Climate change, Kampot, Cambodia

Climate Change – Kampot – Cambodia

 

The debate over climate change rages among the commoners but within the near-consensus of the scientific community the question has long been settled. 97% of climate scientists are in agreement on the matter, most of the remaining 3% are in the employ of the extractive fossil industry. In the eyes of the deniersphere, that hotbed of alternative facts, the 97% have created a hoax to further their own careers. These people, who’ve spent eight years in rigorous study to earn their doctorates, who’ve immersed their lives in science and the scientific method somehow all decided independently (or maybe they have a secret network) to essentially go back on all the principles they studied so hard to learn and just lie, make things up to create cushy jobs for themselves. Baloney, absurd, ridiculous, doesn’t pass the smell test, a non-sequiter. Meanwhile, they have no problem trusting the tiny part of the scientific community that’s being paid to spread industry propaganda.

In the above regard the ultimate crime is owned by Exxon, as they knew back in the late 1970s that, according to their own researchers, build up of CO2 in the atmosphere was going to be a problem. The bosses didn’t take kindly to that information as acting on it would eliminate their profit base so they spent some $30 million in the next couple of decades funding climate denial. The company is now being sued by some 14 attorneys general because of the damage that misinformation has done.

What does a warming climate mean for Cambodia? The Super El Nino of last year is an indicator of some of the changes we can expect. The El Nino phenomenon is caused by a warming of tropical Pacific waters and that brings us drought; super refers to ocean temps that were much warmer than typical El Nino warm. Last year brought water shortages in many places, a delay in planting crops and the highest temp ever recorded in Cambodia, 41.7C or 107F. Subsequent to El Nino we had a neutral or very mild La Nina that brought us ample rain, but it’s very weak and we may be headed right back into another difficult El Nino. The oceans are warming, which might have cancelled out the preferred, otherwise more likely La Nina conditions.

Being near the sea Kampot will never get as warm as the interior, though still plenty hot enough, but we also have other climate change problems to deal with. Rising seas being the number 1. There’s been a lot of glacial melt feeding the oceans and water expands as it warms and we sit very close to sea level. Sea level rise is already happening: In the Mekong delta salt water has intruded up to 100 kms inland, rendering rice cultivation impossible in those areas. It’ll probably be a long time before the sea rises to permanently flood our town, but regular flooding events might not be uncommon and require sea walls and other defenses to save our little burg.

Climate Change doesn’t preclude extremes of cold. Every time it’s cold somewhere, deniers will say, Global warming my ass, it was really cold here yesterday. Almost every day of the year there’ll be some places that are exceptionally cold as well as hot, but what we are seeing now is about 10 record highs for every record low.

In the process of debating the issue, I’ve done quite a bit of research.

The first graph shows rise in global temps from 1880 to the present.

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This chart is from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s for November, not the whole year. I didn’t realize that at first, but now that the Trump administration has scrubbed the site of any mention of climate change, the annual one is no longer available. The annual one would be very similar, except it would be more evened out. The last 40 years would be the same, showing a relentless climb, but notice the highest high is much further from the average than the lowest low. If you separated out the first 100 years you’d see a normal up and down pattern.

This next graph shows global temperatures and CO2 on the top two lines.

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As you can see they track very closely. When one is up, the other is up and vice versa. It doesn’t matter in this context which came first, they go together. It also is of no import what triggered those changes, though I’d certainly be interested to know. When the earth is in a deep ice age the CO2 ranges around 180 to 200. There’s a lot less vegetation, so less CO2. I was quite surprised to see that most of the last 400,000 years have been much colder than we’re used to. If we hadn’t pumped so much CO2 in the atmosphere, based on looking at the past, we might well have been slated for much colder times. I expect we’ll skip the next ice age until the earth regains its balance. Just speculation, I’m not a scientist.

It’s not changes in the sun’s intensity that have caused global warming. Solar intensity has been declining of late even as temperatures have been rising.

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In the last 10,000 years or so, the time we know of as civilization, CO2 has ranged between 260 and 280 ppm and temperatures have been in that Cinderella range of not too hot or too cold. Sure, during that period there were very cold times, mini ice ages, if you will, and droughts and very hot times, but temps did not stray very far from average.

Since the industrial revolution CO2 has risen to 400ppm, way above the top line in the graph. There’s no possible, plausible natural way for that to have happened in such a short time frame absent the burning of fossil fuel producing greenhouse gases.

The last time CO2 was that high was at least 800,000 years ago, some sources say up to 20m years, and at that time the temperature was 3C higher. Most of the recent extra greenhouse-caused heat has gone into the oceans. They act as a giant heat sink absorbing vast amounts of CO2 so it should take quite a long time to reach that 3C threshold. So far temps have risen only less than 1 degree and already climate extremes are playing havoc with the earth’s natural systems. Even the relatively small amount of rising water temps has had devastating effects. A very large portion of the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia has bleached and died from rising temperatures and that’s being replicated in many reefs around the world. We are still pumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and there seems no end to how high CO2 levels will go. Countries are giving themselves decades to clean up their acts when we’ve already hit the danger zone.

Rising sea temperatures intensify tropical storms. Last year a tropical storm in very warm waters off the coast of Mexico intensified from a category 1 storm with 125kph winds to a superstorm of 360kph winds in just 24 hours, breaking all records for wind speed and speed of intensification. It was a small storm and luckily hit off a remote, sparsely inhabited coast so damage was minimal.

If temps in every part of the planet rose proportionally, GW would be relatively easy to handle, but what it really does is accentuate the extremes of droughts and floods. As temps rise air holds increasing amounts of water so when it does rain we can expect more intense rain events. Higher temps also means increasing evaporation so the land dries out faster.

What I don’t get is why anyone would think burning lots of coal is a good idea even if CO2 were not problem. What is it about pollution and land degradation that makes them so giddy? A friend said, We’ve got 500 years of coal and cheap electricity, why bother with renewables?

Do they get a rush when they see pics of smog in Beijing? That smog is one reason why coal is cheap, since a large part of the cost of burning coal is externalized; for instance, the cost of treating people with respiratory problems caused by pollution from coal burning is not included in the cost of the coal; everybody else – governments, individuals – pays it, so in the end result, it’s not actually cheap.

Even if burning coal did not create a greenhouse gas, there are lots of other reasons why it’s a terrible idea. For one, the oceans absorb a lot of CO2, turning the water more acidic, which then plays havoc with shellfish who are having difficulty making their shells in that acidic water. Are we willing to give up shellfish for the sake of cheap energy from fossil fuels?

Every stage of the use of coal to generate electricity is an environmental challenge.

