Cairo, Egypt, October 2015: Bucket List Item Number One

When the kind Thai neurologist at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok gave me the depressing diagnosis, her last piece of advice was that if there was anything I wanted to do…I should do it soon. With that advice firmly in mind, I thought about the places in the world I really wanted to visit but had never managed to get there. Since I had already traveled to more than 100 countries, the list was getting rather short. Also, as one gets older I think the list shortens.

Having said that, six destinations came immediately to mind:

  1. Cairo
  2. Luxor, Egypt.
  3. Israel, Jerusalem in particular
  4. Cape Town, South Africa
  5. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  6. Cuba.

While I had been all over Asia, Europe and the Americas,  I had only been to a couple of countries in Africa. I felt I needed to see more of the continent in general, but I was very interested in Ethiopia and South Africa for a number of reasons. But first on the list were Egypt and the Holy Lands.

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Actually, I was booked to go to Cairo 18 years earlier, but the now defunct airline, TWA, called me when I was in Spain and told me that a day earlier, Nov 18, 1997, at least 70 people, including 60 foreigners were killed by terrorists outside the 3400-year-old Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor. They encouraged me to go elsewhere. They suggested Mallorca instead. I enjoyed it the first few days but was bored the rest of the week. I learned over the years I can’t just sit on a beach and bake. I need to move around and see as much as I can.

After taking time to mentally process the diagnosis and make plans for treatment back in the US, I started planning the trip. Living near Bangkok made it easy as it’s a major hub for flights to the Middle East and Europe. I easily booked a business class ticket on Qatar Airways from Bangkok to Cairo for about $1000. No more economy class for this guy.  I was able to sleep for several hours on the Bangkok-Doha leg. Although I don’t drink much anymore, I enjoyed the business class lounge aboard the gigantic, two-story Airbus A380. After the short Doha stopover, they put me in a first-class seat to Cairo.

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Business Class Lounge Aboard Qatar Airways A380

Upon arrival at Cairo, I was surprised to see that my hotel had their representative meet me at the gate. Usually hotel representatives wait outside somewhere carrying a sign with your name on it. In this case, the representative of Le Meridian Hotel accompanied me through the entire immigration and customs process. Again, traveling first class certainly has its advantages. I thought of the countless hours spent in immigration lines in the past. Life is not fair.

Le Meridian Hotel is located in the ancient Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. The modern city is built on ruins that date back more than 3000 years. Indeed, shortly after my visit, two statues of ancient pharaohs were uncovered in the mud not far from my hotel. (See link below)

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/03/ancient-pharaoh-statues-uncovered-cairo-mud-pit-170310093023180.html

There were two main things I wanted to see in Cairo. First, the Pyramids at Giza and second the National Museum at Tahrir Square. The hotel was able to book me a car and driver and an English-speaking guide. I was surprised to see how close the pyramids were to the city. In fact they are only 8 miles southwest of the center of Cairo. It was fascinating to drive through the streets of the largest city in Africa. The whole city seem to be cast in sandy shades of beige and tan. Interesting to see many churches as well as mosques in Cairo.

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Nile River

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After seeing the pyramids and the Sphinx and taking many photos, my guide asked me if I wanted to go inside one of the pyramids. She said the only problem was that there’s really nothing to see in there now and that you have to bend over and walk quite a long distance. For sure, there was a time I would’ve done it. 20 years ago I would’ve been all over those pyramids, but on that I day passed. I went back to the hotel took a nap and spent a pleasant evening around Heliopolis. Some things have to be done when you’re younger.

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My Guide

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Entrance to Pyramid

The next day we went to Tahrir Square and the National Museum. Tahrir means liberation. The world witnessed two very recent examples of that liberation. First, the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed in 2011 when more than 1 million people gathered in the square. With the support of the Obama administration, The Muslim Brotherhood, a minority party, managed to get control of the government. Immediately they tried to change the secular government into a strict Muslim autocracy. The result was disastrous especially for the non-Muslim minorities. They drove the economy into the ground. In 2013, the square filled up again with demonstrators. Some estimated that 3 million demonstrators showed up on that day if you count the side streets.

 

Based on this overwhelming unpopularity of the new government, General al Sisi took control and formed a government. He is now in his second term of office and has announced that he will not run for reelection although he would probably win. Security has improved considerably and the economy has started to grow again. My tour guide was a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. She told me that she liked the al Sisi government and that things were getting better. As terrible as they were, the Muslim Brotherhood are still considered the duly elected government of Egypt. Most European and Middle Eastern governments have been slow to recognize the new government. All of the unrest has damaged Egypt’s tourism industry.

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On my second day we drove back through the Cairo traffic. The National Museum of Egypt is located on Tahrir Square. A statue of Howard Carter is standing in the front courtyard. Carter was the Englishman who discovered the Tomb of King Tutankhamen, the boy king. More than 5000 artifacts dating back nearly 4000 years were found. Many are on display in the museum. Carter took many items back to England. Sadly, some were sold and given away to people around the world. If you can’t make it to Cairo, try to see the British Museum in London. It’s the next best thing to the museum.

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The fantastic gold mask of King Tutankhamen is on display in the National Museum. It was under repair for several months. Some attendant had handled the piece wrong when they were moving and broke off his beard. It had to undergo a delicate glue job. Another piece that caught my eye was the statue of Anubis. Depicted as a black canine–like creature, his job was to guard the dead. A large statue of him stood in the middle of the museum. I smiled because my son-in-law had named his whippet after this ancient Egyptian deity. Well, he was an expensive dog so I suppose he deserved such a lofty name.

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After a full morning at the National Museum, the guide insisted that we stop at a papyrus factory. They demonstrated how the ancient Egyptians made papyrus. They then tried to sell me on a sign with my name in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Enough for one day. Time to prepare for my Egypt Airlines flight to Luxor.

 

 

Philippines, February 2011 – Last Night I Saw Imelda Marcos…A Story of Three Widows.

February 28, 2011

Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines

English: Imelda Marcos during a state visit ou...

