The Conquistador’s Lament

I’ve put off writing the concluding post to the Latin America leg of the Conquest for long enough. It is time to try to put into words what the constantly smiling gringo felt so vividly for two weeks.

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We went to Iguazu Falls for Ben and the girls’ last leg of the trip. After 36 hours, Ben would fly off to Ibiza and the girls would continue onto Brazil for the next leg of their trip. I was heading back to Buenos Aires, excited about the prospect of exploring on my own terms, but missing the companionship of more travel partners I might never see again.

I checked into a hostel called “The Pink House.” That is a play on the name of the presidential mansion in Buenos Aires, known as Casa Rosada. It was spartan but clean in the Recoleta neighborhood, which I wanted to explore from instead of our further west initial place in trendy Palermo.

Recoleta is not really setup for tourists outside of the few blocks around the famed cemetery that holds Evita’s remains along with the dearly departed phenomenal mausoleum builders, some of which are seen below. Past that, it is very much a nice but ungentrified neighborhood in Central BA, serving as a portal to the governmental and financial districts. It is also a Jewish district, bringing me back to my first international travels where the herd of the very Catholic Stall family stuck out like sore thumbs among the Abraham Lincoln-esque costumes in the Jewish Orthodox neighborhood of Westminster.

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I found some fine restaurants around the area, as well as a very overrated hamburguesa. There were plenty of cafes to hole up in on a rainy day, reading Seneca and then the mindblowing Kierkegaard. My appreciation for comprehensible philosophy grew in an unbelievable way. It is one thing to try to tackle Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is something vastly different to read Seneca’s common language letter to his best friend.

My days were filled with walking through antique shops on the way to the next cafe, late nights at jazz clubs, and treating myself to phenomenal steaks and Malbecs. Vicky continued to show me around in BA in a way that I never could’ve seen as a tourist, and the experiences continued to be incredible.

On Sunday morning, I trudged through a persistent drizzle towards San Telmo, about 4 miles from my hostel. About ⅔ of the way there, I got tired of being rained on and decided to get a coffee and a sandwich in the next cafe I came across. Bar de Cao was a relic from another age. 115 years old, it had wine bottles all over the walls, important documents from the history of Buenos Aires that had been signed there, and a spiked coffee named after Hemingway to boot.

There were 4 waitresses, one older and the other three about my age. They took turns swooping in on the gringo, with the short one (though still wearing 3 inch multicolored foam platforms on the bottom of her black sneakers) taking the first turn.

As my coffee turned into a ham sandwich, which turned into a glass of Malbec, the girls all took their turn seeing what they could get the blue eyed gringo to say. I sat there writing about one of them, as I often do while people watching.

Describing a living breathing person in minute detail who is interacting with the world and only very rarely you, that is a powerful writing exercise. The way she buttered the toast that she kept munching on, and the rhythm of her fingernails clicking the bar. The things that her body language said as she interacted with other patrons and staff. The way her mole wiggled as she laughed at my broken Spanish, and the muted one heeled turn she employed when walking away. All of these things are what makes real characters in fiction, a keen look at behaviors without becoming a direct (and therefore contaminating) influence. I’d be willing to wager great money that more than a few famous characters were the result of people watching in a bar with a notebook.

I sat there, writing away, both a character description and the outline of a novel, as I continued to soak up all the sensory perceptions that I could in a place that I might never come to again. Suddenly the older waitress comes bombing over to my table and says “Bag! You bag!”

Pretty startled from my dreamlike character study, I patted my wallet and said “No bag. All good.” She quickly grabbed a bartender who then grabbed the man sitting with his back to me at the table behind me, tossing him into the street. Apparently the man was feeling my coat, which was full of $400 worth of pesos, as I had just exchanged money that morning. The waitresses, now clucking around hen-like, never gave me more than 5 minutes without a visit again.

This was great service.

