Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An Ordeal and a Half

Note: For those not familiar with Cambodia place names will not register, still, you'll find it interesting.

I recently went for a hike with a friend, Nicolas, up in the mountain above Touk Chhou rapids, which is about 9 kilometers from Kampot town. I’d been on the trails in that area several times before and had a pretty good idea, or rather thought I had a good idea, of what I was doing.

I had intended to get high enough on the mountain to get a view of Kamchey dam which is under construction, which I’d been told had been seriously breached in the heavy rains last month, and in fact was responsible for the worst of the flooding in Kampot. The authorities gave their assurances that the dam was in fine shape but a friend had his Khmer staff go up disguised as a worker to check it out. He was able to take pictures that showed a gaping hole in it. I also heard from someone who lives near the road to the dam that rock trucks were rolling all night, obviously to try to patch it up.

From Wat (Wat = Temple) Touk Chhou which sits up above the village there’s a trail that leads straight up the mountain to a small shrine and then follows the ridge for quite a long distance and meets other trails. That trail, however, is steep and eroded and in full sunlight so pretty rough trekking; I prefer going down it. I can go a long ways on level terrain or downhill without tiring but uphill I’m very slow even when the grade is not very steep.

As an alternative, there’s a trail that starts in a sharp bend in the road that leads to the wat about 200 meters below it. That trail rises gradually up the valley and passes through plantations and past makeshift living quarters, many abandoned. After about two kilometers you head up away from the habitated area and in 50 meters or so of bushwhacking, you hook up with the ridge trail. I had done it that way two or three times previously so felt confident of where I was going. There probably are trails that go from the habitated area to the ridge trail, but if so, they’re hard to find.

However, the last time I headed up that way I came to a fork in the trail and thought sure the left fork was the proper direction but instead of following the valley laterally, it climbed straight up through a very large cut over area that was no fun at all to walk through. We eventually found the steep trail that heads straight up the ridge and went up to the hillside shrine and after a suitable rest time headed further up the trail. We didn’t get very far since a tree blown down from a big windstorm last spring had completely blocked the trail, at which point we gave up and headed home.

Once again trying to avoid the steep climb uphill, I, as the one who was experienced in the area, led us up the valley. I also figured the ridge trail that we were seeking to hook up with had to have been cleared by now. In fact, last time I had done those trails I thought I should bring a big knife with me next time, and as it turned out not having something to cut through the brush was our biggest problem.

We reached the fork in the trail and so this time I was sure the right fork must be the one to follow. Ah, but instead of heading up the valley it went down to the creek and over to the opposite side. At this point I must say that both times, right and left fork, I followed the most traveled, primary trail; however, there obviously must be other secondary trails that I missed because I had hiked one previously that took me up the valley where I wanted to go.

One other point of clarification, just in case: There are no signs whatever on these trails and while there is evidence of human activities, you don’t necessarily see people that often, so can’t depend on asking directions. In fact, during the day we often wished somebody, anybody, would show up to help us out of our predicament. If so we would have made his day with generous recompense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Well, after heading up the other side a ways, sometimes steeply, the trail just disappeared. Mm, I’m thinking, there’s got to be a trail on this ridge top as well and it’s most likely to meet with the trail on the opposite side at some point so let’s bushwhack a bit until we find the trail.

We found the trail, all right, but not until after nearly two hours of rough slogging. In an old intact tropical forest, the dense canopy shuts out most sunlight from ground level and it’s relatively easy to hike off-trail. When most or all of the larger trees are cut, the ground level often becomes a maze with areas of impenetrable thicket. I’d bushwhacked in the general area several times before and always found a reasonable way through it. Not this time.

I was sad to see the locals are slowly but surely cutting the few big trees that are left in the area. I don’t know if they have titles to the land and the rights to cut the trees or are just squatters. I tend to think the latter since many of their dwellings are ramshackle to say the least.

When I have a destination in mind, I tend to plow on through till I get there. Headstrong is another way to put it. This doesn’t work too well when you’re trying to go through a thicket filled with thorny vines and plants. My legs are crisscrossed with scratches. It’d make a great picture but unfortunately I lost my camera on the hike. From hours of rough jostling the leather case attached to my belt fell apart. I actually had had it repaired at a shoemaker once, but as it turns out he stitched up everything but the part that was still together, which is, of course, where it came apart and allowed the camera to slip through. I loved that little camera and almost cried when I discovered its loss.

