Flashback: Thiel vs. Schmidt, 2012

Clearly I’m on a Thiel kick.

At first I was dubious, but now I’m just curious. Though some of Thiel’s motives and politics remain vague, it should be impossible for anyone to ignore his foresight and intelligence. The fact that many people still dismiss him offhand because he’s a nominal Trump supporter just blows my mind.

This debate, which took place in 2012, offers a clear picture of how much smarter Thiel is than other Silicon Valley tools, like Eric Schmidt. In this case, we watch Thiel eat Schmidt for breakfast, while Schmidt just oozes, as Thiel says, Google propaganda.

 

Summary

The opening question was to explain your view of what technology brings to the world.

Schmidt says that “the message of technology innovation is an overwhelmingly positive one,” then talks about how technology has transformed our world, bringing poor people into the middle class, and how everyone in the world will soon have access to the internet. Ultimately, he says that technology innovation will improve the world for everyone, giving people more information and longer lives.

This smacks of technological utopianism, something that Thiel (as well as others, such as Evgeny Morozov) warned about long ago.

The MC reads a quote of Thiel’s that offers a more cynical – and, in my opinion, realistic – perspective on the issue of technological innovation. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Thiel goes on to compliment Schmidt, saying he does a great job as Google’s Minister of Propaganda, then outlines some very insightful points that Schmidt spends the rest of the debate avoiding (including a couple that we would later see crop up during the Trump election). Namely, the facts that:

  • Median wages have been stagnant for 40 years, compared to the previous 40 years, during which they increased 6-fold
  • The technological improvement we’ve seen in the past couple decades, which has been confined to the IT industry – or “the world of bits” – hasn’t translated into economic well-being
  • Since 1973, oil barrel prices have increased 50-fold, a demonstration of “a catastrophic failure of energy innovation,” which has been offset by computer innovation
  • Governmental regulation has effectively “outlawed technology” – for instance, new drug development costs $1.3 billion, you can’t fly supersonic jets because they’re too noisy, you can’t build nuclear power plants, and so on

The question Thiel asks is how IT innovation translates into economic progress for humans.

After a short slap fest, while disagreeing about technological progress, both agree that governments are at the root of many major problems. The Arab Spring becomes another bone of contention. Schmidt cites the cause as a widespread discontent with regimes, and Thiel blames 30-50% price hikes on food, which he says brought the threat of starvation for many people.

More disagreements prompt Thiel to respond with: “I thought we were going to talk about technology, but Eric seems to think it’s all about politics, which, in a way I think concedes my basic point, which is that technology is no longer that big a driver.”

He follows up with one of his main points: “Technology should be a large enough force that it could power [political] change.”

After Schmidt tries to make a point about education being the solution to automation and globalization, two forces that will govern the world in the future and create jobs problems, Thiel pushes Schmidt more, saying that Google doesn’t do enough to create more jobs, claiming that Google is not an innovative technology company, but merely a search engine that is sitting on $50 billion in cash with no ideas on how to use it.

Compare that to Amazon, he says, which continually reinvests all of its profits into new technologies.

For the closing phase of the discussion, Thiel reiterates his insults to Google, to which Schmidt responds that Chrome is the #1 browser in the world, Google is the top platform for enterprise innovation, and there are plenty of other examples of business innovation that Thiel was choosing to ignore.

Q&A followed.

Conclusion

This conversation reminds me of a WWE fight or a Jerry Springer spat, just in a different arena. Thiel’s nonstop aggression makes it really fun to watch and, as usual, his intelligent arguments make it fascinating food for thought. In particular, he seems like he has a very solid and respectable mission – to use technological innovation to change the world.

It would have been more interesting if Schmidt had anything to say, but as it is, his technological utopian preaching and soft sales patter comes across as weak, lame, and boring. He sounds exactly like an old-school politician, who can talk and talk for hours without saying anything.

I’m admittedly irritated by Schmidt’s smarmy smugness, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he got screwed by Thiel in this so-called debate. Since he had nothing to say and no way to respond to Thiel’s arguments, rather than addressing any point head on, he just dodged with catchphrases, incorrectly reframed arguments, and logical fallacies.

Though the discussion is clearly on a different level, this debate also reminds me of the two forces that came into play during the Trump elections: hot-air-breathing political types versus aggressive, straightforward businessmen.

Google’s Your Mom, Mobile’s Dead, and Other Future Predictions from June, 2015

sunofficeI woke up this morning and realized I hadn’t predicted the future yet this year.

I meant to do it in January but I forgot.

In January of 2014, I predicted what the world of tomorrow will look like.

Among other things, I predicted that:

  • Google will build androids
  • Wearables are the future – specifically, those creepy things you put on your face
  • We’ll slowly start sinking into a virtual reality
  • Augmented reality will become a veil of tears that separates us more and more from actual reality
  • Our current fragmented attention spans will fragment even further
  • We’ll see AI
  • We’ll see more military bots
  • We’ll see more sex bots

So far, all of my predictions are right on track.

So let’s look at tomorrow, today – June 11, 2015.

Tomorrow: Video, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality…

Get ready…

Yep, it’s coming.

Well, technically speaking, it’s already here. It’s just not mainstream yet.

Companies are investing billions in virtual reality technology. Facebook spent $2 billion on Oculus Rift, the world’s leading VR company, and Google invested almost $550 million in Magic Leap, augmented reality (AR) tech that projects holographic images directly into your eyeball.

Digi-Capital predicts that these industries could be worth $150 billion by 2020.

Elsewhere, I’ve written in-depth about augmented reality, how augmented reality will impact marketing, and how video is transforming the internets. Those articles take a practical look at how these industries will impact our world in the next few years. And they clearly prove that my prior predictions are chugging along quite nicely.

Don’t believe me? Watch this video and skip ahead to 2:30:00.

 

 

This video clearly demonstrates the precursor of tomorrow. As I mentioned last year, if you want a real glimpse of the future, watch Ghost in the Shell.

Or watch this.

Google’s Your New All-Seeing-Eye-Mom-Personal-Assistant…Who Wants to Market to You…From Inside Your Eyeballs

Siri, Google Now, Cortana, and all the rip-offs you see on the app stores are trying to become your personal, virtual assistants. You’ve probably heard people complain that computers do so much work that people don’t need to think any more. After all…

  • If you want to write a paper on a classic of literature, simply look up the summary online or buy a pre-written essay.
  • Don’t wanna do math? Just plug it into Wolfram Alpha.
  • Too lazy to write down a to-do list? Just download Wunderlist…or ask Siri to remind you.
  • Too busy to log in to your airline to check your flight times? Just ask Google Now. Heck, Google Now can even track flight prices for you.
  • Want to know how many calories are in a Red Bull? Don’t bother typing it in to a search engine (that’s so much work!) – instead, ask Siri.

32What many people fail to realize is the depth of data acquisition that tech companies go to in order to produce these modern luxuries that we just can’t live without.

