Politics, Uncategorized

Intransigence in Politics.

Let’s start with Hafez Assad of Syria. When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011 with peaceful demonstrators marching for basic freedoms and democracy, he labeled them all terrorists and brutally suppressed them, just as he and his father before him had suppressed all dissent. For a lot of strongmen, once they have power, they find it impossible to give it up. Holding on is an ego thing, self-aggrandizement, puffing themselves up to claim wealth and power. There’s also, I assume, a fear of retribution for their many misdeeds and reckoning regarding their amassing of wealth through greed and corruption. As long as they remain in power the millions keep rolling in. If they are deposed, they may find themselves in prison.

Assad has been fighting for seven years to stay in power. So what has he accomplished for his country? To start with half a million dead, 12 million people displaced, part turned into refugees, part internally. Finally large areas have been completely destroyed. It will take a generation to repair the damage. All for one man’s ego.

Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which made up about 18% of Syria’s, pre conflict population. 80% were Sunnis and as it happens in nearly every society, the party in control keeps most of the spoils for themselves. Opening the country to more freedom might’ve allowed for a peaceful transition, since Syrians are educated and the society secular, but by basically saying to the demonstrators, Bring it on, Assad, brought out the worst in the form of radical Islamists who took over large swathes of the country and, in the case of Islamic State, were arguably worse than him in regards to human rights. They will be totally vanquished at some point, but in any case the country will be left in an awful state.

I don’t believe a violent insurrection is possible here, though many people are, to put it mildly, extremely distressed and disgruntled about the country’s current political situation. The opposition took 45% in the last election in an amazing turnout of 86%, a better turnout than almost any western country. The opposition no longer exists through a tactic called lawfare. As long as you control the government, you can devise laws that target your opponents and put them out of commission.

There’s also not a small matter of threats of violence the leadership has made against any who demonstrate against a ruling party win at the polls. The big guy said he’d be willing to kill 100 or 200 people to prevent demonstrations. As a result, opponents have been laying low, but they haven’t forgotten and have only been pacified on the outside: Inside many are seething. When you need to take another’s life to maintain power you are playing God, which, if it doesn’t come back to haunt you in this life, will punish you in the next. (Forgive the religious tone, sometimes I can’t help myself.)

Memories of the Khmer Rouge are still fresh in many people’s minds and we have no radical groups to threaten the peace, no malcontents itching to blow things up. In that way we are blessed: no ethnic tensions, the country’s Muslims are completely peaceful.

When 92-year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was forced to step down, peacefully but unwillingly, he had been the longest serving leader in Africa. He remained in power partly from his legacy of being an original fighter for independence and the usual vote-rigging, intimidation and beating of opposition figures: The kind of chicanery practiced all over the world by tin-pot strongmen as well as the US and some other places in the developed world.

At the time a lot of people compared him to our head man, who’s now the longest serving leader in Asia, wondering if the same fate would befall him and while there were some parallels; long serving, autocratic, eccentric impulses and strong opposition, there are great divergences.

Most importantly, Mugabe practically destroyed the Zimbabwean economy. He’s probably most famous for a staggering inflation rate of 69,000,000%. A friend from there showed me a 50,000,000,000 dollar note, but the highest one was a cool one trillion, that’s 1,000,000,000,000. But then at a certain point the people began refusing that funny money and demanded something of value. The government was then forced to use the US Dollar.

He indulged in a lot of racial politics, always blaming the substantial white population and colonialism for the country’s problems. For instance, he set up a land redistribution scheme, which, in itself, I don’t consider a bad idea considering the country’s colonial past, but what really happened was productive white farms were parceled out to military men and cronies who knew nothing about farming and production plummeted. The country went from one of Africa’s breadbaskets to a basket case. He clung to power until essentially the whole country rose up and said, Time to go.

In contrast, our big man, has led the country into being one of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. As a result a lot of people have risen out of abject poverty and their lives improved. No matter what else he’s noted for, a lot of people appreciate that part of his rule.

An extensive patronage network helps him survive. For instance, we have 3000 generals here. In contrast, the US with 1000 times the budget has 500. It’s a good chance that a lot of our top guns drive luxury vehicles of higher status than America’s generals. That, added to a similar padding of many government offices, constitutes a lot of loyal people to back him up.

Another factor in our success is the country’s openness to the world. Making it easy for people from all over the world to settle here has brought income and innovation and world culture.

Our currency is pegged to the USD and in the 16 years I’ve been here it’s never strayed more than 5% from 4000 to a dollar. Having a stable currency and use of the dollar has been a big boost for development. The country’s leaders would really like to change that, to dedollarize, but can’t for many reasons. Eliminating the use of the dollar would allow them to manipulate the local currency, which has its good points but also sometimes leads to problems, Zimbabwe being the best example.

Speedy development looks good and adds to GDP, but not all development is beneficial. The country has a mania for converting urban wetlands and public park space to development. In the latest example a 1600 meter public walkway on the river in Phnom Penh just south of the Japanese bridge is going to be sold off for development. In a city where only 1% of land area is public and much of that is inaccessible traffic circles or small areas surrounded by traffic, every loss is a bad idea. It’s the same in the countryside. Large areas of national parks and wildlife refuges have been converted to plantations. There’s not much that’s natural left in some parks.

A Chinese company was given 40 kms of coastline in Ream National Park near Sihanoukville for a reportedly 2 billion dollar resort development. If history is any guide, the resort will, to all intents and purposes, be off limits to non-Chinese. Here in Kampot all the main tourist spots are jammed at every holiday; traffic gets backed up for kilometers. Now that wealth is coming to our country and many people have cars there is pent up demand, they want to get away from the crowded city and enjoy a little of the countryside and its fresh air. Maybe Ream wasn’t used much when the concession was granted, so it wasn’t considered much of a loss, but now it’s clear if the park had been developed with locals in mind it’d be crowded now. A resource for all citizens has been reserved for privileged others.

It’s hard to talk about political intransigence without mentioning Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. He took over from Hugo Chavez when he died in 3013. Chavez was the first indigenous leader of Venezuela and he did wonders in bringing people out of poverty and creating a fairer society. At the same time he was reviled by the country’s establishment and mercilessly denounced by the US, regularly referring to him as a dictator when he won every election by a large margin. What he did was break the hold of the right-wing establishment on the country’s politics. Meanwhile he was revered by the people. The right wing opposition demonstrated against him on a regular basis only because they were pissed that he won the election.

What he didn’t do was diversify the economy to be less dependent on oil so when the price crashed there wasn’t the cash to keep all of its programs going. If you then try to keep them going by printing money without reserve, the whole monetary system goes haywire and the result is an inflation rate of about 17,000%, prices double every month. If you then try to keep basic food staples cheap while inflation is raging by setting prices, and those prices are below the cost of production, well then manufacturers will stop producing. The average Venezuelan has lost five to ten kilos in the last couple years because food is simply not available. This in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves and great natural wealth.

When the people soured on his leadership and the opposition won 70% of the seats in the country’s legislature, he stripped the assembly of its powers. He’s jailed opposition leaders and acted autocratically. He obsessively clings to power, refuses to accept the will of the people and continues to drag his country down. He has given socialism a bad name. No matter your ideology, at a certain point practicality has to reign. You can’t maintain your socialist stance while people aren’t getting enough to eat.

We too have a leader who clings to power which is fine as long as it’s legitimate; that is, earned through the ballot box without using legal artifice to eliminate your opposition, without threats and intimidation, without rigging the vote or the system.

It gets silly when the government goes after a woman who threw a shoe at a ruling party sign and subsequently put it on social media. She fled to Thailand, was returned at government request and is now in jail. You have to be really insecure to be frightened of a thrown shoe. Putting her behind bars and punishing others whose only crime is to object or dissent is no way to win hearts and minds, but it is a way to crystallize opponents resolve.

Excessive time in office tends to cause leaders to do silly things, to forget simple norms. When our number one saw pictures of himself being burned in Australia prior to a trip there he said, If you burn my picture, I can beat you (paraphrasing). Maybe he forgot he didn’t have the same prerogatives in a foreign country and had to walk his comment back after it created an uproar.

Finally, there’s a feel good story from Malaysia to end this essay on political intransigence. Mohammed Mahathir who ran Malaysia for 20 years until the early 1990s has made a surprise comeback at the age of 92. While he was in power the country made great economic strides, but he was quite autocratic also and put much of his opposition out of commission. He began as partners with Anwar Ibrahim but when he and Ibrahim had a falling out and Ibrahim challenged him at the polls, Mahathir used trumped up, politically motivated charges of sodomy to put Ibrahim out of commission. He spent 6 years in prison and was quite severely beaten at times, to the point of causing permanent damage.

Meanwhile, when Mahathir retired about 20 years ago, Najib Razak, took over. Mahathir’s victory over Razak in the latest election ended one party rule by UMNO – United National Malays Organization – that had been maintained since independence in the sixties. They had kept their power by giving special privileges to the 60% Malay Muslim population and by establishing an electoral system heavily weighted towards rural voters where Malays are concentrated.