The other part about being headstrong is that you don’t think enough about what you are doing or look carefully enough where you are going. Thus Nick, who was far more tuned in at how to negotiate the thicket than I was, had barely half the scratches on his legs as I did.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. On the way to finding the trail, we wound up going to the highest point on the ridge. The trail was a short ways down the other side. At the top someone had set homemade small animal traps. I’m not sure what they were after, the only animal I saw was a squirrel or something akin.

It was a relief to find the trail after our ordeal but our luck was short lived. After about 15 minutes of easy walking we hit an impasse. A large blowdown of several trees had covered the trail for maybe 15 or 20 meters, and all around it was difficult going. The trail had to restart on the other side but we couldn’t figure out how to get to it.

Once you start into a thicket it sometimes becomes a maze with lots of dead-ends. You start through the best opening you can find, and follow through logically where you see a way to go in your preferred direction, but then you can find yourself almost surrounded by thicket and are forced to retrace your steps. It’s also possible, with all that changing of direction that you’re no longer sure where you are. We should’ve concentrated more on finding the trail because we knew it was leading in the right general direction. We just kept getting diverted from our path. In fact, we always knew where we were in a macro sense; that is, we could often see in the distance where we needed to go, but just couldn’t find a way to get there.

It was another three hours of hard slogging, during which we found and lost another trail that was blocked by a blowdown. During that time, by charging ahead without looking very carefully, I disturbed two bee hives. They were small, translucent blue bees and not terribly aggressive. If they had been I would’ve been really suffering. The first time I got stung on my finger – it was still swollen five days later. At that point I was on a steep overgrown area and in my haste, shall we say panic, to get out of their way, I slipped and fell and bruised myself up a bit.

At this point, let me say, though I have a lot of stamina and can keep plugging away without a lot of rest (we stopped frequently but only for short periods) after two or three or five hours of it I get very sloppy and careless and fall and bump into things. That’s especially true when it’s getting late in the day and I can imagine the very distasteful possibility that I’ll be out there all night. The one sting from the second hive, which happened about 4pm knocked me for a loop as it got me right in the eye.

I’m of the belief that events like bee stings are instant karmic reminders, or rejoinders. Just as that bee stung me I was thinking, gotta slog through, gotta slog through, whereas I should’ve been thinking about how to stay calm and be careful. I fell down lots of times through being hasty and pushing too hard; it’s only luck that I didn’t really hurt myself in a way that made walking difficult and our ordeal ten times worse.

Sometime after 3 we had come across a spring which led to a nearby little creek. I had thought following the creek downhill might provide a way out but didn’t recommend it since it meant walking through the water. A trail that would’ve gotten us to the other ridge where the car was parked would’ve been preferred but at that point just getting downhill would’ve been good enough. I knew there were plantations and dwellings at the bottom of the valley so it would be easy walking even if there wasn’t a clear trail and that a trail would appear soon enough.

At about 4.30, after more than an hour of hard slogging trying to find a way downhill or anywhere out of the morass, and after getting stung and barely able to see, we found ourselves back at the little stream. At this point I have to say I’m glad Nick was able to see and think clearly because it was he who realized we were back at the creek. We followed the creek and it was easy going for a short time at which point we came to a very difficult spot. I was in the lead and in my haste made a bad choice and fell through the thicket covering the stream. Nick, just behind me, saw a much better way and helped me out of the thicket. At that point it was getting on to 4.30pm.

It wasn’t more than a few meters after that before we came to a clearing and banana plantation. We soon found a good trail and we were home free, at least in terms of not being stuck on the mountain all night. It still took more than an hour of walking before we reached the main road and a village where we could grab beers and rest a little. By that time my cheap, but previously very comfortable, shoes were in shreds and I was walking in my socks. At that point Nick hired a motorbike to take him to the car which was 3 or 4 kilometers away and then picked me up and drove us home. I would never have been able to drive home from there.

I’m thankful I was able to keep my eyes open long enough to make that last hour’s walk because once I sat down I could barely open them at all. Adrenaline and Necessity. After I got home at about 7 I was so burned out I couldn’t keep my eyes open enough to eat, let alone not having the energy to do same, though we hadn’t eaten all day.

