Bully Nation / Bully World

“From out of nowhere the smallest kid came. Nobody knew him, not even his name. These mean guys laughed and ripped the kid’s shirt but this little kid refused to be hurt. He stood and looked ’em straight in the eye, daring those bullies to even come try. There was no way they could hurt his pride. If he would find his strength from inside. Something happened no one could expect. By finding courage, he’d found his respect. Stand up, stand up for yourself.”

Excerpt lyrics from the children’s song Stand Up (to Bullies) by Caroline Figiel and Danny Jones

In recent weeks the Obama Administration reiterated its position to address the serious issue of kid bullying within our schools and communities. This is a fine gesture. I’m sure when we were kids, we’ve all suffered some humiliating experience in school in which “a schoolyard bully” has taunted us; picked upon us for being small, weak, different, or smart. Often these experiences leave an emotional scar that is more difficult to heal than any physical scar. I think we can all agree that cruelty to others should be reprimanded whereas civility and common decency toward others should be praised. However, does this political gesture truly address the root source of bullying in our American society? After all, where do kids learn these harmful habits? Might there be negative influences within our adult society? Before we focus on those influences however let me first define what is meant by bullying.

Bullying is a form of abuse. It involves repeated acts that attempt to create or enforce one person’s (or group’s) power over another person (or group), thus an “imbalance of power” is established. The “imbalance of power” may be social power and/or physical power. Bullying type of behaviors are often rooted in a bully’s inability to empathize with those whom he or she would target.

Bullying consists of three basic types of abuse – emotional, verbal and physical. It typically involves subtle methods of coercion such as psychological manipulation.

Bullying ranges from simple one on one bullying to more complex bullying in which the bully may have one or more “lieutenants” who assist the primary bully in his bullying activities. This bullying technique in school and the workplace is also referred to as peer abuse.

So, what does a child learn when they observe a parent bullying a child, a spouse, or a neighbor, with impunity? What lessons are taught our children when they personally witness or hear their parents talking about certain government and/or business leaders who bully/harass their constituencies, their employees, their competitors, threatening retribution if they don’t get their way?

Bullying can occur in any context in which human beings interact with each other. That includes school, church, family, the workplace, home and neighborhoods. A 2007 WBI-Zogby survey found that nearly half of all workers (49%) have been affected by workplace bullying, either being a target themselves or having witnessed abusive behavior against a co-worker. In the majority of cases reported workplace bullying was perpetrated by management. This is often called corporate bullying where an employer abuses an employee with impunity, knowing the law is weak and the job market is soft.

Bullying is even a common instigative factor in coerced ethnic migration. Bullying can exist between social groups, social classes and even between countries, in the form of jingoism.

On an international scale, perceived or real imbalances of power between nations, in both economic systems and in treaty systems, are often cited as some of the primary causes of both World War I and World War II.

If children in school were allowed to study our true American history, they would discover that our nation has often employed a bullying style, whether through “manifest destiny” or recent neoliberal foreign policies, compelling lessor nations to do our bidding or suffer the consequences.

Today, bullying takes a world stage when America and Western European countries coerce developing countries to agree to policies set by the world institutions like the WTO, IMF and World Bank that are not in their citizens’ interest but in the international banks and multinational corporations’ financial interests.

Terrorizing is also a form of bullying for to terrorize is to coerce by using threats or violence, or to inspire with fear. Our War on Terrorism is a great distracter (as well as a great Military Industrial Complex money maker) from the true terrorists that reside within our country. Who promotes fear mongering in this country? Is it not bullying, or terrorizing, our citizenry when banking, oil and insurance corporations hold Americans hostage, employing their “lieutenants” such as Fox News and talk radio pundits, as well as bank-rolled politicians and lobbyists, to manipulate the American public through fabricated threats to national economic interest and fear mongering diatribes in order to extract more money from Americans, or get them to vote against their own common interests such as corporate abuse reform.

In truth, tyranny, intimidation and terrorism are forms of bullying and our adult society rewards this behavior. During last year’s televised political debates, did our children receive a valuable lesson in civil discourse or rather a lesson that he or she who shouts the loudest, most abusive vitriolic language toward their opponent achieves the winning edge. This certainly was the case in last year’s election in which Republican candidates emphasized fear mongering, a form of psychological manipulation bullying, over any constructive solutions to American society issues, in order to get elected.

What our society calls “successful capitalism” is often strong arm bullying tactics. Corporate press will shower accolades upon the “pillars of capitalism” CEOs who most successfuly embrace Carnegie’s philosophy Social Darwinism, or survival of the fittest, without empathy or thought given toward those harmed in their wake.

Now you may ask yourself, how does one fight back against the bully? What recourse can an individual take?

In the schoolyard, sometimes the art of self-defense, such as a solid first punch to the bully’s nose or stomach will achieve justice, successfuly silencing the bully. Other situations might require a strong person to stand tall in peaceful defiance, ultimately winning the bully’s respect and eventual acquiescence.

In the adult world, the means available for an individual to stand up against the bully may be more complex and more difficult, yet achievable.

Solely relying on legal recourse in our society as a means may prove futile. Remember, it’s OUR legal system that allows government institutions to coercively collect fees and taxes from its citizens. The only difference between federal, state, county and city agencies who utilize police agencies as bully enforcers to collect their inequitable fees and taxes, and the developing nations’ police who extort money from you directly is, in the United States its legal.

In the United States, comprehensive workplace bullying legislation has yet to be passed by the Federal Government or by any state governments, though, as of April 2009, 16 states have prepared legislation. The proposed anti-bullying bills typically allow employees to sue their employers for creating an “abusive work environment”, supported by the rationale that laws are necessary to protect public health. A strong support for these bills, putting pressure on legislators to advocate such legislation, would certainly be to the workers’ benefit. Maintaining vigilance toward continual enforcement would also be needed since even existing employee whistle-blowing laws are often halfheartedly enforced, creating vulnerability for the employee’s necessary protection from management retaliation.

Sometimes the individual alone must seek remedy. Since David challenged Goliath, our cultural myths and legends, here in the US and around the world, are often based on the many courageous individuals who have stood up against the oppressive tyrant, their tales admirably told through books and films.

Their heroic stories are legendary; Robin Hood and Joan of Arc to the lone brave sheriff who confronts the wealthy cattle rancher and his hired gunmen.

Less known yet no less brave, are these other individuals’ stories: Sid Hatfield and the Battle of Matewan in 1920 West Virginia in which Sid Hatfield stood up against the mining company and their hired police; Rosa Park’s peaceful defiance against The American South’s bully bigotry; Norma Rae’s heroic protest against her company’s poor working conditions, and Harvey Milk’s courageous peaceful defiance against San Francisco’s sexual discriminators.

Seattle’s downtown streets bore witness in November ’99 to the anti-globalization movement where people from all walks of life gathered to peacefully protest the World Trade Organization (WTO) bullying policies known as globalization, a laudable stance that would ultimately provide the moral backbone for the developing nations delegates to stand up against their intimidating American and Western European counterparts.

And of course, we can’t forget the heroic Nerds in Revenge of the Nerds and Bluto (John Belushi’s character) in the movie Animal House who stood up against their respective bullies, the Jocks and Faber College’s Dean Werner.

Challenging tyrant’s bullying power is no easy task. In recent weeks, from the Middle East to Middle America, Egypt to Wisconsin, citizens have taken to the streets; Wisconsin where teachers have been protesting their Republican Governor’s proposal to eliminate their right to collective bargaining.
In Egypt and Tunisia, motivated by poverty, lack of jobs, the people have had enough. Their dictator’s bullying tactics, coupled with deplorable living conditions, would be tolerated no longer. The protests were widespread among the citizens and largely non-violent; gaining support from such needed allies as the dictators’ military personnel, in order to achieve a successful revolution, with little bloodshed.

