Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year’s Eve Pozzallo, Sicily to Malta

by Saigon Charlie

Travel Summary:

Although it would be very difficult to find out how to find how to take a train/ship trip to Malta from central Europe, it can be done with a bit of effort.

You would need to make your way to Napoli (Naples) first and assuming you came down by train, after arriving at the central station, go out to the tram stop in front of the station and take Tram #1 towards the port. Not that long a ride and actually it could be walked if you are traveling lightly.

This tram will go a few stops, take a turn to the right along the main industrial port frontage and after a few more stops, you will come to an open area on the port side where a large terminal building is and a café. You will also notice a booking/tour service building with the name “Ontano”. Get out at this stop (Colombo) and go to their office.

Here you can book a ticket to the eastern Sicilian port city of ‘Catania’. The ship’s name will be the M/n Partenope which is actually a huge truck ferry with passenger facilities on the 4th and 5th deck. A ticket can be purchased for the 11 hour night passage for 46 Euro with the ship’s departure at 21:00. It is interesting to note after I had a pleasant conversation with one of the ship’s officers that these trucks pay 25 Euro per meter.

It is possible to take a ferry from Catania directly to Malta but during the winter this ferry only runs once a week which is on Saturdays. If you miss that, you need to go further south to Pozzallo.

Unless you wish to pay 170 Euro for for a taxi to take you the remaining 140 kilometers, you need to take a bus. The only service in town that makes it that far south is called “AST” and you will find their ticketing office across the street from the main train station. Two buses supposedly make this journey each day, one at 11AM and another at 1:30 PM. The price is 7.90 Euro and the last bus will get you to the port town at 16:10, 10 minutes after the second ferry leaves for Malta at 16:00 (2 ferries a day, one at 9AM and the last at 4PM). Finding a place to stay in town is no problem and decent places can be had for 40 Euro or so. I stayed at a place called Hotel Ada and find both it and the people to be a very pleasant place to stay.

The ticket for the ‘world’s fastest ferry’ (as it is advertised on their posters) can be purchased in the town of Pozzallo at the Virtu Ferries Office or at the port for 47 Euro. The ship is a large catamaran and the journey takes 1.5 to 2 hours depending on how rough the weather and seas are. Upon arrival, there are no customs or immigration anymore as Malta has now joined the EU.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Napoli to Catania - At Sea heading south into the Med

M/n Partenope – Napoli to Catania

By Saigon Charlie

The ship’s engines are winding up as the deck under me begins to shake and the passenger level I have set up my quarters for the evening begins to vibrate. It is 21:00 and the first leg of my most recent sea journey into the Mediterranean is about to begin.

This leg will take me south out of the chaos of humanity that the Italians call ‘Napoli’ (Naples) to the eastern port city on the Sicilian coast called ‘Catania’. Rumor has it that it should take about 11 hours, give or take a wave or two and get us there on the morning the day before New Year’s Eve.

Not sure what awaits me near the ancient city of Sycracuse, but thus far, from Rome to Naples, I wasn’t sure if I was in African or Europe as at times I seemed to have stepped into a central African republic. In this morning’s IHT there was an article about the serious problems the Greeks were having with their islands and the immigration flood but based on what I have seen personally from the Canary Islands to Italy, everyone along the southern tier of Europe is becoming overwhelmed with the influx of humanity.

It was only a few days ago that once again the EU added another chunk including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Baltic Republics and even the British speaking island of Malta. Cyprus also adopted the Euro but the immigration controls remain. (I also noted in the same week that the European Central Bank added another 500 billion dollars, but for what? To support this expansion or help slow the economic meltdown?)

Even though border and immigration controls are supposedly “ending’ and the frontiers expanding, based on the 3 passport controls I had on my train trip south out of Germany, two at one stop in Lugano by separate groups of police, the facts seem to be far different than the propaganda…and that was heading south! One can only wonder what it would be like on a night train heading north out of Italy.

As I continue to type these notes, a rolling motion commences and I am sure we have cleared the breakwater at the end of what is a very long quay. The mind numbing TV shows have stopped temporarily for a guide on how to rescue your butt should the ship start to sink. Hopefully there are no soccer matches on tonight for the crew to watch and everyone keeps tuned in to the tasks at hand unlike the occasional Greek ship that ends up at the bottom of the Med.

The ticket for this leg was 46 Euro although I got a sneaking feeling that the ‘local’ rate is a bit cheaper. One thing I did notice related to this at the train station was that when I started to buy a ticket from the ticket machines in Rome, that the ticket was 33 Euro but when an Italian guy came up and suggested he do it for me (in Italian), the same ticket on the same train in the same class was 19.50 Euro. I am use to this 2-tier practice in Asia but this was my first experience here in Europe (recently) for a two level pricing structure for locals and foreigners. The guy asked for money for ‘café’ and as I had just saved a considerable sum, I gave him 2 Euro.

Rome was pleasant enough with a few adventures along the way. Didn’t get a chance to see the German Pope, but honestly that would be on the bottom of my wish list of life’s adventures and things to do.

The 3 days there were decent at the beginning and end with a middle day of very light cold rain. Just as well, as I was exhausted and spent a good part of the day in my room working on photos and such. Have an album to upload called ‘Clocks of Rome’ but given the Internet paranoia the Italian’s have, that will have to wait for a more ‘user friendly’ environment.

It became obvious very quickly that the Internet in Italy is viewed as a evil tool of the devil. It seems that in an effort to control the ‘devil’, or the free flow of information and knowledge not controlled by the fascist state or the church, you have to register your use with the police each and every time you use it. Go figure.

The same country that gave us Operation Gladio, Mussolini, the concept of Fascism, the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc., etc., now want to make sure that the Internet is controlled by the same ruling elite….but there is no lack of sex and long legged dames on their TV. Sex and war is good for business. Same shit, just a different day.

Reminds me also that while I was watching this same TV I discovered that Bhutto in Pakistan finally got her brains blown out (I was surprised it took that long), but the US government is trying to calm everyone’s fears by assuring us that Pakistan’s nukes are ‘secure’ and that US Special Forces will start entering the country after the beginning of the new year. For what purposes seems a bit unclear. Sounds perfectly normal in a totally insane world right?

Let me see if I am interpreting this correctly however. The US is helping secure the Pakistani nuclear arsenal while only a few months ago a B-52 bomber with nukes strapped under its wings loaded into operational cruise missiles is discovered ‘accidentally’ hours after it lands in a US middle-east staging base in Louisiana (like with 911, just forget all the technical details about how such a thing is impossible to happen with the explanations given).

“Oooppss…sorry folks….we misplaced them for awhile”, but when someone ratted on us and turned us in, we had to admit they were ‘missing’. Now we got the same boys ‘locking down’ Pakistani nukes. God help us all! I feel sooooo much better…don’t you?

But you know what? I suspect all these kind folks around me with all their smiling and happy families staring fixated onto the idiot boxes know nothing about any of the above. If it isn’t in the elite’s press or media and doesn’t serve their agenda, it simply doesn’t get reported. And since the Net is for those evil foreign devils and American conspiracy theorists (and we know all about how crazy they are), what you see is what you get….but sex and soccer seem real popular everywhere around here.

Of course it is this same thinking and control that brought us Mussolini and Hitler, but we all know that could never happen again…right? And remember their stories after the Reichstag was burned and the staged Polish attack.

I am passionate about the Internet and I fear that its’ days are numbered as we know it and grew to love it. 2008 will be a pivotal year for it and its demise is underway as we know it.

As the tall black man took my passport to control it in Naples when I went to use it today, he clearly stated it was the law by the police and what was wrong with that…in a rather funny, quizzical way? I asked him if he did the same thing for people placing calls in his phone boxes. The answer was “no”…of course.

I guess it is OK for one uniformed and unaware person to spread the word but we sure as hell want to make sure that we know who is looking at information from the outside. He also mentioned in a rather surprised way that the police can now enter your home anytime they want for anything they want here in Italy. New law here….same as the new law to do the same in the USA.

Hmmmmmm Hitler protected the Germans from the Communist (as did Operation Gladio in Italy) and today we are being protected from the ‘Terrorist’. I feel so much better and safer. Don’t you?

Oh joy…now the Village People’s song ‘Macho Macho Man’ is now playing on 4 TVs around me…..in stereo…and next to them are 5 amazingly sexy, long legged beauties in not much more than their birthday suits….sorry, I mis-spoke…there are a few straps of cloth wrapped around certain strategic assets. Guess you got to please every type of sexual persuasion in a properly ‘harmonized’ Europe. I have to admit however, it is hard not to focus on the screen's carnival!

I am literally sailing into a new year but I do wonder if the sheeple wonder, or even care about what lies before them in 2008? Naaaaaa….and those that do and care beyond today, are insane....

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tideof migrants strains Greek Islands...and everwhere else south too!!!

Tide of migrants strains Greek islands
Friday, December 28, 2007

SAMOS TOWN, Greece: On three Greek islands so close to Turkey that there are no international waters between them, migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Eritrea, the Palestinian territories and Iran furtively land, and the islands are buckling under the strain.

Six men and a woman crouch in the dark against the wall of the coast guard headquarters. An officer wearing camouflage barks questions in rudimentary English: "Name? Papa? Age?"

With a show of fingers they indicate their years: between 20 and 27.

"Country?" He shouts louder when they don't understand. Five say they are from Afghanistan, two from Palestinian areas. Then he lines them up in the roadway and marches them along the waterfront.

Scenes like this play out nightly on Samos, one of three Greek islands so close to Turkey that there are no international waters between them. White houses and the fluttering red Turkish flag are clearly visible from Samos's coastal road, where drivers frequently spot new arrivals struggling into town.

Migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Eritrea, the Palestinian territories and Iran land furtively on these islands, which are strung out along on a new fault line for immigration into the European Union.

