Jeremiah Rogers

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Sat, Dec 13, 2014

Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I was invited to a three year old’s birthday this past week in a village two hours outside of Phnom Penh. When they said it was a village they weren’t lying. It’s 45 kilometers from the city, five of which aren’t paved, across from a Buddhist Pagoda and down a narrow dirt path.

People in the provinces drive a bit crazier than people in the city but since there are fewer of them the driving it’s safer. Driving in Cambodia is a game of mass, momentum and bluffing. It’s also quite a bit like skiing in that you’re responsible for not hitting something in front of you but have no reason to care about what happens behind you.

In Cambodia a heavy truck can do whatever it wants, I’d be smashed like a bug if I hit it. But a collection of motorbikes together form a solid mass. Together with a group of bikes you’re just like any other car – heavy, fast, and damaging on collision. No one messes with you. So when traffic got bad I found a crowd and swarmed into it.

Motorcycle traffic in Phnom Penh.

On arrival family’s elderly patriarch was thrilled to see me and approached beaming, two thumbs up, excitedly yelling “barang!” (white person). We had never met before. We shook hands, he stared at me and grinned for a while, not saying much else. My khmer is about good enough to say “hello,” which I said, and “you’re a man,” which I avoided. I think he was just pumped that a white dude came to his grandson’s birthday party.

Seeing my camera he pulled out a piece of paper and insisted that I write down how much the camera cost. I was too embarassed to write the true cost, so I wrote $1,000.

The party didn’t really kick off, it just slowly built in momentum. Well dressed Cambodians and foreigners arrived and mingled as much as language would allow, uninvited local villagers poked around under the tables for aluminum cans go recycle, and slew of relatively unenthusiastic and unexplained other Cambodians sat under the house watching the whole thing.

The little one ran around in shiny oversized cobalt suit, dancing to the live music. The boy’s mother greeted people in a beautiful blue dress while his father ferried cases of beer on a motorbike from the local market.

Cattle saying hello. The most typical Cambodia picture I’ve taken. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

When you’re invited to a party you get a three piece invitation: a cover, an invitation with a map, and a small envelope for your gift. People here want cash and aren’t shy about it. It seems like the standard gift for a Cambodian to another Cambodian is $10 (one to three day’s wages), so my foreigner gift was $20.

When you give the gift old men from the local Buddhist pagoda accept the money, open the envelope, and write down exactly how much you gave in a public notebook that anyone can see. At first this struck me as rude and invasive. I want to give money but not make a big deal out of it – and I don’t like everyone at the party knowing how much I gave.

It got way dirtier than this. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

Men from the local pagoda writing down the amount of my gift. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

On talking with my friend Det she explained that the written list is so that the family will later return the same gift to me. If I give $20 for their son’s birthday party they’ll give me $20 back when my son has a birthday.

In this way the money isn’t actually a gift but instead a obfuscated loan. Stay in good social standing, throw a party every once in a while, and the money will flow back to you. In that mindset of course I want them to write down how much I gave. A heavy gift will come back to me in the future.

We’ve disguised this tradition in the United States but it came to mind that most celebrations are actually a way of raising cash. They become a way of passing liquidity around the community regularly and enable us to make large purchases that we need. Of course we don’t tend to write gifts in an envelope, but even at the age of five I knew my grandfather was good for about 25 bucks and my grandmother was more generous.

We’ve made parties unbelievably expensive in the United States. If I recall correctly, early celebrity weddings raised the bar from just exchanging rings in a church. Now we need flowers, a procession, and $5,000 of photography. A wedding in the United States it could easily cost $25,000. From talking with brides you’re lucky to break even based on gifts from each of the attendants.

In the past the wedding might have cost a fifth of that and quadrupled it’s investment. Raising $25,000 for a newly wedded couple gives them liquidity they need to start a life together. In cash form that’s a down-payment on a house. With more social status and older couple the house already exists, so it’s becomes a bunch of. credit card debt and an excessively appointed kitchen instead.

Similarly, coming of age cemeronies are bigger in more religious groups: communion and barmitzvah could have raised enough money for a young person to start their own business in the past. Today I have no idea, I’ve never even attended one.

Finally, as I posted on Facebook, the end of the party was most fascinating to me. Cutting the cake felt like a well rehearsed ritual. The boy and his father walked over to the cake, were surrounded by firends, and sparklers were lit. After the sparklers burned out (an educated nod to fire control) the family and cake were doused in silly string. It was the most energetic moment I’ve seen in any party – even this one well outside the developed world – and it was fascinating to me. The image below is from that.

