Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

The Arsenal of Democracy: WWII Planes in Washington D.C

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On Friday, I saw the WWII flyover on the National Mall. They called it the “Arsenal of Democracy” after FDR’s famous phrasing in 1940, a name which in our modern age are both comically overwrought and entirely American – perhaps representations of the same thing.  It was the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, and 15 historically sequenced formations of historic military aircraft had been permitted to fly over the US capitol, sponsored by the Commemorative Air Force (a group whose existence I was until now entirely unaware of).

They would fly down the Potomac River, then fly over Independence Avenue – buzzing the World War II Memorial, where a group of veterans and dignitaries would gather, proceeding over the Washington Memorial and the Mall.  I could not miss the thing, of course. This is one of the moments that makes enduring some of the indignities of DC, especially when heat-and-metro-outage season hits, slightly more worth it.

When I think of WWII aviation and the war itself, how we remember it in this country – well, I think less of Europe and much more of the tropical remains of the war I’ve seen in Asia, the remains I will divert myself to go look at whenever they are available, as if I feel it is mildly incumbent upon me. And they are, in their way, neglected: the reminders of the war in Burma and in Chongqing don’t get the visitation and the affection that the sites in Europe do.  As a friend noted on Twitter, the  sites are reminders of a sweaty and brutal jungle war – and who romanticizes jungle warfare, with its insects, its rotting feet, its miserable sweat?

We as Westerners are better at imagining great battles on stony beaches and in cities with lots of soaring cathedrals. This particular imagination is, I suppose, what fueled the Arsenal of Democracy. But me, I guess I am a tropical creature, if my life trajectory so far means anything. I remember being the only person knocking around General Stilwell’s house in Chongqing, overlooking the Yangtze river, and the only person in the Flying Tigers museum besides. So, I went to the Arsenal of Democracy in a way to help add some color to the things I have read about World War II in China – the sound of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, what the Douglas C-47 aircraft used to make the nerve-wracking journey over The Hump looked like from below.

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Thousands and thousands of people had emerged from their office buildings to join the tourists to watch the flyover, a rare event everyone could agree on. I made my way from my building at Farragut West and headed down 17th street, past the White House. The heat is already like summer but I can comprehend it, it’s not worse than Cambodia, not yet, anyway. As I was nearly to the mall and passing the Association of American States, I saw some of the first planes go over, in a tight formation, somewhere far away. I hurried up, hoping I hadn’t missed anything. The airspace around Washington D.C. is some of the most tightly restricted in the world, locked down even more after September 11 – a topic I know a little about, as I am bound to know all kinds of tiresome things about FAA regulations on unmanned aerial vehicles. So to see anything flying in this vicinity was a bit of a novelty in and of itself, an exotic sight.

People were massed around the Washington Memorial, but the crowds looked ike a sweating, nostalgic Woodstock. I weaved through them, stopping for a moment to take a picture of a young red-headed man who was staring up at the sky, as an early formation of planes went overhead. I had come to the place in large part for the acoustics, to get a sense of what these particular,  historical airplanes sounded like overhead, but there was highly obnoxious jackhammering going on around, from the perpetual revamp of the Mall, and I kept walking.

I headed for the WWII memorial instead. Famous airshow announcer Rob Reider was commenting in a typically silvery voice and I stayed put, grateful for the interpretation, which I could really use. I only recently became interested in aviation, I was never the kind of person who could identify a certain model of historical airplane from just glancing up at the underside for five seconds, as Reider spoke in a  voice that was entirely suitable for a special presentation on the History Channel about what was to come. The first formation was composed of trainer craft: the Piper L-4 Grasshopper, the Beech AT-11 Kansan with its glassed-in nose, the North American AT-6/SNJ, the Boeing Stearman PT-17/N2S. People applauded in scattered and perfunctory chunks as the planes went over, although it was very evident the pilots couldn’t hear them – which, in that case, what were we applauding exactly?

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At the  memorial, the first rows of folding chairs were reserved for veterans of the war, and there were lots of them, in olive green uniforms and military hats, looking up at the sky with baseball hats on, with wives and children sitting beside them, often clutching their forearms. Young soldiers in vintage paratrooper gear stood and looked over the water. I photographed two girls in WWII outfits, in blue and red, who smiled prettily. A man in a old Navy uniform, with stark white bell bottoms, patrolled the area and frowned a lot while shooting pictures.

I circulated around the area, trying to figure out where the source of the announcement was coming from, but I could never quite get sight of him. “And our special guest former senator Robert Dole!” he announced, and everyone cheered. I tried to stand up and see what Robert Dole looked like from one of the raised platforms around the WWII memorial but couldn’t pick him out of the crowd, which was a disappointment, since I recalled going through the 1996 elections as a young child and having no clear conception of his appearance (beyond “elderly).

As I looked down to the platform where the special guests were, the planes kept going overhead – there were 56 of them in all, and they would all go over our heads over the next 40 minutes or so, in formation according to certain battles or some other (somewhat loose) historical association. The weird shape of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, which famously and retributively shot down Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. The speedy North American P-51 Mustang, of which there were seven present at the flyover, and the Grumman F4F Wildcat, which went toe-to-toe with Japan’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

b-29 superfortress

On the platform below, I watched as a group of veterans with artificial legs, most about my age, walked below, taking pictures with one another, and I looked at them for a moment, then felt strange about looking at them, about noticing the particular nature and origin of their injuries. I looked up at the planes again, to break up the weirdness of the moment, the noticing : a huge Boeing B-29 Superfortress cut through the sky ahead of us, and everyone stared at it for a moment, a little moment of distinct mechanical reverence, tinged slightly (perhaps I imagined this) with fear.