Imelda Marcos during a state visit outside the Oval Office. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I saw Imelda Marcos last night, she is the first of three widows in this story. I was sitting outside Club Havana Restaurant at the Greenbelt Mall in Makati when she strolled by with her entourage occasionally stopping for autographs and photos. I’m not sure where Imelda had been that night. Perhaps she had dined there at one of the many restaurants in Greenbelt or maybe she had been shopping for shoes. She still had her trademark up-sweep hairdo and was wearing a long black dress decorated with jewels and embroidery. I must say for an 81-year-old woman, she looked marvelous.

Allegedly, she and her late husband, Ferdinand, ripped off the country for hundreds of billions. The commission on Good Government estimated the theft to be in the US$5-US$10 billion range. To this day, she still insists that Ferdinand was a financial genius who made all that money speculating in the gold market. Actually, if you talk to many older Filipinos, they will tell you Marcos was a very good administrator the first 10 years of his 20 year reign. It was the last 10 years when he developed serious kidney problems that the corruption accelerated. Indeed, during his first 10 years, the Philippines was one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia. Many say that as Marcos became weaker, Imelda became stronger.

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Imelda’s Shoes, Malacanang Palace, 1986

In addition to plundering the national treasury for years, I heard persistent rumors that she and Marcos’s chief of staff, General Ver, plotted the assassination of Ferdinand’s political rival, Begnigo Aquino. For a number of years after his death, there was a statue of Benigno Aquino descending the airplane stairway where he was shot on arrival at the airport. It was a rather macabre statue. I’m not sure it’s still there. I managed to get a photo of it. A lot of mystery still surrounds that killing which led eventually to Marcos’s downfall. Who said your karma catches up with you? The Filipinos are a very forgiving people. Imelda is still going strong.

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Seeing Imelda revived a lot of old memories for me.  Her appearance came almost 25 years to the day from my first arrival in the Philippines. On February 25, 1986, President Marcos and Imelda flew out of Clark Air Base to his exile home in Hawaii. He died at a house on the beach in Honolulu 3 years later. I arrived at the Manila International Airport just 10 days after his departure for the first of my many visits.. The cab driver who drove me to the hotel claimed to be part of the great human barricade that blocked EDSA Boulevard thereby preventing the tanks from moving against the demonstrators. He proudly showed me where he had parked his cab sideways in the boulevard just down the road from Camp Crame.  He said he had stood with the nuns who had stared down the tanks.

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After Marcos was deposed in 1986, the euphoria in the country was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Nearly everyone was wearing yellow and was making the “L” sign with their index finger and thumb. The sign stood for the second word of PDP-Laban, the People’s Power movement that had ousted Marcos. The wearing of the yellow color signified that people should never forget all of the political opponents that Marcos had jailed. Indeed, the dissidents were now set free and many of them went on to become cabinet members and other high-level positions and start their own cycle of plundering. Generally in the Philippines, when there is a change of government in Manila, inevitably one band of grafters replaces another. The corruption resumes. This chronic corruption combined with a series of natural disasters has made the Philippines one of the poorer countries in Southeast Asia. In the last election, the voters were so fed up with the graft year after year that they elected tough guy Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao to clean it up. We’ll see how successful he is. The jury is still out on that.

On that same initial trip, I got an even closer look at Philippine politics. It was on a flight to Cebu that I met a personable fortyish woman named Paz Regalado. She is the second widow in our story. Mrs. Regalado was on her way back to her home in Cagayan de Oro on the north end of the island of Mindanao. She had just been in Manila discussing a position in the new government. Her late husband had been the law partner of Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, former mayor of Cagayan de Oro. Pimentel had been one of the dissidents that Marcos jailed several times and he was now a national hero. As a reward, he was about to be appointed Minister Of Local Government, a very powerful position. Marcos had centralized power in Manila. All mayors and governors were appointed out of Manila instead of being elected locally. Nene Pimentel had an important position in the new government and he wanted Paz Regalado to be his chief administrative officer. I could tell she was both elated and anxious about it. Her anxiety was understandable. She was the widow of a small town lawyer and had been busy raising their daughter. Although she was a graduate nurse, she hadn’t worked in several years. Pimentel knew her and trusted her which apparently was more important to him than competence.

In that first meeting with Paz Regalado on that Cebu Pacific flight, I mentioned to her that I would be coming back to the Philippines on my summer vacation to do some traveling and possibly consulting. I said it was an exciting time to be in the Philippines with a dictator leaving and a new president coming in. We exchanged contact information and she said she would enjoy taking me sightseeing. When I contacted her in June, she told me she had taken the job at the Ministry of Local Government. She asked where I was staying and I told her I had arranged to stay with my friend Ken in a mansion he was renting in the upscale suburb of Greenhills. Ken was an American who had an import business that he ran out of his home. He had a staff of about 15 Filipinos that either worked in the office, served as his driver or maintained the mansion. Equipped with a pool and all the other amenities, it was a comfortable place to spend the summer.

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Chief Administrative Officer Mrs. Paz C. Regalado

During my stay in Manila, Paz would come by the house, pick me up with her car and driver and take me to see the various sites around Manila. We saw the old Spanish Fort and the US military cemetery at Ford Bonifacio. We even went to the presidential palace where they still had 2500 pairs of Imelda Marcos shoes on display.  Sometimes I wondered when Paz had time to do her job. It seemed to me that a chief administrative officer would have a lot to do. When I asked about it, she just laughed. She told me that our driver usually drove for the minister. However, Nene Pimentel insisted on using his own car, driver and security. I assumed he didn’t trust people from Manila. I learned later that he had a very dangerous job at a very dangerous time. It was his job to fire and replace all the corrupt governors and mayors in the country. In Asian countries, when you “break someone’s rice bowl” retribution usually follows. I can see why he paid special attention to security. He only lasted a year in that job and moved on to higher office. He was elected a senator and became President of the Senate. His successor, however, wasn’t so careful or so lucky. Shortly after taking over from Pimentel, Jaime Ferrer and his driver were shot and killed on the streets of Manila. I never had a chance to check, but it may have been the same driver who took us sightseeing.

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Washington Post, August 3,1987. Assassination of Nene Pimentel’s successor.

