Thursday, October 22, 2015

Burning It Up

The earth is on fire this year. During a short trip to Penang island in Malaysia, the epic and horrific conflagration of the Indonesian peat bogs touched my lungs. Our trip was characterized with occasional bouts of blue sky, but largely a dormant, brown-grey haze stretched over the horizon for most of the days. While hiking in the rainforests of the smallest National Park in the world, I reflected a little on the notable fires of my past.    Not the fond memories of Alaskan campfires snapping and cracking in the fire ring, but of the fires that were accidental and out of control, powerful and angry. 
On the return approach to Kuala Lumpur,
the sun sets in haze. 

While co-leading a group of teenagers on a 6-week camping adventure through British Columbia and Alaska, I made a simple mistake with a backpacking stove led to one of the most embarrassing and dangerous moments in my life.  We'd just picked up the kids from the airport that day.  There were lessons in how to set up the tents, orientations and questions, and then the stove safety demonstration before we prepared dinner. 

My co-leader was a mensch and I was worried.  He’d disclosed to me (but not our employer before he was hired) that he took psychotropic medications for both anxiety and depression.  He was a little more into his own head than to what was needed at the time, a bit bumbling and uncertain. He had no experience; perhaps they thought I could take most of the load.  Communication seemed awkward, the pseudo-cordial clarification of every small detail was time-consuming and painstaking.  Perhaps I was a bit inpatient, a little stressed, pre-occupied myself.   The cooking stove was an ultra-light backpacking stove, primped with hand pumps and then, even in calm moments of serene backcountry dinners, required a tricky wisp of fuel set alight to set the liquid fuel to gas.  I gave it a few extra pumps to be sure. 
An oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan is shrouded in 
haze from agriculture fires raging across the country. 

Photo by Jenito.
 I set it alight to start the process of priming- converting liquid fuel to gas. Twelve impressionable adolescents and 2 new leaders watched. In seconds, all hell broke loose.  Fuel spurted, the intensity of the flame melted the plastic housing cap.  Clumps of flames landed on the enormous leaves of skunk cabbage that surrounded on the gravel. The fuel bottle was alive, seemingly spinning and engulfed in 1 liter of pure jet-fueled flames.  Time was the only fire extinguisher.

It was dangerous and fascinating, horrifying and demoralizing. My heart and spirit both infused with fear and shame, a loss of honor and dignity, a really rough start to the trip.  The co-leader brightly suggested we pack it up and go out for pizza and then onward we went.  It wasn't the only incident on that trip.    

The wildfire that raged for 30th birthday a number of years earlier, on a trip where I joined my fellow guide/boyfriend and his clients in a remote canyon on the Rio Grande river in West Texas, also started with a single flick of a lighter.  We were packing up the boat after a lovely birthday cake and dinner the night before in one of Mariscal Canyon's only campsites. The client-husband needed to poop after the “groover”, a leak-proof metal box that was the field toilet, was firmly tucked in the bottom of the raft, Bob sent the guy off into the farthest reach away from the river to bury his business in the dry grasslands near the cliffs that surrounded our small campsite.  Moments later, we saw the wafts of smoke as the insurance salesman started running to the boat shouting,"I tried to put it out. It went too fast."

Bob, launching into the Eagle Scout mode I loved, grabbed his cotton serape and ripped it in half, taking both pieces to the river before running to the blaze.  I filled up all the metal dish washing pails Keep packing the boat." He yelled, "We're going to need to get out of here soon."  
An image taken from Nasa's Terra satellite on 
Sept 24, 2015,shows smoke from 
fires in Indonesia over the coasts
 of Borneo and Sumatra. PHOTO: REUTERS

He was as strong as I've ever seen him, running back and forth for as long as he could, but in moments the flames came toward us.  We loaded up fast, jumped on the raft and retreated to the safety of the river.  Silently, we drifted backwards as we watched the smoke curling up around the blackened beach, harsh against the burnt umber canyon walls and the languid brown of the Rio Grande river.  

On return to civilization, we were the talk of many a bar stool, rambling criticism of what we'd let be created, let happened, done. The next year, when I returned for my last spring season on the river, one of the old-timers from the competition sidled up to me while I was writing and enjoying an ice cold sun tea at Pam's Diner.  "You know," He drawled, "I gotta tell you that the campsite you guys burned up last year bloomed into a field of flowers. It's really beautiful now."

The smoke from Indonesia has now drifted to Thailand, diverting flights and causing millions in tourism revenue.   Unexpected and our of control fires always have some impact. The financial costs,health risks and sometimes loss of life, emotional impacts of the helpless witness on sometimefar greater than ourselves.  The vast power of a force unleashed and uncontrollable is mesmerizing and horrifying.

