Friday, November 23, 2007

The New Moscow

So when it rains it pours, I suppose. This makes 3 blog postings, three days in a row. I may have to go radio silent for the next six months just to keep up my reputation. Anyway, I ran across some fascinating articles that depict modern life in Moscow rather accurately.

What's Moscow like for foreigners in Russia? This discusses a few things that people generally attribute to life in Russia: namely, crime.

One of the more distasteful characteristics of modern Russian culture: the Russian rich. If you were to look up "tasteless" in the dictionary, you might find references to the new Russian monied class.

There really are a lot of delightful aspects to living out here. They're just sort of intangible. When my friends ask me what makes me like Russia so much, I have a hard time answering. The food isn't particularly memorable. The weather is a little bit intimidating - the temperature dropped to 5 degrees Fahrenheit last week. But Russia - and even Moscow - is really quite charming. It just takes some getting used to.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A final word

One final comment on my lengthy political diatribe: Pointing out inconsistencies is really not hard. It also makes you feel smugly self-satisfied, in your own right. Perhaps I took a self-serving pleasure in penning these responses, as if I'm announcing to the world that I've got it figured out, and the other folks don't. I hope that's not who I am, because then I wouldn't be much different from those who instigate and author the one-sided views that I'm criticizing. I sometimes just want to add my voice to the cacophony of political discourse with a plea for a little bit of moderation and willingness to listen. My Mother taught me that this is a good life skill for most interpersonal interaction. Heaven knows I'm still pretty hard-headed. But thanks for trying, Mom.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

You might be a democrat if....

So I received a forwarded email today that really got me steaming. I realize that I get messages like this because people somehow continue to assume that I'm a kool-aid drinking Republican. Or at least a sympathizer. I realize that to some degree, no one's perspectives are completely objective, including my own. But we're not even trying to be objective when we pass around irrational, vitriolic, immature attacks on opposing political groups that tend to ignore the real issues. Issues are important. They deserve to be thoughtfully and respectfully discussed by grown-ups. Unfortunately, issues are often transformed in to silly little sound bytes that are designed not to enlighten, but rather to divide and alienate. As I was responding to this email, I said to myself: "Self! You need to blog this! Enough of saving starfish one email at a time! We're mass-communicating, here!"

So the original email message was one of those things that's been passed around like a 6-year-old's chewing gum. You don't know who started it, and it's just as tasteless. The title? "If you want to be a GOOD Democrat, you must have certain basic beliefs." It then lists these beliefs. But remember, it's written by Republicans for Republicans, and is meant not to enlighten, but to oversimplify and demean. So these aren't really Democrats' beliefs, but rather dumbed-down condescending sound bytes. This makes the author and his readers feel more comfortable in their own inadequate understanding or representation of the issues. They blow out others' candles to make their own seem brighter.

So let's get a little air circulating over all the candles. Here's the list of 26 defining characteristics for Democrats, as seen by a spiteful, anonymous Republican. My responses, and the issue I take with these attitudes, follows each numbered statement in italics. Enjoy.

1. You have to believe the AIDS virus is spread by a lack of federal funding.

Simple fallacies aren't considered dumb in an email like this, they're considered funny! Since AIDS is almost exclusively spread by lifestyle decisions, and federal funding is largely devoted toward education, there is an inverse correlation between funding and the spread of HIV. The hook in this is to emphasize the fallacy that one directly causes the other, which is ridiculous, and no one believes. The only reason to say it is to antagonize someone.

2. You have to believe that the same teacher who can't teach 4th graders how to read is somehow qualified to teach those same kids about sex.

Another shameless attempt to antagonize the opposing party by beating up on people who can't defend themselves - namely teachers - but who are most certainly not entirely complicit in the undereducation of 4th graders. Furthermore, how is sex "education" for 4th graders defined, here? If those penning these ridiculous sound bytes believe that simple facts about "the birds and the bees" should never be discussed to children of 4th-grade age, that is their prerogative. But such courses might not be completely inappropriate, and many of the people who fall under the pejorative label of "liberals" are not completely tasteless. They may even be opposed to introducing smut to 4th-graders. There is room for discussion and solutions, here. Insulting the people who are in the trenches trying to solve the problem accomplishes little.

3. You have to believe that guns in the hands of law-abiding Americans are more of a threat than U.S. nuclear weapons technology in the hands of Chinese communists.

This is just silly. Think fast... identify one Republican pet policy. Twist it a little, couch it in the right (i.e. wrong) context, and use it to contradict the spirit of another pet policy. This one took me less than five seconds... Ready? "In order to be a Republican, you have to believe that killing children in Iraq is a better use of taxpayer money than spending it on comprehensive health care to save babies in poverty in the United States." Do Republicans actually believe such tripe? Of course not. But when one juxtaposes the burgeoning costs of the war (now approaching trillions of dollars) with the tab ($35 billion expenditure increase) for the most recent health bill for expanding insurance coverage for low-income children, such an increasingly less hypothetical and more democratic-leaning person could accuse Republicans of being heartless baby-killers (which epithet seems to be bandied around rather liberally on both sides of the political aisle in our vitriolic political world). But the two policies (namely, the war in Iraq vs. health care, or gun control vs. nuclear proliferation) have very distant, tenuous connections at best. Why are we so eager to see hypocrisy in the other side? I get it, okay? Republicans like their guns. Democrats are all about gun control. But using tenuous connections and manipulation to belittle the inconsistencies in your opponents' favorite issues are not effective ways to effect change in those policies. (On a side note, if I were to choose between being a Republican "baby killer" or a Democratic "gun-controller," I'd take the latter.)

4. You have to believe that there was no art before Federal funding.

Do many democrats support the apportionment of public funds to the arts? Yep. Do many Republicans support the apportionment of public funds to faith-based initiatives? I believe so. Do many Americans find much of the "art" supported by their tax money distasteful? Indeed they do. Are some of the teachings of these state-supported religious programs distasteful to some Americans? No doubt. See where I'm going with this? A case of the pot calling the kettle black? Please write down the following reliable formula for block-headed political diatribes: "I don't identify with X party's ideologically-aligned interests. It offends my sensibilities for my tax dollars to be appropriated toward these activities that I find reprehensible. Y party, on the other hand, supports activities that I find to be moral and worthwhile pursuits. Without public support, such things would be drastically undersupplied. Anyone who feels otherwise is a nincompoop who can go pound sand, for all I care (please insert your own insult here)." It's enough to turn any rational human being into a libertarian.