During the Egyptian protest, when President Obama stated this proclamation that “peaceful protest leads to dialogue, leads to reform, and ultimately leads to democracy” was Wisconsin Governor Walker listening?

As the poster boys for avaricious audacity, the billionaires Koch Brothers (Koch Industries) seem to have a grudge against working class Americans and any “will of the people” effort to limit their corporate hubris to pollute the planet for maximum profit. They are the predominant financial muscle behind numerous Republican Party and Tea Party member’s efforts, including Wisconsin Gov. Walker, to roll back social services for the working class under the guise to reduce state budgets. The coordinated, insidious plan however is to not reduce deficits so much as to transfer savings from reduced public servant’s pay and benefits and transfer the funds to wealthy interests like the Koch Bros. in the form of industrial tax breaks and reduced tax rates. The Koch Brothers are also the puppet master influence behind the recent effort in California, Prop 23, to reverse the state’s Clean Air Act passed by the majority of Californians.

Fortunately, defiant citizenry groups such as the California student sustainability coalition, through conducting peaceful demonstrations, educating the public and getting out the vote, helped defeat Prop 23 in California last year; a non-violent, symbolic punch-to-the bully’s nose victory!

Regretfully, the Obama Administration’s gesture toward stopping bullying may be more symbolic than substantial. At the state level, states such as Florida and Georgia have in recent years passed successful anti-bullying laws to protect children in school. One can hope that with a legal recourse established a gradual deterrence and intolerance to the bullying atmosphere, from the schoolyards to cyberspace, will prevail in schools and in the minds among our future generations.

Still, what justice awaits them in adult society? What real change can occur if our societal bullying problem is not also addressed? In a country overwrought with unnecessary rules and regulations, why does workplace or corporate bullying go largely unpunished? Why does our American vernacular have ample words to describe the bully (miscreant, tyrant, tormenter, oppressor, intimidator, villian, corruptor, spoiled brat, etc.) yet no words to describe the action “getting one’s way”? Are these subtle cultural signs our current institutions protect the bully, especially at the highest levels?

Societal institutions’ authorities can also bully, creating an underlining cultural atmosphere that intimidates, subtlely and not so subtlely, the individual to conform, to obey societal demands or suffer the consequences. Who stands up for the individual who chooses his own peaceful path?

I leave you the reader with much to ponder and end this article with a song by the rock group Supertramp, a song that stands up for that individual.

    THE LOGICAL SONG by Supetramp

    When I was young seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical. And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so joyfully, playfully, watching me. But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical.

    There are times when all the world’s asleep, the questions run so deep for such a simple man. Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned. I know it sounds absurd but please tell me who I am.

    Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, crimianl. Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

    At night when all the world’s asleep, the questions run too deep for such a simple man. Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned. I know it sounds absurd but please tell me who I am!”

No Bully Zone

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Southeast Asia Travels – A Fractal Moment In Time

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Eliot
The Little Gidding

As I was cycling within the mystical grounds of Sukothai, the ancient Siam Kingdom, I could feel the tropical sun’s intensity peaking early. Setting my bicycle aside, I found the shade from a bodhi tree provided that perfect respite in which to relax and reflect upon life. I also took comfort from the accompanying statue of Buddha and his serene smile that so calmly embraced the world around me.

Finding clear vision or as defined here as objectivity is a very satisfying discovery, much like finding that key piece to a puzzle you’ve been working on forever, especially if the puzzle is a rendition of an M.C.Escher painting. My recent Southeast Asia travel experience, has as with every world travel experience of mine, provided me with another enriching, incremental step toward self-discovery and an increased awareness of one’s place in the world.

There’s a popular phrase I’ve heard and seen on T-shirts in numerous South American and Asian marketplaces that goes “same, same, only different”. This whimsical seemingly nonsensical phrase may carry greater wisdom than first observed. There’s a fascinating new scientific field which involves the study of fractal formations. Fractals are often defined as self-similarity. Self-similarity in Nature can be defined as the repetition of a unit pattern on different size scales or, stated another way, having parts that resemble the whole. A tree, representing the whole, with its individual parts; root system, branches and leaves, is a classic self-similarity example.

Self-similarity patterns continue throughout Nature in the form of seasons, cloud formations, coastline formations, tidal movements, so numerous you want to just relax under a shady tree, light up a joint, take in the Zen moment and whisper softly, “WHOA!”

A great gift that can be revealed through world travels is the gift of objectivity. Once I’m physically removed from my normal daily rituals, tasks, routines and influences, coupled by my swift adaptability to new surroundings, my mind becomes unencumbered, able to transcend and observe life objectively.
As a world traveler and having concluded my fifty-fourth country visit, in Cambodia, I’m observing numerous repetitive patterns in mankind’s habits and behaviors as well. It’s deja vu all over again! These fractal patterns happen everywhere, no matter how diverse the societies may appear; whether in Ecuador, Nepal, Poland, or Vietnam, each society sharing common humanity and topographical traits.

For example, I’ll be sitting on a bus, gazing out the window looking at the Cambodian countryside, and I’ll suddenly notice my travel experiences merging, folding and unfolding within my memory with the passing scenes: rural Cambodia, with its bucolic landscapes and impoverished family compounds; food- preparing mothers, structure-building fathers, laughing kids, and roaming, sleepy farm animals, will merge in my mind with similar scenes found in rural Nepal, Ecuador, Poland and Vietnam. The landscapes alter, some lush, some dry, depending on the season.

Fields yield to hills which yield to mountains which yield back to fields again. The passing harvests with the workers in the fields vary slightly, crops ranging from rice to coffee beans to wheat, most work still conducted by manual labor. Divided only by languages, these cultures conduct similar tasks simultaneously throughout the world, yesterday, today and tomorrow: birth, childhood, adulthood, marriage, kids, family, death, rebirth, as certain as the sunrise each and every morning.

A similar transcendental moment occurred while I was riding a hot, slow-moving train through the rural Czech Republic countryside. Across from my seat, I’d see the passengers’ faces slowly transform with each half conscious sleepy nod of my head as passengers arrive and depart with each incremental train station stop. I would glance up and find sitting across from me a talkative pair of students who would suddenly transform into a quiet, tired-looking middle-aged working couple who, after another nod, would transform into a fragile, forlorn-looking elderly couple. Were they different people or the same couple seen through the years on the same train?

Travelers too exhibit repeating patterns and routines. The routines will vary depending on the types of individual that travel. They may be routines that make us feel comfortable, make us feel safe, or make us feel alive. Kindred spirits will intersect on the travelers’ road more often than unlike souls. As independent and individualistic as I am my recent Southeast Asia travels during the winter months will still be closely repeated and experienced by another person in the succeeding two months or the same winter months next year. Years later, I may meet that same person in a coffee shop, this recognition perhaps only acknowledged by a friendly nod or smile. Are our two holographic universe intersections a part of a thousand similar “chance” meetings taking place simultaneously in the world?

In my objective traveler’s role I enjoy observing the locals’ daily routines as they make preparations for the tourists; cleaning the streets and sidewalks, opening cafes, restaurants, stores, positioning themselves with motorbikes and rickshaws for hire, or cooking in food stalls, breaking for lunch, weaving, gossiping, yawning, closing shop and returning home to prepare their evening meal, to be all repeated the very next day, unless its a holiday or religious event. This scene is in each city, each town, and each village “uniquely the same only different”

These scenes of relative peace and contentment that societies exhibit sometimes get rudely interrupted by wars initiated by powerful greedy mad men who show evidence of similar sociopathic behaviors, inflicting pain upon the people they rule or manipulate until the people finally have had enough of them. One can simply study human history, whether in Europe, Asia, the Americas or Africa, and find these repetitive patterns. No surprise the symbol for mankind in the Hopi Indian mythology is a foolish character that the gods just smile at, shaking their heads in disbelief.

