Yosemite from glacier point. California, USA. 2006

As I have mentioned in several posts previously I have spent quite a bit of time in the USA.  Lived there for two years during the early 1980s, and I have been back there four times since on various holidays. 

One of the things that really gets my backup is when people automatically dismiss America as a travel destination because of its foreign policy or the fool who is currently in power over there.  Although it could be argued that American foreign policy and politics are a manifestation of the national will, most Americans I’ve met don’t support Bush’s deranged and rapacious ways.  Sure, Bush stole the election fair and square, but the majority of Americans did not vote for him. 

As a matter of fact, a majority of Americans don’t vote at all because they have no interest in the candidates. The two party political system has left a great deal of the population feeling they aren’t being represented by either the Republicans or the Democrats, so they just don’t participate in the election process. 

Americans that my wife and I met were very concerned about foreigner’s opinions of America.  So often, the people that we spoke to (without us instigating any conversation about politics) actually apologised for Bush and made a point of telling us that they did not vote for him. 

The average American that I’ve ever encountered is a very polite and friendly person who is happy to meet people from overseas.  I was treated with nothing but courtesy and decency (with a few notable exceptions), in all the times that I have visited the States.

Some other people seem to think that because America has the largest economy in the world that it must be some big industrial wasteland and there are a quite few places like New Jersey (the “Garden State”, what a joke!), that do fit the bill, but on the whole it is an incredibly beautiful country.  I particularly like the south-western states, but there is beauty to be found across the whole country.  I have been to about 45 of the states and I feel that I can say this with some authority.

My favourite place in the US is the Grand Canyon (I’ve been there three times), but my second favourite place is Yosemite.  

Yosemite valley from Glacier Point

Because of its beauty, Yosemite is usually very crowded for most warmer months of the year.  My wife and I visited Yosemite in the late summer, early autumn of 2006 and the park was almost empty. 

Apparently, most people go to Yosemite in the late spring or early summer, because the melting snow creates numerous waterfalls, off the steep rock faces of the valley.  There were no waterfalls when we visited Yosemite but it was still amazingly spectacular.  When I was younger and I used to rock climb, I used to fantasize about climbing at Yosemite and after visiting there, I found it easy to understand why the place was such a rock climbing mecca. The whole place is just stunning.

The good woman of Phnom Penh. Cambodia 1975

Back in the early 70s, when I was living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during the war I used to eat at a street side cafe, not far from the central market.  Quite a few other foreigners used to eat there as well. In Asia at that time wherever there were single foreign men there were usually local hookers as well. 

Since I was living in Phnom Penh over a period of six months, I saw the foreigners come and go, but their local playmates remained behind, to somehow scratch a living from their next dalliance.  Over time I got to know quite a few of these women, and they used to come and sit with my girlfriend and I as we ate. They would chat and pass the time with us until a foreigner would come up and whisper something in their ear and they would give us an embarrassed smile and excuse themselves so they could go and ply their trade.  Despite their uniformly sad backgrounds and desperate circumstances they were all quite nice and we enjoyed their company and saw them as friends. 

One woman that we saw nearly every day, was called Sukon (I’m not exactly sure how it is spelt). 

Sukon

Usually Sukon was quite laid-back; full of life; quick to laugh and smile.  One morning Sukon turned up and seemed quite rattled and upset. When we asked her what was the matter she told us what happened to her at the Khmera restaurant (just around the corner from where we were sitting) the previous evening. 

The Khmera was a very popular place with foreigners, as it served very cheap quite tasty French style food, and you could change your money on the black-market in the toilets with the waiters.  At the time, the official rate of exchange at the banks was a few hundred riels to the dollar but in the toilets of the Khmera, one could get 3600 riels to the dollar from the waiters.  So, a meal that should cost about 10 US dollars would end up actually costing about 50 or 60 cents.

Apparently the night before, Sukon had been eating in the Khmera, with a client when a drunken American guy came in waving a pistol.  The drunk started yelling and screaming at Sukon, threatening to kill her because she was with another man.  Before anybody had a chance to get away from the maniac he shot at Sukon but fortunately missed her.

Unfortunately, the gunmen shot a dining Englishman in the butt!  As the Englishman hit the ground, the drunk was over-powered by other diners and carted off to the police.  Meanwhile other people at the restaurant took the Englishman to hospital to be operated on. 

To add insult to injury, the Englishman was transfused with blood contaminated with malaria and he nearly died, necessitating for him to be flown directly back to England for further treatment to save his life.

Friendship. Another reason to be cheerful

My wife and I’ve had a very sociable weekend that started off with a dinner at my friend Peter’s place on Saturday and finished with a birthday party at another friend, Tim‘s place on Sunday.
 
