Sunday, November 11, 2012

US elects a president, Florida watches from the sideline

Imagine two siblings being scolded by their parents and banished to their respective rooms. One sibling dutifully, almost meekly, climbs the stairs to his bedroom. But not the other... oh no, that one pushes back from the table and leaps to his feet so fast the chair is sent skittering. He blusters and moans that it's not his fault, it's because of this... or that... or perhaps even this AND that. And then he storms and stomps up to his room, slamming the door, raging all the while, then proceeds to smash things in his room in a fit of unbridled fury.

That second sibling, my friends, is America's Republican Party as of November 7, 2012.

The night before, American voters delivered a punishing, blistering smackdown the likes of which I've not seen in my lifetime. It wasn't just the Republican stooge Mitt Romney who lost the presidency, the entire nefarious ideology of the Republican Party was dismantled and thrown out. It was very nearly a clean sweep across the board and on the strength of over 62 million votes, Barack Obama was elected to a second term. Turns out that the 47% was really more like the 51%. The Romney/Ryan ticket amassed even fewer votes than loser Republican candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin did in 2008. The Republican establishment was not amused, because for weeks, they had been telling themselves and each other that all the momentum was on Romney's side, and many of the Republican pundits were openly predicting a Romney landslide, despite there being absolutely no facts or polls to lend credence to this claim. None. The Romney campaign even dropped $25,000 on a massive fireworks display over Boston Harbor (in the state of which Romney was once governor and which went for Obama by like a 30-point margin) to celebrate his certain victory. How's that for hubris? It's not without a bit of schadenfreude that I confess I smiled at the thought of all those skyrockets and mortars being wrapped back up, impotent and useless, and sent back to the warehouse.

Ohhh Mr. and Mrs. Obama... the world feels the same way
Meanwhile, back in reality, it was a triumphant night for regular Americans, and the evening also held a treasure trove of election happiness for gays and lesbians, Latinos, women of all colors, and hey... even pot smokers caught a break when not one, but two states legalized marijuana for recreational use. What this election really was, though, was a clear signal about the dawn of a new America. This was likely the Republicans' last, best chance to get a candidate elected to try to shape the country to their conservative ways. And they bet it all. Mitt Romney ran hands-down the most dishonest campaign I think I've ever seen at the presidential level. You expect politicians to play a bit fast and loose with facts, distort some things, cherry pick some statistics. Romney and his people flat-out lied. They made things up. They invented an alternate reality. The press took to calling VP candidate Paul Ryan "Lyin' Ryan." And their last-ditch, desperate Hail Mary pass late in the game? Trying to convince the autoworker-heavy Midwestern states that thanks to Obama, Jeep would be sending its production overseas to China. Even the carmakers jumped on Romney hard for these lies. But instead of retreating, Romney just dug in and upped the ante, reasserting the lies. But Americans – at least the majority of them – didn't fall for the trap. Not this time.

Karl Rove, the political guru whose gift to the world was two terms of Bush and Cheney, convinced billionaire donors to pony up some $300 million to his Super PACs to elect a raft of Republican candidates, including one-time presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich and, naturally, good ol' Mitt. They all lost, so Rove had a public freakout on live television trying to argue the results of the election to none other than the propaganda arm of the Republican Party itself, Fox News, which had just called Ohio, and subsequently the election, for President Obama.

And now the real reckoning begins... and not just for Karl Rove.

If we're to see another Republican president in the next decade or two, the party is simply going to have to start remaking itself, something Republicans have seemed remarkably unwilling to do. Already, they've come up with over a dozen reasons why their guy lost the election. Not one of them has to do with the real reasons. As long as these guys keep their heads buried in the sand and refuse to pop the alternate-universe bubble and let a little reality seep in, the next election will look an awful lot like this one did.

When you consider that America always moves (albeit slowly) to a more progressive place, this can only be seen as a good thing. Hopefully, the Republicans will come around and modify their platform and reject the extreme elements in their party because a healthy two-party system is necessary and desirable for America to thrive. I hope this, but I don't have a great deal of confidence that they'll do it right away.

And Florida, bless them, finally got around to counting their votes. The banana republic state that's somehow still allowed to participate in national elections after the debacle in 2000 still can't manage to hold a proper election 12 years later. Finally though, four days after every other state in the country, Florida did finally manage to count enough votes to declare Obama had carried their state, too, giving him an electoral near-landslide of 332 to 206 votes. That it took so long didn't matter this time, though: Sorry Florida, the rest of us went on ahead and elected the president without you.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A new stamp in the passport

2,000 miles from KL: Here's Kathmandu from the air
It's a bit shameful, really. I've now been here in Malaysia for a surprising four years, and though I've certainly traveled around a fair bit, I've only managed to add one new country to my passport that wasn't already there before I moved to KL, and that's Thailand, a country I've now visited six times, I believe. Last week, that changed as I finally added a new country to my soon-to-expire passport: Nepal.

Malaysian dancers on hand to perform at the
gala dinner hosted jointly by the
Malaysian and Nepali Tourism Boards
Malaysia Airlines just launched its thrice-weekly service to Kathmandu, and I was invited along for the inaugural flight and all the commensurate pomp and circumstance that accompanied it. This was much more than just a new flight route; it was a major opening of trade and tourism channels between Malaysia and Nepal, so both countries really worked hard to make it a great event.

 As for me, I was thrilled to get the chance to experience firsthand the amazing twin landscapes of Nepal: the cultural and the geographical. The landlocked nation is justly famous for them both. Of course, Nepal is probably most well-known as the home of Mt. Everest, but it's also recognized as the birthplace of Lord Buddha.

Amid the omnipresent rubble, workers carry their
baskets to one of their seemingly endless demolition sites
Women load the baskets, which
are supported solely by the head
and neck, with bricks to be
cleaned and reused
It was quite a rush as our plane descended into the bowl-shaped Kathmandu Valley, ringed by four major mountain ranges... a whole new place, a new experience. We stepped out onto the tarmac and as we made our way into the airport, wow... well, let's just say there wasn't much doubt we were in a third-world country. This perception was only heightened as we made our way to the hotel. Nepal, isolated by rugged geography and possessing limited natural resources, has long been a country beset by poor infrastructure and fairly extreme poverty. Much of that is clearly on display. Just along the street on which our hotel was located, they were working on widening the road, but with labor so cheap, it makes more economic sense to do the work by hand than to pay to bring in heavy equipment, so buildings are being gutted, reduced in size, or sometimes razed altogether... all by hand. Men and women with sledgehammers and chisels, carrying away rubble and bricks in rattan baskets. Workers painstakingly chip away the dried mortar from bricks because, even though it takes hours, it's more cost-effective than crushing the bricks and remaking them. It's frightful how little the average worker in Nepal makes – in local currency, it's about 6,000 Nepalese Rupees per month, which is equivalent to US$69. And that's for a month's worth of hard work, too, often 12 or so hours a day with no weekends, no holidays, no medical benefits. To say that a trip to Kathmandu puts my own life in perspective is an understatement. Nepal ranks 161st out of 180 countries in terms of wealth (per capita GDP PPP). Even Bangladesh is a full 10 spots higher on the list. To put it in real perspective, it takes the average Nepalese worker over three years to earn what his American counterpart will earn in one month.