Yet, while humankind may exhibit similar behavioral fractal patterns…certain individuals and cultures concurrently demonstrate unique characteristics as to how to deal with life patterns we can not avoid.
In Southeast Asia, whether in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, the Buddhist philosophical /spiritual influence is strongly evident among the people, revealed through good healthy physical routines such as sunrise exercises, healthy nutritional diets and healthy mental attitudes. I was impressed by the average Thai or Vietnamese’s peaceful demeanor, consistent genuine kindness, friendliness and respectfulness for all living entities.
Such kind behaviors and mental outlooks are not always as prevalent in other regions of the world. This distinction was so profoundly felt by one Canadian fellow I met that he was going to make a concerted effort to be friendlier to strangers when he returned home, a transference that could alter the fractal dynamics of humankind! Could one ask for a better example to the benefits of world travel.

Back under that Bodhi tree I swore I could hear the Buddha whisper “seize the moment, gain perspective, find objectivity, and live in the present.”

These words reminded me of a passage from one of my favorite books, The Zen Book, which summarized my feelings at that moment: “Happiness just IS. It isn’t something you have to earn, look for, or wait to receive- it’s always there. To find it, simply stop looking and become it.” Enough said.


To read more of my travel writing, and to see my photography from my Southeast Asia travels, and more, please visit www.travelark.org/traveller/pecoskid and www.michaelmcguerty.wix.com/mcguerty-photography

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Postcards From The Ecuadorian Amazon

( Writings from my South America travels )

Over the course of my journey to the Ecuadorian Amazon, I manage to shed the layers of civilization with each transitional form of transportation: first the hectic Quito taxi ride, then the flight that traversed the ecozone extremes, from the snow-capped Andes to the sultry lowland rainforest in a mere 30 minutes. Next, two hours on a brain-jarring gravel road, the same road that accommodates the infamous oil industry’s pipeline.

Reaching the river dock, I bid adieu to the last remnants of civilization, as the local Ecuadorians at this Amazonian outpost gather above the muddy river bank to watch us depart. Our motorized canoe boat was loaded with people, belongings and supplies. As we lathered ourselves in mosquito repellent, a distinct citrus aroma arose, intermixing with the humid tropical air that engulfed the region.

Once underway, I could sense that around the first riverbend, through a kaleidoscope of green and brown colored shades, the heart of the Amazon awaited.

Our serpentine portage through the murky jungle river went deeper and deeper into the rainforest. Soon the journey would become extremely interesting….

Surprising us from higher ground somewhere in the thick tree foliage, Amazon women, easily fifty feet tall, let loose with an arsenal of spears in our immediate direction. Their spears whizzing past our heads, we managed to outmaneuver their unprovoked attacks.

Around the next bend, the river narrowed. Enormous tree vines hung down to the river’s edge. Clinging to the vines were dozens of slithering anacondas, dangling precariously close to our heads as we passed. The Dutch children on board were nearly whisked away by the largest of the anacondas, a mere six meters in length. Our swift response with our supplied machetes prevented the children’s abduction.

Further down river the air filled with the sounds of a hundred bees or so we initially thought. The buzzing noises were in fact poisonous darts aimed at us by unfriendly natives hidden in the forest. Fortunately their cursed darts missed their intended marks.

A brief respite from harm’s way was abruptly interrupted by a boiling frenzy of activity in the waters ahead. The source of the frenzy was a thousand piranha hungrily looking for an afternoon snack. We pulled our hands and toes out of the water, steering through their frenzied madness. They continued to chase us down river, as did an armada of fast moving hungry caimans.

Our mantle adversarial tested, we managed to prevail, and after two hours of such Amazon encounters, we finally reached our destination, Cuyabeno Lodge, which rested along the Laguna Grande. Now our adventure would really begin….

That’s one version of what happens when you travel in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Now, here’s another…

The boat journey was actually a very calming, peaceful experience. There were certainly creatures in the tall trees that we encountered. There were four different species of monkeys as well as a blue and yellow macaw, and a toucan flirting about the tree tops. The pervasive jungle fisherman, the kingfisher, guided us down river. Only one small caiman came into view on a sunny river bank and he gave us little notice.

To our surprise, the blacken waters of Laguna Grande were safe for swimming, and we swam every day. The piranha meanwhile swam in the shallow, brackish estuaries downstream. Magical experiences happen in that lake as well. A gloriously dramatic sunset cast pink, gold, aquamarine and sienna colors off the developing storm thunderheads and the placid surface water.

The rare fresh water pink dolphins were also present for the show. Quietly we watched a mama dolphin and her two babies surface and resurface in the still river waters. After sunset, a group of us staying at the lodge ventured into the now darkened rainforest; nighttime is when the Amazon’s inhabitants really come to life, big and small.

We were equipped only with our senses and a flashlight. The stillness was incredible. Point the flashlight…tarantula on a tree…point it again, a small light green frog under a leaf. What were those big eyes that glittered off my beam!?

The short return boat ride across the lake was also dramatic as the earlier developing thunderhead let loose with its stinging patter of raindrops, the rain and lake vegetation illuminated by our boat’s searchlight and the distant flashes of lightning.

The next night Laguna Grande offered a spiritual portal to the immense twinkling universe above. So clear was the sky and so free from civilization’s lights that every star in the universe shined that night. So close were they that if you stood on the boat’s bow, you could just touch them.

Earlier that afternoon, we fished for piranha with fresh chunks of meat as bait in the river’s murky waters.
The Amazon’s jungle silences and sounds are spellbinding. The humidity, especially as you walk deeper inland away from the cooling effect of the open waters can be stifling yet no worse than my days living in Florida.
Further down river we visited a small Amazon indigenous Siona community. The days of loin cloths and nose pierced bones were gone here. If you venture deeper into the Ecuadorian Amazon you may still find members of the Huaorani tribe in more traditional appearance.
The jaguar and the anaconda are certainly in the jungle, just more elusive than our perceptions of the jungle would lead us to believe.

The oil industry in this region has certainly inflicted ecological damage upon the otherwise pristine Amazon jungle. In the ’90s, the Ecuador government applied a tourniquet to the environmental damage hemorrhaging by creating the national park Cuyabeno Reserve, which encompasses Laguna Grande, impeding the oil industry’s encroachment. Ownership of the land was first given to the indigenous tribes in the region, with the assumption the tribe elders would deem priority protection for the land. However, even indigenous man can behave with avaricious intent for some in the community decided to resell the land to the oil industry, slightly defeating the legislation’s original benevolent purpose. So, a political adjustment was made, declaring the land a national park, with the tribes given free lease, not ownership, over the protected land.

At my open-air thatched roof hut my only nighttime encroachers were three curious cockroaches while the neighboring monkeys and caimans kept their distance. My bed was equipped with mosquito netting which fortunately was not too tested. I was little bothered by mosquitoes during my stay since the neighboring lake produced an algae which deterred mosquitoes from laying eggs.

The five days I spent in the Amazon just flowed peacefully, naturally, like the waters and the inhabitants themselves. Returning to the alleged civilized world was difficult.
Ouch! Was that a small dart that hit my neck!

To view my travel books, photography and more travel writing, please visit www.michaelmcguerty.wix.com/mcguerty-photography and www.travelark.org/traveller/pecoskid

Amazon - Laguna Grande

Amazon - Siona tribe kids

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Postcard from The Top of The World – Mount Everest Trek – Nepal

(Writings from my Nepal / China Travels)

“Is it not easy to be a wise man on top of a mountain”.
W. Somerset Maugham —- from The Razor’s Edge

My room was basic, quiet and achingly cold. Begrudgingly, I shuffled my body away from the warm multi-layered blankets and sleeping bag, turning my head toward the window to gaze out into the night.