And now with the widespread use of fracking to extract gas and oil, they’re not much better than the coal alternative since large amounts of methane is released in the process. Methane is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 on a twenty year timetable. It’s not as prevalent as CO2, and it doesn’t last as long, but the warming of the arctic where temps have risen much faster than in temperate and tropical regions has the potential to create a methane bomb since very large amounts are locked up in permafrost and ice. Also very often fracking pollutes ground water: it’s being permanently destroyed (at least for thousands of years) for the sake of profits today, is that a worthy, intelligent trade-off?

Nonetheless, coal is still the worst. Formerly coal was produced in deep mines – still is in places like China. They were terrible for the worker’s health, but a least they didn’t impact the surface. Today all new mines in the western world are either open pit or mountain top removal. If you’re in the Australian outback where the land is desert scrub and nobody cares much about it and it’s far from any place where people live, then as ugly as the mine may be and as destructive as it is to the landscape, not much fuss is made about it and nobody has to witness the scars upon it.

That’s how it’s done in the American west, but in Appalachia in the east coal is extracted via mountain top removal. What they do is take a mountain covered with trees, strip it bare then use dynamite to blow off its top. They then push the remaining debris into the nearby streambed polluting the stream with heavy metals and destroying it for at least hundreds of generations. What’s left after the coal has been removed is a moonscape. Sure, if the miners took the time to save the topsoil so it could be replaced after they finished their extraction and kept the rocky debris out of the streambed it could regenerate in a few generations, but of course they don’t since that would cost a lot of money and the coal would no longer be cheap.

Then there’s transporting the fossil fuel. Oil and gas go in pipelines, notorious for leaking. In addition, oil pipelines in cold areas need to be heated to keep the oil flowing. Coal is usually moved in huge coal trains or shipped around the world. All movement of fossil fuels requires lots of energy.

Then the burning of fossil fuels, but especially coal, produces other pollutants besides CO2. And finally, after you burn coal you still have mountains of toxic coal ash to deal with.

Fortunately, in an amazingly short time wind and solar have become competitive in cost and in the US they make up the majority of new energy sources. Unfortunately, the forces of regression in the US are trying to make solar more expensive: in Nevada, for instance, the Republican state legislature wants to penalize people who install solar (Wanna guess who’s financing their campaigns?). Still, the movement’s unstoppable. Economically, in many parts of the world, it no longer makes sense to build new fossil fuel facilities.

Deniers complain about the cost: Converting is too expensive, it’s not worth it, they say. We can’t afford it. Not worth spending the money to have a clean environment? It definitely wouldn’t be cheap. One trillion dollars a year for a decade would still leave much of the US dependent on fossil fuels, but the country would be a long ways towards a clean environment and provide millions of jobs that can’t be outsourced. One trillion dollars is only about 7% of GDP.

Cambodia is trying to get most of its electricity from hydropower, which is good in theory except when the dams reduce fish populations. Cambodians get 80% of their protein from fish. A government spokesman once said, The people will be happy to have cheap electricity, but I’d bet they’d rather have fish to catch and eat. The other major problem with depending on hydro is drought. In the hottest months, when electricity is needed most, there’s insufficient water to generate much power.

It’s the Chinese who are financing and building coal power plants here. It’s really not the thing to do in today’s world, but they come ‘free’. In quotes because the Chinese drive hard bargains. Most such contracts to build and operate power plants (and not just the Chinese) include clauses that guarantee the builder a certain minimum profit, whether the plant is used or not. We’ll have to pay for that power even if we don’t want it.

The people in government love coal, but Cambodia has great potential for solar and hopefully someone will step up to produce large-scale solar power here. We do have a company in Cambodia – Star8 – that produces solar buses and tuk-tuks. For not much more cost than a motorbike and trailer, you can get a tuk-tuk that’ll go thirty kms on a day’s sunshine, 80 kms when the batteries are fully charged. They are very quiet compared to combustion engines and very simply designed. The only complexity being the electronic controls.

The new Coca-Cola plant in Phnom Penh gets 1/3 of its energy from the sun.

The future is in renewables.

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development

Birthdays Party and Kampot Double Bubble.

 

 

Last August 22 was my 75th birthday. Now that’s a very big round number and quite an accomplishment, if I must say so, and called for an appropriate celebration. As it happens, it was also Helen’s 22nd birthday, so why not combine the two? Where else but Cambodia, or say Kampot, could two people of vastly different ages hold a joint birthday party? In fact, we share some of the same friends and it worked out fine. I would’ve been a bit concerned about turnout if I were holding it by myself, but doing it together made it a great success.

Part of the magic of living in the Cambo/Kampot expat bubble is we get to be ourselves. We’re not confined or categorized by attitudes found back in our home countries. We’re already a diverse amalgam of people from around the world and age makes much less difference in such a milieu. I only realize how old I am when I see a picture of myself in a younger crowd. Amongst a diverse group, I don’t feel any different from those around me. Everyone my age might not react the same, but whether it’s good karma or good choices (really, the two are inseparable) I still feel young (relatively) and energetic, even if my stamina doesn’t hold up as well as it used to.

A few years back while visiting the states, old friends said I never looked so good. If so, more than a decade in Cambodia had to be part of the reason for that – it’s now nearly 15 years since I first came to here to live. Having a pension, albeit paltry, also has something to do with it since I don’t face the stress of working and making a living. While hard work and accomplishment are essential to health for a young person, the harder you push when you’re my age, the younger you die.

Part of being healthy comes from living in Cambodia with its low cost and open and friendly atmosphere that provides the background to the community we’ve formed. However, we’re in a special place, an almost insular community where we spend most of our time with each other rather than relating to the larger Khmer population. Sometimes I hear people lament that disconnect. I also feel it at times, but I’m so grateful for what we’ve created I don’t consider it a great deficiency. It’s not difficult to be part of the local culture with local friends if you’ve a mind to it, but you can also be quite separate, relating only to fellow expats and the locals we deal with on a daily basis in stores, restaurants, etc.

Cambodia lets us be ourselves and because there are no restrictions on who can live here; that is, there is no income requirement or onerous paperwork to fill out: we only need to pay the $300 per year to keep our visas current. Because of that openness we also get diversity in incomes; it’s possible to come here with very little money and get by on doing bar work for ten dollars per shift plus tips. Some of those people may have a little stash, but they still work to prolong their stays as well as be out relating and talking and usually having fun.

