Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Exiting Asia

I met Nit ten months ago, in the heavy heat of a Bangkok afternoon as I walked from my guest house to the train station. He was leaning on the fence alongside a filthy canal that was choked with plastic and smelling like open sewage and industrial chemicals. He had a fishing pole next to him, with a line in the water and as I got closer, he hooked into something big. After five minutes, he pulled a four pound carp onto the greasy sidewalk, and looked up, beaming.

“Nice work!” I said in Thai.
“He’s a fat one,” he said. “What are you doing for dinner? Will you eat him with me?” Looking at the fish gasping on the sidewalk and the bracken water that spawned it, I was quietly happy to have other plans.

Nit was a handsome man, 28, with long black hair and leathery hands blackened from his work as an auto mechanic. He was from Issan, the agricultural province of northern Thailand. He’d come to Bangkok give years ago, looking for work, and had only returned once because the bus fare is expensive. He missed home. Though he’s older than the average marrying age here, Nit hasn’t taken a wife. “I don’t like the Bangkok girls,” he told me. “They’re too stuck-up. I like English girls because of their beautiful noses.”

Most mornings Nit wakes up early and walks to work in the mechanic shop to make a few dollars in a day’s labor. But not today. He got drunk last night, so he came out fishing instead. He’s a smart man, and has studied some English, but he rarely has a chance to use it, so he forgets. He wanted to know about where I was from. How long it took me to get here, and how much it cost.

“I want to go to Egypt one day,” he told me. “Have you ever been? I want to see the pyramids and Pharaoh’s tomb.” He was a proud man, opening his dreams like a lunchbox in a lion’s den, because, if he didn’t guard them like hell, everything around him – the trash-clogged canal, the paddy-land of his birth and the grease-stained hands he escaped to – would pluck them from him so quick he wouldn’t even feel the sting of the hook.

The fish was still slapping its tail on the pavement at Nit’s feet when I said goodbye. I had a train to catch. Nit shook my hand and wished me good luck, and I swear it was the most sincere I’ve ever heard those two words sound.

It’s now been a year since I left America, made the first journey of these travels and wrote the first words of these stories. I want to thank you all for your comments and e-mails and encouragement throughout the year. Due to sickness, other obligations and perhaps a bit of laziness as well, my posts have not always been regular. For the past two months I was on holiday in northern India with my beautiful girlfriend, and happily indisposed.

It’s been an eventful and valuable year in which I learned a lot about myself, the world and journalism. Over the course of it I was tailed by Burmese spies, arrested by the Kabul Counter-Terrorism Police Force, and embedded with a rebel army in the Golden Triangle. But I also simply sweated with people on Indian trains, shared food with families in Laos and talked about girls with taxi drivers in Thailand. And I suppose, at the end of it, I learned more about humanity from the mundane than manic. This morning I talked to a woman at a coffee stand in Bangkok with two young boys, whom she named Wind and Surf respectively. In the midst of one dusty journey in the central highlands of Afghanistan, a young man gave me his hat after I bought him a pomegranate juice.

Make no mistake, these are profound times – the global economy is crashing, the climate is warming and over the course of our lives the diminishing oil supply will rapidly change the way in which we live. But amidst these headlines, often the most revealing news, about who we are and how we live, fails to make the ticker. The stereotypical journalist is a cynical story-teller, already five drinks into the evening in bars throughout the world – pick up a newspaper and it’s easy to see why. But, perhaps unlike them, I feel more hopeful at the end of this journey than I did at the start.

Two hours ago I was driven to the Bangkok Airport by a taxi driver named Somphong. Like Nit, he was also from Thailand’s Issan province, a country boy who came to the city to find work. Somphong liked to talk. He started by having a good laugh about the beguiling nature of Osama bin Laden. “Isn’t that strange! The most advanced country in the world, and they still can’t catch him! That guy is strong! The police and the FBI are catching people all the time, but they can’t get that guy. It’s incredible!”