Dinner at Peter’s place is always a joy as he is a good cook, an excellent conversationalist and to top it all off he collects wines and enjoys sharing them with his friends.  Normally I am not a fan of lamb, and when Peter said that he was cooking lamb shanks my heart sank a little, but needless to say, the meal due to Peter’s skill in the kitchen was fantastic.  Peter slow roasted the lamb shanks in wine, and the meat just fell off the bone, it was really excellent.  The standout wine of the evening that Peter shared with us was a bottle of 1990 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz.  It was a beautifully smooth, full flavoured (as one expects from Australian warm climate Shiraz) wine that perfectly complemented our meal.  If you think you might want to try this wine here are some tasting notes for it (that I lifted from an on-line wine catalogue):

“Deep red in colour, 1990 has established itself as a classic Penfolds vintage. There are intense dark chocolate and sweet berry aromas, complex, revealing many characters in the glass – raspberry, prune, fruitcake, exotic spices and roasted chestnuts. Spice and demi-glace secondary notes add to the aromatic interest, flashes of liquorice, white chocolate and cinnamon arise with a swirl. Medium-bodied and mouth filling, plummy, berried fruits mesh with dark chocolate, mocha and spice notes.”

In the wee hours of the morning Peter has us try a lovely sherry.

Due to Peter’s love of wine, and his generosity with it, we always find ourselves staying up late into the evening whenever we go over to his place, sampling the various delicious treasures from Peter’s cellar.  Of course, due to the amount of wine that we drink in an evening at Peter’s we always sleep over so we don’t have to drive back home.
 
After a quick breakfast at the cafe near Peter’s, we headed up to the Blue Mountains (100 km west of Sydney) to have an extended lunch with our friend Tim and his wife Em with a bunch of their other friends to celebrate his birthday.  Tim’s wife Em is a vegetarian, so instead of the normal meat fest that passes for Australian cuisine, there were quite a few delicious salads that were the perfect antidote to the previous night’s dinner.  The highlight of the afternoons repast was a delicious beer cake with a saffron mascarpone filling covered with a raspberry icing made by Tim’s cousin, Kristin.

Beercake!

It was really a great weekend, with fantastic company and excellent food.  When we arrived home, I checked my e-mails to find that Kent Davis who has made contact with me through this blog and I have spoken to over the telephone, had a very lucky escape on the 17th.  Thanks to a smoke alarm, Kent and his wife Pa were woken up just in time to get out of their house, with nothing but what they were wearing as their house quickly burnt down.

The house went up like a box of matches

In his e-mail to me, Kent had this to say:
“We have lost absolutely everything but our lives. We are wearing clothes from the neighbours now. Our good friend next door has an apartment and has given us a place to stay. The other neighbours have clothes for us. Life is good! Being alive is even better! (-: The important thing to know is that we are alive, in love, and that we are very, very lucky.”

Later in his e-mail, Kent said this:
“Typing is slow because my eyes are filled with tears… Before the fire was out our neighbours gave us so many generous commitments for food, shelter and clothing that we truly never felt “homeless” for a moment. As dawn arrived more food, clothing, help and housing offers came. As the day went on, dozens and dozens more friends came to help.”
 
Epicurus said that all we really need to be happy is freedom, food, friends, shelter and a life free from pain. Although Kent and Pa lost their shelter and many things of sentimental value, I suspect that they are so rich in friends that they will be back on their feet in no time.
 
I truly feel that our lives are defined and enriched by our friends. Therefore it’s very important to cherish and maintain our friendships as they bring far more joy and strength into our lives than any material possessions.

Gumby in Goulimine. Morocco 1982

Back in 1982, when I was in Morocco, I travelled south to Goulimine. At the time Morocco was in the middle of what its government laughingly described as a “green revolution”.  The so-called green revolution was actually a naked land grab by Morocco of what was once the Spanish Sahara..  In late 1975 as Franco was in the process of dying, (the odious) King Hassan of Morocco with tacit American and French approval, declared that he was sending in 350,000 Moroccans as mujahedin to reclaim the area for the motherland totally disregarding the local population’s desire for independence from Spain and self rule that had been sanctioned by the U.N. since the early 1960s.
 
Morocco has not been a good neighbour to the countries that surround it and has been in an undeclared state of war with Algeria for the last 30 years due to Algeria’s support of the Polisario (which had been fighting for independence from Spain since the early 1970s). Plus Morocco did not recognize the right of Mauritania to exist until 1969.
 
At the time when I was in Morocco, the furthest south that a foreigner could travel was Goulimine.
 