5. You have to believe that global temperatures are less affected by cyclical, documented changes in the earth's climate and more affected by yuppies driving SUVs.

Cyclical? Documented? Yuppies? Are we content to again oversimplify an issue by reducing a complicated discussion into such tripe? No matter what side of the global warming controversy a person falls on, he will require far more insightful didactic powers to assess this issue. Such a person will have a hard time chalking recent trends up to "cyclical and documented" trends. Furthermore, the assessment of the opposition's stance as an accusation against yuppies is patently false on its surface. I realize that this statement could be an attempt at wit or humor. I am often guilty (at times on this very blogsite) of having a little bit of fun at someone else's expense. But if your fun reinforces misunderstanding and alienates people, you shouldn't be laughing.

(Side note diversion: Jeremy's formula for making fun: Be even-handed about mocking other people, i.e. never single anyone out. Except for yourself, whom you should (deservedly) mock more than anyone. People won't feel like you're picking on just them. You'll keep a healthy sense of perspective. Everyone wins. I'm still perfecting this method.)

6. You have to be against capital punishment (putting murderers to death) but support abortion (killing innocent unborn babies) on demand (federally funded of course.)

Capital punishment and abortion are extremely complicated issues. I'm going to pick on the abortion side of this oversimplification because I've had some ideas fomenting over the past few years. I am sick of people who insist in their political discussions that abortionists are baby-murderers. I know of almost no one who actually believes that an abortion is tantamount to murder (outside of the right-wing hospital bombing nut-jobs). The LDS Church's (my chosen religion... pick your own, here) position states that abortion can be an option in rare cases such as rape, incest, and when a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. Even when someone aborts a child outside of these conditions, the Church does not deal such individuals in the same manner that they would a murderer. I'm not saying that I don't fundamentally disagree with abortionists' stand on this issue. I find whimsical abortions undertaken to merely end an unwanted pregnancy to be more than just a reprehhensible travesty. But I also know that I would look differently at an acquaintance of mine who underwent such an abortion than I would view a confessed murderer. They're different. Significantly. So now the hard part: How to identify where my position differs in reality from that of the abortionists? I won't undertake such a task in this blog posting. But I also don't want to punt completely. Abortionists actually hold the legal high ground. A lot of the issue is tied up in the question of when life starts... the abortionists basiclly say that life doesn't start until a baby is physically born. Until then, they claim that the life fully belongs to the mother, and she can do what she wants with that life. The right-wing hospital bombers hold the other end of the legal high ground. If life indeed begins at conception, then a mother who aborts her fetus is essentially murdering. I hold to the unenviable position of falling somewhere in the middle. Those of my ilk must claim that life is somewhat ambiguous in its beginnings, that it is dependent on, yet to a degree independent of, her mother. Therefore, a mother makes a very serious decision when she determines to extinguish the physical embodiment of something that is, and yet is not yet an independent being. Finally, I think that we do the abortionists an injustice to claim that they all hold a cavalier attitude toward "abortions on demand." This is a policy term that refers to the right of a woman to have an abortion when she so chooses, as opposed to allowing a third party to make the decision for her. I believe that only the most callous of people would undergo an abortion without experiencing extreme emotional agony. I can only hope. Am I over-complicating things? At any rate, I feel that such an evaluation of this issue would be vastly preferable to resorting to vituperative "baby killer" sound bytes.

7. You have to believe that businesses create oppression and that governments and unions create prosperity.

Do you catch the sarcasm, too? Such subtlety. Such wit. How about this one: To be a good Republican, you have to believe that a critical press is unpatriotic and threatens national security, but government (including invasive regime change) and deficit spending create prosperity.

8. You have to believe that hunters don't care about nature but loony activists from Seattle do.

I know very little about hunters and loony Seattle activists. I know for certain that I owe a certain democrat by the name of William J. Clinton a huge "thank you". He implemented a midnight hour bill that turned a Delaware-sized chunk of land in Southern Utah into Escalante and Grand Staircase National Monument, one of the largest untouchable nature preserves in the country. Much to the dismay of local Republicans, this land is now unexploitable by energy companies. What a shame. But I take issue with those who say that preserving natural lands only serves recreational purposes. There's a priceless beauty in places like this that transcends recreation. We need these places. But I'm a little biased after a 3-day backpacking trip this past summer to Escalante when I didn't see another human being for the duration of my hike. But back to my point. Many of the Republicans aren't huge environmental fans, either. And they might have good reasons. But as you listen to them explain those reasons, invite them to listen to the responses of backcountry hikers, Bill Clinton, and even Seattle activists without making fun of them.

9. You have to believe that self-esteem is more important than actually doing something to earn it.

Um. I don't feel like honoring this comment with a response. Moving it on a bit.

10. You have to believe the NRA is bad because it supports certain parts of the Constitution, while the ACLU is good because it supports certain parts of the Constitution.

Right. This is one of the only "If you're a good Democrat" statements that's true. And the funny part is, it's supposed to be insulting. But if you're a good Republican, you believe the inverse: The NRA is good because it supports certain parts of the Constitution, while the ACLU is bad because it supports certain parts of the Constitution. What's funny here is that among Republicans, the ACLU might as well have been included in the Axis of Evil speech, while the NRA represents a bastion of American values. Democrats feel quite the reverse. So each statement will precipitate the following responses when sounded around democrats or republicans:
  • The NRA is bad because it supports certain parts of the Constitution, while the ACLU is good because it supports certain parts of the Constitution:
    • Smug, condescending nods among republicans because democrats support such an insidious organization.
    • Sincere nods among democrats because they like the ACLU.
  • The NRA is good because it supports certain parts of the Constitution, while the ACLU is bad because it supports certain parts of the Constitution:
    • Smug, condescending nods among democrats because republicans support such an insidious organization.
    • Sincere nods among republicans because they like the NRA.
And the point is, both groups feel that an organization's legitimacy is less dependent on its adherence to the constitution than it is on adherence to their personal belief structure. Which is fine. Just stop pretending that you care about the constitution.