It is the only flyable B-29 Superfortress in the entire world, and I did feel lucky to see it, outside of computer-generated versions of such in nostalgia-drenched movies – an enormous black form, as big as you had imagined it if you were prone to historical re-imagining. They are the planes that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. This was not, I think, mentioned in the commentary.

The last formation was devoted to the dead of America’s air wars in WWII, the Missing Man Formation, composed of the gull-winged Vought F4U Corsair, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the North American P-51 Mustang, and the cyan-colored Grumman TBM Avenger. “This is the symbolic moment of this flyover,” Reider told us, in case we were wondering what to feel, and also wondering why one plane would intentionally fall away from the others, which would perhaps be the kind of thing everyone would Tweet about.

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“Everyone should stand,” he added. Someone started to play taps, and all the veterans rose to their feet and saluted, and in that moment I felt like I should salute too, but I didn’t, although at least I was standing up. My sensation of patriotism, which is fickle and odd, emerged in me for a bit and I had uncharitable thoughts about the people who remained splayed out on their lawn chairs and on their towels, who failed to meet the moment with reverence, or at least with bothering to entirely notice.

The planes came over, with one plane – either the Mustang or the TBM Avenger, I can’t tell – with a plume of colored jet trail behind it, meant to represent the smoke from a direct hit. It fell away as it passed over our heads, and was gone. That was the end of the flyover.

We all started to walk back immediately, to get out of the sun. “Remember: if you speak English, thank a veteran,” he reminded us, as a sign-off. A woman began thanking people.

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Nepal Disaster Response, and Please Don’t Just Go There With a Drone

nepal earthquake

About a week ago, I wrote an article for Slate about how drone pilots were assisting with the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Here’s the article, which is a general overview of the planned response – at the time of writing, not much had actually happened yet with disaster response UAV flights.

 

Patrick Meier, organizer of the UAViators collective of humanitarian drone pilots, filled me in on how the UAV teams affiliated with UAViators would work closely with humanitarian aid organizations and with local officials.. This coordination and organization would hopefully help prevent the skies over Nepal’s disaster areas from becoming dangerously choked with UAVs, flown by teams who weren’t working with or even aware of one another.

Unfortunately, Nepal has just banned the usage of drones without explicit permission from authorities. The stated reason fro Nepali authorities is that the drones could be capable of leaking “sensitive information and pictures of its valuable heritage sites .”

Maybe, maybe not, but you’ve also got to wonder if the influx of drones into Nepal – including those flown by journalists and others who didn’t liase with UAViators – helped to influence this decision. I’m not in Nepal, I don’t know much about Nepal, and I can’t say if that’s actually what happened or not. But as we’ve seen in Cambodia, drone use that isn’t very responsible and very well coordinated with local authorities can lead to hasty lawmaking.

Patrick’s written a great article about his observations from the Nepal disaster response, which you should really read. I especially think his point about building local capacity to do disaster response missions with UAVs is important. With the low price and relative ease of use of todays’ drone technology, here’s no reason why a country should have to wait for UAV teams from developed nations to get in the air.

I support everything he’s said, and would like to reiterate a point here: if you’re planning to book a ticket to Nepal and schlep your drone over there to help, don’t. Or at least, don’t do so without first contacting UAViators, following its Code of Conduct, and making a concrete effort to ensure you’ll be hurting, not helping.

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Faine Made a Drone Video: Travel in Cambodia and Thailand

I dragged my Phantom 2 around Southeast Asia last summer. I wondered at the time if this was really a good idea, but the Phantom survived, I survived, and I got to fly it over some pretty cool things in the process. Some observations about travel with the companionship of a drone that fits in a backpack:

Airport security around the world could not care less about your drone. Authorities in Taiwan, Singapore, Cambodia, and Thailand all failed to even ask to look at it. You may have issues if you try to carry-on one of those cans of spray-on deodorant, though. I feel so safe.

You will develop a remarkably keen ability to notice when someone is jostling, sitting on, or just looking funny at the backpack that contains your $1200 piece of specialized aerial equipment. Maybe I developed a mind-link with it. Maybe I’m just crazy?

In my experience, average people in Cambodia and Thailand were deeply disinterested in the drone. Perhaps they wrote it off as yet another inexplicable thing foreign tourists do to amuse themselves. I think the monk sweeping the steps at Wat U-Mong didn’t even look up when we launched it, after we explained what we were doing and secured his permission. Still, watch out for feral dogs. Feral dogs love drones.

Here’s the video. My thanks to the late, great, Sinn Sisamouth.

Faine Flies a Drone in Cambodia and Thailand from Faine Greenwood on Vimeo.

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Charlie Hebdo, Twitter, and The Battle of Who Could Care Most

anger-anger-computer

This drawing seems apropo.

“You don’t care about the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, but you do care about Charlie Hebdo,” some pissed-off Twitter user says. “All this anger over attacks in Paris, but none over children freezing to death in Syria!” another rages.

It’s a familiar pattern, one that bubbles to the surface whenever a terrible event hits the international news and dominates the social media conversation: why do you care about this, but not that? Why is the media intent on promoting one story, and not another? Why do Westerners seem to care so much more when an attack strikes Paris, or London, or NYC, than they care about the Boko Haram slaughter of thousands (or hundreds, or…) in Nigeria’s northeast?