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As I paid my bill, a comical $13 for 2 glasses of wine, a sandwich and a spiked coffee, I used my newly acquired Spanish to ask my muse for directions to the San Telmo market. Her body language immediately changed into one I hadn’t yet recognized, one leaning slightly forward in a vulnerable position, made incredibly disconcerting to an American boy with a huge weakness for Latin American women. We stumbled through my request, plenty of looking down and laughing as we both butchered the other’s language. Finally I got my directions and put on my green rain shell, and as I walked away from her, she lightly brushed my shoulder with her outstretched hand, raising the hair down my spinal column like contact with light electricity.

Vowing in blood to teach myself Spanish upon return to the US. I set off to a bookstore to find a Spanish fairy tale book to read to the ever growing legion of kids that my friends continue to hand off to “dear Uncle Moorman.” I figure start small and work up. No way I’m going to get anything out of trying to read Borges in Spanish.

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The next day, as I boarded the plane, I said goodbye to a country that found its way into my heart in the first 3 hours of my arrival, I wondered if I would get back. I tell myself I will, but then again there are a lot of places in that category at this point. International flights are the expensive part of travel, and that budget is shrinking rapidly as the business requires capital to grow.

Someday, when we get the business humming like it should, maybe I’ll go back. But it’ll be different, it always is. A few of the restaurants I grew to love will be out of business for one reason or another, the currency will have appreciated so that my beloved $12 steak is now $25. Vicky will be on assignment in Paraguay, or whatever far flung reaches of Latin America offer Deloitte the most billable hours, and the red wine won’t ever taste as sweet as that first Carmenere on the veranda of our AirBnB in Palermo.

Maybe that’s a pessimistic way to look at it, and I should adopt Ben’s travel thesis of, “every time in a place is different. It is the traveller’s job to separate them and don’t let the bad bleed into the magic of a first impression.”

Well that’s not quite how he says it, but it is the gist.

My time in Buenos Aires was incredibly magical. To kiss a gorgeous, intelligent and (really freaking tall) Argentinian girl in the midnight rain down a sidestreet lit up only by the neon of restaurants and bars, as you’ve just walked out of seeing a 17 piece jazz band that resolutely reconfirmed your love of live music. To walk back soaked to the bone, with a smile on your face because you stole a scene in life that is only real in the movies.

That’s magic.

That is undeniable, in your face, think about it on your deathbed with a smile on your face stuff.

Most of the time we let all of our moments bleed together, letting the bad stain the good with marks that won’t come off, but why? What do we gain by trying to compress our experience into a format where the greatest are marred by the average and the mundane?

So many moments of my life are compressed into a slurry that reminds me of the stuff inside of chicken nuggets. Sure, I think back on years of my life and I have some memory that will make me smile, but these are momentary placeholders in years of forgettable (and forgotten) experiences. A stolen chicken nugget tastes great, but eating the box of 20 at McDonald’s is a shit way to spend the 3 hours after a meal.

I am so glad that I’ve realized this early, and made it my goal in life to appreciate moments in real time. How few times do we realize how truly content we are in the moment itself? Most of the time it is the bitter memory of a time that was better than now, picked from the slurry of forgettable years.

Moments like that don’t just happen on travel. They happen every day. It is the “Eureka!” moment that comes in the business when you realize where the funding is coming from, or it is the moment when you take your highly technical designs to a Purdue professor, and have him stand up impressed.

These are moments that have to be savored in the moment to be properly remembered in the future. It is not a quantity race. It isn’t an Instagram picture from Greece with 200 likes in a moment that you don’t really remember because you were hammered. It can be the sunrise coming over a cornfield, or a moment of achievement after work well done. It can be the first time that baby grabs your hand, or the moment when your 6 year old finally starts turning his shoulders and hitting everything in sight in Coach’s Pitch.

It is about recognizing it, not has a hazy also ran picked from the lot, but as a vivid experience that gives you strength to think about.

As Seneca said in that letter to his friend, “Everyone hurries his life along and is troubled by a longing for the future and a weariness for the present.”

Don’t be that person. Don’t be caught in a trap of “tomorrow will be different.” Live a life as a collection of moments that you will think back on in the past and say, “Well if I made it out of a 14 mile mapless bicycle odyssey around Buenos Aires in the dark, surely I can make it through this.”