A couple of weeks after I arrived, Paz Regalado told me that the third widow in our story, the newly installed president, Cory Aquino and Paz’s boss, Minister Pimentel were going to her hometown of Cagayan de Oro on July 6 and 7, 1986 to make a major speech thanking the people for their support. Paz had to go a few days early to make some of the

arrangements and she wanted to know if I was interested in going with her. I said I was interested and agreed. We flew Philippine Airlines from Manila to the airport at Cagayan de Oro. As we descended the stairs from the plane, a group of dignitaries including the mayor were there to meet us. The mayor welcomed me and put a garland around my neck made of shells and capiz It was stamped with the seal of the city. I started to fully appreciate what an important job Paz really had. I was booked into the Executive Hotel in the center. Paz went on to her home in the suburbs.IMG_20180205_0002When we arrived at the stadium on the day of the speech. I was shocked to see the size of the crowd. It was estimated that at least 10,000 people were there that day. Many were still wearing the yellow celebrating the People’s Power victory. Yellow balloons were everywhere. Military paratroopers para-sailed into the stadium. The Media were all in place. I had a seat a few rows back from the speaker’s stand. As I surveyed the crowd, I thought, what an opportunity for a president show a vision, to set a course for the future, to start changing the country for the better. I was set to hear the soaring rhetoric of a Kennedy or Reagan speech. I thought this may be an historic, pivotal moment for the Philippines.Aquino CDO speech5 (2)

The first a couple of local dignitaries spoke in the local Visayan dialect. Then, Nene Pimentel, the local and national hero, spoke in a mishmash of Visayan and Tagalog, the main dialect of the country. I could understand very little of what he said but I could tell he was extremely popular with the crowd. Next came the moment we were all waiting for. Newly elected Pres. Cory Aquino, widow of Benigno Aquino, took the stand. Basically, for 30 minutes in clear English, she listed why Ferdinand Marcos was a scoundrel and a rogue and lower than pond scum. She reeled off a seemingly endless litany of his misdeeds. I didn’t hear a single positive, future-oriented comment. What was her vision for the country? What was the mission of her administration? Where do we go from here? I thought to myself, this country is still in trouble. As it turned out, I was right. Cory Aquino proved to be an honest, kind, but naïve person who would gather her cabinet around a long conference table and explain to them all the things she would like to see done. They would say, yes ma’am, and smile and then go out and line their pockets the same way politicians always had. During her term, the corruption continued unabated.

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One good example is the problem my friend Ken began having shortly after Aquino took office. He had been importing fruit in containers by air from New Zealand. The newly appointed manager of customs at the airport informed him that the bribe would be doubled in order to get a container through customs. If he refused to pay it, his containers would be pushed off to the side and left in the tropical heat to rot. Later, the same manager teamed up with another importer to import apples from New Zealand. From then on Ken was not allowed to bring in apples at all. The customs manager and his partner cornered the market on all apples coming into the Philippines by air. Ken told me that when the man was first appointed by President Aquino, he drove a small Toyota. One month later, he traded up to a Mercedes.

Some of Aquino’s successors have made attempts at curbing the corruption. It usually comes back stronger than ever. The sad thing is that over the years the corruption has caused the economy to fall behind other countries in Southeast Asia. Much of the money that should have gone into roads, bridges, airports, clean water and sewers has been pocketed by many (not all) politicians. Although the economy is showing some signs of growth recently, 2.2 million overseas workers still need to go abroad each year to make a decent living that they can’t make in the Philippines.

The latest president, Rodrigo Duterte, like his predecessors, has vowed to clean up the corruption. What is different about him is that he’s taken strong action against the country’s drug dealers which has allegedly included several thousand nonjudicial executions. Criticized for his heavy hand, it remains to be seen how effective he will be with political corruption. I hope he succeeds. I love the Philippines. I truly wish them well.

 

 

Cook Islands 1986: My Gauguin Moment in a Poor Man’s Tahiti

I found an interesting ticket on Air New Zealand. The routing was  LAX, Papeete, Tahiti, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, Fiji and finally Auckland, New Zealand. All of that for a few hundred dollars. I couldn’t resist. The rules allowed you to stay as long as you liked at each destination. The only caveat was that the flights were a only a couple of times a week. So once you got there you may have to wait a while for the next flight even if you were tired of the place. In those days, I traveled with one carry-on bag that went under the seat. The exact dimensions were 9″ x 22″ x 14″. I had it down to a science. I packed exactly the right number of long pants, short pants, shirts and underwear. Including the toiletries, the whole thing did not exceed 7 kg in weight. No waiting for baggage. I learned my lesson in El Salvador when my friend’s checked bag was stolen. But that’s another story.

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Photo taken at the Gauguin Museum, 1976

Tahiti was wonderful. To begin with, I love French culture. Combine that with the gorgeous Polynesian culture and you have an unbeatable combination. The only problem was that I was still a budget traveler in those days. Tahiti would blow a giant hole in your budget if you stayed there long enough. The reason is that Tahiti is a semi autonomous territory of France. Tahitians are French citizens. In those days, their currency was tied to the French Franc. Unfortunately, nearly everything that wasn’t made on the island was imported from France which was halfway around the world. The result was some eye-popping prices. I remember paying $15 for sandwich at a small snack bar. That was 30 years ago. While I loved the French cuisine and the wine in the restaurants, I winced each time they brought me the check. Soon I would be moving on to a different part of Polynesia, the Cook Islands, which my guidebooks told me was much cheaper. Perhaps Marlon Brando could afford a long stay in Tahiti but a college teacher like me could not.

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Papeete Marina

Before leaving Tahiti, however, there were two things I wanted to do. First, I had to see the Gauguin Museum which was a short ride down the coast. Second, I wanted to see another island besides the main island of Tahiti. I chose Moorea which was the most accessible. I would rather have gone to Bora-Bora but time and money did not permit it. The trip to Moorea was delightful and I met a nice Frenchwoman who owned the small resort where I stayed a couple of nights.