These comments are both utterly predictable and almost entirely useless. However well intentioned they may be, they are fighting a very elemental part of human nature: our biases, our fondness for that which is close to us, easy for us to understand. We crave novelty. We are naturally subjective, tribal beings. We only have so much capacity to care, lest we suffer from the modern ailment of “compassion fatigue.” What’s more, they are grounded in some ignorance of the historical context of the request for More Compassion Over Here Please, and perhaps too, of the privileged state of the complainer to begin with.

The media of every free nation in the world covers the death of a countryman overseas with more concentrated interest than the deaths of those local to the country – and usually extends the favor to foreigners with racial and cultural ties to themselves. This tendency was lampooned in a 1970 Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit in which a serious-looking Michael Palin notes, “No parrots were involved in an accident on the M-1 today…. A spokesman for parrots said he was glad no parrots were involved.”

It’s satire in the finest British tradition, but the “Python” riff on the tribal nature of parrots is also a clear-eyed observation about human nature: if something bad happens to someone who is more like us, we are programmed to be much more concerned about it. For those of us who live comfortable lives in comfortable places, it is far easier to imagine ourselves being shot in the head in our office downtown or blown to pieces on a subway than it is for us to imagine being kidnapped by rebels in a Nigerian forest or succumbing to Ebola in the slums of Liberia.

Nor does this particular brand of parochialism suggest we care equally about all such deaths of those we consider our own. When was the last time the death of an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan made international headlines, warranted a segment on the evening news, or trended enormously on Twitter? US soldiers killed in battle in some lonely Central Asian outpost rarely seem to warrant more than a mention in their hometown paper or, at most, a poignant but impersonal wire photo of a flag-draped coffin at a funeral, evoked in service of some larger point about some aspect of the war. If this is the blasé reaction that even our supposedly beloved and venerated soldiers get when they die in battle in pursuit of our agreed-upon, national interests, then something more than mere nativism is going on.

To understand why, we must consider the power of novelty, which even the most woefully stupid marketing or media executive is intimately acquainted with. Tragic as it is, a dramatic and bloody terrorist attack on the refined streets of Paris is more exciting, more unexpected, and even more entertaining than the steady and interminable drumbeat of children dying in the streets of Aleppo or Baghdad. The stage-managed for media death of a Western journalist at the hands of ISIS is more interesting to an American audience – perhaps only dimly aware of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq in the first place – than the brutal death of yet another Syrian cameraman.

Beyond just novelty, to truly garner attention in both the traditional media and on social media, a death or disaster usually must also have a connection to a larger societal concern, especially if it happens overseas. A resurgent ISIS, feeding anxiety over homegrown jihadists, has brought the issue of Islamic terrorism to the forefront of the American consciousness once again. Likewise, freedom of speech rights are seen as under attack by both all sides of the political spectrum: cultural critics such as David Brooks fret over campus activism and micro-aggressions, while the supporters of Edward Snowden worry about the chilling effects of NSA surveillance. We evaluate terrible events overseas through the prism of our own anxieties: are the victims like us and could this terrible thing happen here?

As a kind of calculated equation, with a final value of how much we end up caring for something, these elements: novelty, relatability, and a story’s relationship to our broader cultural milieu seem crass and cruel. Perhaps in a moral and unbiased world, we would be spending just as much time being enraged about Syria, kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, Ukraine, and the continuing Ebola crisis as we have all been this week about Charlie Hebdo. But what is the alternative to our current imperfect system of choosing what to pay attention to? Not everything can be covered equally, certainly not in an era where foreign correspondents are roughly as endangered as the white rhinoceros. How then do we decide what warrants conversation and coverage, and what doesn’t – beyond dictating just how much time the media must give to any story, which is very much the crux of the Charlie Hebdo argument?

International conflicts and problems are often terrifyingly complex. While raising awareness and drumming up compassion for the suffering can accomplish good things, awareness and compassion by themselves are not nearly enough to solve problems. Going around on Twitter demanding that people care more about some things than other things is yet another form of armchair activism: it makes us feel good and righteous, like we’re doing something, but it rarely actually accomplishes anything concrete.

Remember this? Nah, you probably don't.

Remember this? Nah, you probably don’t.

The Kony 2012 campaign captured the attention of the social media world, but accomplished nothing at all with regards to ending the abuse of child slaves by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, and wasted a lot of well-intentioned money on splashy adverts and stickers in the process. What do we hope to accomplish if we get people to divert some of their attention from the dead of Charlie Hebdo, and towards the plight of Syria, or Boko Haram? Is there a concrete benefit for that starving Syrian child if a college student on Twitter whose avatar is a picture of his dog decides to give Syria’s plight a hashtag and a pithy little quote?

Complaints about why people in America seem to care more about one international tragedy than another also evince a certain ignorance of history, of just what that request means. In our media saturated and interconnected world, it is easy to forget the demand that people in America or India or Cambodia care deeply about the plight of people in Syria or France or Somalia is a profoundly new one.

The widespread and swift dissemination of international news and tragedy dates only to the mid-nineteenth century with the proliferation of international telegraph communication. Previously, news from overseas had taken months to travel from Asia to Europe and vice versa. When these far-away tragedies finally did hit the news, they were atomized, already out of date. People may have cared about starving millions far away, but it was a very abstract thing, and even the educated elite probably did not feel pressured to make public displays of feeling bad about it. On the whole, most people only worried themselves about distant tragedy when it had some kind of economic impact on them.

Technology has since made prodigious new demands on our reserves of compassion and time. The rise of instantaneous international news 24-hour cable networks, and most recently, social media, has prompted many people to develop empathy for exponentially more humans than they were ever asked to do before, at any time in human history. It has also produced the expectation that a good and educated person should be aware of all the world’s suffering, and be vocal about that awareness and empathy. We are not only bombarded with dozens of new and horrifying stories every day: there is considerable pressure to make it clear that we are aware, we care, and we’re not going to take it sitting down (whatever that may mean).