A body being prepared for cremation on the
banks of the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath
The cultural landscape, however, was quite different from the economic one. The rich history of Hinduism and Buddhism have filled the country with temples, festivals, rituals, and a great tapestry of bright colors, seemingly at every turn. The first holy site we visited was the great Hindu temple and grounds of Pashupatinath, one of the most venerated Hindu temples in the world. The temple is dedicated to an incarnation of the Lord Shiva called Pashupati, the lord of the animals, and is situated on the banks of the Bagmati River, considered a holy river. Although only born Hindus are permitted to enter the actual temple, the rest of us could wander the grounds freely, as well as view the temple from across the river. Next to the temple itself are ten open-air crematorial platforms where the deceased, wrapped in cloth, are ceremonially burned as is obligatory in Hinduism, then swept away into the fast-flowing waters of the Bagmati. Far downstream from Pashupatinath, the Bagmati joins the mighty Ganges River, and ultimately drains into the Bay of Bengal. On the morning we visited, a body was being prepared for cremation by the riverside. Family members drew water from the river and splashed themselves with it as the men prepared the kindling and tinder to ignite the blaze. Just steps away from the temple, a centuries-old hospice stands. Our guide told us that many Hindus, as they grow old, will make plans to enter the hospice at the end of their lives, awaiting death on the banks of the holy Bagmati, and will not only end their mortal life there, but in cremation, take their place in the next life from a sacred and auspicious portal. Though all of the activity underway there – and there was a lot of it – was obviously quite lost on me, Pashupatinath was admittedly a special place.

A Tibetan family visiting Boudhanath
I also got to visit Boudhanath, a large Buddhist stupa on the northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu. This was a very enjoyable stop, as the 36-meter high stupa, built over 1,500 years ago, is surrounded by a ring of shops, galleries, and restaurants, giving the UNESCO Heritage Site a very "town square" feel -- though in a circular shape. The dominant culture here is Himalayan/Tibetan, and we saw a number of maroon-clad Tibetan monks on and around the stupa, including some teenage boys posing "gangsta-style" and snapping photos with their digital cameras, which was a rather humorous juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern.

The 36-meter high stupa at Boudhanath, festooned with
Buddhist prayer flags
One of the fascinating things we saw there was a shop selling nothing but Tibetan singing bowls, which have been made in the region for centuries. The bowls are actually considered standing bells, and are certainly correctly called musical instruments. The craftsmanship of some of these bowls, particularly the larger ones, was remarkable. Though the word on the street (which we heard repeatedly) was that the bowls were made from "seven different metals," a bit of research upon my return suggested that's nothing more than urban legend. The bowls have actually been found to be made from an alloy of copper and tin, more commonly known as bronze, which is the top alloy of choice for fine musical instruments, so I'm not sure where the story about seven metals originated. I guess the marketing wisdom is that if two metals are outstanding, well... seven metals must be even better!

"And on top of all that, you won't find a better salad bowl!"
The shop we spent some time in was manned by two local guys who were keen to show us pretty much every bowl in the place, but they were pretty charming, so we played along. One of the girls in my group good-naturedly let them put a huge bowl on her head, then set it to "singing" while she assumed a meditative pose. Not sure what healing effect this was supposed to have rendered to her, but since she didn't leave with a ringing headache, we all considered the effort a success. As the young guys shared with us, the finest singing bowls are handmade and usually have a dimpled, hammered finish and produce a rich vibrating tone as you lightly strike the rim of the bowl with a mallet. As you continue to draw the mallet around the outside rim of the bowl, the intensity of the harmonic overtones swells and the distinctive "singing" sound is produced. These bowls are used primarily in meditation rituals, but also for "sound healing" purposes, as the vibration is purported to have some sort of restorative effect on the body. I was so fascinated by these instruments, I bought a small one for myself. It's not a top-quality handmade bowl, but rather a machine-lathed bowl (made from a brass alloy rather than a bronze alloy) likely churned out for the tourist trade, but that's fine; it's a beautiful souvenir and was quite inexpensive.

A brilliant palette of natural pigments
Apart from the singing bowls, an artist's gallery was another favorite shop of mine where Nepalese and Tibetan women sat in the gallery, mixing pigments and working on their paintings. We also ate while we were at Boudhanath, and I'd say everyone's favorite food was the ubiquitous "momo," a steamed dumpling filled with bits of yak or buffalo meat, vegetables, and spices like garlic, ginger, and coriander. Absolutely mouthwatering! I've been on the hunt for a Nepalese restaurant in KL since I got back, hoping to find these little bite-sized parcels locally.

A painter at work
The next day, however, was probably the best. The first half of the day was spent at what was probably my overall favorite heritage site visited on the trip, Bhaktapur Durbar Square. The town of Bhaktapur is about 15km or so east of Kathmandu, and the complex we spent the morning at was just a stunning display of centuries-old workmanship... temples, halls, intricate wood and stone carvings. Most of Bhakpatur's gems fell victim to a massive earthquake in 1934, but the surviving structures have done very well in the intervening decades. One pavilion of particular prurient interest was the "Kama Sutra Temple," although that's not its proper name. On each of 24 struts supporting the main roof, six to a side, various sexual poses are depicted, each naughtier and more graphic than the last. I'd consider it a personal victory to see a passel of hyper-conservative American women stumbling upon this temple and going into apoplectic fits of propriety, clutching their pearls and muttering about those heathen 17th-century sexual deviants.

One of the many impressive temples
at Durbar Square
But seriously, if you ever find yourself in Kathmandu, make a point of seeking out Bhaktapur. There are parts of it which weren't so enjoyable, overrun by tourist shops and the like, but apart from that, the whole of Bhaktapur is fantastic, including Durbar Square, and the amazing Potter's Square, which is run by farmers who make and sell scores of clay pots to supplement their meager incomes during lean agricultural times.

One of several owls keeping a close
eye on us as we made our way through
the temples and buildings at Bhaktapur
Memorably, we also sort of picked up two boys on our meandering way through Bhaktapur. They were both 13, but one, named Rasmundar, looked all of about 8 or 9. What was odd is that the young-looking one never asked for money or anything, either directly or indirectly. He just wanted to accompany us and show us things. He's actually the one who pointed out the owls nesting in the bricks that you see here. The other boy, Bikesh, not only looked older than 13 (and may well have been), he was also a bit more forward, asking me to buy him a dictionary to help him translate Nepalese to English. Well, this is a pretty common scam in poor countries. The unsuspecting tourist, thinking he's helping a deserving and eager-to-learn local child, is taken to a select bookstore, buys a grossly overpriced dictionary, then, as soon as the tourist leaves, the book is returned and the proceeds split between the child and the store owner. I didn't go along with the dictionary request, but in the end, I just gave all the remaining Nepalese Rupees I had in my wallet, plus a couple of RM5 notes, as well, to these two boys. It wasn't a lot – probably amounted to less than US$10-15 total – but they definitely appreciated it.

Rasmundar, one of the boys who latched
onto our group at Bhaktapur

Bikesh telling us something about the building here

So I'll stop here and throw some photos in, then will write part two for the next entry. "Nepal: The Sequel." That part will include more about Bhaktapur, stories of the food we sampled, and all the details of our foray into the foothills of the Himalayas. No, I did not scale Everest; no, I did not do any real trekking; and no, I did not see a yeti. I did, however, take about 400 photos during my short time in Nepal, but of course, only a fraction are really good, and even fewer are suitable for the blog, but I'll put in as many as I can! Stay tuned...

Street scene from the east side of Kathmandu
An elderly Nepalese woman in a
pensive moment near the Bagmati River
An elaborately carved door at the complex of
Pashupatinath temple

Nothing really extraordinary about this photo,
taken near Pashupatinath;
I just liked the colors and composition :)
A devotee at Pashupatinath temple

A shopkeeper takes a break beneath the intricately
carved woodwork adorning the windows of a gift shop
at Boudhanath

A snapshot of the circle around the stupa at Boudhanath;
this place had such a great feel to it – really an enjoyable visit

A Tibetan monk standing outside an ornate building –
I think it was a guesthouse – at Boudhanath

Potter's Square at Bhaktapur
Click here to read part 2 of the Nepal entry. :)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another massacre in America: When will enough be enough?

