Friday, July 16, 2010

What I Won't Miss

This is an email from a friend who visited for a little over a week. Keep in mind that Casablanca is the most liberal and progressive city in one of the Muslim World's most liberal and progressive countries. This starts minutes after we parted company at a train station:

Sooo....for the vais t'en raconter.

Imagine me...

*hugs in front of gare* [exit you]

[enter me...seule]

Buys tickets, parks self near bench an starts reading [book] alone. Doesn't look up but remarks that several groups of young men walk past and slow down while walking [Moroccan man code for "look up, I think you're interesting but have no non-creepy way of bothering you at 5:30 in the morning].

Me: Fuck *mumble*

Gets on train, starts to sleep...bothered by a group of two men who routinely pass in the walk way and scream when they get to my seat (to freak me out?... it works)

[Enter other moroccan guy, my ageish] Offers to sit next to me. I refuse (on principle because who knows, he could be friends with the screamers). He takes my bag and guides me to sit with his friends, who include some clueless backpacker Italian guy. I fall asleep, but stay alert... Italian refers to me as a "bella regazza" and continues speaking to one of the moroccans in Italian about how cute i am and how alone i must feel. I "wake up". One moroccan goes into a lengthy discussion about how dumb I am to travel alone, and how i should have brought my sister or my father with me...I say i'm meeting them later...and that my husband i going to meet me in fez.

He says i'm a "menteuse" because it's not possible that I'm married with two kids as I claim. I show a photo, he disputes it...tells me I should get off at the next stop chez lui and cancel my flight. I refuse. He gets angry but eventually apologizes and welcomes me chez lui with my children when I can. Also tells me that he noticed me in the gare, and that when moroccans see a girl like me (no joke) they want to do something bad to me. Because I'm alone, and female and vulnerable. Which i guess is at least honest but also begs the question: "What the FUCK?"

[exit them] [enter women across the aisle, who, I just noticed is staring at me, without looking away...for the next two hours].

I exit the train, exhausted/freaked further bothered by random ass motherfuckers at the airport...

I'm done with this country.

I've riffed on it before, but women get treated like shit in Morocco. And now that I've left the country, I can expand: Until the hammer blows of modernity can smash away the fringes of theological psychosis (as has been done to Christianity and Judaism), I would not recommend a solo visit for any woman to ANY non-secular Islamic country. It's certainly do-able, and there's a lot to learn, but you should not expect anyone you meet to have an appreciation for your worth as a human being. If that would bother you, don't come alone. [Note: The more conservative, the worse it gets. Example. Example.Example.Example.]

On a lighter note; my friend also got a shitload of creepy Couchsurfing solicitations.

For anyone unfamiliar with it; is essentially a utilitarian Facebook for backpackers. People set up profiles, list whether or not they have a spare couch, and travelers come through and sleep on it. It's a distasteful concept to many (particularly those with hang-ups about privacy and safety). But to others - the people who understand what backpackers are - it's an incredible resource. The expense of accommodation and the apprehension about meeting worthwhile people are two of the most daunting hurtles of any extended journey. Couchsurfing solves both.

I've always been a fan, but I do have a suggestion if anyone associated with the site's management happens to read this:

Get rid of the Creeper Bar.

Whenever you log into your homepage, the system will display a list of people who have recently logged in from a close-by IP address. So... a list of locations and login times linked to the IP-addresses of various travelers. I never thought much of it before now. No one has ever contacted me that way (in 10 months... not a single one). The system is set up so that if you need something - directions, a drink, a couch - you can search for people offering those things and ask them directly. So who would write to a traveler out of the blue and ask for something that clearly wasn't on offer?

Moroccan dudes, apparently.

Aforementioned friend also received a number of correspondences during her stay:

Good evening
I hope your trip went well, and you spend the good times in Morocco, well I would be happy among us t'acceuillir Essaouira on the town or Jimmy hadrix a resident for several years the city or that it y'avais of a hippy then. I hope that my proposal interests you and that it could do that.

First of all, I'm really happy to welcome you in Morocco. You definitely choose a country well known for its hospitality. A country with a diversity of landscapes, cultures and traditions, a warm weather and a uncommon ambient. So I introduce myself, My name is Hicham. I'm originally from Rabat the capital of Morocco I'm learning Hotel management. rabat is a sunny city andwith a lot of parties. I invite you to to live unforgetable moments.To visit the medina, and to enjoy together in a cafe.

