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Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: A Year in Review

2009 was pretty decent.  I did some things well and others not so much.  I picked up some bad habits and strengthened and added some good ones. 

Adventure
This was a good year for expeditions, travel and adventure. Some of the highlights include:
Kicked around SE Asia with Bryan & Britney for 3 weeks.  The adventures are here, here, here and here.

Athletics
Did decent, but not great this year.  Some highlights:
Sparred with this world-ranked fighter

* Unfortunately failed at my goal of breaking a 5 minute mile and getting enough fights to turn open class in boxing.  Next year.

Social Life
I made some good friends through kickball and the boxing gym, but need to be better about making myself available for social outlets.  Tended to do my own thing a lot more than is probably healthy.  Not sure if this is out of laziness or just a lack of a need for much social interaction.  Unfortunately have let quite a few friendships from Southern California slip quite a bit.  No real excuse for that when just a phone call here and there would do.

Reading
Finally knocked out some of the books that had been sitting on my shelf for a while, and read a bunch of others.  A complete list here.

Writing
I am pretty happy with how my writing has come along.  I think I have "found my voice" as they say, and it seems to depend entirely on putting myself down.  I'll roll with it.  Wrote two 20-30 page abortions that were supposed to end up as novels, which was a fail.  Maybe 2010 will be the year I can write a story that I can still stomach after the 10,000 word mark.

General Know-How & Competency
Picked up bits and pieces of knowledge and experience on all the outdoor activities
Learned quite a bit from reading the US Army Survival Manual
Learned that pretending to pick up a rock will sometimes dissuade a dog from attacking
Learned that you cant brake and accelerate at the same time on a motor-cycle

Financial
Paid off all credit card debt, and only owe a few thousand left on my student loans. 
Created emergency fund of a few months...not enough
Started using Amex for a lot more expenses in order to take advantage of rewards.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book List for 2009

The year is over (almost).  My reading habits moved back towards fiction after a long phase of non-fiction and educational material.  Reading a wider variety of material has helped my writing, thinking and just overall being.


Travel
"Marco Polo Didnt Go There," Rolf Potts
"In a Sun-Burned Country," Bill Bryson
"You Shall Know Our Velocity," Dave Eggers
"The Lost Continent," Bill Bryson
"The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," Bill Bryson
"A Fighters Heart," Sam Sheridan
"Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja" Amit Gilboa
"Children of Jihad," Jared Cohen


Boxing
"Strong Boys and Buttercups," William Plummer
"This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own," Jonathon Rendell
"Charley Burley & the Black Murderers Row," Harry Otto
"The View From Ringside," Thomas Hauser
"The Black Lights," Thomas Hauser
"I Cant Believe It, but It's True," Thomas Hauser
"The Greatest Sport of All," Thomas Hauser
"Cut Time: An Education at the Fights," Carlo Rotella


General Know-How (Finance, Staying Alive, Inspirational, On Writing)
"US Army Survival Manual"
"Your Money or Your Life," Joe Domingo
"Blink," Malcom Gladwell
"The Four Hour Work Week," Tim Ferris
"This is the Year You Write Your Novel," Walter Mosley
"What I Talk About When I Talk About Running," Haruki Murukami


Biography
"The Last American Man," Elizabeth Gilbert
"1st They Killed my Father," Loung Ung


Literary Fiction
"The Old Man and the Sea," Ernest Hemingway
"Cities of the Plain," Cormac McCarthy
"Crime and Punishment," Fyodor Dostoevsky


Other Fiction
"Joker," Brian Azzarello
"The Gunslinger," Stephen King
"The Road to the Dark Tower," Bev Vincent
"Not Fade Away," Jim Dodge
"Fup," Jim Dodge
"Stone Junction," Jim Dodge
"Vernon God Little," D. B. C. Pierre
"World War Z," Max Brooks


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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fried Tarantalas, Cobra Whiskey & a Complete Disregard for the Importance of One's Liver

It's been a few weeks since I returned from South-East Asia, so I should probably start writing about something else. I'm not ready to do that yet.

Bryan, Britney and I adopted (or were adopted by) Alison, a British girl visiting Cambodia after competing in a muay thai tournament in Thailand. We gorged ourselves on Siem Reap's finest street food, and then set off for the local night market. All night markets in the entire world look exactly the same, and they all sell the same worthless shit. With that in mind, I decided to stimulate the local economy by finding the perfect opium pipe. I don't smoke opium, so there is no reason for me to buy s pipe. This is a reality that somehow was escaping me at the time. Alison was helping me in my search while Bryan and Britney went on a mission for an equally worthless knick-knack.

Fortunately for me, opium pipes are about as common as hookers in Siem Reap. That is to say, they are EVERYWHERE. Small stalls selling the exact same pipe right next to each other would give me vastly different price quotes. After hearing the initial $12 price bettered by a man offering it for $6, I became convinced that a $2 pipe must be available somewhere around there.