Cutting the cake. The boy and his father are doused in silly string. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

Fri, Nov 21, 2014

Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

My new apartment, the first home I’ve had in seven months, is about a quarter mile from where the king of Cambodia sleeps at night. It’s a rich neighborhood by any stretch. My rent is about $250 per month, which is more than the average Cambodian makes in a quarter. Yet outside it’s still full on culture.

Children playing on my street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

One of the reasons I moved here is because the sidewalks are so alive. This neighborhood is particularly good for it. On the sidewalks outside my door a gang of nude, dirty, giggling children chase each other around. A boy with his rear hanging halfway out of his pants jumbles and runs around to the point of almost dancing. Kids kick a small soccer ball that seems to be elegantly folded from scrap paper.

During the day a crowd of people form a circle on my street and gamble with a deck of tiny blue playing cards. A man lies on his back huffing drugs from a plastic bag.

People sleep in hammocks at night and sometimes during the day. For the last few weeks there have been more hammocks than usual. I hear that many people came into town for the first water festival since 2010. They came in from the provinces – the country – and they’re either too poor or too sensical to spend money renting a guesthouse. The word is that they have stuck around. Hammocks appear almost anywhere that one can be hung.

During the Water Festival hammocks were hung anywhere they could be in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Although there are definitely homeless people (or visitors) in my neighborhood, the street life is far more than just this.

Early in the morning, sometime around four am, my neighbor wakes up and stokes a fire in a small pit that she keeps on the sidewalk. During the day she cooks nuts in there. Another man dries fish and rice on the corner in the sun. The fish in a wide circular basket and the rice on tarps stretched out on the paving stones.

Moto drivers hang out all day on their motorcycles, elegantly balancing themselves across the frame. If it’s hot they’ll fall asleep: feet on the handle bars, back on the seat, hands creating a pillow under their heads.

The variety of ways that Cambodians can sleep in public is impressive. On the ground, on a moto, in a hammock. Last week we asked for a tuktuk around midnight. The driver poked his head inside the vehicle and woke up his whole family, including his five year old daughter. They scrambled out of the tuktuk, the little girl rubbing her eyes, and we got in. I felt like a huge asshole for waking her up.

On my street, late every night, a tribe of young boys briskly walk by banging sticks together to signal the arrival of soup. This happens every night, up and down the street, banging sticks to tell everyone to come out and get some soup.

At some point I’ll need to try the soup, but minor anxiety at the process of showing up clueless and languageless with only a few thousand Cambodian Real in my hand and a smile keeps me away. (Today I tried to ask for the bill in Khmer and the waitress brought me a draft beer instead).

A boy playing on my street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Mon, Oct 20, 2014

Today I visited Little India in Kuala Lumpur for the first time. What a fascinating place. I got to see (and forgot to photograph) the whole town get ready for Deepavali later this week. There were women getting henna tattoos, men selling fireworks, and the whole of a nearby mall was decorated with flowers for the holiday.

Lunch was with one of my favorite travelers I’ve met so far. Her name is Ella and she’s from Switzerland but grew up partially in Italy. She speaks six languages, travels without a computer or a camera, and couldn’t stop talking about how beautiful Kuala Lumpur is, how she loves all of the multiethnic people here, and how she likes not even knowing what she’s eating. “I think this is liver” she said as she stuck some food on my plate.

The two pictures below are of my hostel roommate Ella who joined me for lunch and the food stand we ate from. I didn’t have the camera out to record the rest of the afternoon but wish I did.

Lunch in Kuala Lumpur ChinaTown. My plate, unfortunately not pictured, was 8 ringit for more than I could eat. That’s just under $3.

Ella, and Italian and Swiss girl I met today. I’m fascinated with her approach to travel and how much she notices at each turn.

Notably these are the first photos edited and posted entirely from an iPad. I sent the rest of my computer gear home and am going to try using only an iPad for the next few months. My hope is that it will make writing while moving around easier and will also encourage me to spend less time goofing off behind a screen. I’m using PhotoRaw for the raw development and Afterlight for finishing and color. I hope the colors better over time, but I like the flexibility of using only an iPad for production.

If you’re following along, this means I’m eating my words over all the hate about Apple lately. I still wish some things would change about the iPad but the interface is sublime for having a computer for just writing and just photo editing — an interface that makes it hard to get distracted into long programming or web browsing sessions. I’d also say that for most uses the iPad is the most ergonomic computer I’ve ever used.