*See you later

good morning
it's tarik from italy and i m in long visit to rabat my origine city i would like to have nice talk with you and knowing many friends from all the world
so don't hesit to call me at this number 065440**** if you are in rabat
and then take care

hi [Name] i wish u a good day from casablanca and i dont work this times if u wanna we can make a coffe oe beer around....see yup ....reply my plz

Dear [Name],
I hope you are doing well,
I am Said from Morocco ,it will be pleasure for me to know u more
take care

hi!i am a couchsurfer from casablanca,i am registred on this website to carry my dream to visit all the 4 corners of the world and meet a lot of people!!i know that you are here in morocco so if you want we can meet for a drink or a cooffe and even host you coz my couch is available,an after making knowledge i could visit you in your country.
best wishes.

Hey [Name]

Firstly you are welcome to your second country Morocco !!

Im Zuhair from Casablanca , i see that you are in Casablanca also now , so if you wanna go to a place where you can have a view of the whole Casablaca , let me know i will be pleased to do that , im sure you will love it as all my couchsurfing friends .plz just let me know befor by sending a message , in case im not free or has something to do ok ...

how are u hope doinf fine i saw ur profil i try to write to you somme line hope find u well . i live in city of pink calling kela mgouna just 100 km from ouarzazate. i say if you like to discover this perdise welcome

how are you I live in Ouarzazate that is a city in southern Morocco that is also called the gate of the desert, and the chief town of the province of the same name. Located at the meeting of the valleys of the Wadi Wadi Ouarzazate and Dades (from the High Atlas) that make up the Draa river downstream of their confluence, it is the hub of a vast region of southern Morocco . Ouarzazate refers to both the foothills south of the High Atlas and the nearby desert.

if you have a program to visit this city contact me at 0 6 77 15 ****
well come home

welcome in Rabat

And my personal favorite (points for brevity and directness)...


Needless to say, 'opinionated' would be a vast understatement for me on this subject. I'll write more about it later because I've got about 10 months worth of vitriol to get out.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


So, I'm going home in a couple of weeks. But before I bore everyone with that...

Credit to my friend Jeff for this. Yeah; website that sells lion meat: Also Poussin, Black Bear (!), Antelope and Camel. I can't imagine they ship to Morocco, but needless to say, I will be dropping the folks at Czimer's a line once I get home.

So besides definitely eating some lion (check out the Yelp reviews -- righteous indignation is by far the funniest projected emotion), I will be taking the following route home:

Leaving late July. So if you live on or around any of the red dots, let me know. Drinks.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Parting Shots

I had a class start-date pushed back and a college roommate flying in for a visit, so I helped myself to an extended vacation this week. Boring story short: Went to Fez on Wednesday afternoon, randomly bumped into two of the Brits I met climbing Toubkal, shared some shisha and managed to insert myself (and Samantha) into their plans to visit a big waterfall.

So, I wound up spending two nights at Ouzoud Falls just NE of Marrakesh (cheapest hostel I've found in the country thus far, btw; ~$2.00/night). Biggest waterfall in the country and home to a large population of Barbary Apes who, having been fed by local Moroccans over the past decade or so, were extremely comfortable around us. As evidence:

And here's the whole album:

In other news, I'm busily finalizing my schedule for my return to the States. Going to be hectic, but interesting, I think. As of now, it's looking like Casa -> JFK -> ATL -> BWI -> O'Hare -> PDX. If anyone is in any of those neighborhoods in late-July/early-Aug and wants to get a drink, let me know.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I love soccer

Not really. Soccer is awful. If I wanted to see a bunch of effete metrosexuals running around, throwing tantrums, weeping and groping each other... well, yeah, I’d watch soccer. I saw some of the USA v. Slovenia game earlier today, and the only thing more embarrassing than the fact we tied is that my country participates in this histrionic nonsense at all. "But they came back from a 2 - 0 deficit!" Slovenia has a population of 2 million. I'm no mathematician, but I'm pretty sure that makes their World Cup team about 8% of the workforce.

Anyway, one of their guys was running toward the goal when one of ours stole the ball, so the Slovenian hurled himself to the ground, grasping at his ankle like his foot were dangling from his leg by tendons and started crying. So play stopped and his team got the ball.