An adventure and a half and, all things considered, not bad for a near geezer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Whither Obama

The following is my response to comments from a friend regarding my last post.

My response in blue


Thanks for your efforts to see the bright side of Obama while criticizing his position on Afghanistan. It is my feeling that he is caught in the vice of a culture which has forsaken intelligent discourse and his own "arc of history" theories.

Vice – Vise, in this case pretty much the same, but it’s in large part of his own making.

The dilemma the Left faces at this time is that their (our?) man cannot simply try to lift the locomotive from one set of tracks to the other without revealing his impotence.

He has in a sense chosen impotence, maybe thinking he’s not up to the choice of change and maybe, as you point out in the next sentence, he thinks we will get there at some point and he will be able to manifest his true feelings and political positions. There is a small part of me that thinks this is the case and at some stage he will become what we voted for, but only a small part.

To continue this set of muddled metaphors, it is obvious that he believes there is a cross-over switch somewhere on down the line and when we get there, we will get there. Thus his stance on Afghanistan and gay rights and, to a large degree, Health Care reform. In the meantime, we cannot stop the momentum of the past 8 years entirely. And simply slowing the Bush Train can seem like just more of the same, which it is by virtue of the rails it is on.

Correct except he has purposely chosen to maintain many, if not most of the worst Bush policies, now embracing them as his own: Spying, Habeas Corpus, two wars, feeding banks while the common folk starve; and in the Bush tradition, impunity for constitution maulers, insurance reform designed to protect company profits, standing by Israel in spite of its war crimes and dastardly treatment of the Palestinian people, even though that goes against the best interests of the US and Israel, as well as majority opinion in the US. Those are just a few amongst many other capitulations he’s made to vested authority.

Clearly any elected leader is governed by electors who may give or deny their consent at any point, rendering their ultimate verdict during an election. Obama is no different. Of course, it is often pointed out that true leadership---strong leadership---is brave and heedless of mere public opinion, even to the point of disregarding the imperative to stay in power, even to the point of undressing in public if necessary.

Good analogy, except in this case it falls flat since Obama is going against public opinion in the wrong direction. He’s sloughing off the will of the public to serve the rotten and beaten-down opposition in a way that lifts the opposition and dumps on his constituency. Public opinion strongly supports single-payer health care, withdrawing from Afghanistan, fair treatment of the Palestinians, opposition to bank bailouts, justice for constitutional law breakers.

True leadership is heedless of the wrath of the fat cats, he bows down to them in obeisance. FDR had as great a mandate as any president, but still had to fight tooth and nail against regressive forces. The banksters who brought down the world economy in 1929 put out everything in their power to stymie or emasculate his program, but because he fought and fought hard and had the people on his side, they were powerless to stop him. Obama, in contrast, has decided that the banksters deserve to be coddled so has given them everything they could ask for; plying them with taxpayer money, letting them off the hook for meaningful regulation, exempting the wealthy from having to pay their fair share of taxes. Didn’t have to be that way.

There also desperately needs to be a financial truth commission, a breaking up of the biggest banks, a tax on stock transactions, a return to the separation of retail banking from speculative banking and an assurance that no bank is too big to fail. If the latter especially doesn’t happen there will almost certainly be another bubble to burst. The banksters are already back in the business of excessive speculation; this time on the taxpayer dime. And making big-time bonuses off the rise in stocks. The latter spike in stock prices created, I might add, from the wealthy having too much money to play with. Too much money needing a purpose creates bidding competitions and causes prices to rise.

There needs to be a total change in the organization of banking that leaves the current banking system for business and big money individuals and creates an alternative system of credit unions designed for citizen banking. There also needs to be a philosophical change away from easy credit - including a strong social push against high-interest credit – towards saving and responsible borrowing.

To a considerable extent this was the nature of the Bush Administration, especially in the case of Dick Cheney. To an amazing extent, this highly aggressive leadership accomplished a great deal of what it set out to accomplish. I am reminded of this period being marked by virtually daily assaults on the Constitution.

Leadership creates results, even when it gets there by stealing two elections.

