May 30, 2005
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

On a world tour primarily through developing nations, travelers encounter enough gut-wrenching catastrophes to haunt their dreams for years. Can we ever get used to it? Or will we eventually yield to the psychological strain from the exasperation of inability to affect what leaves us sleepless? This being a traveler’s diary, should it exclude the immeasurable suffering we witness by abusive governments, disease and natural disaster?



Yet it’s impossible to separate Cambodia from an appalling past. To meekly sidestep mention of recent genocide is to punish the victims once more. In television news, we hear words like genocide so often the meaning gets lost—even Mr. Webster uses sterile terminology: “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” He should have added: the wholesale butchering of innocent men, women and children that generally includes torture for fun. Maoist Khmer Rouge had a special place for inflicting such misery.



S-21 Prison was originally a Phnom Penh schoolhouse until 1975 when bloodthirsty conquering Khmer Rouge rebels converted it into a detention facility for interrogation—a torture center. Whoever survived the wicked horrors of questioning here was later transferred to an extermination camp. Like Nazis and other tyrannical regimes, the Khmer Rouge maintained detailed records and photographs of their victims. To preserve the memory of this twisted nightmare, S¬21 Prison has been converted into a museum of shocking revulsion where the sacrificed can still be heard.



In group-meditation, there is a belief in the existence and effect of collective consciousness. Focusing mental energies in monasteries and holy sites is said to intensify the power of prayer. But who is out there listening? Most people believe we dwell within a spirit world of higher beings--Gods and ghosts? There must be something more to this—is a person without a soul a hollow vessel? Where do we go when our bodies expire?



To pass into the afterlife correctly, Cambodians believe that their dead must be cremated before burial; otherwise, for all of eternity they languish in limbo as ghosts. This is a dreadful notion for relatives of those dumped in mass graves during the Khmer Rouge rein of frenzied genocide. Cambodia is a country few can pick out on a map--their holocaust is a mere footnote in history, but the lost souls of two million murdered still communally demand justice.



When entering within the first few steps of S-21 Prison Museum, the distinctive power of anguish smothers your spirit. Before entering the first torture chamber, tears will have been flowing down your face while some find it difficult to breathe. No one speaks during the tour--you merely wander through rooms reeling in a daze of nausea. The ghosts of S-21 Prison not only cry out, but you can see their faces. Recovered mug-shots of torture victims are on display so visitors can slowly walk by each one and look them in the eye.





The innocent young, the helpless old and the average Cambodian—you study them as they study you. The softness in their eyes reveals a naďve nature. Suddenly your mind spins in a sickening cauldron of ghastly images—while photographed were they aware of the grisly future ahead?






On their way to dank holding-cells, did they march past gruesome gallows witnessing humans dangling upside down? Could they hear the bloodcurdling screams of those begging to die? What did they feel at that moment? What about when finally steel-bar-shackled together lying side by side on concrete floors awaiting their turn? How long is eternity for them?



Mr. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was an efficient operation; to save bullets, berserk executioners often bludgeoned victims to death. Enormous pits were dug by dazed prisoners who had to know this was their next stop. Mass-graves is another term losing meaning—until you see one.

What’s made this extra tragic is meeting surviving Cambodians first. From the tormented families to the unlucky legless who stepped on one of thousands of landmines buried in their farm fields, gentle Buddhist Cambodians silently bear their sorrow. But, the human spirit triumphs, and still, they are always first to smile.


















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Old 11-13-2004, 11:38 PM   #37
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Loong
July 6, 2005
Sadao, Thailand

From the red clay tracks of Laos and Cambodia to a four-lane highway spanning the length of Malaysia, it’s been a fascinating variation of road to travel. Originally allotting three months for the region, time has passed too quickly for a comfortable farewell. As the predominately-Muslim southern provinces of Thailand plunge deeper into turmoil, government travel warnings increase. After a brutal suppression of a peaceful uprising, blood revenge intensifies with daily assaults and finally, beheadings.