Smugglers monitor both nations' coast guards, identify the lighthouses, and, according to migration lawyers and migrants themselves, charge emigrants €600, or $870, apiece for a place on an inflatable dinghy in which they row the short but treacherous distance into the European Union.

Greece's forceful reaction - in an area where geography puts it on the defensive against the inflow - illustrates how the stakes shift for the many thousands of migrants trying to pierce EU borders.

At the well-known targets - Lampedusa, off Italy; and the Canary Islands, Spanish territory off West Africa - refugees try to land after traveling hundreds of kilometers in flimsy boats. Here, all their peril and fate are compressed into little more than a kilometer of sea, or less than a mile. It is swimming distance, but for the treacherous waters of the strait.

The thousands of migrants who make it to Samos little appreciate how difficult it will be to progress further. In fact, for almost all, the door is about to slam firmly shut.

"Greece was not ready to accept such vast numbers of immigrants," said Vassilios Gatsas, chief of police for the three Northern Aegean islands of Samos, Lesbos and Chios. "From an immigrant-exporting country we have become importers in a very short period of time," he said, referring to the post-1945 exodus of Greeks to places like Australia, Canada and the United States.

The total number of arrivals has more than doubled on this island chain this year, and they are buckling under the strain, which has echoes in Athens.

Ordinary Greeks, with their own history of poverty, hardship and immigration, are still broadly sympathetic to the migrants' plight. Greece has no strong political parties demanding a halt to immigration, or, say, to the building of mosques, since most arrivals are in transit.

But the Interior Ministry has to deal with policy and policing problems, and international criticism is mounting: In April, for example, Greece lost a case brought by the European Commission at the European Court of Justice over access to asylum, while its protection vacuum is causing friction with neighbors like Italy.

In an interview at police headquarters in Samos Town, Gatsas said that to the end of November this year, 10,961 migrants had landed on the three islands compared with 4,024 in 2006. About 4,469 arrived on Samos alone, he added, three times the 1,580 it received last year.

By contrast, clandestine arrivals have dropped in Lampedusa this year and plunged to 9,600 from 32,000 last year in the Canaries.

In addition, 24 died making the crossing, their bodies washed up on Samos's beaches or dragged up in fishing nets, Gatsas said. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees for its part counts 100 dead or missing off these three islands this year. And at least 51 people - mainly Iraqis, Somalis and Palestinians - drowned this month in Turkish waters, a short distance north of Chios, when a migrant boat was wrecked in stormy seas off the Turkish town of Seferihisar.

An asylum seeker in his 50s, who said he had made the crossing to Samos "in record time of 40 minutes" in the summer and demanded anonymity to protect his family in Iran, said he had followed the advice of his Turkish smuggler and cut up his inflatable dinghy when he landed. "If the police catch you and see no boat, they say, 'Come with me,' " he said, which minimizes the chances of being sent straight back, and at least opens a slim chance of asylum.

The wave of undocumented arrivals this year has put enormous strain on this island of 35,000 - better known as a tourist resort and birthplace of the ancient mathematician Pythagorus.

A visit by the UN refugee agency in October shamed the island into closing a dilapidated tobacco factory in the heart of Samos Town that housed undocumented migrants in conditions that "offend human dignity," according to Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, the head of UNHCR in Greece.

On Dec. 1, Samos opened a €2.5 million state-of-the-art detention center above the capital. Two and a half years in the making, it has a mess hall, a basketball court and a playground. Restaurants in town provide catering, and the prefecture has deployed nine staff members to run the center, while the police provide 24-hour surveillance.

Its budget is not yet fixed, but maintaining the old center cost €700,000 per year, according to Sterios Thanos, who manages the prefecture's spending.

Gatsas said that the three islands, with a police force of 500, will get 300 more officers next year. "Until now, we tried to deal with the problem with the staff we have," he said. "In all the islands there are new police stations specializing in illegal immigration, which will be ready next year."

While investment flows into security, the island still relies on its amateur interpreters and the legal aid provided by Dimitrios Vouros, its single refugee lawyer, to help those needing asylum.

Vouros said that so far this year only 7 of the 4,469 migrants passing through the detention center had asked for protection. That is the same number of requests as last year, when the number of arrivals was one-third the size.

While multi-language UN leaflets are now on hand to explain asylum procedures, Vouros said, some migrants believed they stood a better chance if they waited to apply in Athens. Ireni Tremouli, the detention center's social worker, said many did not understand the gravity of their situation, focusing only on being released to join national diasporas in Sweden, Italy or Britain.

Others discount EU rules obliging refugees to request asylum in the first EU country they reach; still more may be deterred by Greece's rock-bottom rates of recognition.

Officials on the island, meanwhile, feel both burdened and unsupported by their neighbors in ensuring Europe's eastern border.

Gatsas; the coast guard chief, Stellos Partsafas; and Emmanuel Karlas, the prefect of Samos and its most senior political official, all blamed Turkey for not halting the flow of people and the EU for a lack of help. "Turkey does not control its border," Karlas said. "The EU must speak to Turkey to control the flow of immigrants with rules."

Gatsas said the EU should put pressure on Turkey to fulfill agreements on readmitting nonrefugee migrants who have crossed illegally into Greece. Otherwise, after three months' detention, Greece is obliged to release them with a 30-day deportation order that many see as a permit to travel on through Europe.

EU rules allow for those picked up in neighboring EU countries to be sent straight back to Greece.

Despite strains, the islanders as a whole still show good will to those washing up on their shores; on a recent day, passers-by could see nine undocumented Somalis huddling at a café all day, waiting for the ferry to Athens, before they were picked up by the police.

"In a way it's the history of Samos," Vouros said. "During World War II, for three to four years under the German Army, hundreds if not thousands of Greek people every night took small boats and went to Turkey, like these people, and from Turkey they went to Egypt. These people are like us - our grandfathers had the same story."

As the beat goes on...

Dollar Falls Versus Euro for Sixth Day as New Home Sales Drop : The dollar dropped against the euro for a sixth day, the longest decline since October, after a U.S. government report showed sales of new homes fell to a 12-year low last month.

Defaults moving beyond sub-prime: Thought the mortgage meltdown was just a sub-prime affair? Think again. There's another time bomb waiting to explode, experts say: risky loans made to people with good credit.

Blame abounds for housing bust: This year's housing bust is shaping up to be one of historic proportions. Sales and construction have sunk to levels not seen since the 1990 savings and loan crisis, while foreclosures and price drops are the largest since the Great Depression — and expected to get worse next year.

Housing prices are headed way down: The cold, hard truth is that foreclosures are serving only to hasten the painful process of shifting housing prices back to a level the market can sustain. Prices must and will fall. Everywhere. Probably 25% to 30% from their peak.

U.S. Troops to Head to Pakistan: Beginning early next year, U.S. Special Forces are expected to vastly expand their presence in Pakistan, as part of an effort to train and support indigenous counter-insurgency forces and clandestine counterterrorism units, according to defense officials involved with the planning.

Wars Cost $15 Billion a Month, GOP Senator Says: The latest estimate of the growing costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worldwide battle against terrorism -- nearly $15 billion a month -- came last week from one of the Senate's leading proponents of a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Ron Paul: 'We're getting ready to bomb Iran': Despite a recent National Intelligence Estimate finding that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program, libertarian-leaning GOP presidential contender Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) says there is still "a great possibility" of US military action against the country.

'Israel has megaton nuclear bombs' : A Washington-based military think tank has revealed that Israel has produced nuclear weapons with 'a yield of one megaton'.


The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

A Profile In Courage, Honor And Hope

By Stephen Lendman

12/28/07 "ICH' -- -- T
he Abraham Lincoln Brigade was an American contingent of about 2800 volunteers who fought on the side of the Second Spanish Republic during the country's 1936 - 1939 Civil War against the fascist Nationalist rebellion under General Francisco Franco. From 1937 through 1938, it aimed to stop international fascism under Hitler and Mussolini that led to WW II. This essay explains who the "Lincolns" were, why they're important, and what their relevance is to America today under George Bush. First a look at the Spanish Civil War and why these Americans fought in it.

The war began when Franco's troops invaded Spain in July, 1936 to unseat an unstable Republic that developed from the social dislocations after WW I. Post-war saw a wave of revolutionary unrest that led to the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera in 1923. Rapid decline followed under him after the boom years of the 1920s. It weakened Spain's monarchy, returned the country to republican rule, but things weakened when a liberal-Socialist coalition tried addressing agrarian problems that beleaguered all Spanish governments for generations. Reforms failed and so did the coalition. It came apart after an attempted military coup on the right and an anarchosyndicalist insurrection on the left that culminated in the Casas Viejas massacre of Andalulsian peasants in January, 1933.

By summer, Spain's many parties and organizations began regrouping and polarizing. In November, the Spanish Confederation of Right Groups (CEDA) coalition replaced the liberal-Socialists. Positions then hardened on the left and right leading to the 1934 "October Revolution" when Asturian miners in northern Spain became the epicenter of a general uprising throughout the country. It brought "Army of Africa" commander Francisco Franco from Spanish Morocco to the mainland for the first time in five centuries to defend "Christian Civilization" from "red barbarism." It was the start of class and regional conflict that became the Spanish Civil War two years later.

It pitted an alliance of Nationalist forces on the right under Franco against a "Popular Front" Republican/Loyalist coalition consisting of trade unionists and their political organizations:

-- the General Confederation of Workers (UGT), a labor federation of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), and an anarchosyndicalist General Confederation of Labor (CNT);

-- they, in turn, were allied with the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) coalition of Spanish Trotskyists, Communist Left (ICE), and Workers and Peasants Bloc; the United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC); and the small Communist Party (PCE).