The prior afternoon, I was climbing the steep mountain ascent that begins above the Himalayan village, Namche Bazaar, when a series of clouds swiftly vanquished a previously gorgeous blue sky, enveloping the lower peaks and cloaking me in a sea of ethereal chilled clouds. The stunted alpine trees and grassy hillsides I was walkking through abruptly took on a mysterious tone.
Soon descending, distant human and animal sounds reached my ears, telling me my destination was near, the Sherpa village of Khumjung.
By nightfall, the fog had gradually lifted over the mountain village, however, the Himalayas, including Mount Everest, still remained a mystery.

For the second night, I was the only guest at a Sherpa family operated lodge that I had chosen for my stay. The warm fireplace stove situated in the center of the dining room was a great welcome and relief, especially since heating sources are a scarce commodity. The food was tasty and filling. The family’s husband loaned me a book on Sir Edmund Hillary, the book dedicated to the 50th anniversary of his Everest summit. I asked if he and his wife had ever met Hillary and he said, “Yes, many times, including the big party thrown in Kathmandu three years ago celebrating the 50th anniversary.” I said “very cool” and we shared a cup of tea.
Since the summit, Sir Edmund Hillary had continued to contribute a great portion of his life to the betterment of the Sherpa people, a people he had become so fond of and admired.

Bedtime is always early in this cold region. I scrambled under my blankets and prayed for clear skies in the morning.
My prayers were answered. I was awestruck when I looked out my bedroom window.

A moonlit night, an abundant horizon of Himalayan giants, including the “Big Guy”, Mount Everest, glowed in the near distance, while crystal clear, sparkling stars danced over their heads. The uniquely shaped Ama Dablam was regally crowned with the Southern Cross constellation. The time was 2AM. I could not wait for daylight.

Morning light marked a truly memorable moment. I was staring at the “top of the world”, Mount Everest and friends: Nuptse, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and other snow-frosted, steel gray masters of the Himalayan range. The grandeur of the landscape was breathtaking, humbling. I shared many respectful salutations with the peaks, ranging in languages from Nepalese to Navajo. I joyfully shouted the Basque cheer and even did an Irish jig. It was, you may guess, an exciting moment.

Worlds apart from where I stood, these peaks held their court, lived on their own terms far from humanities’ influences. This was the realm of the snow leopard and the Yeti, a fiercely frozen, inhospitable, glorious region.

I thought, if I did come across the Yeti, on the trail, he’d probably freak, immediately reverse direction, hightailing down the mountainside muttering “I’d heard the stories about the existence of the Pecoskid but…I …I really didn’t think he existed!!!”
To no avail, I’d call after him saying “But I thought we’d have espresso!”

So how did I get to this place? The Himalayan Everest trek began with a Yeti Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. The small aircraft rises over the Kathmandu Valley and within minutes is within view of the approaching Himalayan mountains. The journey climaxes with a swift descent to a narrow mountain valley where Lukla’s small inclined runway assists arrivals.

I grab my backpack, say “no guides, no porters” to many an anxious Nepalese, lift the bag onto my shoulders and proceed briskly forward through Lukla to the beginning demarcation of the trail. Even from Lukla, there are dramatic views of several peaks, their shimmering sections of bleached-white snow set against the steelly gray granite rock peeking above the green canyon valley I now traversed.

The initial five miles of trail is fairly level, sloping first down to the river, past several villages, and gradually ascending parallel to the river. Along the trail, many Swiss-built, reinforced steel cable bridges crisscross the river. They don’t sway TOO much, depending on how many yaks and porters are also on the bridge. Let your eyes drift downward and you realize how small the river now looks!

This particular trail is heavily traveled by trekkers, porters and beasts of burden alike. Initially I maneuver pass the large group processions, each accompanied by their guides and porters. These processions, however, pale in size to the leagues of sherpas and their labored yaks, that regularly traverse this trail’s steep stone steps to deliver supplies to the trail’s linked villages, some many miles away. You skirt along a narrow section of the trail and bang! you have to find a safe spot to position yourself as a long yak team comes lumbering in your direction.

The scenery along the trail is simply beautiful: crystal clear blue river, occasional waterfalls, interesting villages draped in prayer flags, and the occasional appearance from one of the locals.
To my surprise few people, trekkers and locals alike, bothered to take a moment to find a spot to rest their gear and marvel at their surroundings. I did as often as I could.

The scenery directly on the trail usually consists of gray slippery stones, gravel, loose dirt, wet mud and plenty of yak dung! Several Buddhist stupas are positioned along the trail, offering comfort to those laboring sherpas. The sherpa, men and women, all ages, carry everything: full cases of beer and whiskey, propane tanks, beds, wooden beams, you name a product…it’s on their backs!

I spent a very pleasant first night with a Sherpa family. Besides the spectacular moonlight enhanced views of the mountains, waterfall, river, and forested canyon that night, I also gained a friend…the family pet dog. He took a liking to me and sometime in the middle of the night, he had pushed my poorly latched door open so he could sleep on the bed next to mine.

The second day included a steep 2000 foot climb to Namche Bazaar, the veritable metropolis (there’s a lodge with electricity) within the Sherpa Khumbu region.
Always the day’s highlight was gazing upward at those massive snow and rock monoliths, the day’s altering light and moonlight providing different shades and moods to the Himalayas.

This was still an ancient landscape, watched over for centuries by the regions traditional mountain people, the Sherpa. Even here, the encroachment of the modern world provides amusing dichotomies as young Sherpa ogled their cell phones after they’d spent the afternoon grinding corn the same way they had for centuries. The old and the new worlds colliding again.

Each year, more people attempt to summit Mount Everest. Each year, more large groups of ill-prepared, ill fit hikers attempt the trek to base camp. Each year, more red rescue helicopters fly out some of those ill-prepared hikers, at considerable personal expense. On my return, ninety marathon runners passed, upward bound to run a marathon, a route that passed Everest base camp, crossed an 18,000 ft. mountain pass that circled over to Gokyo and back down to Namche Bazaar. More power to them, I thought.

Back in Kathmandu, I smiled when a young Swede told me he decided to see Mount Everest by plane. As his plane passed Mount Everest, he was going to raise his gin and tonic glass, look out the window and toast the poor fools down below struggling up the mountain.

For me, the sweat and struggle of the trekking journey just makes the view of the “top of the world” that much sweeter and a heck of a natural high!

To see more of my Nepal photography, travel books, and more travel writing, please visit
www.michaelmcguerty.wix.com/mcguerty-photography and www.travelark.org/traveller/pecoskid

Mount Everest View

Everest Trek

Sherpa Kids on Everest Trek

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Postcards From Cambodia

(Writings from my recent Southeast Asia Travels, sometime in mid-March)

Remember, when exploring Angkor Wat, it’s best to arrive at the crack of dawn. That’s the bewitching hour when the Khmer ancestral faces embedded in the temple rocks come alive!

While other tourists waited patiently in front of Angkor Wat to snap a picture of the morning sun rising over the temple’s shoulders, I continued riding my bicycle toward the “great city” Angkor Thom. The path led me across the moat and through the first stone gate that guarded the great city. A light mist rolled across the mischievous stone faces that encompass the legendary Bayan temple towers.

Several hundred yards up ahead, I could see a dozen elephants lumbering through the tall trees, each driven by a determined master. As I closed the distance on the temple, to my puzzlement, I could find neither elephant nor its driver in sight. Had the dawn’s flickering beams tricked my eyes?

Suddenly, the temple’s smiling faces burst into laughter, generating such a force the very foundation that held the stone walkway where I stood quaked. The reverberation sent a fleet of small, nimble monkeys clamoring from the temple’s westernmost shadows, gaining momentum as the monkeys scurried in my direction.