11. You have to believe that taxes are too low but ATM fees are too high.

I don't get it. So I'm going to skip this one. We're politicizing ATM fees, now? Someone can feel free to explain it to me.

12. You have to believe that Margaret Sanger and Gloria Steinem are more important to American history than Thomas Jefferson, General Robert E.Lee or Thomas Edison.

See, this one loses me for a few reasons. First of all, I don't know of anyone who would make this claim. These individuals' contributions were different enough to be completely incommensurate. Furthermore, you lose me with the intimation that Robert E. Lee belongs on the short list of most influential Americans. Remember, he led the losing side of a Civil War that was fought at least partially to end the treatment of fellow human beings like animals. I can get in line with the fact that his contribution is eclipsed by that of women's rights activists. And I am a white male. Goodness.

13. You have to believe that standardized tests are racist but racial quotas are not.

I will agree that there is a disturbing double standard when it comes to race in some corners of the democratic party. But it's hardly universal. I hold to the hope that the impracticality of policies such as racial quotas and the elimination of standardized tests will win over the level-headed people. I wish Republicans would pay more attention to the people in the opposing party with more moderate and reasonable views than they do to extremists. And likewise for Demos regarding their Repub cohorts. Notice a pattern, here?

14. You have to believe that the only reason socialism hasn't worked anywhere it's been tried is because the right people haven't been in charge.

No comment. There are socialists disguised as democrats. There are fascists disguised as republicans. Pretend these people don't exist to marginalize their influence. It's better for everyone involved.

15. You have to believe conservatives telling the truth belong in jail but a liar and sex offender belongs in the White House.

I think we've established that calling people names is a little infantile. Many people would take issue with the statement that a certain 42nd president of these Untied States was an unambiguous "liar". Massaging the truth for his own purposes? I believe he was a master. The current Commander in Chief has proved adept at spinning facts in his own favor. Remember how reluctant Republicans were to probe Reagan about the Iran Contra Affair. Should such things be condoned? I wish they weren't. I also wish that we were willing to see the same shortcomings in our own party's candidates that are evident in the oppositions. I wish we held everyone to a higher standard. But I've wished for lots of things. I wished for a perfect GRE score today. My wishes are not batting a thousand.

16. You have to believe that homosexual parades should be constitutionally protected and manger scenes at Christmas should be illegal.

Again, an example of each side wanting "fair" (i.e. unfair) treatment for their own special issue, but yet reveal a striking unwillingness to extend the favor to those across the aisle. I admit I felt a degree of annoyance as I was driving to church last summer, and arrived 20 minutes late because participants in the Salt Lake City gay pride parade were blocking traffic, including dancing around my car. But I prefer to live in a country where such things are mere annoyances as opposed to other places where more barbaric attitudes toward people appear to be at least tacitly tolerated.

17. You have to believe that illegal Democratic party funding by the Chinese is somehow in the best interest of the U.S.


18. You have to believe that gasoline priced at $1.59 per gallon is too expensive, but accept bottled spring water at $1.09 per quart as reasonable.

Such an opinion in any party is news to me. Are we just making stuff up, now? Democrats are the only ones complaining about gasoline prices? They seem more amenable to higher prices than republicans as a general rule. And bottled water? Market forces, people.

19. You have to believe the purpose of government is to take money from people who earned it and spend it on people who did not earn it.

And the Demos respond that Republicans believe that the middle and lower class should carry the heavier tax burden in favor of further enriching the wealthy. Somewhere reasonable people should find a middle ground. Yet again notice the pattern of criticism in the above accusation. Note the counter-response. Find the issue that leads to painting the other side in such terms. In this example, perhaps we could discuss the efficiency of trickle-down economics relative to the reallocation of resources from the top down. Or you can paint the other guys' stance in ridiculous terms, and feel smugly clever about your refusal to understand people. Nice.

20. You have to believe in Democracy but demand only Democrat victories in elections.

Talk to both parties about gerrymandering congressional districts. When either party shows a willingness to give up such chicanery they'll have a leg to stand on when they discuss the democratic process and elections rigging. Until then, your words are purely self-serving.

21. You have to believe that people who disagree with you are stupid and backward, while believing people who agree with you are "progressive" and "enlightened."

It starts to sound the same, doesn't it? I don't think I even need to respond to this one. Pot. Kettle. Black. Sauce. Goose. Gander.

22. You have to believe that a "B" average economics major from Yale University with an MBA from Harvard Business School is too stupid to be President of the United States.

Who is anyone to argue with a "mandate" of 51 percent?

23. You have to believe that a "C" average history major from Harvard University, dropout from Vanderbilt Law School and failure at Vanderbilt Divinity School is brilliant and should be President of the United States.

The people have spoken. There's always 2008.

24. You are proud to have Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Bill Clinton in the Democratic Party.

I think they are. What republicans are you proud of? (Mr. Falwell supporters, please stand up). Quick, name someone whom you respect from the other party. Really? You can't think of anyone? That's more a indictment of you than it is of them. If this is the first place you heard this, please get out more.

25. You agreed with France's position on the war in Iraq until combat victory was achieved within three weeks.

Combat victory? Urrrrr.....

26. You have to believe that Hillary Clinton is really a lady.

Again, this is just mean spirited. Tedious. Not funny.

Issues, people! Issues!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

New Pictures

So I added some pictures from my trip to Southeast Asia, last summer. Check them out here or in the Pictures link to the right.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Notes from the Underground

Well, my time in Russia has thus far not disappointed. I've traveled to Yerevan (and back). I've patrolled Red Square. I've reaffirmed my hate-hate relationship with mayonnaise (the Russian national food). I've mangled lots of Russian words, and been corrected innumerable times. Which is actually encouraging, because they only correct you if they figure there's still hope.