If I were in charge of soccer, I would implement the following rule changes to make it less awful:

  1. No crying. Crying = red card.
  2. No post-goal celebrating. This rule can be temporary, until the culture of spazzing out like some emotionally-troubled tween has been purged from the soccer community. It’s a goal, not the cure for cancer – and it’s what you’re paid to do.
  3. No make-up. And players are required to have first and last names. I don’t know who the fuck “Ronaldo” is, but if he’s that transvestite with all the eyeliner, I’m not impressed.
  4. New position. One man on each team will assume the title of “striker” (which was misapplied before – the other guys are called ‘forwards’). Like goalies, strikers will abide by a separate rule set. Strikers will not be allowed to touch the ball, and if they do, they’re out for 5 minutes (regular players can, of course, eject the strikers by drilling them with the ball). Strikers are, however, allowed to tackle people. Same rules as rugby; must have the ball, at least one foot on the ground, no headshots.
  5. One fewer defender.
  6. Penalty kicks are awesome. Any infraction whatsoever within the goal box will result in a penalty kick.
  7. Goalies are also allowed to tackle people.
  8. New foul rules. If you have the ball, you’re fair game. Any attack by another player that can reasonably be assumed was directed at the ball is legal. This is a good idea because dangerous slide-tackles are awesome and would become commonplace. Furthermore, play does not stop for injuries. Guys who want to roll around on the group weeping are welcome to, but the game will continue.
  9. If you spread your arms open really wide and look confused or exasperated with something the referee says, the referee is allowed to punch you in the face.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Me > Nature

Made it to the top of Toubkal this time (see: previous failure). Apparently it’s easier to ascend things when they aren’t covered in ice. So, yeah; I’m pretty pleased.

The second day was exhausting – almost 4 hours straight up from the refuge, and then another 8 spent in various stages of semi-controlled falling back to the base. I made it back to Casablanca late that night and needed to brace myself against the handrails to make it up the stairs to my apartment. My knees feel like they were on the wrong side of a mobster gambling debt. Despite all that, I’d chalk this one up as a resounding success.

I ended up going with two backpackers I met on Saturday. Anthony was going to come, but anorexic girls aren’t allowed on the trail (some kind of liability thing). The backpackers – Mike and Bryan - were both in good shape though and we managed to harass one another into making fairly good time up the mountain. So aside from a lot of exhausted/awe-struck cursing, there wasn’t a whole lot of drama.

Actually... The mountain did try to murder us once. We were traversing a scree (loose rocks) field on the way down from the summit and two big rocks broke off a cliff above us. Pretty horrific timing to say the least, as Mike, Andy (a British guy we met) and I were all directly below them. One of the rocks ricocheted off to the side, but the second – a little smaller than a beach ball – came right for us. Seeing a rock that probably weighed 150 pounds bouncing six feet in the air and moving faster than a car barrelling down at you is disconcerting to say the least. Andy handled it best, in exceptionally English fashion:

“Heads up, lads.”

It was difficult to judge the rock’s path, so we were all stuck, standing in place, waiting for the last minute to gauge whether evasive action was necessary. Luckily, it bounced about four feet wide of Andy’s chest and fell harmlessly down a cliff.

So you had your shot, Nature. Had your shot and you missed.

Seasonal Differences

I was going through my photos from my two trips up Toubkal, and a few of them are taken from similar angles. Kinda neat to see how much the landscape changes between April and June. (Full albums are on Facebook).

Looking down the valley from the refuge:

The Berber village at the trailhead:

The last valley before the refuge:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Round Two

A few months back my buddy Jeff and I took a stab at summiting a little hill called J'bel Toubkal. We failed. Since I won't be going to Palestine, I have all of next week off to poke around in Morocco/Spain. Time for a rematch.

I'll be heading up with three other guys, taking roughly the same approach as before (except, ideally, without screwing up the route). The weather should be a bit more agreeable this time around, so I'll be able to swap out the winter jacket and extra layers for a [considerably] lighter tube of sunscreen.

Unfortunately, I think the snow will be gone as well, so it will be a little less epic. Oh well. Good to get out of Casa.

If any of y'all need to get ahold of me, hit the FB or email.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I've got a lot of downtime in the evenings here. As of last month, a lot of that was filled watching old episodes of Hell's Kitchen. Hell's Kitchen is a television show about a guy named Gordon who cooks delicious food and helps teach other people to do the same. This is accomplished with a lot of yelling. Sensing in Ramsay a kindred instructional spirit, the show inspired me to learn how to cook. This is Chef Ramsay with an animal he's about 90 seconds from eating. -->

Part of my cooking philosophy is that there exists a culinary trifecta - booze, meat, explosions
- which, if satisfied, renders positive results regardless of the chef's skill, experience, intelligence or personal hygiene. Why booze, meat and explosions? Stupid question, but I will explain anyway:

Booze: I've read quite a bit that the right beer/wine/spirit will compliment a dish. The only surprising thing there is that anyone would go through the effort of writing it. "Compliments" means "makes better". So, yeah... no shit. The only thing I would like to point out here is that anyone who says that the quality of a cooking wine doesn't matter isn't using enough of it.