Every other country in the region and almost everywhere else in the world requires a lot more effort and hassle and sometimes a substantial income to maintain residency. The Philippines a while back announced it was going to simplify and make retirement visas easier to get to attract more geezers. In addition to the paperwork requirements, you ‘only’ needed to have $25,000 in the bank and a certain regular income, meaning I couldn’t possibly qualify. The country is very poor; in many ways an economic basket case which has forced 10% of its population to go overseas to work. It’s overcrowded stemming from the overbearing influence of the Catholic church and the leftovers of Spanish machismo with every man thinking he needs 10 kids to prove his virility. What? You can stick it in, come in one minute, knock her up and that makes you a man? The country has 100 million people, but it’s mostly mountainous and so has minimal arable land relative to that population and has to import a large portion of its food.

In that context how would they lose if they let me live there with my pension of ‘only’ $700 per month? Per capita income in the Philippines is about $3000 per year in US dollars, that’s $250 per month, a bit more than one-third of my pension. I would bring in absolutely free money to bolster the economy, yet it’s not good enough. There’s a fellow here in Kampot who, after living there 30 years, was forced out of the country stemming from visa hassles. The same is true of Thailand: there are lots of people in Cambodia who are refugees from the Thai visa grind.

Contrast that with Kampot here in Cambo. Per capita income in Cambodia is $1160. According to the town’s immigration police there were about 600 expats living in Kampot as of about 9 months ago. That’s roughly 1% of the population and while quite a few are working, the number who are retired, buying land or starting businesses, easily means we make up about 10% of the economy. That is a big reason why Kampot is prospering. While expat presence has boosted the Cambodian economy as a whole, most for sure is concentrated in the major population centers and tourist spots.

That freedom has also brought in loads of big time money. There’s no need to have local partners and no restrictions on repatriating profits. Having the USD which is used in about 85% of all transactions also makes investing more secure and stable. As a result money is pouring in to the country to the effect that Phnom Penh is about to face a crash in condo and commercial development from vast oversupply. If all the condos under construction or for which permits have been obtained come to fruition, supply will increase by more than 1000% in just a couple of years, an impossible scenario considering sales are already falling quite precipitously. Fueling booms is something governments all over the world do with regularity and without the slightest cognizance that booms inevitably result in busts and the aftermath is usually worse for most people. That is certainly true for the many locals working in construction.

An economic downturn would not auger well for the government in the run up to the 2017 commune elections and the 2018 general. While the CPP is besieging the opposition with prosecutions the Cambodia Daily refers to as ‘widely believed to be politically motivated’, it really seems that it’s the CPP itself which feels under threat. When a couple dozen activists started wearing black in their demonstrations against the jailing of NGO Ad Hoc representatives, the authorities have harassed them at every turn. They’re a small group of people with a grievance against the state who wear black t-shirts as a matter of solidarity and yet the authorities consider them a danger. We will not allow a color revolution they say, but really, there’s no possible way Hun Sen will relinquish power except if he abides by an electoral loss and there’s no certainty of that.

He is invincible militarily, nobody could challenge him on that score. But the more the government attempts to quash demonstrations and control the news, the more likely it is that people will vote for the opposition. Control of all broadcast TV stations and almost all radio and newspapers means very little in the age of social media. The government recently displayed a show of force by having 5 helicopters hovering over opposition headquarters while three gunboats were stationed in back of the office which sits on the Bassac river while many vehicles loaded with militarily equipped soldiers drove by in front. The government insisted that it was all a routine exercise, a widely scoffed at notion. There’s no one with political consciousness who wasn’t informed about that incident from social media.

When the opposition planned a small convoy to deliver (what I considered to be meaningless and futile) messages to 13 foreign embassies asking for assistance, the government, in order to try to prevent it, closed down one of the city’s most important thoroughfares leaving many thousands of people to stew in a massive traffic jam. No one believed that shutting down the boulevard was necessary for public order and all knew the genesis of the morass.

Activist Kem Ley’s murder brought out close to 200,000 mourners for the funeral procession, yet the event wasn’t covered in a single TV station. There has not been nor is there likely to be an independent investigation, which only reinforces the public’s belief that the government was behind it. In the midst of all that suppression of news and free speech rights for the general population, we expats live in a bubble with two daily newspapers who are quite courageous at times in their reporting. The PM has expressed dislike and annoyance with them but evidently feels their importance to the expat community outweighs his discomfort. Besides their news doesn’t reach very far into the population as a whole.

After alienating so many people with land grabs and displacement and testing their credulity with statements which few believe, who’s going to be left to vote for the ruling party besides those who work for the government?

One big problem the ruling party has is the Khmer people’s visceral hatred of the Vietnamese. The CPP is on the right side of the argument in that they treat the Viets just like any other people (partly because Vietnam put the PM in power during their occupation after deposing Pol Pot) whereas the opposition CNRP unabashedly appeals to the people’s baser instincts. The animosity goes very deep. When Vietnam booted out the Khmer Rouge, the king immediately aligned himself with Pol Pot to try to drive out the ‘invaders’. After nearly two million people died at the hands of a genocidal dictator, he was still backed by the US and China, both countries still smarting from defeat on the battlefield by Vietnam. The two powers kept Pol Pot in his seat at the UN for more than a decade after he was deposed, an eternally disgraceful act.

Just to show how far the opposition will go in milking the Viet issue, Kem Sokha, second in command of the CNRP said back in the last campaign that Cambodia had to take back Angkor Wat from the Vietnamese. What? Had they invaded again? It turns out he was referring to Sok Keng having the concession to collect fees at the archeological park. He’s the owner of the Sokimex gas station chain and purported to be the richest man in Cambodia. He was born here and spent his whole life here but he’s an ethnic Vietnamese, which evidently makes him evil in Kem Sokha’s eyes and a campaign issue.

Would an opposition victory tackle corruption? Possibly, at least in the beginning. Corruption is inevitable and inherent in a government that has been in power for a long as the current one. The more secure they feel the less they are responsive to the electorate, so it’s a testimony to the ruling party’s late feeling of vulnerability that the PM has taken many steps recently to appeal to the common people, such as the recent act of waving the need for driver’s licenses for small motorbikes.

The ruling party has set up its Anti Corruption Unit and prosecuted quite a few people, but they are very selective and stick mostly to those out of favor with the party. The head of the unit recently gave important jobs to two of his sons… nepotism and corruption, anyone?

To do it right, just about everybody in government who owns a luxury vehicle should be targeted, because unless they are independently wealthy they didn’t obtain the money through their official salaries… and why would someone with means want to work for subsistence government wages? One big new Lexus SUV costs $225,000. In contrast, there’s a very high average of 50 students per primary school teacher here. They earn about $1500 per year, so one Lexus is equal to salaries of 150 teachers for one year. There’s a shortage of classrooms in rural Cambodia. One classroom can be built and furnished for about $25,000, so one big car is equal to 9 classrooms. Everywhere in Cambodia you see lots of fat cat cars owned by people associated with government.