But obviously some of these more draconian changes were so radical they have had a problem becoming "traditional." All governance is, in some important ways, a reflection of the governed. My reading of history tells me that even out-and-out dictatorships and authoritarian regimes must keep their ear to the ground constantly about public opinion. They have always feared the impatience of The People---and with good reason. During the Reign of Terror something like 17,000 aristocrats (and other hapless bystanders) came away from the guillotines without so much as a head. Leadership can suddenly become a target for rotten eggs and pitch forks. And yet the siren call of leadership is almost irresistible to those inclined to seek it.

Another person who commented on my last post talked of revolution. The Declaration of Independence spoke of the people taking things in their own hands when they received no proper redress of their concerns from their government. While I’m not in the States to properly gauge the mood, it seems to me most of the people who have skin in the protest game (not even talking about revolution) are wingnuts of the Neanderthal persuasion, and no offence to our prehistoric cousins. Where is the anger? Where are the street fighting men/women?

I’m not quite in favor of the guillotine for congresspeople who don’t support single-payer health care but I do think that progressives should make it clear they will strive to defeat any legislator who doesn’t pledge to support it with their votes, no matter what the consequences. When legislators know the people are serious about reform, they will serve the people.

It is clear that all the major decisions facing Obama in the foreseeable future involve enormous political risks for the future of his presidency. If he quits Afghanistan in a way that can be construed as precipitous he will be vulnerable to criticism for being too "soft" by vast numbers of Americans still clinging to their cherished notions of military and nationalistic prestige.

Yes but he will be on the right side of history and be expressing the will of the majority; and especially the majority who elected him.

On the other hand, if he lingers there and the losses continue to increase, he will be vulnerable to criticism from the Left who harbor their own warm images of lions and lambs lying together.

The left as well as the majority. Most people on the left recognize that there are times when war is absolutely necessary. But also don’t harbor the romantic view of war held by the right.

Thus we see how narrow the options are at this moment, regardless of the actual reality of what we face regarding geopolitical relationships. So what should he do?

He should represent his constituency, the people who elected him based on his campaign promises. He should fight like hell for what he knows is right. If that includes playing hardball with reluctant corporate-lackey Dems, so be it. Begging for support from Repugs is stupid when the opposition acts like rabid pit bulls and your own party has an overwhelming mandate.

As I see it, it is almost pointless to critique this or any leader unless the cultural milieu is brought into the analysis. How do leaders in a (nominally) democratic political culture navigate these forces, especially when they involve intense domestic policies (Health Care reform), always the most difficult issues as they pit brother against brother---a recipe for carnage if ever there was one. The Cain and Abel syndrome.

As you mentioned previously, leadership is the key. A leader takes the popular will and turns it into reality. A leader isn’t so much interested in everybody liking him or her but serving the greater good. Compromising on health care to the point of watering it down to worthlessness in order to make it acceptable to the insurance industry is not the mark of a leader.

Some people think his policies will result in a one-term presidency, with the country back in the hands of a moronic Repug party. I don’t think so, but it’s a possibility that all should fear. In spite of how bad he may be, he’s an angel compared to the opposition, who will, without the least compunction, steal the next election if it’s remotely close.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Whither to Rant

I’ve been working on a large writing project so haven’t had much time to rant. Now that I’m finished, I’ve been having a hard time thinking of what to write; it’s all so depressing and demoralizing – Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize as he’s escalating the war in Afghanistan and increasing the defense budget? Israel’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimate needs and aspirations of the Palestinian people because it’s fixated on accumulating real estate? Health Care reform in the US tailored to preserve the profits of the industry rather than serve the needs of the citizenry? Action on climate change which amounts to inaction? One after another natural disasters in the Asia Pacific region, in most cases exacerbated by environmental degradation?

But first an apology.

Sometimes when writing a blog, which is usually done on a short schedule and in my case doesn’t include professional editing, you say things which get interpreted far differently than you intended. And so it was with my comment on my last post that my novel Y3K was liked by all but those who can’t deal with big words.

I didn’t mean to insult or denigrate anyone just because they didn’t like or couldn’t deal with my book. If I had taken more time I would’ve mentioned that many people who liked Y3K also had their criticisms – mostly on the order of preachy, pontificating, wordy - which I fully accept. At any rate I didn’t mean to sound or be arrogant.