Just a few years ago it was Razak’s turn to jail Ibrahim on sodomy charges. Whether or not you thought the charges of sodomy were plausible the first time, the second time was a farce. A big strong young man claimed he was abused by an old, small and frail Ibrahim.

Meanwhile Razak engaged in corruption on a massive scale. His 1MDB development scheme wound up losing 13 billion dollars of state money and seven hundred million dollars appeared in his personal bank account… a gift from a Saudi prince was his laughable claim. All that was too much for Mahathir so he reconciled with Ibrahim, who was still behind bars, to challenge Razak and won. Mahathir immediately pardoned Ibrahim and has promised to step down within 2 years and let Ibrahim become president. Some people see Mahathir’s working with and freeing Ibrahim as an act of atonement for wrongs committed. Taking a person’s freedom for personal gain is another one of those bottom-of-the-barrel karmic lows.

I can’t end this essay without a mention of China. President Xi Jin Ping, not long after starting his second term, decided to change the constitution to end term limits. They had been in place since Mao’s time to prevent the rise of an all powerful individual. But Xi wants to rule forever so he brought together the country’s rubber stamp congress to change the rule. Not surprisingly the change was approved, and also not surprisingly, the vote was 2995 to 2 with 3 abstentions. When the tally was announced almost the entire assembly cheered wildly. I mean, who’s going to publicly go against an all powerful leader. The kicker is that the words term limits were censored in the country’s internet search engines. Such a momentous change and the people aren’t even entitled to ask about it.

Just a few words before I close about Xi’s social credit system. By 2020 every Chinese will be rated according to their social merits. Good grades in school, follow all the laws, visit your parents regularly, you get a good score. Bad grades, demonstrate (against pollution for instance), break the laws, bad score. Currently in China there are 11 million people who are banned from air travel and another 4 million who can’t even ride trains because, in the eyes of the state, they are bad people. Talk about Big Brother.

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Pneumonia, the Old Person’s Friend

Pneumonia, your friend? How could that be? Well, most life threatening illnesses take you down slowly and painfully, you waste away a day at a time gradually giving up your life force. The reason pneumonia can be benign comes with the modifier ‘old’ and the likelihood that geezers would have other illnesses giving them pain and hardship. When pneumonia comes along, if your system is already compromised with other ailments, it takes you out without pain or any consciousness of what’s happening.

At least that was my experience. I went out to have a few beers, as was my habit, on Saturday, December 30, but after the first bar I decided I should go home rather than bar hop. That’s the last I remember. I must’ve gotten up on Sunday and gone through my daily routine, at least some of it, because neighbors reported me wandering somewhat aimlessly around the neighborhood. I can visualize that, but only because I was told it happened. That was a strong clue that something was wrong since I always ride my bicycle around the hood, even if it’s only 30 meters. After that, the next thing I remember was my friend trying to startle me awake in the hospital on the following Tuesday.

I had no inkling that something might take me over and no warning whatever. Now my friend, who accompanied me to the hospital and who spent 35 years as a nurse in Australia, insists I had lots of warning since for a week before the event I had been coughing hard and producing great gobs of phlegm. But that had been happening a couple times a year for 5, even 10 years, I can’t say for sure how long, only that it was long enough for me to think it normal. It happened in a pattern though that did make me wonder. I’d catch a cold and drop some Chinese medicine to take the hard edge off the stuffed nose and such. I’d also stop smoking weed for the duration. Even a relatively long time after the cold was vanquished, I’d still be coughing. Maybe it’s some type of bronchitis I’d think.

Maybe pneumonia was sitting there dormant most of the time, while my generally healthy immune system kept it in check. Only 1% of pneumonia cases are fatal and only 10% of cases need to be hospitalized so I assume people can have mild cases without realizing it.

Another prominent symptom is shortness of breath and I did seem to be breathing harder, however it wasn’t debilitating in any way and I figured at 76 shortness of breath is normal. Fever, chills, chest pains are also common symptoms, but I experienced none of that. I went very calmly, peacefully and painlessly into a coma. I didn’t know any thing about pneumonia or its symptoms beforehand, I didn’t even know what it was.

What I’ve gleaned about pneumonia from reading over the Wikipedia entry several times is basically that it’s an inflammation of the lungs and that it affects the small air sacs called alveoli. Pneumonia results in scaring of the alveoli thus making it difficult to take in much air, which accounts for the long time it takes for many people to recover. There can also be a build up of fluid in the lungs with the same results.

Most cases are caused by bacteria, but can also be virus, parasite, or fungi based. Surprisingly, in half of cases the causative agent cannot be identified; it’s pneumonia but they can’t tell you where it came from. That’s backed up by the experience of a friend who came down with it after returning to California from Cambodia. He was in the hospital for 10 days but they couldn’t identify the actual cause. A similar thing happened to a friend here in Kampot. She spent four nights in the hospital but she didn’t have pneumonia… well, pneumonia is also really a broader term that encompasses all types of lung infections.

Another surprise is that a large percentage of infections occur in hospital or other health care facilities, and the infections that are contracted there are more resistant to antibiotics. In total, there are about 450 million cases a year, 7% of world population, with 4 million fatalities. That’s only about 1%, but of those cases where hospitalization is required mortality bumps up to 30%. It’s basically the young, the old, those with chronic illnesses and those people whose immune systems are already compromised who die from it.

Conditions and risk factors that predispose to pneumonia include smoking, immunodeficiency, alcoholism, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, and old age.

Smoking is the most prominent risk factor, but Wikipedia doesn’t differentiate between tobacco and cannabis. While any kind of smoke will cause irritation, there’s a vast difference between tobacco which is a leading cause of cancer and cannabis which has never caused any disease. No one has ever died from smoking weed, at least not in medical terms. The others are quite obvious. The one thing you can’t correct for or do anything about is old age, though staying healthy clearly makes a difference.

My approach of the edge came because my condition wasn’t recognized early enough. Anybody who knows me who saw me on that Sunday when I was wandering around aimlessly would’ve known right off that something was wrong. I must’ve been confused and incoherent and needing attention. Confusion is a common symptom found in oldsters. Even if I didn’t look like I had any medical problem anyone would’ve realized I needed an eye kept on me.

Not saying I wouldn’t have needed hospitalization or required more than three months to recover as is typical for old geezers, but it certainly would’ve saved me from the problems with my legs and feet caused by dehydration; I was without any food or water for 2 days. When I first woke up in the hospital I was so weak and my legs so stiff I couldn’t lift them a centimeter off the bed. Now I get around okay, but I walk funny, hobbling just a bit because my feet are still not working right. I can flex my ankles and toes, though not fully, but my feet feel numb. It’s been three and a half months and I see steady improvement, but it feels like at least another month or two before my feet are back to normal… if they are ever going to be totally back to normal. A health care professional I talked to recently said it took him a full year to recover… sure sounds like a long time.

The scary thing is having no warning, so even if I now know the symptoms, would I recognize what’s happening if it hits again? Actually, I think I might have an inkling should it return. That last Saturday night before I went under, after I’d had a couple beers I was thinking of a couple more, my usual amount, but I felt a bit strange inside and thought I’d better head for home instead. I think I might remember that feeling and recognize it next time as impending doom. I sure hope so.

Now I breathe hard at times just like before, and I often also tend to breathe through my mouth. Is that because I’m not getting enough air through my nose? I also cough up a bit of phlegm a few times a week. It’s nothing like before, but is a bit of the infection still there, just enough to eventually take me over again? Is it gathering strength waiting to pounce at its opportune time, with me still unawares? Should I be getting blood tests every couple of weeks just to make sure? Not likely, though I probably should on occasion.

Should I be taking antibiotics as a preventative measure? My nurse friend says I should be popping those antibios at the first sign of a cough. I misinterpreted what he was saying for a while thinking he was suggesting I take them proactively, but what he really meant was if I get another chest infection with the hacking cough and lots of phlegm I should go right for the antibiotics. He says they might prevent another bout and it can’t hurt taking them. That I can agree with.

I take antibiotics only when the need is clear and obvious, like against the clap, for instance, otherwise every time you take them you’re wiping out your good bacteria as well as the evil ones and weakening your immune system; that is, not giving it time to do its job or try to do its job, and taking a chance that you’ll build up resistant bacteria and the antibiotics won’t work when you really need them.

With few exceptions, I shun all pharmaceuticals. I don’t take uppers or downers, painkillers or mood enhancers. More than 90% are petrochemically based and all come with nasty side effects. Of course, I wasn’t going to tell the docs when I hit Calmette that I don’t like drugs; I couldn’t say anything because I was totally out of it. When I did regain some level of consciousness, I just took whatever was given to me, only going off the drugs at home when I ran out. However, if it had been a slow moving sickness, I might well have done the research and decided for myself what to take. Ultimately, I credit my general health and strong immune system a least partly to that dislike of drugs.

Except for a hernia operation back in 1960 when I was 19 and a hairline fracture in my foot about 20 years ago, I’ve only been to a doctor a handful of times in my adult life. Hepatitis, Dengue, I just toughed it out. As stated by a couple different doctors, my state of health is what saved me. As an old fogey having any other serious health problem I would’ve been a goner.