Meat: Because this is America. (And by "this" I mean "the internet" which, like the moon, is owned by America). Do you know what kinds of people don't eat meat? North Koreans.

North Koreans are, on average, six inches shorter than South Koreans (who are also pretty short). The North Koreans say it's because they are ethnically purer than South Koreans (which is racist). But it's actually because they're a bunch of retards who don't get enough protein.

In conclusion, Americans eat meat and racist midgets don't.

Explosions: This is so obvious it borders on intuition and is difficult to articulate an explanation for. Why does 2 + 2 = 4? It just does. The beauty here is that explosions can be integrally related to booze (which explodes). Or even meat. It is widely acknowledged that animals who were killed by explosions taste better than those who weren't.

Of course, if there were a way to integrate gratuitous female nudity into this equation, I would. But for now, it remains a trifecta. ...Also, I'm not sure quadfecta is a word. I'm working on it.

So, here's the recipe for what I ate yesterday:

Sangria, Pizza and Spicy Fruit Desert

Ingredients (primary)

  • 1.5 pounds of ground beef (approximately a baby's head size.
  • Two fists-full of Mozzarella cheese
  • 2 bottles of the shittiest red wine you can buy or shoplift
  • 1 bottle of rum (dark and spicy are ideal, but when isn't it? -- take what you can get)
These ingredients are "primary" because if all else fails you can just throw them all in a saucepan, add fire and eat.

Ingredients (secondary)
Quantities not noted because a) I don't know and b) it doesn't matter

  • Flour
  • Yeast
  • Butter
  • Milk
  • Tomatoes
  • Egg
  • Onions
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Red peppers
  • Garlic
  • Oregano
  • Sprite
  • Basil
  • Cloves
  • Whatever fruit and berries you can still afford after all the alcohol and meat
  • Olive oil
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Apple juice
  • Black pepper
  • 4 different kinds of hot sauce (to pour all over the pizza)
  • Probably some other stuff, but whatever you've got on hand will probably work

Serves 1


1. First of all, you bought way too much wine for one pitcher of Sangria. Drink like half of one of the bottles.

2. Sangria was invented by the Spanish as a quick, effective delivery vehicle for cheap red wine. The recipe therefore, is necessarily cheap and simple. You pile as much sliced fruit and berries into a large pitcher as you can and then fill it with wine. The juice from the fruit will slowly diffuse into the alcohol and make it delicious.

3. Keep the pitcher in the fridge for a couple of hours or while you do the rest of the prep. When you serve it, top up the rest of the pitcher with Sprite to make it bubbly.

4. Sangria done.

5. Drink continuously for the duration of cooking.

6. Dough is pretty easy. Just throw a bunch of flower, yeast, an egg, some water and a dash of milk into a bowl. Mash it all together until it starts to look like dough. I don't know. Making dough is boring. Watch this fruitloop do it.

7. Put the dough in a pan and put a bunch of mashed up tomatoes and hotsauce all over it.

8. Then fire up all the meat, onions and red peppers in a pan until they're a little bit cooked. More hotsauce. Then put that on top of the dough too.

9. Finally, tear up the cheese and sprinkle it all over the place. More cheese = better. Mozzarella is what Zeus ate.

10. Throw it into the oven. Turn the oven on. I forget to do that sometimes.

Pizza done.

11. Eat pizza, finish sangria. It's important to be over the legal limit for the next part.

12. Skin, core and half the apples and pears. This is hard when you are drunk, so think of it like a field sobriety test. Don't fuck it up or you get stabbed in the hand.

13. Spread an even layer of sugar over the bottom of a non-stick pan. Turn on the fire part underneath it and wait for the sugar to melt. (Yeah, sugar melts into a light-brown liquid when it gets hot. I didn't really know that.)

14. Add a bunch of butter once the sugar melts. Then throw in a bunch of cloves, black pepper and the cinnamon sticks. My roommate ate one of the cinnamon sticks and informed me that it was gross, so don't do that. Then put in the fruit.

15. After like 30 seconds, the goopey shit at the bottom will start to get really thick. That's when you pour in a bunch of rum. Like 4 or 5 shots worth. Some people will tell you that that's too much, but... well, they're wrong. Quantity of rum => amount of fire. So I don't really know what the hell they're talking about.

