Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Doing Lunch

Since we're so very near the end (I fly on the 14th, and arrive back at DTW on the 16th), my office decided that today would be a beautiful day to take me out to lunch. We all piled in the 3/4 ton Truck of Justice (a Ford Ranger pickup that ferries me about the countryside when I get out into the provinces to Do Good- or Interview People and Bug The Authorities) and rode across the Friendship Bridge to a little restaurant packed behind a series of row houses on the western bank of the Mekong river. That area, across the bridge (reconstructed by the Japanese after its destruction at the end of the Khmer Rouge era) is a bit of a boomtown now, and you can look one direction and see endless rice fields and sugar palms, and look the other and see high-rise hotels. We picked something in-between; a restaurant built on a slightly shaky wooden platform overhanging the riverbank.

There, my program manager and I engaged in that age-old game of West vs. East: The Weird Stuff You Eat game. We traded back and forth blow-for-blow; I was holding my own with reports on whale, raw horse, tarantula and other deliciously odd foods (yeah, tarantula. Cambodian delicacy. Tastes like almost nothing, like a big old ball of tapioca in a crispy shell) and my boss fired right back with crickets, bees, sashimi, and hot dogs. Then he got a grin on his face, and decided to press his hand.

"Have you eaten rat?"

Whoa, whoa, buddy. Rat? I most certainly have not. I have no intention. Have you?

"Yes. During Pol Pot regime, I eat."

The conversation had gone from laughably light to uncomfortably heavy, and he let it hang in the air for a moment before continuing.

"The rat that lives near people, in the village, it tastes horrible. But the rat in the fields, very good."

Without really knowing what to do next, I nodded, agreeing that a free-range rat probably beat a city rat any day. The boss went on.

"One day, I came home and my father had cooked a soup- like a curry, like amok (fish in coconut curry), but with a different taste. It was delicious! After dinner, we all were sitting around enjoying the last of the meal, and he got a kind of a smile on his face. He asked me if I knew what kind of meat it was in the curry. I guessed beef. Maybe he was lucky, bought some cow. He shook his head, and asked me if I knew where my dog was. He fed me my dog. It got sick, and started to attack people, so he killed it; and when it was dead, he couldn't waste all that meat."

Everyone over 30 survived the genocide somehow. It's hard to wrap my brain around that, sometimes. There are a lot of these moments here, where the reality of what happened rises up and makes itself impossible to ignore.

Then the boss laughed. "So you really ate raw horse? Was it good?"


Friday, August 03, 2007


Driving While Foreign.

Yep, yours truly got picked up by the police today at lunch. I was rolling along in a pack of motos on my way to lunch when a police officer stuck out his orange baton and waved me to the side of the road. "Stop sir. You pay money."

Before this becomes a tirade against the police, it's important to mention:

Cambodian police are perhaps the most underpaid and least appreciated police force in the world. They get 30 bucks a month with no medical, dental, retirement or other benefits. They have to buy their own uniforms and equipment. Training's a joke, and nearly none of them have had formal education as to what the laws they're enforcing mean; and law in Cambodia is fluid enough that the laws they were taught are likely no longer in effect. So they supplement their income where they can.

Like shaking foreigners down for cash.

Despite my best efforts to play dumb, my constant smile and my willingness to participate in whatever Kafkaesque procedures they had on offer, Phnom Penh's Finest's final demand was clear and unavoidable. "5 dollars."



On the upside, work's been great. I'm preparing reports, I've finished up most my assignments, and there's very little between me and a completed summer internship.

I hit the airport on the 14th- almost no time now.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

It's not unusual. Not in the least.

Ladies and gentlemen, I not only will keep my promise to post once a week, but I will bring enlightenment.

First, watch this. I know, I know, youtube is a tool of the patriarchy, but watch it.

Second, think of how cool it would be to see him live.

That's tonight. I've once before journeyed to the far off (just up the street) superclassy (8 dollar water!) land of the Cambodiana Hotel to see the one, the only Asian Tom Jones. He plays each night except Tuesday, and I assure you his show is just terrifying enough to be wonderful.