Few in America remember the Spanish Civil War, its significance or even that it happened which says a lot about the state of education in the richest country in the world. It should be the best anywhere but instead opts for mediocrity, ignorance and an effort to produce good citizens, most barely literate, to serve the nation's ruling class and not the greater good. That, however, is a topic for another time.

The Spanish Civil War - July 17, 1936 - April 1, 1939

Like all extended wars, this one was ugly. Before it ended in April, 1939, hundreds of thousands died and many by mass killings that included Hitler's infamous fire-bombing of Guernica on April 26, 1937 that destroyed the town and killed an estimated 1650 people. An eye witness described it as follows: "The only things left standing were a church, a sacred tree, the symbol of the Basque people....There hadn't been a single anti-aircraft gun in the town. It had been mainly a fire raid....A sight that haunted me for weeks was the charred bodies of several women and children huddled together in what had been the cellar of a house. It had been a refugio." The same scene was repeated throughout the town. Guernica was in flames, but it was just a warmup, a prelude for what lay ahead.

April 1, 1939 marked the end of the Spanish Civil War. Five months later in September, Hitler invaded Poland, and the world again was at war with Spain staying out of it this time. Franco instead concentrated on solidifying power at home while nominally supporting his fascist allies. He imprisoned and slaughtered tens of thousands of his opponents in a post-war bloodbath/reign of terror. The Spanish war, while it lasted, however, was an historic revolution, and how different things might have been had the other side won. A radical working class movement, never seen before or since, lost out to a fascist alliance that became dominant and is now resurgent in America.

Back then, it was a rare time when oppressed workers, peasants and leftist intellectuals stood on one side and were aided by Soviet Russia, the international Socialist movement and the International Brigades. Against them were centralized state power elitists that included monarchists, the Catholic church, and the landowning and industrial fascist right supported by Germany, Italy and Portugal. Workers wanted a classless, stateless social democracy with implications far beyond a civil conflict in Spain.

They were attracted to it when Franco invaded and threatened their vision. Spontaneously they seized factories and other workplaces, collectivized the land, formed workers' militias throughout the country, dismantled the pro-fascist Catholic church, confiscated its property, and established political institutions run by workers' committees. It was a remarkable event for a short-lived social transformation toward a genuinely autonomous, free and democratic society until Franco finally prevailed.

In a decade of economic depression, disillusion, the rise of fascism, torment and turmoil up to WW II, the Spanish revolution was a sign of hope for working-class emancipation across the world, including in the US. It inspired intellectuals, trade unionists, and others as well as freedom-fighting men and women of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. They went Spain to support the type government they wanted at home and hoped would emerge if the "Popular Front" prevailed.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

They were around 2800 American volunteers who fought alongside the "Popular Front" Republican Loyalists as the American contingent of the International Brigades. From 1937 to 1938, they joined with 35,000 others from 52 countries to defend the free Spanish Republic against Franco's Nationalist fascist alliance.

They were mostly young men and women from across America, deeply affected by the The Great Depression's despair, and they feared the fascist scourge engulfing Europe could affect them back home. They were ordinary people - working class, students, teachers, artists, dancers, athletes, the unemployed and others unified in a common belief that it's "better to die on your feet than live on your knees."

Most were members of the Young Communist League (CP). They allied with Industrial Workers of the World members ("Wobblies"), socialists forming their own (Eugene) Debs Column, and unaffiliated others. They were all committed in a common struggle. Some sought escape from The Great Depression, others went to fight for a better world unavailable at home, but all wanted to defeat fascism and risked their lives to do it. They also risked arrest or recrimination back home by defying a State Department prohibition against traveling to Spain so by doing it they broke the law.

It was worth it for what many saw as the quintessential struggle between democracy and tyranny. British author, social critic and journalist Eric Arthur Blair, aka George Orwell, felt the same. He went to Spain in 1936 to be with the Republican side and joined with the POUM coalition. He later wrote about it in what some call his finest work - "Homage to Catalonia." It sold just 50 copies in his lifetime, but another to it with a copy owned, read and admired long ago by this writer. It was more about social revolution than a civil war and centrally about tyranny against socially democratic forces on the left.

The allied groups on both sides, however, had their own agendas. On the left, the socialists (POUM) wanted a worker-controlled government, the communists (PSUC) a centralized one, and the Anarchists/Anarchosyndicalists (CNT) one that was decentralized. On the right, Franco loyalists wanted a fascist Spain like in Germany and Italy, latifundistas (big landowners) wanted a feudal system, and the Roman Catholic Church supported the monarchy and had its own elitist, pro-fascist conservative agenda.

The "Lincolns," wanted democratic freedom and fascism defeated. Its volunteers became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade although fighting units chose their own names and identities. In keeping with the "Popular Front" culture, they became part of the Fifteenth International Brigade along with nationals from other countries. They called themselves the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the George Washington Battalion, and the John Brown Battery that included 125 doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and technicians with the American Medical Bureau. They were all volunteers for a noble cause and among them was the first ever racially integrated unit in US history and first one ever led by a black commander. Most never fired a rifle or had military training, but they were committed to learn and they did fast.

They also practiced what they believed in the ranks and created an egalitarian "peoples' army." Rank-and-file soldiers at times elected their own officers and generally shunned traditional military protocol. With them were well-known, or aspiring, writers, artists, composers and filmmakers, including James Lardner (son of Ring Lardner Sr.), Joseph Vogel, Ralph Fasanella, Conlon Nancarrow, Edwin Rolfe, Alvah Bessie, Phil Bard, William Lindsay Gresham and famed author Ernest Hemingway. He supported the "Popular Front," went to Spain in 1937 to report on the war, and spent most of it with the International Brigades.

After the war in 1940, he wrote his famous novel, "For Whom the Bell Tolls." It became a Hollywood film in 1943 and was the top box office hit of the year even though it failed to tell what really happened on the ground. It's the story of a young American in the International Brigades attached to an anti-fascist guerilla unit. The novel's theme is how the main characters react to the prospect of death in a struggle for their vision and how they bond and are willing to die for its sake. It was how Hemingway felt. He spoke publicly on it to raise money for the Republican side he supported.

The "Lincolns" fought bravely and took casualties, including at the town of Brunete near Madrid where half its contingent was wiped out. But they gave as much as they took until Republican forces began losing later in 1938. It took a great toll on both sides, including on the International Brigades as the war continued. It finally ended for the "Lincolns" and other International Brigades volunteers in late 1938. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrin struck a futile deal with Hitler to repatriate captured forces and ordered them withdrawn. He didn't understanding what others later learned that Hitler didn't make deals. He imposed them.

Of the 2800 "Lincolns," around one-third perished. Survivors came home heros, got no official recognition for their efforts, were lucky to escape recrimination for breaking the law, but were later harassed and hounded as explained below.

One survivor was its last commander - freedom-fighter, novelist and well-known peace and civil rights activist Milton Wolff. Hemingway described him as "23 years old, tall as Lincoln, gaunt as Lincoln, and as brave and as good a soldier as any that commanded battalions at Gettysburg. He is alive and unhit by the same hazard that leaves one tall palm tree standing where a hurricane has passed." He was part of Spain's bloodiest battles at Brunete, Quinto and Belchite but managed to emerge unscathed.

Wolff arrived in Spain in 1937, trained as a medic, became a machine gunner with the Washington Battalion and then its leader. When Commander Dave Reiss was killed, Wolff took over and led its great offensive across the Ebro and Sierra Pandols. He then went home when the International Brigades left Spain in 1938 but continued fighting fascism as an activist, speaker and novelist in spite of being branded a "premature anti-fascist" and getting caught up in the post-WW II anti-communist hysteria. It affected anyone of prominence who was accused of leftist leanings along with many other "Lincolns" hounded by the FBI, Committee on UnAmerican Activities, and Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB). They lost their jobs and were prosecuted under the Smith Act and state sedition laws although few had convictions hold up.

This was how a nation that defeated fascism rewarded them and then wiped them from the historical record for added shame. They're remembered, however, in the official Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). The effort was founded in 1979 by Lincoln Brigade living veterans as an "educational and humanitarian organization devoted to the preservation and dissemination of the history of the North American role in the Spanish Civil War....and its aftermath."

It's committed to preserving the memory and record of these heroic freedom fighters and their sacrifices by "continually expanding archival collections in exhibitions, educational programs, publications, and performances (to preserve) the legacy of activism and commitment as an inspiration for present and future generations in working conscientiously and effectively toward a better and more just society" - the one "Lincolns" fought and died for 70 years ago without success.

On the eve of the great war, the Spanish Republic ended on April 1, 1939 when Madrid fell to the Nationalists and then Valencia. It held out under great pressure but gave it up the next day. In the end, the revolution failed from its own divergent ideologies and internal conflicts. They frustrated Orwell enough to say "Why can't we drop all of this political nonsense and get on with the war." It also lost to a more powerful Nationalist force that outmanned and outgunned them because Hitler and Mussolini supplied many more aircraft, artillery pieces, tanks, bombs, small arms and ammunition to give Franco the edge.

It let him outlast Spanish Republican forces that got less aid from the Soviet Union while countries like Great Britain, France and the US stayed technically neutral. But a careful look shows otherwise. Britain and France refused to supply arms or assist the Republican side. Even FDR's government was duplicitous. It pressured the Martin Aircraft Company not to honor an agreement made prior to the 1936 insurrection to sell aircraft to the Republic and also strong-armed Mexico not to ship Republicans war materials that were bought in the US for that purpose. The Mexican government complied and instead sent some financial aid.

Roosevelt said companies supplying the Republic were unpatriotic, but had no such feeling for those trading with the Nationalists like General Motors and the Texas Company, now part of oil giant Chevron. It cancelled contracts with Republicans but sold oil to Franco much like the dealings Charles Highham described in his 1983 book, "Trading with the Enemy." He documented how US corporations like Chase Bank, Standard Oil, Ford, GM and IBM did business with the Nazis in WW II in direct violation of the law. They betrayed their country and got away with it.