I credit Calmette, Cambodia’s number one public hospital, for keeping me alive, but according to my friend, the level of care there is about the same as it was in Australia 40 or 50 years ago. The way he described his experience there hanging out with me, it’s almost like I survived in spite of the care at Calmette rather than because of it. Regardless, that’s where I was brought back from the depths. While the head doctor at Kampot’s public hospital was quick to send me off to Calmette, he thinks I could’ve been taken care of just as well locally. The one advantage Calmette has over the local facility is an MRI. The original diagnoses that I’d had a stroke was disproved by the MRI I had at Calmette.

There’s also a local training hospital run by Australians that could’ve taken care of my needs but money up front would’ve been a problem there. Calmette will take you as long as you bring your passport, which they don’t give back until you pay. Sounds fair to me. Of course, I was fortunate to have a friend show up my second day in the hospital to cover my bills. He made everything much easier.

By some miracle, I was able to raise the money to pay him off. The total bill came to $3500; that was for 10 nights in the hospital, doctors, medicines and tests. Amazing. The money came through online fundraising, personal gifts and a fundraiser/survival party I did here in Kampot in mid March. My benefactor friend suggested he’d be more inclined to help in another emergency if I was able to cover his costs this time. While I don’t plan to get sick again (well, of course) it’s good to know he’d be there for me. At 76 there’s no such thing as buying affordable insurance. I admit I have been a wastrel at times: when I had money I pissed it away. It was a great time, but now I’ve had to bring out the beggar’s bowl. Such is life.

 

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Near Death Experience

Sometime on Sunday night of the 31st of Dec or maybe Monday morning I went under, lost consciousness. I had developed pneumonia, a lung disease. In this case it was a bacterial infection. By the time I was discovered I was very close to my end. One of the factors that saved me was my association with Kampotradio.com, our local internet radio station. Around the middle of last year I started doing a one minute weather report six days a week. A few months later I took on a music show four nights a week. When I first started the music show, Darryl who runs the station, would stack an hour’s music on the playlist just in case I didn’t show up. In response I said I always meet my commitments; if I say I’ll be there, I’ll be there. After a couple months he started to believe me.

Well, after 2 days not seeing me around, missing two weather reports and a music show, he grabbed a friend and went to check me out. At my house they saw my bike and my car and my padlock was on the inside of the front door, meaning I had to be there. They called me and heard my phone ring, but received no response.

At that point some local guys were found to pry open the wooden shutters of my bedroom window and there I was, on my bed with one leg hanging off, lying in a couple days accumulation of mostly dried piss. They thought I was a goner, but then somebody spotted my foot moving. This created some urgency to get me to a doctor and required breaking in through the strong metal back door. The padlock on the inside of the front door wasn’t locked, but near impossible to get to from outside.

By now it was quite a scene. Several young Khmer guys with gusto and a lot of noise went about breaking the door down with their hammers and crow bars and what have you. Once in the house my friends changed my clothes and hauled me over to the local public referral hospital. The head doctor then quickly hooked me up to a glucose drip and took a blood test, which indicated I had pneumonia and needed antibiotics. They didn’t have the facilities to care for me, so next stop was Phnom Penh’s Calmette hospital.

Now the primary reason for my condition was pneumonia, but two or three days without eating or drinking set up a secondary problem almost as bad as the original. I became severely dehydrated which turned my legs stiff as boards. Every movement brought out moans and groans and cries of pain. Kampot’s public hospital ambulance is actually an old Landcruiser with the back seat removed and you can be assured that there are lots of rough spots in the 148 km run up to the big city so I made lots of noise on that trip. Or so I was told, I remembered nothing.

Once we got to Calmette, they put me back on the drips – glucose and antibiotics – and added oxygen and took more tests. The doctors there gave me a 50-50 chance of survival. Sometime Tuesday night I heard my friend shouting at me: Stan!, Stan! Wake up! Do you know where you are? You’re in Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh. That was my first conscious moment in nearly 3 days and a big surprise. At the time I was shaking and shivering uncontrollably. Every molecule in my body was in motion. I settled down somewhat after that but still most of it was a blur.

Calmette is  Cambodia’s primary public hospital. It’s located on a large campus in the heart of town. Trauma and fracture patients from around the country go right there… assuming you’re not loaded: those with the means go to Vietnam or Thailand or one of the new foreign financed hospitals in the capital.

Once I settled in at Calmette I stopped shaking, but I was still mostly sleeping or barely conscious. At one point not long after I got there they wheeled me into an MRI. All I remember of that was them telling me to close my eyes. The MRI confirmed that my problem wasn’t a stroke. One fascinating aspect of Calmette is that all the reports are in French, though I can’t imagine more than the top echelon can speak or understand it. I presume that as long as they keep their reports in French, France will keep buying them expensive equipment like MRIs and such.

Many locals use the term Calmette with derision. Having been there once before looking for a friend, it all seemed quite clean and orderly, though in fact I never did get to see my friend. Having saved my life, I can’t speak badly of it, though for sure there are horror stories of incompetence floating around the place. Maybe my case was simple and straightforward and hard to mess up. Anyway I’m alive. One important point to note about public hospitals in Cambodia is that they only provide medical services; all the peripheries, food, clothing, hygiene, etc. are the responsibility of the patient, usually provided by family.

For sure staff handled my stiff legs as if they were intent on torture. When I first got there I couldn’t lift my legs even one inch off the bed, but they were twisting me around as if I was normal, each time eliciting a forceful cry of protest. Stop! Stop! Slow! Slow! At one point they made fun of me, but unfortunately, I wasn’t together enough at the time to respond.

Meanwhile, on the second day my financial angel showed up to cover my expenses. He’s one of the first people I met when I got to Cambodia some 16 years ago. The way he put it, paraphrasing, I make lots of money, I spend lots of money, I throw lots of money around but still have enough to save. He then said some will come back through donations, some through fundraising and rest goes to good karma. Fair enough. But then he later emphasized the need for me to raise money to defray his costs, saying he’d be more inclined and capable of helping in the future should I need it. And that applied to other friends in dire straits. He’s not poor, but he’s also not rich. As it turned out, 10 nights in the hospital, doctors, medicines and tests came to a total of a bit more than $4000.

After 4 nights in Calmette, he decided I’d be much better off in a private room in Central a private hospital near by. Central was quite a contrast from Calmette. From being in one of three beds in a crowded little room, I had a big place with windows and lots of room for friends to visit and hang out. It even had a little fridge, you know, all the comforts. In Calmette I had a bed with no adjustments, but frankly, I was so out of it much of the time there, especially in the beginning, I hardly knew what was happening anyway. The new bed was a fount of comfort with every manner of adjustments and I was just beginning to be mobile enough to make use of them. It was about a week after the rescue before I could stand on my own and I mastered turning on my side about the same time.

At Calmette they had me peeing through a catheter. The thing about depending on catheters is that you lose some bladder control in the process, so after they take it out, your pee comes a lot faster than you’d expect. I had a pee can but you have to stay on the ball, like remembering to remove the cap before you start pissing…. Only the dumbest, funniest of my many mishaps. As sick as I was I really didn’t care, figuring they’d get around to cleaning me up in good time. The nurses were sensitive and good, knowing not to bend my knees where they didn’t want to go.

At Central I was coasting, the hard work of getting me out of the grim reaper’s clutches was done at Calmette. At Central I had the time to think about possible permanent damage. My right eye stood out. I noticed right off that it was blurry and much weaker than before and everything I saw was double. When I was rescued I was told it was badly infected. The impact on my sight was very noticeable and came out later quite humorously. So I’m looking at a ceiling light and my right eye starts to wander, I mean really wander, practically a meter from the stationary left; like it was on its own. At one point a friend was sitting in front of me moving his arms… all four of them, just like a Hindu god. I later mentioned that to him and he said, So that’s why you were staring so hard. It’s not wandering any more, but still very blurry. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will change. I’m hoping a new lens in my reading glasses will at least correct the problem for reading.

After a few days the hospital got me a walker. I used it to move around the room and walked the long hospital corridor several times for the exercise. Unfortunately, though I knew I needed the exercise, I mostly just wanted to sleep and rest. That’s how I feel now as I write this more than 6 weeks later… I see a bed, I want to lay down. I figure if I want to sleep so much it must be good for me, but of course the exercise is good too. I’ve got a walker now at home and used it a lot in the beginning, but now, 2 months later, I get around on my own, though for sure I’m sometimes a bit wobbly.

A couple of other strange seemingly unrelated conditions have affected me. For two weeks I had something like a planter’s wart at the side of my mouth. It was like columns of flesh 2 or 3 mm long – about 1/8 inch –  growing out of my lips. It was very strange looking; a friend thought it was food stuck there. After about 2 weeks it simply disappeared.

For about a week my legs and feet swelled up and I was tasked to keep them up to help drain the blood. At a certain point they were looking really bad, almost frightening, then next day they were totally back to normal, the only exception being that the skin on my left foot feels like leather. Once again a baffler. Where did all that blood go? I hope that’s it with the strange maladies.