The Paul Gauguin Museum chronicled Gauguin’s 10 years he spent on Tahiti and the nearby Marquesas Islands. He died on the Marquesas Islands in 1902, in fact. His paintings weren’t a success until after he died. The museum contains many of his documents, photos, sketches and block prints. I felt a bit of a disappointment to find there are very few original paintings. Since his oil paintings now sell for millions of dollars, I suppose it would be very expensive to keep any of them there. I understand now the museum has gone down quite a bit and is currently closed. I enjoyed my visit along with the ride down the spectacular coastline.

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Ferry to Moorea

After Tahiti and Moorea, it was time to leave the expensive French-speaking part of Polynesia and move 700 miles to the southwest to the Cook Islands, an English speaking region. Named for Capt. James Cook who first visited in 1773, the Cook Islands is made up of 15 small atolls and islands scattered over 770,000 mi.². My Air New Zealand flight sat down on the main island of Rarotonga. The capital city, Avarua is on the north end of the island.

I booked a small beach bungalow near the airport. Although the airport was only a few miles from Avarua, the airport shuttle took me the entire circumference of the island all the way back around to my bungalow. Although it took nearly an hour, it was daytime so I got a great view of the whole island.

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Hugh Baker’s bungalow

I booked my bungalow with Hugh Baker and his mother, Dolly. I was a bit surprised when I saw that the bungalow appeared to be just a tin shack. Inside, however, it was well fitted out and was a short walk to the beach. Hugh even supplied me with a bicycle to ride the 2 miles into town. As I examined the bicycle, one thing stood out. It was nearly 100% made of plastic. It was engineered to survive the intense humidity, I suppose. I spent the next few days swimming and riding my bicycle and getting to know Rarotonga. The people were extremely friendly and welcoming. Some say the place is like Hawaii 80 years ago.

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My Plastic Bicycle

Unlike Hawaii, Cook Islands is a self-governing island state in free association with New Zealand. The Kiwis provide for their defense and help finance their debt. Many of the professionals working on the island are from New Zealand. My landlord, Hugh Baker, worked at the airport and rented out bungalows for extra money. With only 14,000 native Cook Islanders left living in the islands, there are now more Cook Islanders living abroad than at home. In recent years, the islands have become a well-known tax haven and offshore banking center. While I was there, everything was unbelievably cheap. The kiwi dollar was about $.55 to the US dollar. A large bottle of delicious Steinlager beer only cost one kiwi dollar.

 

On one of my afternoon bike rides, I discovered the Banana Court Bar on the main highway. Although quiet in the daytime, the bartender told me to come back on a weeknight, Wednesday was ladies night and that would be best. They had a local band and the place filled up. I made a mental note to do that before I left the island. But first, I wanted to do as I had done in Tahiti and see an additional island. I chose Aitutaki because it was an atoll. Raratonga was formed by a volcano. An atoll is formed by coral and is usually ring-shaped with a large lagoon in the center.

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Cook Islands Air Flight

This was the case with Aitutaki. Cook Island Air had regular flights there. The view from the was spectacular. I enjoyed a relaxing two or three days. I rented a motorbike and explored the atoll. The place was very quiet and idyllic. The only other tourists on my part of the island were a couple of Australian families. After two days of it, I was raring to get back to Rarotonga.

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Aitutaki Atoll View

When I arrived back at my beach shack I realized two things. First, I only had two more nights on the island and soon I would have to move on to Fiji. My Air New Zealand ticket was booked and would be difficult to change. Second, I remembered it was Wednesday. This was the night for the Banana Court Bar. I needed to plan ahead. I didn’t want to be riding the plastic bicycle in the center at night. So when evening rolled around, I walked nearly a mile to the general store and called a taxi to take me into town.

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When I arrived at the Banana Court Bar, I discovered the guys were right. The place was full. The music seemed to be a mix of American music and some local tunes. As I enjoyed my Steinlager and looked across the crowd, I noticed many of the women had flowers in their hair and wore tropical style dresses. Some of them looked as if they had been plucked from a Gauguin painting. I kept exchanging eye contact with one of the pretty young women. I can’t remember if I ask her to dance or she asked me. Probably she asked me because I tend to be shy and not very aggressive in bars.

No matter. We enjoyed three or four Western-style dances and I learned that her name was Justine. She had a charming slight New Zealand accent. I thought to myself, what a pretty name and what a lovely, exotic young lady. At that point the music changed and she asked me if I wanted to dance a local dance called the Ura. Why not? She had me stand in a semi-crouching position with my feet firmly planted on the floor while keeping my upper body steady. I was then to move my knees to the rhythm of the music. Facing me with her feet between mine, She stood above me, raised her arms and swayed and undulated to the music. OMG, what an incredibly sensual experience! This was not the dancing the Mormons had taught me in Utah many years ago. I was in heaven. I was smitten.

After a few more dances, her girlfriend showed up and said her group was leaving. When Justine hesitated a bit, the friend took her hand and began pulling her toward the door where her other friends were waiting.  Justine paused, smiled and looked back at me and said,” I work at the library”. Yes! I got the distinct impression she wanted to see me again. Why else did she tell me that? Was I being presumptuous? Cross cultural nonverbal communication is sometimes hard to read. Maybe she was just being kind to the forty-something American tourist. Well, we’ll find out. Tomorrow I’ll ride my bike into town and visit the library and say hello and see what develops. That night, as I fell asleep, I remembered dancing Ura and started having fantasies about dropping out of the American rat race and living the Gauguin lifestyle on the beaches of the Cook Islands.

Morning came and the rain started. It wasn’t just light tropical rain like we experienced a few days earlier. This was rain of biblical proportions. In my beach shack, I didn’t have a TV or radio. Probably this was a typhoon. There was no way I could ride that plastic bicycle into town. I doubt if I could even walk it when it was raining 70 miles an hour sideways. I had no other choice but to wait. And wait I did…the entire day. That night the deluge subsided a bit. The next morning I was able to walk to the general store. Annoyed, frustrated and wet, I booked my airport taxi for the confirmed flight to Fiji which was later that day. The tropical rains had washed away my Gauguin fantasy. I told myself I would return there soon. I never did. Life happened.