That navigation fiasco could’ve been a real game changer in my time in Argentina. I could’ve had a real go at Ben and ruined our dynamic for the rest of the trip. Instead, it ends up being one of the truly treasured experiences of my trip, one where I learned to just keep pedaling and figure it out.

When I got back and did tersely tell Ben that he left me without a map and I didn’t appreciate it, he incredulously looked at me and said, “Listen mate, you’re an independent guy and you figured it out, I don’t see the problem.” He didn’t, and after 2 glasses of red wine, I didn’t either.

Nothing was irreparably broken, so why not enjoy the next sip of wine and let it go?

That’s a life worth living, where our triumphs are learned from and remembered, and our failures are learned from and left to the slurry of unfocused memories.

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I’m glad I figured that out now, I’ve still got quite a few years before the scales fell from my eyes to catch up on.

There is truly wisdom to be learned from men who wrote down how to not take life too seriously. I’m glad that I stumbled upon Seneca and his brand of no nonsense Stoicism. To read it, take it in and digest it was truly a gift to have been done in Buenos Aires. To look around and say that I am in this moment and there is no where else I’d rather be, because tomorrow this won’t be the same. That’s a truly magical experience, no matter where it is.
Look for a few more of those. You’ll thank me when you find them.

The 4th in Foreign Lands

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus

Happy Birthday America!

238 years old. Quite a respectable age.

You’ve managed to stay intact through a Civil War which nearly ripped you in half.

You fought on behalf of liberty in two World Wars which enveloped you from across the globe, and even in victory, you magnanimously invited the vanquished back into the global community with open arms.

You’ve welcomed, albeit occasionally with gritted teeth, the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” of immigrants unwanted in their native lands and assimilated them into a society which has grown to be the richest in the world.

You faced down the threat of nuclear annihilation and the dehumanizing spectre of Communism largely with soft power instead of the destruction that total war brings.

For nearly two and a half centuries, you’ve held true to those most sacrosanct of ideals espoused by your Founding Fathers, “who brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and in doing so have been a source of hope for freedom loving people everywhere.

This isn’t to say that you’ve been blameless. No institution, no matter how grand its codified ideals can stay blameless forever. The stain of slavery, the dehumanization of those we found on this continent prior to European discovery, and the wars of choice fought over the past 60 years have fallen short of your commitment to those high minded ideals in favor of “realpolitik.”

***********

I should quit saying “you.” This isn’t a professional sports team I’ll never play for, this is America. This is the institution which has from my first breath, blessed me with the freedom, safety and mobility to be whomever I choose to be.

I cannot pick those attributes of America with which I agree a la carte, leaving the less desirable remainders for others to choke down. I cannot look at my neighbor and say, “Oh no, this is YOUR President. I didn’t vote for him.”

Men and women who came before me gave their blood, sweat, tears and lives to vouchsafe my ability to make this MY America, one where each voice, no matter its wealth, social status, or color of skin has an equal part to play in maintaining the greatest engine of human freedom and prosperity that the world has ever seen.

But today, another 4th of July abroad, I find myself tired.

I am tired of trying to explaining away the past 14 years of leadership so comically unenlightened that our political system has devolved into a shouting match incapable of legislating.

I’m tired of trying to explain to the Europeans, Vietnamese and everyone else who doesn’t share my passport cover that the policies of my government do not reflect Americans as individuals.

I’m tired of seeing my government encroaching further and further into the lives of its citizenry, of spying on even our allies, and systematically limiting the rights of the individual.

I’m tired of being called “brainwashed” because I believe in the fundamental American right to bear arms, even as another mass shooting occurs.

I’m tired of seeing my fellow Americans try to pass themselves off as Canadians to attempt to shirk a history that while imperfect, is still as proud or prouder than any nation the world has ever seen.

For all the chest beating talk of “American Exceptionalism” I hear at home, I am tired of being in a room of foreigners and seen as the idiot because I am not “properly embarrassed” of my homeland.

I am an American, and God help me if even for a fleeting moment that I deny that enviable truth.

I stand here today embracing the fact that the problems of the nation which has given me so much are inseparable from my own.