It’s been a hundred years since Britain and Thailand divvied up the south, but the inhabitants have not forgotten their identity. What was once northern Muslim Malaysia has become a troubled land of sectarian violence. Gentle Buddhist and peaceful Muslims exist in the crossfire of radicals as a struggle for independence continues.

Nearing the border, personalities shift as eager smiles and overt friendliness evolve into awkward suspicion. Half the locals don’t speak Thai and those who do, utter a jagged dialect that even those from Bangkok don’t understand. My roadside restaurant attempts at contact are met with wary nods and silent stares. A wanderer’s policy of not leaving until we shake hands stretches the day, but after lengthy broken dialogue, persistence pays. Eventually, chunky-cheeked Southerners crowd around for photos and insist on buying my meals—a gesture unheard of further north but typical Islamic hospitality. Belief and sincerity are more important than who owns what.

My last four days on an expired one-month visa evaporate on the travel-poster-paradise island of Phuket, complete with moonlight romance boiling into breathless tropical lust. Bumming about the city bars, I’ve met the girl of my most recent dreams. Motorcycle rides along clear blue waters lined with sugary sands, stirs an intoxicating brew of instant attraction and mutual enthusiasm. Women of thirty without children are rare in Thailand, yet to ask questions would only encourage lies. Sticking to small-talk, the bumbling humor of a stuttering foreigner cuts direct to the chase and before long, Loong’s naked body is next to mine. Adventurous sexual encounters for travelers can result in unrealistic optimism that somehow fate will intervene and goodbyes can be postponed. Yet wishing and hoping is only a romantic mirage for a pragmatic wanderer, no matter how lonely. And as the softness of her smile belies the hardship of her life, I never want to let her go.

Tall and thin, with long black hair dangling to the top of well-fit jeans caught my eye but not as much as watching her give coins to street-beggars. An Asian ranch-girl in a cultural menagerie of desires and taboos captures a Viking heart. Intermixing races and cultures is the ultimate combination of what our parents warned us about. Cautiously aware how foreigners are taken by the childlike playfulness of Thai women, for the last three months, I’ve avoided what could take me down. Yet such warnings are hard to remember while lost in her innocent laughter and caught in a web of craving. For what seems like forever in a soft lingering embrace, her long silky legs hold me inside as she coos for me stay. When pearly-toothed natives flick on the sensuous charm, we’re as defenseless as they are the moment we saddle up and leave. If willing to spend the time, the economic might of a single Western workingman could easily sweep aside the tragedies of an entire village—cognizance of this makes riding off into the sunset that much harder.

But destiny rules Asia. Whether human imposed or natural disasters, the fate of those we learn to care about is always beyond their control. Commercial impact of the recent Tsunami is mending far faster than the spirits of human survivors, while faith and hope wobble as reliable as the region’s tectonic plates next shift. Thais celebrate water but their lifelong friend the sea has betrayed them and now worship has turned to terror. Will giant waves of death come for them again?

A moonlit stroll on an empty paradisiacal beach turned shivering paranoia as Loong trembles at the waters edge. Her warm melodic laughter becomes a speechless frozen body with blank-stare chants to Buddha. Clumsy attempts to console what I don’t understand adds to the frustration of ineptitude. I might as well have been watching this on TV. Whispering waves to Loong have become the whimpering hisses of lurking spirits sucked out to sea. “Grua bpee Gaan” I fear the ghosts Glen.”
Later, while packing my gear, she watches me count the last of my Thai currency while calculating hotel bill and immigration fines for an expired visa. Not realizing it’s only an attempt to avoid another ATM withdrawal, she worries I don’t have enough money and holds out a handful of wrinkled bills. On top of cooking my meals and washing my clothes, she’s fired both barrels at once. But another night in the seductive embrace of Loong would surely compel another year and once again, a now or never moment comes and goes.