 

Cambodia: The Good, the Bad and the Horrific

My experience in Cambodia was the most difficult to write about. The trauma and the wounds of one of the major genocides of our time have not fully healed. Following the Vietnam War, some 2 million people, 25% of the population, were killed by an agrarian socialist government. Between 1992 and 2012, I visited Cambodia several times and watched the changes as they struggled to recover from this horrific past. Although conditions are getting much better, one can still see pain in the eyes of the older people. Some say the sadness has been passed down to the next generation.

Having said that, in recent times many travelers have had outstanding travel experiences visiting the temples and restaurants of Phnom Penh, the fantastic ruins of Angkor Wat, and the uncrowded beaches of Sihanoukville on the south coast.

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My first visit in June 1992 was the most memorable and haunting. The wounds inflicted by the Khmer Rouge were still fresh. Although the Vietnamese Army had deposed the murderous Khmer Rouge several years earlier, the United Nations had just taken control of Cambodia that January. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) consisting of 22,000 soldiers from 45 countries became the police, the army and the government. If you know how the UN budget works, you know that the USA was paying the lion’s share of the cost of them being there.

The distinctive blue berets were everywhere. White Toyota land cruisers with the initials UN painted on the side filled the unpaved avenues. In the afternoons and evenings, UN vehicles were double parked in front of the several French restaurants. Pakistani soldiers could be seen shopping in the markets all over town. At night, it was the Wild West. One writer described the scene as “guns, girls and ganja”.  I didn’t see much of the drugs, but I was told you could buy a big bag of weed in the market for a couple dollars. Also, you could get a pizza made with “magic mushrooms” at Happy Herbs pizza restaurant along the riverfront. A thousand bars, massage parlors and brothels sprang up catering to the military.  Bar fights and broken jaws were common.

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How did I end up amid all this tumult and anarchy? I was invited there by a Cambodian American fellow by the name of Vanthorn Thach. He was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields. Three out of four of the workers in his prison camp died, mostly of starvation. Somehow, Vanthorn was able survive and get to the United States and was now living in San Diego. He heard that I was helping some local Vietnamese start an import export business. He came to my office at the College. He said he had a number of contacts in Cambodia and wanted me to show them how to get started in international trade. I agreed, and a few months later he was waiting for me when I arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh. The adventure began.

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Work came first. Once I was settled in to my simple but comfortable room, I met Mr. Heng, Vanthorn’s contact in Phnom Penh. Mr. Heng and his family ran a small office supply business on one of the main streets in the center. After we talked about possible products to trade and potential trading partners, they offered to show me the main sites of Phnom Penh including the Central Market, Wat Phnom and, at my request, the infamous Toul Sleng and Choeun Ek.

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Mr. Heng and Family

 

The iconic art deco Central Market was something left over from the French occupation. Indeed, you could still see many remnants of French colonization around town including a number of excellent French restaurants.  When I climbed a hill to see Wat Phnom at the top, I received a shock. About halfway up there was a woman holding a baby. I smiled down at her and she smiled back and opened the shawl so I could see the baby.  I was stunned to see how emaciated the child was. It really hit me what these people had been through! And it wasn’t over. I wasn’t sure what I should do. I think I handed her a wad of local money and continued my hike half stunned. That evening I had dinner with Mr. Heng and Vanthorn by the riverside. They acknowledged there was still a lot of poverty in Cambodia especially when you got out of the capital. The Khmer Rouge had caused it, but neither the Vietnamese occupiers nor the United Nations had done much about it.

The next morning I visited Toul Sleng. I didn’t invite Vanthorn along because I thought it might be too painful for him. Toul Sleng was a converted school building that was used as a detention center where supposed enemies of the State were interrogated, tortured and ultimately sent away to be executed. You were considered an enemy of the State if you were educated, could read or had lived abroad. Over a four-year period, the Khmer Rouge managed to execute nearly all of the country’s best and brightest. They meticulously photographed their victims. The photos were still there on the walls. You could see in the people’s eyes that they knew they were about to die. Very haunting. The interesting thing about this instance of genocide was that it was not carried out on another ethnic group or race or religion but it was one group of Khmer people killing another group of Khmer people. It was strictly done on social class or economic class lines.

The same afternoon I took a car and driver 17 miles south out to Choeung Ek. These were the infamous killing fields. I wanted to see this last notorious site and then spend the rest of my visit during much more pleasant things. Once people had been processed in Phnom Penh, they were taken by truck to these fields and stood up along an open pit. They were either shot in the back of the head or sometimes, in order to save ammunition, they were simply hit with an ax. Often their heads were buried in a different place from their bodies. The skulls have been dug up and stacked. In a later visit, I saw that they were put in a pagoda. As I walked around the open pits from where they had exhumed the bodies, I heard crunching under my feet, I was shocked to discover that I was walking on human bone shards. Enough for one day! Time to get back to Phnom Penh.

No visit to Cambodia would be complete without seeing Angkor Wat. I bought tickets to Siem Reap for Vanthorn and me on Royal Air Cambodge, a questionable domestic carrier that is now defunct. A few years after we flew the airline, Teng Boonma, a Cambodian tycoon, got so angry with Royal Air Cambodge when they lost his luggage that he took out a gun and famously shot out the front tire of the airplane. We had no other choice but to use this airline. The only other way to get there was to go overland for six hours through countryside still controlled by the remnants of the Khmer Rouge Army. The US Embassy had issued a travel advisory that under no circumstances should Americans travel overland. Even though they had been defeated, small bands of young Khmer Rouge with AK47’s were still active. Several foreigners had been kidnapped.

Angkor Wat was well worth the risk we took in getting there, however. Covering more than 400 acres, it is the largest religious monument in the world. Starting out as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century, it later became a Buddhist temple. It is a prime example of Khmer art and architecture. The carvings in the stone are exquisite. We saw the main temple of Angkor Wat plus some of the outlying temples such as Bayon and Ta Prohm. Highly photogenic, Ta Prohm was later used as a set in the movie Tomb Raider. We pretty much had the entire site to ourselves. We saw very few other visitors. In 1992 Angkor Wat only had 5000 visitors for the entire year. In 2015 it had 2 million visitors (mostly Chinese). I’m glad I saw it then even though it was a bit dangerous.