At a certain point it all boils over in people’s minds. I doubt very much that protests will be involved in any possible transition since the ruling party has vowed to crack down hard. There’s not much threat of violence either, though there’s likely to be unrest and scattered skirmishes. Cambodians have a long history of demonstrating and speaking their minds. Repression will hold them back, but that will only increase their resolve. As result, it seems increasingly likely the PM will lose the next election; that is, if it’s done honestly.

Where does it all leave us who live in our comfortable little bubbles? Will we be impacted if there’s turmoil in the streets? Will we still be able to enjoy the good times in our own parallel universe? The ruling party reminds everybody that Cambo is a sovereign country and doesn’t need to bend to the will of anyone outside, but 20% of the country’s budget comes from the international community and it would be a heavy blow if that were withdrawn. If there’s excessive violence toward demonstrators, the country could be put under sanctions, also a heavy blow to the it’s prosperity. People tend not to invest in times of unrest, so combined with a real estate bubble that’s in the process of bursting, the flow of foreign money may dry up, and expats who’ve already invested in property may see their values drop.

For myself, I’m stuck, I’m not going anywhere unless some unforeseen and drastic event forces me out. I live an idyllic life and have just about everything I could reasonably ask for. Absent that unavoidable event, or some compelling reason to go elsewhere, and considering my age of 75, I expect to die here in Kampot enjoying the expat double bubble.

Talked to a guy at a bar a while back who said since he’d left his old life he’d spent 5 years in 20 countries. When he got to Cambodia he immediately felt at ease, and hadn’t stopped smiling since he’d arrived in Kampot three days earlier.

 

 

 

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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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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, renewable energy

Blazing Hot

 

 

Kampot’s feeling the heat. It’s been relentless: As I write this in the second week of May it’s 32C – 90F – at 7pm, at 1pm it was 38C, 100F . We even have a bit of an advantage in Kampot. Since our temperatures are moderated by being near a large body of water we don’t get as hot as the interior. Even so the sweat drips off of you; at times I can’t even keep my glasses on, they slide down my nose. It really takes it out of you, like merely trying to breathe after you’ve been out there in the sun walking or on bicycle. It bears down, saps your energy, makes all physical activity an effort. All that said it doesn’t matter all that much to me personally, I don’t let it affect my daily life. I don’t purposely wait until the heat of the day to go riding around town, but I wouldn’t hesitate if necessary, though I must admit, I don’t feel much like hiking in the mountains when the temperature’s really hot. For really strenuous activity it makes sense to let it cool off a little first.

 

Anyway, we all better get used to it, because the heat is only going to keep on breaking records. Every country in SE Asia (except Thailand which came close) has experienced its all time national heat record this hot season. In Cambodia it was 42.7 C in Preah Vihear. What’s more, large swaths of the area are seeing severe drought and not surprisingly, very high temperatures are a characteristic of drought, which means plants dry out that much faster.

 

This has not been good for my garden. Even drought tolerant plants, those who can survive for long periods of arid, sweltering days, really don’t like it. A cactus that can manage just fine at 40°C without rain for months, would much rather it be 25 with a little rain once or twice a week. For those plants not designed to deal with that kind of weather, they get really stressed, it’s a real chore trying to keep them irrigated and happy. Moreover, the only good times to water – early morning, late afternoon – the water pressure has been so low it sometimes comes out of my hoses as a limp trickle. It’d be okay at midnight if I could see what I was watering and wasn’t stumbling around because I’d smoked and drunk to my limit by then. I have four hoses for my little space to minimize having to drag them around.

 

Even under the best conditions I have so many plants, mostly in pots, it takes nearly an hour to get to everybody. When the pressure is low and the temperatures are through the roof, all I can do is keep them alive in a holding pattern. And besides all that, they much prefer rainwater, not only because it contains no chlorine residues and such but also because they are more thoroughly irrigated by the drip, drip, drip than a big dose all at once.

 

The only respite we had recently was 12mm of rain we received on two days in early May. Before that the last rain was end of February and minus a few scattered sprinkles, you have to go back to early December for any substantial precipitation. Now, in the middle of May clouds are building up and looking like they want to rain, and some places nearby actually have seen some precipitation, but not Kampot. The government has been bringing tanker trucks to supply water to some areas around town that’ve gone dead, dusty, dry.

 

Finally, starting on May 15 we’re beginning to get some ‘real’ rain – 25mm – with predictions of rain every day for a while. Phew! What a relief. And on the 16th a deluge; 80mm – more than 3 inches – in less than an hour. The government now says the drought is over and normal rains have begun. As deadline approaches a big storm predicted to dump 250mm in six days is headed our way.

 

In drought, one of the most likely and difficult outcomes of global warming, Cambodia (like my home state of Oregon in the US) has the ability to get through it easier than many places in the world. One great advantage is a relatively small population which puts less pressure on limited resources. Secondly we have a relatively wet environment to begin with – when it does rain, it really comes down. Both the above factors have limited the overuse of groundwater. Densely populated places and especially the arid ones will be in for rough times when the heavens stop dropping their loads. In many parts of India, for instance, groundwater is being mined so extensively that water tables in many places are receding by a meter or more a year, requiring ever deeper wells. In other words a lot more is being taken out than is being naturally replenished even in the best of times.

 

I’m also reminded of a picture I once saw taken in California’s San Joaquin Valley. It included a gauge which showed that the land had subsided by five or six meters. Essentially, with the groundwater removed the land had sunk and consequently it can no longer hold as much water as in the past. It was permanently damaged. At any rate, no matter the severity of drought here in Cambo, there should always be water down there; it should never go completely dry as will happen in many places. It may not be enough to flood rice paddies, but at least there’ll be something.

 

Meanwhile, world heat records are being broken with regularity and by jaw-dropping amounts. Each of the last twelve months has been the hottest ever recorded for its month and March was the hottest on record for any month based on divergence from the norm. Not just that, but the temperature was nearly .2°C above the next hottest. Those kinds of records are usually broken by .01°. In the recent Paris climate meeting it was decided that the previous goal of keeping warming to 2°C was too much, the world couldn’t handle it, that 1.5° was a safer, more urgent goal. Well, March did it. It was supposed to a goal for a decade or two in the future, but it’s already here.

 

One factor in the warming is called positive feedback loops. For instance, snow and ice are white and reflect most of the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere. When it melts and either dark water or rock is exposed, most is absorbed and thus further pushes the warming process. And since the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, the loss of ice is accelerating the changes. Last February the Iditarod sled dog race which starts in Anchorage Alaska, which is at 62°N, was unable to start without bringing in many truckloads of snow… first time ever.