Life is extra-unfair for women in developing nations, and it’s likely been awhile since she was treated as a lady--but an armful of purple orchids from the traveling foreigner gave her big-face in the minds of a watching village. And as I stood there grappling with emotion, her almond eyes shimmering like crystal coffee beans clouded reasons to move on. Struggling for composure, she read from a scribbled note the only English she’s yet spoken, “Plees no foget me Gaan.” And this time, somehow no matter how hard I twist the throttle, it will be awhile before leaving the past behind.
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Old 11-16-2004, 12:05 AM   #38
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Looping Borneo
August 4, 2005
Tawau, East Malaysia



As an endangered species, orangutans managing to elude poachers in the wild are difficult to find. The Sipilok Rehabilitation Center on the far eastern tip of Borneo sits the largest of four sanctuaries in the world where orphans are cared for and taught to survive on their own. Just outside the busy seaport of Sandakan, a small, dedicated staff of mostly volunteers, studies and rehabilitates former captive adults and babies missed by hunters. Monkeys are common everywhere in Asia but human-like features of orangutans put them in a class of their own and they are the most worthwhile sites in East Malaysia.



Once past the visitor center, a quarter-kilometer wooden catwalk elevated above the rainforest floor guides travel-packaged adventurers to a double-tiered platform for the silent morning show. Here, puffing vacationers perspiring in spiffy new safari clothes can wait for feeding time and distant glimpses of orangutans in training. In thick humid air, almost to the designated minute, a fat nylon cable stretching a thousand yards back into the jungle begins to jump and sway. One by one, rusty-haired young and old orangutans, reach hand over hand, gripping their way forward in coordinated rhythm to receive morning treats of bananas and sugarcane. Fascinating but touristy, this is still the only way to see them in their natural environment.





Later that night, smiling to sleep in a polished hardwood lodge, visions of exploring the upcoming wilderness haunted my dreams. Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo is reported to be similar to the interior of Sabah yet lacks a consistent coastal route. There are no paved roads to link remote towns and villages, only sloppy tracks and watery paths of shallow jungle rivers. Just to exit East Malaysia requires island-hopping by ferryboat to reach the shores of Kalimantan. That’s been the task here at the last stop in Tawau, locating a sea-going captain willing to haul me to Nunukan Island to possibly find another boat to Tarakan Island. Because geographic information is scarce, from there, the future remains undecided unless the government has something to offer.



Officials in the Indonesian Consulate were cooperative but skeptical, as not even the government liaison officer understood my mission of being the first man to circle the island of Borneo by motorcycle. When explaining my desire to traverse Kalimantan to end up back at my initial starting point in Kuching, he politely advised that it was more practical to ride the asphalt road back from where I just came. Wanting to circle the island by land made no sense, especially alone. Upon further consideration, he added that he was uncertain if Indonesian Customs in Nunukan had ever processed a motor vehicle. Anyway, the only means he was sure of to reach there was by passenger ferries with no accommodations for motorcycles. He was talking himself into doubt.

When government employees anywhere, lack clear-cut rules, to avoid future conflicts, they usually say, “No, it can’t be done.” Yet in the past when needing approvals, before relating my positions, it always helped to first shake a man’s hand and look him in the eye—that made it harder to turn me away, and today was no different. By the end of my two-hour plea, a hesitant Mr. Ali was finally convinced to help, and offers encouragement by scribbling an introduction note on the back of his business card. This will come in handy if getting far enough to use it with reluctant Customs officials in Kalimantan. And there were still peculiar hurdles lurking.

It’s wise to be careful where camping and not just because of poisonous snakes or wild animals. Even though Borneo is a giant rainforest, it’s nearing the driest time of year and scientists warn of a fate more common than disease and snakebites. Deadfall. Thousands of decaying hardwood tree branches, waterlogged and weighted by moisture from squalls, silently plummeting earthbound are the most common killers in the jungle. But unless I’m completely stuck, I am not planning to drift from the trail.