Sat, Sep 20, 2014

Kyoto, Japan.

Walking down the street in Kyoto I’m amazed a city that should be so ugly can actually be so beautiful. On arrival, Kyoto feels like a basic industrial town. It’s pavement, concrete, steel, and gray. Underneath, after walking around, I suddenly realized how clean everything is. Thinking back, for the first few days the largest garbage I saw in the street was a stray leaf callously dropped by a tree.

I’ve spent time looking at spotless concrete walls, wondering how in the world a society could get to the point of keeping concrete so clean. Some people extend theories related to samurai or cultural identity or Buddhism, but I don’t know which to believe. What’s even more remarkable about this cleanliness is that Japan has basically no garbage cans. I hear that the ricin terrorist attack years ago used garbage cans to deliver the poison, so trash cans are gone now. I regularly walk half a kilometer with a used Coke can looking for a place to trash it before giving up and crushing it into my back pocket.

Months ago my impression of Japan was that it contained a deep inner peace. These days I question if that’s actually peace I’m feeling. The Japanese are exceptionally polite to me, but I’m a foreigner. They bow comically often when I order coffee at Starbucks: once when place my order, then when I hand over the money, then when I get the receipt, once I get the coffee, and finally when I leave. At Family Mart a man bows so low that his heads almost hits the counter. I hear that they aren’t as polite to the locals.

Another foreigner, a photographer I met from Missouri, tells me that Kyoto is basically the Texas of Japan. Compared to the rest of Japan the food is exceptionally sweet, just like Texas. If you grew up here, you’re welcome here. But if you’re from outside it can be an impossible culture to penetrate — just like Texas. The traditional way to ask someone to leave your house here is to offer them rice with tea poured over it as dinner — it’s food, and it’s good food, but it’s a known signal that it’s time for you to leave.

I don’t know why I remember Kyoto as so quiet from my previous visit. It’s peaceful, but more often than I remember the peace is rudely broken. Today it was a blaring car horn as a driver sped past a bicycle and an over revving motorcycle waiting to leave a stoplight at 3 am. In the rest of the world this is the soundtrack of life. In Kyoto it’s alarming, so exceptionally rude compared to what else I’ve seen that it hints at discord. It’s hard to believe someone here would behave that way. Whoever is making this noise doesn’t fit in.

Japan feels like it’s in the future. The electronics stores have so much depth and breadth that walking into one feels like a visit to an Amazon warehouse or the Consumer Electronics Show. I see products, like an 800 gram 13 inch laptop made from magnesium alloy, that are years away from being introduced into other markets. When an American electronics store might have one to five options to solve a problem the Japanese store has 10 to 100. I counted over 200 different cases for an iPad Air. The variety is overwhelming.

I’m enjoying my time here. It’s a delightful to be in such a quiet and generally peaceful place. It’s nice to have not been hassled about buying a taxi cab or a prostitute since arriving. Overall though, I miss the energy and hustle of South East Asia. When you’ve already arrived, when your country is already years in the future compared to anywhere else, there isn’t as much desire to push forward. People move quickly but no one seems to be climbing.

One more note, on the food: it can be had cheaply. Today I ate for about $10, mostly prepared food from grocery stores. If you cook for yourself it’s obviously going to be lower cost. When traveling I expected that cost would vary substantially by country, but the cost of food and lodging doesn’t move too much. A hostel bunk in Indonesia can cost $8 per night, in Japan it can cost $17. A Big Mac in Japan costs maybe 50% more than a Big Mac in Indonesia, and Starbucks coffee costs only 30% more here.

A good cooked meal in Indonesia can cost $1.50, but the portions are small. A filling meal with a drink is closer to $4. In Japan you can drink water from the tap, cutting maybe $2 from a daily budget, and you can get a good filling meal for $5 after a bit of digging around. Considering that Indonesia’s GDP per capita is maybe one eighth of Japan’s, it’s surprising that living here can cost only about twice as much.

Sun, Sep 7, 2014

Ubud, Indonesia.

Graffiti in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

Southeast Asia is cheap. Even a campground in the United States that costs $20 per night often comes with a nasty toilet, no shower, and a dirt patch where you’re welcome to sleep and make a fire to cook food. The same $20, actually only $16, gets an air conditioned room in Hanoi with real hand painted art on the walls, hand carved furniture, a queen bed, and a balcony. This makes it easy to travel in Asia for less than $50 per day and live in a nice hotel, over eat fantastic food, and engage in all varieties of hedonistic pleasure.