I learned more about Somphong as we sped down the freeways, over the bypasses and under the flyovers; the arteries of a city of nine million that can look like a terrifyingly beautiful matchbox car racing course. Somphong would lay down his vote for John McCain, if anyone asked it of him, because he’s old and level-headed. He wants to fly in an airplane one day. He likes Lao girls because they’re short and have big breasts. He talked about Burma, too.

“It’s a bad government, but it’s preserved some things. Look at Thailand,” he said, taking in the giant movie posters, the luxury cars, the smog and the noise in one sweep of his hand. “It’s developed, but there’s no nature anymore. It’s comfortable, but it’s stressful. Burma may have a bad government, but they still have their culture.”

There was some truth in what he was saying, another lesson on how the world defies explanation. But by then we were near the airport, and Somphong stopped talking to point out a giant Boeing-747 coming in for a landing. “Oh, look at it fall,” he said, slapping the steering wheel. “The pilot better get it right, or they’re all going to die!” Just before it landed, in his glee, he made a sound like a duck and we both laughed.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Peaceful Afghan Province Plans for Tourism

Bamiyan, AFGHANISTAN – Call him forward thinking, but Sanjeev Gupta thinks it’s about time war-torn Afghanistan had a tourism industry.

Gupta, a regional program manager for a non-governmental organization called the Aga Khan Foundation, says that while some parts of Afghanistan remain too volatile to visit, Bamiyan, the province in which he works, is blessed with relative peace – and an abundance of cultural, historical and natural treasures capable of luring travelers from all around the world.

“Bamiyan has a lot of tourist potential,” Gupta said. “We need to correct the perception of Afghanistan. The whole country is not dangerous.”

To promote the industry, the Aga Khan Foundation has created the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project – a three-year program that will develop a tourism infrastructure, train guides, cooks and hoteliers, and raise awareness of the region’s attractions.

Nevertheless, the task of establishing a tourism industry in Afghanistan, even in a relatively safe province like this one, is formidable. Most western governments’ advisories strongly discourage non-essential travel to the country. Of the two roads that link the city to Kabul, one travels through territory controlled by the Taliban and the other experienced two roadside bombings in the past month. The journey takes 10 hours, over a dirt road that resembles the surface of an asteroid. There are no commercial flights to the province.

But Gupta is thinking long-term with the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project. So long-term that he imagines a future Bamiyan with an international airstrip. “It’s not that we’re starting the program today and tomorrow there are hordes of tourists coming,” he said. “But it builds a base.”

To be sure, tourism here is not without precedent. Bamiyan has been on travel itineraries since it was a major caravanserai of the Silk Road and once hosted famous wanderers like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. More recently, Laura Bush paid a visit in June. Bamiyan’s towering statues of the Buddha, carved into a sandstone cliff 1,500 years ago – a century before the birth of Islam – attracted foreign tourists up until the Soviet invasion in 1979. Few have traveled here in the last 30 years of war, and in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist landmarks with rockets and tanks.

Now, as this province emerges as one of the success stories of post-Taliban Afghanistan, the people want their history back. Habiba Sarabi, the governor of Bamiyan and the only female governor in Afghanistan, says she is tired of seeing her province lumped in with the negative news from the rest of the country.

“If there is news about security in Afghanistan, then it affects Bamiyan,” Sarabi said. The governor hopes that as people become aware of the region’s safety, tourism will become a lucrative industry for her province. “It can bring a lot of income and a lot of change to people’s lives,” she said. The governor is still cautious, however. “We want to avoid mass tourism in Bamiyan,” she said. “Everything should be taken care of.”

Sarabi says she wants at least one of the Buddha statues to be rebuilt, a difficult project which several organizations have offered to fund, but is still awaiting approval from the Ministry of Culture in Kabul. “Unfortunately, they haven’t made a decision,” Sarabi said.

But according to Abdul Razak, sitting in the empty restaurant of his 18-room Roof of Bamiyan Hotel, tourism has a long way to come here. “The most important thing for tourists is peace,” he said. “If (the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project) can bring peace, then the tourists will come. If not, everything is for nothing.”