President Vladimir Putin has been busy, too. He's fired (and replaced) a few of his top cabinet officials - apparently setting the players up for the upcoming presidential elections, this spring. And he announced that he'll be running for parliament in December in anticipation of being named Prime Minister. Which means that there will be at least a brief period of time when Russia could theoretically have the same man occupying the positions of both Prime Minister and President. Fortunately, he'll be a heartbeat away from the Presidency, since the Prime Minister in Russia becomes President should anything untoward (and by this I mean "resignation") happen to the President. Vlad also suggested that if his replacement (he continues to adamantly affirm that he will NOT stand for a constitutionally forbidden third consecutive term) does not perform up to expectations, he (Vlad) could potentially run again later on. But not to worry, Putin has promised that he won't interfere with anything. He said that the last thing Russia needs is a weak president. He's ensured that such an embarrassment would never happen in the Motherland. A friend of mine mentioned that this situation presents two future possibilities: 1) A future "catastrophe" will occur for which the future president will be entirely unprepared. The hack president will resign, insisting that Russia "needs her president," and Putin will reascend the throne. 2) The new guy will actually have a spine, and Putin's attempts to hold the reins of power will be met by a response from the sitting president to go pound sand. Either way, it should be interesting.

Another local curiosity that I've noticed here is men's ridiculous infatuation with mullets. They're everywhere. Any generic internet search will reveal that I'm not the only one who's taken notice. It's particularly funny because it seems to have replaced the opposite extreme in hairstyles that was so prevalent when I was a missionary about eight years ago. Back then, all the cool Russian dudes would buzz all their hair off while leaving about two inches of bangs hanging down the front. I don't remember how many times I had to call off an over-excited babushka barber who wanted to craft my coiffure into a "sportivka". If any of my Russian friends who might happen to read this blog could comment to explain this quirky fashion trend, I'd be most obliged.

The Despair of Blogging (click here)

They can see right through me....

Thursday, August 30, 2007


I've been in Moscow for nearly 3 days, now. Perhaps the jet lag hasn't hit me yet, or maybe I've acclamated to criss-crossing my way across this good green earth, because I've been downright perky ever since I bounced off the airplane. I was immediately installed in my cozy new apartment. It's a 12th floor cell in the "Mezhdunarodnaya (International) Hotel" - the same building that houses the Moscow World Trade Center. You'd think that my digs would therefore be rather swanky, but on the contrary, they're satisfyingly spartan. My hotel room is rather analagous to a studio apartment with a small kitchenette, bathroom, and walk-in closet. I wouldn't have enjoyed a big fancy room with the attendant 5-star hotel accoutrements, and this sparsely furnished room is just perfect. It does have maid service. Which is even perfecter.

I don't really have much to say about my job since I haven't started it yet. It appears that I'll mainly be working with investigating applicants for refugee status in the United States. These include mainly persecuted ethnic and religious minorities. I obviously can't talk about details of cases, but I get the feeling that there will be many interesting issues to discuss regarding refugees' experiences in the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, I will be unable to continue my smart-aleck commentary on political affairs in Russia. As a US Embassy employee, I have to avoid political pontificating. I figure that this is no one's loss but my own. Hopefully my blogs won't be too bland and unenlightening. If they are, may I recommend Ann Coulter. She's still unenlightening (perhaps even more so), but far from bland.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Train wreck in Russia

The Moscow-St. Petersburg Express figures to be one of my most traveled routes when I'm in Russia. Hopefully this is just and isolated incident.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Got Soul?

In my entire life, I've been to only one legitimate rock concert (i.e. it wasn't a promotion and I actually paid the full concert price). It was Collective Soul's "Youth" concert tour back in 2004. Collective Soul for me is one of those bands that will always be inextricably connected with high school. They've got an upbeat, medium-rock, progressive sound that paved my break away from my Dad's Moody Blues-era geek-rock into the more mainstream modern music of my high school years. This included bands such as Weezer, Live, and Better than Ezra. My musical tastes naturally mellowed as I grew older, and most of those high school-era bands fell by the wayside. (I realize that I'm a serious sap if my mellowing trend precludes me from enjoying Weezer.) I rediscovered Collective Soul, however, when Bret (my youngest brother) started his own high school music kick. One of the only bands that we could both mutually enjoy was Collective Soul (which we shortened to just plain "Soul"). To my surprise, Bret got in to them far more than I or my other two brothers ever did. So when the band came to Utah as part of their Youth tour about a year before Bret left for his LDS mission, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to attend my one and only concert. The concert was so much fun, partially because my little bro was totally jammin' and having such an infectiously great time, and partially because I realized what a positive, upbeat, and fun band Collective Soul is. So as a result, they've become firmly entrenched on my elite list of music that is worth listening to.

Anyway, Soul is releasing a new album at the end of this month. Linking to their website will play one of the new singles on their album. It's been playing an endless loop on my computer for the last 15 minutes, and I still enjoy it. Maybe Bret and I can catch a concert when he gets back.

Monday, July 30, 2007

UTA Issues, plus some comments on Media Pied Pipers

It's always a little hard to explain my current work assignment without revealing findings that need to remain at least temporarily confidential. Here's an article from the Deseret News explaining some of the issues that the Legislature is concerned about.

As a side note, I've grown increasingly disappointed in the media's willingness (or ability) to accurately report all the facts. As a result, they rarely paint the landscape sufficiently so as to provide readers with a good feel for what's going on. I have my own opinions for why this happens, but most of it can be boiled down the media's lack of access to all information, the need to "sell" news and stories, and the irregular or nonexistent meticulous review of information sources.

I guess what I'm saying is that people need to be cautious of forming immovable opinions of important issues based on reading of news analysis. You might find yourself being led astray. That doesn't mean people shouldn't keep themselves well-informed. I myself am an unrepentant news junkie. But I think we should allow ourselves leeway to change our minds. So I'm really just making an argument for flip-flopping. Give those politicians a break, man.

But the Desnews article isn't half bad.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The New Cold War?

With all the stink about the curious state of Russian foreign and domestic affairs, I found the following article from the BBC to be extremely helpful in putting things in to perspective.

It goes without saying that this is a particularly interesting time to be returning to Russia. I find myself wondering how much I will involve myself in local issues. My job will obviously preclude me from participating in certain activities, but it will no doubt open doors for some truly unique opportunities.

It should be a lot of fun.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Khmer Rouge

Click on the pictures to view them in higher resolution in order to read the text.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bangkok Reloaded... and home again

We took a rather arduous boat ride from Batambong to the tourist Mecca of Siem Reap. I really don't have much to say in words about Siem Reap. It's much better in pictures. I'll post them on the internet as soon as I get home. Or ask me to see them. That would work, too. I find the Achievements quite fascinating that ancient civilizations attained to with their seemingly limitless peasant populations. In spite of all the grandeur, it's quite sad, really.