The Spirit of the "Lincolns" in the Age of George Bush

In their day, "Lincolns" were anti-facist freedom-fighters who are still respected by their admirers. Since the Reagan era, however, they'd be called "terrorists" because they oppose unfettered capitalism and all its harshness.

Reagan launched his war on "international terrorism" that was a precursor for what lay ahead. In 1981, his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, announced the new administration would shift from Jimmy Carter's so-called "human rights" agenda to one focused on anti-terrorism without saying what it was or that it existed. Unexplained then or now is that the US is the world's leading exponent of the very scourge it claims to oppose. Empires have that privilege. They get to have it both ways. They make the rules that others ignore at their peril.

They weigh on many today under George Bush who makes Reagan's era look tame by comparison. Post-9/11, the administration declared permanent war on the world without boundaries in space and time that won't end in our lifetime. It's against any designated countries we target with ones with the most energy reserves and independent leaders topping the list.

It isn't just countries that are in jeopardy. Any group, organization or individual qualifies if they dare challenge US dominance or have views opposing ours. As an anti-fascist group, the "Lincolns" would be targeted because they wanted democratic freedom, not tyranny. During the Great Depression and rise of Nazism, they were galvanized to go to Spain to "make Madrid the tomb of fascism." They'd now target Washington, their struggle would be nonviolent, but it would put them at risk in an unfriendly environment to dissent and a passion to express it.

Today, there's a serious threat at home no different from the extremist ideology "Lincolns" fought against in Spain - the scourge of fascism now in America. It mirrors the Nazi kind that was based on corporatism, patriotism and nationalism; a claimed messianic Almightly-directed mission; authoritarian rule; bipartisan support; iron-fisted militarism; and thuggish "homeland security" enforcers.

It illegally spies on everyone, conducts warrantless searches and seizures, makes unwarranted mass arrests and incarcerations, and can designate anyone, anywhere for any reason an "unlawful enemy combatant" with no corroborating evidence needed. It tolerates no dissent at a time the law is what the executive says it is, and checks and balances, separation of powers, and equal justice for all no longer exist. It's called fascism, despotism or tyranny that masquerades as a model democracy in an America only beautiful for the privileged, no one else. It's what "Lincolns" fought against in Spain, now threatening the US 70 years later.

The dominant media support it and are part of the problem. They use hard right commentators, pundits, and talk show hosts like CNN's Glenn Beck who also hosts a nationally syndicated radio program as a platform for his type extremism. Media giant Time Warner put him in prime time (starting May, 2006) to boost ratings and billed him as "an unconventional look at the news." It barely disguises a hateful hard right agenda. Beck is one of many right wing hawks. He and the others attack anyone opposing the "war on terror" that includes the Bush agenda of iron-fisted militarism, permanent war, repression at home, and gutting social services so the most vulnerable are on their own and out of luck.

Muslims top their target list in the age of "terror." They're demonized mercilessly on-air overtly and by innuendo as well as being harassed and persecuted through mass witch-hunt roundups, detentions, prosecutions and deportations. So are Latino immigrants with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shock troops the enforcers and media hosts like Lou Dobbs fully supportive. This writer called him "CNN's Vice-President of Racism" in an August, 2006 article that included others like him. They target others anyone voicing dissent at a time getting along demands going along.

The "Lincolns" would be targets if they were active and and similar groups as well. They'd be savaged in a typical Beck comment like this one about Muslims: "We need to be....lining up to shoot the bad Muslims (meaning all of them) in the head (and) with God as my witness....human beings are not strong enough, unfortunately, to restrain themselves from putting up razor wire (meaning concentration camps, Nazi-style) and putting you (Muslims) on one side of it....(meaning locked up inside)."

He's serious and is backed by an administration targeting any perceived opposition with hardball tactics that include secretly constructed homeland concentration camps. They're for tens of thousands of aliens and anyone considered a threat to absolute rule.

It's extremely threatening because all media giants are supportive. They fill their programming with Beck-like people while opposition voices are silenced. The scheme is to instill fear and demand loyalty of a government that may have in mind ending the republic, replacing it with tyranny, and it's arguable they've already done it.

Renown print journalist George Seldes saw it emerge during the golden New Deal era under Franklin Roosevelt. If fascism threatened then, its could happen any time, and no democracy is secure without constant vigilance. Seldes monitored it around the world as a foreign correspondent and at home. He was one of the great independent journalists of his time and did what's practically extinct today outside alternative spaces.

In his 1934 book "Iron, Blood and Profits," he wrote about a "world-wide munitions racket" citing WW I militarists and weapons makers in Europe and America as proof. Fascism was spreading in Europe, and he saw it emerging in America with powerful corporatists behind it. They included munitions makers, industrialists and Wall Street bankers promoting wars for profits. Seldes called them "merchants of death" financing "patriotic organizations" promoting "imperialism (and) colonization - by means of war....the healthfulness of their business depends on slaughter. The more wars (they got) the richer the profits."

They traded with the enemy, sabotaged disarmament efforts, promoted war scares in newspapers, supported dictators, and lobbied and bribed government officials for continued conflict. "The war to end all wars" was just a slogan as new dark forces arose in the 1930s.

Seldes returned to the theme in his 1943 book, "Facts and Fascism," that explained "Fascism on the Home Front" in the book's Part One called "The Big Money and Big Profits in Fascism." In Parts Two and Three, he went into "Native Fascist Forces" in US industry and the media of his day that had far less reach and influence than now.

Seldes was an archetype crusading journalist. He was a "witness to a century" (the title of his 1987 book) until he died in 1995 at age 104. He saw it all by covering the greats and infamous like Benito Mussolini who expelled him for exposing truths he wanted suppressed. So did Lenin after Seldes interviewed him in 1922. He was very hostile to Seldes' honesty that was forbidden by Russian journalists.

Seldes also covered the Spanish Civil War and believed it was a dress rehearsal for World War II. In "Facts and Fascism" he wrote: "Fascism in Spain was bought and paid for by numerous elements who would profit by the destruction of the democratic Republican Loyalist government." He cited generals wanting glory, the right wing conservative Catholic Church, the aristocracy wanting the old order back, and the "force of (big) Money" in Europe and America that wouldn't let social democracy interfere with business. He named names, knew the risks, but was a rare journalist who did what few others ever do - their job.

Seldes passed before the George Bush era, and the "Lincolns" are just a memory in the ALBA archives collection at New York University's Tamiment Library. It's the largest and most important resource available for study that includes their papers, oral histories, films, photos, posters, and selections of the microfilmed records of the International Brigades. They're maintained to preserve a historic record of their achievements, memory and spirit and as an inspiration to others. They represent courageous freedom-fighters who volunteered to fight and die for equality, justice and social democracy. It's never handed to us, is always imperiled, and is only gotten and kept when men and women like "Lincolns" risk everything for it. That spirit more than ever is needed now with America's freedom imperiled.

Sinclair Lewis feared it in his 1935 novel, "It Can't Happen Here." It was about a charismatic self-styled reformer, populist and champion of the common man senator who became president. It was all a front to hide his alliance with corporate interests and the religious extremists of his day. He takes full advantage of The Great Depression, supports a strong military, and gets unconstitutional laws passed during a national emergency. He further convenes military tribunals for dissenters who are called unpatriotic and traitors.

Fast forward to the current era when we're all potential "unlawful enemy combatants," there are no freedom-fighting "Lincolns," and the threat of full-blown tyranny may be one more real or contrived "terrorist" attack away. Stopping it needs the same spirit of sacrifice "Lincolns" made when they risked everything abroad for what they wanted at home. Something to reflect on over the holidays. Something to act on in the new year.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at lendmanstephen@sbcglobal.net.

Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to the Steve Lendman News and Information Hour on TheMicroEffect.com Mondays at noon US Central time

Creeping Fascism: History's Lessons

By Ray McGovern

“There are few things as odd as the calm, superior indifference with which I and those like me watched the beginnings of the Nazi revolution in Germany, as if from a box at the theater. ... Perhaps the only comparably odd thing is the way that now, years later....”
12/28/07 "ICH" -- -- These are the words of Sebastian Haffner (pen name for Raimund Pretzel), who as a young lawyer in Berlin during the 1930s experienced the Nazi takeover and wrote a first-hand account. His children found the manuscript when he died in 1999 and published it the following year as “Geschichte eines Deutschen” (The Story of a German).

The book became an immediate bestseller and has been translated into 20 languages—in English as “Defying Hitler.”

I recently learned from his daughter Sarah, an artist in Berlin, that today is the 100th anniversary of Haffner’s birth. She had seen an earlier article in which I quoted her father and e-mailed to ask me to “write some more about the book and the comparison to Bush’s America. ... This is almost unbelievable.”

More about Haffner below. Let’s set the stage first by recapping some of what has been going on that may have resonance for readers familiar with the Nazi ascendancy, noting how “odd” it is that the frontal attack on our Constitutional rights is met with such “calm, superior indifference.”

Goebbels Would be Proud

It has been two years since top New York Times officials decided to let the rest of us in on the fact that the George W. Bush administration had been eavesdropping on American citizens without the court warrants required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.

The Times had learned of this well before the election in 2004 and acquiesced to White House entreaties to suppress the damaging information.

In late fall 2005 when Times correspondent James Risen’s book, “State of War: the Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” revealing the warrantless eavesdropping was being printed, Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., recognized that he could procrastinate no longer.

It would simply be too embarrassing to have Risen’s book on the street, with Sulzberger and his associates pretending that this explosive eavesdropping story did not fit Adolph Ochs’s trademark criterion: All The News That’s Fit To Print.

(The Times’ own ombudsman, Public Editor Byron Calame, branded the newspaper’s explanation for the long delay in publishing this story “woefully inadequate.”)