Back on topic: Let’s start with Obama’s Nobel Prize. It has generated a lot of controversy, though hearing a short clip of Bush recently, which instantly provoked a feeling of revulsion, it’s clear how far Obama has raised the level of discourse internationally. He keeps a cool head, he can listen and talk to anybody, he’s driven to compromise and deflect rancor, all necessary qualities of a peacemaker. He’s working on nuclear disarmament and he scrapped the provocative but useless missile defense so there are rationales for giving him the prize.

A short while ago Obama spoke at a gathering of gays and lesbians. He said all the right things including that he was going to end the ban on homosexuals in the military (though he waffled by not saying when). He then went on to praise those gays who wish to serve and finished by saying, especially when we are fighting two wars.

So that’s the trade off. He’s immeasurably better than any Repug could possibly be on issues like gay rights, supreme court appointees and America’s standing in the world. Europeans hated Bush more than Americans. At the same time the Man of Peace is fighting two unnecessary wars.

The US has now been in Afghanistan more than eight years. We deposed the Taliban after 9-11 because they wouldn’t hand over Bin Laden. The Taliban said he was a guest in their country and they couldn’t turn him over without seeing some evidence against him. Bush considered asking for proof as an affront to America so proceeded forthwith to take over the country.

So who is the international community (it is after all a NATO force) fighting in Afghanistan? The Taliban say they have no interest in fighting the West, they only want the occupation to end. Are we there to fight Al Qaida? Last I heard there were about 100 Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. 100,000 troops and an equal number of mercenaries to fight 100 militants?

So then are we there to save the Afghan people from the Taliban? The Taliban can certainly cause a lot of trouble, but the people remember what is was like under their rule and really don’t want them, so it’s very unlikely they could take over the country again.

Obama appointed a hard line general, Stanley McCrystal, to run the Afghan adventure. The good general leaked to the press that if he doesn’t get an additional 40,000 troops there’s a good chance of failure. In fact, if he doesn’t get the requested troops he’s covered his ass in case of failure. If he does get the additional manpower and the mission still fails, which it is almost certain to, the burden will be on Obama’s shoulders. By the Pentagon’s own standards in fighting insurgencies – 25 troops per 1000 population – it would take an army of half million to stabilize the country.

Obama recently held a forum of heavy thinkers to discuss the war, but no peaceniks - people opposed to continuing the war - were present; that viewpoint was not welcome. Only the same mentality that led the Vietnam fiasco to go on for so long was allowed to be voiced.

His ‘necessary’ war should really be called his nonsensical war. Same with Iraq. He promised to withdraw ‘combat’ troops within 18 months. That’s been set back to 2011. Even so, that would still leave 50,000 non-combat troops and an even larger number of mercenaries. A few years back 60% of Iraqis said it was ok to kill American troops. Every poll I’ve ever seen on the matter showed a majority of Iraqis wanting the US to withdraw immediately. If they wish to sort it out themselves, why are we there six years later?

Why did Obama ask for even more money for the military than Bush when the US is already spending more on defense than all other nations on Earth combined? In just the eight years of the Bush regime the defense budget was doubled. To fight ragtag insurgents and militants in broken-down Afghanistan? To protect oil supplies coming from Iraq? Why not just divert a few hundreds of billions from defense to green energy?

Those two wars have cost a cool trillion dollars… and still counting, not just because the wars are ongoing, but also because all the money to wage them was borrowed so interest payments will continue for decades.

I needn’t detail the massive number of solar panels, windmills, electric trains both urban and interurban, that that money would buy. Or the transformative effect it would have if spent in the developing world where social and infrastructure needs are far greater.

I hate to say this but I despair of any of the issues mentioned in the beginning of this post coming out well. Every case bodes ill. The best that can be expected in today’s political world falls far short of the minimum necessary to make things right.

Obama, decent, well meaning guy that he is, seems to be completely in awe of the fat cats around him and catatonically unable to challenge their hegemony in any meaningful way. The Peace prize, it is said, was given more to encourage him than for anything he’s actually accomplished, other than rhetoric, that is. The problem is his almost desperate need to mediate and accommodate makes it near impossible for him to think outside the box, or take on the powers that be. In nearly every case he’s dumped on his constituency, the Dems and progressives who elected him, and stood by the corporate and military masters of the US government.

His campaign slogan should have been, ‘Compromise and incrementalism you can sort of believe in’.

That’s all I can stand to write for now.