We made our way towards the back of the market, passing a woman pushing a wheel-barrow filled to the brim with fried, palm-sized tarantalas.

"Haha, look at that!" I exclaimed to Alison. "Man, people will eat anything." I shook my head in sympathy at what must bring someone to resort to eating something so nasty as spider guts. With my characteristic short attention span, I immediately was distracted from the spiders by a fresh opium pipe stall that I hadn't bargained with yet.

"We're eating them." Alison's voice was low and full of purpose. Looking back at her, her eyes hel a steely determination.

I laughed nervously. "Haha, good one. Come check out this stall. They have those antique-looking pipes that are so cool-looking, and the vendor looks desperate."

She cut me off. "You're eating one." She then grabbed my arm and propelled me towards the wheel-barrow.

"Wait," I stammered, "lets talk about this..."

We looked into the large mass of giant black spiders. They were disgusting. It was obvious to everyone. The bodies and heads were fat and juicy. The legs were crispy-looking, but the hair hadn't burnt off for some reason. I relaxed. There was no way Alison could have taken this second closer look at the creatures and still think this was a good idea. No way. It was impossible. Lunacy even...

"We'll have two," Alison told the woman selling them.

Damn.

"Ready?" Alison asked, holding "my" spider out to me by one hairy leg.

"Wait," I said, thinking quickly. "We need a drink first."

She rolled her eyes, but nodded. At the bar I tried to decide what concoction would kill my taste buds most effectively. Jack Daniels it is then.

We saluted and began the serious business of drinking whiskey. My spider sat on his napkin and stared at me. Then it called me a coward. I glared back at it.

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The whiskey and spiders were a good conversation started, and we were quickly joined by Galang, Alex and the rest of their crew. Strangely, they wanted to eat the spiders. About this time, Bryan wandered over towards us. He looked at the whiskey. He looked at the spiders. He looked at our faces, which reflected both excitement and utter horror.

"It's going to be one of those kinds of nights, is it?"

I nodded, despair obvious. He nodded back and went off to find the spider lady.

When he returned, the now-hefty group of us cheersed our spiders against each other, and went to work. Alison went right to it, while I nibbled delicately at one of the legs. They were crispy and reeked slightly of death, disease and Eastern European BO. Noticing my own slow progress as Alison polished hers off, I rolled my eyes, sighed, and bit into the fat abdomen. It tasted about like you would expect it to, but since Alison was looking at me, I smiled and said "yum."
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Bryan returned and disapeared with two bottles of cobra whiskey. He poured shots all around, and we pulled the cobras out of the jars to play with and throw at each other. Speaking to the high quality control standards of Cambodia, the liquid in each shot was of a slightly different color. They all tasted the same however; like rancid formaldehyde.

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Half-blind from whiskey and spider, we followed our new friends to a night club. They poured shot after shot of scotch, while we posed for pictures with the snakes.
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To the best of my knowledge, we kept drinking. At some point in the night, we must have somehow found our way back to the guest house.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lumpini Stadium - Bangkok

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There is a mecca for Muay Thai kickboxing, and it's name is Lumpini. Located in the heart of Bangkok, only top fighters from well-respected camps have the opportunity to fight there. The fact that fights are held at the stadium three times a week speaks to the deep talent pool in the country.

Bryan and I caught a cab from Khao San Road, and pulled up twenty minutes later in front of the stadium. Immediately latching onto us was one of the stadium's hosts. He spoke perfect English, and showed us the various seating options. Ringside was 2000 Baht, a sum far exceeding what we should spend, as we were obviously being charged the "Farang" price. There was a collective "fuck it," and we found ourselves 20 feet from Thailand's finest combat athletes.

The scene was reminiscent of the Kumite tournament from Van Damme's "Bloodsport," with rabid fans waving large stacks of colorful Thai money, and frantically calling out their bets. Each landed blow would elicit an "ooo-way!" from the crowd, and each individual would loudly up or condemn their previous bets. Most of the betting took place in the back sections of the arena, and that looked like where most of the fun was going down. We promised ourselves to sit there the next time.

In the ring, a fighter from the blue corner stalked his opponent. He took a hard kick to the ribs, and laughed it off. His opponent waded back into the fray, only to eat a flash left hook-right hand combination to the jaw. The right hand dropped him to his knees, and he was stood up immediately by the ref. The blue fighter feinted with his head and shoulders before dipping and coming over the top with his elbow. It crashed flush onto his opponent's face, and the man was out cold before he hit the canvas. The ref called the fight, and the cornermen of the downed fighter looped his arms over their shoulders to carry him out of the ring.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

S-21: Genocide & Torture in Phnom Penh

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Visiting the High School-turned-Prison-turned-Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh is to see the absolute worst that mankind is capable of. It is also to see just how thin the veneer between civilization and barbarity really is. The scariest part (for me) is how...normal everything looks. The grounds are set within a fairly quiet suburban center of the city, surrounded by the usual combination of shanties and apartments that make up Phnom Penh's housing situation. We sat at a guesthouse across the street before entering, drinking coffee and eating breakfast.