Ankor AK47

In fact, I liked Cambodia so much I invited my brother to travel with me there the next year. He had been working on a masters degree and was very interested in art, religion and anthropology. Angkor Wat was like a feast for him. While I enjoyed Angkor for the second time, I was anxious to see as much as I could of the rest of the country. After enjoying Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat, I booked us on a flight to see the beaches of Sihanoukville. Again we flew Royal Air Cambodge. The US Embassy travel advisory was still in effect. No land travel for Americans. It was a 3 1/2 hour bus or car ride to the South. The flight got us there quickly and safely.

Sihanoukville was just starting to develop in 1993. The beaches such as Ochheuteal, Otres, and Serendipity were pristine and uncrowded. Seafood was cheap and plentiful. Even today, the town is considered a travel bargain. In fact, many longtime expat residents of Thailand have been moving there in recent years to escape rising prices in Thailand. Visas are much easier to obtain there as well.

Gene Angkor

Brother Bob and I enjoyed our three days at the beach. It was when we were ready to leave the trouble began. I went by the office of the airline to confirm the flight time. The manager told me that the flight had been canceled completely and the next one was scheduled three days from then. It would’ve been lovely to stay there for another three days but the problem was that we had a flight from Phnom Penh to Vientiene, Laos to catch the next day. Our only choice was to go overland if we wanted to make that flight. Well there was a bus a couple of times a day. But the embassy strongly advised against it. A couple of teachers were kidnapped from that bus the year before. Perhaps we can ask to sit in the “no kidnapping” section, I jokingly said to Bob.

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As we walked up the street to the bus station, we saw a young foreigner using a copy machine in a shop. I stopped and asked if he had any ideas how we could get to Phnom Penh. He was an Australian named Steve. He said that as a matter of fact he was going to drive there that very day.  He had a boat moored in the harbor. Someone had stolen his starter motor and he needed to go to Phnom Penh to get a replacement. We were welcome to ride along if we wanted to. Now in my mind I was thinking which is safer bus or car? Well, this fellow was an Australian and had been living there for several years. He seemed to know what was going on. If the road wasn’t safe, he wouldn’t be driving it. Again, the risk paid off. We made it back to the capital, but I have to admit every time we went through one of the many roadblocks, I was a bit anxious. Steve seemed to have all the right decals on his front windshield, however. When we would reach a checkpoint, the Cambodian military would see all his decals, salute us and wave us through. It turns out that Steve was very well connected with the Cambodian military. We suspected his boat was used to bring in special “supplies” for the generals from neighboring Thailand. He didn’t talk about it. And we didn’t ask. We were grateful for the ride back to Phnom Penh.

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Meanwhile back in the capital, the blue berets were still there and they stayed there until the end of that year at a cost of US$1.6 billion. Their second major goal besides peacekeeping was to hold an election. A party affiliated with the royal family won 45% of the vote and a new government was formed in September with Prince Ranariddh as the first Prime Minister. The only problem was that the second-leading vote-getter was a military strongman named Hun Sen. Since he controlled the Army, he demanded to be named Second Prime Minister. From that position, he eventually was able to take over the entire government and eventually banish Prince Ranariddh. To this day, Hun Sen is still the dictator of Cambodia and has managed to suppress any opposition and to “win” every single election for the last 35 years. So much for the United Nation’s ability to establish democracy.

Despite it’s tragic history and the lack of a free political system and economy, Cambodia is still a delightful place to visit. Tourism is quite important to them and they are very friendly and take good care of the tourists. It’s worth a visit.

 

 

 

Philippines: My 54 Angels in Cebu

It all started more than a dozen years ago. I was staying in the old downtown area of Manila known as the Ermita. I awoke just after sunrise and realized I needed some cash for my travels later in the day. I exited the hotel and turned down the first alley to get to the main street. Halfway down the narrow alley, I noticed a pile of rags on my left about a foot and half tall. I thought nothing of it at first. Some people would say Manila is one big pile of litter. As I passed the pile of rags, I noticed it wasn’t rags at all but about five or six street children. They were all huddled like a litter of puppies lying on top of each other sound asleep. They were clearly exhausted from being up all night begging from the tourists. Where was their mother? Where were the police? I knew there was no welfare system in Philippines, but this was shocking! In a Western country, the mother would’ve been put in jail and the children put in foster care. Having traveled throughout Southeast Asia, this was the worst I had seen in many years.  I was angry.

As an ex-international business teacher, I knew very well why the Philippines had fallen behind the rest of the region economically and now had Southeast Asia’s highest misery index. I had spent a couple of summers in Manila and knew what was going on. The free market that had accelerated growth in neighboring developing economies had not arrived in the Philippines. The main reason was that corrupt government kleptocrats controlled by Chinese and Spanish oligarchs were making it very difficult for foreign investment to come to the Philippines. The wealthy elite conspired to keep out foreign competition and were carving up the markets for themselves. As a result, the economy was stagnant. Most of the population was being kept impoverished and forced to work for wages so low that the best and brightest had to leave the country. The Asian Development Bank had been headquartered in Manila for forty years. Charged with solving these problems, their lavish offices are just a few blocks from one of the worst slums in Manila. The ADB is still there and the slum is still there. I knew why the Philippines was still poor when its neighbors were thriving. In the end, however, what good would my anger do for those street kids? That morning I walked on, but I couldn’t forget what I saw.

Fortunately, a few months later I found a direct way to help at least some street children. Through a friend, I discovered the Santo Nino Center for boys in Liloan, Cebu, and their sister orphanage for girls, Our Lady of Divine Providence Home in Talisay.   I was impressed with the dedication of Brother Arturo at Santo Nino Center. They were at capacity with 36 boys. The orphanage was located near the beach and they take the boys there regularly. Before each visit, I would swing by the discount supermarket and load up a taxi with 50 kilo bags of rice, large cans of corned beef and other canned goods, bags of sugar, cartons of powdered milk, and anything else they might need.DSC06640

Sister Corazon Riconalla was the mother superior at the girls’ orphanage. Her degree was in social work.  She was authorized to have 50 children but had 54. I observed her over a number of visits. Her management skills were superb. The facility was so clean you could eat off the floors. The girls all appeared to be happy and smiling. Over the years, Sister Cora and I became good friends. I would pay a visit two or three times a year and sit down with Sister Cora and usually Sister Mila, her office manager. She would tell me how things were going and what problems they were facing at that time. Usually their problems were of a minor nature and were nothing that a few hundred dollars wouldn’t solve. The children attended the local public schools. Sometimes they would be a little short of money for uniforms and supplies. I was happy to help. Over the years I have brought many friends and family members there as well. They have all generously helped.