People in Asia don’t speak English very well. As I watch my subconscious thoughts over six months on the road the language barrier can make me think that people in Asia aren’t necessarily smart. It takes effort to fight these thoughts. People who don’t speak my language, or speak it with poor grammar, or constantly mistake requests and do something I didn’t ask for can appear to not be smart.

I tell you this bluntly, not so that you’ll feel bad for me, but so that you may see the same behavior in yourself someday and be careful with it. I’m saying these things not because I believe them to be true, but because I know that these thoughts can slowly infect us over time.

The thing is: Southeast Asia is not a playground to do whatever you please only because it’s inexpensive. People in Southeast Asia are not stupid, and being in poor countries is not an excuse to spend money like water or treat people like they’re stupid.

Through the benefits of luck, geography, access to natural resources and living in climates that don’t favor dozens of brutal diseases, Europeans and Americans have won the lottery ticket on earth. The rest of the world hasn’t necessarily caught up. It may never “catch up.” But that doesn’t mean you get to treat people in Asia like shit.

I bought this kid lunch in Cambodia. He was so pushy about selling bracelets and postcards that I decided to help him out. He also looked sick. Still, I felt weird afterward because he didn’t appear thankful at all for the food. Why? Because he probably need the money to give to his employer. Many of the kids begging in Cambodia never see the money that they raise. Poor parts of the world are full of moral mazes like this.

Your response might be “I’m not treating people in Southeast Asia like shit!” That’s totally valid. Here’s where the issue comes in: What we ask for, how we spend money, and what we appreciate when we travel are the parts of a culture that survive.

This is the converse to the point I made yesterday about tourism eating culture. We who do the tourism cause cultures to change. How we treat locals are how they think that we treat the rest of the world. In turn it may become how they treat each other, and it affects how they think of themselves and their country.

When I travel I am an ambassador for my country. I don’t want this job but it’s given to me and I have to accept it. I imagine rich aliens from Alpha Centauri coming to earth, spending money like water, paying for everything with diamonds, demanding Centaurian food and getting frustrated when my Centaurian language isn’t up to their standards. Then I imagine myself as that Centaurian when I visit Asia.

What do I do in this situation? I try to treat people as I’d like them to treat me unless doing so would offend them. I try to also treat them how they would like to be treated. I like to tread lightly in their towns, living efficiently, and favor stores with fixed prices over tough negotiation in the streets. I try to keep my hedonistic western pleasures (ice cream and coffee mostly) to a minimum.

Not giving money to a beggar at Angkor Wat. This is a nasty interaction driven by two clashing cultures. The western woman probably bought things from other kids, but got exhausted at repeated requests, so she kept walking. The child knows that westerners are good for money and that begging long and hard enough yields results. What should you do in this situation?

I believe that as a tourist I shouldn’t have to pay more for something only because of the color of my skin and my home country. I also believe in treating people like humans. It’s hard to turn down the tenth taxi request in a day gracefully. Sometimes I fail. But the way to atone for frustration on the street is to treat everyone else I come across as if they are a human and try to think opposite thoughts.

If someone doesn’t understand what I say, I imagine how well I’d do with their language if they were a tourist in my country. If I want to buy an experience or a hotel, I think about how I’d look buying the same thing in the United States. Before I take a picture I ask myself “Can this person get out of the photo if they want to?” and “Would I be upset if someone took this picture of me?” I can’t always take pictures that show people in flattering light, but I try not to make people look worse than reality.

True story: this woman’s face appeared to be burned off. I didn’t realize she was there, and she couldn’t talk. When I walked by she made a loud moaning noise and I looked down and was startled, saw her, gasped, and walked away in shock. I felt horrible, so I went back and gave her about $5. Even now I have no idea if the money I gave her went into her pocket or if someone maimed her so that she’d be more effective at begging for money. I have no idea if the $5 did more harm or good.

Sometimes, and I’m not perfect at this, I imagine myself from the outside as the traveller from Alpha Centauri. Blue helmet, pocket full of diamonds, getting frustrated that the Earthlings can’t figure out Centaurian language or cook a decent Centaurian dish.

Then I put myself back in the Earthing’s shoes and try to figure out how I’d like the Alpha Centaurian traveller to behave. I don’t necessarily think the alien should go home, but I do think that the alien should be respectful and aware of how he looks, how he acts, and how his actions affect life on Earth.

A final note: When the apes take over we’ll be paying this shit back. With interest.