Life on the Mekong and Other Rivers

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog, including strong statements in support of weinerdog-riding monkeys, are our own, and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Rain coming early this year

For the past 4 nights we've had some pretty big thunder and rainstorms at night. And just now, the rainy season has begun in our house, as we have leaks around two windows, which has created a pretty little waterfall down our stairs.

Fellow SIPA boy makes good

So this article is written by a guy I went to SIPA with. Raffi was just entering the International Reporting Project when we were getting ready to leave for Laos, so we got to see him in DC as well.

Looks like he's doing well for himself. New York Times Op-Ed page is not too shabby.

Blowback in Africa

Published: April 28, 2006

EVER since Chad gained independence 46 years ago, it has been a world-class model of political dysfunction. In the 1970's, Chad's president, François Tombalbaye, compelled civil servants to renounce Western customs, undergo a tribal initiation rite known as yondo and profess belief in a nationalist creed he called Chaditude. He was executed in 1975. In the 1980's, a rebel leader named Hissène Habré led an army to the presidential palace and seized power. He became known as the "African Pinochet" and murderously pursued opponents for nearly a decade.

In 1990, Mr. Habré was chased out by an armed faction led by Chad's current president, Idriss Déby. Now Mr. Déby is facing his own rebellion.

Americans might dismiss this numbing cycle of coups as esoteric history belonging to a troubled and distant country. They shouldn't. The C.I.A. armed Mr. Habré for years, and since 2003, the United States military has been training and equipping Mr. Déby's army, making his fight to stay in office our fight, too.

Last year, Chad took part in a vast, international military exercise organized by the United States — the largest exercise of its kind in Africa since World War II, according to the Defense Department. This summer, American forces will continue to advise Chadian soldiers, and Congress is expected to allocate $500 million for a five-year program to train and equip several Saharan armies — including Mr. Déby's.

The military hopes these initiatives will help contain the threat of terrorism by bringing order to the Great Desert and its borderlands. For centuries, the Sahara has been a lawless realm, and with millions of Muslims living across the region in isolated communities, counterterrorism officials fear that Islamic militants may seek sanctuary there.

But dispensing military aid to Chad now — with Mr. Déby fighting hundreds of rebels backed by Sudan — seems reckless. It puts American military equipment and expertise in the hands of a desperate dictator. Worse still, it risks pouring additional fuel into the human furnace of Darfur, and it may well come to impede the careful diplomatic work required to solve that crisis.
So far, American officials have made much of Sudanese assistance to the rebels, framing the recent conflict in Chad as an outgrowth of the tragedy in Darfur. There is some truth to this. But the violence in Chad also has its own political narrative. During his 16 years in power, Mr. Déby has ruled Chad brutally. His security forces have committed torture, rapes, summary executions and mass killings.

Mr. Déby is a member of the Zaghawa — a northern tribe making up roughly 5 percent of Chad's population — and last year the State Department described his regime as a Zaghawa oligarchy shielded by a security and intelligence apparatus that violates human rights with impunity. In 2004, Mr. Déby altered Chad's Constitution to grant himself another term in office. Elections are scheduled for next Wednesday. There is little likelihood they will be fair.

Only one compelling argument exists for giving Chad military aid, and it follows from the logic of lesser evils. Many of the refugees fleeing Darfur are Zaghawa, and Mr. Déby has taken them in. If his regime collapses, tens of thousands of people will once again be at the mercy of Sudan's janjaweed marauders, and the genocide may spread.

This argument, though, is complicated by another unsettling development. In recent months, scores of Chadian soldiers have defected to the rebel militias. If the defections continue, they raise the horrific possibility that American military equipment and expertise could end up going to men aligned with the janjaweed. In that case, our military assistance to Chad, far from containing political anarchy, would only add to it.

Raffi Khatchadourian traveled to Chad in 2005 for the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

And yes, I wore this shirt for 4 days straight.

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And that was our trip to Burma and the beach.

While getting ready to head back to the airport and home, Katherine notice a quite incongruously-named boat waiting for a fare. Note the guy sleeping in his hammock. I guess he doesn't really care if the fare ever comes.

More limestone and blue water.

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The route to Phra Nang beach from Railay took us across the peninsula and through our hotel grounds to Railay East beach. Our place stretched from West to East. We were in a bungalow on the right hand side of the walkway.

Railay East is not much of a beach, and becomes a mud flat at low tide. However, it was the route to Phra Nang, so we visited a few times. Crab eating Macaques were in the surrounding trees. I kept my glasses well out of their reach. That didn't keep them safe, however, as Katherine dropped them the day we were leaving and popped a lens out. Luckily, the resort town that our longtail boat dropped us at to find a cab had a glasses shop right on the beach where they fixed them for free in about 2 minutes.

Phra Nang beach.
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Our return to Railay afforded some nice views of the sun going down.

And of our beach. Railay is on the left of the large Karst. Phra Nang beach is on the right. It was a great beach too, but dominated by the Rayavadee resort, a $500 and up a night place. They did provide access to the beach for us commoners though. Very thoughtful. Krabi, and especially the area around Railay, is the preeminent Thai rock climbing area. We stayed at ground level, or, when scuba diving, under it.

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Downtime between the first and second dives was taken up by reading on the boat. I'm proud to say that I have read my first Steinbeck novel. East of Eden was my companion through Burma and the beach.