************

I look to the members of the so called “Greatest Generation,” who sacrificed lives by the millions against a tyrannical force as twisted and corrupt as any seen in the course of human history, for guidance.

They fought with a single mind against an enemy armed with weapons engineered to make the slaughter of innocents magnitudes more efficient than ever before. They had the same right to vote that I do.

They did not shirk from their duty, or try to hide behind their broken political system. They stood and took the mantle of liberty upon their own shoulders and said, “Liberty will prevail, and America will ensure it.”

What happened to that America?

Why is my generation different from that of my grandparents? Has our democratic right to vote been taken away? Has our voice been silenced by statute or dictat? Do we find men with guns at our doors waiting to silence opposition?

No. The answer is much more humiliating.

We’ve merely disengaged. We’ve taken the spoils that our forebears won for us and squandered our inheritance on iPhones and TVs. On houses that would’ve made even the richest in generations past blush with the embarrassment.

We’ve taken “conspicuous consumption,” once a behavior to be avoided at all costs, and made it into a virtue.

We excoriate politicians for the slightest misspoken word, while giving our hours and eyeballs to such enlightened television as “Teen Mom,” “Honey Boo-Boo,” and the brand Kardashian.

We’ve taken capitalism, an engine of growth designed to reward the hardest working and most creative among us, and corrupted it into a rigged game of three card monte through cronyism and financialization.

Americans have inherited a system which requires constant maintenance, and we’ve left it on autopilot. The adverse results were completely predictable.

Our education system, once envied as the best in the world, now languishes along side such countries as Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, and Russian.

Our middle class has been systematically gutted, our rural communities left to wither on the vine both economically and socially, and our political class has partitioned themselves away from the people whom they are elected to represent, happy to bicker from their DC perches rather than associate with the lower classes in anything more meaningful than a photo-op.

The America that we live in and the freedoms we enjoy are not ours by divine right. It is, and will continue to be an ever evolving experiment, the results of which are determined daily by the diligent effort of those citizens who continue to maintain it through their individual efforts.

It is the sacred duty of each of us to ensure that that inheritance is worth receiving.

America I haven’t given up on you. Your struggles have galvanized my belief in that responsibility George Washington entrusted to Americans 227 years ago.

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair

Generations of great men and women have both raised and maintained that standard, handing it to their sons and daughters in turn. It is the hallowed responsibility of mine to repair it to its former glory.

Happy Birthday America.

We’ve got work to do tomorrow.

Coups, Kicks and Settling Down

Settling down. A phrase most commonly preceded by “find a nice girl and…”

Not that there haven’t been more than a few nice girls to be found on this trip, but I still don’t reckon I’m there yet.

Well the Conquest has “settled down” for a least the foreseeable future. I’ve taken a gorgeous apartment at Lanta Gym to “settle down,” do some serious writing, get in shape while learning some Muay Thai, and do a little detoxing after the thousand or so cheap beers I’ve consumed since entering SE Asia.

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I was ready for a place to call my own for a while, to completely unpack my bag, leave all of my things laying around without the concern that someone might make off with one.

Deflating my Ziplock clothes bags

Deflating my Ziplock clothes bags

I was ready to be in 1 bed for more than 3 consecutive nights, to slow the pace which has put me in 53 beds in the past 100 nights.

So far, I’ve:

Flown 88% of the way around the world (21,829 miles over 45 hours)

Bussed 3300 miles (roughly 146 hours)

Trained 400 miles (12 hours)

Spent 3 days on the Mekong River on a boat from Saigon to Phnom Penh

I’ll risk a little moss growth. This stone is tired of rolling at the moment.

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But boy oh boy, what a detox it will be.

I got dropped off after a 3 hour van ride from Krabi, which included 2 ferry rides to finally get to Koh Lanta, a largely undeveloped island in the Andaman Sea. I accidentally left my flip-flops in Bangkok, so I’d been barefooting it exclusively for 3 days.