Now the laughter turned ugly as the stone faces’ eyes narrowed. In unison, a low frequency baritone mantra followed: “Boom Shaka Laka Boom!”; a low frequency mantra that stirred earthly objects. Within seconds, enormous tree roots flowed forward, carrying themselves and panic-stricken monkeys dangerously close to me.

My instincts keen, I swung my right hand to my side and miraculously whipped out a paintbrush and a can of green paint. I wildly swung, painting everything green in my path; first monkeys, then giant roots, progressing forward toward the temple. Every stone face gasped as I covered them in green paint, swiftly sequestering them into silence.
At a fevered pitch I continued, adorning Bayon, then the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King in a fresh coat of emerald green. Finally reaching exhaustion, I stopped, resting on a stone elephant. So exhausted I must have dozed off for I was awoken by the gasps from a crowd of stunned tourists staring at me and the shining green temples. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE !!!!!”, they yelled.

The scream in my head awakened me from my incredulous dream. I glanced about my hotel room and sighed. “Wow”, I thought. “I guess I shouldn’t have gone to bed with Angkor Wat and St. Patrick’s Day on my mind!”

The ancient Kmer kingdom Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s heart and soul, a revered heritage and symbol of Cambodian pride that can be seen on everything from the Cambodian flag to its premier beer.
The Angkor Wat complex is vast, spreading across a level plain for many miles, the largest structures being Angkor Wat and the “great city” Angkor Thom. The rectangular moats that encompass these two complexes, the intricately carved bas reliefs and rock sculptures, the architectural complexities and the impressive city planning layout of the entire kingdom represented an incredible achievement by its artisans, engineers and architects of not only their time, but any time in man’s history.

Angkor Wat’s prominence primarily came from its strategic position along the pilgrim trade route that connected India with China, reaching its pinnacle in the 13th century. Quite interesting how so many of the world’s great ancient kingdoms reached great heights during this century. While Europeans were still stacking dung in the countryside and chasing rats away from their dinner plates, wealthy kingdoms such as Kmer’s Angkor Wat, Siam’s Sukothai, Peru’s Incas, the Mongolian Empire ruled by the Khan family (Kubla, Ganghis, and Shaka), the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, and the Anasazi Indians in the American Southwest were all flourishing.
Yet look at today’s societies in Peru, Mongolia, Cambodia, or even Italy or Greece today compared to their Roman and Greek Empire heritage. What rises, falls, nothing is permanent, and what falls may rise again.

Where Angkor Wat reign supreme, ruling lands that included parts of Thailand and Laos, today’s Cambodia ranks as the poorest nation in Southeast Asia, still struggling to get on its feet after the devastating effects of its 1970s civil war and the Kmer Rouge reign of terror.

Strange how in a poor country such as Cambodia when you’re driving through the countryside in a bus how much more picturesque the villages and landscape appear; ample rural scenes, villagers still living in wooden huts on stilts, animals in the family courtyard, oxen in the fields and pulling carts of wood, naked kids running around in the yard laughing, moms preparing dinner as the intense rays of the sun start to fade. One man’s picturesque is another man’s poverty. Yet is it poverty and how would one define poverty.

The Cambodian Buddhist monks I met in the wat courtyard in Siem Reap live life modestly, performing work around their wat while also relying on food from others’ generosity. The fellows I met were all well spoken, speaking English, smiles broad and explaining how they hope to pass on their education by teaching Cambodian kids English and other life skills. One even bid me goodbye in French.

My best conversation while in Siem Reap came just hours before I had to leave Cambodia, speaking with a Cambodian man, thirty years of age who managed a nice small restaurant. He’d seen me order my morning cup of coffee the last three days and that morning sat down to talk. He grew up in one of those same poor picturesque villages I had witnessed through a passing bus window, a village where his family had farmed for a modest living.

They moved to Siem Reap in 1991. It was still a small village at that time. There was no markets, no goods for sale, one lone foreigner hotel, few motorbikes, fewer cars. Clothes were old traditional sarongs, shoes were made from old tires. Yet his family was large and no one went hungry, well not too hungry. He said soldiers would occasionally fire their rifles at birds in the trees for a source of food.

His family and friends made ends meet through bartering of food and services. His grandfather had escaped Cambodia to Thailand with many of his uncles and aunts during the Kmer Rouge purges, coming back in the early 90s to Cambodia with some money to invest in a restaurant. With the early 90s recent renovations and tourist promotion of Angkor Wat, investment money came to Siem Reap and the tourist economy grew. He wears good shoes and good clothes now. He’s lived poor and now lives well, at least by Cambodian standards.

And so I thanked him for his story, a very Cambodian story, and we wished each other well.

To see more of my travel photography, travel books, and more travel writings, please visit
www.travelark.org/traveller/pecoskid and www.michaelmcguerty.wix.com/mcguerty-photography

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Travel Postcards – Camp Columbia

(Writing excerpt from my South America travels)

What I did on my summer vacation….
Completing my sixth week exploring Camp Ecuador, I decided with one week left before returning back to the States to venture north to Columbia….Camp Columbia.

An auspicious beginning, the border crossing was painless. I left the Ecuadorian border town, Tulcan, early Sunday morning by minibus, covering the few remaining kilometers to the border. A naturally defined border, a bridge traverses an Andean river overlooking lush surroundings. The Ecuadorian side had no immigration line, so with a quick passport stamp I nonchalantly cross the bridge to Columbia where I as effortlessly received my entrance passport stamp, quickly exchange money, and begin my journey into Columbia.

In Ecuador, the massive Andean mountain range forms a singular spinal column up the country’s midsection. Upon reaching Columbia, the Andes splits into three separate mountain ranges. The tumultuous division is dramatically illustrated along the road to Popayan, a colonial city some 200 hundred miles north of the Ecuadorian border.

The journey’s first phase is defined by verdant mountainous terrain and chilled air. As the range begins to formulate its divergences, wider, deeper valleys emerge as the road begins its descent. Soon, deep valleys transform into dramatic, plummeting gorges, the landscape now barren and desert-like. Villagers set up modest restaurants to serve passing travelers, their worn structures perched precariously on the mountainside edge.

The road continues weaving downward to a river crossing, suddenly rising precipitously back upward, then downward again, continuing this rollercoaster ride for many more miles as buses and trucks steadily strain their gears.

I must have dosed off during this rollercoaster ride for I soon awoke to discover a sharply contrasting tropical scene outside my window; tall jungle growth encroaching the edges of the pavement. Here’s where the journey gets interesting.

As the bus approached a small village a roadblock impeded our advancement. A half dozen men dressed in guerrilla camouflage fatigues waved our bus to a full stop. They identified themselves as members of the guerrilla group FURC, a benign offshoot of the more notorious group FARC. They were looking for people to volunteer themselves as hostages. I was the only foreigner on board. Seeing my hesitation they quickly announce that tonight back at the guerrilla camp they were having an outdoor showing of classic Laurel and Hardy movies, popcorn included. The enticement worked…. I volunteered.

A covered truck was waiting for us. To keep their whereabouts secret, I allowed the men to blindfold me. The journey seemed an eternity, bouncing around in the back of their truck. Finally we stopped and my blindfold was removed. Squinting, my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim jungle light. The compound was modest in size. My nostrils stung from the pungent odors of farm animals and human sweat. Fortunately, the aroma from the freshly buttered popcorn mollified the less pleasant odors.

As I started to sit down on a log to watch the movies, I saw her: caramel-colored skin, statuesque and garbed in jungle camouflage, the Columbian woman introduced herself as FURC’s leader. The moment was lust at first sight. While the FURC men were preoccupied laughing and eating popcorn, we snuck into her large canvas tent and made passionate love.

The next few days flowed lazily like the tropical heat. Good Columbian espresso in the morning followed by volleyball games between the guerrillas and the hostages. The guerrillas had mistakenly taken as hostages, two champion volleyball players; one Brazilian and one Swedish. Needless to say our hostage team kicked ass!