When Sulzberger told his friends in the White House that he could no longer hold off on publishing in the newspaper, he was summoned to the Oval Office for a counseling session with the president on Dec. 5, 2005. Bush tried in vain to talk him out of putting the story in the Times.

The truth would out; part of it, at least.

Glitches

There were some embarrassing glitches. For example, unfortunately for National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the White House neglected to tell him that the cat would soon be out of the bag.

So on Dec. 6, Alexander spoke from the old talking points in assuring visiting House intelligence committee member Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, that the NSA did not eavesdrop on Americans without a court order.

Still possessed of the quaint notion that generals and other senior officials are not supposed to lie to congressional oversight committees, Holt wrote a blistering letter to Gen. Alexander after the Times, on Dec. 16, front-paged a feature by Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts.”

But House Intelligence Committee chair Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan, apparently found Holt’s scruples benighted; Hoekstra did nothing to hold Alexander accountable for misleading Holt, his most experienced committee member, who had served as an intelligence analyst at the State Department.

What followed struck me as bizarre. The day after the Dec. 16 Times feature article, the president of the United States publicly admitted to a demonstrably impeachable offense.

Authorizing illegal electronic surveillance was a key provision of the second article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. On July 27, 1974, this and two other articles of impeachment were approved by bipartisan votes in the House Judiciary Committee.

Bush Takes Frontal Approach

Far from expressing regret, the president bragged about having authorized the surveillance “more than 30 times since the September the 11th attacks,” and said he would continue to do so. The president also said:

“Leaders in Congress have been briefed more than a dozen times on this authorization and the activities conducted under it.”

On Dec. 19, 2005, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and then-NSA Director Michael Hayden held a press conference to answer questions about the as yet unnamed surveillance program.

Gonzales was asked why the White House decided to flout FISA rather than attempt to amend it, choosing instead a “backdoor approach.” He answered:

“We have had discussions with Congress...as to whether or not FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately deal with this kind of threat, and we were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible.”

Hmm. Impossible? It strains credulity that a program of the limited scope described would be unable to win ready approval from a Congress that had just passed the “Patriot Act” in record time.

James Risen has made the following quip about the prevailing mood: “In October 2001, you could have set up guillotines on the public streets of America."

It was not difficult to infer that the surveillance program must have been of such scope and intrusiveness that, even amid highly stoked fear, it didn’t have a prayer for passage.

It turns out we didn’t know the half of it.

What To Call These Activities

“Illegal Surveillance Program” didn’t seem quite right for White House purposes, and the PR machine was unusually slow off the blocks.

It took six weeks to settle on “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” with FOX News leading the way followed by the president himself. This labeling would dovetail nicely with the president’s rhetoric on Dec. 17:

In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation, I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. ... The authorization I gave the National Security Agency after September 11 helped address that problem...” [Emphasis added]

And Gen. Michael Hayden, who headed NSA from 1999 to 2005, was of course on the same page, dissembling as convincingly as the president. At his May 2006 confirmation hearings to become CIA director, he told of his soul-searching when, as director of NSA, he was asked to eavesdrop on Americans without a court warrant.

“I had to make this personal decision in early October 2001,” said Hayden. “It was a personal decision. ... I could not not do this.”

Like so much else, it was all because of 9/11. But we now know...

It Started Seven Months Before 9/11.

How many times have you heard it? The mantra “after 9/11 everything changed” has given absolution to all manner of sin.

We are understandably reluctant to believe the worst of our leaders, and this tends to make us negligent. After all, we learned from former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that drastic changes were made in U.S. foreign policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue and toward Iraq at the first National Security Council meeting on Jan. 30, 2001.

Should we not have anticipated far-reaching changes at home as well?

Reporting by the Rocky Mountain News and court documents and testimony on a case involving Qwest strongly suggest that in February 2001 Hayden saluted smartly when the Bush administration instructed NSA to suborn AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest to spy illegally on you, me, and other Americans.

Bear in mind that this would have had nothing to do with terrorism, which did not really appear on the new administration’s radar screen until a week before 9/11, despite the pleading of Clinton aides that the issue deserved extremely high priority.

So this until-recently-unknown pre-9/11 facet of the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” was not related to Osama bin Laden or to whomever he and his associates might be speaking. It had to do with us.

We know that the Democrats briefed on the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, (the one with the longest tenure on the House Intelligence Committee), Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, and former and current chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham, D-Florida, and Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, respectively.

May one interpret their lack of public comment on the news that the snooping began well before 9/11 as a sign they were co-opted and then sworn to secrecy?

It is an important question. Were the appropriate leaders in Congress informed that within days of George W. Bush’s first inauguration the NSA electronic vacuum cleaner began to suck up information on you and me, despite the FISA law and the Fourth Amendment?

Are They All Complicit?

And are Democratic leaders about to cave in and grant retroactive immunity to those telecommunications corporations—AT&T and Verizon—which made millions by winking at the law and the Constitution?

(Qwest, to its credit, heeded the advice of its general counsel who said that what NSA wanted done was clearly illegal.)

What’s going on here? Have congressional leaders no sense for what is at stake?

Lately the adjective “spineless” has come into vogue in describing congressional Democrats—no offense to invertebrates.

Nazis and Their Enablers

You don’t have to be a Nazi. You can just be, well, a sheep.

In his journal, Sebastian Haffner decries what he calls the “sheepish submissiveness” with which the German people reacted to a 9/11-like event, the burning of the German Parliament (Reichstag) on Feb. 27, 1933.

Haffner finds it quite telling that none of his acquaintances “saw anything out of the ordinary in the fact that, from then on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and one’s desk might be broken into.”

But it is for the cowardly politicians that Haffner reserves his most vehement condemnation. Do you see any contemporary parallels here?

In the elections of March 4, 1933, shortly after the Reichstag fire, the Nazi party garnered only 44 percent of the vote. Only the “cowardly treachery” of the Social Democrats and other parties to whom 56 percent of the German people had entrusted their votes made it possible for the Nazis to seize full power. Haffner adds:

“It is in the final analysis only that betrayal that explains the almost inexplicable fact that a great nation, which cannot have consisted entirely of cowards, fell into ignominy without a fight.”

The Social Democratic leaders betrayed their followers—“for the most part decent, unimportant individuals.” In May, the party leaders sang the Nazi anthem; in June the Social Democratic party was dissolved.

The middle-class Catholic party Zentrum folded in less than a month, and in the end supplied the votes necessary for the two-thirds majority that “legalized” Hitler’s dictatorship.

As for the right-wing conservatives and German nationalists: “Oh God,” writes Haffner, “what an infinitely dishonorable and cowardly spectacle their leaders made in 1933 and continued to make afterward. ... They went along with everything: the terror, the persecution of Jews. ... They were not even bothered when their own party was banned and their own members arrested.”

In sum: “There was not a single example of energetic defense, of courage or principle. There was only panic, flight, and desertion. In March 1933, millions were ready to fight the Nazis. Overnight they found themselves without leaders. ... At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed. They yielded and capitulated, and suffered a nervous breakdown. ... The result is today the nightmare of the rest of the world.”

This is what can happen when virtually all are intimidated.

Our Founding Fathers were not oblivious to this; thus, James Madison:

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. ... The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.”

We cannot say we weren’t warned.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He was an Army officer and then a C.I.A. analyst for 27 years, and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

This article was first published in the Baltimore Chronicle

Friday, December 28, 2007

U.S. Troops to Head to Pakistan

Beginning early next year, U.S. Special Forces are expected to vastly expand their presence in Pakistan, as part of an effort to train and support indigenous counter-insurgency forces and clandestine counterterrorism units, according to defense officials involved with the planning.

These Pakistan-centric operations will mark a shift for the U.S. military and for U.S. Pakistan relations. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the U.S. used Pakistani bases to stage movements into Afghanistan. Yet once the U.S. deposed the Taliban government and established its main operating base at Bagram, north of Kabul, U.S. forces left Pakistan almost entirely. Since then, Pakistan has restricted U.S. involvement in cross-border military operations as well as paramilitary operations on its soil.

But the Pentagon has been frustrated by the inability of Pakistani national forces to control the borders or the frontier area. And Pakistan's political instability has heightened U.S. concern about Islamic extremists there.

According to Pentagon sources, reaching a different agreement with Pakistan became a priority for the new head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Adm. Eric T. Olson. Olson visited Pakistan in August, November and again this month, meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistani Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Chairman Gen. Tariq Majid and Lt. Gen. Muhammad Masood Aslam, commander of the military and paramilitary troops in northwest Pakistan. Olson also visited the headquarters of the Frontier Corps, a separate paramilitary force recruited from Pakistan's border tribes.

Now, a new agreement, reported when it was still being negotiated last month, has been finalized. And the first U.S. personnel could be on the ground in Pakistan by early in the new year, according to Pentagon sources.

More…

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Hidden Story of Jesus



Aired: December 25, 2007 on Channel 4

Duration: 1:40:53

Info: Theologian Dr Robert Beckford investigates amazing parallels to the ... all Christ story in other faiths, some of them predating Christianity by thousands of years. The Hindu god, Krishna, was conceived by a virgin and his birth was attended by angels, wise men and shepherds. Buddha was also the result of a miraculous birth and visited by wise men bearing gifts. Beckford attempts to unravel the mystery of why there are so many versions of the Christ story across the world and asks which is the real one.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Eve under a full moon and another train into the night



It is Christmas and once again, the road and I become one. Trains from nowhere to somewhere while a full moon shines down on a landscape cold and stark. As I board my next train it becomes Christmas Eve. So many spent on the road. So many spent alone.

All for the love of a woman and dreams..........