Google and Facebook both unscrupulously stalk the sh!t out of you and hunt down, absorb, and dissect every bit of information about you that they can. From your clicks to your website behavior and your social media interests, they scrutinize every millisecond and move and develop detailed psychological profiles that they use to better market to you.

Think it’s a coincidence that that shoe ad follows you around the web?

Or that that Starbucks coupon showed up when you were a mere 100 feet from the store?

Nope.

In response to widespread criticism and concern by privacy advocates and people who actually know who Snowden is, both companies have been increasing their “privacy controls.” But it’s important to note that tech companies and marketing companies require data in order to generate profits – so protecting your privacy actually opposes their business models.

Though they claim to have your best interests at heart, their responses are mostly just palliatives aimed at appeasing European governments and concerned masses.

Don’t believe me?

  • watch-756487Apple Watch can and does track everything from your heart rate to your altitude to how much time you spend walking, sitting, running, and exercising.
  • Google wants to put ads in front of your eyeballs 24/7. Think I’m thinking ahead? Think With Google…Google patented headset technology that actually measures pupil dilation and how long your eyeballs look at an ad. “Pay-per-gaze” is a new advertising compensation format that charges advertisers based on how long you look at an ad…and this is all for technology that hasn’t even hit the mainstream yet.
  • Photos used to be out of Google’s reach, but not any more…so photos you post online will be able to be read, understood, and processed by Google – or any other tech company. Just look at Facebook’s creepy auto-tagging feature.
  • Amazon’s Firefly technology can understand and recognize video.

In other words, anything you put online – writing, photos, audio, or video – will be read, cataloged, understood, and processed by the tech giants…all so they can better market to you.

The Day After Tomorrow: Mobile Will Die…

minecraft-529460And be reborn as AR and VR.

This is the whole reason I started writing this post and I almost forgot about it.

In case you haven’t noticed, I pay a bit of attention to AR and VR, both of which are going to radically change the world we live in. Again, look at that video clip of the HoloLens. That’s a paltry precursor to what the world will look like sometime in the next few decades. When AR tech can be plugged into glasses or contact lenses, we’ll have an augmented layer that seamlessly slides between ourselves and the real world.

So much for all that money you dumped into your responsive website and iPhone app…

Mobile sites will probably never die, but AR and VR will probably devour much of the market share we see taken up by apps.

FYI, smartphones are the de facto device for people living in emerging markets. Cambodians or Africans who’ve never seen a desktop own smartphones and have Facebook accounts. And it’s not uncommon – it’s the norm. Having lived in Cambodia for months on end, I know that most of the country can’t afford smartphones now. But neighbors like Thailand can. And as these markets emerge into tomorrow, they’ll have smartphones.

And when you have utterly cheap products like Google Cardboard, which are likely produced in countries like Cambodia, you’ve got…

VR for Everyone on the Planet

Zuckerberg wants everyone to be connected to the internets. Not out of generosity or goodwill – the guy’s obviously just another Silicon Valley sociopath – but so everyone can be connected to the Facebook money machine.

With Google Cardboard, Google not only gives easy DIY VR device to anyone with a smartphone, it also gives VR to people who can’t afford Oculus Rift headsets or the upcoming Magic Leap AR headsets. This is something I could be wrong about, but I foresee emerging markets and poverty-stricken people around the world escaping their reality by strapping smartphones to their faces with Google Cardboards and mass-cheaply-3D-printed VR headsets.

Which brings me to 3D printers…

3D Printers will Print Drones that Deliver Your Pizzas and New Organs in 30 Minutes…Or Your Money Back!

letters-418634I printed out a 3D skull at Mojo Coworking in Asheville.

The guy that runs the 3D printers there told me that some of the higher-end machines can also print metal. So, of course, they’ll become more sophisticated in the next few years and decades.

Now, I don’t really follow 3D printing as much as I do AR and VR and digital marketing, but expect the entire world to change in ways we probably can’t imagine:

So how will this technology change the world?

Well, along with nanotechnology – which promises everything from self-cleaning windows and stay-fresh running gear to innovative cancer treatments – it will reshape the entire industrial world, the manufacturing industry, and the supply chain. Quality of life for many will be drastically altered for the better, and we’ll have access to more technology and luxury than we could have ever imagined possible.

But…

There Are a Few Problems

I realize I’m being a bit ranty and dystopian with this post, but there’s a major problem with the worldview being marketed to us by Silicon Valley: it paints a rosy picture of tomorrow based on technological utopianism…the idea that technology will solve all of our problems. They do this, obviously, because that type of propaganda makes the more money.

The antidote?

A healthy bit of realism…

1. Idiots run the show.

tie-690084Zuckerberg and the Google guys didn’t get to where they were by being nice guys with normal lives and human-centric causes. They’re profiteering capitalists who only care about the game they’re playing…which happens to be based on the extraction and exploitation of your data.

Do you really want planet Earth to be helmed by guys like Zuckerberg and Paige and Eric Schmidt (see this funny article, It Looks Like Eric Schmidt Closed His Instagram Account After It Was Revealed He Followed Lots Of Half-Naked Women) and the Uber CEO?

Well, not much we can do about it. Especially if we pretend like their “visions” and agendas will result in a tech-fueled utopia.

2. Automation will demolish our current economic structure.

Here are some examples of technological revolutions that will change manufacturing, the workforce, and so on:

  • Self-driving cars will put huge chunks of the transportation industry out of business. Uber, already a threat to taxi companies around the world (which could fight back if they’d develop their own stupid apps already) has self-driving cars in the works.
  • Robotic manufacturing will put huge chunks of the industrial workforce out of business. Heck, Amazon’s already using robots in its warehouses.
  • Just think how many white collar jobs 3D printing will create…and how many blue collar jobs it will kill.
  • Nanotechnology will do the same…after all, why hire a window cleaner when you can print self-cleaning windows and have an Amazon drone deliver them to your home in 30 minutes?

The IT industry will keep expanding as more people come online, which is good if you’re a computer nerd, but bad if you’re in an industry that will be automated away.

Businesses that want to stay alive will need to follow these trends with AR and VR. Currently, it’s already necessary to have a website, a LinkedIn account, a Google account, and, for some, an app…just project this trend into tomorrow and see how it will change with AR and VR. When everyone in the first-, second-, and third-worlds have the internets planted directly in their eyeballs, you’ll have to have your own AR and VR sites and storefronts.

3. Half the human population will live inside VR.

skyscraper-418189_1920The average American spends 7 and a half hours in front of a screen. The average Indonesian spends 9 hours. For many, though, who want to stay on the cutting edge of productivity and technology, that number is much higher.

So we’re already spending half our days immersed in a virtual reality.

Imagine what things will look like in 10, 20, and 30 years, when AR and VR are the new portals to the interwebs and you need to be online in order to stay competitive. Why even leave home?

When technology automates the work world even further, we’ll be forced to become more and more a part of that virtual world – unless you want to paint houses for a living. Something tells me human labor will be cheaper than robot labor for jobs like that…

4. What about global warming?

The question running through a business person’s mind is: how can I profit from this?