Finally Friday arrived and although nobody in the outside world had paid my dollar hostage ransom I told the FURC members I had to get back to Ecuador. The Columbian woman reluctantly agreed. Since the group had cunningly confiscated a helicopter from a military installation many months back, they hoped to use the helicopter to haul a lavish jacuzzi from a prominent political figure’s residence back to their compound, to help them entice more volunteer hostages. I told them to e-mail me when they do.

I thought to mention that, as a possible alternative income source, they might consider getting on the ecotourism bandwagon by creating FURC tours. They pondered this new idea.

After saying our goodbyes, they retied my blindfold, we jumped into the truck and returned through the jungle to civilization.

That’s one version of what happened during my Columbian visit. Now…here’s another.

One of the joys and challenges to traveling is separating fact from fiction, the truth from the myth. Though far from completely safe, guerrilla encounters along the major Columbian travel routes have diminished considerably in recent years. My journey to and from Popayan went very smoothly, without incident.
The occasional bus robbery does occur, primarily at night. Are they FARC influenced or just the criminal habits of thieves and thugs. Who knows?

FARC does wield considerable influence in the outlying countryside and villages near Popayan however no tourist, from what I’ve heard, has been bothered. All travelers I’ve spoken with had not encountered any problems and were thoroughly enjoying their travels through Columbia. The usual safeguards and cautions to traveling certainly still apply, especially in the big cities.

Popayan is a very easygoing city, especially in the old town’s colonial section; Whitewashed buildings, wrought iron balconies, churches around every other corner. Popayan had been the seat of power several centuries ago while the region was still under Spanish rule. Power later ceded to Bogota and Popayan, probably to its benefit, has maintained backseat status ever since.

After suffering a devastating earthquake in 1983, within the last ten years, Popayan has gone through a complete renovation, resurrecting itself to surpass its former glory.
My first night in Popayan I experienced a 6.8 magnitude earthquake while sitting in my hostal. The epicenter was over 150 miles away deep below the Columbian coast surface. No damage done in Popayan, just a wild rolling sensation.

A university town, the cultural amenities in Popayan are plentiful as are the beautiful women. The cafes are plentiful as well. Their interiors speak volumes, alluding to a rich colorful history; old, dark wooden chairs and tables, hard wood floors and balconies, cracked stucco and faded cultural posters.

Sipping my espresso I gazed toward the open door and the passing crowd. I can imagine militias and guerrillas running past, protesters marching by, workmen moving their horse drawn work carts and colorful villagers moving their produce on the backs of llamas. Was it yesterday or was it two, three centuries ago. Not too much has changed here in Columbia. And, what great coffee!

To view my travel books, travel photography, and more travel writing, please visit
www.travelark.org/traveller/pecoskid and www.michaelmcguerty.wix.com/michael-photography

Also, please feel free to comment on this post and other articles of mine. I appreciate the feedback!

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President Obama’s Report Card

The August political doldrums have arrived, Congress is in recess and President Obama, after having already given us six months presidential service, has gone on vacation. What better time to evaluate his job performance, catching the politicians off-guard. If CNN can do it, so can I.

After six months at the helm, has President Obama met his expectations? Has he achieved or set in motion any of his campaign goals? Let’s take a look shall we:

First, I’d like to take this moment to offer my congratulations to the American voting majority who helped set a historical precedent this last presidential election. Through their actions, President Obama became the 21st century’s first intelligent, articulate, and humane U.S. president.

The heartfelt euphoria that erupted in the Santa Fe, New Mexico bars and streets after hearing Obama’s victory announcement was palpable. Everyone grinned and hugged, each person’s smile expressing a joyous collective recognition that a truly significant shift in our country’s direction had just occurred.

Two decades ago, this joyous energy reverberated throughout Berlin during the Berlin Wall dismantling, the iconic symbol that represented Communism’s collapse. Our November U.S. election night symbolized America’s defeat of Fascism or at least a crucial turning point in our social/political tide. On a personal note, I felt strange finding myself on the side of Victory, a rare occurrence since for two decades I’ve advocated honest, courageous yet politically obscure Libertarian, Green and Independent candidates.

However, as in Berlin, the jubilation subsides and everyday life settles back in to its various forms of reality. The Wall Street players may be celebrating a recovery gain this summer but back on Main Street, most Americans are still feeling the pain. Grist to the mill, roll up the sleeves, let’s give an honest review.

A seemingly innocuous achievement happened for Obama one warm July evening. The man looked cool throwing the first pitch at the All-Star Game. Name the last president we had that accomplished coolness: Bushes, forget about it. Clinton tried, Reagan tried, Kennedy probably qualified while Calvin “keepin’ the cool” Coolidge, sporting that colorful Indian chief headdress, was arguably the last to succeed in cool.
Why is this significant? Image is important, in our citizens’ eyes, as well as the worlds and our country’s image has been extremely tarnished by the last administration’s actions so coolness, as well as Obama’s propensity for intelligence, reason, and common decency, has already elevated our country’s stature.
Show respect, you get respect in turn. Recent polls indicating a distinct admiration for President Obama among young Arab and Persian men has to be disastrous for Muslim extremist recruitment. Bush was their best recruitment poster. Just by Obama’s presence, America has gained ground here.

Leave it to our friendly neighbors to the north, Canada, to provide a kind reminder on how people should behave. On a community center billboard in Vancouver, B.C., reads four simple rules for the children at the center to follow:

A president should set the tone and direction for his country. Former president Bush simply used America as a place for his wealthy business cronies to pillage and plunder. Reviewing recent Obama administration domestic policy changes, I believe he’s following those four simple rules’ philosophy. Here are a few of those policy changes already implemented:

Renewing stem cell research
Renewing the GI Bill benefits for Vets
As part of his economic/education stimulus plan, increased spending for Community Colleges which is central to his job creation strategies, part of a large push to retrain unemployed workers and prepare our US workforce.
Increase infrastructure funding including proposal for high speed rail system.
Increase environmental protections such as protecting Oregon’s old growth forest by repealing Bush-era clear cutting executive orders.
The expansion of the Americorp volunteer youth civil service program, creating new programs focused on strengthening schools, improving health care for low-income communities, boosting energy efficiency and cleaning up parks.
Alternative energy initiatives and greenhouse gas reforms
Tax incentives for new homebuyers to help stimulate housing market and for new car buyers to purchase more fuel efficient cars.

Utilizing the rules “play fair and share” and “say no to abuse” the Obama Administration has implemented the following changes to curb corporate abusive practices:

Helping the average American through the enacted Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act 2009, which implements credit card reforms on credit card companies.
The attempt to close corporate tax loopholes in the Cayman Islands.
Greater FDA rule enforcement on Big Business.
Greater accountability on Wall Street and corporate executive compensation.

I’m not a big government intervention fan, however, these efforts toward rebuilding, retooling, and rethinking a more egalitarian approach to our society, including an overhaul of our corrupt financial systems, are prudent solutions for this country at this time and I commend President Obama for making these efforts; efforts that I have not seen attempted during my adult years by any of our former presidents.

The big issue today is Obama’s healthcare reform bill. Should be easy right. Just eliminate the inflated greedy profits built into our current corrupt system by the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, HMOs and the occasional doctor. Let’s face reality, we have socialized medicine today, whether through VA benefits or medicare. According to the World Health Organization’s latest survey, United States is #1 in total health expenditure per capita yet ranked #37 for overall health system performance. The problem with our American system is the only ones receiving tender loving care are the private corporations that are richly benefiting from our healthcare fiasco.

A pity the conservative political right doesn’t realize they’re being used and conned again by these very same corporations, thanks to their political and corporate media hacks. Stay vigilant Obama and don’t capitulate to the Republican corporate pressures.