Katherine, as usual, ripped through a couple Harlequin Romances

At the end of the day, we swung by Phi Phi island to drop off two German guy. When we visited this island in 2002 with Ari, Jennine, Geoffrey and Cob, it was completely overdeveloped, the whole beachfront was guesthouse on top of guesthouse. Then the Tsunami hit. Phi Phi is horseshoe shaped, with about 100 meters between the two shores in the middle part of the island, which is only a few meters above sea level. As such, it was completely wiped out. A big hotel is under construction, but other than that the beach was pretty bare. Posted by Picasa

So one day we left the beach to head out for some scuba diving. It was a 2 1/2 hour trip out, but very comfortable, as the boat can hold up to 20 divers, and we were 6, plus the crew and staff. The anticipation was broken up by breakfast and the type of talk that comes from a diverse group (us, Germans, a Brit, a Swede, and some Kiwis) being thrown together with two things in common; 1. we are on the same boat, and 2. we are all going scuba diving in Thailand.

Gearing up

and going down.
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Krabi, the province that Railay beach is in, is full of amazing limestone carsts. Railay beach is surrounded by them, and as such, accessible only by boat. Here's our beach in the relative early morning before the daytrippers arrived.

Looking to the right.

And to the left.
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Common Cause

It seems that my visitor from Pakistan (who is dead to me until he produces the picture) with the elusive evidence of the monkey riding the weiner dog is stiffing not only me, but his colleagues in Islamabad as well, as evidenced by this.

Look at bullet point #6. And this was posted on April 13, so he's really dragging this thing out. Damn him.

Go here and leave a comment demanding pictorial evidence be shared posthaste.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Next Up. The Beach.

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The man who was named to be a diplomat: Walter Parrs III*

The next day we flew back to Rangoon, where we met up with our friends Walter and Alex Parrs. Walter and Alex were our first foreign service friends. Like us, they lived in New York before joining, so we got together with them before training started.

Then, we flew to post together, and I was able to celebrate the start of my birthday with them last year as we arrived at our hotel in Bangkok after in the wee morning hours of March 3, 2005. Then they were off to Rangoon and we to Vientiane.

Walter and Alex are heading to Muscat, Oman next (look at a map of Saudi Arabia, now look south. That's Oman.) They will cycle back through DC for the same 7 months that we will be there, so that will be nice. They are having a great time in Rangoon, and seeing their apartment full of cool stuff they've bought in Burma made us realize that we haven't done nearly enough shopping here in Vientiane.

*The only possibly better diplomat name I've found so far amongst my FS colleagues is Forrest Atkinson. Ambassador Forrest Atkinson. It just rolls off the tongue.

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Downtown of another stilted town. It doesn't seem quite as prosperous as the other stilted town we went through. Seems a bit more of an Inle lake version of a town that Clint Eastwood would inhabit in one of his spaghetti westerns.

Sure, I was all smiles on the start of our return journey to our hotel on the north end of the lake.

But then we started racing this back. Luckily, we made it back to the hotel before getting rained on. In fact, the storm held off until later that night.

Which gave us time to play some scrabble on our deck. Katherine was concentrating intently, but, as you can see, I was sitting on the Z, which I'm sure I used soon after to crush her.

As we were getting ready for bed, we were hit with the full force of the storm. The rain came in torrents, the thunder was deafening, and the power went out. They sure do have some weather there in Burma. Posted by Picasa

Hygiene being important to kids...

At a lakeside village with a large pagoda that we stopped at, a group of kids approached us apprehensively at first, then quite aggressively. So, what did they want? Did they ask for the candy, pencils, or money that kids around the developing world have learned to ask foreign tourist for?

No. These kids wanted shampoo. Hands out, they trailed us for a time repeating their request over and over. "Shampoo? Shampoo? Shampoo?"

"Why on earth do you want shampoo," I asked, which was quite useless, as shampoo seemed to be the only English word that they knew.

So I turned the tables and demanded shampoo of them. Hands out, I begged for that most coveted item. They didn't have any.

Inside the local pagoda it was nap time. People were just sprawled out on the ground. It was actually quite common to see people napping in the shade around temples or inside temples themselves. At Shwedegon in Rangoon, Katherine asked Yoda whether the people we were seeing sleeping all over the temple complex were homeless. No, he said, they were just tired. Good enough.

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Jumping cats and such

Here is the famed Jumping Cat Monastery. It has another name, but that's not important. It sits on stilts and a small island in the middle of the lake.

The talented cat from another point of view. The cat-wrangling monk spoke pretty good English, so we chatted for a bit. He said he had been at the monastery for 8 years, and came from 'a mysterious town West of Mandalay.' When I asked him to explain, he said 'it's a mystery.' Explanation enough.

Boatloads of Burmese were visiting the temple as well. Okay, one boatload of Burmese was visiting the temple. They were very friendly, as were all the Burmese we talked to, saw, passed, etc.

At another stop on our lake tour, Katherine once again was the target of New Year's wishes, as expressed by pouring water on her. She was a good sport.

Rows of tomatos growing in staked rows on the lake.

I guess if you grow up in a stilted house in the middle of the lake, you would probably wish for a boat for your birthday instead of a bike. This girl seemed to have gotten her wish, but she doesn't seem too happy about it.

Main Street.

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