As loggers are busy stripping the forest, there should be dirt roads leading to asphalt and cities. There is no established primary route or maps indicating individual connections, but truckers must move pillaged timber somehow. To alleviate self-doubt I mumble, “there is always a first time for everything.” An Internet search yielded only rumors that years ago, two bikers looped the island but started from halfway into Kalimantan—not from the actual border. Regardless, the journey is proceeding one step at a time, beginning at the wharf coordinating with a sympathetic ferryboat captain. Evaluating the tides indicates that12:30PM renders the ship’s main deck, dock-level for easier cargo transfer.



Loading and offloading on boats or airplanes without damaging the bike is a recurring difficulty where I’m always holding my breath until my precious cargo is finally strapped down. When slinging five hundred pounds of awkward motorcycle over raised transoms of passenger ferries, weight is a significant factor. But due to critical gas shortages throughout Indonesia, it’s necessary to fill my ten-gallon tank before loading. There are likely additional obstacles no one has imagined. After studying maps revealing dozens of small rivers interrupting established mud roads, I’m certain more boating is likely. If the jungle does prove impassable, failure means a thousand mile retreat back to Malaysia. Once beginning, there’ll be no turning back.


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Old 11-16-2004, 04:43 AM   #39
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Nunukan Island
August 4, 2005
Kalimantan, Indonesia



As the Russian experience began aboard a Russian ferry in Japan, so did the journey into Indonesia from Malaysia. Packed nearly on top of each other in the sticky heat of an overcrowded ships hold, curious crewman and inquisitive passengers edged closer to share handfuls of dried squid and initiate sign-language interrogation. No one spoke English, yet after drawing a map, they understood where I was headed while remaining unsure why. Using a reliable method for learning basic communication by first memorizing the five Ws, I begin scribbling pocket notes for the simplest of phrases. “Hello, thank you and please, no onions in my food.”



Loading the motorcycle onto rusted decks of the passenger ferry had been an over-the-plank roll-on under power, yet, by shaking their heads repeating “Nunukan,” dubious shipmen hinted that offloading could be another matter. It was, but nothing a dozen anxious helpers couldn’t handle with a cooperative captain running the hundred-foot-long ship, bow-first, direct against wharf for a team-effort manhandle on to solid ground.

Once exploring the island, stopping to investigate a roadside gathering of costumed natives results in joyous invitations to join an Islamic wedding procession. Muslims are as liberal as they please in Indonesia--women wore garments from white-laced headscarves to see-through blouses with black brassieres. Far too crowded for up-close ceremony photos, tittering bridesmaids and decked-out relatives were anxious to pose for the foreigner while eating and drinking. Although there was little to offer, the men insisted I sample a small table buffet of smoking hot chili dishes—as always, it’s those with the least who share the most.


























Last week while traveling further east through Sabah, the economic situation had deteriorated as evenly as the infrastructure until a pitiful crumple in Kalimantan. But Indonesians shouting greetings today seem content and friendly enough as it took an hour threading through throngs of beckoning islanders to reach the town’s lone hotel. Two bucks buys a tidy cubicle with a drooping mattress and coldwater bucket bathroom. But the manager lets me use his office electrical outlet to charge my laptop and the café next door sells bargain seafood dinners.



Although the answers varied, when questioning locals in East Malaysia, they were confident a bigger boat sails from Nunukan to Tarakan Island. From there, it’s land-based travel until completing the loop back to Kuching.



That is, except for a variety of unfamiliar rivers and swamps.
The truth is, there are only two small passenger ferries, both lacking deck space for motorcycles. Anxious to help a wandering foreigner, my new-found friend, Abdul Kahar relates information regarding a twenty-foot wooden fishing boat sailing at dawn to arrive due west on the mainland—even better for setting a record because it’s right on the border instead of further away where the previous team began.