A couple of days ago, a young man walked into a crowded movie theater in my hometown – a theater in which I have personally sat, I might add – and, with an arsenal of semiautomatic weapons and a mind-boggling 6,000 rounds of ammo, all purchased easily and legally, opened fire.

Within moments, 70 innocent moviegoers had been shot, 12 of them fatally. If that grim toll holds (as several of the victims are still in critical condition as of this writing), the really awful thing is that this massacre won't even be Colorado's deadliest. In April 1999, 13 were killed in the infamous Columbine school shooting.

In the intervening 13 years between that deadly day at Columbine and this weekend's rampage just 15 miles away, the United States has averaged roughly 20 mass shootings... per year. In 2012 alone, prior to the Aurora movie theater massacre, the number of homicides as a result of mass shootings stood at 50. In July 2012 alone, the Colorado incident is the sixth mass shooting in the country. If those stats don't make your head spin, try this one: The United States has a gun murder rate that is TWENTY TIMES higher than the next 22 richest countries in the world.


Let that truly sink in: Our gun murder rate is 20 times higher than the world's next 22 richest countries combined.

So these jaw-dropping statistics naturally beg the question: what is wrong with the United States? My friends here in Malaysia (not only Malaysians, but my colleagues who hail from several other countries, as well) sure are curious to know why the "land of the free and home of the brave" is such a savage, violent country. After all, how many mass shootings have there been in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Singapore, Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul, and hell, let's even throw in Shanghai and Beijing in there, too? In the same 13-year period in which America has averaged 20 mass shootings per year (260 total, and counting), the combined total of mass shootings in these cities is zero. Why? It's not a question of population – these are by far some of the most populous and/or densely populated cities on Earth. It's not a psychological issue. Any time you have 30 million people, statistically you are going to have some sociopaths and psychopaths in the mix. It's inevitable. The difference is guns.

So all I can tell my non-American friends when they wonder aloud why my country is so backwards when it comes to guns and gun violence is that the worst-written, least-comprehensible, and, by far, the most damaging part of the entire US Constitution is to blame: the Second Amendment. Let's face it, from any neutral standpoint, the text of the amendment is not very clear, which is why the thing has gone to the Supreme Court for clarification on more than one occasion. The price for those ill-chosen 27 words has been the blood of more Americans than can be counted. Two days ago, 12 more were added to the list. The 27 words? Though the original and ultimately ratified/certified versions differ very slightly in some punctuation and capitalization, the two version are equally incoherent and read as such:

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

To me, as a grammarian and editor, the prefatory clause (the first part) sets a condition for the operative clause (the second part), and names the militia as a subset of "the people." This means that when the people are part of a militia which is necessary to the security of the state, their right to own guns is absolute. The United States has a formal, proper military now; we do not have standing militias as they did in the late 1700s. The whole point of the Second Amendment was to ensure that the fledgling Americans would be armed and could be assembled into a militia in the event of an invasion or a British incursion. No rational person would say the Framers intended the Amendment to mean that any citizen could stockpile a massive cache of automatic weapons and handguns. There were no such things in the 18th century! Moreover, I find the phrasing to be actually a bit of an oxymoron. It stipulates that the militia be "well-regulated," yet goes on to say that the rights "shall not be infringed." Well, nearly by definition, any regulation is going to be some sort of infringement. So I think the whole thing is fraught with problems. However, the Supreme Court, indeed the same Court that awarded George Bush the presidency in 2000 even though he lost the vote, and then sold out our entire political system to cash-flush corporations with their disastrous Citizens United decision in 2008, has upheld that this text somehow means the average beer-guzzling citizen or antisocial grad school dropout has the unassailable right to quite legally buy up huge stockpiles of semiautomatic weapons, order thousands of rounds of ammo online, and even purchase police-grade body armor and bulletproof vests. That's apparently what the Second Amendment means, and as a result, innocent Americans pay the price in blood, every year, every month, every day. It should be noted, however, that in the landmark Supreme Court case that apparently settled this once and for all, District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), four of the Justices shared my opinion in their rather strong statements of dissent. However, five justices felt differently, and thus the decision was rendered.

A bit of background: I grew up, literally, shooting guns. Shotguns, rifles, revolvers, pistols... if it's a relatively common firearm type, chances are better than average I've held it and fired it. I've still got a scar between my thumb and forefinger from popping off a few rounds with a .44 magnum, a weapon whose recoil I was, as a skinny 12-year-old boy, wildly ill-equipped to handle. I have personally owned a 9mm Ruger semiautomatic pistol and have spent many enjoyable hours at the shooting range, followed by the methodical enjoyment of disassembling and cleaning the weapon. So I don't hate guns. I'm not an irrational anti-gun zealot. I understand the fascination. The power. The realization that you can hold in your hand a tool with which you can, in very short order, end a human life (or hey, 12 of them) from a substantial distance. The fact that wielding such power carries with it no requirement for any sort of discipline or time-consuming training is a big part of the problem with guns. So though I'm not completely neutral and without opinion in the scheme of things, I am not a passionate anti-gun nut, either. I have spent a large chunk of my life with guns and managed to not shoot anyone, or to get shot myself.

But the United States, for reasons surpassing understanding, has evolved into a society in which two things are very true, and they are, I would argue, wholly incontrovertible, irrespective of where your opinion falls on the gun debate spectrum:

1. Violence is glorified. Everywhere you look – movies, television, sporting events, hell, even YouTube these days, Americans worship at the altar of violence. Oh we may ACT horrified, but when unspeakable acts of violence in a movie will merit only a PG-13 rating, and not only not drive away business, but increase it, while a 1/2-second flash of Janet Jackson's nipple during the Super Bowl causes a nationwide meltdown and Congressional hearings (literally), it seems pretty evident that we as a country not only have our priorities far out of whack, we are exquisitely enamored of violence.
2. Guns are prolific, legal, and easily available.When I bought my 9mm pistol, I did so at a freaking Wal-Mart not two miles from Columbine High School (though some years before the massacre there). No waiting period, no background check,I just filled out a couple of forms, took my shiny new gun, and out I went. I was 21 years old at the time, if memory serves, and even bought two boxes of ammo for good measure. Christ, I could have gone to my car, loaded up the gun, and gone right back in the store and robbed it. Now, in truth, gun purchasing HAS tightened up a little, and Wal-Mart no longer even sells handguns, but sporting goods stores do. Gun shows do. (And the phrase "gun show loophole" certainly doesn't exist because there's not one.)

So when you take into account these two truths – that we glorify violence as a society, and we that have made guns and ammo astonishingly easy to purchase and own – what happened in Aurora cannot seriously be seen as surprising or shocking in any way.

So we'll go through the pathetically familiar motions once again. We'll all wring our hands, moan "what a world, what a world," we'll have our meaningless candlelight vigils, local florists will reap the bounty as scores of useless bouquets will be scattered at the murder site, people will flock to churches seeking solace and answers, we'll fill up news comments forums for a few days with tens of thousands of diatribes, a million "thoughts and prayers go out to..." tweets and Facebook posts will litter the digital realm (something that didn't happen after Columbine), and people may even get a little action going towards a real gun control conversation. But we all know what will happen, and frankly, I think the NRA and their like-minded supporters actually count on it: People will move on. They'll forget and newer things in the 24-hour news cycle will bubble to the surface. The dead in the Aurora shooting won't even have been buried by the time this is no longer in the headlines or the national conversation. If anyone tries to make it an issue, particularly in an election year, they'll be chastised for trying to politicize a tragedy. Well, if after yet another senseless gun rampage isn't the time to make it a political issue, when would be? Why is it that we as Americans permit this insanity to continue? Does anyone really think that this latest mass shooting will be the last? Or really even the last this year?