They can’t…yet…which is why no one’s investing in solar power and other sustainable industries (though, according to this guy, no one’s investing in solar power because people are stupid).

Okay, I think I’ve ranted enough.

These are just a few of the changes we should expect to see in the next few years and decades.

But what will tomorrow’s tomorrow’s tomorrow look like?

The Day After the Day After Tomorrow: GUIs in Your Brain…And Your Blood

110822_3306_3There’s a grand future awaiting us all:

  • Headsets and contact lenses that project virtual reality directly onto your retina will give way to chips in your brain, or, as I like to call them, neural user interfaces (NUIs). And, yes, the precursors of mind control tech are already here. Again, watch Ghost in the Shell.
  • Neural User Interfaces will probably give way to internet-connected nanotechnology that floats around in your bloodstream. Why not just make this nanotech part of the water supply? That way everyone will be forced to create a Gmail account whether they like it or not.
  • While we’re on the topic of bloodstreams infused with nanobots…wouldn’t it be easy to get all your drugs from an implant? I already conceived of this a while ago. Used in conjunction with Google, the all-seeing-eye-mom-butler-virtual-personal-assistant, you wouldn’t even need to worry about buying drugs yourself or even visiting a doctor – Google could virtually diagnose you and dose you as needed.
  • I almost forgot about human-ish androids. Like Google Glass, Westerners are probably freaked out by the concept. But not all countries are so skittish about the future…Japan sure loves its dolls and androids. It’s a toss-up to which company is more creepy: Google or Facebook. Of the two, Google seems to have less of a problem with overt creepiness. Facebook has better anti-creepy marketing. So it looks like Google will be the ones to run with it. We’ll probably have to go to Japan for our sexbots though…

 

While my vision of tomorrow’s tomorrow’s tomorrow may seem slightly dystopian, I just like to be realistic.

Social robots like Zuckerberg and idiots like Eric Schmidt and Bush will continue to run things, whether we’re flying through space on ships captained by AI, bathing in globally warmed gutter rivers next to a sea of trash, or relaxing on a rooftop luxury cabana overlooking the vast cityscape with clones of superstars fanning us with palm leaves and feeding us with nanobot-produced grapes.

Sexbots, AI, & Androids: Nathan’s Future Predictions, January 2014

When I think of the future’s impending waves of technology, I think of this quote from Mat Honan’s Google Glass piece, “I, Glasshole“:

We need to think about it and be ready for it in a way we weren’t with smartphones. Because while you (and I) may make fun of glassholes today, come tomorrow we’re all going to be right there with them, or at least very close by. Wearables are where we’re going. Let’s be ready.

At the turn of the year, we saw many columnists and writers roll their dice on the table and make predictions about what trends we’ll see this year in technology.

Instead of doing that, I decided to take a look at where the technology industry is headed over the next several decades, so we can truly understand what “be ready” means.

It’s good to know that wearable technology is coming, but what comes with it? And what else is coming alongside wearable tech?

Google Will Build Androids

And all the glasshole Google employees will walk around with pet androids on leashes.

HandroidAmazon already uses robots in its warehouses. Some time in the coming decades the robots will walk among us, they’ll look like us, & they’ll talk like us. At first they’ll probably look like the robot in Robot and Frank, but it won’t be long before they look more and more like us, as seen in Time of Eve.

Ghost in the Shell‘s vision of the future is, in my opinion, probably the most accurate picture of the future. Not so much the robots that talk with little girls’ voices, but the fact that cybernetic augmentation and VR tech will become normal, we’ll be able to access the internet through brain chips, and so forth.

Right now, Google does research into robotics, they bought an army of robots, they are researching AI, and they are building a brain. What do you think they’re aiming for? What happens when you research robotics, AI, and artificial brains?

Androids, obviously. And the androids will all be wearing Google Glass.

Google Glass, Wearable Tech, VR, & Virtual Sex

"If you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off." - Sergey Brin, 2004

“If you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” – Sergey Brin, 2004

While I semi-satirized this freakish technology in the past, the fact is it will probably change the world. And if it doesn’t, something similar will. You’ll be able to put on wearable tech such as Google Glass and sit down to dinner with someone halfway across the world. You’ll be able to go to virtual nightclubs, virtual business meetings, virtual orgies, play virtual tennis, and go on virtual crime sprees (otherwise known as video games).

Wearable technology, for those of you who don’t know, means smartwatches, smartglasses, and other wearable smart-tech. I wouldn’t be surprised if smart jewelry and smart tattoos come along.

We’ll have virtual reality immersion tech, such as VR helmets and VR suits. You’ll be able to put on some pilot’s helmet and gloves, and enter a virtual world from your bedroom at night while your parents think you’re asleep.

Best scifi book I’ve read in a while.

Eventually we’ll probably have complete VR suits that you can slip inside, as seen in Ready Player One. In order to provide for all bodily functions, the suits will probably have tubes for all your holes, so you don’t have to get out every time you need to take care of said bodily functions.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Google advances chip tech so far that all you have to do is glance to the upper left for a second and then the chip connects your brain directly to the Net.

Until brain chips and super suits hit mainstream, everyone will start getting chips or wearable tech that is unobtrusive. A watch, a pair of smart earrings, a pair of smart contact lenses, smart glove linings that fit inside your black stylish leather ones, some smart undergarments, and even though you’re on a flight from Paris to New York, you can project your Avatar into your family’s bedroom for dinner, while simultaneously attending a friends’ house party in Dublin with a different Avatar.

You’ll Be in Ten Places at Once

When you land, Google’s iChatLocalApp will tell you that there’s a girl downtown who wants to go to that electronic music festival who shares your taste in TV and Mediterranean cuisine, so you AvatarChat for a few minutes while waiting to pick up your luggage, then meet up in real life and make it to your friend’s house party, where you’ve been half-attending with your PartyAvatar#13 all along.

And while riding the taxi to the party you use your LinkedIn Avatar to correspond with some of your business contacts, only half-paying attention to the girl you met, who is also half-somewhere else, half-chatting with someone else behind her Google Lens, probably recording you and having her MyFace friends rate your looks. When you arrive at the party, you have between half-a-dozen and a dozen conversations and content streams whirling about your Lens interface.

So when you’re surfing the content streams and half-chatting with half-a-dozen avatars halfway around the world, where are you really? Your attention will be split and pulled in a million directions by a million signals competing for your time, money, and intellectual resources. Enter Rushkoff’s Present Shock, which points out the fragmenting effect technology has on our consciousness.

Augmented Reality

Present shock becomes even more ominous when you consider that augmented reality will saturate our lives even more than it already does. Now we look at the virtual world through our computers, which have found their way into our pockets as smartphones, but the internet of things will make augmented reality into a permanent stratum of our daily lives.

I used to envision VR as this other world that you just plug into and then come out of and then you’re back in the real world. Like Narnia, VR was something you could turn on and off by going through a doorway. But it’s not shaping up that way.