Central hospital had lots of free rooms so they gave me an ICU, which included lots of running tests and such. One shocker was my blood pressure, I mean in a good way. Back visiting the states 5 years ago my pressure was up close to 180, the level where you start to be concerned. This time it was 130 over 65, the level of a healthy young person. Also all my other indicators were in the good range or so close as to be of no real concern.

One doctor commented that I would’ve been gone in 2 days if I wasn’t so healthy to begin with. Well, I do make it a point to live a healthy lifestyle; ride my bicycle every day, eat lots of veggies, avoid animal fats, control my beer intake; six cans a night, with one or two nights with no alcohol, was my limit until not long before I went under. Starting a couple weeks before that I began feeling that I needed to reduce that to 4 or 5… I was feeling too drunk.

Getting back to the point, it’s quite a paradox to be so ‘healthy’ and yet be taken over by a disease that rendered me unconscious. The literature says some people, especially the elderly, become confused when they contract pneumonia and the effects range all the way up to going unconscious like me.

I had no hints or inklings or warning signs whatever of impending disaster. Fortunately, all the pieces came together to save me; being otherwise healthy, having friends who were concerned enough to search me out and having doctors who knew what I needed.

So I’ve disappointed the grim reaper and here I am. A new lease on life, a fresh start… but I’ve always tried to do the right thing, so I’m not sure this abyss I’ve managed to escape from will affect my attitude toward life. I’ll just keep doing my thing and hope I don’t make too many dumb mistakes along the way. Or maybe I do have something special to do while my life winds down, who knows?

In your mid seventies, you can’t help contemplating mortality. There’s no messing with the law of averages. No matter how hale, hearty and healthy you are or you feel, every day brings your time closer. Considering how good I felt, I thought I’d pass away easy, you know, die of old age with no chronic diseases or catastrophic events like strokes or heart attacks to bring me down.

But you never know, do you? Anytime you can be caught off guard, blindsided, sent for a loop, turned upside down.

Meanwhile, I’m thrilled to be alive. All the things that made me love my life before are still just as valid and I do believe I’ve got another 10 to 15 years of being healthy, getting around and enjoying life. We shall see.

The only additional thought that this whole episode brings to mind is that I should get together a living will. I thought about it before, but figured I had lots of time so I put it off. But maybe I don’t have lots of time so I should probably go ahead and arrange ahead of time how my remains will be disposed of and who’s willing to take responsibility. It’s quite a mess to just pop off and leave friends to deal with all the details.

 

 

 

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Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Happy Drunks

 

 

Sitting at a bar recently I blurted out, I’m glad I’m a happy drunk, which brought out a few chuckles. Lots of times I’ll say something on the spur of the moment, only to realize just a bit later that that wasn’t really what I meant. Sometimes I get a chance to clarify, but usually the conversation rolls on and I leave a strange or puzzling impression.

What I meant was I’m glad I’m not the type of drinker who gets tedious, annoying, abrasive, violent, you know, shit like that.

All of us pub frequenters have come across inebriates who we wish would just go home, or at least back off and shut up. They may be fine when they’re sober, you may like them as people, but you wish they would find somewhere else to display their pitying and embarrassing drunkenness.

But first, going back one step, I really don’t consider myself a drunk. That, as far as I’m concerned, refers to people who drink so much they can barely see straight or stand up or find their way home without assistance. I’m fortunate in a sense that my capacity is limited so that long before I’d otherwise get to the state of being in a blind drunken stupor I’ve barfed my guts out and vowed never to do that again. (I’ve also saved a ton of money in my life by not being able to down more than 6 drinks or so in an evening… but that’s another story.)

There are actually quite a few categories of drinkers: before you even get to the drunks, on the top level you have the alcoholics, people who need to wake up with a beer or two just to start their day.

Some years ago in Portland I was in a convenience store at about 7am. Before me in the check out line was a guy buying an 18 pack of beer. After he left I commented to the clerk that it seemed a bit early for beer. He said the guy came in every morning for his 18 cans of beer. The guy, who was about 40 or 50, had a great smile, he was radiant. Yes his face was red and splotchy, but he seemed relatively together and for sure he looked happy. I think we can all accept that he was slowly killing himself, but what if all that alcohol was the only way he could stand living? Who knows what kinds of demons and hang-ups he was carrying around with him? In the end it’s probably a cop-out of some sort, but who am I to judge?

Our adopted country is very conducive to all types of drinking. It also stimulates a lot of people to complain about and rag on all the old (and not so old) geezers here who have nothing better to do than hang around drinking all day… but if they also are sporting big warm grins and being, or at least looking like they’re happy, is there something wrong with that?

Okay, they’re not being productive, but maybe they did lots of producing in the past. Anyway it’s their lives, if they’re happy, smiling, giving off warmth and good vibes and they have the money to pay for that alcohol what’s the difference? Who cares? Sure, it’s a loss to society in some fashion that the only productive thing they do is look happy and presumably spread their good vibes. It’s also a failing of society that so many people are left to flounder, cast adrift in unfriendly seas, left without a purpose in life; though not knowing him, I can’t really say if he’s not producing. I knew a guy once who worked for an NGO in China. He’d wake up at 3am, work his ass off until about 9am and then spend the rest of the day drinking himself into a stupor.

I believe everybody has a right to their own poison. For sure society should try to educate people on the damage they’re doing to themselves. But the idea that society should tax alcohol so stiffly that only the middle and upper classes can afford to drink is totally unfair. It robs the poor of the ability to escape the grind of daily life or causes them to spend so much of their income on booze they’re forced to neglect the other aspects of life. I also feel that way about cannabis and stuff; life is hard enough, why deny people that little bit of relief they might get from those psychic painkillers?

Most people who imbibe, like myself, are social drinkers rather than alcoholics or drunks, but we are all there for the same basic reason: there’s something about it that loosens you up, overwhelms your inhibitions and just lets you relax and be yourself. The ability to enjoy life through alcohol is greatly facilitated by Cambodia’s relaxed attitude towards the stuff, including very low taxes, and the ease of starting businesses where alcohol is served. Beer is so cheap I can go out almost every night on my scanty income and drink to my physical limit, which is about 6 cans. That allows me to be on the town, hanging with friends, laughing, joking, sometimes being a little silly and sloppy but altogether having a great time.

Back in the states I’d be home alone drinking a couple or three lonely beers a night. Here in Cambo on the one or two nights a week that I force myself to stay home, or am forced to stay home because of the hangover from the night before, I generally don’t drink at all, or at most one beer. Of course I’m bored silly but I don’t need the alcohol to escape, only to enjoy.

But many people do use it to escape, though there’s a fine line between drinking to be happy and doing same to escape. A young guy I know said he’d be hiding out at home being all morose and mopey if he wasn’t drinking. So what’s the difference if it makes you happy or simply allows you to survive as a social being? Just about everybody needs a prop, a crutch, a helping hand to negotiate our crazy world. You know what they say, If you’re not crazy in our insane, topsy-turvy world, there must be something wrong with you.

Some people get their boost to carry through life from religion or causes or such like workaholism, but it’s hard to say if they are more content than the typical happy drunk. They’ll probably live longer, all things being equal, but even there there’s a question, since studies have shown that people who drink moderately – 2 drinks a day – generally live longer than abstainers. That begs the question of whether the moderate drinker lives longer from some type of healthy aspect of the drink itself or merely from the relaxation and ease of tension that comes from drinking. In fact it’s probably a bit of both.

The drunk, happy or not, will probably pop off early brought to their end with some type of liver disease, heart attack, stroke. If they’re lucky their demise will come quickly, otherwise it could mean years of partial paralysis or debilitating illness. So even while it’s one of the elixirs of life, which I personally would find it hard to live without, it carries a serious warning and message; the need to be conscious of it’s dangers and the importance of not sloughing that off as inconsequential.

This reminds me of my youth and people’s warnings about tobacco. Many people are under the impression that tobacco’s evils weren’t known or understood until the seventies or later because of the massive effort of the tobacco companies to obfuscate and sow doubt, but we teens in the fifties called them coffin nails, there was no doubt in any of our minds. When warned about smoking back then I would haughtily proclaim that I wanted to enjoy life then and I didn’t care if I died early as long as I lived to the year 2000, which would’ve made me 59. Well it’s been almost 18 years since then and I’m still going strong and it was immature and stupid to think that way. It’s most important not to fool ourselves, pretend it’s no big deal. The effect it has on our bodies is not inconsequential. Sure, we can joke about hangovers and such, but every time we feel weak, washed out and headachy from drinking to excess it’s like we’re torturing our bodies.

While alcohol brings out the best in some people, it evokes the worst in others. Happy drunks inhabit a serene space that kinda hovers in another dimension. There’s never a nasty word or challenging and testy confrontation. They’re just there beaming away in their own seventh heaven.

On the other hand belligerence, violence, tediousness come from alcohol unleashing those inner demons we keep in check when we are sober and fully conscious. The thing about it is, when inebriates get in that mode, that mood, they often can’t give it up. They keep pushing and needling and are incapable of taking a hint. They can’t be reasoned with but continually repeat what you were not very interested in in the first time. One local character when he can barely see or stand up keeps saying he needs to go home, but can’t bring himself to make the move. They are too far gone to be able to communicate, let alone take a hint. You can’t get through to them that it’s time to call it a night, that they’d save themselves from being an embarrassment and all around nuisance, not to mention danger to themselves.