When will it be enough?

If you live in America (and haven't yet been gunned down), you've doubtlessly heard some of the gun lobby's talking points because they are repeated like clockwork after every mass shooting that takes place. But let's really consider them logically, rather than emotionally:

1. "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." This is a great catchphrase. It's short, it's linguistically symmetrical and reciprocal, and it fits really nicely on a bumper sticker. Only problem is – and this is the case with most bumper sticker philosophies – it's not entirely true. Let's take a look: There are numerous countries in the world in which guns are outlawed. And unsurprisingly, they don't have a big problem with gun violence. For some reason that defies easy explanation, many Americans fail to equate gun violence with guns. Now, advocates will point to the massacre in Norway last year by the right-wing militant Christian, Anders Behring Breivikas, as a prime example. "Guns are illegal there," they'll say, "and Breivikas was still able to get guns and kill 77 people." A true statement indeed, but this massacre was extraordinarily uncommon not only in Norway, but in the whole of Western Europe. Mass shootings are not an ongoing problem in Norway. Gun violence is not an ongoing problem in Norway. This incident stood out because it was so rare. Mass shootings happen so frequently in the US, we can't even remember exactly when the last one was. Admittedly, if we suddenly banned handguns (which is what I favor, not the abolition of ALL guns), there might be a period in which "only outlaws" would have them, but in the long run, it would obviously and logically curtail handgun violence as the number of guns in society dropped. There are ways to manage the stepping down of firearms in the US, but we have to first have a rational discussion about it for that to ever happen.
2. "If there had been an armed citizen in the crowd, that could have stopped this massacre." There is actually some truth to this, but it's highly conjectural and extremely conditional. Though every situation is different, let's consider this one. A darkened movie theater in which the shooter enters, and throws smoke and gas canisters. The shooter is prepared for this, and is wearing full body armor, including a neck and groin protector, a bulletproof vest, and a flak jacket. He is also shooting randomly and indiscriminately, not caring who his target is. An armed citizen, who is not trained for tactical or combat situations, would have to extricate his weapon, determine exactly who the shooter is – and where – and in a chaotic, darkened, smoke-filled theater full of running, screaming, diving, pushing people, aim at the shooter from a distance (a difficult task at the best of times) with a small handgun that's ill-suited for precision aiming in the first place, and fire, hope his aim is true, and that he doesn't hit any innocent people instead. And if, somehow, all that actually takes place, and by some amazing series of events, the armed civilian manages to overcome the formidable tactical odds and find his mark... well, sorry, it doesn't really matter because the shooter is clad in body armor anyway. Game over.
Another valid point is that even if a person who is legally carrying a gun has a good reason to use it, there can be civil and criminal liabilities. If the civilian shoots an innocent bystander, even by mistake, that law-abiding citizen is subject to criminal and/or civil liability. In most jurisdictions, even whipping out a gun and pointing it at someone constitutes felony assault. Now, many states would bar lawsuits in a situation like this, but it could still get very messy and ugly as anyone whose been dragged through the legal system can attest.
And more to the point, irrespective of whether laws protect a concealed weapon carrier, or whether a theater is a "gun-free zone" or not (some states allow private businesses to post signs barring concealed weapons; Colorado law has no such provision), the point is there are no security points, there's not a pat-down, there's not a metal detector. (And really, do we want there to be? Is that the sort of society we want to become?) Colorado has among the more liberal concealed-carry laws in the nation, so in a theater with hundreds of people, surely some otherwise law-abiding gun wielder could have still walked in easily with his or her concealed handgun. But no one did. Over and over again, gun advocates say, "Well if someone had been carrying a gun, they could have stopped it!" without looking at what the bigger picture says to us. In a crowd of hundreds, if no one is carrying a concealed weapon, doesn't that really speak to what we as a society want? Doesn't it at least suggest that maybe people don't want to live in a town where everyone is packing heat? Statistics show that perhaps only as many as 25% of Americans own a gun of any kind. Simple math tells us that that means 75% of Americans don't own guns. That's a very strong majority. And yet, the bloody toll continues unabated. Why? First, the Institute for Legislative Action, the benignly named lobbying arm of the NRA, is consistently ranked the most powerful lobbying group in the country, and some of our lawmakers apparently have no compunctions about accepting blood money to keep those pesky common-sense gun control laws at bay. And second, there are those oddly phrased 27 words in the Second Amendment which, when coupled with our national preoccupation with violence, ensure that more shooting sprees will occur.
3. "If he had no access to guns, he'd have found another way." Okay, I can logically deconstruct the other arguments because there is at least an apparent semblance of merit to them, though easily debunked with analysis. This one, however, doesn't even rise to that level. This one is just ridiculous. I offer up Malaysia as an example of this. The current population here is roughly 29 million. Now, statistically, with that many people, you're certainly going to have more than a few malcontents. Probably some sociopaths, and almost surely a few genuine psychopaths in the mix. It's statistically inevitable. How many mass shootings have occurred in Malaysia in the last 13 years?  Pretty easy to count: zero. (In that time, remember, America has logged over 250 mass shootings.) So according to this "argument," there should have been a relatively equal rate of mass murders utilizing bombs, knives, grenades, or durian fruits. Of course there haven't been. Look at Japan with its population of 90 million. Same story. Guns, particularly when they're easy to acquire, demand no expertise or proficiency to carry out their deadly role. Point and pull trigger.
To those suggesting that, in a country devoid of semiautomatic weapons, this guy would have just found another means, please do even a bit of cursory research. Building a bomb that could kill or maim 70 people in a large movie theater certainly isn't impossible, but it isn't easy at all. That's why most homemade bombs fail. Remember Columbine? The killers set homemade propane tank bombs in the school's cafeteria, all of which failed. Remember the would-be underwear bomber? His bomb failed because of the fuse. Time and again, we see that building a lethal, functional bomb isn't as easy as gun advocates would have you think. Consider this analogy: If you have two depressed people living in two different house, and all other factors are equal, which would you presume would be more likely to commit (or attempt) suicide, the one living in a house with fifteen bottles of various sleeping pills and painkillers, or the one living in a house with nothing stronger than a bottle of aspirin? Ease of access makes a difference. Sure, either of them could fashion a noose and find a way to get the job done, but a handful of sleeping pills is much easier, much less messy. It's the same with guns. They're easy to get, require no special skill to use, and allow you to kill easily from a distance. No need for hand-to-hand combat, no need to get your hands all bloody, no need to see your victims up close and personal – as fellow human beings – as you claim their lives. Just stand back and pull a trigger. And we see this scenario played out over and over and over and OVER again.
4. "We have to have armed citizens to keep our government in line." This one is the biggest cockamamie joke of them all. I'm sorry, but if the United States government, with the full might of its considerable military, decreed that citizens were no longer permitted to keep and bear arms, I assure you that your little collection of pop guns (when compared to their vastly superior firepower) wouldn't really cause more than a moment's disruption to their meeting that goal. There are scores of stable, healthy, prosperous countries whose governments are performing quite nicely without packs of armed citizens roaming the land.