Next Episode: Stories From The Provinces.

Friday, July 06, 2007

It's been a month...

And in the interests of everyone not thinking I've forgotten about them, here's a quick update from the front:

1. Cambodia is amazing.
2. Work is similarly amazing, though heartbreaking. Not much can be said about it until I leave the country, but I promise a tell-all (tell-most (tell-some)) report when I get back.
3. I just got back from a trip to Angkor Wat and the rest of the big abandoned temples of the north, and I've got pictures- like all the hip kids, I've decided to eschew blogger's clunky picture-hosting and posting for my very own flickr pool, andrew's never home. I know, I know, one more thing to check- but if it's there, I promise that things (usually cool things that I see around) will end up in it- and it's a whole lot faster, which was the real concern during the big silence here on Radio Free Chainletter.

The internet around here is difficult at best to access- there are internet cafes, but they cost monies (considerable monies, depending on which one you wander into) and they don't exist in number or convenience out in the provinces, which is where I've been spending and will be spending a lot of time.

Right now, I'm interviewing judges, prison guards, police investigators, prison chiefs and prisoners as ground-level primary research on pretrial detention and torture in Cambodia. Fun, uplifting stuff- but it means that me and my backpack are spending a lot of time rumbling around the boondocks of Cambodia in pickup trucks, taxis, big share buses and motorbikes. It's a good time, and there are a lot of things I'm writing down in little word documents to be disclosed later if it still seems like a good idea to disclose; but believe me when I say that free speech is more an ideal around here than a reality.

There will, whether I think it's a wise idea or not, be an update to this thing in one week or less. I promise.


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Living in Cambo-di-a

with apologies to James Brown, may he rest in peace

Things are finally settled and secure here in Phnom Penh- I have a place to stay, I have my trusty motorbike, and I have my job. I've spent a regretfully short time out and about lately; househunting here is a full-time job, as the realtors are less than helpful, leaving the savvy traveler to contact a tuktuk driver and ask him where the best spots are. Said driver calls his friends, his relatives, his sister's roommates' mother's ex-fiancee, and his fellow tuktuk guys and then careens said savvy traveler around the city at a breakneck pace, showing apartment after apartment and leaving you to stand awkwardly next to some no-english-speaking homeowner who wants very desperately for you to live upstairs and make use of those rooms nobody's in right now.

So after a few days of all that, we (the intern trio) looked in our trusty Lonely Planet and found a guesthouse cheap enough to rent by the month and live in clean, safe, and utterly tiny style. I sleep in a closet. It's a closet with a bed in it, sure, but it's still a little petite. Intimate. Seven feet by seven feet, with a double bed that occupies 9/10ths of the room and a fan on the wall. On the upside, there's a little cafe downstairs, an internet room enclosed in mosquito netting up an entirely different set of stairs, and a cool lounging-sitting area. It's actually pretty nice, so long as the bedroom is conceptualized as a place one only goes when one is good and ready to sleep. It's in a great location- on the riverfront, not far from all the cute little restaurants, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, and the like- I'll post pictures when I finally find a power converter with which to charge my batteries.

I haven't really gotten out to see anything (which is convenient, as I lack the camera to record it), but just tooling around town is crazy and interesting enough to sate my taste for adventure for awhile. Driving in Phnom Penh is a little like throwing yourself into a pool of bees and wading with the current. No matter how weird things are over here, though, I'm proud to say my home state of Michigan has managed to very securely rise to the top of the weirdness scale.

This weekend (here, it's Friday morning), I'm thinking of taking a depressing day and going to The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (the Genocide Museum), to get my history lesson out of the way, and maybe lift my spirits back up at the Palace, the Pagoda, and the National Museum (which is a craaaazy place- rumor has it that in the evening at sunset, a mad flock of bats dives out of the eaves of the Museum (as the roof is one of those triangular open-construction deals) and goes out on patrol; the largest population of bats inhabiting an artificial structure in the world. If I go, I'll get pictures. It'll be like Batman) and, you know, balance the whole horrific terror with some reassurance that the world has come back to normal after Pol Pot.