Oh, and we also went to a cultural village/museum in Siem Reap. One of the shows we attended was a Cambodian wedding. They picked me to be the groom. So I pranced around in really fancy doodads in front of a mostly Cambodian heckling crowd. And bowed a lot. Afterward, my "bride" requested a tip for the honor of allowing me to look like a stooge. I turned her down, because I've grown a little tired of people shaking me down for money after they perform "services" that were ostensibly provided gratis. After the "wedding", we attended another show that turned out to be a fiance choosing exhibition. So Mom, my trip wasn't entirely fruitless: I learned how to get a fiance and I got married! But not necessarily in that order.

Additionally, I ate a silk worm at a local silk farm. Tonya and I had determined to eat bugs before the journey's through. At least one of us isn't all talk.

So I then took my leave of Tonya and Whitney to return home. I felt a little melancholy to bid them good-bye, as I will be returning to the regular hustle-bustle of the States, while they will remain in that beautiful country for a little while longer. But unfortunately, I do have to work (well, marginally, anyway) for a living, so it's back to auditing. But those two young ladies will be on their own, now, without me to "protect" them. So keep them in your prayers.

I hopped on a bus to head north to cross the border in to Thailand. In typical fashion, my 7 am bus didn't depart until around 9. The bus itself was curious enough to deserve mention in the Blog. It looked like a carrot in that it was bright orange flecked with dark green. And it had bright red and green Christmas colored lugnuts. So a bunch of tourists and I went bouncing along this rural road that is the only overland connection between the capitols of two countries. There's a rumor out here suggesting that the airline company that runs the route from Siem Reap to Bangkok pays off the Cambodian government to keep the road huddy in order to encourage people to fly. But I'm a tough (i.e. cheap) little traveler. So I took the bus that averaged around 30 kph through Cambodia. The bus stopped about every hour for a "break", but I've grown quite accustomed to the bus drivers providing the local cafes with some western business. Anyway, we covered the 200 km in a tidy 6 hours. After clearing passport control, a sleek little Toyota minivan picked us up on the Thailand side, and whisked us off to Bangkok in about 2.5 hours, covering the same distance.

So I'm back in Bangkok. I was going to pull the same little trick and spend the night at the airport, but I met a fellow American on the bus ride who'll take my same flight to Tokyo, and we decided to go halfsies on a little room in the Downtown. I don't care much for the bed or sleeping here, but it sure felt nice to clean the layer of dirt off me. I'll hop a shuttle at about 2 am for my flight.

So that's it. Barring any other incendiaries (I mean incidents), my little adventure has drawn to a close. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunities that I've had to step at least a little bit outside of my comfort zone and see this big beautiful world that we live in, and rub shoulders at least a little bit with the beautiful people in it. I do not know why I am so blessed to be provided with the circumstances to do these things. I hope that I will never tire of the desire to meet new people and try new things, as such experiences tend to moderate my perspective on life and other people, and allow me to realize that maybe there are other people outside of Jeremy's bubble who live interesting and relevant lives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


So we spent a couple of days in the capitol city of Phnom Penh. I have nothing to report except that we went to two LDS branches on Sunday, including a local one and the international (English-speaking) one. It was great to go to church, and I was quite impressed with how many members there are out here. The local branch was eerily similar to Russia: an elderly woman nattered on for about half an hour about nothing in particular, and the District High Council speaker was left with about two minutes. It felt like being back in the womb. Most of the people in the international branch were visiting from either BYU or BYU Hawaii, so that meeting was quite packed, though not quite as fun as the local one.

You well may ask: Why my egregious omission of our visit to the Killing Fields just outside Phnom Penh? I don't quite know what to say about it, at this point. I will definitely get around to it. But later. It was extremely sobering.

Monday evening we hopped a bus for a ride up to Cambodia's 2nd-largest city in the north-central part of the country. After a review of our various options for adventure, we settled a tour of the region. I thought that we were buying a bare-bones little excursion, since the price was only $8 for the whole day. We were pleasantly surprised to find 3 motorbike drivers waiting for us at the crack of dawn, this morning. We each hopped a bike and off we bounced in to the Cambodian bush. As one of our drivers pointed out, many of the area is still littered with land mines, so they were careful to stick to the dirt roads.

We stopped briefly at a little village elementary school. The wee younguns there flocked and oggled Tonya and Whitney. They inexplicably always seem to ignore me. Perhaps it's my swart and glowering looks. Anyway, our first main stop was at a place called Phnom Sampeuo (Boat Mountain). This is a place with some old temple ruins. The Khmer Rouge also used the temple to house some of their soldiers, and an old cave that was once (pre-Khmer Rouge) used as a theater has been renamed the Killing Cave. Again, more on the skeletons and torture in a later posting. We hiked to the top of the mountain (750 steps!) and gazed out at the lovely view of the scenery around Cambodia. It's interesting how flat this land is, with a few conical mountains rising seemingly randomly out of the rice paddies.

Did I mention the rice paddies? A veritable sea of them meets one's gaze throughout this lush country. One could probably walk the length and breadth of Cambodia without ever stepping on solid ground. My driver explained to me as we drove along how the rice is planted, harvested, replanted to space it out, and finally harvested for consumption/selling. He was an extremely helpful driver who answered my myriad of stupid questions about Cambodian agriculture, lifestyle, economic conditions, political landscape, motorbike market, and on and on. He did such a good job, in fact, that when the trip was finished, I upped his fare to $10 plus my sunglasses. They proved more effective in keeping the dust out of his eyes than his hand. What good will they do me? I don't even own a motorbike.

Anyway, we stopped at another spot where we climbed 350 steps up to 5 old Angkor Empire temple ruins. As we hiked, a cute little Cambodian woman and 3 kids walked along with us and fanned us to keep us cool. Try as we did, they stubbornly kept to their fanning, all the while providing valuable advice on where to take the best pictures. A couple of the kids asked me whether I wanted to see "boom boom". I responded that I don't know "boom boom", but wouldn't they be so kind as to introduce me? They showed me to the back part of one of the temples that had been completely blown away, apparently by artillery shells. The culpable party? You guessed it: our friends the Khmer Rouge. So I'm apparently getting all free and easy with my hard-earned money, because I gave Mom 500 riel (about 10 cents) plus 100 riel to each of the kids for their fanning services. They seemed satisfied, so I was too. What a softy.