So again, the question must be asked: When will it be enough? When will Americans of conscience grow sufficiently tired of their fellow citizens and their children being gunned down senselessly? What will it take for politicians to eschew the NRA's cash and lobbying efforts and take a stand on real gun control? Yes, I'm aware of the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court's ruling on its meaning. But the US Constitution is a living document and is built to be changed. And the Supreme Court has, on occasion, overruled its own previous decisions. Would any of this be easy to do? Of course not. But since 75% of Americans, who are ostensibly both the governed and the government, do not own guns, it's reasonable to suggest that at least making an effort to get handguns out of our society would be a logical, worthwhile approach, even if its full benefits wouldn't be seen for two or three more generations.

I gave up my 9mm pistol years ago. I'll likely never fire another handgun, and my life isn't any poorer for it. Not owning guns doesn't make me less of a man, and it doesn't decrease my lifespan or impair my enjoyment of my life. It simply isn't worth the blood cost to my fellow Americans for me to enjoy a few rounds of target shooting at the range. And even here in Malaysia, a country in which guns are banned, people can still go and shoot at a target range, anyway. Want to defend your home? I promise you, a shotgun is a far more effective weapon than a .38 revolver. Want to go hunting? Pistols are not reasonable tools for hunting, which is why hunters overwhelmingly use rifles, shotguns, and crossbows. So my proposal would be to continue allowing long guns – that is to say, rifles and shotguns – but to institute a ban on handguns and any sort of "assault" weapon (and do take note that they're not called "defense rifles," but rather "assault rifles"). We put a man on the moon; I'm sure we can figure out a way to rid our society of the proliferation of handguns that currently exists. Unfortunately, it's hard to even start the discussion because the NRA and the people that organization inspires stand firmly against any legislation that would curtail "gun rights." That means they oppose any sort of  gun control. They would rather the bloodshed continue unabated as long as they can continue to legally own their .45 automatic. That's one side. And on the other extreme are the anti-gun zealots who want to see every gun, every bullet, and every NRA sticker go into a giant smelter. So it's hard to get anything accomplished when you get these two groups together.

So why don't the rest of us take the lead? The vast majority of Americans are not gun-toting, gun-loving NRA members, and I'd guess that the vast majority also respect the Constitution and don't necessarily want to see every firearm eradicated from America. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and there are an awful lot of us. I can't imagine that anyone truly wants this sort of wanton bloodshed to continue. A six-year-old girl was among the many fatalities at that theater. A nine-year-old girl was among the six who were killed in the Congresswoman Giffords assassination attempt. Surely no American wants to see innocent children continuing to be shot and killed in our schools, our malls, our movie theaters, our restaurants.

Haven't we had enough? If not, then when will that day come, and how many more will have to die?

Note: Permission is freely granted to resend or reprint this blog entry (and this entry exclusively), in part or in whole, as long as credit is given to the author and/or the blog site. Comments are also welcomed, but bear in mind, this is my personal blog, not a public square, so be nice! If your comment is rude, profane, or abusive, it will never even appear on the site. Disagreement and discussion is encouraged, but it must be civil. I've seen the comments sections of too many news articles to know how quickly these things can devolve. Thank you!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Hiking Malaysia

Well, once again, it's been forever... here's a post I started months ago, and I'll segue into more up-to-date stuff later on...

Into the forest. As usual, these photos
never quite capture the real steepness
I've not attempted anything here remotely as arduous as some of the hiking I've done in Colorado. There, you have altitude, thin air, highly variable terrain with considerable elevation gain, and all sorts of potential weather issues to contend with, along with the possibility of black bears or mountain lions (I've been lucky in that respect). Here, it's mostly just heat and humidity... and maybe a random leech if you're in the jungle. So I've not done anything that avid hikers would call actual hiking, but rather more like walking around in fairly sedate forests not too terribly far from the comforts of the city. But that was simply too much text to fit into the title of the post, so cut me some slack.

Part of the waterfall's cascade, glimpsed from the trail
Having been to the Forest Research site (FRIM) a few times already, this time my friends and I decided to check out a place called Kanching Recreational Forest, not too far from the city, up between the small towns of Selayang and Rawang, somewhat north of KL proper. It's a fairly small site, and its primary feature is a huge seven-tier waterfall that cascades through the forest, collecting in pools at various spots along its descent. It has, regrettably, almost a sideshow feel to it as you drive up. The place is tremendously popular with locals, and, as such, stalls selling everything from local foods and snacks to stuffed animals and sunglasses have cropped up at the entrance. There was even a display of various parrots and other birds with which you could be photographed for a fairly outrageous RM10 cost.

A small sample of the hordes of people at each and every
pool of the waterfall's multiple tiers
Even more lamentable than the carnival-a-palooza atmosphere as you try to go hiking in a forest was the unbelievable quantity of litter left behind by picnicking Malaysians. It was absolutely appalling, and I've actually talked to locals here who've seen it and are frankly embarrassed by it. Hordes of day-tripping locals descend on the tiered waterfall, have big family BBQs, enjoy each other's company, relax in the cool of the forest, and delight in the pools of water... and then they leave about half their crap behind, from the looks of it. At times, I had to strategically re-frame my photos to exclude the detritus cluttering up the otherwise beautiful scenery. I don't know who oversees and manages this place, but a clean-up effort would be well-advised, along with a few "Please do not litter" signs, and a couple of large rubbish bins at each of the waterfall pools.

And oddly enough, my friends were literally the only Chinese folks there (and naturally, I was the only white guy). I asked about this — why in this verdant natural setting, were there only throngs of Malays present — and was only somewhat jokingly told that the Chinese really don't "do" the great outdoors, what with its lack of air conditioning and branded goods shops. Ha ha ha. Oh well, at least the malls stay full.

Malaysia's assault on Western foods doesn't stop
with pizza... roti aiskrim manages to offend both hot dogs
and ice cream simultaneously
But probably the most horrific experience at Kanching was saved for the end. We were leaving and one of my friends kept pestering me to try this foul creation known as roti aiskrim, which is easy enough for anyone to translate: ice cream bread. Seriously, what the hell? It's nothing at all more than a hot dog bun, split open, with like four little scoops of different flavors of ice cream inside. It's awful in theory, and it's equally crappy in actual practice. But apparently, for Malaysians (at least some of them), it's evocative of fond childhood memories, so even though I tried fruitlessly to insist that I really, really, really did not want this "treat," it was foisted upon me nevertheless. I ate a couple of bites and yes, it was every bit as awful as you'd think. Ice cream in a hot dog bun: it was never going to end well. And not even real ice cream, mind you. It's the local version, which admittedly isn't awful (when it's the right flavor and not served in a bun), and the texture is great, but it's made with palm oil, not milk and certainly not cream. I don't think ANY cows were involved or even consulted in the making of this particular type of ice cream, which really should be legally barred from using the word "cream" in its moniker. But yeah, this was four scoops of palm oil-based ice cream in colors never intended by nature, once again, in a hot dog bun. At least this wasn't the deep-fried version, roti aiskrim goreng. In any event, two bites was enough, and the rest went to a scraggly monkey, who may or may not have polished off the rest after scampering up a nearby tree with the proffered dessert facsimile.