I’m sure there are a fair few people who would’ve paid good money to see Chris Moorman, former buttoned up, Young Republican Wall Streeter, standing on the side of a Thai island road barefoot wearing a Buddha ring, singlet/tanktop, “hippy pants,” and ankle bracelet. All of my worldly possessions strapped to my back like some “goddamned dope smoking hippy.”

Life is a strange thing. Some days tuxedos, some shoeless weeks.

I stepped into a roadside stand, where I grabbed a sandwich and some free WiFi to get my bearings. I walked down the gravel road to Lanta Gym, where I met the crew and signed up.

They showed me the gym, the luxurious accommodations and the pool. I looked at them and said, “Sign me up.”

View from my front door

For 3 weeks of private Muay Thai training, an all marble 1 BR apartment (cable, AC, dual shower heads, all cleaned daily) 3 steps from an Olympic swimming pool, daily made to order breakfast, motorbike rental, and access to their full Western style gym with steam room and unlimited yoga classes I was charged the grand total of…

 

 

$800 USD.

By comparison, for a flex 1 BR (one bedroom split in half by a fake wall) in Manhattan, I was paying $1575 a month. That didn’t even include utilities, which ran another $150 a month.

Good to be in Thailand for low season.

I got my bearings, found the nearest 7/11 (of which there are approximately 1 for every 4 human being in Thailand) and put on my preposterous looking Muay Thai shorts. I walked the 30 yards down to the open air gym, with a few stray dogs and cats following behind me like I was the Pied Piper.

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Then the sweating started.

My instructor, Anglicized name Zac, was great. He put me in the ring with Ko, one of the other instructors for an “IQ test.”

I probably have 35 lbs and 3 inches of arm reach on Ko, but I’ll be damned if I landed more than 3 punches in the 3 minutes that he danced around and laughed at me. He caught me with a couple sharp jabs to the jaw, laughing merrily as he did.

“Han UP! Han UP!”

Smack!

“Han UP me say!”

Smack!

He yells something in Thai as everyone laughs, then puts both gloves over his ears.

“Falang no HEE me!”

At this point, I thought I saw my opening to finally get him with one in the guts.

I “almost” got him.

SMACK!

“HA HA. Falang IQ no GOO.”

Zac finally ended the mild humiliation, putting his arm around my shoulders and saying “One WEE, we’ll make you good. And you hab twee WEE.”

He then proceeded to work me like a borrowed mule for the next 75 minutes. He patted the finely marbled American flesh that I hold around my midsection and laughed.

“You hab vewy nice one pack. Vewy nice. No wowwy. We make 6 pack in no time.”

I will chalk that up to good news.

I got through it and walked across the road to catch one of the fabled Thai island sunsets. I was far from disappointed.

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I jumped on the motorbike to find a roadside stand for some food. Found one where I got a huge pile of sticky rice, a couple chicken breasts, and a few skewers of some very chewy “beef” for $1.50.

I’m going to keep telling myself it is really beef. Not exactly the ribeye a la Johnny Zarse that I’ve become accustomed to, but yeah, “beef.”

I came home and checked out Thai cable, where I found a station with a very mournful music video going on. There were English subtitles, so as I chewed through my “beef” I continued to watch. The whole thing was basically a promotional video from the National Committee for Peace and Order (NCPO), which is the proper name of the military coup which is ongoing in Thailand.

The videography was completely professional, mostly scenes of positive interactions between uniformed soldiers and civilians and the subtitles in English read things like “Trust in us, we will restore your country. For the people. Order and peace will come. It will take some time, but the Army is on your side.”

I’ve been trying to read as much as I can in the English language press here, mostly picking up newspapers like the Bangkok Post and The Nation. I can’t really tell the level of censorship going on, but the people I’ve spoken to are generally in favor of the coup from what I can tell.

Military coups are largely a way of life here in Thailand. Since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, there has been a military man in power for 54 of the subsequent 82 years.

This is the 12th coup the 62 year reign of King Bhumibol Aduljadej.

It is a concept that an American could no more wrap his head around than the possibility of a talking dog.