To finish off our trip, we arrived at what the locals call the "bamboo railroad". "A railroad made of bamboo?" you ask. Almost. It's a small rickety metal railroad track on which the locals place two sets of metal wheels. On top of this they attach a bamboo scaffolding with a 5 hp sideshaft lawnmower engine. They run a rubber belt to the rear wheels, and for the tidy sum of 10$ invited us to climb aboard. Throwing our hard-earned money to the wind, Tonya, Whitney, I, plus our three drivers and their motorbikes all hopped on. With an imaginary toot toot, off we went. The ride was pretty jarring as the rails were not laid exactly evenly, but it was remarkable how fast that little bamboo deathtrap on wheels go going. I'm guessing about 30-35 mph. We motored along for about half an hour to a little railroad "stop" not far from town, and hopped off. It was all great fun.

So it was all in all a great day. Plus, we made it in just before the rain really started to fall. It's pouring down right now, and I've got nothing better to do but write in this here blog. So everyone wins.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Miss Saigon

Hmm. Well, it's been a few days, now. Since our little shopping fling in Hoi An, we've traveled the length of Vietnam all the way down to the little Burg of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly and still commonly known as Saigon. I am submitting this posting from a riverside internet cafe in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. More on Cambodia later. First things first.

The bus ride to Saigon took about 26 hours. One would think that this would be extremely uncomfortable, and yet it wasn't too bad, as the weather was pleasantly cool and rainy, and the bus was relatively empty. Both Tonya and I each got two whole seats to ourselves, so we could put our feet up and sort of sleep through the night. I woke up every hour or so when my legs and feet would cramp. Tonya zipped herself up in my sleeping bag, and I don't think she made a peep all night long. The following day we stopped briefly at a beautiful beach resort for lunch. We might've been tempted to stay there and enjoy the warm tropical breezes, but destiny in the form of a big loud city called. I made a homemade Risk game, at which Tonya effectively demolished me. She proved equally adept at making short work of my navy in a similarly notebook-paper-contrived game of Battleship, so I spent the remainder of the trip in sullen silence. It was all extraordinarily bad luck. My strategery was impeccable.

So we arrived in Saigon and were forced to pay the extortion-level rate of $7 per night for our rooms. The next day we took a little bus ride out to the village of Cu Chi where Viet Cong guerrilla soldiers fought the Americans during the Vietnam War. We started off by watching a little 70's-era patriotic video championing the brave soldiers of Cu Chi and how their most faithful ones won the glorious American Killer Medal honor. I somehow felt a little uneasy. We then took a little tour of the town and saw how the people literally lived underground for a period of several years. They used an elaborate tunnel system to sleep, cook food, and quickly move around the jungle to places where they could appear out of the ground at any given time and make life generally miserable for the American Invaders. The tunnels were intentionally built to be claustrophobically small so that the larger Americans couldn't fit in them (when they could even find the entrances). Additionally, they were booby trapped on the interior with all sorts of unpleasantries so as to discourage intrusions. We were shown a homemade weapons and trap area where all sorts of meat-grinding-type weapons were displayed that would be camouflaged on the jungle floor. American soldiers who fell into them would be maimed in the most inventive ways (even our tour guide - a former Vietnamese soldier - just shook his head as he described them, saying terrible, terrible). They were intentionally built so that the injured soldiers would stay alive long enough to be able to scream to their comrades for help, who would be promptly mowed down as they tried to drag the injured from the pits. Of course, the Vietcong had their own nightmares to deal with, as they lived in constant fear of carpet bombings if even a wisp of smoke escaped from their cooking rooms in the tunnels. And they could rarely spend more than a few minutes above ground. Pretty much a hellish nightmare from hell (I don't think I'm being redundant) for everyone involved.

So on the following day (last Friday), we determined to combine a Mekong River Delta tour with an exit to Cambodia's Phnom Penh. The tour description painted a picture involving a trip to a native coconut candy making village, a bee-keeping farm, tropical fruit tasting and folk music performances, followed by a horse and cart ride and a hike to the top of a scenic mountain. All this would be followed by a short boat ride to Phnom Penh. What fun. Well, the day began ominously as the rain started falling before we had even arrived at the harbor. We purchased glorified garbage sacks to use as rain ponchos for about 33 cents (a rip-off). Tonya tore hers in half as she was putting it on. She's been working out. We then went motoring around the Mekong River Delta to various islands. We spent a few minutes at a place where our tour guide showed us a metal grinder, and told us that it is utilized for the production of coconut candy. How quaint. I bought like 4 kilos of candy, so that at least wasn't a waste. We then went to another island. Tonya and I got to hug a python (or rather it hugged us), and as we were walking out, the tour guide pointed to a box while informing us that some of them hold bees. At this point, we realized that we were witnessing a genuine mail-in performance from the tour guide. We determined that he didn't really like westerners, as he would abandon us and find some locals to chat with for the few minutes when we stopped at the islands. It also occurred to us that we had never seen a horse and cart in all of Vietnam, so we couldn't figure out where the legendary horse and cart ride would come in. But whatever. We were wet, riding boats (some of them long oar-driven ones) through dense narrow jungle rivers, and imagining what it was like to be soldiers doing the same thing 30 years ago, but waiting for the plants on the shore to explode into machine gun fire. It was a good time. When we got back to Saigon, we waited almost two hours for a van that we thought would take us to our boat ride to Cambodia. When it finally arrived, our tour guide tossed us on the bus, and as he was closing the door, yelled that the van (packed to the gills with locals) would take us 5 hours to the border, where we would spend the night. This was certainly not quite what we bargained for... a free overland bus ride over semi-finished roads was included with our tour! We missed out on the horse and cart and mountain climb, but this was truly special. I actually mentioned to Tonya as we were pulling away that it would have been better perhaps to just take a bus to Cambodia, but it was too late. No one on the van spoke English accept for an Irish touristing couple who had been similarly duped. They were, to say the least, frustrated, and we spent a little bit of time cajoling them and convincing them that we were going to have way more fun with unexpected adventures on our unanticipated bus ride than we would've on another.... bus ride. Anyway, they settled down after I gave them a cliff bar.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn in a little town on the Vietnam-Cambodia border. We were treated to a tour of a local minority village (Muslims who trade in woven silk... Tonya got the chance to work on a silk loom and nearly break it), as well as a fish farm. We then hopped on another boat which would ostensibly take us 3 hours to the border. First we had to give up our passports and visa application fees ($22) to a little Vietnamese girl who promised to reappear at the border with our visas nicely processed. We smilingly relinquished our only proof of identification and hopped on a shifty water craft with several other tourists, and off we went! Thankfully, our little Vietnamese friend reappeared as promised at the border with our passports. We hopped through customs, and sat our little selves down on another boat that would take us up the Mekong all the way to Phnom Penh. I need to add here that our tour brochure promised a speed boat and a 3-hour ride to Phnom Penh. Perhaps the speed part of the boat was an extra added fee, or maybe they expected us to get out and kick to hurry things along. Anyway, since we sprung for neither of those options, we ended up spending roughly 10 hours on a boat. But we had a great time. Tonya was sunburned on one arm due to her lounging under the tropical solar rays. I choked on outboard motor fumes, as I was sitting on the inside (she had the window - ur, I mean hole - ... as usual).