 

As for making the changes in time to make a difference, the Paris conference had no binding commitments, only loose goals that the countries could follow if they wanted. So even while industrial powerhouse Germany on May 12 this year received 90% of its power from renewables – sun, wind, hydro and biomass – and Portugal recently went 4 1/2 days solely on renewable energy, many nations, including Cambodia, are pushing ahead with coal power. Sounds like a planetary death wish.

 

Trump, who might well be the next US president, has called climate change a hoax, and Clinton, the likely alternative (I’m still praying for Bernie) is a strong promoter of fracking. The fracking industry pushes the idea that natural gas, because it releases a lot less greenhouse gases than coal, is a good transition from the present to a fossil free future. Unfortunately, studies have shown that lots of methane is accidentally released in the fracking process. Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but on a 20 year basis it’s 87 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, and even on a 100 year basis is still 30 times more potent.

 

If the TPP – Trans Pacific Partnership, covering 12 countries on the Pacific rim –  and TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and EU – were enacted, countries could no longer control the process. Industry would be given free reign to pollute and despoil to their heart’s content – all thanks to Obama and his corporate backers. And if a country refused to allow fracking it could be sued for lost potential profits by the industry.

 

Mr. O, who I like as a person, has reneged on almost every campaign promise he made that had to do with protecting the environment and the proletariat. In his first campaign he promised to renegotiate NAFTA, the trade pact between US, Canada and Mexico. He made no attempt to make good on that promise and instead has promoted the above trade pacts which NGOs refer to as NAFTA on steroids.

 

If I believed in conspiracy theories, I’d think he was the Manchurian Candidate. Remember, the movie was about a perfect candidate groomed by a foreign power to win an American election so they could use him to subvert the government to their own ends. For a long time I thought, if Obama’s the Man, who would be his controller? The CIA and Goldman Sachs would be a good starting point.

 

At any rate back here in Kampot we’re in the throes of low season and most places on most nights are pretty quiet. A few have shut down for a month or two. A long time owner of a restaurant on Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay that caters almost exclusively to tourists has said that in ten years of operation June was always his slowest month and we’re not even there yet. There’s a bit of an uptick in July and August, a mini-high season caused by people in the north who have their vacations in their summertime, but then we’re back in the depths in the rainy season in September and October.

 

It isn’t just the travelers who’ve disappeared. When you think about it and look around you also realize that lots of expats have also left for extended periods. It’s a time for many to go back to their home countries and take care of business when the weather is warm. For others, the rain or snow birds, they divide their time between Cambo and the West. Last time I was back in the states, I was there for 5 weeks and thought it was way too long. It was good to say hello to everybody, but my life and home is in Cambo.

 

An $80 million passenger boat terminal is being built with loans from the Asian Development Bank on the east side of Kampot river (actually it’s called a bay) about 6 kilometers south of town. In the process they’ve uglified the area by widening the shoreline road and clearing mangroves over a long stretch of it.

 

A year or two ago they built what myself and many others thought was going to be a passenger port for direct access to Phu Quoc across the river from town between the two bridges. It’s about right for boats with capacities of around 20 or so passengers. I do see boats there on occasion but it definitely hasn’t got an immigration post. The island is closer to Kampot than Ha Tien, the nearest Viet town, so it would certainly make sense to have direct boats going there. I’m guessing that port was built for about 100,000 to 200,000 dollars.

 

Now step back for a second and think about what kind of boats would need an 80 million dollar terminal. Ocean liners? The Queen Elizabeth? For little old Kampot? Ships carrying thousands of upper crust passengers docking in Kampot? All those pretentious people descending on our grungy, plebian little burg at one time? Maybe I’m missing something, but it sure looks like a gargantuan boondoggle to me.

 

On a very positive note, one of the businesspeople in town recently announced he was going to sell biodegradable take home packaging. Within a couple days and in spite of higher costs than petrochemical based plastics, more than 30 expat business owners signed on to the concept. I’ve also heard a similar movement is afoot in Phnom Penh. Most people don’t realize it but corn and other crops can be used to produce single-use cups and containers that are indistinguishable from the plastics we are now using, except, when tossed on the ground, they’ll literally melt into the environment in a few months instead of hanging around being a toxic hazard for thousands of years.

 

For sure a few dozen expat owned businesses using biodegradable packing isn’t going to make much of a dent in the mountains of non-bio plastics now being used and discarded here, but you have to start somewhere and who knows, maybe the idea will catch on and the government will step in to ban the evil stuff.

 

I’ve thought about what it would take to do my shopping in the local market without accepting plastic, but what would you do with meats? I doubt if waxed butcher paper would ever be economically feasible here. Banana leaves? Also seems like a hassle compared to plastic. I have a cloth bag to put the whole purchase in, but some type of container is going to be necessary for each separate item.

 

The current practice of many locals and some expats is to burn them along with yard waste. Bad idea. The noxious smell that burning plastic gives off is a clear indicator that it’s toxic to breathe in. Landfilling isn’t great either but far superior to burning. The burning of organic material isn’t that bad environmentally, though breathing lots of smoke of any kind is not benign. Most importantly, all burning exacerbates global warming. At any rate it’s much better to compost organics, especially here in the tropics where heavy rains leach most nutrients out of the soil.

 

Farmers burn crop waste because they think it improves the soil. The ash that’s leftover from burning does give a quick boost of potassium and phosphorus to the soil, but all the nitrogen and organic matter that could improve the soil’s tilth goes up in smoke. Burning is quick and easy and people like to watch a good fire, but it’s not the best way to go.

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Cambodia Politics and Development

Corruption and Other Indexes Rank Cambodia

 

There are four indexes I’ll be looking at in this article. World Happiness, Press Freedom, Ease of Doing Business and Corruption Perception. In all cases except one, Cambodia does poorly both on a world level and a local level. Government spokespeople always insist that the international community is treating Cambodia unfairly. Although it’s pretty much guaranteed that all governments will respond likewise, I do have some sympathy for the government’s position. In all cases, these indexes are based on impersonal and sometimes arbitrary guidelines which don’t represent feelings and reality on the ground.

The one where we are ahead on a regional level is Press Freedom. In 2014 only Indonesia and Thailand were ahead, but not by much. Considering the military coup in Thailand and it’s heavy repression of the press, it’s certain to be well below Cambodia for the 2015 survey. Strangely enough, in spite of besting nearly all of our neighbors, we still came in at 144 out of 180 countries surveyed. In fact, we’ve only gone downhill over the past decade since Cambodia’s rank in 2008 was 85, and may continue to do so, considering recent government actions.