Other than the military presence in the big cities that I’ve encountered, I can’t really tell that anything is going on. Even that “military presence” seems to be nothing compared to some days when I’ve walked down North End Avenue or into Penn or Grand Central Station in NYC and seen 50 police cars or 35 National Guardsmen with M-16s patrolling the area. (My negative thoughts on the militarization of the American police force could fill volumes.)

It is pretty funny to see music video propaganda though, and I’m very glad that they were kind enough to put English subtitles up for me. Really made me feel like part of the team.

Well I’d love to write more, but I’ve got to find some bananas to recharge before my 4PM session.

 

Cambodian Rain

The humid air rises in opposition to the constant tumbling sheets of rain. The smell of afternoon fish, darien fruit, and the omnipresent scent of the third world rises with it.

The relentless barrage of rain drops generate a uniform hum as they fall fast against the multitude of corrugated steel roofs. The standard cacophony of tuk-tuks, horns, squealing tires and generators is overwhelmed by the sounds of the storm. The warm grey background of the enclosing clouds provides a physical face to the unabated deluge of water.

Rain runs right off the roofs into cisterns and barrels, undoubtedly to be used for flushing toilets and washing dishes. Palm trees do yoga, tops bending at near impossible angles while the downward facing bottom fronds sit alertly at at attention.

A synchronized dance of 100 tuk tuk drivers occurs as they simultaneously pull over to slap on the glorified shopping bags known as plastic parkas.

The choreography is the same for each driver:

Tuk-tuk to the side of the road
Helmet off
Key under the seat
Seat up
Parka out
Seat down
Parka on
Helmet on
Key in ignition
Resume race

Standing in my room with my head out the window, the routine is played out over and over again, some keeping perfect time, while others create a waterfall effect of continuous repeated motion.

Soaked push bikers cling to their metal steeds in packs, fighting through the wind, rain, and standing water, seemingly oblivious to the deluge around them.

Lightning rents the sky, not in the now familiar forms of heat lightning that illuminate the darkness each evening but in jagged cracks of light as if the ever deepening gray morass is concealing a blindingly back light. Thunder crackles continuously with a growing crescendo to punch through the hum of falling rain.

A shirtless man opportunistically washes his motorbike, soaked by the rain but working regardless. As he finishes cleaning his metal and plastic steed, he jumps under the 4 inch PVC pipe sticking out of the bank building next to his hovel and showers in the deluge of rainwater.

Vacant fields which were bone dry moments ago are now covered in an endlessly connecting series of puddles.

A 12 story pagoda rises stoically in the distance, one last landmark making its stand against the encroaching grey. As the storm rolls further in, it is totally concealed by the grey.

20 minutes later the rain starts to lessen, by minutes, not degrees. Even a momentary respite against the onslaught will allow this dry land to accept the gods’ fluid offerings.

Finally the rain ends, bringing with it the dark of night and a chill hitherto unfelt in Cambodia. For all the storms I’ve seen in this life, this was the most vividly different.

Horror and Hope in Cambodia

On a trip like the Conquest, there are countless moments that take your breath away. Whether a sunset on a deserted Australian beach, a pristine waterfall in the middle of no where in Vietnam, or a 9 year old firebreather on the streets of Saigon, the world has endless wonders with which to surprise and amaze.

Young firebreathers

Young firebreathers

Unfortunately, the cosmic scales don’t tip endlessly to the wonderful. The other, darker side of the coin exists, balancing out the good with the most reprehensible evil imaginable. Here in Cambodia, I saw one of the most horrific atrocities that humanity has ever perpetrated against itself.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

I still remember vividly the day that Pol Pot died. It was my 11th birthday, and I was in the car with my dad who invariably had NPR tuned onto the radio. In the crackling monotone of AM radio, a voice came across and said “Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and perpetrator of one of the worst genocides in history is reported dead in near the Cambodian border with Thailand.”

I had never heard of him, and when I asked Dad who he was, he simply replied, “Crazy bastard in Cambodia who killed almost half the population. Sure as hell didn’t deserve to die of old age.”

It was a sparse but totally accurate depiction. 16 years later, after exiting the boat in Phnom Penh after a 3 day ride up the Mekong from Saigon, I found myself in a position to deepen my understanding of one of the most nightmarish periods in human history.