But we got to Phom Penh safe 'n sound. We met one of Tonya's colleagues from last year who took us to the airport to meet Tonya's cousin, Whitney, who flew out to join us for my final week here. Now I've got two females to keep an eye on. I'm actually bigger than just about all the men out here (it's true! I'm not lying) - so I should be able to still pound anyone who messes with them. (Pardon me while I pound my chest and shout out a few feral yells and wails).

I should take a minute to just mention the guy who picked us up. He is a Cambodian who fought with the Khmer Rouge back in the late 70's and early 80's. When he was wounded, he escaped from their hospital to Thailand and lived in a refugee camp so that he wouldn't have to rejoin the Cambodian army. He lost contact with his entire family, whom he hasn't seen since. He studied dentistry at the Cambodian camp and returned to Phnom Penh after the war. He now works as a dentist in an orphanage. I told him that he needs to write down his story. He agrees that this is very important. I volunteered to help, and told him that my Father is a professional writer. He smilingly agreed, and promised to keep in touch. So there you go, Dad. I've enlisted you as an involuntary participant in a personal biography. As we drove out of the airport, I paid for our exit fee from the parking lot. I gave him approximately 50 cents extra. When he protested, I just reassured him that he can pay me back from his future book proceeds.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Hue, et al

It appears that Vietnam's electronic infrastructure lags a wee bit behind its western counterparts. I'm therefore experiencing some difficulty in gaining access to the internet. I've also noticed that although I can edit posts, I haven't been able to actually open and view my site for some time, now. I'm suspecting that the internet censors in Vietnam keep local users from freely accessing the bloggernet. The lousy capitalists might impose an insurrection. Rest assured that all snarky comments to postings still safely arrive in my email box.

Today we arrived in Hoi An, our third city of the Vietnam trip. We got to Hue (pronounced Who-Aye) Friday morning after what seemed like an interminably long bus ride. We became quite familiar with the other tourists on the bus; not that we talked at all, but people were sprawled out in the aisles, draped over the seats in front of them, and generally in the attitude of rather making themselves at home. It's interesting how self-contained the tourist industry is in this country. Each city along the coast is accessible by buses that essentially only tourists ride (there are local buses for the Natives). When we arrive in a city, we are dropped off on streets lined with hostels at rates ranging from $4-20/night. At the hostels, friendly solicitous people (all, seemingly, under 30) in broken English recommend options for excursions and tours of the city and various natural or historical sites in the countryside. I could actually spend my entire 2 weeks in Vietnam without interacting with any Vietnamese outside the tourist industry. This all seems remarkably well-organized; we suspect that all the hostels and tourist companies are in cahouts with each other, and perhaps even just run by the government. It occurs to me that perhaps some smart characters in the Vietnamese government decided a few years ago that they wanted to create a bustling tourist industry, perhaps as a poor-man's alternative to the crazy hustle-bustle of Thailand. They therefore set things up to attract foreigners out here while minimizing said tourists' overall influence on the country. Vietnam is still a marginally communist country, and in typical broken-down communist fashion, they could still be trying to maintain a semblance of ideology while all the same getting their hands in the international touristing cookie jar. Also interestingly enough, just about all the tourists are Europeans... as I alluded to in my previous posting, Americans haven't seemed to have warmed up to Vietnam, just yet.

So we arrived in Hue, rented a couple of bicycles, and spent a day traipsing around the city and countryside. It's pretty fun riding with all the local traffic through the packed streets, though it definitely takes some getting used to. No one really stops at intersections, and doing so would actually potentially cause at best a minor traffic slowdown, and at worst an accident. We are advised to just make eye contact with oncoming traffic, whereupon everyone mutually swerves, and then it's off to the next near-death experience. Definitely a study in organized chaos. It's actually not so bad, since people ride motorbikes here almost exclusively in lieu of cars. So accidents are less likely to involve impacts with/between large metal vehicles. Additionally, since the streets are so packed, the maximum speed limit for any vehicle is usually significantly under that which your grandma pedaling on a bicycle could manage. So it's cool. We were joking that it really seems that most people have a family motorbike out here, and a teenager will ask his Dad for the keys to the bike to take his girlfriend out for a night on the town. But it's also notably progressive; one sees as almost an equal proportion of men and women on motorbikes.

So back to our bike ride. Within 5 minutes of our riding on the street, a woman pulled up to Tonya and started chatting with her. This little mobile conversation continued for some time, as we drifted the streets of Hue. We were attempting to take a ride outside the town to see a tomb/palace place of an ancient emperor of a bygone royal era (or something like that). But this woman said that she lived on a pineapple farm not far from the tomb, and wouldn't we like to have her show us the way? Perceiving a response in the negative to be the pinnacle of rudeness, we followed her along (or rather, I followed, while Tonya and the woman chatted). On a side note, I've found that many people spontaneously approach Tonya out here to chat/take pictures, etc. Just last night, 3 young girls wanted to take a professional picture in front of the Royal palace, and asked Tonya to join them. We've determined that while they're interested in becoming acquainted with a blonde-ish foreigner, I'm far too swarthy (or perhaps just ugly) to pique their interest. Anyway, so we went riding out to the tomb, and it turned out that the woman lived, in fact, a fair distance from our destination. She took us to her little homestead and treated us to fresh pineapple and Ramen noodles. Her husband was particularly excited to chat, as he had learned English while serving with the Americans fighting in the Vietnam war! He fought for a couple of years down in the south, and moved up north to Hue after the Americans pulled out. So all in all, that was quite fascinating.