When you do try to hold a conversation, they’ll repeat their favorite inanities until you’re frustratingly blue in the face. They’re incapable of intelligent conversation. Of course it doesn’t take a drunk or even a drinker to be an obnoxious interrupter, but it does make it decidedly worse when their interruptions are inane or incoherent or repetitive. Sometimes they’re stuck on their theme and not only can’t give it up but actually derive pleasure from seeing how freaked out and unglued you become.

A lot of people look on conversation as a competition. They won’t let you get three words out before they have to put their two cents in. My responses to being cut off correspond to the situation and how upset I am. One thing I’ll do after I’ve been interrupted a few times is to clam up. If they’re so intent on holding a conversation with themselves I just let them talk. After a while I may just ignore them. Sometimes I’ll just continue talking right over their heads, especially if it’s more than a two way conversation. My voice is pretty strong so I’ll just get louder and keep at it and pretend they don’t exist. Eventually many will get the message and shut up for a bit. If they don’t I may lose it and start yelling and tell them to stop interrupting and let someone else speak. I’m not especially proud of that since getting angry always indicates your own inadequacies and problems to solve and I often have to apologize. It’s better to end the sorta conversation than get all bent out of shape.

Without Kampot’s bar scene my life would be ho-hum, hum-drum, average to a fault. Sure Kampot’s a beautiful, peaceful, easy place to live with lots of healthy, happy things to do around town and countryside, but the bars make life into a joy. It does get a bit boring at times going out almost every night, but that’s far outweighed by the great and fun times the drinking scene offers. Unfortunately I’m beginning to realize that at my age I can no longer safely, sanely do my 6 beers, because combined with the ever improving weed that I partake of, I’m starting to lose my equilibrium, even staggering sometimes. That’s even with diluting my beer with ice… I drink at the same pace whether it’s straight or watered down and one dollar beers aren’t any great shakes anyway. Watering down my beer means I have to wake up almost every hour at night to pee, but that’s the breaks. I’m going to have to start substituting non-alcoholics because I want to keep up this life as long as I can, it’s the perfect coda to a long, and oftentimes in the past, difficult life.

Moto Mayhem III.

The third annual Daelim and other small bike drag races were held on Saturday December 16. It was supposed to be held in November at Kampot’s Olympic stadium but the authorities kept dragging their feet with the permit. Steve spent $70 in $10 dollar each paperwork fees only to be continually put off. Sure it’s okay, they’d say, we just have to wait on the Bong Tum – big man. This was probably because there were renovations happening on the grandstand.

As an alternative, they were offered Kampot’s other Olympic stadium, which neither I nor anyone I know had ever heard of before… and I’ve been here ten years. (Why do they have to label every large sports facility Olympic? As if, huh?) It was passable as a venue, but nowhere near as good as the one in town. In the first place it’s 5.5 kilometers from town which limited the spectators to half the previous year. And then the track was grass, not preferred for racing, and so participants were also reduced by half. Nonetheless, it was great fun for those who attended, and is sure to be an annual event. As a friend pointed out, winning time was about equal to Usain Bolt’s record for the 100 meter.

Finally, another untimely death has occurred here in Kampot. Patrick, our Belgian baker died suddenly in his sleep… and only 58-years-old. He was liked by all, though a little tiresome as a drinker – see above. I saw him in the bar just a few hours earlier looking fit and strong so it’s a mystery why he popped off. You can never know, can you?

In a final note, it’s high season and the town is hopping. Lots of new venues which I’ll try to cover next time and lots of tourists and returning snow birds are keeping a lot of places busy.

But it’s damn cold as I write this, 20C – 68F – and I’m wearing two shirts, wishing I had a wool cap and almost ready to wear socks! I prefer to sweat, but a few cool days is a small price to pay for an almost endless summer.

 

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Elections 2017 – Cambodia, UK, France

On June 4 Cambodia held a general election for commune leaders and councilors. Cambodia holds elections on two levels only, communes and the national legislature, which will take place next year. Everything in between; province and city leaders are all appointed by the ruling party.

The entire country is divided into 1646 communes, both urban and rural. In America we’d call them neighborhoods except here they have a lot more responsibility. That’s where people go to get ID cards and official papers stamped, for instance, so they do have an impact on people close to home. However, they don’t have a lot of power and over the commune leader’s head is a representative of the ruling party. They also don’t have much in the way of funding, being dependent on the central government for any public project.

In the election just passed the ruling CPP Cambodian People’s Party won 1158 communes, the opposition CNRP Cambodian National Rescue Party won 487. One commune was captured by a minor party. This was a loss for the ruling party from the last commune election when they won all but about 30 communes.

The actual vote in Cambodia was much closer with the CPP getting 51% and the CNRP getting 44%, the rest going to minor parties. The opposition does better in Phnom Penh where communes have more people than in rural areas. Those vote totals aren’t much different than the last general election in 2013, still it marks a real challenge to the ruling party’s control. Also some of the contests ran on local issues so might not reflect exactly on the people’s mood as a whole.

Several points stand out, the most remarkable being an astounding turnout of 86%. This is all the more exceptional considering that registration closed last October and many people had to return to their home towns to vote. And since the government created a new voter list for this election, everybody had to register anew. It was also the first time people were allowed to vote where they work, but not everybody was able to change their place of registration.

In contrast Oregon has one of the best turnouts in America. They make it very easy to vote. All voting is by mail, there’s no waiting in line to vote. You can register the day of the election. Every time you go to the Dept of Motor Vehicles they ask you if you want to register. With all that they still can’t beat Cambodia at 86%. The Cambodian people are committed to and passionate about the democratic system.

With some few exceptions the election was considered free and fair, for Cambodia a real achievement. However, while the election itself went off smoothly and peacefully, election observers consider the election to be tainted by pre-election media control and threats of violence on the part of the CPP. The PM went off into his usual threats of civil war and chaos if he doesn’t get reelected. Some of it is pure politics, the scare factor. Teresa May’s approach in the UKs election was similar… You must stay with us for stability and strength or else you’ll get a dangerous man like Jeremy Corbyn.

Some of it you have to take at face value. He has threatened to ‘eliminate’ 100 or 200 people if they try to run a revolution on him. His Defense Minister threatened to ‘smash the teeth’ of anybody who doesn’t accept the result in next year’s general election.

Okay, I got that, but what if he actually loses in a free and fair election? He and his crew actually believe that mayhem will follow the loss of the CPP. After 30 years in power would he graciously accept defeat?

He wants the legitimacy of elections and risks economic chaos if he stages a coup against a duly elected government. At least for a while, there would be sanctions, international pressure and general opprobrium. He’d wreck the very stability he runs on. The CPP has greatly increased prosperity over their long reign and people see great improvement in infrastructure and other facets of government, but displacement, land-grabbing, and widespread impunity and corruption are rankling to the masses.

Sometimes no matter how good a political situation might be, after 30 years people get tired and want to try something new. Also there are storm clouds on the economic horizon. Overbuilding of structures tailored for the upper classes in the capital will cause a general crash in property values, at least in the short term. Cambodians are heavily indebted to microfinance institutions, some 88% of rural Cambodians have borrowed from them. With interest rates so high many can only afford to pay interest and never pay the loans off. Any economic slowdown would cause many to default. I also think dependency on loans from China for many projects puts the country in a tenuous position.

The opposition on the other hand stuck to the issues, corruption, decentralization, money for communes. They have to be nice, otherwise the courts will come after them with a vengeance. But what about the people? There were some for sure who heard the CPPs message and felt pressured to vote for ‘stability’, but clearly most people said, meh, I’ll vote for who I want. A lot of people, in this case 44%, weren’t going to be cowed no matter how serious the threat. When popular activist Kem Lay was gunned down last year in suspicious circumstances mourners were told there could be no march. People defied the authorities and 200,000 showed up. They take their rights seriously.

The big election next year will be the test of how far democracy is allowed to go. Jailing and harassment of the opposition might achieve its goals in the short run but will only strengthen the people’s resolve and resentment of the ruling party’s ham-handed tendencies. It’ll be fascinating to watch.

Meanwhile, elections in the UK have created a miasmic morass of uncertainty and confusion. First there was PM David Cameron pandering to his right wing by holding a referendum on the UK leaving or remaining in the EU. It was a vote he was sure was going to be for staying, but instead went for Brexit. Personally, I think it’s dangerous to base such a momentous decision on a single plebiscite: it should’ve required two votes, especially since the vote was close, 52-48.

A lot of people on all sides of the political spectrum are angry at the status quo. Neoliberal policies born in the Thatcher/Reagan era have transferred wealth and power from the 99% to the 1%. The last time inequality was as extreme in the US was in 1929 and we all know how that turned out.

The same goes for the UK. Cosmopolitans and youth in the cities, as well as Scotland and N Ireland voted to stay. It was small town and rural voters who carried the referendum, people nostalgic for a long past past.