Now, as the climate changes and the intensity of natural forces increases, we are poised at a brink.  Do we stand, simply dumbfounded at the power we are witnessing, remaining hopeless?   Or do we furiously try to stem the tide for as long as we can?    Perhaps we can only hope that, like Phoenix, we can be transformed as a result of witnessing its power.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Emergency Contacts

There were 3 in the space of 5 days, and then another in mid-September.
The notices come across the newsfeed of expat forums, where an active group of the white-guy old-timers will troll the Cambodian newspapers and republish the headlines.  

Some will either have their girls translate for them, or use Google translate to publish the stories in "Khmeringlish".   After someone posts, the lurkers respond with messages of horror, sadness or just plain curmudgeonly bad taste.

Here's the run-down of last month's roster (partial list)

September 28:  The body of a murdered foreign man stuffed into a suitcase has been found in a river near in the village of Anlong Chhlak near the Ha Tien VietNam border this morning.

September 27: The body of well known German expat Tanja Wethekam, 60, was apparently driven to Mekong Hospital and dumped there by four foreigners in a car.

September 23:  A 62 year old Australian man, Gerald Nailor, was found dead in his room at the Cozyna Hotel on the riverside in Phnom Penh yesterday

September 15: Australian national Peter Condon was found dead in Phnom Penh in his hostel room. The police suspects that he died from a drug overdose about 2 to 4 days before his body was discovered.

Tanja Wethekem Facebook photo
Peter's circle touched mine, unfortunately after he passed.    It is not uncommon for my colleague-- a Cambodian staff who answers the general inquiries to the hospital's email address-- to receive plaintive emails asking for help finding people who have been hospitalized.   She does her part with a quick call to medical records and emails them back with a response.

They often mix us up with other places- a similar sounding name or the town named after the King Father.  I once had an American woman call us looking for her boyfriend.  She'd gotten a call from someone in a foreign country who found her number in her boyfriend's phone after he was hospitalized from an accident.   She  was desperate to track him down as she didn't get enough details on the original call and the number wasn't accepting return calls.

She  called our main line, and I observed my Cambodian co-worker's confused facial expression and responses.  He passed the phone to me.   She read me the name of the hospital.  I asked our staff to make a call or two and told her to call me back.  Then I asked her to spell it and typed the name into the search engine.  "It's in Hong Kong", I said. "Not Cambodia.  Lucky for him."

We received another inquiry from a mother looking for information to our email address.  The staff dutifully checked hospital records and responded. I saw a copy of the email, and with a sinking feeling, made the connection with a blip on my Facebook news feed.   The news had been broadcast here already before the family had been notified.   I replied directly and encouraged her to call the Australian Embassy immediately.  

She replied later that day.  Now she knew he was gone.  She was looking for information, any information to assuage the incredulity,    "He was so happy and relaxed there." she wrote.  "We're a close family and talk frequently."  With some trepidation and plenty of warnings and assurances, I sent her the link of the newspaper article that was my tipoff.   We exchanged a few more emails.  She told me her other son was flying to Cambodia to try and learn what happened. I can only assume that they are dealing with grief in their own way.  

There are plenty of expats living on the edge here.  Their stories, in their demise or vulnerabilities, are splattered across the newspaper with gristly photos or nagging questions still unanswered.  An Excellency's daughter that struck and killed an Irishman on his bicycle, a young woman murdered in Kampot, Several men, still unidentified.  So far in 2015, the tally is 86 so far, 90% are male.

Some of these people led secret lives, far from families and surrounded by the cursory and casual relationships that characterize many social relationships here in Phnom Penh.  The tenuous relationships of fringe expats are not the kind of people that you share feelings with. It's a good time camaraderie only, yukking it up or moaning collectively over beers.  
Offerings of food for Pchum Ben

Tragically, or perhaps a just and favorable ending, there are expats who come to Cambodia to die. They are called Deathpats.   They are retired pensioners, perhaps suffering from physical or mental illness or estranged from their families, who know that they can stretch the dollars further here, bask in warm weather, cheap beer and beautiful women.  If they pay the right people, they can be taken care of very well. Then, in the Buddhist tradition, they can be cremated into the dust of the earth.

In these recent days, Cambodians honor their dead with the very important Pchum Ben ceremony. The monks have been chanting daily, people make daily, pre-dawn offerings at the Pagoda as their 7 generations of ancestors walk the earth again. The belief is that the ancestors, especially those without living relatives, come back to seek food.   They are hungry ghosts, with small mouths, desperately seeking the reassurance that they are remembered by the offering, so that they will not have to return to the dark place of Buddhist hell.  

While not my ancestors who are passing under mysterious circumstance in this country, this is a good time to remember those who have passed.  It is a good time to give thanks and recognition for the people who have enriched our life.  Even for Peter Condon, who seemed like a nice chap who made a bad decision on a weekend night.  

Offerings at the Temple