Walking along the wide paths through secondary
forest at Kuala Selangor Nature Park
A pair of great egrets (Birdicus longneckus) spy
each other; tawdry romance ensues
A couple of weeks later, an entirely different experience was to be had. This time, we headed out to Kuala Selangor and visited the marvelous nature park there, a 2.4-sq km preserve with three distinct ecosystems that has become a sanctuary for numerous species (over 150) of resident and migratory birds, as well as at least two species of monkeys, some small mammals such as otters, and larger reptiles such as the monitor lizard. Also, a very happy home for innumerable legions of mosquitoes, so be forewarned and slather on the repellent before hiking here. The Park encompasses the estuary of the Selangor River as it empties into the Straits of Malacca, and along the coastline can be found thick mangrove forests, which give way to mudflats (and we saw some huge mudskippers, too), grassy swamps, and ultimately secondary forest. Hiking trails are really well-maintained (the Park is under the auspices of the Malaysian Nature Society, an admirable organization) and the entrance fees are wonderfully cheap, only RM4. It's a great place to spend a day and feel like you've been transported to another world far, far from from the urban chaos of KL. At night, the primary draw is the spectacular fireflies that congregate along the banks of the Selangor River; the members of this particular species synchronize their flashing, so that hundreds and hundreds of the insects light up simultaneously in the otherwise pitch black of the evening.

A grey heron skulking around in the verge,
miserably awaiting his own tawdry romance
So although, to be very honest, Malaysia doesn't put even remotely near the emphasis on outdoor recreation that my home state of Colorado does, there are still some nice places to be found, and I hope I can stumble across a few more. One day, I want to visit the crown jewel of outdoor excursions in this country, the 130-million-year-old primary tropical rainforest of Taman Negara, Malaysia's 4,300-sq km national park.

This walkway lets you walk through
the mangrove swamps and keep your
shoes clean
A big part of why I haven't been writing much here lately is that I've been doing it for a living elsewhere. I took a job about three months ago as the group editor for a company that publishes a hefty number of magazines in Malaysia, and to say that it's kept me busy is a gross understatement. I do get to write a bit in the job, but a lot more of the work is managerial and, naturally, editorial in nature. I've also taken another trip to Bali, two trips to Penang, and two trips to the amazing Tioman Island, which I think I may write about in the next entry. Coming soon is a trip to the Philippines – that should take place in August.

In any event, apologies for the delay and will hope to have another entry a LOT sooner than this one.

P.S. That scientific name in my photo caption above is just for a laugh, and perhaps an homage to the old Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoons, the roti aiskrim of MY childhood nostalgia, so please, no ornithological flames, okay? In fact, I may well have even gotten the common name of the birds wrong!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Taking the Long Way Home

Despair at 35,000 feet... and this was the good meal!
You know what they say about the best-laid plans. When I was booking the flights for my trip back to Colorado, I tried to plan everything out properly. I had the flight from Asia to L.A. handled, I just needed to book a flight to get me to Denver from there. Since virtually every airline in America now charges for checked bags, I chose the one airline remaining that lets you check two bags free, Southwest Airlines, thinking this would save me about $100-120. (The other airlines charge $25 for the first bag and $25-35 for the second — each way.) But for whatever reason, Southwest's final flight of the day from LAX to Denver was at 6:20 p.m., and my flight from Asia didn't land until 6:00 p.m., an impossible connection to make. So I booked the flight to Denver for 6:30 the next morning, thinking I'd either stay in the airport (boo!), visit my uncle out in the desert east of Los Angeles, or stay with a friend of mine from KL, who was possibly going to be in L.A. for business at that time (hey, free hotel room). Well... none of that came to pass, so I booked the hotel room at the Radisson while I was in Guangzhou, and that all seemed to be okay, even though it took a $60 bite out of whatever checked-baggage money I had saved by booking with Southwest. (Other airlines had later flights to Denver.)

Things only went downhill from here...
So my uncle decided to make the two-hour drive to my hotel from his place, just so we could visit for a short while (at 3 a.m., mind you), and then volunteered to take me to the airport. However, the roads are not well-marked from the hotel, and we had to take a detour and track back to get to LAX, costing a few minutes. After I was dropped off at the curbside check-in place, there was a massive crowd of people waiting to check in for Southwest (at 5:30 a.m., no less!), and the line inside was even worse. So I stood in the line outside, wondering if I would make it at all. I did, but only barely, and apparently my bags didn't get checked in time, so they were tagged "LATE" like some absurd scarlet letter to announce to everyone what a crappy layabout of a traveler the owner of these bags is. So I got to Denver unscathed, and went to baggage claim where exactly one of my two checked bags made an appearance. The other had not made the flight with me, so it would be coming in on the next flight, which, fortunately, was only an hour later, so I just waited. So, coupled with the long flight, I had an overnight sojourn in L.A. and a delayed suitcase with a yellow-tag scolding from Southwest Airlines.

This, quite grievously, was but a pale, dim harbinger of the misery to come on the journey back to KL.

I already wrote about being stranded in L.A. for 24 hours, so let me continue on from there. Since the employees at Southwest who were there at the airport specifically told me that Southwest would reimburse me for my hotel expense, I got a room nearby, which I also wrote about. I think I made the best of that whole situation, and the time spent there watching the football game and relaxing before heading back to the airport was really not too bad. Once I got to LAX that evening though, I guess things started to unravel. I checked in and gave China Southern my bags some three hours before my flight left, so no problem there. I made my way through the awful security bottleneck at the International Terminal (a little over an hour) and to the gate. Though the Terminal 1 concourse there is actually pretty decent, the actual gates at LAX's International Terminal are dire. Sterile, bare, never enough seats... a truly woebegone farewell to departing passengers. So there I languished for another two hours, then got on the plane for the 15-hour flight back across the Pacific. The flight was completely full, always a nightmare on such an epic flight.

Now think about this... when was the last
time you saw an ashtray at your seat
on a commercial aircraft?
So as I settled into my seat, I noticed something odd. Look at the picture... just what in the chicken-fried hell is going on here? That is an actual ashtray in the armrest of my seat. An ashtray!! Now, this aircraft was a 777-200ER, an aircraft that wasn't even introduced into service until 1997, long after smoking was banned aboard all aircraft. So I can only assume that, at some point, China Southern cheaply retrofitted the plane with seats from another aircraft from the pre-smoking ban days. Lord. That probably explains the sucky quality of the video screens in the seatbacks (and the very limited content selection), which I couldn't even bother to use. So yeah, even though China Southern is the sixth-largest airline in the world that most of the world's population has still never even heard of, they still have a long way to go.

So after an uneventful 15-hour flight across the Pacific that, mercifully, I largely slept through, we landed in fabulous Guangzhou early in the morning on January 10th. The outside temperature was 48°F, about 9°C, and I'm not even joking here, the temperature inside the airport wasn't much higher. I don't know if the heat was not working or if they just never bothered to install it to begin with, but it was flat-out cold inside the terminal. All the workers were wandering around wearing coats and scarves. I half-expected to see a team of sled dogs being mushed down the concourse. Once again, we had to endure the abject silliness of going through immigration and security, all with the added joy of freezing half to death during the process.

What the hell? It's so bizarre, there's not even an
international symbol for it. (Note that all the other
signs have symbols alongside the text.)
Once I cleared the lone security checkpoint and wondered once again what this sign really meant (it doesn't bode well for anyone that the airport has an entire giant sign directing travelers to a place for those whose flights were cancelled), I went downstairs to the gate for the flight to Kuala Lumpur. Yes... downstairs. Unworthy of even getting a real gate with a jetway, the flight to KL boards Air Asia-style, where you walk outside onto the tarmac and climb up a flight of stairs haphazardly propped up against the aircraft. Worse, we had to get on a bus to be delivered to the plane. As I was standing on the bus with all my carry-on booty, this middle-age Chinese woman got on and stood nearby, clearly seething about something. Moments later, she got off, walked over to the gate agents and just completely went off on them, delivering a blistering verbal beatdown... shouting, pointing, screeching, gesturing wildly, the works. It was quite the meltdown. Alas, it was also a Cantonese meltdown, so I have no idea what she was so agitated about. After she finished scolding the agents, she stalked back on the bus and stood there, silently simmering and glowering for another couple of minutes, then, after apparently deciding that she hadn't castigated them quite enough, got off the bus and went and unloaded yet another salvo on the two hapless gate agents, whose ears hadn't even stopped bleeding from the first tirade. Honestly, I cannot imagine what had her so riled up, but she was definitely not amused about something. I thought about filming the whole scene, but can you imagine the drama if she'd have noticed that? Yikes.