Razak said that the presence of UN and large-budget NGO offices have inflated the cost of rent in Bamiyan. As a result, he has to charge $40 - $60 per night for one of his rooms – fine for the vacationing expatriates from Kabul, but a higher price than he would use to target genuine travelers, often on smaller budgets.

“This is not a tourist price,” he said. “This is a crazy price. If more guests come, I will put the price down to $10.”

Down the hill from the Roof of Bamiyan is the Silk Road Hotel, which charges $80 - $100 for a room, but boasts Bamiyan’s first and only sushi bar.

Afghanistan’s recent instability has taken its toll on the nascent tourism industry here. The recent bombing outside the Indian embassy in Kabul and the January attack on the capital’s only five-star hotel have hurt business, says AndrĂ© Mann, founder of the Great Game Travel Company, which offers customized adventure travel expeditions around Afghanistan.

“Things turned to the worse, which we didn’t expect,” he said.

Mann said his company’s clientele are well-traveled, well-to-do Europeans and Americans intent on visiting Afghanistan. “We try to make it safer for them,” he said. While his business has suffered in 2008, in 2007 he organized trips for 200 travelers, and he hopes 2009 will be even better. “Afghanistan is absolutely unique,” he said. “It’s waiting to be discovered. It just needs some infrastructure.”

The decision to travel to Afghanistan was a rewarding one for Pei-Yin Lew, a 22-year old Australian medical student enjoying a trip to Bamiyan’s spring-fed Band-i-Amir lakes one recent Sunday.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Afghanistan was to see these lakes,” she said, standing above a string of six brilliant blue lagoons set in the middle of barren sandstone badlands. “It’s truly beautiful here.”

When Lew arrived at the Afghan border after traveling for a month in neighboring Iran, she had a copy of the brand new Lonely Planet for Afghanistan and a profile on, an online network of people around the world willing to host travelers in their towns. Travel websites, family and friends had urged her not to go to Afghanistan, but she’s glad she did.

“As a girl, traveling alone, you don’t know how people are going to react to that,” Lew said. “But it’s all about perception. Some will say it’s safe, some will say it’s not, but no one really knows.”

Friday, June 13, 2008

En route to Kabul

I'm in Delhi now, wrapping up things before I fly to Afghanistan, perhaps next week. A story I wrote on India's ship-breaking industry ran on yesterday and you can read that here. I'll be posting more stories when I reach Kabul. In the meantime, khoda hafez, friends.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Burial at Sea

India fights to keep a deadly industry authorities say it cannot afford to lose
Photos courtesy of Andrey Potapov

The first stop of its final voyage was to collect 3,000 tons of Icelandic blue whiting from the Faroe Islands. Then, the ageing 370-foot Russian trawler ferried the fish to Nigeria. Three months later, the rust-riddled Komandarm Shcherbakov sailed on to India, to die.

On May 6, when the tide was highest, the vessel pointed its bow landward, gunned its engines for the last time and slid up the beach between the skeletal carcasses of other scrapped ships at India’s biggest ship-breaking yard, Alang. There, it found its final resting place in the sand.

According to the ship’s chief mate, Andrey Potapov, the Shcherbakov had asbestos insulation in its engine rooms and elsewhere, like many vessels of its age.

“It was built 25 years ago,” Potapov said. “They didn’t know it was bad back then.”


Amrika Prasad was named after America. The closest he ever got to his namesake, however, was Alang, where more than half of the world’s ships were once sent to die. There, hundreds of miles from his home village, Prasad broke down discarded vessels from America and other countries, pulling his livelihood from the toxic guts of old warships, trawlers and cruise liners. Asbestos, hazardous PCB chemicals and radioactive materials were all currencies of his trade.

But one day in 1996, a plate of steel falling from a dead ship would land squarely on his back, ending his working life and crippling him forever.