16. Then kinda tip the pan into the fire. Or stick your hands in there with a lighter. I don't care, I'm not your mom. The alcohol should explode (trifecta attained). Then flick around the pan, preferably where a girl can see you because this part makes you look awesome. Don't spill fire on yourself.

17. Then pour some apple juice on it so it's not so sludgey.

18. Eat.

This would be good with ice cream. But I never remember to get ice cream, so I just ate it plain. Probably the most delicious thing ever. I might put it on pancakes sometimes.

I'll try to make this a running thing. Hopefully with a different type of dead animal, variety of liquor and magnitude of explosion each time. I even made a new subject tag! Next up; Jack Daniel's chicken. Side of white phosphorus.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Primavera Write-Up

"My friend and I are going to a festival in Barcelona next month. You should come!” she said.

“Barcelona you say? Umm... Who’s playing? And when is it?”

“Last weekend in May. And tons of people -- Wilco, Buena Vista Social Club, Spoon, Major Lazer – you should look it up online.”

I don’t recall my exact physical reaction, but I probably made my thinking face (sort of a combination of stroke victim and child-staring-at-television). Hipster music festival, early-summer Mediterranean coast, Barcelona – that shit is a Tier-1 Good Idea (and it certainly didn’t hurt that the girl asking was super pretty). I was making my thinking face because saying ‘maybe’ to something like that is fucking weak.

“Yeah, fuck it. That sounds awesome,” I said, snapping out of my thinking face.

And that was that. The festival itself (link here) was this weekend and, needless to say, it was awesome. Here are a few of the highlights, written smart-assedly in award show format:

Best Performance from a Band I’d Never Heard Of
Florence and the Machine
When she first took the stage I thought she was going to be annoying because she had bright red hair and was dressed like a gay angel. But she wasn’t annoying at all. She was awesome. I have a soft spot in my heart for vocalists who can plug their microphones into an effects pedal and make it work. Her band was awesome too. One word: Rockharp.

For Totally Playing the Shit out of Veckatimest
Grizzly Bear

Because that’s the one they sold at Starbucks.

Drummer Who Most Obviously Did Not Decorate His Own Instrument
This guy...


Most Rapey
Major Lazer

I’m all for exuberant stage shows, but when you stop listening to the music and have to ask yourself “who is that girl and why is he doing that to her?” they might have gone a little overboard.

Most Unexpectedly Metal

I don’t know if the folks who make Jeff Tweedy’s flannel shirts were informed, but he is basically in a metal band. What’s the last thing you expect during a live rendition of ‘Impossible Germany’? Alien attack, probably. But closely following that would have to be the explosive aneurisms of awesome that the Wilco drummer and guitarist seemed to suffer at corresponding intervals.

Best Rack
Black Francis of The Pixies

<-- Nice.

Most Adorable Frontman
Carl Newman of The New Pornographers

Happy ginger with a funny little Canadian lisp chatting up the crowd between songs. Super precious.

Best Dressed
Spanish Hipsters

<--- How are this guys’ shorts even staying on? This award was clinched when my friend said aloud, “all we need now is a guy wearing one of those Velvet Underground t-shirts” and then like five seconds later, seemingly magicked into existence by the utterance, a guy walks past rocking the Andy Warhol banana. It was amazing. Spain doesn’t even have an Urban Outfitters.

Best Set

Spoon rocks pretty hard.

Overall Winner

Best weekend ever.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Je ne sais pas

So as of last week, I was all set to move to Hebron. Departure date was set, accomodation was sorted, plane ticket was booked. But now... not. I'll spare you all the boring written details and try to boil it down into an allegorical video presentation.

So basically, Hebron has moved back into the 'maybe' catagory of future plans. Still well-ahead of backpacking through Pakistan, but still far from the certainty that it was a short time ago. Exceptionally disappointing if it doesn't work out, but I can't imagine my parents will be displeased. And hey... extra week of vacation.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Some kind of insane, genocidal purge..."

“It’s like a fucking Twilight Zone episode.”

“A plague or something...”

“Some kind of insane, genocidal purge...”

John and I stood at the edge of the beach; swim trunks and t-shirts, a football tucked under my arm. A large crowd occupied the waterfront; sunbathers, footballers, some walking hand-in-hand, some staring. Two hundred or so. ...All men. Every last one of them.


I’m making it a point to write this carefully. One of my objectives is to avoid causing offense unnecessarily. So, if anything here does cause offense – I probably meant it to.