When I was younger, I had romantic notions of travelling through the desert with the Tuaregs to Timbuktu.  So when I was in Morocco, I tried to make it happen by going down to Goulimine. The further south that one travels in Morocco the more “African” it becomes.  The European influenced whitewashed houses of the northern coastal areas give way to pink and blue structures with touches of sub-Saharan design.  In the north of Morocco near the Mediterranean, many of the people could be mistaken for Greeks or Italians but the further south, one goes, the more African looking the people become. Still fine featured like Arabs but with much darker skin and frizzy hair
 
Just like in the rest of Morocco, one is beset by touts, offering to be your guide as soon as you step off the bus.  I’m pretty deft at losing these guys, but in small towns It’s hard to get away from the really persistent ones as they will follow you to your hotel, and then wait outside the front for when you decide to go out later.  The guy in the photograph latched on to me from the time that I’d got off the bus and followed me around for at least two days before I eventually relented and had conversation with him. 

My guide over looking the camel market

Even I can’t be unrelentingly rude.  His persistence is a testament to how a little work there is and how desperate people are.  There was no way he was going to let a clueless, pasty, foreign, bag of money like me slip through his grasp.
 
Moroccan culture is impenetrable to people who don’t speak the language, and after a couple of days in Goulimine I was starting to realise I wasn’t going to get anywhere without some local help and that’s when I made the mistake of asking “my guide” to help me find some Tauregs who would be willing to take me to Timbuktu as part of a camel caravan.
 
By the next day, my newfound friend had arranged a meeting for me with some very hospitable and amiable Tauregs.  In retrospect, it is no wonder why they were so friendly.  After all, there I was, a totally clueless and naive sack of money from overseas, who was only too willing to part with his money for the craziest of reasons.  Why would you want to travel by camel through the desert when you had enough money to fly?
 
I was plied with mint tea and regaled with stories about the Tauregs, and their amazing skills in the desert.  “I have a friend, a very wise man, who can travel in the desert using only the stars to tell him the way to go”, I was told in awe by one of my hosts.  I guess astral navigation can seem pretty amazing to someone like him who hadn’t been in the Boy Scouts.  Some Taureg clothing was also brought out for me to try on.  They really knew which of my buttons to push as I thought it would be pretty cool to cross the desert in disguise, accompanied by people with dangerous reputations.  This would surely all lead to an experience “worthy of a song”, as the Klingons would say.

Who was I trying to kid?

It was explained to me that there was no way that I could go into the camel market and buy a camel for myself as I would just get ripped off, and the same would happen when it came to me to buy the other supplies that I would need for the trip.  It was also explained to me that it would be nearly impossible for me as a foreigner to just walk up to some strange Tauregs, and ask them if I could just tag along on their next trip to Timbuktu.  Another aspect I had to take into consideration was that as a tourist I would stick out like dog’s balls.  I would attract the attention of the local security forces and would probably end up in jail, as what I wanted to do was considered illegal from a Moroccan point of view. The Moroccan government didn’t want foreigners going into a country that they were in the process of stealing.
 
Then came the time to talk about money.  I was told to pay $300 US to get things organised and that I should get ready to leave in about a week’s time.  Normally I don’t pay upfront for anything, but I figured I had to trust these guys at some stage.  If I didn’t pay the money upfront, and they were crooks, there was a good chance I would be taken out into the desert to be killed and robbed while I slept.  This was of particular concern, considering that I would be traveling illegally and incognito.  If I paid the money upfront, and they ripped me off I’d only be a little poorer, but I’d still be alive.  So I paid them the money and arranged to meet them in a week’s time.  I had to go back to Tarrazout, which is up near Agadir to get the rest of my stuff that I had left in storage, with Louasin.
 
Needless to say, I got ripped off.

Ya Rayah (Oh Emigrant) by Rachid Taha

My recent post about immigrants got me thinking about my favourite Arabic song, Ya Rayah composed by Dahmane El Harrachi, performed by Rachid Taha on his album, Live.

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Here’s the lyrics in English:

Oh Emigrant

Oh where are you going?
Eventually you must come back
How many ignorant people have regretted this
Before you and me

How many overpopulated countries and empty lands have you seen?
How much time have you wasted?
How much have you yet to lose?
Oh emigrant in the country of others
Do you even know what’s going on?
Destiny and time follow their course but you ignore it

Why is your heart so sad?
And why are you staying there miserable?
Hardship will end and you no longer learn or build anything
The days don’t last, just as your youth and mine didn’t
Oh poor fellow who missed his chance just as I missed mine

Oh traveler, I give you a piece of advice to follow right away
See what is in your interest before you sell or buy
Oh sleeper, your news reached me
And what happened to you happened to me
Thus, the heart returns to its creator, the Highest (God)

Cabramatta, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Last weekend my wife and I went to Cabramatta in western Sydney with my friend Peter and his friends for lunch.  Although I have lived in Sydney for many years I had never been to Cabramatta before and I had heard that it was a great place to have Vietnamese food.
 