A Cambodian Christmas by Saigon Charlie

December 18, 2003 – Thursday - Traveling to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat for Christmas

As I crossed the border into Cambodia at Poi Pet, one could not help but marvel at the amazing variations of vehicles and cargos being pulled, pushed or driven from Cambodia into Thailand. If one has ever seen the earlier movies of Mel Gibson (such as "Mad Max" and “Thunderdome”), one might be able to envision the sites one saw unfolding around them as they attempted to pass through Thai immigration into Cambodia.

Mad Max had nothing on the reality of the vehicles on the roads of Cambodia.

On this particular morning, after waking early from my hotel in Aranyaprathet on the Thai side of the border, I managed to enter the immigration line at 07:30, only completing the exodus at 08:30 after being in line an hour; 15 minutes of which was spent with a female Thai immigration official giving me the third degree interrogation concerning my passport and my entry and exits from Thailand.

I found this whole incident absurd, as unlike many others, I always exit the country legally on or before the 90 day visa stamp limit and have never “sent” my passport across the border which has been the custom for so many years by so many expats living in Thailand.

Anyway, the good thing about this entire episode was I had a chance to meet a Cambodian who was studying in Bangkok and was returning to Phnom Penh for the Christmas holiday. She struck up a conversation with me while in line and after spending some time after finally clearing the required immigration points for both countries, she hailed me as I was roaming about trying to find transportation to Siem Reap.

As it turned out, two of her classmates were also heading home as well, but instead of Phnom Penh, they were going in the same direction as me, Siem Reap (it translates into “Siamese Defeated”). This turned out to be extremely fortunate for me and after the required price haggling for a seat in the shared Toyota Camry, (we settled on a price of 300 baht each) I started to make my way out of the chaos of this filthy border town.

We immediately started up a conversation and their knowledge of the world, its geography, politics and history astounded me. Their English was also superb and what would normally have been a boring and rough 4-5 hour trip across this part of northern Cambodia, turned into one of the more enjoyable trips of the recent past.
It wasn’t long out of Poi Pet where we were stopped by “officials”, who I determined to be some form of customs. As you can see from the photo, even though one was wearing a "uniform", my suspicion as to their true mission was highly suspect.

Looks pretty "official" to me!

After going through several of the bags, they allowed us to continue our journey east across the rice patties and dirt roads of the region. (You can always tell the guys who are on the "take" or somehow think they are "bad dudes" in this part of the world as they always wear dark sunglasses....too many American movies!)


The trip east was once again fairly uneventful. I had done this trip back in May of 2003 and knew pretty much what to expect…..and it had not changed much other than a couple of bridges that were unusable in May were now at least “crossable” ...(and that word takes on another meaning here.)

As we headed for Siem Reap, which is actually the province and name of the main town that serves the temple complex of Angkor Wat, I marvel at the serenity of the country side, the pace of life here, the cleanliness of the small villages we passed along the way, the mats of rice being dried alongside the trail we traveled AND the choking dust of the journey.

When I say “dust”, it is not like the dust one normally thinks of. It is a dust that permeates even into the air conditioned Toyota and after only an hour, even with the windows closed, you have a coating on your skin and clothes that transforms itself into a substance like baked mud when water is applied. Even trying to clean your face, arms and hands from this substance with running water takes both quite a bit of water and effort.

The "road" to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

As we are in a private car and not a bus (commercial bus stops are frequent and planned so that the company and driver get a commission), we stop very infrequently. As I was getting a bit hungry during the 5 hours, I pulled out a jar of super crunchy Skippy peanut butter that I always carry with me on trips as well as a small loaf of sandwich bread.

As I prepared my feast, I offered the same to each of the boys that are with me in the backset of the Toyota Camry "taxi". Each accepts readily and taking very little from the jar, spread it on each of their slices. They actually seemed to really enjoy it and this surprised me somewhat but was totally understandable later as I learned that one of them had worked in a factory making peanut butter while studying in school and that the Seven Day Adventist mission that was funding their studies in Thailand also used peanut butter as a daily supplement to their meals.

As we get closer to Siem Reap, one of the young men I am riding with invites me to his home. I considered this a real honor which I immediately accepted.

As we drew closer to town and passed the airport, we veered off the main road (it has turned to pavement now) and once again were back on a dirt road which in reality is nothing more than a dike between rice paddies.

After a bit of confusion as to where his house was (this surprised me a bit), we finally pulled down a small path and stopped in front of a simple house surrounded by his family, from the oldest to the youngest.

I was introduced to his father as well as the rest of the family. Once again, as is so typical when I travel, one of the first questions I am asked is if I am married. In Thailand I understand the reason for this question but here, I am not quite sure what the motivation is.

I was than invited to visit some of the other homes in the "estate" or "compound" or "mission". Not sure what you would call it actually but it was a place just outside of Siem Reap where on 20 hectares of land the Seven Day Adventist Church had established a mission and an orphanage.

The entrance to the mission.

The orphanage is called the “Wat Preah Yesu Children’s Home” and is run by an Australian couple, Tim and Wendy Maddocks. They invited me to share lunch with them, their two sons and their family that was visiting with them from Australia on what was now my 1st day back at Angkor Wat.

I had a very long conversation with Tim before the meal and we talked at length about the issues there at the orphanage; the growing of crops, raising of various types of animals and fish and about the state of the children at the school, many of which were dying from HIV/AIDs.

Apparently, only the previous week, one of the more popular children had died and this had been hard on everyone, especially so close to Christmas. I was also able to meet a couple of the younger boys who had cataracts on their eyes but who had been able to have surgery done recently which had helped restore a bit of their vision.

It seemed both Tim and Wendy had their hands full, in addition to raising their own children under such conditions. They did however seem to be doing it with vitality and dedication that would be difficult anywhere to match. If you would like to help these wonderful people and their cause out, their email is 012804017@mobitel.com.kh or you might be able to reach them by phoning them at 012-804-017 or (855) 12-804-017 internationally.

It was also at this stop where I am first introduced to a Khmer delicacy…..trays of large tarantula spiders! Hmmmmmmm ….don’t they look good!"

After finishing our lunch and a after a bit of probing questions from Wendy (marriage, children, why here, etc.) , I caught a ride into town with Tim on his Suzuki dirt bike (which is pretty much a requirement on these rough roads, either in the rainy or dry seasons).

After saying goodbye, I headed across the street and as I was pretty tired and in dire need of a shower to wash away the dust and dirt from the journey, I checked into the Chao Say Guest House which is located in the main part of Siem Reap and is owned by a local character named Dominique Raymackers. Although a bit pricey on a backpacker's budget compared to what you can get a little further out of town or a the Popular Guest House in town; for $8 USD a night, I got a very clean and pleasant room with fan and a bathroom with hot water...and a very pleasant welcoming smile from one of the young ladies!

After getting cleaned up, I headed out once again to find the “Paper Tiger” which is a very popular watering hole for many expats in town, one which I had frequented often back in May and early June.

Bruno L'Hoste and his very new baby girl!

As you can most probably tell from the proper name, "Le Tigre de papier”, has a heavy French influence and patronage. Bruno, the owner is French but speaks English fluently and although portending to be tired often, seems to love greeting his customers and exchanging gossip with them. Michael Bouzon is the evening manager (also a Frenchman) but converses in English as well.

Upstairs there is a large selection of used books (10,000), with a large selection in French (of course) but English as well. In the evenings, Bruno shows a movie on a large screen and the upstairs bookshop is transformed into a 20 person movie theatre! The movie is free but a minimum of one drink is required.

It was here during this first evening back that I once again ran into another fascinating couple, this time headed off to Vietnam to buy Vietnam War memorabilia which they sell on the Internet from their home in England.

The very charming and beautiful ladies from the "The Paper Tiger" cafe in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

December 19, 2003
Friday - Day 2 - Siem Reap

As I was on a tight budget and was traveling alone, the Chao Say was a bit more than I needed and after a good nights rest, headed out in the early morning to get a bite to eat and explore a bit more of this incredible town.

The day was cool, with overcast, gray skies (which was not what I had expected in the middle of the dry season.) and as I continued to explore, I stopped into a restaurant for my first breakfast.

Although this first return experience was not typical, I was unfortunate in having selected a place that advertised a "Full English Breakfast" for $1.50, which sounded pretty good I thought….

As it turned out, this translated into an egg, coffee with no milk, 2 pieces of very, very burnt “bacon” (I think), a few slices of bread with no butter or jam and some pretty pathetic looking and tasting French fries. (Fortunately, my breakfast experiences improved radically as this trip continued….)

After "breakfast", I continued to walk about town and as I had only baht, I decided to change that to Cambodian Riel. Although everything is in US dollar (and I do mean everything), having “small money” in Riel makes things a bit easier. There is an exchange near the main market down from the Chao Say Guest House where I haggled with the girl on the exchange rate, finally getting 190,000 Riel for a 2,000 baht. (I was later however able to get 100,000 Riel for 1,000 baht at an exchange at the Central/New Market.)

As I walked across the river, I started exploring some of the back paths away form the "tourist market" area. I soon discovered a place that is located behind the Crocodile Farm and the next bridge on the road headed south out of town. It was called the "Fresh Air Guest House” and for $2 USD a night, you can get a clean, fairly large room (with no bathroom) or if you really want to splurge, $3 will buy you a room and a bathroom. I didn’t actually count the total number of rooms, but on the ground floor there appeared to be 10 or 12 rooms.

This was obviously the epitome of a backpacker’s hotel with drinks from the cooler taken on an honor system and paid for when you checked out. There is also an area near the front entrance with a TV, some tables, chairs, hammocks and forgotten books and magazines where people gather after their long journeys here.