On the whole, we do a surprisingly good job of this newfound demand for both total awareness and total compassion. But, no, we do not do a perfect job. How could we? Susan D. Moeller’s “Compassion Fatigue” described the issue very well back in 1999, and her discussion of how 24-hour television news coverage of international events contributed to the public’s exhaustion of empathy seems absolutely quaint in the Twitter era. We in the international spectator class may have developed considerable new powers of empathy for people who do not resemble us, but we have yet to figure out how to develop inexhaustible stores of empathy.

In case you've been under a rock.

In case you’ve been under a rock.

Those of us who care about things like Charlie Hebdo versus Boko Haram, those of us who with time enough to read an article like this, constitute a particular and privileged segment of humanity. We who spend our free time and energy shouting at each other on Twitter about how much (or how little) we care about things should also remember that we are among the blessed of the earth for being able to get into Internet fights to begin with.

Susan Sontag, in her “Regarding the Pain of Others,” put it well: “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment… It assumes that everyone is a spectator.”

And not everyone is, of course, and this is easy to forget if you live in a urbanized place in a wealthy city and have friends who spend their time glued to social media and to current events. Many people, even those in our wealthy Western countries, have neither the time, the energy, nor the inclination to spend their free time spectating and worrying about misery in foreign countries. Many other people lack any access to an open media and to public forums at all. If you are going to reprimand someone for not adequately caring about something in a certain part of the world, the object of your ire has got to be on Twitter or Facebook or the Internet and somewhat interested in your opinion in the first place – to forget this is to run the risk of dangerously universalizing our comfortable online echo chambers.

So if you’re angry about people on Twitter caring more about Charlie and less about Boko Haram: I understand, but stop and think about what you’re asking. The problem is bigger than merely telling people to give a damn: it is hardwired into our basic psychology. Not only that, the problem of biased compassion about one disaster or killing is a historically new one – and a problem that today, many people around the world still lack the tools to even engage with in the first place.

Someday we might solve or mitigate it. Perhaps we can find a way to direct our compassion in effective ways, and spread it around more evenly. But shouting at people on Twitter for inadequately caring about whatever story has caught your attention is unlikely to be the answer.

 

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“Last Christmas” or Cambodia’s Inexplicable Favorite Christmas Song

It’s the holidays, and I want to talk to you about a very, very annoying Christmas song, one that nevertheless has a special, perverse place in my heart thanks to my time in Cambodia.

It’s called “Last Christmas,” and was created by those British songster scamps “Wham,” who you’ve probably never heard of outside of the context of awkward oldies stations if you’re under 30. Watch the hilariously dated video, which features people with big hair and even bigger beaver-fur bonnets (I guess that’s what they are) cavorting in the snow. There is infidelity and lots of glaring and confusingly rosy tans. It is a poem to 1985, which is, admittedly, a year I didn’t even exist in.

If you’ve spent any time in Cambodia, you probably have a slightly uncomfortable memory linked to Wham’s “Last Christmas.” The song may be a slightly embarrassing relic of the Time of Neon-Colored Windbreakers in the US, but in Cambodia, it remains a beloved holiday favorite. And you remember hearing it, at some moment when you didn’t expect it. Probably a moment that caused you  bit of retroactive shame.

open 24 hours girl

That’s because  “Last Christmas” is everywhere, and it’s essentially impossible to escape during Christmas – especially if you spend a lot of time hanging out at bars. (Which, if you’re an expat, you almost certainly do). You’re ordering your fourth drink or so on the holiday, you maybe didn’t call everyone you should have called, your life choices are shown to you in stark relief – were these the right tones? And then on comes “Last Christmas.” End scene.

From one festive year.

From one festive year.

I cannot adequately explain why “Last Christmas” has permeated so deeply into the Khmer consciousness, and I’ve never heard an entirely adequate explanation from a Cambodian person. There are even Khmer covers, with impressively high production values and videos that feature great bales of probably dangerously chemical fake snow. I have been told the sickness has permeated into Vietnam.

It doesn’t matter if it’s not actually Christmas, I should add. If you’re in Cambodia, “Last Christmas” will make its inevitable, ambiguous appearance regardless of the season, or in fact, even the time of day. It’s kind of like the gentle to-and-fro of the tide. Accept it, or go mad.

I’ve noticed the closer it gets to 3:00 AM, the more likely people are to dance very badly to “Last Christmas.” It’s a regular fixture on the essentially immobile playlist at Howie’s Bar on Street 51 in Phnom Penh. If it goes on the playlist, I will probably have to go home and cry.

Since, I am a bit sentimental about “Last Christmas,” as objectively terrible and dated as it is, despite the number of times I’m heard it in the middle of August. I’m back in the states this Christmas, and whenever the song comes back on, I’m filled with nostalgia for the Cambodia version of the holiday season. The elaborate displays at the Nagaworld Casino, with Vietnamese and Chinese tourists in business suits snapping appreciative photos.

tiny santa suits

Slightly sloppy but endlessly good natured holiday parties. Cambodian parents buying tiny-sized Santa suits to torment their children with. The occasional burst of fake snow emanating from a friendly-minded bank.

Fake trees on the back of tuk-tuks. Being wished “Happy Merry Christmas” all the time, said as a single phrase. Delightfully warm weather on Christmas Day, and maybe a trip to the beach. And of course, finding yourself at a particularly disreputable hostess bar at 4:00 AM, filled with some combination of affection for humanity and mild, nagging self-questioning. But you’re pretty happy anyway.