Cabramatta has the mixed reputation as being the centre of heroin distribution and Vietnamese culture in Australia.  Up until recently, smack was sold to junkies, fairly openly in the streets there.  Once a few of the tabloid television shows started running stories about how easy it was to buy heroin in Cabramatta the police finally got their fingers out and started to do something about it.  Heroin dealing has now gone underground, and is no longer a common scene on the Cabramatta streets.
 
Cabramatta has become almost a tourist attraction, because of its large Vietnamese population and the plethora of Asian businesses and restaurants.  On Saturdays Cabramatta is very busy as the streets fill up with people who have come to buy Asian vegetables and eat at the restaurants.

cabramatta2.jpg

It came as quite a surprise to me when I asked several of the locals for directions to an automatic teller machine, that none of them could speak English very well to the point that they couldn’t understand what I was saying, and I couldn’t understand their replies.  It would seem that the Vietnamese population in that area of Sydney is so large, that people can live there without having to learn English. 
 
Now this isn’t going to be a rant about “foreigners must learn English if they want to live in Australia” because I know what it’s like to live in a foreign country that speaks a different language than I do. 
 
I speak enough French, Spanish and Japanese to get around, but not enough to have anything other than a childlike conversation in those languages. I think that many people don’t realise that when one learns a second language that it is so difficult to have mature conversations with any depth and that is why many non-English speaking immigrants in English-speaking countries tend to stick with their own kind so that they can speak their own language.  I lived in Japan for a year and had a Japanese girlfriend at the time so I learnt enough Japanese to be able to get by, but I found it far less taxing to speak English with native speakers as I could express myself more fully, easier.
 
Every day I accompany my wife to the train station when she commutes to and from work because there are quite a few unsavoury characters about, plus I don’t like the idea of her walking home alone at night.  The area that I live in is mainly populated by blue-collar Caucasians with a sprinkling of Southeast Asians and Sri Lankans, and it is in the process of being gentrified as the price of home ownership is sky rocketing here in Sydney forcing first-time home buyers further westward.  It’s very interesting to see the division in education, when one looks at who is standing on what platform at the train station in the morning.  The people on the platform heading east into downtown Sydney are all in office clothing reflecting in general a higher level of education than those people standing on the westbound platforms, heading out into the more industrial areas.  In general, the people heading east tend to be from a broad ethnic background, look cleaner and well groomed than the mainly caucasian people heading westward who are generally scruffy and display far more jail tattoos than I’m comfortable with.  The contrast between the people occupying the eastbound and westbound platforms is quite stark and to me it displays a cultural polarization. 
 
There seems to be a shift in Australian culture at the moment, with the population becoming better educated and employed in white collar jobs but there still is an element that seems to be in love with the whole concept of being an “outlaw”. A sort of white-trailer-trash-biker aesthetic.  I think many of you would know what I mean.  Homemade tatts, long greasy hair with long beards and black grease under the fingernails, with of course, the obligatory earrings.  To me that whole scene is so anachronistic, and it belongs to a section of Australia, that looks backwards rather than into the future direction that Australia is heading.
 
In the past, I used to see Australia as a cultural backwater but lately; I feel that we are at the forefront of cultural policy.  For the last 30 years Australia has had the forward thinking  policy of “multiculturalism” in which we have seen a shift from a predominantly Anglo-Celtic culture to a far more ethnically diverse culture. Thirty percent of the people who live in Sydney weren’t born in Australia.
 
There are many people of Anglo-Celtic background, who are concerned by the racial and cultural shift happening here in Australia as they feel that many foreigners come from less than ideal philosophical backgrounds and that they will somehow contaminate Australian culture and degrade it in the process.  I think that what a lot of these people don’t realise is that most of the people who have come here to Australia, did so because they thought Australia had something to offer that their homeland didn’t and they don’t necessarily have an agenda to change Australia into a version of their homeland.
 
One of the distressing things I’ve noticed is how some people think that because they are white they are somehow better than people who aren’t. 
 
One evening while I was waiting for my wife at the train station, I saw an old Sikh man make the mistake of asking directions from a dirty and scruffy tattooed youth with bad teeth and the mandatory sports clothing with logos plastered all over them (so beloved of white-trash).  The old Sikh asked his question to which the youth replied loudly, “WHAT?!” The old man would repeat his question to receive the same loud WHAT?!” This cycle happened four or five times until the youth exploded with “WHY DON’T YOU LEARN HOW TO SPEAK FUCKING ENGLISH?!” Then he just stormed off yelling racist epithets at the old man. The poor old shocked Sikh came up to me and then asked his directions again.  Sure enough, his accent was very thick and not that easy to understand but I hung in there and was able to help him out. 
 
The whole experience left me feeling very embarrassed, as I have never been treated in the way that the old man had been treated when I’ve been overseas in countries where I don’t speak the language.  I would say that in general, when I’m overseas, everybody I’ve ever asked directions from has been universally helpful and polite.  It really pisses me off that some ignorant lowlife scumbag thinks he’s better than someone else just because he is white. There are many people of an Anglo-Celtic background here in Australia who would do well if they took the time to learn about other cultures.  In no way am I saying that foreign cultures are better, but I am saying that we should be eclectic and take the best from every culture.