Teresa May who took over as Conservative PM when Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote saw an opportunity a couple months back when polls showed her riding high and called for a special election. She had said she wouldn’t call an election ahead of the one scheduled in the regular sequence of things, but couldn’t resist when polls showed her gaining 100 seats in Parliament.

Jeremy Corbyn her opponent was widely derided in the press and by his own Labour MPs who, being staunchly centrist and pro-business, wanted nothing to do with his leftist populist message. However rank and file Labour party members voted for him as leader by an overwhelming majority: this was seen by the establishment as a death knell for the party’s chances in the next election.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the vote. The more people saw of May, the less they liked her, for Corbyn the exact opposite happened. Instead of a blowout in favor of the Tories, they lost seats and their parliamentary majority. It was a disaster for the party and a big dose of uncertainty going forward for the nation. The electorate was much less divided this time compared to the last election and both major parties gained a lot of votes. Conservatives went from 37% to 44%, Labour went from 30% to 41%.

As in the Brexit vote, young voters were extremely one side in their preference for Labour. All May could offer was her ‘Strong’ leadership along with austerity, hardship and feed-the-rich tax policies, whereas Corbyn talked about free college tuition, taxing the wealthy, nationalization of the railways and more national holidays. As to the last, the UK has only 5 national holidays, less than any other EU country. More time off to enjoy life was his message… imagine that.

Free tuition was also one of Bernie Sanders’ campaign planks. As in the US his opponents talked about that as if it were some impossible pie-in-the-sky populism, so lets look at that more closely.

I don’t know the details regarding the UK, so I’ll stick to US as an example. Bernie’s free tuition proposal for all public higher education would cost $69 billion per year based on the current number of students. American corporations have more than 2 trillion dollars stashed overseas to avoid paying taxes on it. If they were good corporate citizens (bwahahahaha, have you ever heard such a thing?) brought the money back and paid the 35% corporate income tax rate, that would amount to about $700 billion or enough to pay for the program for 10 years. Wealthy Americans have $20 trillion dollars in assets, if you tax that wealth at 1% you’d raise almost 3 times as much as the annual cost of the program. Just the 10 richest Americans could pay for the program for 5 years and each still have tens of billions to play with.

The program would actually cost more since a lot more people would be able to afford an education, but it would still be a pittance compared to the excessive wealth strewn about in the elite. And really, is it better for society to have the superwealthy wallow in their riches or educate everyone who wants? Cost is not the problem, our priorities are.

Corbyn represented a clash with the establishment and spoke to simple truths. He’s the real thing and youth especially knew it and responded.

Meanwhile May having lost her parliamentary majority has got a hell of a problem on her hands. She gets first crack at forming a new government, but she needs the help of a smaller party. Unfortunately, the only potential partner is a far right party in N. Ireland, but it’s not a good match. She may not be able to form a stable government, which job would then fall to Corbyn.

The other great point of confusion brought about by her loss is the beginning of Brexit negotiations. She campaigned on the idea of a hard Brexit, a complete break with the EU, but many Brits, maybe a majority would prefer a soft Brexit. If they had the option to vote again they might even decide to stay.

I think the Brexit vote will ultimately turn out for the best. The UK has always tried to stymie European cooperation and integration and frequently tried to exempt itself from EU wide policies. Brexit will be a grand experiment. It’s all in flux now, but if the exit goes through, I predict within 5 or 10 years they’ll be asking to join again. With more humility and respect for the whole project the next time.

Finally, France has a new president. Emmanuel Macron came from nowhere one year ago with a new party to sweep the presidential field and elect a majority in parliament. Once again the old-guard centrist parties were vanquished in favor of a totally new voice. In this case he’s decidedly centrist, but with a youthful twist. Not only that Macron himself, at 39, is the youngest French president in modern times, but the youth vote carried him to victory. And even in his very short time in office he’s shown himself to be a strong forceful leader.

His major goal is the reform of labor laws that discourage hiring and firing. In past attempts unions came out in force to thwart that goal but with a new mandate and control of government there’s nothing to stop change now. I have great sympathy for the working class but in this case it protects people who are already working while discriminating against those who aren’t. It also protects underperformers while leaving the young out in the dust. The only mitigating factor in today’s cutthroat world would be a generous safety net to cushion job losses and insecurity.

It is heartening that in all three contests mentioned it was the youth who were forward looking and progressive, the voice and direction of the future, giving hope that politics can change.

As a final note I’d like to bring up a voting system variously called preference, ranked choice or instant runoff, a system currently used in Ireland and Australia. France just held 4 votes in one month. Both the presidential and legislative elections required runoffs for contests in which no candidate achieved a majority. By the fourth vote, voter fatigue pushed turnout down to 40%.

Instant runoff guarantees a majority on the first ballot. The voter chooses candidates by ranking their preference, first, second, third. If there’s no majority winner, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their second choice votes are divided up among the remaining candidates. This happens until a candidate gets a majority. For instance, if I were voting in the UK under that system, I’d always vote Green first. It doesn’t matter that I know the Green candidate has no chance of winning because my second choice would be Labour. If the Conservative (or another party candidate) won a majority in the first round, then it didn’t matter who I voted for. If another party didn’t win there’s still a chance my second choice might win.

Instant runoff eliminates the spoiler role minor party candidates play in electing the voter’s worst choice, like the way that votes for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 helped elect GW Bush. There are lots of reasons why Gore lost the presidency, but the Green party vote for Nader was undoubtedly one of them. With preference voting the Dems and Greens would work together instead of slamming each other.

 

 

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Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Bugger II – Kampot

 

The Tico saga continues. After receiving payment for the destruction of my little bugger at the hands of the cop’s drunken son, I had to think about what to do with the wreck. Back in the day when I had tools and the constitution to work on vehicles I would’ve parted it out and saved every tiny thing of any value, not just the almost new tires and good motor, but lights, wires, steering wheel, brakes, suspension, just about everything. But today, after just 30 seconds of bending over an engine my back starts to hurt.

So in order to save it, I’d’ve had to pay a mechanic to do the work and have the parts hauled over to my house, possibly to sit there for a long time gathering dust and rust. Besides I needed the $170 I got for the wreck to help pay for another car, which had to be a Tico since it’s the only car I can afford. There was nothing available in Kampot aside from a guy who specializes in fixing and sprucing them up and then charging a very pretty penny for them, certainly more than I could afford.

My only alternative seemed to be Phnom Penh where a website had three available. Moving around the capital can be a big hassle and it’s never a good idea to buy an old untested car and immediately take a road trip with it, so I hesitated. Then a friend noticed a new entry on the website for one located in Sihanoukville. It was advertised for $800 and looked identical to mine, same color, everything. I hadn’t been there in more than a decade, though it’s only 100k, and was curious, besides it’s a far simpler place to do things so I had to look at it.

And I had to buy it even though it had a serious motor problem. I was told it had had motor work done, but as the seller remarked, Khmer mechanics sometimes leave worse problems than they solve. But I’d been without a car for more than two months and though I’d been able to get around fairly well on my bicycle, and really appreciate the exercise, I was really hankering to get four wheels again… especially going home late at night with snarly dogs barking at my feet. I also needed it to carry stuff for my garden. I couldn’t see myself returning to Kampot empty-handed, so to speak.

The deciding factor was it being a virtual clone of the first bugger and that it’s in better shape than the first in several ways. Also, amazingly, the odometer had stopped working at almost exactly the same place as the first one, 202,000k. It made the journey back from Snookyville just fine and not long later I took it to my mechanic for some smallish problems and an estimate on the motor: he hears the motor and says it’ll probably cost $300. What? I remark figuratively, it’s a tiny 3 cylinder, 783cc motor that I can practically carry around even with my decrepit back. Yes, he says, but it costs the same to rebuild it as it does to rebuild a 4 cylinder 2200 Toyota. I was hoping for maybe a hundred or so for the repair. The motor doesn’t smoke and sounds good generally except for a piston slap problem at high revs, so if I were still in the trade, I’m sure I could do it cheaply.

Right off the bat, even as I was paying for the new one, I wished I’d saved the wreck. Not only did it have a good motor and a set of almost new tires – I bought two new ones for $75 just for the ride home from Sihanoukville – but the only body problem the new one has, except for the plastic bumpers and a grill held together with wire, is a hood that needs painting. In spite of the totalist nature of the wreck of the first, it had a perfect hood.

It’s also the nature of not having much money. The money not received for the wreck plus the cost of parting it out, would’ve set me back another month or two in the quest for a new car, so a double bind.

Barring another unexpected smashup, I’ll probably have it till I die or can no longer drive: I am 75 after all and I believe in doing whatever it takes to keep one running. I wrote an article back in March 2014 titled, An Old Car is Like a Wife. Once I get one, I’m virtually married to it. Whatever she needs, I give it to her, begrudging or otherwise. Getting a new one only sets you up for more unforeseen problems, Why not stick with what you know and have already learned about and dealt with? That attitude isn’t possible anymore in the states unless you can do the work yourself since $80 per hour for shop time makes even smallish jobs hellishly expensive. Here shop time is about $30 per day – though admittedly the quality is not always the same – and you can afford the money to try to make it all work right.