We have recently seen murder of journalists. Internet speech is being repressed; for example, a student was jailed for 18 months for advocating a color revolution, which by its nature is a peaceful changeover. There are frequently ham-handed attempts by local officials to prevent perfectly legal gatherings: Cambodia’s UN representative for human rights was recently stopped from meeting indigenous leaders who are fighting against land grabs. Local commune police intervened supposedly because they didn’t have a permit for the meeting, but no permits are needed in such a case. Needless to say those regressive actions only further alienate common people.

On the other hand there are a few points in Cambodia’s favor. One is that the English press is allowed to operate unhindered. Another is that demonstrations happen almost on a daily basis, though often against the wishes of the government. The ones it likes don’t seem to need prior approval, but if it embarrasses the government or puts it in a bad light, they will do what they can to prevent or hamper their progress. It doesn’t seem to stop the protesters, they keep coming right back. Once again, the more the authorities intervene, the more they are disliked. Moreover, today without total control of the internet such as China’s Great Firewall, it’s near impossible for the government to prevent people hearing the news on social media.

Another interesting index is the UN’s World Happiness Report. Once again we are way down near the bottom at 140 out of 156 countries. As you would expect from a survey created by the elite establishment, three of the six factors that make up the index heavily favor developed economies. The first is per capita income. Well, certainly, people who are hungry or see no possibility of improvement in their futures are not going to be especially happy, but as most expats living in Cambodia can attest, most people here seem happier than the people back in our home countries. Moreover, given the extreme inequality present in the US today, the country’s high per capita income belies the fact that the majority are struggling to cover basic expenses and debts.

The second is social services. This one makes sense since it is comforting and reassuring knowing society is there to back you up in times of difficulty. Everybody can appreciate the feeling of security that comes with living in a benevolent society, but sometimes people who live day-to-day in uncertainty and depend on the largess of chance and serendipity, are more content, adaptable and trusting than those who are largely cared for.

The third is healthy life expectancy. Sure it’s great to be healthy in your dotage, but you’ll hardly be happy if you don’t have adequate money for the necessities of life. Or if you live in a social setting in which you feel isolated or without many friends.

The next three categories; freedom to make life choices, generosity and trust or the absence of corruption in daily life, were based on interviews. Cambodia comes out very well on the first two: amazingly, third in the world on freedom to make life choices and around number 20 in generosity. We’re obviously pretty low in the corruption category. The two where Cambo did well were clearly not enough to bring us out of the cellar.

But lets look a little closer. Haiti is a few rungs above Cambodia. It’s a country where a large number of people are still in temporary accommodations from the earthquake of 5 years ago. Instead of bringing in reconstruction teams after the quake, the UN brought in peacekeepers since of course those black Haitians couldn’t be trusted on their own. Some of the peacekeepers were from Nepal, a country where people casually spread their shit around; they especially like to do their dumps in streams. This resulted in 7000 Haitians dying of cholera and 200,000 being sickened in a population of only about 8 million. The UN of course refused to compensate for the malfeasance of its peacekeepers.

Raw sewage runs on the streets of the capital. This is in part because their politics is in total disarray so that little of importance or necessity gets done. In the last election there was a 20% turnout. The people have given up on politics because the person they want to run the country, who they’ve elected twice by very wide margins, is radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Unfortunately, he didn’t meet the standards of the conservative US establishment so America was instrumental in deposing him both times. Now I haven’t been to Haiti, so maybe Haitians really are a happy people in spite of their sorry condition, but compared to Cambodia? I don’t believe it.

How about Vietnam up at 96. Now we all know the Vietnamese are a strong, capable, industrious, take no prisoners type of people and have much to be admired in many ways, but you probably won’t find more than 1 out of 100 people who’ve been to both who would consider them happier than Cambodians.

For another example, Israel, astoundingly, flabbergastingly, is right near the top at number 11. Now here’s a country where its 20% Arab population are second class citizens living under ‘Old South’ type segregation if not total apartheid. For instance, according to Wikipedia, Arab schools receive far less per capita state funding than Jewish schools and there is a shortage of thousands of teachers and classrooms in Arab schools but not in Jewish schools. Israel keeps 4.5 million Palestinians under a brutal occupation in the West Bank and 1.8 million Gazans in what many refer to as an open air prison in which only enough food is allowed in to keep them alive but still hungry – around half the children in Gaza are malnourished. In a recent survey, 57% of Israelis want to expel, drive out, deport the 4.5 million Arabs in the West Bank to another country so they can steal their land and have it to themselves. Now tell me, can a people be truly happy when they are treating millions of fellow human beings in their midst like shit? Impossible.

As a happiness index, this survey falls very short, but thinking about it, it would make sense as a well-being index. While well-being – income, social services, long lifespan – might often indicate happiness (Denmark is number 1) our experience in Cambodia makes a mockery of this index as an indicator of happiness.

In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index Cambodia comes out 135 out of 189 countries surveyed. This index measures regulations and policies that affect the ability to start a business. Of the 10 sub indices used, which include things like construction permits, export procedures, paying taxes, registering property, the only one that seems dodgy in Cambodia is enforcing contracts. Otherwise I don’t see why Cambo would rate so poorly. Once again, real life and facts on the ground, seem at odds with these arbitrary and impersonal statistics.

For one thing, Cambodia over the last decade has had one of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies. How would that be likely or possible in a place where it’s so difficult to start a business? Is it so desirable here that entrepreneurs would go through lots of hoops just to open a business here? For another, whatever relevance this index might have to medium or large businesses, it certainly doesn’t apply to small ones. Here in Kampot you can have a small establishment in operation before you even have a permit, though you wouldn’t be able to stay in business very long without obtaining the proper paperwork.

Finally there’s Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index. In 2014, not all that surprisingly, Cambodia ranked 156 out of 175 countries, worst of the Asean countries. As they explain in their intro and methodology, corruption is by its nature secretive and hard to measure so the best they can do is gauge perceptions. And the index only refers to dealings with the government, but there’s lot of corruption that doesn’t involve day-to-day interaction with the government.

Yes we all know that Cambodia is thoroughly corrupt: examples abound. An NGO recently announced that traffic jams of luxury vehicles in Phnom Penh made it difficult to raise money for Cambodia. If you add up the number of vehicles who either sport those elongated license plates, which represent a connection to the national legislature, or display government placards in their windshields, somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of all luxury vehicles are owned by government associated people. (BTW, a new Lexus SUV costs more than $200,000.)

Everybody knows, down to the lowliest peasant farmer, that the vast majority of those vehicles were not purchased with legitimate money since there’s no one in government, including the PM himself, who could afford even a Camry on their official incomes. Of course there may be some independently wealthy individuals in government, but why would they bother working for $300 or $400 per month if they’ve got tons of money in the bank? Altruism? Dedication to serving the Cambodian people?