Teenage tourist in a war zone. Part 3, At the battlefront near Phnom Penh , Cambodia. 1975

This is part 3 in a 3 part story.

If you want to read part 1 click here.

If you want the read part 2 click here

With the constant chatter of machine-gun fire in the background, we waited for the ammunition truck in the only small copse of trees in what was basically a couple of hectares of rice paddies out in the open.  With the aid of the Cambodian reporter, the Space Cadet and I made casual small talk with the boy soldiers.  It was completely surreal, and everybody seemed quite relaxed, as they enjoyed a few moments of impromptu socialising.  Every now and again the Space Cadet would punctuate the conversation with his mantra of “Wow this is all so real!  This ain’t no movie!”
 
When the ammunition truck arrived, the soldiers that we had been chatting with, explained to the driver that he was to take us to the front.  The back of the truck was fully loaded with ammunition of all kinds so all three of us (the Cambodian reporter, the Space Cadet and myself) piled into the cab with the driver. It was a bit cramped, but no one could ride in the back. Talk about getting into the most dangerous ride in the world. Being close to battlefront was bad enough, but getting into a truck loaded with explosives that might get detonated by a lucky shot, was probably the stupidest decision I’ve ever made in my life.
 
The dirt road was raised at about a metre higher than the surrounding rice paddy fields so the driver just put his foot to the floor and drove as though his life literally depended upon it.  A full ammunition truck raised above all the surrounding landscape would have been the target of choice.  About 1 km from where we got on the truck we sped past a dead burnt body by the side of the road.  In the split-second that it took to pass the body, I could see that it was on its back with its arms and legs in the air as though it were some insect that had been sprayed with insecticide. His clothes had been almost totally burnt off, revealing shiny vitreous blackened skin.  There was no one else around and the body was there all by itself like a pathetic discarded shop mannequin.  It all happened so fast that I almost didn’t feel anything other than regret that I couldn’t stop and take a photograph.  It makes me shudder when I think about how unfeeling and uncaring I was back then.  So childishly selfish, hardly better than a hungry animal.
 
We sped down the road for about another kilometre or two until we got to a small village of battle damaged grass huts, which was our destination. 

ruined_village.jpg

Our ride skidded to a halt, and we all jumped out as fast as we could and ran for cover behind coconut trees to wait for the commander.  It took me a few seconds to realise that there were Cambodian government soldiers dotted around the village behind whatever cover they could find. 

soldiers2.jpg

The sound of machine-gun fire was no longer a background noise.  When I was in high school, I used to be in the army cadets and that involved training with rifles (Enfield 303) and machine guns (Bren guns).  When we used to go down for rifle practice we all had to take turns in the bunker at the end of the rifle range to keep track of how well the other kids were shooting at the targets.  It was during these times at the rifle range I became familiar with the different sounds bullets make.  When one shoots a rifle and the bullet is moving away from you the sound is very similar to what one hears in the movies but of course much louder.  When a bullet is travelling towards you it makes a cracking sound that is similar to a bullwhip.  As we waited for the commander I could hear both types of bullets sounds.  Incoming and outgoing.
 
Waiting behind the coconut tree in the company of soldiers who were similar in age to me, with the sound of gunfire all around, was the most scared I’d ever been in my life.  I’m talking real fear that borders on panic, and not some milder type of fear like the type caused by someone threatening to punch you in the face.  The fear that I experienced during that time has become a benchmark in my life that I use to compare how scary something is.  I wasn’t the only one that was scared and as I looked around everybody I could see was hunched over in silent contemplation over how close they were to shitting themselves. 

soldier.jpg

I found myself thinking about how I put myself voluntarily into such a situation, and then comparing how stupid I was in comparison to the poor Cambodian soldiers who had been drafted into the army and who were there, through no desire of their own.
 
Fear is a physical response to hazardous stimulus, and I’m pretty sure it serves the very important function of keeping us out of harm’s way. It was at this moment, I found myself thinking about how young men can be trained up to do very unnatural things like ignoring the very natural instinct to remove oneself from danger.  In a flash, it became very obvious to me that it was this very fact that one could train up young men anywhere in the world to ignore their fear and the desire for self-preservation that was causing so much trouble in the world. 
 
It would seem that there is always a group of young men, that you can train and give weapons to, who are willing without much informed thought to go and kill other people for whatever foggy reason.  It’s happening in Iraq right now.  Young Americans have been told that they are in Iraq fighting for some noble cause, when in fact; they are just helping the oil companies maintain their supply and profits.
 