Unfortunately, my credit line is maxed out so it’ll take a few months before I can save the money to get the motor done and it’ll require lots of prayers and a feather light touch to keep it from blowing up before then.

Meanwhile, I got it just in time for very rainy weather, even bordering on deluge occasionally. We’ve only had a few hours of sun in two weeks. Starting on the 7th of August until the 21st as I write this it’s rained every day with two days of 70 and 77mm. Except for those two extreme days, it’s been in an odd pattern of raining hard for short periods five or ten times a day. I don’t remember such an unusual pattern (of course, there’s lots I don’t remember). At the same time that we on the coast have been hit hard, just 20 km inland, they’re in a drought. Unfortunately we don’t have a functioning weather station in Kampot so all predictions are made from a distance, so to speak. Though I’m an anti-TV freak, this is one time when an American style TV weather report would come in handy, you know; high pressure ridge, low stationary front, stuff like that.

Even though I did fine without a car for two months and really appreciate the exercise and would do fine again without one, I’ve gotten lazy: Especially if I think I’ll be coming home late I figure I’ll be better off with four wheels. Once I’ve had my fill of brew, two wheels can get a bit dicey. I always drive slowly and carefully at night and never get that drunk and there’s hardly anybody on the road, so it’s hard to find someone to hit, even if you had a mind to it.

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Kampot has been really slow this month, hardly any tourists passing through. The summertime mini-high season has barely been felt. People keep opening up new venues in spite of it all. If they can survive through the rainy season, they’ve got it made.

Wunderbar, a mainstay on the riverside for about 5 years, has closed for good. They’ll be missed by many. Madi Bar has been closed for renovations for two months now and is expected to open again in October… it promises to be greatly improved. For years it was the place to go on Thursday nights, a gathering of the tribes and a place to catch the Kampot Playboys. It’s been sorely missed by this old dancing fool. And without a car for the previous two months I wasn’t able to get across the river to Banyan Tree, the other place to catch the Playboys. I did however get my new wheels just in time for its 1st anniversary party; must’ve been at least 150 people dancing and having fun long into the night. It’s a very pleasant spot on the river and the rain held off for the duration… it’s mostly not under cover.

As for the Playboys, I’ve now heard them about 100 times and every time is so good, it’s like the first time. I can’t think of any band anywhere that I’d want to hear so often, but with the charismatic Chiet on guitar and vocals, a driving rhythm that won’t let you be still, and a crew so tight after playing together for years, you just gotta love ‘em even if all the vocals are in Khmer and you can’t understand a word.

Kampot now has a laundry-café, you know, have a drink or light meal while you do your laundry. Myself, I can’t think of a less attractive way to spend an hour or two, not only having to do my own laundry when it’s already so cheap to have it done.. and ironed, but the idea of all that whirring and chugging in the background while you’re hanging out, chillin’? I do however see people there and I wish them luck.

Several floating restaurants have set up on the river, some garishly lit up. They’re not supposed to set up permanently. Some are cruise boats that return around sunset and turn into bars or eateries. One just moves every day a short distance on the river and then returns next evening. The overly bright ones are a drag on the river’s ambiance and all together if there are too many it’ll degrade the experience. There may be a conflict with the authorities at some point, especially if a lot more turn up in high season.

There’s a boutique hotel just opened up. It’s appropriately called Kampot Boutique Hotel. The building is very classy and beautifully designed, I was impressed right from the beginning. There are people who come here who like and can afford creature comforts so they should do well. However it’s part of a syndrome which probably won’t end well. There’s a old saying: If you find the perfect place, don’t stay because it won’t be perfect anymore. As soon as a place gets ‘discovered’ it gets inundated with seekers of that ‘ideal’ spot.

The prime minister came to visit in early August and got the message from the citizenry – I’m not sure of the circumstances – that they wanted the old bridge reopened. As if by magic, within a few days, after about a year and a half of being closed off, it’s now open to pedestrians and two-wheelers. The closing had caused extra and unnecessary congestion on the new bridge and forced a circuitous route of at least an extra kilometer for many, so it’s a very welcome change.

Until 2010 it was our only bridge and carried all manner of vehicles except the really large ones. After the new one opened, it was progressively closed off to trucks and then cars. At a certain point the heavy metal plates that had reinforced the roadway were removed because they were curling at the ends and creating hazards. That then created a new hazard: There were rusted channels a half meter long or so and just wide enough for a moto tire to get caught in. After that happened a few times, it was completely sealed off… for no apparent reason, since a simple direction from the PM had it reopened in three days. A lot of people, probably including the local authorities, think it’s structurally unsound and it’s certainly not a place you’d want to see used by heavy vehicles, but bikes and motos could never be a problem and if the bridge were to fail under that miniscule load, it’d be easy to detect way ahead of time.

 

The above situation leads to a question of when Cambodia’s democracy (whatever there is of it) will graduate to letting people choose their mayors and governors. We now have commune elections on the lowest level of government – there are about 1700 in Cambodia – and national elections for parliament, but nothing in between. Because of that disconnect, local officials, who are all appointed by the ruling party, have little incentive to listen to their constituents and free reign to carry out their pet projects without question or challenge. For a word from the PM and a very small effort we have something the people have wanted for a long time. By the above I don’t mean to imply that our local government hasn’t done a pretty good job overall, just that a little citizen input would always make a difference.

We expats live in Cambo because of the opportunities it affords us, the low cost, the lifestyle of easy and minimal rules, and for many the great friends we’ve made. In parallel we complain about the corruption and inefficiencies of life, but I never lose sight of the fact that in many ways the US is just as corrupt and unfair.

For instance, the recent murder of Kem Ley, highly respected and loved by a large segment of the population, cast a shadow over the country. His funeral march, in a great outpouring of grief, stretched for 4 kilometers. The local government insisted it could only be a motorcade with no pedestrians, but overwhelming numbers, probably in the hundreds of thousands, overruled the rulers and the march went on without incident. However, one of the greatest events of the year wasn’t covered by any of Cambodia’s TV stations. They all had lame excuses, like it was Sunday so nobody was working, or trivial things too trivial for me to even remember.

All the TV stations in Cambodia are owned by or aligned with the ruling party so they had no interest in covering the event. In the agreement in 2014 that ended the opposition’s boycott of parliament, they were granted a TV license, which they are still trying to get together. But really, with smart phones and social media, TV has far less sway than in the past. Moreover, the little people of this country knew Kem Ley was someone they could trust to speak out. The PM insisted he had nothing to do with his murder saying he had nothing to gain, which is at least partially true since just about everybody in the country who isn’t a diehard CPP supporter has assumed that he or someone in the party was behind it. Still, an important and independent (he also criticized the opposition at times) voice was silenced and fear was generated in others who are called to speak out.

How’s that stack up with the US? The head of one of America’s broadcast TV channels said that Trump might be bad for America but he was good for their profits: The result was they gave him 82 minutes of free air time on their nightly newscast in 2015. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, who drew more people to his rallies than any other candidate on either side was given 20 seconds. Is that any different than Cambodia?

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Phnom Penh, Uncategorized

Phnom Penh Traffic

 

 

The Cambodia Daily recently featured an article about the capital’s worsening traffic. A few years ago, or so it seemed, I marveled at how it only took 20 minutes to get to the airport from the river: it is, after all, only 9 kilometers. Today, more than an hour.

Phnom Penh’s traffic will never reach the astounding levels of Bangkok in 1993 when I lived there. It was before the first skytrain so all trips had to taken at street level. Traffic was so bad you never started a trip across town after 3pm unless you had no choice since it routinely took up to 4 hours to go as little as 10 kilometers. I’d regularly get off a bus a mile from my destination and make it there faster walking. A couple of times, when I had time to kill, I’d hang out and watch while traffic would come to a dead stop for nearly an hour, while cars and buses would be idling and continuously spewing out their exhausts.

There’s no such thing as a megacity the size of Bangkok with 12 million people without terrible traffic woes and overcrowded transit services, but a large part of Bangkok’s problems are the result of poor, actually nonexistent, planning. There are areas in the heart of the Sukumvit district loaded with high rise apartment buildings which are served only by narrow streets or alleys. Most often there’s only one exit to the main thoroughfare and there’re no connections between parallel streets. The amount of space devoted to streets in the city is half that of most cities. Mass transit systems are fabulously expensive to build, but because of the lack of street space in BKK, far more important. Residents of the city who are able to structure their lives close to mass transit get around fine, everybody else still has to contend with horrendous traffic jams.

Traffic in Singapore is not much of a problem, but it’s a special case. For one, it’s only got about 5 million people, an order of magnitude less difficult than a megacity. As an authoritarian government, it was able to wipe out large swaths of older (historic, in fact) areas with narrow streets in favor of very wide streets. Mostly, it uses taxation to severely limit the number of people who can afford to drive. You have to pay $75,000 to buy a permit to own a vehicle. Even in a relatively wealthy country that amount would preclude most people from car ownership. They’ve provided a fine mass transit system as a compensation, but still it’s unfair to design a society so only the rich can do something as pedestrian as owning a car. Also a reasonable urban population of 5m makes it possible with good planning and generous expenditures on infrastructure to run smoothly.