If anything fosters an entirely appropriate sense of affinity for your fellow man despite it all, it’s an expat Christmas.

Suck on, “Last Christmas.” Suck on.

Happy Merry Christmas.

PS: here’s a link to my Christmas in Cambodia photoblog from back in 2010. 

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Mango Chicken Curry For Wintertime Existential Despair

mango curry done 2

I’ve spent many years as a sworn enemy of fruit in curries. Too often, adding fruit to a perfectly adequate, flavorful Asian or South Asian dish renders it a sickly-sweet abomination geared towards the kind of people who think garlic powder is exotic.

However, I made an exception for this South Indian-ish chicken mango curry,  and I’m very glad I did. It’s delicious, easy to make, and produces superb leftovers. The combination of coconut milk, toasted Indian spices, and chili with fresh mango chunks produces complex, tropical flavors that are a pleasantly aromatic antidote to the pure existential misery of winter.

It is eminently adjustable to different palates and spice-tolerances, which makes this dish a good choice for both your flavor-phobic in-laws from Nebraska, and your chili-obsessed expat friend visiting from Southeast Asia who has thoroughly seared all their tastebuds off. (That would be me).

Due to either the boon or horrible imposition of globalization, depending on your political affinities, you can get a decent fresh mango most anywhere in the winter months. I guess you could use frozen mango if you were desperate.

Dark meat chicken is heavily suggested. The curry leaves are a brilliant addition if you can find them. The frozen ones work, too. It would be pretty good with shrimp if you were so inclined.

mango chunks detail 2

Chicken Mango Curry
Serves 6 (with leftovers)

3 pounds of dark-meat chicken, skinned and cut into chunks
1 ripe fresh mango, peeled and cut into chunks.
1 can of full-fat coconut milk (low fat is for weenies)
1 serrano or Thai green chili – add more if you like super-spicy.
Tablespoon of sambal chili paste.  Sriracha is a fine substitute. Omit if you come from the Delicate Stomach tribe.
2 large yellow onions
Tablespoon of fresh ginger
2 to 3 garlic cloves, according to taste
Vegetable oil – olive oil works fine.

1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp of turmeric
1 tsp curry powder
1 cinnamon stick
4 or 5 cardamom pods, broken open. 1/2 tsp of cardamom powder works fine as a substitute.
Curry leaves (if you can find them)

Chicken

If you have the time, marinade the chicken overnight in yogurt, combined with a tablespoon of curry powder. No one will die if you do not have the time to do this, so don’t sweat it.

Curry paste

1. Finely chop – using a knife or a food processor, I’m not judging – and then combine the whole Serrano chili, ginger, onion, and garlic. Set aside.

The Main Event

2. In a large, deep pan or skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Throw in the mustard seeds, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, and curry leaves, and cook for roughly a minute, until the mustard seeds begin to pop. If the oil is too hot, the mustard seeds will ricochet into your face, which is exceedingly startling.

3. Add the curry paste. Add the turmeric, curry powder, and cumin. Add the cardamom powder if you weren’t able to find the pods. Cook until the vegetables are aromatic and soft.

Chicken added. Electric skillets are rad.

Chicken added. Electric skillets are rad.

4. Add the chicken, and stir until it’s reasonably browned – roughly 3 to 4 minutes.

5. Add the can of coconut milk and stir to combine. Taste, and adjust the spices if needed. Add more chili paste if needed. Add salt and pepper as you see fit. Cook for 15 minutes covered at low heat.

6. After 15 minutes elapse, add the chopped mango. Cook for 5 more minutes at low heat.

Should look like this. No, I have no idea how to photograph curry attractively.

Should look like this halfway through. No, I have no idea how to photograph curry attractively.

7. Taste again, and adjust as needed. Uncover, turn the heat up to high, and reduce for about 5 to 10 minutes until thick and slightly caramelized looking. Keep stirring it to avoid burning.

8. Eat it. I like to serve this with a raita made with plain Greek yogurt, diced cucumber, olive oil, and lemon. Good with basmati rice as well.

This makes beautiful left-overs, so I suggest making more then you can eat in one go, and keeping it aside for the next day. It also freezes very well.

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Buffalo Racing in Cambodia: So Very Majestic

 

man on a buffalo

You know it’s a damn good holiday when there’s a chance you might get run over by frightened livestock.

At least, that’s how it is in Vihear Sour Cheung village in Ksach Kandal district in the Cambodian countryside. Falling in either late September or fall on the Western calender, Pchum Ben is Cambodia’s Day of the Dead equivalent, when the gates of Hell open and the spirits of one’s relatives wander the earth.

Beyond the expected Buddhist ceremonies at Cambodia’s many wats (temples), people in the countryside celebrate with exceedingly rowdy buffalo and horse races. Myself and some photographer friends pooled together some cash and got a car to take us out of Phnom Penh and into the pancake-flat, electrically green Cambodian countryside to watch the action in Kandal Province. The races, we were told, began at 6:00 AM. Probably.

I made this video. I think I chose the right music.

We arrived and saw hundreds of excited people of all possible ages lined up along what seems to be a dangerously narrow corridor near the town’s main Buddhist temple. We had got there late (thanks to the usually vague Khmer-style time estimation) and managed to wedge ourselves into the eager, nervous-looking crowd. The animals, both horses and buffalo, were raced in laps along this corridor. A man with a whistle would blow on it a few seconds before the animals came into view, giving people a bit of lead time on leaping out of the way, or at least jostling their way into the crowd for a few millimeters of safety.