In amongst all the noise and fear, the commander and his sergeant wandered casually into view like they were taking a stroll in the park.  When the commander, who spoke English, saw us hiding behind the trees he laughed and waved his hand in a motion to get us to stand up and come out in the open like him.

The guy in the middle is the commander

 The commander was saying it’s okay, it’s okay, the Khmer Rouge are about 200 m away and they can’t see us.  The commander’s confidence eased our fear considerably, so we got up and made our introductions. 

The Cambodian grunts stayed put, they weren’t stupid. The commander then called out to a few of the soldiers to unload the truck, and invited us to come to his command post and have a few beers.
 
The command post was a grass hut with a paved brick floor that had some of the walls and the roof blown off by a mortar round.  There was so little of the structure left that it was almost like sitting out in the open.  In the middle of the floor was a small folding card table, with a few ammunition boxes for seats around it.  We were invited to sit down with the commander as the Sergeant yelled at one of the soldiers to get us some beers. Off to one side of the floor was a set of stairs down into a bunker.
 
So there we sat, in the open, making small talk and drinking warm beer, with the sounds of bullets coming and going, whilst the rest of the soldiers stayed under cover.  The commander said that they had captured some Khmer Rouge soldiers, and that if I stick around, I can get some pictures of them.  This would have been quite the coup as there weren’t very many photographs ever taken of Khmer Rouge fighters as the government soldiers rarely took them alive. 
 
I guess the commander wanted to inspire his troops with his cavalier disregard of the danger.  As for me, I was just going with the flow.  I was so childlike in my trust and confidence in the commander’s ability to interpret the state of affairs. The way that I had it figured was that the commander was used to that sort of situation and was better able to evaluate how to behave under such circumstances, so I just did as he said. 
 
We had been sitting for about 15 minutes, shooting the breeze and knocking back the beers when all of a sudden, BAMM!!  A 105 (as I was told later) mortar round nearly blew me out of my chair. The pressure wave of the explosion was like getting smacked in the face with a plank.  As the dirt from the explosion was coming back down and landing on us, all us noncombatants just looked at each other and as one, made a dash for the bunker.  The commander grabbed me by the arm and said not to worry because the Khmer Rouge only shoot one mortar round and then move to another position, because they knew that the government forces could hear where the rounds were coming from and would go after them.
 
No sooner had the commander finished his re-assurances, when another round came in with a loud BAMM!! Another smack in the face with a plank, and this time, I just bolted down into the bunker, followed closely by the reporter and Space Cadet, so fast that the dirt from the explosion didn’t land on me.  The commander and sergeant ambled in casually, like it was all no big deal.  Which I guess for them it wasn’t but for the Space Cadet and I, things were getting a little bit too real. The Space Cadet was right, “it was all so real!  It wasn’t no movie!”
 
The bunker was basically a square hole 4 m by 4 m (about 12ft by 12ft) in the ground with two army cots in it.  The roof of the bunker was made of coconut tree trunks that had been piled up about three or four trunks thick.  The height of the room was about 2 m (about 6’6”) and near where the wall meets the ceiling, there were two slots for each wall about 20 cm high (about 8”), and a metre (about 3’) long to shoot out of.
 
Just as we got into the bunker, another mortar round scored a direct hit on the top of the bunker and dirt from between the tree trunks fell to the floor, and just in case I wasn’t already terrified enough, two more mortar rounds came in very close to the bunker for good measure.  In total, five rounds had come in. So much for only firing one round and running.  That smug arsehole nearly got all of us killed.
 
The commander sat on his cot and waved to us to sit down and told us to relax as we were now quite safe.  Next to his bed was an ammunition case that was serving as a bedside table and on it was a little tubular personal defence weapon for officers. It was a little bigger than a cigarette, fitting in the palm of the hand and it was loaded with a single small shotgun shell.  I picked it up and cocked it (It cocks like one of those small toy cannons that fire matchsticks) and held it in my hand as I looked up at the slots thinking about what to do if a hand grenade got thrown in.  I was totally freaked out, because I had been thinking that perhaps the mortar fire had been a prelude to an attack. 
 
I sat in a corner with my back against the walls looking up at the slots thinking to myself about grenades, and how I should just pick it up and throw it out; pick it up and throw it out; pick it up and throw it out. The reporter and commander were deep in conversation and  I can’t even remember what the Space Cadet was up to as I was in total self-preservation mode.
 
After what seemed like an eternity of me thinking, pick it up and throw it out; pick it up and throw it out; pick it up and throw it out, a soldier came into the bunker to let us know that the ammunition truck had been unloaded and that we could now go back.  I didn’t give dam about that taking photographs of the Khmer Rouge prisoners, and I couldn’t get in the truck quick enough.  I’m pretty sure the driver had the same idea because no sooner had we shut the doors of the cab, he put his foot flat down on the accelerator and we raced back down the road to where we came from. 
 