Now we've arrived in Hoi An. Today's Sunday, so we'll lay low for the day, and tomorrow hit the touristy stuff. Apparently this city is a huge Mecca for foreign shoppers. The local tailors are rather renowned; I'm hoping to get a suit tailored for the tall sum of $40. Sweet.

On a food note, it would be truly impossible for me to starve in this country, due to the overwhelming availability of fresh fruit (including pineapple, mango, bananas, and all things tropical). It seems, however, that I once read somewhere "Man shall not live by mango alone". I feel reluctant to reveal that I've actually moved two sizes smaller on my belt since arriving here. I hope I don't need to emphasize that this is not necessarily the optimal direction for my belt buckle to be moving. But so far, the intestinal diseases seem to be well conquered, so I therefore conclude that my shrinking girth is due merely to water loss. I drink about 4-5 liters a day, but it still seems insufficient. But I'm hangin in there, Mom. Don't worry.

Finally, in response to John P.'s request, my traveling buddy is a one Tonya Tripp. She and I did a little excursion to Mali back in the fall of 2003. She it was who clued me in to the delights of a potential jaunt through SE Asia. She spent last summer in Cambodia working on an internship, which she will continue after I leave in about 2 weeks. She's keeping her own little travelblog updated at
Asia Adventure (Part II). She might make an appearance as a guest contributer in some of my own posts, later on.

Goodness. That was a lot of writing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


What is up, my ninjas?

I'm sitting here in a $6/night hostel in Vietnam's great capitol of Hanoi on a beautiful steamy summer morning. So everyone seems to be asking me about my suddenly overwhelming male pattern-baldness. I figured a shaved head would be a lot more comfortable in SE Asia, and I was right. Tonya says she thinks she sweats much more than I do. It's disgusting. Plus, I get to look sort of like Patrick Stewart or Dallin Oaks. What's not to love about that? My mother disagrees, however; she might've already disowned me.

So Tonya and I took a trip yesterday to Ha Long Bay, about 180 km east of Hanoi along the coast. We took a boat ride around some beautiful islands. It was quite overwhelming, actually. I will post some lovely pics a little later on. Today we're taking another day-long trip to the famous Perfume Pagoda outside Hanoi. Then we'll hop on a night bus and travel to the city of Hue down south.

It's been pretty fun, so far. The Vietnamese are EXTREMELY friendly and accommodating. It's remarkable how little resentment anyone seems to feel over that skirmish, about 30 years back. We rarely, if ever, run in to American tourists, however. Perhaps we aren't so forgiving. Perhaps we have better things to do. And perhaps we're missing out.

Monday, June 25, 2007


After spending 18 hours on an airplane and 10 hours sitting in airports, I've arrived in Bangkok in the Kingdom of Thailand. Fortunately for me, I get to spend the night here on a metal bench in anticipation of an 11am flight to Hanoi, tomorrow morning. So far, this has been fantastic. I don't have any keen insights to reveal, other than the fact I'm no longer a huge fan of airplane food. Tonya gave me most of her meals, and by the end of the Tokoy-Bangkok flight, I was reaching the point of gluttony. Yuck.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I'm back!

Here's a shout out to all my loyal readers who've been forced to satisfy themselves with re-reading year-old blog postings. Okay, I flatter myself. I have no loyal readers. But since I'm the one looking over my own shoulder, it's good to know that at least someone is checking up on me. Yet again, I digress....

So I've been living in Utah (what I like to call the SLC... it makes me sound hip) for the last 8 months, or so. My current employer is the Utah Legislative Auditor General. We're sort of the state-level GAO. We respond to requests from the State Legislature to investigate the performance of state agencies. We check compliance with state code, legislative intent, and overall efficiency and effectiveness. As an auditor, many of my friends assume that I spend my leisure time sharpening pencils. This is patently false. We don't sharpen pencils, anymore. They're mechanical.

In my time here, I've managed to participate in two major audits. From October through February, I worked on a two-man team auditing Utah's Disability Determination Services. As my first foray into the exciting field of performance auditing, I discovered that there's no point in saying in one sentence what you can extend in to three! I had a great time getting to know the people and processes of the federally-funded Disability Determination Service office, and grew to appreciate how frustratingly bureaucratic the government can be. You well may ask: what were the substantive conclusions of our audit? For those disinclined to read the 30-page report, we concluded the following: "work better". Since that time, I've turned my keen analytical eye to an audit of the Utah Transit Authority. I've spent the last few months riding buses and rail, perusing budgets and asking the "hard hitting" questions. This report might very well approach the 100-page threshold. But confidentiality issues prevent me from revealing any future conclusions. Nevertheless, since my blog readership can be represented by a logarithmic function approaching zero over time, I will reveal that UTA can also "work better". What a breach. I might lose my job.

Speaking of losing my job, when I initially accepted this job back in October, I was vacillating between this one and a position at the US embassy in Moscow. I figured that I should try employment in the US of A for a period of time, so I initially turned down the Moscow job. But after 9 months, I've come to realize that I might be somewhat dissatisfied with a permanent career in State Government. Not that I mind working for Utah's Auditor General. I like my colleagues and the work has had its own degree of fascination. I just feel that it's not for me. So the Auditor General and I have agreed that we're going to get into a major row during the next staff meeting. He'll impugn my work ethic, and I'll belittle his leadership capacity. Then he'll fire me on the spot. Everyone will be horrified. He's way too excited about the prospect to make it believable, though. Or perhaps, he's just been biding his time....

So I've got plans to work in Moscow for a bit, and then see what's what. In the meantime, I'm headed out on Sunday for a 3-week excursion to Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. I'll try to make a couple of postings while I'm out there to describe the lay of the land. I'm due to arrive in Moscow around the middle of August. Hopefully that'll spur me to new and more interesting blog postings. I make no promises.