Pol Pot was born the wealthy scion of an upper class family in Phnom Penh. Educated in traditional French Colonial style, he was sent onto further his education in Paris, where he studied Radio and Electronics. During his time in Paris, he became enamoured with the local Communist group, and took up their ideology.

After his failing his exams 3 consecutive times, he was forced to come back to Cambodia. There he took up teaching, a profession which he would later attempt to exterminate. He kept in contact with a close set of associates that he had come upon in Paris, and worked to further Communist aims back home.

In 1963, the French language and history teacher was voted the head of a Communist organization of less than 200 members. From this humble beginning, he forged the ferocious killing machine known as the Khmer Rouge.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

The aims of the Khmer Rouge were to throw off the yoke of colonialism/monarchy that they felt through King Norodom Sihanouk. They held the peasant farming class as the ideal of a Communist society, and actively fought against modernization of any kind, which they felt only exacerbated class distinctions.

After waging guerilla warfare against the monarchy and subsequent democratic government, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. An estimated 3 million Cambodians would be killed over the next four years.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Cambodia’s total population was approximately 8 million when Pol Pot seized power.

Choeung Ek was merely one of many “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge disposed of “enemies of the regime.” Enemies of the regime included urbanites, the upper and middle classes, the educated, anyone with glasses, and towards the end, those whose hands were not “hardened from honest labor.” As a part of the Khmer Rouge’s rural utopian plan, the cities were totally depopulated, and citizens of every stripe were forced into near slavery conditions, laboring unproductively in the countryside.

In 1990, Choeung Ek was designated as the primary memorial site for those lost in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Now a “stuka,” with the bones of the dead stacked in 17 levels, stands in the center of the now peaceful countryside which saw so many horrors a mere 35 years ago.

Sunset near the Killing Fields

Sunset near the Killing Fields

This was not merely men, but women and babies as well. A popular propaganda phrase among the Khmer Rouge was “to destroy the grass one must dig the roots.” Tactically this translated into bashing the heads of babies against a tree before throwing them into a mass grave.

The tree where they dashed babies

The tree where they dashed babies

The horror of that can’t be overstated. To stand next to a tree where men held babies by their feet and smashed them head first was one of the most guttural and brutal feelings I have ever received.

This was pure, unadulterated evil on the most base level.

The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown after 4 years of genocide by the Vietnamese, however the rest of the world still treated the Khmer Rouge as the government in exile until 1990. The perpetrators of this horror were granted a seat at the UN, strolling the streets of NYC with diplomatic immunity.

Justice apparently only has a place in the world of international politics when it is convenient.

Cambodia has largely recovered after losing 2 generations to the nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh is the most modern city I’ve seen since leaving Singapore, and the unfailingly positive attitudes of the Cambodian people is a big reason why. Like Vietnam, they refuse to let the past define them, but they demand acknowledgement of the horrors that happened in this beautiful country.

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

The day after I went to the Killing Fields, I took a sunset 4-wheeler ride around the area. The peaceful serenity was punctuated with the smiling faces of little Cambodian children, waving and screaming hello as if I were some movie star. There were women in brightly colored headscarves driving cattle, and groups of men huddled around laughing at the Cambodian dubbed version of Baby Got Back.

As we neared the end of the trip, I noticed a large group of kids playing soccer with some homemade goals. I pulled off the road to stop and watch, and snap a few pictures. Within a few minutes, one boy, named Chanra, came over and asked if we’d like to play. I’m certainly not my brother’s equal with a soccer ball, but I figured what the hell.

Damn it was hot

Damn it was hot


We played with the kids for about a half an hour, sweating our brains out in the slowly dropping sun. I looked over, and saw the stuka at Choeung Ek looking back at me.

Of all the moments I’ve had on the Conquest this far, this was the most powerful.

Literally in the shadow of a place which saw some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity a mere 8 years before I was born, we played soccer together. Khmer, American and British Indian, laughing and horsing around.

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

It was yet another lesson in not letting the past define the present.

There is only one day that we have control of, and that day is today.