As we were hurtling along as fast as the potholed dirt road would allow, small groups of panicked government troops came running out from their positions and tried to jump on the truck.  Amazingly, one guy, was actually able to jump up on the running board on the driver’s side and was holding onto the open window frame.  The driver started screaming at the terrified soldier and smacked him in the face with his elbow and knocked him loose from the door.  More soldiers came running out, and the driver was yelling at them as he sped past them.  The reporter told me that he was telling them to stay and fight and that they were a bunch of cowards.  Pretty easy for him to say considering that he was leaving at high speed.
 
When we got to the T intersection where we met the two soldiers before, they were nowhere to be seen, so we took a left turn and headed back to the Army checkpoint were all the weapons had been piled up.  As we are driving back to the Army checkpoint the Cambodian reporter had told us that the commander had informed him that his soldiers hadn’t been paid for months, and that he was pretty sure that some of his fellow officers had been stealing the payroll and wanted the Americans to know who they were.
 
We were dropped off at the checkpoint, so that the truck could be loaded with more ammunition.  There were quite a few wounded soldiers being carried back, and we noticed one guy who had shrapnel wound to the face and upper leg and had no one to help him, struggling along barely able to limp, so we offered to give him a hand.  At first, two of us each took an arm and placed it around our shoulders, to help him walk but he was in so much pain he just couldn’t bear it. We finally figured out the best way to carry him was for one person at a time to straddle him on their shoulder and walk with him up there until they got tired.  The poor guy was so thin and light that carrying him was not that much trouble for the Space Cadet, reporter and I. The wounded soldier was in so much pain that each step we took caused him agony. When we changed him from one of our shoulders to the other person we could see how much pain it was causing him, but there was nothing we could do and we knew we had to get him back.

“War is sweet to those who have never experienced it”. Pindar, 4th century BC.

When we got to the ferry we handed him over to some other soldiers, and they took care of him from that point onwards.  We were so numb that our ferry ride back over the Mekong passed without much conversation.  I was so caught up in my thoughts about what had just happened that I hardly even noticed the battle sounds receding.  Even the Space Cadet was quiet.  It was a hell of a job that that Cambodian reporter had to do, day after day, and I feel ashamed that I can’t remember his name.
 
Everybody’s mood changed instantly as soon as we got off the ferry.  As the wounded soldiers were disembarking, one could almost feel a palpable sense of their relief. It was like a weight being lifted off everybody shoulders. We knew all was right with the world, when the Space Cadet started off on his mantra once again, “Wow this is all so real!  This ain’t no movie!”

The Space Cadet. “Wow this is all so real!  This ain’t no movie!”

Teenage tourist in a war zone. Part 2, Going to the battlefront near Phnom Penh , Cambodia. 1975

This is part 2 of a 3 part story. If you want to read part 1, click here

Back in January 1975, when I was 18 years old and living in Cambodia I decided in my naive young mind that I wanted to take some photographs of bomb-damaged buildings.  Phnom Penh used to get regularly hit by small short-range rockets, but they never left very much damage other than a few cracked bricks. They were more of a terror weapon.  I guess I was so interested in taking photographs of war-damaged buildings because of photographs that I had seen from the first and second world wars. 
 
It never occurred to me that a bomb-damaged building doesn’t look that different from a building that has been demolished by conventional means. It also didn’t cross my tiny little mind that things that make a big mess out of buildings can turn clueless idiots like me into pink mist.
 
At the time, Phnom Penh was completely surrounded by the Khmer Rouge, who were only kept at bay by an almost continuous barrage of artillery fire.  I later found out at an Australian consulate party that Cambodia had become a brass exporter during the war because of all the American artillery shell casings that were left over from the months of continuous firing.  Because the countryside was in the hands of the Khmer Rouge I hadn’t been able to see very much of Cambodia, other than what I could through hitchhiking by air, which would only take me to landing strips (quite often dirt roads) in the middle of nowhere or towns.
 
I had heard from some journalists that I knew, that there were a few bomb-damaged buildings, just over the river on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.  Phnom Penh is situated on the west bank of the Tonlé Sap River where it meets the Mekong River.  To get to the other side of the Mekong River, one had to first cross the Tonlé Sap to a thin finger of land between the two rivers to then catch a small ferry to the other side.  During the war, the bridge that used to go to the other side of the Tonlé Sap River (which was only about 200 or 300 m away from where I used to live) had been blown up, which meant that ferries had to be used to cross both rivers.

The first ferry seemed fairly normal in that it mainly had people from the countryside heading into town with goods for sale at the markets but as we crossed the thin finger of land between the two rivers on foot, it became obvious that we were heading closer to a war zone.  I could hear quite clearly the shooting and explosions coming from across the river, and there was a steady stream of very worried looking people and wounded soldiers heading back towards Phnom Penh.  When I got to the second ferry on the banks of the Mekong I met an American with a Cambodian. 