I do feel however the corporate bailout he endorsed was wrong, very wrong, rewarding irresponsible behavior. Would the other political candidates have done different? Only Kucinich, Paul and Nader. Could Obama have defied the establishment powers on this issue, if he wanted to. Probably not. Hence, I do feel he is a transitional president in this regard. The definitive “real change” this country needs may not happen under his watch. We’ll have to wait and see.

I’m less encouraged by the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. The strategies for Afghanistan and Iraq are too similar to the Bush’s administration. The Iraq withdrawal timetable has gone slower than Obama originally promised. Both transitional steps, not necessarily the correct steps. Status quo, long range objectives within the halls of the military industrial complex are still being achieved.

My main concern with President Obama is the company he keeps. His Cabinet is inundated with Council on Foreign Relations members, albeit a smarter, possibly kinder, gentler representation than those members in Bush’s cabinet. Could there be a darker agenda hidden underneath the perceived and tangible benevolent intentions? I have to say I’m not clear yet on the answer to this question.

Best to stay vigilant, keep Obama to his word, keep him focus on accomplishing prudent, humane policies for this country’s citizenry, and to maintain a stewardship that guides this country toward (what the heck I’ll say it) a brighter tomorrow. Make those Vancouver community center kids proud!

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Postcards From Thailand

(Writings from my recent Southeast Asia travels)

The tour to the Hill tribe villages began innocently. We started our journey in Chiang Mai, chauffeured in a nice a/c minibus, watching the city limits gradually fade into a serene countryside. We were driving north to the mountains, an infamous region known as the Golden Triangle, a remote region that encompasses the connecting borders of Thailand, Burma, and Laos.

A dirt road detour leads us to our starting point. We trek deep into the jungle until we come to a river crossing. Our guide points up to a large tree. We look at each other, shrug, and decide “why not?” In good shape, I scramble up the tall banyan tree, get a good grip on one of the many elongated vines, give a good push off the tree and swing to safety to the other side of the river.

Once on solid ground, it’s a brisk hike through the poppy fields to reach the local village. After warm salutations in different languages, we immediately get down to business sipping snake wine and passing the opium pipe. It’s not long before I feel I’m entering an altered state of mind, feeding the lotus eaters and drifting into a prolonged dream…

I don’t know how long I was under. The salt spray coming off the bow of the ship must have finally awakened me. Quite startled, I awaken, physically quite sore. Pushing myself off the wooden deck, I gradually get my balance and stare incredulously at an infinite ocean horizon. I glance around and see the rest of our group, including Texas Bob, are still sleeping on the deck. After several inquiries, to my chagrin I discover that we were all shanghaied aboard a slave ship freighter bound for Dubai.
Man, I don’t remember that part mentioned in the tour guide brochure!

Or maybe, the journey went something like this:

The Hill tribes we would encounter in the Golden Triangle region are the Akha, Hmong, Karen (including Longneck), Lahu and Lisu. Each Hill tribe has its own language, customs, style of dress and spiritual beliefs.
This region WAS infamous for the cultivation and production of opium. These Southeast Asian tribes, fiercely independent, unwilling to succumb, have for centuries been subjected to continual displacement by an array of conquering dynastic regimes; regimes whose kingdoms and nations, through the great equalizer of time, have themselves risen and fallen into obscurity.

Through Thai government and military intervention, gradual pacification progress was implemented in the Golden Triangle region. Also, programs such as the King Project, have helped redirect the Hmong and Akha tribes from the economically enticing cultivation of opium-producing poppies to healthier cash crops such as edible herbs, fruits and vegetables.

Gone are the smuggling days that brought fright and bullets, ill winds that carried secret whispers and dangerous characters; druglords, drugpins, desperadoes and the ubiquitous CIA spooks and Air America yahoos. An illicit chapter in this remote region’s turbulent history that at present has been filed under folklore.

In today’s Golden Triangle marketplace, you won’t find drugs, guns and money. Instead, you’ll find grinning faces and a more pleasurable selection of home grown fruits, vegetables and perhaps a hand-woven scarf.

Several Hill tribes had Tibetan origins, as well as southern China and Laos, while others, such as the Karen tribe, are refugees from neighboring Burma. Within the Karen tribe is a sect known as the Longnecks, a term used to describe the women in the tribe who wear the coiled brass rings around their necks.

Contrary to popular belief, the brass coils, which are loose fitting, do not cause any structural damage to the neck muscles, however, with prolonged usage a slight physical deformation can occur across the collar bone due to the additional weighted pressure.
They may also choose whether or not to wear the brass coils.

There are women within the tribe known as Big Ears that do have distinctly deformed earlobes. I thought to mention to these ladies the large tribe of women we have back home known as the Large Asses, however, I decided otherwise. They just wouldn’t understand.

Which popular theory/story do you think best explains the origin to the “longneck” tradition: (A) the Karen tribesmen had the women wear the neck bracelets to protect them from tiger attacks while the men were away hunting or (B) one tribal queen thought they would be quite fashionable and enhance her physical attraction to which other women would choose later to emulate her and make themselves more beautiful with their bracelets as well.

If you chose (B) you are an astute studier of the human condition and women in particular. Even today, the women do not consider themselves exploited when outsiders come to greet them. On the contrary, they are now considered “celebrities”, unique and very beautiful, by foreigners and local Thais alike.

As to celebrities, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had visited these Karen refugee camps several days earlier which explained why there were so few visible children. There was one little girl, however, who not only wore the neck bracelets but also wore metal braces on her teeth. She was quite popular when it came time to tune in to the local Thai soap operas on T.V.

The ladies I had the pleasure meeting were very gracious. One woman played a tribal folk tune on her guitar that was reminiscent of U.S. Appalachia music, her voice soft and sweet. The older ladies, since retired from wearing their bracelets, demonstrated with big smiles their deeply blackened teeth, permanently stained from years of steady beetlenut chewing. Fortunately for good marital relationships, they claimed they’re husbands liked the look.

The Karen villagers’ dwellings were constructed of modest, wooden, partitioned huts, not unlike those found in faraway African villages. Driven from their Burmese homelands by a brutal military regime, where the corrupt former Golden Triangle practices have now transferred, the Karen tribes people have adapted well to their new Thai environment, learning quickly including a fair fluency in Thai language and even grasping a fair command of English words. A very impressive, enjoyable visit, even without the shanghai to Dubai experience.

To read more of my travel writing, or to see my travel photography on Southeast Asia, and more, please visit www.michaelmcguerty.com

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Postcards From Vietnam – Part II

( Writings from my recent Southeast Asia travels )

HIHO, HIHO, it’s down the Ho Chi Minh Trail I go!

The journey south began on an overnight sleeper bus. Picture a train sleeper car, equipped with bunk beds, only inside a bus; a dorm on wheels. China’s overnight buses are very similar.
Since I was picked up after Hanoi, the more comfortable individual beds were already taken, thus my remaining choice was the very back of the bus where four people are aligned in an overly cozy row. I mentioned to the Vietnamese man next to me that I felt cheap since he didn’t even buy me dinner. He didn’t get the joke but the German fellow nearby chuckled.

Our route was on the main highway, the only highway in fact, that linked the elongated nation from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, connecting some 80 million people in the process. Financial news stations lauder Vietnam’s burgeoning economic engine. Chief exports include rice, textiles, coffee and people. Yet, coming from the western world, I find it difficult to envision this growing economic powerhouse while our bus drives a maximum forty miles and hour speed down a two lane road; a two lane road where the interstate buses and trucks must honk their horns and slow down for motorbike traffic and little old ladies crossing the street. Even road construction is accomplished mostly through manual labor, with men using crowbars to break up old tarmac.