To my dismay local Kalimantan maps still don’t show roads connecting villages in remote Dayak tribal regions. Although I still believe it’s possible to complete the intended loop around Borneo, upon further examination the estimated distance has stretched to a zigzagging three-thousand miles from here. Barring typhoons and other mishaps, I could reach the other border of East Malaysia in three weeks.




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Old 11-28-2004, 11:57 PM   #40
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Here are a few more shots of riding around Borneo. There were many twelve hour days of spinning through so much mud that by nightfall my odometer had barely spun fifty miles.













































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Old 12-02-2004, 08:46 AM   #41
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Sumatra












Entering the Aceh province during the military withdrawal



Post tsunami Banda Aceh





200,000 swept out to sea, 200,000 left homeless after the Tsunami crashed through Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia






Tsunamis
September 27, 2005
Banda Aceh, Sumatra

Shortly after he turned sixty-three, my father died of a long anticipated, second heart attack. Even though I had left home as a teenager and we weren’t close, the anguishing aftermath of disbelief and denial lasted years. But since the age of sixteen, learning to cope with fending for myself without family ties fortified an independent spirit. While devastated at his funeral, I recall wondering, what is death of a loved one like for those with deeper roots? How painful is the passing of a child or spouse?

In developing nations, extended families are so tight-nit they often live together in one house. Elders are respected and depend on those they raised to care for them in their twilight years--the reason for overproducing offspring in countries without government safety nets. Children are Social Security; the ones that live long enough to work will feed them when no longer able to so themselves. Maybe that’s why natives smile and laugh while complaining less than Western counterparts— they might like a new color TV but know they will survive without one as long as they have each other. There is also far more open love and warmth between relatives--with that open love comes positive attitudes regarding their fate.

Throughout Asia, it’s unusual to find villagers not smiling. Is it the simple life minus anxiety over stock market prices or which conniving politician has stirred more animosity toward the other? There are no worries about evaluating portfolios and counting money--there isn’t any. As long as the basics of human survival exist, natives enjoy each other. Yes, they would prefer accessible health care, everyone wants to live better and longer but the hand they are dealt doesn’t include social remedies available in the West. Yet somehow, those of lesser means navigate life’s complications with little help from corrupt governments conspiring with greedy corporations.

But how do the vulnerable in a developing nation contend with one of the worst natural disasters in human history? In a ruthless rush of nature’s fury, on a sunny 2004 December afternoon, enormous ocean waves previously unknown to humankind penetrated three miles inland to pummel and consume all in the unsuspecting path. In a single wicked hydraulic pulse, two hundred thousand innocent mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters were instantly crushed or swept out to sea.

Riding over rutted trails among the remaining concrete foundations of a city that used to exist is an eerie drift among forsaken tombstones as a silencing hell flickers with smoldering images of eternal agony. Twisted steel rebar poking from jagged brick ruins reach out as skeletal fingers toward the sky, beckoning for remembrance. A gasping scene of heartbreak brings the despair into focus watching ragged young orphan boys with filthy faces, sniffing bags of glue. Gazing into the lingering carnage is a similar experience to visiting the S-21 Torture Museum in Cambodia with the same sense of breathless horror.

Yet, again, the human spirit prevails. Among sun-bleached, frayed canvas tents flapping in the salty tropical breeze, splintering plywood shelters and makeshift noodle stands are being hammered into shape. Survivors too busy for pity are hauling wood, digging trenches or loading trucks with sacks of cement and homemade tools. And still, workers laboring in the sticky heat stop to smile and wave, pitching familiar questions. “Mistah wahs you name?” While reeling from the stomach-churning shock, what does one say to the humble brave who just lost what little they had and everyone they love? “Salamat siang, apa kabar?” Good afternoon, how are you? To relieve my discomfort, an elderly, crooked-tooth rickshaw driver paused roadside asks, “You have come to see Tsunami?”