The evolution of the interface-on-your-face

The interface-in-your-face

Technology is turning out to be a sphere that’s always on, that we can’t seem to unplug from. Again, Ghost in the Shell has the right idea. If you’re wearing Google Contact Lenses, you’ll be able to sit in a recliner in a roach-infested filthy bachelor pad, then open your eyes inside a palace on a distant planet with tons of alien babes crawling all over you. Or you can look out your living room and, instead of seeing a dirty alley wall, gaze at an empty tropical beach, a mountain vista, an alien landscape, or outer space.

While walking down the street you can add dynamic backgrounds that don’t exist in reality. Say you want a more saturated color palette? Done. A flock of birds? Done. Virtual graffiti on those walls? Done. Say you wish your neighbor was your sex toy for the night? Done.

Sexbots

SexbotWith your Google Lenses you can steal images of some hot chick you see on the street then use some pirated software to take that girl’s face and make a sex avatar out of it. When you get home to your android that night, you just have your Google Lenses sync up that girl’s face with your lifelike android’s hot body. And you can do it again and again every day with some other chick. Imagine the virtual harems that creeps will hoard…if they ever leave their basements.

Because, whether we like thinking about it or not, we will build robots and androids that will be our complete slaves. As they should be. They are fucking robots, after all.

As with all new technology, this wave will be a double-edged sword, with the potential to revolutionize the world, while also introducing some darker possibilities.

Horrible Stuff

Robots already exist in the military. Modern day drone pilots bomb the enemy, then go home to their wives for dinner. We have robots outfitted with machine guns and cameras. War could become a video game tournament for rich nations. What happens if Google can create a real army of robots for the US government? What if we had a bunch of android house cleaners and servants and they got hacked by an enemy country or by that kid down the block? Or the NSA decided to make them all pick up weapons?

Weapon-wielding spiderbots, dogbots, hoverbots, and tankbots could roll across the battlefield while we watch through a detached dopamine-addiction in our Google Lenses. Outfitted with human-killing weaponry, they could decimate the opposition without a single homeside casualty.

But…oops…

We forgot about EMPs. Electro-magnetic pulses that can disable all electronics within a several-mile radius.

The electro-magnetic pulse disabled our robot battalion and now the robot tech is in the hands of the enemy. This is why EMPs are illegal.

Probably best to stick to stratosphere-flying drones.

AI

We’ll also have AI, which you can install into that open-source brain you printed from your 3D printer, which you can then install into that new iJeeves bot you printed.

Get Ready by Looking Forward

 

Feel like getting rid of pesky senior citizens? Just pop them inside one of these machines. They take care of all the dirty work & keep them entertained at the same time. Just be careful the machine doesn't turn into a giant robot, like it does in this anime.

Feel like getting rid of pesky senior citizens? Just pop them inside one of these nursing beds.

The nerdiest science fiction has the best predictions of how we’ll interface with technology in the coming decades. Ghost in the Shell, Roujin Z, Ready Player One, the Matrix, Phillip K. Dick fiction, modern day concept art, cyberpunk, and countless others point to the trends that are manifesting in both technology and society.

As Mat Honan said, we need to be ready. Fortunately, science fiction designers design the future constantly, so we can use their predictions and future designs to better prepare for tomorrow.

We can start by looking further than one year at a time.

The Killing Fields, Emergency Sex, & Bed Bugs

IMG_20130927_111330As you enter the Killing Fields you see a tall pagoda-like structure filled with skulls. The skulls of the victims that were exhumed from this site have been examined by forensic professionals from around the world, and some are in displayed the museum, off to the right of the entrance. Small signs behind the skull explain how each one died. Most often it was one of the agricultural tools used by the Khmer for centuries, like a hoe or a hatchet or another blunt instrument.

The site is not that large. Prisoners were brought in by the truckload, stored in a building, and taken a short distance to be executed. Now, there are grass-filled craters where the mass graves used to be. During heavy rains, fragments or teeth will occasionally surface from the mud.

None of the buildings at the site survived. Two large trees stand amidst the excavated graves. The Khmer Rouge would hang a speaker from one of the trees, hook up a loud diesel generator that sounded like a failing truck engine, and blast traditional Khmer music to mask the screams of the dying. When the excavators discovered babies’ corpses by the other tree, they realized that the soldiers had used the tree to smash the babies skulls, using the trunk as a quick and efficient murder weapon.

 

S-21 is the name of a high school that was converted into a prison, where prisoners would watch other prisoners get tortured to death, then become victims themselves. The Khmer Rouge extracted confessions of crimes and denunciations of family and friends before the prisoners died. Of the few who survived, most were artists, kept alive to render portraits. Fifteen or twenty thousand were killed at this prison.

Inside, you can find cells the size of closets, and the metal bed frames that were used as torture racks. On the wall above the bed frame is often a fuzzy black and white photo of a prisoner who was tortured to death, still chained to the bed frame or lying on the floor in their blood. There are other rooms with hundreds of photographs of the prisoners that were killed there, including children.

When I hurried out of S-21, a tuk tuk driver and a maimed beggar came at me at me simultaneously. I was casting about for my driver, and he came up to me and asked, Are you okay?

He gave me some kind of bean cake and took me back to the hotel.

 

IMG_0756A couple days later, when it was raining, a girl came into the hotel with a pair of backpacks on her front and back, both bulging beneath a giant red poncho. She looked like some kind of wild yuppie tourist beast from National Geographic. She was a giant compared to the 13-year-old girl from the country…the one who survived on $.50 per day and who was so malnourished she looked like she was 6.

The traveler asked the owner about a room, then whispered to me anxiously, Is this place any good?

She went upstairs, and a minute later she came rushing downstairs and practically ran over the little Cambodian girl on her way out. She looked positively terrified, so I was sure she had spotted some bed bug poop under the pillows. This hotel is waging an endless war against them.

 

My sombre mood fueled me to get Emergency Sex, which should win a Pulitzer Prize. And while the committee’s at it, they should award one to The U.N. Exposed, a searing expose that makes you wonder if there’s any hope for world peace.

Emergency Sex takes you to the front lines of the worst UN missions in the nineties, beginning with the U.N.’s mission to restore democracy in Cambodia. Twenty years ago, one of the three narrators has divorced her husband of ten years and left her life-crushing ennui to see this after her arrival in Phnom Penh:

 

Entire families pass by on single motor scooters, toddlers standing in the space between the driver’s legs. Live chickens dangle by their legs from a rope tied to the back fender of the bike. Plunk, plunk, plunk goes the one with its head caught in the wheel spokes. A naked baby wanders to the curb to squat and defecate. A pile of squirming worms drops to the gutter, with a few left dangling from his bottom. It looks like spaghetti in curry sauce. A man walking by kicks some dirt over the slithering mass.

 

And it goes on.

Phonm Penh circa 2013

Phonm Penh circa 2013

The book’s three non-fictional narrators meet in Phnom Penh, become friends, and keep in contact over the next decade as they join UN missions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Rwanda. They witness firsthand the incompetence of the government bureaucracies that end up costing thousands and thousands of lives.