Today, Vietnam’s northern and southern regions are unified, cultural differences side, into one singular Vietnam, so our sunrise crossing of the Ben Hai River, the physical boundary that defined the DMZ, held little fanfare. The only activity I saw that morning on the river were several fishing boats and some sleepy-looking fishermen.

Of course, the region was the center of the bloodiest battles of the conflict (DON’T MENTION THE …!). Situated throughout this Central Vietnam region are places like the Vinh Moc tunnels, DMZ, Hamburger Hill, Hue, Danang and China Beach; names that I only vaguely recall as a child and are more recognizable to me through movies and television. Poignant reminders of a troubled period, today, with a touch of surrealism, these former battlefields are remembered through day tours offered to international tourists. Hue has been rebuilt and China Beach is soon to go condo. Living history…yet still history.

I stopped for a few days in Hue before continuing on to Hoi An. Hue is famous for establishing the ubiquitous surname Nguyen, a name you find among the majority of the Vietnamese population. Long ago in a place called the Forbidden Purple City, the imperial Nguyen Dynasty ruled the land from their fortress in Hue. Funny, I don’t recall any Smith and Jones Dynasties back in the States?

Hoi An is a very charming town. Whereas Hanoi is a good place to leave, Hoi An is a place you want to stay awhile. Designated a World Heritage Site, Hoi An’s attributes are many. A very laid-back riverfront town, the colorful French colonial-style architecture is reminiscent of New Orlean’s French Quarter or the Portuguese influenced narrow streets and plazas found in Salvador Do Bahia in Northeastern Brazil.

The town also boast colorful characters and delicious food. A few riverfront characters I have given names to such as FuManChu, Hoi An Princess and Gold Tooth. There’s also the jolly gentleman who operates the Easy Rider Danang branch, a group of Vietnamese bikers who take tourist on motorcycles, offering them a Born to be Wild travel experience through the Central Highlands.

Some favorite food dishes I enjoy eating while I’m watching the riverfront world walk by are Cao Lau, a local noodle favorite, spring rolls dipped in fish or chil sauce, a variety combination of yellow noodles with beef, chicken or shrimp, fresh vegetables picked straight from the garden or local lily pond, and hot Vietnamese coffee.

in particular, there’s a food stall canopy I frequent, where each bench area represents a different entrepreneurial cook; a placard designates who is cooking for you. Let me introduce them to you: Mr Son, Ms Bay, Mr. Com Ga, Mr Tung, Ms Nam, Mr Rin, my favorite Ms Quyen, and of course, MR DONG.

Hoi An also serves as a travelers’ harmonic convergence vortex for seeing past travelers. Here, you have a more relaxed opportunity to begin conversations and make friendships with those passing faces you saw on prior buses, street corners, and hotel lobbies.

Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree
Travel the world and the Seven Seas
Everybody is looking for something….

(Song verse from Eu rhythmics Sweet Dreams )

Sipping a Vietnamese coffee at a Hoi An cafe served well as a proper respite for reflection, reviewing fellow traveler experiences thus far into my journey.

The vibration or energy a lone traveler must transmit seems to attract and resonate with other like souls for those I’ve conversed with the most have primarily been other independent travelers.

Their stories and reasons for travel ring familiar: people displaced and disillusioned with modern societies gone wrong, whether they quit their jobs in Quebec and Vancouver or were laid off in New York City. Individuals reevaluating their lives, discovering new ways to live, including living with less. Discovering old ways to live before our personal world became awash in unfulfillable stuff acquired through burgeoning credit. These “everybodies” are looking for something, something better in their lives like happiness and sweet dreams…….

An Englishman born for music, continuing a tradition established by his father and father’s father. An accomplished guitarist, he lost his way as a young adult, consumed by rage in a blue collar English city that was consumed by rage. Today…no more. A wife that would not follow, ten year marriage over, he lives contented, peaceful in Thailand learning Buddhism and playing beautiful music with an equally accomplished Thai musician.

An Italian gentleman who teaches meditation and lives half his year in India and the other half in Italy.

A Canadian who bought raw land years ago on Prince Edward Island, built his home, became small town postal delivery man, worked as an NGO volunteer, is an accomplished drummer, has traveled the world and lives life large.

A Dutchman who balances seasonal housesitting and personal apartment rental for lodging and cash flow until he’s ready to get creative, inspired through travel to return home and sculpt.

Then there are the American Vietnam Vets returning to Vietnam, revisiting a land and people they knew long ago during a time of war: today a time of peace. A personal journey for reflection, reconciliation and renewed respect.

To see my Vietnam photography, my travel books, and more, please visit www.michaelmcguerty.com

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Postcards From Vietnam

(Writings from my recent Southeast Asia travels)

Cliche or no cliche, after such a wonderful day I had yesterday cycling through the countryside waving to hundreds of Vietnamese saying “HELLO!” I’m unabashedly ready to proclaim, nay, open the bedroom window shutters and joyously shout, to a sea of glorious stained, brutally gray cinder block roof tops…..GOOOOOOD MORNING VIETNAM !!!!!!!!!!!

In Vietnam, with the currency exchange rate pegged at 17,000 dong to the dollar, it’s easy to feel like a millionaire. You ask the waitress, “How much for my breakfast? “Only 85 thousand. Here’s a hundred thousand…keep the change!”
Of course, back in America, if you arrived flushed with a million dong (sounds dirty doesn’t it) you could barely pay for a bus ticket from Albuquerque to Flagstaff, Arizona.

However, millionaire or no millionaire, February in Hanoi, even staying in its most charming Old Quarter section, provides little inspiration to shout Good Morning salutations to the world.

One might be tempted to say Hanoi is a great city to leave however I shall try to emphasize Hanoi’s positives. For instance, highlights included the best spring rolls I’ve ever tasted and the incredible artwork you see in the different galleries/shops. At night, sections of the Old Quarter look elegant thanks to draping, graceful trees, bright Chinese lanterns and a charming French ambiance, while the city’s prominent lake makes for a pleasant evening stroll. There’s also that unique Vietnamese energy in the streets; people sitting around the sidewalks eating from steaming pots and bowls while women wearing their conical hats pass by carrying everything from pineapples to bricks.

That said, the downside to Hanoi is the February weather; drizzly, gray with insufferable humidity; the motorbikes, creating total mayhem madness in the streets; the touts or hawkers, difficult to walk two blocks without a half dozen “Hey mister, hello, hello!” solicitors trying to sell you something, and the exhaust pollution which leaves you gasping for air.

Hopping on the southbound bus for Ninh Binh was a smart move. Renting a bicycle and “getting lost” among the villagers in the countryside an absolutely brilliant move! I was in my element, peddling away, taking pictures of picturesque karst peaks and ricefields, and encountering numerous smiley-faced Vietnamese, waving and shouting “HELLO, HELLO” a gazillion times; their motivations not self-serving, simply genuine greetings to this strange long-haired stranger riding through their village and sneaking up on them in their ricefields.

School kids in particular were fun to interact with and I received big smiles and “hellos” from a group of girls dressed in their Communist Party High School brown uniforms. Did I mention this was the Peace and Love tour? Just trying to bridge the cultural gap, remember…there is no “ism” in smile. Wait…actually there is, just the letters rearranged. Anyway, it sounds profound.

Creating a nice touch, occasionally I would hear soft Vietnamese music playing over the distant Communist Party community center loudspeaker. I assumed this was music to soothe “THE WORKERS” while they sowed the rice stalks for the next harvest. This reminded me of the MUSAK or elevator music that is played in some corporate capitalist workplaces to soothe the “OFFICE WORKERS” while they sow the seeds for the next set of useless corporate reports.

Are our worlds REALLY so different? Who is ready for a group hug!!!!!!

And, if life couldn’t get any better, even the village dogs (who are, contrary to popular myth, kept as pets, not as appetizers) were very friendly!

To see my Vietnam photography, travel books, and more, please visit www.michaelmcguerty.com

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