Knowing much can be spoken with just the eyes, I touch mine, then his, “No, I have come to see you.” In a moment’s locked gaze I try to convey that the world has not forgotten the tragedy he recalls every second. Traumatic events that jolt into the mind eventually spew out—I can’t help but wonder what could these tormented ones dream of at night. Happy faces and steady smiles can’t disguise what they relive when clenching their eyes. But with two hundred thousand still homeless and hungry, maybe a world preoccupied with newer disasters, is forgetting.
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Old 12-06-2004, 02:56 AM   #42
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Onto the West Coast Wasteland
September 28, 2005
Lamno, Aceh Province, Sumatra



Accumulating travel information for roads and places that no longer exist is difficult in Banda Aceh. Since their limited world has ended, surviving inhabitants were unsure of what was left down the next stretch of beach. Trying to convey how I wanted to ride back along the devastated west coast of Aceh province was as difficult as explaining why. Since their answer to everything was “Soo naam mee,” it was best to proceed and update along the way. By all accounts, the single lane highway on Sumatra’s northwest coast was consumed by the Tsunami and the few remaining isolated villages were being supplied by airdrop.



Learning the road to Lamno had been cleared was encouraging. Lamno, as the site of the first major bridge collapse, is the last stop heading south along the Indian Ocean with relatively fresh food and supplies. A beat down flophouse hostel became a welcome refuge at the end of the day while gauging the terrain. An optimistic native’s suggestion that riding the waterline at low tide could connect to more intact roads on higher ground further down was the spark I needed to gamble.



There wasn’t much to go wrong except a time-consuming retreat to Banda Aceh if encountering solid jungle or open sea. UN relief workers insisted “It takes five hours on the good road just to reach Lamno, that’s only the first sixty miles. Then comes the hard part, finding a way around washed out bridges to reach the next organized city one hundred fifty miles south to Meulaboh.” But their five-hour ride was in convoy under military escort, mine, including photo stops was actually three and most of this was passable asphalt that ran from the seaside, twisting back through delicious, isolated coastal mountains. Without using his weapon, a BAM fighter along the way hand-signaled me aside offering tea and rice cakes. So much for rumors of Muslim guerrillas murdering civilians.






Investigating a variety of exaggerated tales alleviates apprehension. Two German backpackers killed for violating the curfew were actually accidentally shot by the military and much further south. Tourism has been non-existent since the fighting began and the hikers had been camping in a combat zone when a jungle army patrol stumbled upon them sleeping in their tent. Failing to communicate understandable commands to exit with their hands up, and unable to see who was inside, they were presumed rebels and wary soldiers promptly opened fire. The wounded woman survived but her husband did not. Still, hearsay panics the listeners.
There is plenty of fuel in Sumatra but unfounded claims of supplies diminishing, caused city-block-long lines at gas stations. But as a Westerner, accommodating attendants assumed I was an NGO worker and waved me to the front.



Wild tales of two young un-chaperoned couples whipped and caned by religious authorities were also unfounded. They were actually caught illegally drinking beer together and as a lesson to others disregarding Islamic Law, were unceremoniously paraded around the town square in the back of a pickup truck. Even though regulations regarding male-female contact are strict, Muslim women in groups are always anxious to talk, displaying sweet, open personalities that defy their conservative dress.
While on an after-dinner ride on the outskirts of Lamno, four young native women waved me over to warn of the 6:00PM curfew outside of villages.

After pantomiming gestures of firing invisible pistols and rifles, they were convincing enough that staying to chat with them was a better idea. As our conversation progressed to wanting to be photographed, one in particular displayed a noticeable liking for foreigners by standing closer than normal with a longing smile. In surprising contrast to local custom, in front of the others, she invited me to sleep at her house. For wandering motorcyclists, come-ons from local girls are common, but in the past, were always in private, away from prying eyes of gossiping town folk. Yet most of those opportunities were accompanied by optimistic agendas followed by sullen faces when learning I was back on the road at dawn. It has been proven wise to avoid them.