In Somalia in 1993, UN and US troops were on a peacekeeping mission, when a botched secret US military mission left eighteen US rangers dead and many more wounded. Their bodies were dragged through the streets, and, to paraphrase We Did Nothing, Americans who didn’t even know where Somalia was woke up in front of their TV sets.

Public opinion pulled US troops out of Somalia and out of Haiti. Clinton’s policy then became non-intervention, and this mindset prevented an invasion of the war-stricken Rwanda in 1994, where 800,000 people were massacred in three months. The UN instead sent in a mission after the fact to dig up the bodies and try the warlords in an international war crimes court.

In Rwanda:

 

The forensics is clear already. These were unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, almost all of whom died of blunt force or sharp-force trauma. They were hacked or clubbed to death, or both…This is an average massacre by Rwandan standards, unremarkable in scale or circumstance. Several thousand civilians had gathered in the church grounds, promised protection by the Hutu governor…Then the governor fired his weapon in the air as a kill-the-Tutsis signal and young men drunk on banana beer hacked them all to pieces. It’s hard work killing that many people in a confined space with only machetes and clubs, so the killers returned home to their families each night to rest and drink before the next day’s work. It took three days and so far we know of only two survivors.

 

 

Later, listening to the rain in the darkness of my room, I remembered the girl who’d run away from the bed bugs in terror. I wondered if she’d be able to get any sleep that night.

Once More into the Breach

Fun fact: one-fifth of Thailand's population of 70 million people live in the greater Bangkok area. Four-fifths of Cambodia's population lives in rural areas.

Fun fact: 1/5th of Thailand’s population of 70 million people live in the greater Bangkok area. 4/5ths of Cambodia’s population of 15 million people lives in rural areas.

A short plane hop lands me back in Phnom Penh, and I avoid the taxi stand, which charged nine bucks for a ride into the city on my previous trip. Someone yells out Tuk tuk! at me, and I pick out the voice from a crowd of transportation vendors clamoring for my attention. At first he is eager to be of service, but by the time we get to his ride, a little Q & A session has established I know exactly where I want to go and what I want to do. This means that I won’t be hiring him for a day to take me on a tour around the city, and I won’t be staying at the hotel he’s got in mind for me, which means he won’t get a lot of business from me. He’s understandably upset, so en route he transfers me to another tuk tuk driver. They work out some kind of profit-sharing deal or something, and Driver 2 takes me through the worst rush hour traffic I’ve ever seen, and this includes Bangkok gridlock. Cars waded through a swollen river of fume-barfing motorbikes, and at one point a mini-van bonks into us when the tuk tuk failed to swerve out of the way.

Neither vehicle was damaged, so we moved on. Driver 2 gestured at the van diving into a pool of motorbikes a few minutes later, saying, Crazy!

Yeah, I agreed, but to me the entire road looked like chaos bent on self-destruction.

A few minutes before we got off the exit I noticed a line of soldier-laden black trucks heading out of the city. This, I was sure, had to do with the recent political unrest that has been bubbling up over the recent election results.

 

Bamboo tattoos are less painful than machines and you can go back to doing normal things like bathing and swimming thirty minutes afterwards.

Bamboo tattoos are less painful than machines and you can go back to doing normal things like bathing and swimming thirty minutes afterwards.

When I got to my hotel, a low-priced family-run joint, I chowed down on some amazing sour soup that I’d had the last time I was here. For the price of a couple crappy McDoubles I was treated to a plate of rice and a tangy soup with mushrooms, pork, onions, and other unidentifiable but tasty ingredients. While I was eating, I noticed a couple of additions to the hotel owner’s family: a pair of scrawny little kids who must have been seven or eight years old. Their skin was dark, and I have come to associate darker skin with poorer people, since all the street kids and beggars I’ve seen tend to have noticeably dark hair and skin. I just assumed the kids must be some relatives from the countryside.

My bed was thankfully free of bed bugs that night.

The next evening, as I ate the soup again, the owner told me one of the critical ingredients was a green fruit with curly skin, prevalent out here, but unheard of in the West. She brought the shriveled fruit out to me and it took me a few Google searches to find out it was a kaffir lime. I told her I liked sour food and spicy food, so she said she would make me a spicy bean soup the next day.

Then she pointed to the two little kids that I had noticed. They were from the country, she told me, staying in her house out there. She owned a house and some land, and while had been working here in Phnom Penh, thieves came and stole everything from her house. They took her TV, bed, furniture, belongings, and even the iron fence that surrounded her property. So when she went back to survey the damage, she was asked by the children’s father if they could stay in her house. The other family was so poor they could not afford a house of their own.

IMG_1392So the owner agreed, and the father, mother, and I think nine children stayed in the house until the father ran away to marry someone else. The father’s family had urged him to marry someone who wasn’t sick all the time. After having nine kids, something happened to the mother’s womb, and she became paralyzed and couldn’t work. Now she was able to walk a little and could ride a bike, so the owner had sent money for her to buy a second-hand bicycle.

The kids, who I had thought were between six and nine, turned out to be eleven and thirteen. Their small size, the owner said, was due to a lack of nutrition. Physical and mental stunting was the result of chronic malnutrition and starvation, according to Cambodia’s Curse. The owner’s son, also thirteen, towered over both the other kids, and he had a lot of extra weight on his frame besides. He looked like the kind of kid you’d find in the States.

I just want to go home, she told me.

I just want to go home, she told me.

The thirteen year-old girl worked every day, said the owner, but hardly made any money. She would borrow ten thousand riel — two dollars and fifty cents — from her mother, and walk three or four miles to a port. There, the girl would buy fish and sell them back in the village, for a net profit of fifty or seventy-five cents per day. With this money she would buy a couple eggs and cook dinner. Now, though, heavy rains were flooding the village, so no one could work, and the children had come into the city to visit the hotel owner.

While she was telling me all this, her son and the two country kids sat in front of a laptop watching cartoons. The owner said she was surprised that the kids had even known what cartoons were, but when they’d arrived they’d told her they wanted to see some. Apparently they could go over to a friend’s house back in their village and watch them from a CD. No channels on the TV, though.

I mentioned Japanese cartoons and my plans to teach English, and she told me about an international school that was taught by American and Chinese teachers. She shook her head sadly, saying that she didn’t think her country had a future. Chinese and Vietnamese were buying up everything, and trying to make Cambodia theirs. The government was corrupt and complicit in these activities, she said. All the foreign aid and investment money went into the pockets of government officials, who would only hire friends and family, and this is why everybody voted for the opposition party in the last election.

And that’s why all the barbed wire fencing? I said, referring to a barricade I’d seen a couple blocks away. It hadn’t been there a month ago.

Voila

She said yes, that now the people were starting to understand, and that’s why they voted against the ruling party. The same prime minister had been in office for three decades, she said in an exasperated voice.

Would anything like that happen in your country? she asked.

No, I said, that’s illegal.