I’ve met a lot of interesting people since arriving here in Morocco. The experiences of the women, however, as related to me, have been the most interesting. The women I know best are here to work – usually on contracts ranging from 1-3 years. Teachers, mothers, artists, NGO workers. Some of them are even diplomats working in Casablanca as representatives of major Western powers; well-traveled, and specifically trained to be culturally sensitive and highly tolerant. Of the tourists, single females choosing to travel alone through North Africa are a particularly tough, brave and independent breed.

These should serve as the preface of my post. Some were related to me second-hand, but I have absolute faith in the veracity of each.

  • A female friend of ours came to visit Casablanca for 2 nights. Over the course of a single day, she was assaulted twice in broad daylight in neighbourhoods I frequent – once in front of a group of male onlookers. Nothing similar has happened to me in 8 months.
  • I have spoken with four female students who are not allowed to use Facebook, by order of either their fathers or boyfriends. Two of them are also forbidden from using email.
  • An Australian couchsurfer missed her train because the taxi driver refused to deliver her – insisting that they “get lunch” first.
  • Our apartment is a fairly social one. The ratio of Moroccan male to female visitors, however, is probably around 10:1. A vast majority of Moroccan girls and women we know are A) Not allowed in men’s apartments, B) Not allowed to socialize with unmarried men, C) Not allowed out of their homes after 8 or 9pm, D) Must check-in frequently if not at home or in a pre-determined location.
  • I have removed two men from my Facebook list because they were soliciting my female friends – apparently based on the “quality” of their profile pictures – for attention/companionship.
  • A friend of mine who works at an NGO has frequent difficulty walking 3 blocks from her apartment to her office. She often ends up running into work.
  • Police will stop you on the street if you are walking with a woman they believe is Muslim. (This may be profiling, rooted in an attempt to solicit a bribe – but it is also well-fitted to a trend).
  • Several female travelers who have left my company to explore other cities have been subjected to aggressive and unrelenting pressure for marriage or sex from Moroccan men who had volunteered, ostensibly, to accompany them for safety purposes.
  • Two female diplomats who have lived in this country for the last 2 years have a combined total of zero numbers from Moroccan men in their phones. They bemoan and regret the fact, but will flatly ignore or deflect public conversations with domestic nationals.
  • I have lost count of the complaints that have been relayed to me of marriage proposals, sexual propositions, catcalls, passes and gropes from Moroccan men directed at foreign women.
  • I have seen women being assaulted on the street, amongst a group of men, with more men watching. Twice. When men fight on the streets, others typically intervene.
  • On days when the local soccer teams play, women do not leave their homes in our neighbourhood (near the stadium) out of fear of the groups of men and boys that wander the streets before and after the match.
  • There are (many) public cafes in which women are explicitly disallowed. Public cafes that do allow women tend not to have them.
  • This weekend, I walked a pair of female friends to the big mosque on the waterfront. I left them there to walk a mile along the waterfront to a popular beach. Alone. 5 minutes after I left, they were being followed by a group of men. 5 minutes after that, one of them was bleeding. 5 minutes after that, they were in a police station...

My perspective has evolved to the point where I now feel neglecting to escort a female friend from one point of the city to another is tantamount to reckless endangerment. I’d sooner drunk-drive a forklift through my kid’s playground than let anyone I cared about walk through the downtown area alone at night.

The bullet points above are in no way meant to be a blanket condemnation of all men in Morocco. I have met a number of Moroccan men (and women) who are better people than I can claim to be. But simply put; women are second-class citizens in Morocco. This is further substantiated by the litany of other statistics on gender equity within the country (see: literacy, higher education, healthcare, employment, political office and violence).

Women do not have the same freedoms or opportunities as men. Most troubling is the fact that Moroccan laws appear to be far less restrictive than social convention.

In one of my classes, we were doing an exercise on unreal conditionals (“if ____, then ____”). One of the exercises was to express what each student would do if they were a member of the opposite sex. Among the responses from women (aged 17-30):

“If I were a man, I would go out with my friends every night.”

“If I were a man, I would get a promotion at my job.”

“If I were a man, I would be safe at night.”

One of the men in the class joked, “If I were a woman, I would kill myself.”

Unwillingness to acknowledge a problem (along with some sickening hypocrisy) is seemingly endemic amongst men here. “Women in Morocco are free to do whatever they want,” is something I have heard repeatedly. This is often suffixed with “no, I wouldn’t let my sister see a male friend at night” or “no, I wouldn’t date a woman who danced at nightclubs”.