Not sure how exactly you can make money on hotel rooms at $2-3 a night but I suspect the “peripherals” are how this is accomplished as both bus and boat journeys are heavily displayed here. I suspected and later verified that the $8 bus tickets to Phnom Penh can actually be had for $4 if you go and buy the ticket yourself from the bus company, with the same ticket showing a $20 price! (so it appears there is a lot of flexibility as to how much a hotel, guest house or travel agency can make from the unsuspecting tourist). Not sure about the kickback on the $25 ticket for the 5 hour boat trip to Phnom Penh but I suspect it is at least half as well. (I later confirmed at the docks in Siem Reap that it was in fact $12 for a Cambodian...)

20 December – Saturday - 17:30 Day 4
(Saturday) 20 December 2003

Today's sunset was a huge fireball, perfectly aligned with the section of the river looking west as I crossed the bridge back into town from walking from the Fresh Air Guest House. Absolutely stunning!

It was really a nothing day with the main events consisting of picking up a $4 USD bus ticket from the bus company (G.S.T Express) to Phnom Penh and finding a the “real locals market” on a dusty side road just south of town. It is always fun being the only foreigner in such places; the smiles, the raised eyebrows, the sparkling eyes…..

I was told by Bruno (owner of the Paper Tiger) that the best bus company in town was a very low key operation just west of the Central Market on Achamean Street where I was able to pick out and reserve my seat south with a 07:15 departure time..

(Note: Achamean Street has a huge Sokimax Gas and Service Station on the corner and is the same company which has the "concession" to sell tickets into the Angkor Wat Temple Complex).

On my way back from the bus company, I strolled around the Central Market and ended up buying a $2 USD t-shirt from a really vivacious young lady named Marina who owned one of the many newer stalls there. Her whole being was enchanting and bubbly and I found it impossible to not be her first customer of the day and give her “luck” for the remainder of that day. (Who knows if it was true or not, but it sure felt good!)

I also explored some of the stalls of the other vendors and found a nice little stall with lots of interesting used books, mostly in English. Once again there seemed to be a two-tier pricing system for the books as there was one price for Cambodians and another (higher price) for foreigners.

In walking back to the guest house to pick up some software for a friend, I came across a very loud and very large birthday party. Seems birthdays as well as weddings and funerals are all large productions here. I witnessed all three with the weddings being a very colorful production with brightly colored tents and guests and the funerals having large processions; some of which are filled with hired individuals to participate (such as entire classes of school children).

I also had a great lunch today for $1.50 consisting of a large bowl of chicken curry (Khmer Curry) and a plate of rice. Just thinking about the curry makes my mouth water and this was only the first of several times that I ate at this market restaurant downtown.

It was also interesting to note the young boys who hung out around these restaurants with their small plastic bags. Although not begging or bothering you as you ate, they would, once you were finished come to the table and take the remaining food/rice, pour it into their bags and scurry off.

There wasn’t that many actually, never numbering more than three that I saw. They did not bother me or anyone else and there seemed to have been established some form of “protocol” as to the practice. I intentionally left some rice and curry on my plate for them to have although I felt like buying the entire lot lunch….

21 December 2003 - Day 4 (already!) Sunday

Got up at 05:30 to shower and pack for the bus trip south to Phnom Penh. Although I found the weather crisp and extremely pleasant, many at the time, including the foreigners found it cold and some at the guest house were loudly complaining that they needed more blankets. Funny to see the Cambodians moving around, bundled up in large jackets, long sleeve shirts and heavy socks on their feet, stuck into their flip flops.

I also took another long walk this morning on the way to the bus company, walking from the Fresh Air Guest House with my backpack in only 25 minutes.

Daniel Jump having a snack as we cross the river by ferry on the way to Phnom Penh.

As I board the bus and find my seat, I see another couple and a small boy board the bus as well. She is obviously Cambodian and he looks American. Even as I am thinking this, he comes back to my seat and starts up a long conversation which as the days go by during this adventure, turns into a warm friendship.

Dani as it turns out is a trained horticulturist who spent many years growing up in India with his missionary parents and who subsequently, (after getting degrees in agriculture and languages in the USA), went off to work in the US Peace Corp, living in countries from Paraguay to West Africa to Cambodia! Presently he has taken up a position as “beekeeper” with a NGO in Siem Reap where he will be both establishing hives and teaching the art of beekeeping to his Cambodian colleagues. More about him and his family later….

Note: Dani also introduced me to David Cowled who owns and runs with his wife "The Balcony", which is a very nice coffee lounge and art gallery ( www.timbrez.com ) located around the corner from the Paper Tiger.

What made this conversation so interesting was that Dave was also very interested in light aviation and had purchased an ultra-light which he now had at his home.

Dani had found out on our long, 8 hour bus trip south to Phnom Penh that I had once been a flight instructor and still had a keen interest in civil aviation in Southeast Asia and thought Dave and I might be able to share some ideas. He was absolutely correct as we discussed for well over an hour what was going on with civil aviation and flying in Cambodia and discussed the future possibility of setting up a flying club there. More to come on this later!

At 07:25 we left the bus company 10 minutes later than the advertised departure time of 7:15 AM. Although the company apparently won’t leave without you if you have already purchased a ticket, I found out as the trip progressed they will leave (without you!) if you are not onboard after one of the many “rest/food stops”.

As we head east and than south to Phnom Penh, after only 20 minutes the road turns into hell, and this is the way it mostly remains for the next few hours. What is funny about this is that when you ask “locals” about the road, they tell you it is “great” (Tilt!). After trying to understand this, I finally determined that it is “great” compared to what it was only a year ago. The “road” however does not really fall into that definition of the word and at best can be described as asphalt between huge and numerous potholes with “bridges” no more than loose, wooden planks more or less overtop some type of metal, wood or old stone structure.

At 08:15, we have our first stop for Breakfast where I witnessed some form of large “military convoy” whiz by in their numerous Land Rovers and other 4 wheel vehicles. Some of the vehicles appeared to contain people of some importance and other than the crash-helmeted soldiers wearing body armor, there however appeared to be no weapons of any sort (which I thought rather odd.)


After leaving this first rest stop at 08:45, we continued on to Phnom Penh hitting the upper regions of Lake Tonle Sap at 10:45. Only 15 minutes later we crossed a large river and bridge and entered the town of Kompon Thom where we took our second break (from 11:00-11:40). I wandered about the market with Dani and snapped a few photos. We boarded the bus and headed south again 40 minutes after our stop.

The road from this point on is horrible as well and shakes your insides out. (Fortunately no one used the bus company provided "barf bags"!) We stopped at another area where I was a bit hungry after all this bouncing around and decided to have another simple lunch of rice and vegetables but soon discovered the outrageous sum of 3,000 Riel which is more than twice what it should have been. Oh well, should have asked before I ate it. We left this place at 14:10.

We eventually arrived in Phnom Penh later that afternoon (15:30 at the taxi stand) but as I soon discovered, we are not actually dropped off in town but before the large “Japanese” bridge that spans the point of land where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet (the Chroy Chang Va/War area) .

It seems the rationale for this is that a new road tax has been instituted on buses entering and leaving the city via this route and to avoid paying this fee, the bus companies simply drop their passengers off at the Chroy Chang Va/War Taxi Station on the peninsula between the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. If I had not been with Dani (who was explaining this to me), I would have been very, very confused by these events as there were no signs or explanations as to what was going on.

Dani had stayed in Phnom Penh before at the Sunday Guest House and after calling them earlier in the day, called them again whereupon they sent a car and driver to pick us up. (Seems they pickup and drop off their guests at the various bus stations.) I was booked into the $3 a night room with fan, Dani and his wife and son got a large room with TV and bathroom for $5 a night.

As it turned out, this place was actually quite nice with huge common balconies overlooking the city. The family that run this place were really quite nice with the young girl who worked as the manager taking English lessons during the evenings. I noticed this as a van pulled up one evening to pick her up and she later told me about the school and her lessons.

I also got some of my clothes washed here for a dollar a kilo and rented a bicycle for $1 a day. A young Japanese guy who is living at the guest house put a small website up for them and it can be found at www.geocities.com/sundayguesthouse .

The Sunday Guest House is easy to find on Street 141 just off Street 214 (also known as "Yugoslavia or Tito Boulevard-I call it "Embassy Row"), just past the German Embassy and the Cuban Consulate. Seems to be a popular place to stay for a wide range of nationalities and budget travelers.

22 December 2003 – Monday – Phnom Penh

A good part of this day was spent helping my new friend from Siem Reap, Dani, find and buy a digital camera. We visited the huge Canon Shop as well as Olympus and Nikon shops. Although my experiences and prejudices were more inclined towards the Olympus line, we eventually ended up with a 3 mega pixel Nikon that started off at $410 USD but after two more trips back to the store for comparison shopping, we got the owner down to $375. Bargain hard on these items and you will get a pretty reasonable discount.

I also spent part of the day with a young English chap who asked me for directions in his effort to find a language school that he had flown in from Hong Kong to start work for. Once again, a very, very interesting young man who had spent most of his life in Hong Kong or England studying. His father was a captain for Cathay Pacific and he was here to teach English while his knee recovered from an accident before he moved onto an appointment at Sandhurst.

23 December 2003 – Tuesday – Phnom Penh

With a stiff breeze blowing from the northeast and a sky filled with high, puffy white clouds, I started a four hour walkabout the city that took me up near Boeng Kak Lake, passing both the Cambodian Army Headquarters and the Ministry of Defense while walking down the conf. de la Russie Blvd., than down pass the railway station and Wat Phnom, and eventually around and into the main Post Office where I posted a letter to Germany for 2,200 Riel. This street eventually ends on the riverfront at the area where the high-speed ferries to Siem Reap are docked and boarded.

As I walked along the riverfront opposite the many 4 storied shop houses, hotels and restaurants that lined Sisowath Quay (the river boulevard), I noticed no less than 5 “For Rent” signs on 2nd, 3rd and 4th floor balconies of flats facing the Tonle Sap River.