With the help of a local lawyer, Prasad filed a compensation claim against his employer, who had no insurance for his workers. After nine years of fighting the case, the court ordered the ship breaker to pay Prasad 578,000 rupees ($14,440). That was only half of the battle. Prasad’s lawyer, Pradeep Thakker, is still fighting to collect the sum from the owner. Thakker says about 130 workers’ compensation claims he represents are still pending settlement. And Prasad’s wait is not uncommonly long.

“Working at Alang is a very hard job,” Thakker says. “So the downtrodden people of society work there.”

Most of the 5,000-odd workers now employed at Alang are migrants, risking fatal casualty rates six times higher than the mining industry for a few dollars a day. A committee appointed by the Indian Supreme Court in 2006 found that one of every six workers is suffering from early symptoms of asbestosis.

But as the Indian ship-breaking industry loses ground to the more competitive scrap-yards in Bangladesh and Pakistan, the authorities here are desperately trying to save it.

“India has the capability to recycle warships, nuclear vessels, passenger carriers and all kinds of ships,” says Atul Sharma, environmental engineer for the Gujarat Maritime Board, responsible for inspecting ships before they beach at Alang. Sharma confirms that the Indian authorities have never denied entry to a ship for scrapping, no matter how old or how toxic. While India will continue scrapping these ships, he said that prior decontamination should be the responsibility of the vessels’ owners, a call echoed by environmentalists and a 2003 Supreme Court ruling.

In the meantime, Sharma says asbestos and PCB chemicals are removed, bagged and placed in protected landfills. Environmentalists argue that putting PCBs in landfills is prohibited by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, to which India is a party.

In September, 2007, the Indian Supreme Court issued two orders to regulate the industry. While requiring ship owners to be transparent about the materials their vessels carry onboard, the rulings point out the value of the industry. In the past ten years, ship recycling has brought 23 million tons of steel into India, a country badly in need of the metal, one says. In periods of high activity, the yard at Alang has employed upwards of 40,000 workers. A ship-breaker can expect to make $10 million recycling a large vessel.

But environmental groups argue that the true health and environmental costs of the industry haven’t been measured.

“These are toxic chemicals,” says Gopal Krishna of the Ban Asbestos Network of India. “But the moment these things enter Indian territory, they become non-toxic.” Krishna and others say the hazardous material onboard these ships are putting the workers and the surrounding village in great danger. “It’s an act of barbarism,” he says.

Krishna says the ship buyers and breakers hoodwink international law by using dummy companies to transfer ship ownership, changing the vessel’s name and flags on the high seas and lying to authorities about the final destination of the ships they intend on scrapping.

This was how the SS Blue Lady (formerly the Norwegian Cruise Line’s SS Norway) came to be beached at Alang. The 47 year-old, French-built steam liner has an estimated 1,200 tons of asbestos on board, in addition to several other toxic and radioactive materials. After the Blue Lady was decommissioned by a 2003 boiler explosion that killed eight crew members in Miami, Norwegian Cruise Line sent the ship to Bremerhaven, Germany. There the ship’s captain told inspecting authorities that the vessel would be repaired in Malaysia. But once on the high seas, the Blue Lady was “re-flagged” after being sold to Bridgend Shipping, of Monrovia, Liberia. It changed ownership again before arriving at Alang in June, 2006, where its dismantling has begun.

Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, a group dedicated to stopping international trade of toxic materials, says last September’s Supreme Court rulings have failed to effectively regulate ship-breaking at Alang.

The Basel Convention, from which Puckett’s group derives its name, was adopted in 1992 to stem the trade of toxic chemicals. It was signed by 170 countries, including India but not the United States. The convention prohibits a signatory country from accepting hazardous material from a non-signatory, but Puckett says the rule of law is being flouted in Alang by the heavyweights of a very powerful industry.

“It’s complete anarchy on the beaches of India right now,” he says. “No one is in control except the ship-breakers. They seem to be running the show.”

Gopal Krishna, of the Ban Asbestos Network, says it takes a bribe of 125,000 rupees ($3,125) to arrange all the necessary papers to get a ship beached quickly. The breakers often take out loans from the bank to purchase large vessels to scrap. In doing so, they must scrap the ship quickly to avoid high interest rates cutting into their profits. Krishna and others say that this haste leads breakers to disregard the safety of their workers and the environment.