The first sign that not all is what it seems is the thick tangle of barbed wire that stretches over the wall of the entire perimeter. The second is the procession of beggars and homeless that shuffle around the entrance, nearly all of whom are missing limbs. One man's face is almost completely melted away from being doused with acid.

You enter through the front gate, pay a $2 entry fee, and pick up an information pamphlet. There are 5 buildings of the complex, designated as A, B, C, D, and E. The classrooms of the first of these were unaltered from the original design. The large rooms held dozens of prisoners, bound with leg shackles, and arranged like sardines in a can. There was never a square inch between prisoners unless someone had been removed for interrogation. The interrogation rooms were typically set in a medium-sized classroom. The prisoner was set on a raised mattress, and bound with a leg shackle to the headboard. Torture was executed in order to obtain confessions from the individual prisoner, his family, and his closest neighbors. The individual's guilt was never in question. One was considered guilty because he had been arrested...NOT arrested because he was guilty. To question this basic premise was to imply that the Angkar (movement) was fallible. The cots have been left just as they stood, with large dark stains in a circle around them. The blood of countless victims has soaked so deeply into the stone floors that it cannot be washed away. A photo of the last victim of each room has been hung on the wall. When the Vietnamese retook the city, the prison guards rushed to torture the last of the prisoners, and 14 final victims were found in the beds, dead by minutes.

In the D and E buildings, the classrooms had been cordoned off into individual holding cells. Patchwork brick and mortar had been applied, creating cells that were about 3-4 feet wide and 5-6 feet deep. Each was small enough to touch both sides at the same time, and they had been conveniently supplied with a metal can for excrement. Prisoners would be dragged from these cells to the interrogation rooms or the outside grounds to be tortured en masse. Distinct blood stains can be seen here, smudged onto the floor. In one, a tiny, child-sized bloody palm print is visible, as are claw marks on the brick from prisoner's finger nails.

One of the most (of many) disturbing parts of the museum is the large area of photographs of the many prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng. New-borns, men, women, and children were all treated the same, and their before and after pictures were taken. The Khmer Rouge was similar to the Nazi's in their attention to detail regarding documentation of all that transpired within the compound.

Bryan, Brittany and I walked the grounds for several hours, entering each room of the prison. It was an hour into it before we realized that we had been walking on tip-toe and speaking in whispers the entire time. That would last for an hour after we left.

I'm not sure what kind of person it would take for this, but many of the rooms showed signs of tagging and graffiti from past visitors. People wrote their names and initials, dates they had visited, where they had came from...one gentleman drew a large penis on the wall of a cell where the last prisoners had been tortured to death.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Motor-Biking on Ko Si Chang

My brother grew up aruound bikes. He started riding them young, knew how to fix & customize them, built jumps for them, raced them. He got that from our Dad, who still remembers his favorite childhood gift being a bicycle. When I was young, he tried to share that feeling with me. On Christmas Eve, he told me to wash my hands for dinner, where I would be sure to notice the brand-new bike that was to be my present.

I dutifully retired to the wash-room, only to return quickly to notify my parents that I couldn't wash my hands because "some stupid bike was in the way."

*le sigh*

There can only be one Lance Armstrong anyway, I suppose.

That long and boring back-story was probably more than sufficient to make the point that Bryan is far more prepared and suited to riding motor-bikes around the small Thai island of Ko Si Chang than I. He had further honed his skills during the preceding 3 months that he had spent in Phuket.

"You push that button, twist that gripper, and then you go," he said.

I nodded, and immediately tried to accelerate and break at the same time. This is a manuever that I may have invented. The resulting action promptly deposited me on my ass, presenting an opportunity to rid myself of some excessive and un-needed skin from my hands, knees, toes and stomach.

Bryan, knowing my history, did not look entirely surprised. He was probably thinking of the time, maybe 15 years before, when I decided that, being the big brother, I should be able to do anything that he could. Hopping on a bike for the first time in years, I immediately hauled ass, heading for one of his more burly jumps. I launched up and out, falling a good 2 feet short, and propelling myself up and over the handlebars, cutting my shin to the bone. But I digress...

I disentangled myself from the downed motor-bike, wiped my bloody palms on my shorts, and got back on the seat. I made sure to ease off the brakes, and we were off. We cruised the entire island, finding small sections of the village where locals were fishing, talking, working and playing. Small children gawked at the three farang as we sped past, bursting into wide grins and calls of "Hal-loooo" when we smiled at them.

We zig-zagged across the streets, getting more comfortable and more daring, powering up hills and around corners.

"This aint that hard," I thought to myself as the guest-house came back into sight. I then cut off several riders coming the opposite way, took the turn a bit too wide, and nearly collided with a stone wall.
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