Still, specific intent gets lost in translations, especially when using sign language with limited vocabulary. But this bright-eyed, olive-skinned beauty skipping and laughing in the deep silvery moonlight was persuasive. Placing clasped palms together next to her tilting head, then touching two index fingers in parallel while next pointing to her and then me, was a significant gesture too obvious to ignore.

There may have been another meaning but recalling earlier when examining her recorded images on the camera playback screen, she had pressed a set of very firm breasts on my arm—combined with not wearing a headscarf, her gestures sure looked like a green light from here. But what may have been okay with her was likely to be reported by nosy neighbors resulting in a public caning or castration or both. In a region that just fought a bloody war to return to biblical values, no matter the lure, the very least of consequence was a machete-induced marriage in the morning.

Back in the mosquito infested hotel room beneath the monotonous hum of the lopsided rotating ceiling fan, the bulk of the night was consumed pondering undergarment colors and the garden scent of a young woman’s hair. In the morning, I resisted a hormone-influenced urge to return for reconsideration—but a lesson well learned is that if turning down a woman once, you will never be given a second chance. (No matter how hard you beg)

After a cool water-bucket shower and four greasy eggs, I repacked my gear and proceeded to the knoll where the first major bridge had been yanked out to sea. Proving once again mastery over man, aqua tinted ocean waves continued to brush against remaining fragmented pillars. Standing alone on the brim of a forbidding wasteland extending to the horizon, gazing across the gaping expanse was a sobering warning of what lay ahead.


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Old 12-11-2004, 11:56 PM   #43
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Indonesia

Coastal Drift
September 30, 2005
Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra



In the summer of 1978, curious about sensational media reports of feuding Protestants and Catholics blowing each other up in Belfast, I boarded a flight to Dublin to see for myself. Was the whole country at war and were Christians, and Irish in particular, somehow more violent and dangerous than the rest of us? Backpacking through rich green farmlands and contemporary cities by thumb seemed a good method to investigate.

Spending a month hitchhiking cross-country doesn’t qualify anyone as an expert but while questioning the Irish kind enough to offer a lift and sleeping with families in Bed & Breakfasts, this was a decent way to catch a glimpse into the mind and soul of the people. Yet despite sensationalist US media reports, outside of certain sections of Belfast, I could only find working men and women quietly sharing their lives in white plastered cottages nestled in between sections of neat, stone fences dividing emerald green pastures. What about alcoholism and the proverbial Irish temper?

It’s true they love their Guinness and are better than average boxers, but while recording impromptu private interviews using a pocketsize micro-cassette, I could not find anyone who condoned sectarian violence. Instead, like a chorus of typical country folk, they all repeated a slogan hard to forget--“Aye, it tis’, it tis’ that we are all God’s creatures.” Although the Northerner’s disagreements and sometimes violent confrontations involved more politics than church, the rest of the otherwise law abiding Catholics and Protestants were being instigated by extremists. With an occupying British government stuck in the middle, violence was begetting violence, but still, only in a few counties of Northern Ireland.

Religious zealots killing each other is nothing new, but recently the art of mass murder in the Islamic world has been refined with car and suicide bombings. Now, instead of bloodthirsty Christians, images of fanatical terrorist Muslims dominate the media. A similar struggle within Islam between Sunni and Shiite factions rages in Iraq and on a much milder scale between moderates and fundamentalists here in Indonesia. It’s not a matter of crazies being either from Christianity or Islam; it’s ignorant people taking religious doctrine out of context to justify extremism.

But if nine of the finest legal scholars in America cannot interpret the carefully worded US Constitution unanimously, how can simple villagers understand difficult to read Bibles and Korans thousands of years old? No matter how clearly ideas are written, either side can manipulate them to rationalize their position. In the Bill of Rights, US gun laws underscore the point.