While the breakers stand to make substantial profits with every ship they scrap, workers like Amrika Prasad are not so lucky. After 12 years, he, like many others, is still waiting for his former employer to pay a single rupee of compensation for the loss of his limbs.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Latest

The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran a story I wrote about Burma's underground political artists. That article can be found here.

There is also a virtual copy of the current issue of Wend Magazine now available on the internet. The magazine can be difficult to find in stores, but it's easily perused here, where my article on Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor starts on page 60.

I'm currently in Delhi, and will be traveling around India for the next several weeks to report some stories. I'll be sure to write about them here first. In the meantime, aram se jaega, go with peace.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Last word on Burma - the full story

My search for truth in Burma began in a sleepy embassy in Vientiane, Laos, where I sat sweating on a patent leather sofa in a crumpled silk shirt and tie, pulling phony business cards from my wallet. It was two months after the monk-led anti-government uprisings of last September, and I had already been rejected a tourist visa twice in Hong Kong and Bangkok. I decided to hit the diplomatic backwaters with a different tack.

So one night in Vientiane I printed a couple dozen business cards, which peddled me as the owner of a Colorado-based jewelry business. I designed my own executive stationary and drafted a formal letter of intent. In three days, I had the visa; stamped, sealed and shining like a coin from the pages of my passport.

I wanted to answer one question in Burma: how has a group of xenophobic generals survived 46 years of global condemnation, multiple popular uprisings and the persistent bloodletting of a handful of ethnic armies?

I left Burma a month later with a chilling answer. It wasn’t the generals’ military might that perpetuated their tyranny – it was their mastery of human psychology.

The decoy continued when I hit Rangoon. They say one person in four is a government informer in Burma’s commercial capital, and eager young men routinely stopped me in the street, full of questions in perfect English. “Where are you from? What are you doing here? Where are you staying?” I learned to invent alternate histories of my past.

I wasn’t alone; all around me the military government was manufacturing its own brand of truth. You could see it in the Orwellian billboards sprinkled around the city, declaring the People’s Desire in four concise points. You could feel it in the heart-thumping bass of the elite nightclubs where white shirts under black lights turned the realities of Burma upside down. You could read about it in the government daily, the New Light of Myanmar, quietly referred to by its street name, the New Lies of Myanmar. Banner headlines declared 2008 a time of “Unprecedented Opportunity” and that Burma’s “Private Sector is Booming.” This in a country where the majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, almost half of the national budget is spent on the military and people are drinking rice juice to survive.

Underneath the junta’s propaganda and wishful thinking, Burma’s truth stood out like a black eye. Beggars young and old plied the streets by day. Prostitutes took their turf by night, all dolled-up and doe-eyed outside the cinemas and under the bypasses, trawling the darkness for a livelihood in a country that has developed its own unique strain of HIV. In Burma, 360 young children die of preventable diseases every day because the government puts only 3 percent of the budget into healthcare. The statistics go on; dark, dense and revealing. But if you’re looking to take the pulse of Burma, you only have to sit in a teashop long enough and the truth will find you.
“In Burma, human rights, no,” Mr. Nyein told me with all the English he had one afternoon, edging his stool closer to mine though still looking away. “All people like Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy leader still under house arrest. He folded his hands at the wrists under the table. “But talking, danger.” And then he left.

Another day a teashop owner came to sit at my table, bringing with him a worn copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul. “You like George Bush?” he whispered. I was about to explain that not all Americans support their government when he stopped me. “I love George Bush. He thinks something and he does it. He doesn’t like Iraq, so he fights Iraq. I hope George Bush will fight a war with my country.”