The Cambodian reporter for the American Military Attache at the US Embassy

While we waited for the ferry to come back to our side of the river, the Cambodian guy explained to me that he was a reporter and his job was to go out to the battlefront and speak to commanders to find out what the situation was and then bring back the information to the Military attaché at the American Embassy. 

The American guy who was tagging along with the reporter had a huge shit eating grin on his face and the demeanor of a totally spaced out acid casualty, who only seemed to have a loose grip on reality (now that I’m older and I look back on that situation, I suspect that he was high). When the ferry finally arrived it offloaded refugees and wounded soldiers, the sight of which set the American Space Cadet (SC) spinning slowly around and off on what was going to be his mantra of the day, “ Wow this is all so real!  This ain’t no movie!”
 
The only people who got on the ferry were a few soldiers and us.  The other side of the Mekong was a place that people who had a choice were leaving in droves.  When we got to the other side of the river the staccato sounds of the nearby battlefront had become much louder.  Further downstream, smoke was rising from the general direction of the shooting.

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During our half a kilometer walk along a dirt road to the first army checkpoint, the Cambodian reporter explained that we should all walk about 20 m apart so that we didn’t present too tempting a grouped target for a mortar round or machine gunfire.  As we walked along the dirt road, I began to contemplate the seriousness of the situation I’d so brainlessly walked into.  There was a constant silent stream of terrified and exhausted people in a sort of half run, half walk, bolt towards the ferry that we were unwisely walking away from.  I still had not seen any battle damaged buildings. Although there was a constant backdrop of noise from machine gunfire and explosions off in the distance, everything seemed eerily quiet and nobody spoke with the exception of the SC who repeated his mantra of “ Wow this is all so real!  This ain’t no movie!” every couple of minutes. 
 
When we got to the military checkpoint, I was greeted with one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen. Along the side of the road there was a pile of weapons (some on table and others on the ground) about 100 m long.

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As we passed by the weapons the Cambodian reporter explained that they were weapons that had been captured by government forces from the Khmer Rouge.  It just blew my mind at how many weapons there were and what a variety there was. 

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There were M-79 grenade launchers, M-16s, AK-47s, Chinese pistols, grenades, landmines, large calibre machine guns, rockets, mortars and box after box of ammunition. 

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As I was looking at the weapons and photographing them, a smiling soldier from the checkpoint came up to me and asked me if I wanted some.  Grenades were $.50 and M-16s and Chinese pistols were $3, AK-47s were $5 (they were considered to be a better weapon than the M-16) and the M-79 grenade launchers were about $7.  It is no wonder, that there is so much piracy nowadays in the Gulf of Siam and the South China Sea with so many small arms in circulation.  A friend of mine also got busted in Japan and put in Jail for three years for trying to smuggle a bunch of guns from Cambodia for the Yakuza, but that’s a story for another time. 

The reporter also explained to me that many of the government soldiers had swapped their M-16s for AK-47s, because they felt that the M-16’s were too fragile and they used to jam too often, whereas the AK-47s would still fire even if they were covered in mud.  He then went on to say that the only drawback that he could see that the AK-47 had was that at night time, a muzzle flash could be seen when the gun was fired and that might give away your position. When I asked why there were so many American weapons in the pile, I was told that some were captured from government forces and then used against them by the Khmere Rouge, but most of them were sold by corrupt government officers to the enemy (sounds like what’s happening in Iraq at the moment). Whether any of this is true or not, I wouldn’t know.
 
After the checkpoint, we walked about another kilometre until we came to a T junction in the dirt road, where we met, two young Cambodian soldiers with a walkie-talkie, who told us that it was too dangerous to proceed any further. 

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Apparently we were in the middle of a flanking manoeuvre as the stronger government forces were moving towards the south and the Khmer Rouge had melted away to the east and then headed north to come around behind them.  We were told that the intersection that we were at would likely be in Khmer Rouge hands by the end of the day.  The Cambodian reporter told the soldiers (in Khmer) whom he worked for and what he was doing out there, then he told them that the SC and I were journalists (I did have a camera after all) and we had to get to the front.  The solider with the walkie-talkie got on the mike and started talking about us to whomever was on the other end. The two soldiers then explained that they had spoken to their commander and he told them there was an ammunition truck heading our way very soon and we could get a ride to the front in it. The commander also said he had some important information for the reporter.

As we waited for the truck to arrive, the constant sound of machine-gun fire was occasionally punctuated with the sound of mortar explosions.  Every now and again, an artillery shell would whistle overhead, followed a few seconds later by a distant whoomp. The SC passed the time by turning around in slow circles as he looked up into the treetops with a blissed out rictus on his face, repeating his mantra, “ Wow this is all so real!  This ain’t no movie!”
 
Part 3