I don’t want to get into the causes for it all in this particular forum. Hell, I have developed a veritable fusilade of attacks for it over the past 8 months... unfortunately, I’m still in a place where they could get me in trouble. But here’s a hint: I’ve been to poor, uneducated countries before. I’ve seen ancient, tribal practices integrated into modern, gradually-liberalizing societies...

I have seen nowhere else on Earth where the socially-institutionalized mistreatment of women is worse than here. It is nauseating, and I’m not going to miss it when I’m gone.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On a related note...

To all four people who read this... the blog is going to be on hiatus for an indeterminate period beginning next month. As will any references to it from other sites. I'll let y'all know when I put it back up.

31/5/2010 Edit: Maybe not. We'll see.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

An Abridged History of Israel

It's kind of embarrassing, but until recently, I've only had a pretty rudimentary understanding of Middle East history. Though to be fair, I don't know much about string theory either, and that's probably less complicated. But I figured it would be a good idea to brush up before I actually moved there. I've been reading a bunch of stuff. So in the interest of future blog posts making any sense, I figured I'd give y'all the rundown as well. The following is a chronological summary of everything* that has happened in/around Israel for the past dozen or so centuries.

*where "everything" = stuff I didn't think was boring

It all begins in the
17th Century BC
Abraham, patriarch of Judaism, Islam and Christianity is born and starts talking about “One God”, as opposed to “Lots of Gods”. According to his Wikipedia page, he lived to be 175... which is totally plausible for a guy who didn't know what soap, medicine or science was.

13th Century BC
Moses does the stuff with the pharaohs and the plagues and the rocks. This time period also marks the height of Deistic badassitude.

The Moses People (henceforth ‘Jews’), invigorated by all the fire hail, blood water, baby-slaughtering and face-boiling, systematically conquer most of Israel.

1020 BC
The Jews consolidate power under a monarch – Saul. First major defeat of the people called Philistines (henceforth ‘Palestinians’).

1000 BC
Jerusalem made capital by Saul’s successor, David.

930 BC
Something really confusing about a Jewish insurrection and two separate states. But this is about the time when Assyrians and Babylonians start kicking the living shit out of everyone, so it really doesn’t matter.

722 BC
Aforementioned Assyrians and Babylonians have rolled into Israel and totally wrecked stuff.

It was at about this time that the Jews got together and decided that they should begin developing a religious framework to underpin their nationhood. This would irrevocably bind the Jews and their descendants to the land of Israel... So no matter where they went, that would be where they were meant to be. No future conflict anticipated.

23 AD
Jesus stuff. Does some preaching and is eventually found guilty of being a dangerously subversive loud-mouth that too many people were paying attention to. Accordingly, the Romans execute him in the most nondescript way they can think of: On top of a mountain during a lightning storm/earthquake.

536BC – 1576AD
Israel is militarily steamrolled in quick succession by Persians, Babylonians, Seleucids, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians again, Ninjas, Pirates, Mamluks, Arabs and Crusaders. This was all a part of someone’s plan to make the (already) arid terrain more hospitable by soaking it in nutrient/mineral-rich man blood for 1,000 years straight. There’s about 30 totally awesome screenplays in there somewhere. Epic battle sequences wooooo!

1517 – 1917
Ottoman rule. Still paying attention? Me neither.

The Ottomans are reasonably open-minded and let the Jews kind of do their own thing. Israel undergoes large-scale Jewish immigration. Mostly from the sort of awesome places where people could reasonably say, “Know what would be a more peaceful place to live? Israel.”

First World War. Ottomans chose the side that wasn’t with America and Great Britain (oops); subsequently get their shit ruined. Brits roll into Israel and pledge to establish “a Jewish national home in Palestine”. No future conflict anticipated.

1918 – 1948
British rule.

1918 – 1948
Inexplicable upswing in British people everywhere being totally fucking stressed out.

1939 – 1945
Holocaust in Europe. :(

State of Israel proclaimed into existence by the Brits. War erupts between Israelis, Palestinians, and pretty much everyone else in a 2 country radius. Britain backs slowly out of the room going, “ehhhhhhhhh”.

Though numerically and geographically overwhelmed, Israel has the support of something called America. Needless to say, Israel wins the war (after creating a little thing called the Israeli Defence Force – henceforth ‘IDF’) and sets about consolidating its borders.

Armistice agreement signed with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon (all of Israel’s neighbours). Israel is inducted into the United Nations – which Arab states also got super pissed off about.