Megacities can never function smoothly, but a city of less than 2 million, such as Phnom Penh, did not need to get so bad. There are several reasons for the traffic slowdown in Phnom Penh; some are generic to growing cities, some self-inflicted. Among them are population growth and the expansion of the city’s area that almost inevitably accompanies that growth. Increase in income, which invariably results in increasing numbers of vehicles. Public policy which exacerbates the problem with poor planning.  Ignorance of or flouting of the basic rules of the road that hampers traffic flow combined with lack of enforcement of those rules. Lack of resources to build necessary infrastructure to ameliorate the situation is always a problem. Usurpment of public sidewalks requiring pedestrians to be out on the street dodging traffic also impedes flow.

Cities provide opportunity, that’s why they draw people in. That’s especially true of developing world cities since the countryside alternative has little opportunity and leaves people there in dire financial straits. That’s why Thais flocked to Bangkok in spite of the daily grind of spending so many hours stuck in traffic. And they still do in spite of the difficulty of living there… it may not be as bad as the 1990s, but still a hassle.

Income has been growing very fast in Cambodia, one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world in the last decade. Thus the surge in car and motorbike registrations. A private vehicle is especially important in a city like Phnom Penh with its nearly absent public transportation system. Without restricting car ownership like Singapore does, there’s nothing that can be done about increasing numbers of vehicles, though a comprehensive public bus system would help.

Expanding population not only increases the number of trips taken proportionally to the expansion but also makes the length of the average trip longer. So, for instance, a doubling of urban population probably triples the number of kilometers traveled. While roads in the outskirts of the city can be designed wide enough to carry substantial traffic, it’s extremely expensive to widen streets to accommodate the additional traffic in a built up city, especially one as dense as Phnom Penh.

Taking the above two together, the city is in a bind before any possible action is taken to ameliorate the problem. Unfortunately, many actions taken by the government have seriously worsened traffic, though in some cases they actually thought they were improving the situation. The prime example is the trading of inner city public buildings which in many cases were old and inefficient for new buildings on the city’s outskirts. They thought that placing them at a distance would reduce congestion, whereas exactly the opposite is true.

Before you had small buildings in low density, campus like settings in or close to the heart of the city. Most people who had business to do in those places lived relatively close. Now with those facilities far from the center, 90% have to travel farther, adding lots of kilometers to the city’s traffic. Public servants have had many complaints about the additional time and cost involved in getting to work. It also turned business with the government into a hardship for many since the absence of public transportation has meant high transportation costs for those who don’t own vehicles.

As campuses many had large areas of pervious surfaces; that is, places where rain could be absorbed into the ground rather than sent to the city’s overloaded drainage system.  Every hard rain now causes flooding and traffic chaos because many of those areas are now high density, with no onsite drainage. There was on street parking by those campuses, easing the parking burden. Much of the new development has brought increased traffic in more congested spaces. So a lose-lose situation.

Park spaces are oases of calm and allow for unimpeded traffic flow on their borders. Thus the multiple negative impacts of the recent filling in of 16 hectares of wetlands in the Olympic stadium grounds. First of course is the loss of water storage and the likelihood of increased flooding. The wetlands formerly drained the entire stadium area, now all that goes to an inadequate drainage system. A former green, calm and cooling spot is being replaced by a large, dense development that’ll attract thousands of vehicles a day into one of the most crowded parts of the city.

High density development is fine. Actually, in cases where the transportation infrastructure exists to accommodate that density, it’s a good idea. If there was a mass transit stop there, then sure, great idea (although never at the expense of a public green space).

The city is doing what it can to speed the flow of traffic with the construction of flyovers. They eliminate points of congestion, but can only go so far. It’s a great feeling speeding over cross traffic, but then you’re stuck in the same jam as soon as you descend to street level a minute later. The only way to move large numbers of vehicles in an urban environment is with freeways, limited access highways, but they are fabulously expensive and would be highly destructive of the city’s fabric. One measure that could be undertaken and should be a priority is a freeway circling the city that would allow vehicles passing through the urban area that don’t have business within it to bypass the congested inner city. It still would be far too expensive for the government’s current finances, but at least one should be in the planning process and land acquisition begin.

One very important proposal that came out of the above mentioned article was train service to the airport. The track already exists except for the last little distance to the airport itself. The trip from the train station on Monivong to the airport would take as little as 10 to 15 minutes and interim stops along the way would remove a lot of vehicles from the streets. However, even with existing track and right-of-way, it still would cost $180 million. Infrastructure for a modern city, whether road or rail oriented, is never cheap but essential if the city wants to avoid extreme traffic like Bangkok.

Except for the airport train, mass transit for Phnom Penh is on fantasy level. Without someone throwing billions of dollars at the government, it ain’t gonna happen. Meanwhile it makes no sense to even talk about mass transit until the city has a functioning bus system. That’s something that could’ve happened long ago and while every urban bus system in my knowledge needs public subsidies, it wouldn’t be all that much and should’ve been a priority all along.

A bus loaded to capacity takes up less street space than the number of motorbikes needed to transport the same number of people. The government has been trying for years to get someone to build a bus system and then operate it at no charge to the city… never happen. There are three bus lines now when the city needs twenty. There are supposed to be 10 more by the end of the year. Whatever the cost, it doesn’t equal the benefits that’d accrue. Unfortunately, even with new bus lines, traffic wouldn’t change much, it’s just growing too fast. It would however, keep the situation from deteriorating even faster.

The next transportation priority after the airport train would be to build a modern bus terminal next to the train station. That way people could zip into town from the airport and have buses on hand to complete their journeys to their destinations around the country. Now it’s just chaos with separate bus stations all over town. A single bus terminal would be a boon to travelers since you’d have many competing companies in the same place. That’d be especially beneficial in having many different schedules; that is, buses leaving to your destination much more often. When I was at the central bus terminal in Kuala Lumpur, vendors were discounting tickets in competition for my last minute seat.

All advanced cities today are building bike lanes and other facilities to make biking easier and more enjoyable. Something like half of all trips in Amsterdam are on bicycle, by any standard a better idea than trying to accommodate all movement on motorized vehicles. Bicycles are nearly silent, pollution free and provide a healthy alternative transportation mode.

It’d be very difficult in most parts of the city to make special places for bicycles. Other places it’d not be that difficult; the park strips, the river would be relatively easy places to start. Norodom Boulevard has very wide sidewalks which could easily accommodate separated bike paths. I ride bicycle every day in Kampot, but I would never consider doing that in the capital, except maybe on Sunday morning when there’s hardly any traffic.

Sidewalks are another essential ingredient to improving traffic flow. Having pedestrians dodging vehicles and competing for street space with them is a terrible idea: it’s dangerous and uncomfortable for pedestrians and impedes flow. A friend took his Khmer wife to Europe for a holiday where she greatly enjoyed walking. She was eager to walk when she got back to Phnom Penh but quickly soured on the idea in the face of the many barriers to enjoyable walking here. Blocking sidewalks, usurping them for private use was not allowed before the Khmer Rouge. It was only later under the Vietnamese occupation that the practice became widespread.

It’s now so entrenched, it’ll be very difficult to change. Still even when the city does go through lengths to make walking comfortable, as in the remodeling of Street 130, there’s no enforcement of the rules and it quickly regresses back to the old form. People liked the new system, but within a short time owners were blocking the sidewalks again with the police either not caring or incompetent. What gets me the most is the inability of the government to keep the sidewalks on Sisowath clear. I could hardly believe it last time I was there. I saw a car parked on the sidewalk totally blocking it and another car perpendicular on the curb with no space in between: people had no choice but to be out in the middle of a busy traffic lane. It’s uncivilized and totally out of place in a city that has pretensions of modernity.

As final note on sidewalks: Before the KR, in addition to sidewalks being totally clear, they were built as a unit on one level. Even if they were clear today, it’d still often be a hassle using them since you’re constantly going up and down and some are built at relatively steep angles. In other words, construction is totally uncoordinated and at the whim of the property owner. It can’t be that difficult to make rules for sidewalk construction. It’s the baby stroller or hand truck rule: If it’s inconvenient for them it’s improperly designed.

One additional factor that makes walking inconvenient is the confusion in Cambodia between curb cuts and driveways. Curb cuts are for intersections between streets and require two changes in grade. A driveway keeps the sidewalk at the same level: there’s a relatively steep rise between the street and sidewalk for vehicles, that in fact slows them down while crossing the sidewalk, a good thing. What should be driveways are turned into curb cuts which speeds vehicles and discomforts pedestrians.

Finally, getting drivers to learn and obey basic rules of right-of-way is no-brainer. When you are making a right turn and you have someone cutting the corner making a left and he/she gets right in your path, it becomes an absurd situation.

Phnom Penh is in a bind trafficwise. Everything the city might do to improve the situation, within its financial constraints, will be outweighed by growth of population and wealth and the densifying effects of the city’s push to develop every possible vacant space. Nothing suggested here will solve the traffic problem, it can only get worse. At best these suggestions will only keep congestion from getting even that much worse… still a good thing.

 

 

 

 

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