After several of these teashop monologues, I began to see a Burma at a quiet simmer, in a precarious balance of anger and fear. This was the psychological pillar of the regime’s longevity. I was angry enough myself; watching the junta’s timber trucks haul old-growth teak to the Rangoon ports every day, listening to stories of taxi drivers suffering under the government’s daily fuel-price rigging, seeing the YouTube footage of the wedding of General Than Shwe’s daughter; festooned in the jewels of the country her father and his friends have bankrupted through corruption and mismanagement. Who wouldn’t be angry? Everything about the last 50 years of this country’s history was a moral outrage.

And then, suddenly, one night in the hills of central Burma, as I sat in a bare concrete room seething with eleven plainclothes policemen, I wasn’t angry any more. I was scared.

I had heard rumors of a secret military site in the mountains where the Burmese were building something big and dangerous with the help of some foreign advisers. The story was vague, but prevalent, and I wanted to have a look for myself. I found a guide, a jolly man with a pot-belly, and asked him about the idea. He thought about it for the night and met me the next morning with his answer. He would take me.

We hiked for 15 miles in the dust with brief lifts from two GMC jalopies from the 1930s, before we reached the village at the end of the road. Farmers told us about frequent helicopters coming and going from the other side of the mountain. Three months ago, they said, they were awoken by a large explosion that was never explained. A general had warned the village that no one was to venture to the other side of the mountain, and no one was to ask any questions.

For our own safety and theirs, the village put us under friendly house arrest. No one was comfortable saying much, so they lighted on the novelty of me, their first foreign visitor in living memory. Old men gathered that night from surrounding villages to appraise their first specimen of a white man. Bewildered and shy, they considered it a momentous, sober occasion.

“We must have been cousins in a past life,” one of them began cautiously, “to have had the good fortune to meet again in this one.”

By the morning our presence was clearly making the village uncomfortable – prison sentences come ad hoc and unexplained in Burma, especially where fraternizing with foreigners is concerned – so we started walking back to town.

The police were waiting for us 15 miles later, outside the teashop where I paid my guide and we were going to part ways. They put us on the backs of two motorbikes and took us to the concrete room on the edge of town, empty but for two desks, a picture of General Than Shwe and a sign on the wall that read “All Respect, All Suspect.”

It was the generals’ psychological alchemy – resurrecting fear from defiance. My passport was taken, there was much shouting, they found my digital camera, full of a journalist’s pictures, and took it to a computer shop to copy its entire contents. I was clammy, dry-mouthed and ready to vomit. Four hours later, when night had fallen, I was released – loaded onto a waiting pickup and deported from the town. The last I saw of my guide was in the rearview mirror: the police had him by the arm, and were leading him into the darkness.

Back in Rangoon I was being followed and my phone conversations were tapped. Random people sat next to me in restaurants, asking questions. I stopped talking to strangers. I started stepping onto moving buses, not knowing where they were going, but knowing, for the moment at least, that I was not being followed. The paranoia was paralyzing. Like Orwell’s Thought Police, they only had to do their job once; my own psychology was taking care of the rest.
I flew back to Bangkok a week later, still gripped by cold spasms of dread, worried about who was listening to me, who was watching. It was a small taste of the fear that has stagnated Burma for 46 years of blood-stained military rule. Last September, Burma’s volatile scale tipped from fear towards anger, and people who thought they had nothing to lose poured onto the streets in defiance. When the soldiers felled at least 31 monks and civilians and arrested thousands more, fear was restored: the same formaldehyde fear that preserves the generals’ power to further deceive, cheat and murder their own people. It’s the type of fear that silences you from the inside, until you trust no one, not even your own mind, and decades’ worth of your anger and defiance and sense of injustice all turn to jelly within your own heart.

It is giving too much credit to the generals to say they are responsible for all these years of hijacked truth, poverty, silence and isolation in Burma. It’s fear that’s done all that. The generals just hold the guns.

“You can shout freedom all you want,” one young man summed it up in a whisper over a teashop table, “But not when they’re shooting at you.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Moving On

I've come to the end of my time here in Southeast Asia, and am now moving on to India for the next several months. I will use India as a base for reporting from the surrounding regions. I'll try to keep the posts regular to keep you updated on my whereabouts and goings on. In the meantime, all the best, be in touch and safe journeys.