Not sure about the Chinese part, but
the English part is a total lie
So this final flight was aboard an ashtray-free 737-800, and really about the limit of what I like to fly on a narrow-body jet — it was about a 4.5-hour flight down to KL. The flight wasn't entirely full, happily, and the seat next to me was empty, which is always a bonus. That, and the fact that none of the planes crashed, really amounted to about the only good parts of the entire odyssey to get back to KL. The food on the long flight from L.A. was adequate (at best... that's what's in the first picture), but whatever crap they served up on the flight from Guangzhou to KL was just hideous. I couldn't even eat it. It was some vile mockery of a chicken dish, and I don't think it was even fully cooked. Avoiding salmonella is one of my standard goals when I eat, so I didn't even sample this mess. I had a couple of forkfuls of rice, and I think I ate the cold dinner roll, too, but that was all. I was so distraught, I even had a glass of wine, ignoring the fact that it was only something like 8 a.m. The "salad" was a half-dozen rubbishy, ill-ripened cherry tomatoes rolling around unhappily in a little melamine dish, nothing more. The whole thing was so pathetic and appalling, I couldn't even be bothered to extricate my camera and snap a picture. Definitely not a memory I wanted to commit to a photo. I can't believe a poor chicken actually had to give its life for that utter sham of a meal. What a complete dishonor. I mean, it's not like the chicken is a noble bird to begin with, but come on. I can only hope that whatever parts didn't go out in a disgraceful blaze of wretchedness for that dish at least got put to a less-humiliating use. Lord... that may just be the worst airline meal I've ever had placed before me. Anyway... once I arrived at KLIA, I cleared immigration, bought my customary bottle of duty-free booze, resisted the urge to drink it on the spot, and wandered out to the luggage claim carousel, happy and relieved that all the winged travel and gruesome, half-cooked poultry was, at last, safely behind me.

See my suitcase here? Yeah, neither did I.
Needless to say, after my travails in the lamentable Guangzhou airport, walking through KL's gorgeous, modern airport, with its myriad shops, free WiFi, and amenities galore (and an additional few degrees of warmth, courtesy of Mother Nature), felt like a total return to civilization. There's not much that Malaysia gets right when it comes to transportation (of any kind), believe me, but KLIA is just a delight to fly in and out of. So, with my liter of booze in hand, along with my carry-on suitcase, my jacket, my laptop, and a portable charcoal grill I got for Christmas, I got my free trolley and eagerly waited for my luggage to arrive. My big bag, the one that weighed every bit of the allowable 23 kg., arrived first and I heaved it onto the trolley, then waited for the smaller bag to make its triumphant appearance, which would effectively punch my ticket to get out of the airport and start the final two legs of my long trip home (airport to KL Sentral, then Sentral to my condo). I waited a few minutes, saw with increasing despair the "last bag unloaded" notice on the monitor, then watched the carousel grind to a halt. No little blue suitcase in sight. Perfect. Pretty much the expected end to, bar none, the worst trans-Pacific trip I've ever taken. So I went to the lost luggage office and filled out the required paperwork, grateful at least that I wasn't in the same sorry boat as the backpacking Australian girls next to me, whose luggage had also gone missing, but who were only going to be in KL overnight at a yet-to-be-decided hotel before setting off for Bali the next day and staying there at an equally yet-to-be-decided hotel. Wow. So I was given a case number and informed that I would get a call once they tracked down my bag. I trudged dejectedly to the bus corral where I bought a ticket for a ride to KL Sentral precisely two minutes after the bus had departed. Sigh. So I had to wait for the next bus, which really isn't as traumatic as it sounds, but I'm going for the total sympathy vote here. I finally departed for the city and arrived about 50 minutes later, a pretty good travel time. I will say this much... the absence of that final bag, which weighed about 20 kg., made schlepping my considerable amount of luggage around KL Sentral infinitely easier, though still quite troublesome. You'd think a massive transportation hub like Sentral would have scores of luggage carts around, but you would be wrong. There are random ones to be found here and there, but they're extremely few and far between. But, tenacious as ever, I managed, and my friend Ivan drove up about 25 minutes later to fetch me. I walked in my condo's door at 4:45 p.m., a staggering, breathtaking 57 hours after leaving for Denver's airport in a snowstorm.

Later that night, I got a call from China Southern airlines, telling me that my bag hadn't actually been lost, no no no, it had actually been purposefully detained in Guangzhou. They said they suspected a pressurized can was in the bag, so they wanted my permission to open the luggage (nice of them to ask) and remove the offending can. Now, fortunately, I had packed my bags with loads of time to spare back in Denver, and actually made an inventory list of what was in which suitcase. Yeah, I know, I'm insane, but I've only ever done this twice, and both times it's paid off. Once was on my initial flight to KL when I moved here and one of my bags got mauled and eaten by the baggage handling system in Los Angeles. And now this episode. I wonder if it's making the inventory lists that's causing the problem?? Hmmm...

Oh, you evil, wicked shaving gel, causing
all this international drama
Well anyway, I consulted my inventory and determined that it could only be the shaving gel that was in there. Though it seems an odd thing to buy in Denver and bring back all the way to KL, consider that the exact same product costs three times as much here, once you convert the currency. Less than $2 (RM6) a can in Denver, about RM18 here. So I tend to stock up when I go back. So, upon hearing this request to open my extremely stuffed suitcase and rifle through it to find and remove my shaving gel, I reflected on a few things. First, China Southern clearly had no problem with the shaving gel flying from L.A. to Guangzhou, so it was questionable as to why this can suddenly presented a problem on the next flight. Second, there was an identical can of this shaving gel in the suitcase that did get flown from Guangzhou to KL, so clearly they were applying the "no shaving gel" rule pretty arbitrarily and inconsistently. And third, HELLO! It's shaving gel. Millions of people pack cans of shaving cream and gel into their luggage every day! I even checked China Southern's website and it wasn't on their "do not pack" list in any form. So in consideration of all this, I flatly refused their request and told them they'd better get their act together and get that bag to me in a hurry. Bizarrely enough, that's apparently all it took, because it was on an evening flight to KL the following day and delivered to my doorstep at 9:45 p.m., intact and unmolested. So because of all this idiocy, China Southern apparently had to pay Malaysia Airlines to fly my bag to KL, then pay some airport guy to drive it out to my place. I will say this much though: In a similar scenario, there's no way America's odious TSA agents would ever ask a passenger for permission to open a suitcase. They'd open it on a lark, forcibly if necessary, take out whatever they deemed to be the problem item, steal any valuables if it suited their fancy, and leave you a note for your troubles. (They apparently did this to my bag in Denver before flying it to L.A., and though they didn't remove anything, they obviously couldn't be bothered to re-secure my brand-new luggage strap around the suitcase because it was gone when the bag hit the carousel at LAX. Awesome. Thanks guys.)