On one of my first visits, when I asked Sister Corazon what she needed, she told me she had to buy more piglets and she needed money for both the piglets and their feed. It seems that in order to supplement the girls’ diet, they had set up a piggery in one corner of their property.  They would feed the piglets for about four months and then have a local person come in and slaughter them. Filipinos eat the whole pig, including the squeal.

On my next visit, the girls and the sisters eagerly led me to the pen to show me that my piglets were doing well. Later, as Sister Cora and I sat on the front steps, several of the younger girls came over and sang a little concert for me as a way of saying thanks.  They started off with I Have the Spirit in My Heart, and finished with a rousing rendition of Itsy Bitsy Spider. The concert was well worth four piglets and enough to melt the heart of an old Asia traveler.DSC06507 (2)

Occasionally, their problems were of a much greater magnitude. Typhoon Yolanda, also known as Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country’s eastern seaboard on November 8, 2013, leaving a wide swath of destruction, including more than 6,300 deaths. A couple of months earlier a major earthquake hit the nearby island of Bohol. The earthquake put some cracks in the walls of the main building at the orphanage, and the typhoon blew away the atrium covering the patio between the two buildings. Before the repairs could be made, they needed an engineer to confirm that the building was safe.DSC05447DSC06488

Fortunately, I had recruited my good friend Will a few years earlier. Will was a retired insurance executive living part of the year in Thailand. For a few years, he had been making regular visits with me to Our Lady of Divine Providence. He agreed Sister Cora was an excellent manager and this was a wonderful way to bypass all of the bureaucracy connected with most charities and make sure the money went directly to help the children. Will and I sat down with the sisters and developed budget to make sure the building was safe and to replace the atrium. We were pleased to see the repairs had been done on our next visit. Unfortunately, shortly after that visit, Sister Cora was transferred to Mindanao to open a new children’s home. For health reasons, I am unable to travel there anymore. I look back on this project as one of the most satisfying times  in my life.

If you would like contact them or visit them:

Our Lady of Divine Providence Home

Congregation of the Sisters of St. John the Baptist

Oldog, Talisay City, Cebu, Philippines

032-273-4905

 

 

Beijing, China, 1982: Watching the Giant Awaken

It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice” – Deng Xiaoping

Richard Nixon made his famous visit to China in 1972. Historians have called it the “week that changed the world”. China had been in isolation for more than two decades since the Communist takeover. It wasn’t until 1979, however, that full diplomatic recognition occurred. An adventurous English teacher from my college and his wife were able to secure teaching positions in China in 1980 and 81. When Len and Emma Pellettieri returned to San Diego. Len made a special point to pull me aside and tell me that his employers in Beijing were very anxious to recruit American business professors. He said that if I was interested he would arrange an introduction. Fortunately, I had been awarded a sabbatical leave for the 1982-83 academic year. To spend the fall semester in Beijing would work out well for my calendar.

Deng Xiaoping and his predecessors had discovered that revolution is poetry but governing is prose. Marxist/Maoist theory was not filling the rice bowl. I remember Deng’s famous quote, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”. For nearly three decades now, the Chinese economy had not caught any mice. By gradually moving away from a centrally planned economy and opening up to the West by bringing in business and other experts, they were hoping to ignite a stagnant economy. That’s where I came in. The administration at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade had asked me to teach a marketing and management class. My students would be bright young teachers who would then in turn teach business subjects elsewhere in China.

For me to claim that I had something to do with the success of the Chinese economy would be like a rooster claiming credit for the rising sun. Having said that, I was there at a highly pivotal moment in their history. The government started allowing private farming of some farm plots. It turned out that those small farms produced more than the large collective farms. They also introduced something called the “responsibility system” which gave bonuses to workers for extra production. They even introduced this system in the dining room at the Friendship Hotel were I stayed. Prior to the responsibility system, it was difficult to get someone to wait on you. One had to hold up the menu and wave it frantically in the air. Once the responsibility system was implemented in the restaurant, three waiters would descend upon you immediately when you sat down.  Someone was counting the number of orders they wrote each day and applying a bonus.  The responsibility system was being introduced throughout the economy and was making a huge difference. The cat began catching mice.

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Friendship Hotel 1982 (Yoyi Pinguan)

The Friendship Hotel was a sprawling structure built in the 1950s by the Russians. It definitely looked like something out of the Soviet Era with its exposed plumbing and generally poor quality workmanship. It housed several thousand of us “foreign experts”. Not only teachers were brought in, but advisers of every type from dozens of different countries. There was a large foreign currency store in the lobby. One needed special currency to buy anything there that was imported. This kept the locals out. My allowance was $448 a month. We were paid in FEC which stood for foreign-exchange certificates. Teachers who had been there for a while called it funny money. Fraternization between the foreigners and the locals was not allowed. Any violation would mean that the local was sent to a reeducation camp and the foreigner would be deported. Plenty of socializing went on among the foreigners, however. Cheap Tsingtao and Wuxing beer helped to lubricate the social life. The French teachers from Canada were a lot of fun to hang out with. pict01661.jpg

In looking around in the retail stores, it was easy to see why they wanted to get help with their marketing. Packaging and labeling were poor. Branding didn’t translate well into English. If they wanted to sell products abroad they needed to make some changes. For example, I personally saw flashlight batteries with the brand name White Elephant. I didn’t see it myself, but I heard there was a Great Leap Forward Floor Wax. But the funniest one I heard was Double Happiness Brassieres!China room

 

My small apartment was clean and comfortable thanks to two maids who made sure I had plenty of hot water for my tea. Although very basic, I learned that my accommodations were downright luxurious compared to people assigned outside Beijing. I met one teacher who had been working in Harbin who had no hot water in her room and was only able to bathe once a week when the staff heated up the water for her. There was a free clinic at the back of the hotel complex. Some hilarious stories were told about the care received. They practiced Western medicine, Chinese herbal medicine, and acupuncture all at the same facility. Three people with the same malady would come out of the clinic with a completely different treatment depending on which doctor they saw. They all seemed to work.PICT0163PICT0154

Every school day, a car and driver would pick me up at the hotel and take me out to the suburbs where the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade was located. The institution has now been renamed, The University of International Business and Economics. On weekends and holidays, they would take us on tours. We went out to the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Chinese opera and a special overnight trip to the newly opened Ming Tombs. Most of the cars they drove in those days appeared to be 1950 models. They told me they were made in Shanghai. When I return for a visit in 1995, they picked me up in a brand-new Lexus. They had come a long way in those 13 years.

