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November   December Continues  More Ramblings

December 4, 2000:

Philippines: With tons of "Hey Joe"s and "Hey Man"s, and even an occasional "What's up Doc?", the old American presence (US military gone since 1997) is apparent in Manila. While walking through some back streets, in a vane attempt to find the Chinese cemetery, a small child no more than four-years-old cruised by Bruce and I, slapping Bruce a high (or rather low) five as he passed. Everywhere boys were playing basketball. And many of the thousands of Jeepneys (extended jeep come taxis) bore NBA stickers and US flags along side their "God Bless"s and "Jesus Loves You"s. A heavy down-pour had just stopped and dirt covered everything, garbage clinging to the sides of flooded streets. Grabbing a cab we headed for another part of the city, the Spanish Quarter of Intramuros. The US influence changed somewhat with MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chickens lining the roads, the dirt, however, didn't change, and was still clinging to just about everything.

(With their president, or 'Lover of all Seasons' Joseph Estrada, going into impeachment hearings in four days, the Philippines seem fairly calm, no million man marches in the capital or all-country work stops for several days now.)

We were lucky to pick a spot fairly central for our out-of-his-mind taxi driver -- who wove in and out of traffic with the temperament of a Japanese Kamakazi. Rizal Park at the southern end of Intramoros was pack full of Filipinos. There was a festival going on, which wasn't surprising as there is a festival going on every day somewhere in these islands. The party was a celebration of all the different ethnic groups in the Philippines. In the muddy park barely-clad men with large head pieces killed chickens and little ladies preformed demon-expelling dances. We left before the main stage began, filled with, no doubt, lots of ethnic dancing to loud Filipino bands.

(With more than 15,000 soldiers commemorated this US memorial is the largest outside of America. Along with missing US servicemen, many of the missing Filipino soldiers appear on the marble walls.)

Marys and Mangers and Kris Kringles and Creches cover everything in Manila. Christmas is here and the playing of holiday jingles is only going to increase. With just 21 days till the big day life in the Makati district is nothing but shopping (although I get the feeling that that is the usual feeling here). Ending up at a large mall to find some things for dinner, most every product you'd want was available in the basement grocery -- another aspect of American influence. What a change from the grunge-filled alleys of earlier in the day.

(Sacrificed chickens and exorcised demons are scattered around throughout Rizal park, products of a large exhibition of Filipino indigenous people.)

December 11, 2000: 

 Cambodia: The flight touched down shortly after ten o'clock in the morning. I pulled myself up off the seat and rubbed my ears -- coming off of an ear infection, the sound of my seat mate, a two-year-old boy, brought me to near deafness. I grabbed my bag and followed the load of passengers being herded off the plane, down steps and into an old school bus, circa 1950 I'm sure. I crawled to the back of the bus, not quite bringing myself to sit down next to any of the older men who were holding most of the two-seat benches hostage and glaring at me as I plodded past them. I sat down just as the bus pulled away only to stop 300-yards later at the International Terminal of the Phnom Penh airport.

I sat waiting for the bus to clear out a little. "Are you getting off here?" Asked the small Cambodian girl in three-inch soled shoes and a mini-skirt. "Whaaaa?" I replied, my ears still ringing from the loud goodbyes the two-year-old's parents insisted he give me after the plane landed. Understanding what the girl intended, I nodded yes and smiled. Well, isn't everyone getting off here? I thought. Then again, the idea of the bus making only a quick stop here before heading on to some other destination on the other side of the city was not at all uncomprehensible; anything goes, they say of Phnom Penh.

Breezing through customs my friend Bill and I grabbed a taxi to Bill's brother Andy's place. Andy, who moved to Cambodia just a few weeks ago, is doing some work on a Hepatitis B vaccination program. Lucky for Bill and I that his post began when it did.

Later in the day Bill and I went out for a walk, I wanted to get the lay of the city outlined in my mind. We ambled up cracked cement roads, moto drivers whizzing by, to the shore of the Mekong river. A loud ceremony was rattling on a few meters down the riverside. Khmers wondered about carrying lotus buds and incense, dirty children and beggars asked for money. Milling around for a few minutes, we couldn't figure out what the celebration was for. It was a holiday in Cambodia, I knew that -- Andy had told us earlier that National Human Rights Day, which was yesterday, was being observed today -- but I couldn't believe that all this devotion, this praying and music, would be in honor of a celebration so hypocritical it begs no clarifacation (see: Human Rights Record for Cambodia '00 if you don't get it). And of course later in the night Bill and I figured out that yes, it was a big celebration (as opposed to the idea that this is the way every Monday is in Phnom Penh). As we walked back past the little stupa a big fat moon rose in the background -- it was a Buddhist full-moon festival. I slapped my forehead, of course, I thought.

 December 14, 2000:

Siem could remember her family running from Phnom Penh when she was five-years-old. The regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge drove nearly everyone from the Cambodian capital, a relative ghost town for the next four years (1975 - 1979). After her family -- mother, father, two brothers and sister -- reached the new village they were to live in near the Vietnamese border, her brothers and father were taken away to be re-educated. "That means that they were taken away and killed." Explained Siem. Soon after her mother died and she and her sister were sent to different orphanages. Many years later, scraping enough money to venture back to her hometown of Phnom Penh, Siem worked odd jobs -- making juice, cleaning homes -- and attended free English lessons held in town. After gaining a sufficient knowledge of the language, Siem went to work at the old S-21 prison camp turned museum. The prison had held over 20,000 inmates within those four years, only seven of them survived.

It was at S-21 that I met Siem. She gave a quick tour through the prison grounds, explaining in quick and quiet English how people were tortured to death: "by electric shock here" or "starvation there" or "suffocating in a bucket of feces there." Blood still stained the tile floors, nothing having been changed since the Vietnamese over-ran the city and liberated the prison in 1979. Pictures of the prisoners hung on the walls of one of the buildings. The KR documented everything that went on within the prison grounds. Before and after pictures showed the cruelty and horror that embodied those four years. An estimated count has more than two-million people killed by the Pol Pot regime, over 1/3 of the then Cambodian population of six-million. Siem described the tales of the seven lone survivors and became more and more quiet. While we walked back to the main gate I asked her a few questions, discovering her history. "I've worked here for three years, " she said to me. And then, more to herself, she added, "and still I remember, I cannot forget."

I had spent that morning out at the Cham Ek Genocidal Center, better known as the "Killing Fields", where over 9,000 of those 20,000 people were brought, killed and thrown into mass graves. The whole day was more than depressing. After I learned from Siem that a few of the men who served on Pol Pot's government were still working within the present Cambodian government -- having never been prosecuted for their involment in the state-wide genocide -- I ceased trying to make sense of Cambodia, her gruesome past or her present.

It is a testament to the Cambodian people that some 20-odd years after nearly all their educated citizens were killed -- doctors, lawyers, artists, anyone who spoke foreign languages -- that they are doing so well: English being spoken in all major cities and schools open in every village. Cambodians, as a people have always valued education, their traditional way of life and remaining ruins attest to this. Leaving the prison Bill turned to me and told me about some graffiti he saw on the inside of the prison. He said, "I couldn't tell if the simple math equation I saw scratched into the wall was left by a student of the high school before the building was turned into a prison, or if it was from a prisoner as a way of saying 'I am educated. This much I know.'"

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