Double suspension.

Double suspension.

We got ourselves into position with our cameras, and soon the whistle blew: frantic gallumphing sounds heralded the arrival of the horses, slim chestnut and tan creatures being whipped into a frothing gallop by young men who looked somewhere between elated and absolutely mind-bendingly frightened. The crowd would emit excited sounds as the horses came by, low and then high and low again.

The buffalo came more slowly – a pace better described as sedate, really, with their large whitish-grey heads up in the air. The buffalo were decorated with jingling golden bells and muti-colored beads and fringe. Their jockeys (notably, rather more senior and tubby than the guys on the horses) whapped them animatedly on the butts with switches to keep them moving. Everybody cheered when the buffalo shuffled by. I have no idea how water buffalo perceive their sense of personal dignity but I feel this kind of thing might be corrosive to it.

A terrified looking horse on the way back from one of the heats pulled up and backed into the crowd, which made everybody scream, whether they were in any actual danger or not. It is always very fun to scream in a crowd situation, as anyone who has been eight knows.

man on a buffalo bw

None of my journalist friends managed to be run over by a horse or a buffalo, although I suspect some of us were taking private mental bets on who would incur some sort of embarrassing injury. Maybe a close call or two. “There was a hoof print on her BACK!” I overheard one of our party say about someone else.

With poor judgement, I crouched on the red-dust track with a camera on a tripod and shot the animals from below, trusting that I’d hear the whistling and the gallumphing before a very small and very anxious horse trampled my head. I declined to fly my drone over the affair, cool as the video might be. I didn’t want a water buffalo to startle.

Having a Wonderful Time

Having a Wonderful Time

The races may not last much longer, or that’s what I heard. Horses have limited utility in a Cambodia where even poor people can usually manage to afford a motorbike – mirroring what happened in the US as cars pushed out horses in the 1940s and 1950s. The buffalo, meanwhile, have greater value as slightly gamy steaks and as rice-growing helpmates than they do as racing mounts to country dwellers.

I certainly hope that this rowdy and highly amusing tradition continues in some form in Cambodia. Perhaps someone should create a Buffalo Jockey for a day tourist program, or something like that – the total immersion Livestock Wrangling Experience. Everyone gets a certificate and lots of selfie opportunities.  There will only be a few tramplings.

It works for Pamplona.

gunning the horse

 

 

 

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Some Thoughts on Cooking Beef Rendang

Beef rendang. You should try this.

Beef rendang. You should try this.

There was a time when I was convinced I would become a professional food and cooking writer. I had a food blog through my teenage years, and read lots of classic food writing – M.F.K Fisher, in particular – and figured it was my destined path in life.

This all changed at age 18, when a certain Iraqi professor at my first college verbally tore my head off over it, when I told him I was really just interested in food journalism, thank you very much. “There is all this suffering in the world, and you want to write about FOOD?” he shouted at me.

I cowered. And rather quickly shifted gears.

Now I write about depressing things related to geo-politics and drones (so much with the drones) – but occasionally, the desire to write about food again re-emerges. In this case, it’s because I made a really fantastic beef rendang and I’d like to let everyone know about it.

Rendang is probably the best known Indonesian dish out there, derived from the excellent, spicy Padang cooking of West Sumatra. In simplest terms, it’s a caramelized coconut milk beef curry that is braised for a very long time, breaking down the beef and giving it a remarkably deep, complex flavor. If you’ve had Thai massaman curry before, it’s a lot like that, but better.

While easy to find in Asia and Australia, for some perverse reason, Indonesian cuisine has yet to become popular in the US. So you’ll have to make it yourself. Let me explain. For this dish, I modified it to my own taste from a few different versions online. I believe the fresh curry leaves were probably my brightest idea, as they lend a delightfully peppery,  smoky, South Indian influence. They are well worth hunting for.

Most credit  is due to Saveur’s version, which had the brilliant idea of using macademia nuts. Some other versions include toasted coconut, star anise, cardamom pods,  and Kaffir lime leaves, among other modifications. You can find all the ingredients listed below at any half-decent Asian/South Asian grocery store.

It's kind of hard to make cooking beef rendang look alluring, as I found out.

It’s kind of hard to make cooking beef rendang look alluring, as I found out. Trust me.

My first rendang tasted good but came out much more soupy than the versions I’d had in Indonesia. I realized my error was cooking the rendang at low heat for the entire four to six hours I let it go – it needs a period of reduction at higher heat to really get the caramelized flavor. The cooking technique, conveniently, helps to preserve the meat for long periods, and beef rendang tends to mellow pleasantly over the course of a few days. Make lots.

WHAT YOU NEED:
2 lbs beef. I used half beef spare ribs, and half chopped beef stew meat. Chicken will do nicely as well, although it will require less cooking time.
1 whole nutmeg, roughed up a bit in a mortar and pestle.
5 whole cloves.
3 chopped Thai chiles (green). Dried chiles work as well, or Mexican chiles.
5 chopped shallots.
1 tablespoon palm sugar. You can buy dried “cakes” of it at the Asian market, which can be simply thrown into the pot.
2 teaspoons tamarind pulp, moistened with water and zapped in the microwave for a minute.
5 macademia nuts.
3 cloves of garlic
Tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger
6 or 7 fresh curry leaves. Frozen works, too.
Minced lemongrass – roughly a tablespoon. If you can get whole lemongrass, trim a stalk, tie it into a knot, and throw it in for flavoring.
2 cinnamon stick, broken in half.
2 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut milk.
Salt and pepper at your own discretion.