Some time back the PM said that public servants should be proud of their vehicles. Maybe so, but they should at least hide their government connections instead of blatantly advertising their corruption.

One of the ways governments stay in power is through patronage. When you provide lots of jobs for your friends you create a loyal following. That probably accounts for Cambodia having 2000 generals in its military, four times as many as the US, with a military budget that is 200 times smaller.

If you want to secure a hard title for a property in Kampot, it’ll cost you a minimum of $1000 over the listed price, even for a property that’s worth only $5000 or $6000. If you complain about the excessive cost, whoever you’re negotiating with will say he has several people to share with. One of them undoubtedly is the bong tum, the head of the department, who lives in a four story castle-like villa.

Many parents have to pay as much as $3 per day to the teacher to send a child to school. When the immigration department came to check my passport, they asked for a tip. Okay, I thought, for a few dollars they’ll be my ‘friend’. Changes are afoot though, even if haltingly. The new traffic law which gives the police a share of traffic fines and the offender a receipt is a start towards more honesty.

The Anti-Corruption Unit, the ACU, regularly finds malfeasance amongst government officials, but they’re usually cases which are flagrant and always of people who’re not in favor with the administration. For instance, the minister responsible for purchasing bed nets was fingered by the NGO who pays for them for taking a half million dollars in bribes from the company that got the contract. Somehow, through an extremely convoluted explanation, the ACU determined that was not really corruption and declined to pursue charges against him, in spite of being a perfect, blatant, in-your-face, example of it.

On the other hand if you’re an opposition figure targeted by the government, the ACU will use the flimsiest excuse to investigate. The current example being Kem Sokha, second in leadership of the opposition CNRP. His phone was tapped and a conversation he had with a mistress was published. The ACU dove in and opened his file to see if he really had the money to buy the things he promised her. The ACU holds personal financial reports from each government official, but they are kept secret until there’s a reason to delve into them. So an illegal wiretap prompts an ACU search into his records over an affair, which is embarrassing, but totally his business. BTW, a ‘student’ group, all of which refuse to name their institutions, has been dogging Sokha over this issue. They’ve been allowed to march without permits, whereas people with legitimate grievances against the government are routinely prevented from marching.

The government’s actions against the opposition aren’t particularly surprising and definitely not unusual in politics, not in the region or the world. Who can forget Bill Clinton being impeached after getting trapped into lying about a blow job?

One notable thing can be said about corruption in Cambodia: it doesn’t seem to be hold back progress or be a detriment to government functioning. In contrast, take Brazil, for instance. A while back many people died there in a nightclub fire. News reports pointed out that the club was operating without a permit. There was actually a good reason it didn’t have one: a fellow interviewed on BBC said that it sometimes takes 5 years to get a permit, so most businesspeople don’t bother since nightclubs often don’t last that long.

And talking about corruption, it’s more than just interactions between citizens and government. Sometimes it takes a grand scale, like the current 1MDB (Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal in Malaysia. The corporation was created and is chaired by the prime minister Najib Razak. Trouble came to light after the corporation was found to be $11 billion in debt. In an investigation undertaken by the Wall Street Journal it was discovered that about $700 million – $681m in one transaction – was transferred from 1MDB to Razak’s private account. Later investigations have brought that figure up close to one billion. When confronted he claimed it was a gift from the Saudi royal family for campaign expenses(?) a claim disputed by the Saudi family itself.

And look at America, land of the free, home of the brave, bastion of free-world democracy where elections are regularly stolen. We just had a perfect example in the recent Massachusetts Democratic primary. All the precincts which had paper ballots that could be checked went for Sanders, all those with easily-tampered-with machines went for Clinton. I daresay, Cambodia’s elections are more honest than in many US states.

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Pot-pourri

 

Down Home Entrepreneuring
In the last couple years there’s been a spate of expats opening businesses serving niche markets for the expat crowd. Some are firmly established and mainstreaming by stocking the local markets. Others you might characterize as itinerant, or maybe you’d say makeshift, operating from small carts they park around the old market.

The most visible is Kampot Krisp Company run by Warren, which is doing hand made potato chips (I know you Brits say crisps, but think how hard it is to say that, and what’s more, Do French fries really look like chips?) seasoned with Kampot pepper and sea salt. They’re sometimes a bit too salty for my taste and could be a little thicker, but otherwise excellent quality and as good as any chips on the market. They’ve also got a cool commercial level package. Jean-Baptiste’s Kampot Delights is producing and distributing to the markets a pure, natural peanut butter that contains only peanuts, palm sugar and salt. He started out with only peanuts and salt, adding the palm sugar later. I was disappointed by the superfluous sugar, but I still buy it. Next time you buy commercial peanut butter, take a look first at the frightening list of ingredients. By the way, I just discovered the way to keep natural PB from separating is to keep it in the fridge… after all these years.

Both the above have a list of ingredients, but here in Cambo you can get away without including it, at least for now. So you have Helen doing several varieties of cookies – chocolate chip, oatmeal, cinnamon and lots more – without telling us what’s in them. With her cookies I don’t mind, since I doubt if she includes anything I wouldn’t approve of.

You can also sell foodstuffs without proper kitchen inspections, also at least for now. Good thing since our major Khmer bakery has dingy walls that haven’t been painted in decades… an American inspector would have a heart attack. But lucky for us they’re producing a whole wheat baguette. Meanwhile our French bakery, which bakes some exceptional pastries, has no whole wheat breads available. They partly make up for the deficiency by having thick breads with loads of pumpkin and sesame seeds. If you’re like me and think that white bread, even the best made, is still a bit deficient, then we now have Patrick, a Belgian baker doing multigrain light and dark breads which he sells from the back of a three wheel truck that he parks near the front of the old market.

We’ve also got Kampot cider and though it’s actually made in Sihanoukville, it probably sounds a lot better to say Kampot cider. It’s strong and good tasting and I’d sometimes pay the extra price over beer except that it’s more than 7% alcohol, which only means I get drunk faster and have to go home earlier: as you can imagine, not my preferred outcome.

Then we have Evo who’s got a drinks cart identical to the ones that locals use that he sells cocktails from which he parks on the curb at the far end of the market and sometimes other locations. He provides those really short stools for his customers to sit on. James has a falafel, kebab joint on the old bridge road. He rents sidewalk space and does everything from a food cart, though it’s somewhat upscale.