So now, the only thing left to do is try to get my reimbursement from Southwest. So far, they're refusing, but I'm not backing down since it was totally their fault the flight was delayed (they told me it was a baggage unloading issue that delayed the plane from even reaching Denver on time), totally their fault I missed my flight to Asia, and totally their employees who emphatically assured me I would be reimbursed. I'm rather annoyed by Southwest's unwillingness to own up to this and just pay my hotel bill, but I am almost certainly not going to fly China Southern again if there's any way to avoid it. They're just stupid. Stupid airline and an even stupider airport. *Shakes fist*

To end on a more upbeat note, I'll close out with a few photos from the trip that didn't make the previous entries. See you next time...

Shiloh and me in happier, pre-travel times;
I just need an eye patch and a pirate hat

The City and County building in
downtown Denver... all lit up
for Christmas

Frozen waterfall — Idaho Springs, Colorado
(Can it even be called a waterfall? It's not water and it's not falling. Hmm.)

My dad and mom, hunkered down against the
howling winter winds in the mountains west of Denver

A cold, clear late December day in the Rockies

My crazy bird, Shiloh, helping herself to my coffee

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Christmas in Colorado

At long last, I'm back at my place in Malaysia. The voyage back was easily the worst I've ever endured. Let's recap, shall we? Totally stuffed-full airplanes, flight delays, screaming toddlers, missed connections, the freaking 24-hour delay in Los Angeles (lest we forget), a cancelled flight, bad food, bad turbulence, and to top it all off, lost luggage.

Before I get into all of that, and before I lay down a blistering, excoriating critique of China Southern Airlines (and possibly Southwest Airlines, too) and the woefully inept Guangzhou airport, permit me to write about the actual trip back home, which was really good. I may put the saga of the trip back to KL in its own separate entry.

As I noted in an earlier entry, we got a substantial snowfall just before Christmas, which began the day I arrived in Denver. After that, there was no snow for the rest of my stay, until the day I left. Thought that was pretty interesting, and was really exactly how I'd have scripted it, had anyone asked me. :)

I've gotta dream up a name for these!
For reasons passing understanding, I agreed to prepare and cook Christmas dinner for everyone (ten people), even though I was only arriving in town three days before that. It was a bit of a fiasco trying to get all the ingredients I needed before the stores closed on Christmas Eve, but it ultimately worked out okay. I decided to cook a couple of Beef Wellingtons with spinach and mushroom duxelles (and all the side dishes, as well). I also made a wild mushroom soup with crème fraîche as the starter. That part was good, but the beef didn't cook as quickly as I had hoped, so there was a long delay between the soup course and the entrée course. Whoops. I also prepared hors d'oeuvres, but have no name for this little creation. It's a slice of Genoa salami and a bit of garlic- and herb-seasoned cream cheese in a small puff pastry shell, festooned with a stuffed Manzanilla olive. It's one of my favorites to make, and they just burst with contrasting flavors. Anyway, the dinner was great -- family and friends. We all exchanged gifts and ate and drank and just enjoyed the day. We had the dinner at our friends' house in Colorado Springs, and they routinely get deer wandering around in their yard and we had a trio come right up to the back door as we were getting the dinner ready.

The table is set for Christmas dinner...

"You're not cooking venison, are you?"

Dad and me, freezing at Red Rocks Park
In an even greater source of confusion, my mom took it upon herself to e-mail my father, who lives in Alabama, and invite him out to Colorado while I was in town. Now, they divorced over 35 years ago, and really haven't spent any appreciable time together in at least three decades, and it's been at least that long since the three of us, our little erstwhile family unit, had been under the same roof. So when she dropped this bombshell on me, that my dad would be appearing in Denver the day after Christmas, and staying at her place, no less, I was pretty stunned. However, I knew it would all be just fine and likely pretty enjoyable... and it was. Turned out to be a really fun visit. Here's a pic of him and me at Red Rocks, the park and natural amphitheater just west of Denver. Dad was there visiting for four days and had a great time. I took him to the Coors beer brewery for the free tour, which I hadn't done myself in probably 15 years. They give you three complimentary beers to drink at the end -- a beer tasting, I guess, since you can choose from about 10 different offerings -- and since they're very nearly full-sized beers, we got a tiny bit buzzed, then headed down the street (in downtown Golden, Colorado) to the Capitol Grille and split a wonderful and huge grilled bison burger with some of the best crispy fries I've had in a long time... and had another couple of local beers. Ha ha. It was great.

It wasn't until half the pizza had been devoured that
I realized I hadn't yet snapped a picture of it!
Another high point was going up to the mountains one day. We went to a landmark restaurant in the small town of Idaho Springs called Beau Jo's. This place makes Colorado-style "mountain pies" — big, thick-crust pizzas that people heading to or from the ski slopes of Colorado's mountains have been savoring for many years. We actually got a "prairie pie," which is the semi-thin crust version, and created this culinary marvel from their ridiculously long list of crusts, sauces, cheeses, and toppings. My dad was raving about it, calling it perhaps the best pizza he had ever eaten. It was made with a basil-pesto sauce, a four-cheese blend of mozzarella, provolone, fontina, and feta cheeses, pepperoni, mushrooms, Andouille sausage, and a shower of Greek herbs and seasonings on top. It was absolutely gobsmacking delicious, I kid you not. From Beau Jo's, we proceeded over the always-scenic Highway 103 over Squaw and Juniper Passes. There were ferocious winds howling through the Rocky Mountains that day, easily gusting up to 90 mph (144 km/h), so we saw a lot of what they call "ground blizzards," where the high winds whip up the snow from the ground and can create whiteout conditions, even under a cloudless blue sky. It was a beautiful drive. Cresting the pass at over 11,000 feet (3,300 meters), the views are always breathtaking, and this time was no exception. You can see why people love living in Colorado!

The amazing view from Colo. Highway 103

This is the view of Denver from Red Rocks Park in the
foothills just west of the city
The rest of the trip was pretty standard... relaxing, shopping, eating out (had some outstanding Mexican food, as usual), evenings by the fire, things like that. One of the other nice moments happened around dusk one afternoon (the sun sets very early in December there) when we were up in the foothills in a town called Evergreen. The town has a good-sized lake that, of course, freezes over every winter. A part of the lake is maintained for ice skating, and there were loads of people out skating that day. I snapped a picture that quickly became my favorite of the trip... it's truly a winter wonderland. Boys crossing the bridge over a frozen creek with their hockey gear after a day spent on the ice, the last of the afternoon's warmth and light stealing from the scene, the crowds still ice skating under the darkening sky... it was just magical. A huge part of getting that great shot is simply being in the right place at the right time (and having a camera handy).

Ice skating in Evergreen, Colorado

I took this picture at my mom's place as we were leaving
for the airport... and the snow was falling again
As 2011 gave way to 2012, I still had a week to enjoy being in my home city, and the weather was just fantastic. One fine day — in early January, mind you! — the temperature hit nearly 70°F (21°C). But it didn't last. When I first moved to Colorado back in 1989, I was repeatedly told, "If you don't like the weather here, just wait an hour." Sure enough, the temperature had plummeted to 42°F (5°C) by the next day, and the day after that, my departure day, it was snowing steadily. Such is life in Colorado! Here in KL, no one ever discusses or cares much about the weather, because it's mostly the same day in and day out. You'll hear no forecasts on the radio, see no weather segments on the local news... it's just not something that needs any real consideration here. In Denver, though, the weather is a major factor in people's day-to-day life, and it changes all the time, sometimes crazily and rapidly!

So I'll wrap this up here and write soon about the odyssey of getting back to Malaysia. Never a short journey to begin with, this particular one took a jaw-dropping 57 hours to complete. The harrowing details... coming soon.