Despite the confusion, brokered settlements over regional conflicts by disinterested parties sometimes succeed. Just this month, in Indonesia’s Aceh province, optimistic Finns negotiated hard with intransigent political leaders to align government and rebel positions. And finally, thanks to the persistence of interested foreigners combined with recovery from an enormous disaster, there is a chance for peace and a return to Islamic law acceptable to all.

With most of the International aid workers stationed in Sumatran cities, I’ve only seen dedicated foreign AMM members out spinning their tires in the mud. An aggressive Aceh Monitoring Mission has dispersed a fleet of late model four-wheel-drives equipped with satellite communications and window stickers showing circled machine guns with lines drawn across.

Their mission is to scour rural strongholds collecting weapons surrendered by rebels and then trade them to military officials in exchange for repositioning troops. The results are astounding, as everyone I encountered has insisted the program is ahead of schedule. If there is a silver-lining to merciless disaster, it is in pulling sworn enemies together for the good of humanity.

Today is a new start and even the clear cobalt sky is empty, as a radiating mid-latitude sun holds monsoon rains at bay and soggy trails firm enough to ride. But while balancing motorcycle tires over flexing coconut tree bridges and dragging through the bog, it’s difficult to understand this need to witness devastation. As the roadway ends again in a swollen estuary requiring another backtrack, I wonder “What’s the logic of witnessing tragedy with those whom I’ll never see again?”

Except for AMM personnel, I have not seen any other Westerners. Foreign relief workers in larger cities coordinate from a distance but it’s the silent, surviving mothers, fathers and siblings who provide the grinding labor to reconstruct their lives. Scattered down the coast, surviving villagers stoop in the heat replanting flooded rice paddies while others hand cut timber to build new fishing boats. None are idle or complaining in a struggle to walk together for the common good—crisis has brought peace to Indonesia, though it’s a long road back.

Bottled water is everywhere but my stash of bananas and canned fish paste ran out yesterday. At a thatched roof noodle stand, an old woman flustered by having a customer, smiles while clearing a place to sit on sawed-off tree stump chairs. Five dollars buys a scoop of cold rice and three shriveled chicken necks refried everyday because there has been no one with money to buy them. If chewing long enough, fishy-smelling flesh cooked hard as plastic turns stringy bits soft enough to swallow. I can only imagine what mealtimes are like for locals.



Roads along fluffy, pale beaches were long swept away but as suggested by villagers, at low tide they connected to solid tarmac on higher ground.



A Ritcter scale nine point zero originally triggered the main Tsunami but sporadic aftershocks of fives and sixes have continued since. Reports of yesterday’s are unnerving. With one eye on the waters edge, I constantly measure the terrain for rapid escape routes through shady palm tree groves to higher ground.

Once above sea level, controlled slides over mud and sand surrender their hold into a euphoric glide through a pulsating jungle reclaiming multi-mile-long strips of asphalt not used anymore.



Soaring beneath refreshing canopies of towering hardwoods stimulates troubling introspection as the splendor of solitude in paradise turns grimacing horror. Each time reaching another fallen bridge formally connecting villages across deltas, ghastly reality strikes hard while understanding the reason for this blissful isolation is that those who once lived here, recently perished. I shudder at the irony that it requires dreadful catastrophe to bring such peace and I wonder if this is a message.



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Old 12-15-2004, 06:10 AM   #44
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Old 12-18-2004, 05:01 AM   #45
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What was left of Banda Aceh, Sumatra. (A few months after the Tsunami)





It was so difficult to imagine that a city once existed here as aid workers, journalists and a wandering biker knelt in what used to be the downtown center, reeling total shock. It was though a nuclear bomb had exploded.







Tossed around and crumpled in the waves





Three miles inland this boat came to rest



In search of stranded villages





The only way out was a low tide ride





Heading into Java



More tire repairs crossing Java


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