I was assigned a permanent assistant. His name was Chunguang Ma. He was an assistant professor when I first met him. He had been assigned abroad in the past and his English was excellent. We became good friends over the years. I later arranged for him to have an internship at a high tech business in the San Diego area. Eventually he was promoted to vice president and later arranged for me to be a guest speaker again at the University in 1995. He and His family came to visit me in San Diego in 2008 as well. Prof. Ma sat in the back of my class every day. At times I would get other professors sitting in on my lectures. Prof. Ma warned me that students were a bit lazy. As I got to know them, I found out why. They were the best and brightest from all over China. A committee had decided that they would be teachers. Most of them did not want to be teachers. One young man told me that he wanted to be the manager of an enterprise. I’m sure today he is. But in those days, he was reluctantly doing what the committee had told him to do.

In order to preserve energy in Beijing, the government decreed that buildings were not to be heated until November 15 no matter how cold it got. Coming from San Diego, I nearly froze my bottom off for a few weeks before they turned the heat on. The students were obviously used to the cold. Anyway, they wore caps in the classroom and had so many layers of clothes on that it was difficult to tell the boys from the girls. The Chinese are indeed a hearty lot.  They seemed to love fresh air and would leave the windows open when it was nearly freezing outside. During my lectures, sometimes vapor would come out of my mouth and my fingers would be so cold it was hard for me to hold the chalk. When class ended, I would run down to the faculty office and put my hands on the big hot water kettle they kept there for making tea.

When I returned in 1995, the shabby old buildings were gone and the University was occupying several bright shiny towers. Again, they had come a long way in 13 years.

 

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The Dani of Baliem Valley: The Stone Age Comes to the 21st Century

By far in my 50 years of travel the most unusual, surreal place I ever visited was the Baliem Valley in West Papua, the easternmost province of Indonesia. Because of its isolation, the Baliem Valley wasn’t discovered until 1938. Explorer Richard Archbold discovered it by accident while flying a seaplane over the region. He saw perfectly manicured fields and knew there must be people there. Because today it is still isolated and unreachable by roads, the Dani people and their neighbors the Yali and the Lani, still show strong evidence of the stone age culture they were living at the time of Archbold’s arrival.pict0008-copy.jpg

All the guidebooks I read said that I needed to speak basic Indonesian in order to survive in the Baliem Valley. I bought some Indonesian language tapes and played them almost constantly for several months as I traveled to and from my teaching job at the college. My primitive Bahasa Indonesia skills were put to a test when I arrived Jayapura, the regional capital. In order to reach the Baliem Valley, one needs to fly over a 10,000 foot mountain range and drop down into the main town of Wamena. The local airline, Merpati, would not let anyone board the flight without a surat jalan, a police travel document. Since they were annexed to Indonesia four decades earlier, there has been an ongoing insurrection in the Papua region. It seems the Papuans have very little in common with their government in Jakarta. Indeed, not long after I visited there, the region was shut down to tourism for several years. Only after they were given greater autonomy was it safe to travel there again. Even today, US government employees are not allowed to visit there.

After a hilarious encounter in primitive Indonesian with a police officer in Jayapura while he pounded out my surat jalan on a manual typewriter, I was ready for the spectacular flight over the mountains. And spectacular it was. I saw the silver river bisecting the Valley and the perfectly manicured fields of the Garden of Eden that Archbold discovered in 1938. Our flight made a preliminary pass over the runway at the Wamena airport. This was to clear all the people and animals off the runway. Once I landed and was waiting for my baggage to be offloaded in the small dilapidated terminal, I realized I was indeed in a surreal world. Standing next to me was a man nonchalantly wearing absolutely nothing except a gourd on his penis. About half the men and boys I saw during my stay were wearing the koteka. The farther you got from the town of Wamena, the more you saw of the gourds. It seemed that village chiefs would wear a longer one. Also I understand that each man had a selection of gourds. He would wear a short curved one when working and a longer one on ceremonial occasions.

The women, on the other hand, were bare breasted especially when one got out of town. Invariably, however, they would cover their backs with a woven bag called a noken. The noken was used to carry many things like produce, pigs and children. Similar to some other cultures, breasts were not considered erotic. The woman’s back was, however. No self respecting Dani woman would leave her back exposed. Two other unusual customs stood out regarding the women. When a woman lost her baby, she would completely cover herself with yellow clay. Even more startling, when a woman lost a family member, she would cut off the end of one of her fingers. Some women I saw had most of their fingers missing. They were proud to show me their mutilated hands. I understand this latter custom has now been banned.

Sweet potatoes were the staple crop and pigs were the main medium of exchange. The Dani were polygamist. Each man had four or five wives working the fields for him. His job was to provide security for the family. The wives had to be purchased using pigs. According to my Dani guide, Joseph, a wife from the north end of the valley cost nine pigs but a wife from the south end of the valley only cost seven pigs. According to one writer, pigs are so valuable women have been known to suckle the piglets so that they can survive. The writer said he saw a baby nursing one breast and a pig on the other. I can’t confirm that.

I found the Dani people to be very warm and friendly throughout my entire time there. A few words of Indonesian and we were instant friends. I hope modern civilization hasn’t changed them too much.If you want to visit a place that is truly different, I highly recommend the Baliem Valley. If you go, let me know how you like it.

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