December 24, 2011
Sometimes the best things in life really are the simplest. Take this beach and its thatch huts-as-accommodation, 60km north of Nha Trang. Isolated, nothing but the sound of the waves, no hot water—literally three meals a day at a communal table with the other guests and a bed under a mosquito net at night. Engage with the revolving company of travellers or disconnect completely.
So here’s to you and your holiday spirit; however you may celebrate or contemplate it.
December 19, 2011
The world over, this was a bad year for dictators and despots. Tunisia’s longtime President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden was assassinated in late spring, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was executed. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has died of “overwork.”
The military junta that rules Burma is no dummy. The junta’s head, Than Shwe, sniffing revolution in the air, made a few concessions (such as releasing democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest) and the next thing you know the highest-ranking US official in fifty years steps foot on Burmese soil, with Shwe averting possible US-sponsored regime change in his country that Iraq's Saddam Hussein could not.
Kleptocracy is one of my favourite words and it means “rule by thieves.” Kleptocracies steal freedom, rights, speech, equality and peace from its citizens, plundering a nation’s resources for its own end. Think any and all corrupt forms of authoritarian governments, particularly dictatorships, oligarchies, the aforementioned military juntas, or other forms of autocratic and nepotistic governments.
The world’s remaining despots cling to power by their toes. Syria’s Bashir al-Assad, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Castro brothers find themselves in the chill of mounting global disapprobation.
The creaking Congresses of the Communist Parties of both China and Vietnam look about nervously as their paranoia compels them to continue to clamp down on dissent. Even they know; however mighty in their own time, the complete decline of all leaders is inevitable:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”
December 18, 2011
Tram Chim Park is a bird sanctuary in Dong Thap province in southern Vietnam close to the Cambodia border. We went there to look at birds. While I’m not much of a birder (to me everything looks like a black blur flying overhead), our travelling companions are keen bird watchers and competitive about it to boot. Nonetheless, it was very peaceful to float around the park, trailing hands in the water among the cajeput trees, water lilies and mangroves.
Occasionally, from the back of the boat from where we watched our happily arguing companions up front, we’d have a go with the binoculars to marvel at red-headed cranes, pelicans, kingfishers and ducks with elaborate combs. For name alone, I was on the lookout for the long-toed stint, but it remained elusive to my searching eyes. We did however manage to capture cormorants sunning themselves in the cajeputs. These birds charmed me because the bird book said they were quiet birds, but distinguishable by their “grunts and groans” in the wetlands during the mating season.
It was fitting that we capped off a day of waterfowl spotting with this water buffalo enjoying a sundowner dip.
December 8, 2011
Militant motherhood is a potent motif woven into the cultural fabric of modern Vietnam. In fighting its many wars of resistance, Vietnam came to glorify gun-toting patriots and adores its countless martyrs. Communism eventually gave it—in theory, if not in practice—equality among the sexes a thousand years of Confucianism has not.
While women’s militancy and political participation may have helped overcome the limits of gendered citizenship rights, it’s the juxtaposition of blood and milk that disturbs. That a woman can defend her homeland, carry a gun and kill is not in question. It’s the jarring image of the cherub cheeked child strapped to her body. How will she shield it from the blood spatters that her gun produces? Will she pacify the child with her milk while the groans of the dying fill their ears? Our armed mother carries her flag-waving daughter, transmitting the political warfare to the next generation.
But how long is long enough for Vietnam to keep forcing these aggressive and highly combative “we are united” images on a population that is nearly four decades removed from the bloodshed and violence of the last (civil) war?
“The people are urged to be patriotic...by sacrificing their own children,” wrote anarchist and political activist Emma Goldman. “Patriotism requires allegiance to the flag, which means obedience and readiness to kill father, mother, brother, sister.”