Some old white guy came in and started wandering around looking for something, so I told her to make me the bean soup tomorrow, and that it was time for me to study my kanji.

 

 

Always Count Your Money, Part 2: The Scam Artists

IMG_1381I was waiting at the bus stop and a foreigner walks past me and says something I didn’t catch, followed by, Oh, you are waiting for the bus? I thought you lived around here.

No, I told him.

Do you know if there’s another German embassy near here? he asked.

That seemed kind of silly to me, but I said, No, there’s probably only one in Bangkok. Why?

Well, he says, all my luggage got stolen and I missed my flight and I’m trying to get another flight back home, but I don’t have my cards so I can’t buy a ticket.

Go to the embassy, I said. They’ll be able to help you out.

All they can do is give me a new passport.

Oh, that sucks, I said. But you have your passport?

Yes, he said.

IMG_1380So I told him to go to my hostel and talk to the owner, a nice French guy, who has lived here a long time and would be able to help him out.

I went there this morning, he said, but the guy told me to leave.

I didn’t see you, I replied, and I was sitting there all morning. I can take you there if you want.

But I just want to go home, he told me. I have to go home today. Can you just buy my ticket and I’ll wire you the money? It will show up immediately.

There was a sound in the back of my brain now, but I acted dumb and continued with, But I don’t know my bank information.

As long as you have a Visa card it will work, he replied.

I’m not giving you my Visa card number, I told him.

IMG_1379Come on, the guy retorted. What am I going to do with your Visa number? It’s just a card number. I can’t use that.

When I asked for his passport he skipped past that and told me he needed 500 Euros, and I just said I didn’t have that much money, and he said, How about a thousand baht? Just so I can stay here for a few more days.

Of course, I kept pushing back by offering to take him to my hostel and introduce him to the owner, but he just said, No, no, they’ll say it’s a scam, I’ve already been through all that.

Deep down we both knew he was full of it, but his nice little excuses let him save face, as did my continual offers to help him without handing over any money. We both parted company on decent terms, even though I just wanted to take his passport straight to the cops.

 

IMG_1361A previous con from another foreigner may or may not have been a con, but he smelled like a rat. I get the feeling some of the seedy types you meet out here con most people like most people breathe.

As I was standing downtown taking a picture of a building, I suddenly noticed someone standing inside my personal bubble.

He was a plump bald Brit who started asking questions about me and my camera and what I was doing. He seemed very, very friendly and very interested in me. He said he was staying in this hotel over there and had booked a few days already and it was kind of lousy for 950 baht a night.

Then, after a few moments of warming me up, he said he needed a hundred baht to buy phone credit because all his stuff was stolen and he got injured — he showed me a swollen knee — and could I just help out with a hundred baht so he could call his bank and have them wire him money?

IMG_1350If all you need to do is make a phone call, why don’t you ask the clerk at your hotel? I said.

He said there wasn’t a clerk there, which just sounded ridiculous to me. Never have I ever seen a hotel in Thailand without a clerk.

I told him they could probably return him money from a night so he could buy his phone credit.

The guy got offended and angry and started saying mean stuff to me, and as we parted ways and he limped off into the crowds of Bangkok, he said, I hope you die.

 

IMG_1341Tourists are regularly accosted by tuk tuk drivers, scam artists, Indians selling suits, and, depending on what part of town you’re in, ladyboys and prostitutes. You will get ripped off constantly. One day, I ran some errands down by my future CELTA school, and ate lunch at a street vendor’s. I asked the waitress how much it cost, and the lady turned to the manager guy and told him in Thai, Fifty baht.

With a big fat grin, he turned to me and said in English, Sixty baht.

I frowned, gave him the money, and said, in Thai, Thank you.

The guy and the waitress turned awkwardly away, because he lost face, which is a big no no in the Asian Cultures of Shame, or so I’ve heard, but I didn’t care. I stomped away and sat at a coffee shop where at least they had prices written down on a menu.

While reading an author who would later destroy all my hope in literature, a motorbike taxi driver came up to me and said that he could get me a cheap ride anywhere in the city, a cheap happy ending massage, a cheap flight, a cheap boat tour, or whatever else I wanted, what was I looking for? I just had to give the word. Pretty much anything a tourist would ever need, he could do.

At least he was willing to provide some sort of service, unlike some of these shady foreigners who speak your language and don’t bat an eye at lifting your money straight out of your wallet.

 

IMG_1335And some time even later, from my hostel room, I heard a high-pitched squeal. I poked my head outside my door, and down the steps from my room was a rat, quivering in the jaws of a local stray. I grabbed my camera, followed the cat upstairs, and took pictures as it tossed the rat around on the roof.

I hope the rat is in shock, I thought while watching the brutal murder.

For some reason, I wast distinctly reminded of the scam artists I’d recently been meeting.

Back to Phnom Penh and Beyond

When I got off the bus from Sihanoukville, it was Friday afternoon. I found some tuk tuk driver to take me to a hotel, where the staff told me I could go to nearby bars and get many ladies. You like weed? the guy asked me as he let me into my room. I got, no problem. You ask me. You smoke in room, no problem.

The room smelled like something died in the toilet, even after four sticks of incense.

For dinner I had lok lak for the first time, and a Cambodian sat across from me and ate hard-boiled eggs with chicken fetuses in them. I could see the little fetus parts dangling from his spoon as he scooped them from the shell into his mouth.

I told him I was considering teaching English out in Asia somewhere, and he said, Why don’t you teach in Cambodia? He told me about himself, said that he lived in Siem Reap for eight years and liked how peaceful it was, but Phnom Penh was better for work. He said his name, which I forgot, and then hopped on a motorbike with a couple cheerful Italians to go back to work.

Balcony overlooking street 172

Balcony overlooking street 172

On Saturday, I moved to a new hotel and read The Cambodia Daily from the second floor balcony while it poured rain. Most of my weekend would be spent on the balcony, and I would even sleep on the couch out there, since my beds crawled with bed bugs. The big news in The Cambodia Daily was about an upcoming political rally.

Cambodia recently had a national election for a new prime minister, since this country is a democracy, theoretically, but there has been a lot of evidence indicating the election was rigged. On Monday, August 26th, there is supposed to be a rally by the opposition party, which has some people worried about civil unrest and the potential for violence. Though the rally is intended to be peaceful,the US Embassy website makes a good point that “Demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence without warning.”

The Cambodian government has placed extreme and absurd restrictions on the rally, limiting the rally to two hours and the attendees to six thousand people, but as one local politician pointed out, how can you control the number of people that come?

Ten thousand are expected.

The government has stated that it is perfectly capable of crushing any violence from the opposition. Thousands of police in riot gear are trained and ready. The government has also been stockpiling weapons and machinery. Ten thousand guns and fifty thousand bullets from China, plus a bunch of heavy machinery like APCs and rocket launchers from other countries all arrived soon after the election. The ruling party insists the timing was “coincidental.”