There are no lack of places for rent but expect to pay at least $250 per month and up for anything within a few blocks of the river. I went to several "apartments" to investigate what my money would buy and at the "low end" you will get a floor in a shop house with a very odd floor plan. If you are willing to spend $650 and up, you will be able to find a more "western" setup. No matter how you look at it, prices are increasing rapidly in what will soon become a very cosmopolitan capital. (I kid you not!)

If you look towards the junction of the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong, you will see a huge “freighter’ that seems very out of place so far up the Mekong from the South China Sea. In actuality, what you are seeing is a huge casino named the “Nago Casino” that can only be reached under very tight security through the Cambodiana Hotel.

Also across the Tonle Sap River and on the peninsula that is formed by it and the Mekong River, you will notice a huge monstrosity of a building "under construction".

In actuality the construction has stopped on what was suppose to be an exhibition center. It seems that the Cambodian minister whose pet project this was when he was in power was ousted so consequently the construction stopped. (I noticed the same thing in Siem Reap.)

As I wrote these notes in my journal, I reflected on the fact that in 2 days it would be Christmas and unless you absolutely knew that, there was nothing in sight or sound to remind you that today was nearly Christmas.

My journal notes...

Sitting here on the short wall at the confluence of two large rivers, the Tonle Sap and the mighty Mekong, with my back against a flag pole and my journal and pen positioned on my lap, there seems to be an inner peace that even the people passing by respect. In reality, it is a beautiful site and as I look out over the river, I can't help but feel at peace with both myself and the world....maybe this is my gift for Christmas!

24 December 2003 - Christmas Eve
Heading to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

(more journal notes) - I awoke way too early and after a shave and a shower, I waited for the guest house to come alive (and open their doors). Nowhere is there an item mentioning the idea of Christmas. In a way, it is a bit mind-boggling when you think how important a concept it is to us in the "west", but here, absolutely meaningless. It is Christmas Eve and I would have no idea about it unless I was keeping this journal.

I do however remember this day last year in Istanbul....it was cold and wet and a light snow was falling. I remember thinking that this was not what I expected and although I love that city and Turkey, being alone and cold on Christmas was not what I had in mind.

It was also the day after Christmas a year ago, that I walked into the airport in Istanbul, bought a ticket to Bangkok and was in a few hours later winging my way east to Thailand, spending New Years in a far more “receptive” environment, Nana Entertainment Plaza in Bangkok!

I wonder what Christmas and New Years 2004 holds for me and the world ??!!

At 06:55 we pull out of the bus station which is 100 meters from the building which serves as the Central Market and true to the word "central" is actually the epicenter of many roads and directions. (The BTS Express is right behind the Shell gas station.)

Once again we must avoid the "police bridge trolls" and head out of the city along the banks of the Tonle Sap River north to Siem Reap, this time however taking a different route out of the city than the one we entered by car from the guest house.

At 07:35, we arrive at the Prek Kdam (means crab in Khmer) Ferry Crossing, which has obviously been used for many years as there are hulks of old ferries and tugs strewn along the shore near the crossing.

We have to wait a bit which gives me a chance to grab a bit of tea. It is here that I discover that the tea I have been paying for in other places along the way is actually free to those who know. There always seems to be kettles of tea setting around these places when you arrive, all at least warm and sometimes even hot.

After a bit of a wait, we manage the crossing and head north. Two hours later at 09:25, we reached the town of Skun. (after a 09:00 "breakfast/tarantula" stop in between). At 11:00 we arrived at the town of Tang Krasang which also has a large river and bridge. (Dani indicated to me that he had spent a year here previously working as a Horticulturist Advisor for ADRA in Tang Krasang).

At 11:30 we stopped for lunch once again at Kampong Thom, leaving at 12:10. At 12:50 we passed through Stong and at 3 P.M., we finally arrived on the outskirts of Siem Reap/Angkor Wat, 8 hours after we left Phnom Penh.

I headed back to the Fresh Air Guest House and after once again washing the dust from my body, changed into some clean clothes and headed out to find something enjoyable on what is now Christmas Eve.

Fortunately, I once again discovered the Dead Fish. This is a place I had hung out before in my trip to Angkor Wat in May. Seems the same blind piano player is still there, but on this particular evening, he was signing and playing Christmas tunes! This definitely filled my spirit again and turned out to be a very lovely evening.

25 December 2003 - Siem Reap/Angkor Wat , Cambodia

Without a doubt, Christmas Day at Angkor Wat was the most amazing Christmas of my life and probably one of the more incredible days of my life. It did however begin "normally" enough with me leaving the Fresh Air Guest House early in the morning to have my glass of tea, some fresh bread and to exchange some smiles and words with Logn Sochinda who has a small roadside "cafe" between the guest house and the main road.

Logn Sochinda - A very lovely lady

Her mother and daughter worked there as well, and as always, we spent some time with each other with this Christmas Day morning going 45 minutes, with her teaching me Khmer and me teaching her more English. Over these morning sessions, I learned she was 33 and was no longer married although the reason for this was never explained or mentioned.

Her daughter was always stealing glances at me and when I "caught her", we always exchanged big smiles. Even when I would walk by during the day, her mother or her or both would smile at me and wave.

My breakfast here was always the same; some fresh bread purchased for 500 Riel and several glasses of tea which I always paid 500 Riel for. Not exactly a western breakfast but for some reason, it was always one of the highlights of my days.

I than saw Dani coming down the path to the guest house from his home. I called out to him and he came over to the "cafe" whereupon we headed back to his family for what was to be our Christmas breakfast.

I was impressed to find when we arrived two plates of pancakes with peanut butter, maple syrup and a plate of pineapple. I also managed to get another cup to tea but it wasn't long before I was stuffed on what were probably some of the best pancakes I had ever eaten!

The rest of the morning was spent upgrading his new computer with some software I had brought with me from Thailand and taking a look at his son and daughter's older PC.

At exactly 1 PM that afternoon, we set down for our Christmas Dinner and after a short blessing, dove into huge plates of rice, vegetable curry with duck eggs, a salad made of onions, cucumbers and tomatoes and baked pork and beans. Once again, I just couldn't stop eating but the best was yet to come with each of use getting a bowl of vanilla and chocolate chip ice cream that was rather soft but delicious nonetheless. It seems refrigeration is always a problem....

After all this food and friendship, I thanked my wonderful hosts and headed back to the guest house where I laid down until 5 PM. A bit later, I collected some things that I wanted to drop off at Dani's house before my return to Thailand the next day very early.

As I approached the porch, I noticed all seemed very quiet so I placed the items on the bench in front to the door and just as I was about to leave, Dani came to the door and started to introduce me to Jake, his new part-time beekeeper assistant.

I had listened to Dani tell me before about this young man and how wonderful he was. It seems that he was working several jobs, not only assisting Dani but leading tourist on adventure tours into the "wilds" of Cambodia as well as getting ready to start his own traveler's assistance business! (A very busy man...)

Over the next few hours we talked about many things, mostly relating to business in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. As Jake's English is extraordinary, it was easy to converse with this 26 year old man who has the intensity and knowledge of someone far older.

Jake relaxing after an evening with foreign guests.

A bit later we decided to hop on his motorbike and head for the airport as I wanted to see with my own eyes which airlines were actually flying in there.

After a side trip on the way back, with the setting sun quickly ending that part of a spectacular Christmas Day, we decided to have a meal at the Central (new) Market and a bit later, I invited Jake for a beer at the Ivy Guest House where we continued our discussions about the future of Siem Reap and Cambodia.

Still on a "high" from the day's events and people, I decided to head back to the Dead Fish and finish my Christmas with a glass of merlot and a bit of Christmas music from my favorite piano player. I was also able to check my e-mail for free on 1 of their 3 computers.

After a couple of wines there, I decided to head home to the guest house, but as luck would have it, I met an American couple who were from Boulder, Colorado who were teaching English in Japan.

As we walked down the street together we decided to share a beer at the Banana Leaf across the street from The Paper Tiger. Our conversation quickly intensified and before long we were discussing some rather spiritual and new age concepts that are expressed in books such as "Fingerprints of the Gods" and "Heaven's Mirror" by Graham Hancock and "Hamlets Mill" by the Professor of History of Science at M.I.T. named Giorgio de Santillana.

Kevin and Janel (Brockman) were an extraordinary couple to say the least. If I remember correctly, he had taken degrees from the University of Colorado in both Religion and Astronomy. Janel had studied there as well and her family shared many of the same "New Age" beliefs as Kevin and his family. At 30, their knowledge of events shaping our world left me breathless. I can only hope that one day they too will come and share the knowledge and mystery of what really is encapsulated in what we call "Angkor Wat".

Once again, it being midnight and "Christmas" drawing to a "spectacular" close with the lights around us starting to slowly go out at the various cafes and restaurants, and saying our goodbyes, we headed our separate ways.

As I started my walk home, I headed down towards the all to familiar bridge that leads to my "home" now. As I approached the intersection, in the deep darkness of the night and my thoughts, I heard a large crash which I immediately knew had to be an automobile accident of some type.

As I turned the corner, sure enough, a crowd was beginning to gather around what was obviously a head-on collision between a motorcycle and sedan. It seemed both vehicles had lost the encounter as the motorcycle's front fork had been crumpled and the car's right front bumper and light had been crushed.

It seemed no one had been hurt severely but what appeared to be the motorcycle driver was stumbling around either in shock or very drunk (or both).

As I continued walking, a crowd of well over a 100 had now gathered around the scene to watch the spectacle of who would be right and who would be wrong.....and have to pay!

Have a Merry, Merry Christmas
wherever you are !!!

2004 - Lake Bueng Boraphet, Thailand
2002 - Erlangen, Germany (A few days before Christmas Day)
2002 - Istanbul, Turkey - (Christmas Day)