On the river at the end of the strip closest to the old bridge we have Chen’s place, though he calls it Milly’s after his dog. Though he’s not an expat I’m including him here because he started out with a tiny hole-in-the-wall 6 seat, outdoor bar, which was later expanded, he hires mostly expats and often vies for the busiest bar in town. He plays music from the nineties on up which I like to listen to as a break from the tunes I’ve listened to all my life. He mostly has a younger crowd, but I’m almost always seeing people I know there.

Just across the street there’s a blank wall on a full block vacant lot. One of the most popular cane juice spots in town is on the corner. It’s been around for a long time, but starting a year or two ago a line of Khmer food stalls selling packaged noodle soups, fruit shakes, fried meat and fish balls, fried rice and such has sprung up. About 10 stalls up is Diego’s Italian restaurant. The décor is down home funky – weathered wooden bench seating, for instance – but the food is excellent, prices are very reasonable and most nights people are hanging around waiting for a seat.

There are also quite a few expats around town working in the bars or in their own establishments. As opposed to Phnom Penh where expats working at bars is unusual, people coming to visit from there are taken aback at the sight of that happening here. And the thing about it is locals and expats working side by side earn the same money, most often $10 per shift. It’s good money for Khmer, just barely doable for expats, many of whom are working to supplement their income or bank account rather than depending on it for their entire sustenance. For some it’s a means to stretch out their time here. Others are working just to get out and meet people. Still, as mentioned a few months back, it’s possible to rent small but livable spaces for as little as $40 month, and with beer at most places $1 per can, it’s still an easy life. It’s important to note that land prices and rentals are rising fast but if you are around for a while you can still pick up on good deals.

There are also lots of new restaurants and bars opening, including a Brass Monkey to add to our Monkey Republic and Mad Monkey. Okay, where’s the Monkey Business? The old standards are doing good: Rusty Keyhole and Wunderbar always have customers.

Fish Market
The Fish Market, which sits on stilts on the river across from the old market, is finally open. It’s been practically two years in the making, with long gaps of inactivity at the site. Whatever the cost, and it certainly wasn’t cheap, it’s been well worth the wait: it’s stunning, gorgeous, beautifully done. It was taken largely back to the original building finished in the 1920s, which required removing the previous total uglification remodel all the way down to the structure. That remodel made it into two stories with a blank windowless front.

After a period of vacancy it became Alaska disco in about 2008. It was extremely loud, even when I had my regulation ear plugs in, and beers were $3. It was very popular for a while in spite of those costly beers. Most customers – 80 to 90% – were young Khmer guys who’d nurse a single beer for hours. After about a year or so the business died and the customers moved over to Dragon Club across the river which is still going.

The finished Fish Market included recreating the three part rounded roof, which should be good for the acoustics. In addition to the restaurant, in which many of the meals are reasonably priced, it’ll provide a venue for live music. It’ll start with local acts, but in time national and international bands will be booked. It’s a big space and will be good for at least 100 people to dance on a beautiful, smooth tile floor, perfect for cool moves, as opposed to bouncing and jumping around. I’ll even bring out my dancing shoes. They aren’t ideal, since that requires leather soles, but still workable.

I Love Kampot River
The fourth annual I Love Kampot River event was held on Sunday March 13. A tent and stage was set up for the festivities and Monday was for the river clean-up in which hundreds of school kids are taken out on fishing boats to clean up the river bank. It’ll certainly make a difference in the long run to have local kids thinking about keeping the place tidy. Those kinds of changes, unfortunately, do not come overnight. The event included music by the Kampot Playboys, a band I’ve heard a hundred times but never tire of. Every time is so dynamic, driving, energetic, it just sweeps you up into it’s rhythm. The event also included a fashion show of kids wearing clothes made from recycled materials.

I’m often struck by how sharp and well-behaved most of our expat and mixed kids are. They seem so much more together than the typical cranky, demanding, often-spoiled-brats in the West. And it’s a pleasure to have events where beer is served and kids can roam freely. Back in Oregon beer can only be served or drunk behind a fence, lest the kiddies be exposed to the evils of beer drinking.

Unfortunately a sound problem kept the event from starting on time and caused the truncation of the show since the city required the music be over by 9pm. This I find to be baffling since 9 is very early to stop a show, besides the proliferation of weddings that are much louder and often go to practically midnight.

The only discordant note of the day was that beer was sold in non-biodegradable plastic cups. Almost all plastic today is made of petroleum based materials, which, though they lose their integrity relatively quickly, nonetheless hang around polluting the environment for millennia. That’s another one of those externalized costs. You sell them cheap today and let generations to come pay the costs of the environmental degradation they cause. Plastics can be made just as easily from plant based materials like corn or hemp and would cost no more than petroleum based plastics if the latter had to pay their externalized costs. You can toss biodegradable plastics on the ground and in a couple of months they have melted into the environment, with no ill effects whatever.

The Southern Train Line
After lamenting the absence of passenger train service on the southern line between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville in last month’s article it was recently announced that service is to begin on April 9, just in time for the Khmer New Year’s holiday. Freight trains have been running since 2013, so the absence of passenger service didn’t make sense. The trip will take about 8 1/2 hours and cost $7 with two stops in Takeo and Kampot, the only 2 intermediate stations ready for service. One reason it will take so long (as the rumor mill has it) is because the ballast, the rock foundation of the track, was poorly constructed so that speeds are limited to 30 to 40 kph, though it was intended to be an 80 kph line. The other reason is unsafe road crossings that add two hours to running time. Still, in spite of the extra time, trains are far superior in comfort and offer a much better view of the countryside – countryside as opposed to roadside businesses and trash – so the service is certain to be popular. They also have a charter service where you can rent a whole train.

Police Are Out in Force
I spoke too quickly last month about the police not staking out city locations for their checkpoints. They’re now all over the place at all times of the day and up to 11pm. They now get 70% of the fine so they are diligent about upholding the law and you get a receipt. I just recently paid a 25,000 riel – $6.25 – fine for not wearing my seatbelt.

Drunken Moto Cowboys.
Recently a friend almost killed himself driving drunk. Had he been successful, so to speak, he would’ve been the 7th person I’ve known since I came here 14 years ago who had done just that. Another friend came within a whisker of dying. He and a friend had been out cruising the bars in Phnom Penh on his big bike. They got back to the guest house alright, but the friend insisted on going back out with him driving. Not long later he had killed himself and put my friend in the hospital for three months. Aside from the obvious message of Don’t Drive Drunk, don’t drive like a teenage cowboy trying to show off, act like an adult and drive as slowly and as safely as you can muster. Finally, get a decent helmet. In the recent case the friend had a cheap helmet that (probably) saved his life, but it wasn’t good enough to avoid brain damage and a brain operation.

 

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