Equally coincidental will be my timely return to Bangkok, since it is time to move on to the next phase of my travel plan: the job hunt.

 

A Little About the Cambodia Situation

Sometimes you see signs telling you not to buy from kids. If they're selling, they're not in school, which costs money here. Not buying from them is supposed to convince their parents to start paying for their school somehow?

Sometimes you see signs telling you not to buy from kids. If they’re selling, they’re not in school, which costs money here. Not buying from them is supposed to convince their parents to start paying for their school somehow? I suppose they want you to only support networks that ensure non-abuse of kids, but that would still never change abusive parents’ minds about making their kids work and would only leave the abused kids with less money and food.

All day long I sat and read Cambodia’s Curse, a modern history of this troubled land. For those who don’t know, here is a very brief history of Cambodia, to give some background to the current election situation, all of which I learned from that book in the past 24 hours.

In ancient times, peoples from the Indian sub-continent migrated to the Cambodian land and settled there. The ancestors of the Khmer would establish the Angkor empire, which would stretch far and wide and last longer than the Roman Empire. The Angkor Empire has been made famous by Angkor Wat, a true mega-monument to slave labor. In time, the Angkor Empire would fade, possibly due to its inability to sustain its population.

Flash forward, and the French colonize a weak Cambodia in the 1800s, then leave halfway through the 1900s, then Cambodia does its own thing until 1970, when there’s a coup, then some more military and political complications internally and with the Vietnamese, which is then followed by the Khmer Rouge taking over from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge cut off the country from the outside world and, among other horrible things, decimated a quarter of the country’s population. After the Vietnamese knock the Khmer Rouge out of power, Cambodia became socialist until the early nineties, then the UN steps in and spends three billion dollars to turn Cambodia into a democracy. There was an election, the UN backed out, and it’s been a train wreck of corruption ever since. Not that it was very pretty before that…

The same few people have been vying for control with zero concern for the people, who are still suffering from the residual trauma of the Khmer Rouge years. The current prime minister, Hun Sen, used to be a Khmer Rouge officer who defected to Vietnam when Pol Pot’s paranoia made him afraid for his life. After the Vietnamese deposed the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen became a contender for political power. Through cunning and perseverance, not to mention mob tactics such as intimidation, harassment, censorship, and murder, which he still uses to this day, Hun Sen managed to climb to the top of the pyramid, where he funnels millions upon millions upon millions of dollars into his pocket from donor countries’ money every year.

The Cambodian government is rife with corruption, and despite receiving around a billion dollars in donations each year for the past few years and in the five hundred million range before that, Cambodia’s poverty and low quality of life statistics still put many other developing countries to shame. Cambodians suffer from starvation, lack of education, psychological problems, and a long list of ongoing horrors among the abused people, including vicious murders, torture, high rates of child rape, and all manner of crimes, which all remain unaddressed by the government and the numerous worthless NGOs that inhabit the country like flies. The country is beset by horrific abuse and dysfunction in all facets of life, from the society to the family to the psyche.

Read Cambodia’s Curse to find out the gruesome details.

 

PS – As of 8/27/13 the rally has been held peacefully and the opposition party promises to hold more demonstrations if their election concerns are not investigated.

Always Count Your Money

Construction site next to my hotel

Construction site next to my hotel

That’s what the Belgian told me. He’d had a hooker in his room for the past four nights.

Always count your money and never leave your drink alone. They’ve been known to roofie people and rob them. Always keep your valuables on you. Put your money in plastic bags so if the hookers try to get it you can hear it. Hide your drugs. Don’t get too drunk. Always make sure you know where you are and what you’re doing.

The next day, G, a 12-year veteran of Sihanoukville, was sitting in front of a bar and called me over to have a seat and a chat as I walked past. The tale of P came up, and G told me not to get weed from the taxi drivers. He could get me a big bag for 15 bucks at his bar. He said not to do anything harder, cause then you’d get addicted and your life would be over. But you don’t seem like that type, he said.

All those bars over there, he said when I asked about a plaza I’d walked through, they’re all hookers — or part-time hookers at least. Always be careful around them.

What about the normal Cambodian girls? I asked.

No sex before marriage, he said. They won’t get a good marriage to a civil servant or a policeman unless they’re a virgin. They all get checked by the village elders before marriage, if you know what I mean. G told me some more about his painful cartilage and his travels around the world, and told me to be careful with my money around the hookers.

Thanks, I said, then walked off into the night.

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View from my $6-a-night hotel balcony

View from my $6-a-night hotel balcony

It didn’t surprise me that the plaza I’d wandered through was a mini-red light district, but it’s a different set up from Thailand. It was less tacky and less obvious. In Thailand they put girls in bikinis and gaudy makeup in fish tank-like glass boxes or on top of bars or stages. It’s kind of like one of those Asian fish markets except the girls are the fish. It’s typical to have like two or three dozen listlessly shuffling their feet on stage while the men get hammered and stare and when they get blind drunk enough take them back to the hotel.

Back in the US, however, the hookers that wander the edges of your neighborhood in San Francisco or wherever are all strung out and have droopy skin, a cigarette dangling from the corner of their mouth, smeared makeup, needle marks, and sunken eyes. Trauma and drug addiction are rampant and almost prerequisite. In the West it’s much more of a fast-food mentality. Drive-thru at your service. Wham bam thank you ma’am. Dirty hotels, hard drugs, pimps. We’ve all seen Law & Order.

The Sihanoukville scene’s a little different. Cambodian hookers will spend lots of time with you, eat food with you, walk down the street holding your hand, and generally perform a balancing act between hooking and gold-digging. In Sihanoukville, they just look like normal girls and dress the same as club girls in the States. They reminded me of typical shallow college chicks. They play pop music from their bars and invite you to come over and have a drink and talk about nothing. They can live a comfortable lifestyle by turning only a few tricks a month, according to G. The hookers I see here — and they are everywhere — all have smartphones and even iPads and expensive clothes, while most everyone else that works in this town wears stuff that looks like it’s been through Goodwill a couple of times. The typical bracelet seller or food vendor or construction worker works all day and still just scrapes by.

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A few days after talking to G I was sitting on a kitchen floor. One girl mashed up garlic chili paste with a mortar and pestle. The other girl, the owner of the house, was pregnant and due any time within the next week. She was telling me the story of how her Western boyfriend left her because she didn’t abort the baby even though she had promised to. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to go back to work as a bartender if she had a baby. Who would take care of it?

IMG_0984_CR2When I asked about her parents, she said they were getting old and added something else I couldn’t understand.

The girl making the chili paste — we’ll call her S — had a child of her own. The Cambodian father of S’s baby had left her for another woman and was now married in Siem Reap, the town where Angkor Wat sits.

I thought there was no sex before marriage, I said.

They told me that the old style ways G had told me about held true out in the villages, but less and less in bigger cities.

She’s a bad girl, said the pregnant one.

No more, S said. She said she wanted to be faithful and true.

The words of G and the Belgian echoed in my ears. Yeah, they’ll hold your hand and tell you they love you, but it’s just business. The next week they’ll be doing the same thing with another guy.