Chop the cloves and nutmeg until fine in a food processor – and yes, you use the entire nutmeg. Add the shallots, Thai chiles, ginger, minced lemongrass, garlic, and macademia nuts to the food processor, and run it until you’ve got a nice paste.

Throw the paste in a skillet and sweat it for a couple of minutes at high heat, softening up the vegetables. If you’re using a big soup pot for this dish, which I advise, put some oil in the pot and begin to brown the beef on all sides as you are stirring the vegetables.

What a curry plant looks like.

What a curry plant looks like.

Put the softened vegetable paste into the pot with the beef. Add the coconut milk, which will ideally cover but not drown the meat. Put in the tamarind pulp, the palm sugar, and the fresh curry leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Stir it, taste it, and modify it as you see fit.

Let it cook for at least 3 hours, preferably longer, ensuring the meat is very tender. After at least 3 hours have passed, raise the heat to a medium rolling boil. This will reduce the sauce. Let it rip for about 30 minutes, stirring every 4 or 5 minutes or so to ensure it doesn’t burn. (This is a good time to catch up on TV).

Once the sauce has reduced and taken on a dark appearance and a richly caramelized flavor, it’s ready to serve.

Garnish with curry leaves if you’d like. It was nice with eggplant sauteed with sweet soy sauce, and an Asian slaw.

 

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The Weirdness of Haw Par Villa – Singapore

haw par villa gate

Singapore is not a place renowned for its eccentricity, its exoticism. This gleaming, modern city where everybody is above average (or would like to be) takes great pains to be pleasant – and pleasant, as most of us are aware, is the direct enemy of the funky, exotic, and surreal.

So it is a great irony that within a city that appears to be striving to become a heavily-populated offshoot of Disney World, there resides what is one of the more freaky tourist attractions I’ve ever come across: Haw Par Villa, the vanity project of the man who gave the world Tiger Balm.

Kids love it.

Kids love it.

Haw Par Villa is a theme park in the early 20th century sense, before over-priced rides $80 entrance tickets became the standard way of things. Brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, of Burmese-Chinese descent, decided to use some of their fortune gleaned from Tiger Balm sales to construct the place, framing it as a place to teach traditional Chinese values to the good people of Singapore.

The brothers commissioned a entire park full of large, gaudily colored statues portraying Chinese legends from the Journey of the West to the Legend of the White Snake, with added portrayals of the Buddha (in various forms), huge white stupas devoted to the duo’s parents, and ponds full of ferociously reproducing water turtles.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

All fine enough – and eternally overshadowed by the park’s portrayal of the Ten Courts of Hell, a remarkably graphic romp through what happens to very, very naughty boys and girls. Middle-aged, Singaporeans, I’ve been told, seem to share a collective memory of being dragged through these subterranean chambers and summarily lightly traumatized at very young ages.

Which, you can kind of understand why from looking at these pictures. As I peered at the various layers of hell and contemplated why “refusal to pay rent” is considered a much more serious crime than “inflicting physical injury,” I watched a Chinese father guide his small array of children through the exhibits.

The Volcano Full of Prostitutes. No, really, that's what it is.

The Volcano Full of Whores. No, really, that’s what it is.

“See, THIS is what happens if you lie,” he said, pointing to a portrayal of little clay people being poked to death by colorful, fanged demons with pronounced eyebrows.  The kids look worried.

In alignment with wimpy modern sensibilities, signs now warn unsuspecting parents of the impending trauma that awaits them from venturing into the Hell dioramas. The strategic problem with this is that the rest of the park is just about as baffling and potentially distressing to anyone under the age of 10 who has yet to deeply contemplate sin, mortality, and what happens when you take psychedelic drugs for extended periods.

haw par tiger car

For example: I was particularly struck by Aw Boon Haw’s tiger-themed car, which does in fact feature a molded tiger head, orange and black paint, and a horn that emits roaring sounds when pressed. It’s a 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop, in case you are one of the weirdos who keeps track of these things. This is weird, and yet, not even the weirdest thing by a long shot.

 

animal war

While I wandered, I came across this particular nightmare fodder tableaux, which portrays adorable woodland creatures warring with one another, complete with gore.

If you are the type of parent who is eager to fill your offspring in on certain harsh Darwinian realities of life, it’s hard to imagine a better pedagogical tool than this type of thing – the perfect antidote to friendly, singing animals in Disney movies that always stop short of showing the gore.

“This is the true face of existence,” one can imagine this parent telling their little child, as the two of them look stone-faced upon furry animals murdering one another. “Being adorable will not save you from terror.”

Thanks, Aw Boon Haw.

cricket elephants

Right around the corner from Adorable Rodent Mutually Assured Destruction, there was this quite frankly baffling scene.Far as I can tell, it portrays tiny elephants in Dad outfits forcing horrifyingly large crickets to kiss one another, as mean looking rat men look on and jeer.

Maybe it’s a metaphor.

crab people haw par

A major theme of Haw Par Garden’s exhibits is people who are also crabs, or perhaps crabs who are also people. They are joined by turtle men, fish ladies, and other examples of people fusing with animals in distinctly unsettling ways. I have no idea if this is a theme of Chinese literature but it’s probably going to regularly haunt my dreams.

turtle man fish woman

Haw Par Gardens is, rather sadly, declining in popularity, as modern parents conclude they’d rather not outsource teaching morals to their kids by way of distressingly graphic visual aids.I was just about the only person there on the weekday on which I visited, with a small smattering of mainland Chinese tourists wandering through the exhibits with me. It’s still free to enter the park, and it’s conveniently located off its very own Singapore Metro stop.