But that's just the plan. I'm sure it'll change.

We went to a birthday party last week- one of the lawyers on the Juvenile Unit's son was turning two. I have never seen such a giant production for a two-year old. Happy Birthday was sung (by a karaoke machine) in no fewer than seven languages in a row; they got sick of it during the Cantonese version and shut it off to cut the cake. There were easily a hundred people there, each sitting at tables in a rapid-constructo party tent that filled the entire street on the block that the lawyer lived on. The tent was framed on either end by big plyboard mockups of Angkorian temples, and the food...

My fascination with the weird stuff people eat for fun may have met its match in the Cambodian diet. The meal was served Chinese-style, with big plates on a Lazy Susan that you'd just pick from whenever you felt like eating and put the food of choice in your personal bowl... in theory. In practice, the entire meal was a "I dare you to try..." game, in which each person ladled the weirdest thing they could find on the table into the bowl of the person next to them. Foreigner and Khmer alike tossed weird foods (fish gill, fish eye, fish brain, century eggs, pig ear...) into the neighboring bowl with a short laugh, like "Hey, man. Betcha can't eat this!" and everyone seemed thrilled whenever their "gift" was consumed.

Throughout the dinner, since we did happen to be in a tropical paradise, the furnishing of ice was an event of great ceremony. Guys with icebuckets and tongs prowled the party tent, and any time your glass's level dipped below the brim they'd shove the biggest chunk of ice they could in there. Should a spill event almost happen, they'd take the ice back out and put it right back in the bucket. No judgment, here, just pure reporting.

NEW FEATURE: Watch this space for regular updates on our new column...

This morning on the way to work, I nearly hit:

Schoolkids (on foot, bike, and moto), Monks (same), worker guys (in motos, motos with trailers, cyclos, handcarts, and random pieces of steel slung over their shoulder), tuktuks, oxen, A GIANT TOAD, a mack truck, a big construction truck full of bricks with guys sitting on the top of the cab AND on top of the bricks as they drove along, half the Khmer army...

The giant toad was the most startling. It was the size of a dinner plate, and looked angry.

Friday, June 01, 2007


In Phnom Penh now- it's 2 pm local time, but I'm really not even sure what day it is. I'm camped out in a little internet cafe, tapping out a few quick emails and generally being the least exciting traveler there is.

Adventure happens tomorrow. Today, staying awake until nightfall is proving to be a challenge.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Shipping Out

It's been awhile. I'll fill you in on the necessaries real quick:

1. Law school is incredibly interesting in the doing, but perhaps not so much in the telling. I wake up, I read, I eat, I read, I go to class, I read, I sleep.

2. What is interesting in the telling is the stuff that comes out of law school. The Law School Rock Band, TJ Hooper and the Learned Hands (a lame joke-name from this case) practices every Tuesday. I'll fill you in on concert schedules when we book a gig.

3. My year of school is now officially over- I've survived. Now, finally (in list item three, no less!) I can get to the point: The blog is back online. I've got some interesting adventures planned, and I can no longer keep them under my hat.

In two days, I fly out to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to work for these guys. I'm one of three student interns with this NGO, and I'll be working with the Juvenile Litigation Project. This relates, a little bit, to point 2 above- seems there are a lot of other optimistic rock-star humanitarian types around.

The trip lasts from May 30th to August 15th, and I'll be posting pictures and snippets here periodically to keep everyone updated.

Two days!

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Jurisdiction Near You

So there's a rumour going around on the Law School listservers about a band- a rock band, starting here, at my own little law school. I'm not gonna say I've got nothing to do with it. Those of you interested in rocking, or the semblance of rocking, should check out the wiki here.
The band is currently recruiting, and it might be a little while before you hear from them, but if by chance you read this, you're on notice and you'll probably be tapped to come to the first show.