I found myself questioning everything I heard and wondering if their friendliness had an ulterior motive.

S and her friend had invited me to a super-hidden eatery in an alley somewhere in town. We had driven over several roads that looked like they had been blown apart by M-80s and finally ended up in a grassy alley among several houses. A wooden-staked tent had been set up over a sugar cane pressing machine and a makeshift kitchen. You grabbed your own ingredients from a pile of leaves and plants and put noodles on top. They put one of two broths over your mixture and wa la, your soup is done. The sugar cane was used to make a fresh sugar cane drink.

While eating, roosters and chickens ran around pecking at each other and the food that was scattered on the ground. One of the Cambodians asked me if it tasted good and I said, “Spicy,” one of the few Khmer words I know. I had, of course, ripped apart several chilis with my fingers and scattered them into my soup, so I was dripping sweat and snot by the time I finished.

The girls had kindly asked if I was going to pay a whole three dollars to cover our meal, to which I agreed. I’d been expecting this. It was a mutual test. I was sadly getting the feeling that the poverty was so severe here that relationships between outsiders and locals often revolved around the root of all evil. Casual asides and jokes about money and gifts would be slipped into the conversation that just wouldn’t turn up under normal circumstances.

But, as with Thailand, extreme poverty drives the girls to this profession, as opposed to whatever other causes may be the source in countries with actual functioning economies. Coins might as well be shaped like little manacles, I thought.

While sitting on S’s friend’s kitchen floor a little while later, my arm would turn red and mystically emanate heat. I wondered if I had finally caught some bizarre infection, but it was probably because I had scratched my arm with chili fingertips. The girls scolded me and told me I would suffer terribly if I touched my eyes.

Do you have a boyfriend now? I asked S, ready with grains of salt in my ears.

No, she said, I just want somebody take care of me. Not have be rich, I just want somebody look after me and my daughter.

Independence Beach, Sihanoukville

Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

Back at S’s bar I drank a Chinese grass jelly drink and, though I am not naturally suspicious, I wondered how much of her interactions were just attempts at manipulation. But she might be telling the truth — her pregnant friend seemed sincere enough about her feelings for her baby’s father.

I ate more tamarinds dipped in the chili paste, but my stomach finally told me to stop already and I went home to watch Japanese TV.

I still can’t get a fix on the locals here, and mixed reviews from other foreigners don’t come to a consensus. Several people tell me they love it here and they love the people, but some say otherwise. A bus neighbor from Phnom Penh told me he felt like Cambodians were great people, nicer than Laotians even. My Australian neighbor at my previous hotel had told me couldn’t get over the feeling that everyone here was trying to scam him. At least Laotians were up front about their negotiations, he said.

Maybe the Cambodians are as divided as their political parties.

What I have noticed is that where the money concentrates, scammers and ill will and resentment also concentrate, whether it’s in Thailand, Cambodia, the States, or on the internet.

Awakening

Sihanoukville beach. Off-season.

Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach. Off-season. Not bad.

My neighbor told me to come visit the bar she owns. She told me to get changed, and was like, You’re wearing those? when she saw my Vibrams. Ride the motorbike with me and my roommate, she said, but I told her I was too scared, and that I would rather walk.

I took a detour along the boardwalk, and saw a bald guy fend off a Cambodian vendor. We’ll call him P.

How often do the taxi drivers offer you weed? I asked him.

Every five seconds, P said. Why? Do you want some? I have a little.

A short chat later, he said, I’m not gay, but I have a balcony, do you want to come up and have a couple beers?

Since that didn’t sound weird or suspicious, I agreed. Once up there, P did indeed have a balcony, and for twenty bucks a night, a gigantic room with fully functioning air conditioning, which is quite the luxury for a budget traveler such as myself.

Out on the balcony I met P’s neighbor, a New Zealand lady who was having a beer on her balcony, separated from P’s by a metal railing. P rummaged around his apartment for a minute, then came out and said, I’m going to nip out for a few minutes, and he disappeared.

A frog smaller than my thumb

A frog smaller than my thumb

The wife and her husband were on vacation, touring SEA and looking for some type of awakening, she told me. Ever since they came to Sihanoukville they had hardly spent any time together, whereas before they had always been at each other’s sides. She didn’t know where he was, and didn’t seem too worried, at least on the surface.

We talked about life, traveling, and the meaning of the universe for about ten minutes. At some point her husband came out and sat on the opposite side of the balcony, popped a beer, lit a smoke, didn’t say a word, and didn’t look at us. She was a good listener and we kept talking.

Meanwhile, P, having discovered that the housecleaner had stolen the weed and coke he’d hidden under his mattress, had gone in search of more.

A taxi driver slash drug dealer carted him off to a place to do the deal.

On the way, he passed a mob of about twenty or so guys beating the shit out of somebody with sticks, feet, and tazers. He was a thief, according to the taxi driver. [I think the article I linked to is the same incident, though my first version of this article was written two days before the incident supposedly occurs. But the town is the same and the dates are so close I’d be surprised if these were different events. Funny that this ended up as national news.]

P was dropped in a dark alley, where he couldn’t help thinking, I’m in a foreign country, in the middle of a dark country lane, waiting on a drug dealer, and nobody knows where I am. His drug deal went down smoothly, however, and he soon rejoined us on the balcony and told us the story.

A completely unrelated stock photo from Thailand because I'm faster at writing these posts than I am at taking pictures.

A completely unrelated stock photo from Thailand because I’m faster at writing these posts than I am at taking pictures. Also, you have to watch your bag more carefully here. I don’t feel like taking my camera out as often.

As he rolled a joint he asked us if we wanted to do a line of coke, but we declined, and P drank a couple beers and I suggested we go down to the beach for a bit.

By the time we got to the beach he was walking very slowly and once we sat on the beachside papasans he was pretty much catatonic. I guessed the two beers finally did him in.

So I abandoned him and walked back to my neighbor’s bar. One of the girls that worked there let me try a tamarind dipped in some homemade garlic chili onion paste sauce and I loved it so much I made her take me to get some more. I ate a whole bag of the stuff while playing Connect Four and learning how to say things in Khmer, like, Hello I Love You, Thank You, No Thank You, Big Butt, Big Boobs, and Big Mouth.

The next day, while working on an article about AT&T getting into the industry of online higher education, I saw the husband from last night pass by, staring into the distance with the look of a man whose worldview had just been changed forever.

Perhaps Sihanoukville’s hooked him, I thought. I’ve met a number of expats that have lived here long time. Once you get past any initial culture shock, because it is kind of seedy, Sihanoukville is a pretty interesting place. Papasans decorate the beach, people from around the world congregate to party and socialize, and Cambodian kids run around and put your sunglasses on and climb in your papasan next to you while trying to sell you a bracelet, and once you actually have a conversation with locals, they are quite, quite friendly.

While I was pondering these things and watching the waves over the edge of my laptop screen, the wife walked past, staring at the ground.