As for Haw Par Villa’s appropriateness for children. Of course it is appropriate for children, especially those children who are prone to dark, horrifying ruminations on the nature of existence – which is pretty much all children with an IQ higher than that possessed by a celery stalk.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

If I had been brought here as a small child, I would have likely experienced a month of existential terror, and come out of it on the other end with nothing but fond, rosy memories and warped sensibilities.

I mean, I was taken to the Salvador Dali Museum on multiple occasions when I was very small and there’s nothing even vaguely weird about me.  Take the kids to Haw Par Villa, and do report back on the ensuing conversations.

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The Joy of Padang Food – Singapore

nasi padang yay

Nasi Padang at Sabar Menanti.

“What the hell is Padang food?” you may ask yourself one day, if you happen to be looking for lunch in Singapore, Indonesia, or Malaysia. “Does this have something to do with Penang?”

Ah, you fool, it has jack-all to do with a charming city in Malaysia, but in fact describes a style of cuisine typical of the Minangkabau people of  Western Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. Typified by robust spices, long cooking times to ensure maximum flavor, and considerable quantities of coconut, it’s a style that many overseas associate with all Indonesian food. Padang food is available just about everywhere in Indonesia, and is exceedingly popular at lunch time.

The title “nasi padang” usually describes restaurants that function rather like point-and-shoot buffets: a wide array of items are presented behind a glass counter, and you point at what you want to flavor your rice, which is usually served in a whimsical cone shape. Prices are low, service is instant, and it’s a marvelous way to inexpensively sample a wide array of different Indonesian flavors. Some up-scale restaurants will bring all the dishes to your table right off the bat, and you only pay for what you actually touch.

Singapore, thank God, has a healthy assortment of Padang restaurants, and you’ll find most of them in the antique and pleasantly walkable Kompong Glam neighborhood, an easy stroll from multiple metro stops.Certainly Singapore’s most well-known Padang joints are clustered here, and working stiffs on their lunch breaks filter into the area in packs starting around 11:00 AM on any given day. Kompong Glam, with its candy-colored shop houses and beautiful old mosque, is well worth a visit in and of itself.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.

SABAR MENANTI

  • 778 Northbridge Road, Singapore
  • +65 6294 4805

I wanted to try a new padang place this visit to Singapore, and a quick perusal of the usual Internet food-related forums convinced me to give this one a go – based on its reputation for fresh food, and its remarkable 50-year longevity. No one, of course, had mentioned that it moved. I went to the old location on Kandahar Street, stared at it for a bit in bovine, hunger-induced confusion, and decided to wander around Kompong Glam’s profusion of fancy carpet and fabric shops for a while.

sabar menanti

Quite accidentally, I found myself at the new storefront, where a chipper, seeming member of the family that owns the place just about pounced at me when I paused outside the door. I had found the right spot, and everyone seemed very happy to see me. All of this struck me as particularly pertinent, considering that the restaurant name translates roughly into “Good things come to those who wait”. (They could stand to do a better job of communicating to their public that they’ve moved).

I’m terribly glad I stopped, because Sabar Menanti is serving just about the best padang food I’ve ever had – and it’s not even in Indonesia.  Chew mussels were cooked in a slightly sweet red chili sauce, while cucumber and carrots were sliced up and tossed in a rich, eggy yellow concoction.

I was particularly delighted by the three kinds of fresh sambal on offer: a chunky red chili paste, a smooth, vibrant classic red sambal, and an incendiary green variant. The entire plate was delightful to look at and entirely irresistible: I inhaled it within 10 minutes, and briefly considered seconds.

Anthony Bourdain, who gives me minor rage headaches, seems to agree: he’s got a signed plaque on the wall. I vaguely recall that episode of No Reservations but I believe I’ve blocked it out. Bourdain phobia aside, I highly suggest you give this place a whirl when you’re in the area.

minang storefront

RUMAH MAKAN MINANG

  • 18 & 18A Kandahar Street, Singapore, 198884
  • +65 6294 4805

 

Rumah Makan Minang is one of the stalwart Nasi Padang joints in Kompong Glam and certainly seems to attract the longest, most devoted lines. I clearly remember first  stumbling upon this place during a gloamy evening in 2010 and thinking “I have got to eat here.” Everyone seems to feel the same way, considering that it’s been in operation since 1954 with little sign of lacking in popularity.

Which I did and do, seemingly whenever I return to the area. Minang specializes particularly in Indonesian tofu dishes and beef rendang, but this time around, I simply ordered from what was behind the window.

A man at the next table and his friend were digging into a gigantic concoction I had always wondered about but had never ordered, and I asked him, as I walked to my table, what it was.

“You must have some!” he demanded, placing some on my plate. He then pretended to take some of my chicken, and we all laughed at each other. It was in fact an excellent and monumental rendition of Tahu Telor, fried tofu mixed with eggs, topped with bean sprouts and carrot, and served with dark soy sauce.

Standouts included stir-fried greens with sambal belacan (shrimp paste), braised chicken in sweet soy sauce with a hint of chili, and flaky tofu with chili. Still, it wasn’t as good as Sabar Menanti: the flavors weren’t as fresh, and there wasn’t as much variety. Perhaps I’ll try ordering off the menu here next time, especially if the rendang isn’t up at the counter.

minang plate

Beyond these two stand-bys, there are sundry great padang options in Singapore, and it’s not to be missed if you’re in the city and want to try something different.

I maintain that the first person to realize that padang food is profoundly marketable to obnoxious Silicon Valley types will get obscenely rich – especially if they serve their food out of a graffiti-adorned food truck at music festivals.

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