Sinai Campaign. The IDF captures the Gaza Strip and the whole of the Sinai Peninsula, constituting much of what is modern-day Israel. The UN declared a Whoa Shit Emergency, but the entire operation only lasted about a week, so whatever. In addition to “reconstituting the ancient Jewish homeland”, the Israelis also succeeded, coincidently, in procuring access to the Straits of Tiran and an open trade route to Asia.

Adolf Eichmann, who was a jerk, is tried and executed in Israel.

1967 – 1973
The Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War. Two more short conflicts between Israel and Egypt/Syria. Israel proves just how scrappy they are by winning both (mostly) decisively (kinda). Numerous disengagement, ceasefire and armistice agreements are signed.
Egypt also signs an agreement that closes its borders with the Gaza strip, a volatile Israeli-controlled area of Palestinian territory. This is seem as an abandonment of Palestinians by other Arab states.

Camp David Accords are signed. They are essentially the plans for general peace and the formation of an autonomous Palestinian government. But that latter doesn’t really happen. ...Nor does the former.

A bunch of Jews immigrate to Israel from Ethiopia. This isn’t really relevant to anything – I just thought it was interesting that there were Jews in Ethiopia.

Palestinian self government installed in the Gaza strip and Jericho. Expands over the next few years into different areas of the West Bank. “Palestinian territory” essentially consists of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The West Bank is an area surrounding Jerusalem (which is Israeli) to the North, South and East. Everything West of that – from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean coast – is Israeli. The heavily militarized Gaza Strip is the tiny piece of land connecting Israel to Egypt. It is essentially a fortress, totally encapsulated by the IDF. Even its border with Egypt is closed (save the network of caves that connect the two).

This is where it gets (more) complicated.


1987 – 1993
The First Intifada [Arabic: “Uprising”]. With no clear origin or central leadership, the First Intifada grew out of a general unrest, centered primarily in Palestinian refugee camps. The best description of the discontent I have heard is due to a perception amongst Palestinians of a “creeping process of de facto annexation”.

Sparks for conflict were abundant and unrest was rampant (the official containment policy of the Israelis was codenamed “Iron Fist” – go figure), so once hostilities began, they spread quickly. Casualties, for such a historically significant uprising, were low – 163 Israelis and 2,162 Palestinians (1,000 of whom were killed by other Palestinians as “collaborators”). The truly significant outcome was the shifting power structure within Palestine.

Up to this point, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had been weak and not particularly influential. During the intifada, however, it emerged as the only obvious source of central leadership for the Palestinians. Unfortunately, it was also known as a terrorist organization by most of the world. After the Six Day War, Palestinians lost a great deal of faith in their Arab neighbours and began to radicalize. A dude named Yasser Arafat and his Fatah political party, which had connections to a number of paramilitary (“fedayeen”) groups, used this radicalization to take control of the PLO.

Even though the PLO was taken largely by surprise by the First Intifada, the world began to recognize it as the de facto leadership organization of the Palestinian people.

Another group that’s worth taking note of at this point is Hamas. It's based in Gaza and is a radical Sunni Islamic organization with a long history of doing horrible shit (suicide bombing civilian targets, using human shields, recruiting child soldiers).

Oslo Peace Accords. The PLO and Israeli government secretly negotiated the Oslo Peace Accords as the First Intifada was winding down.

The Accords granted Palestinians the right to self-government. It also created the Palestinian Authority (PA), which was dominated by Yasser Arafat’s PLO and Fatah party. This marked a promisingly civilized turn in the PLO’s mission statement. From this point on, the PLO “officially recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”. Others did not agree.

2000 – 2005
Second Intifada. This one started for pretty much the same reasons as the first: people on both sides who were generally pissed off. Technically, this one is still ongoing, but violence began to ebb in 2005.

This one resonates in memory a little better that the older stuff due to the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military incursions that were all over the news for about half a decade.

Remember Hamas? Palestine held its first legitimate series of municipal elections in 2005. And Hamas won them, taking 74 of 132 seats – ousting the more moderate Fatah party, which Palestinians saw as being corrupt, ineffectual and overly-bureaucratic.

Hamas has openly backed down from its previously (and emphatically) stated goal of “obliterating” Israel, but the core of its charter remains unchanged. The full ramifications of their new, and legitimized, leadership position remain to be seen. Needless to say, Israel was not pleased when they won the elections.

2005 – 2010
Hamas and Israel are still at each other’s throats. Israel, and just about every Western power that matters, still views Hamas (and by corollary, the PLO?) as a terrorist organization. Low-level violence simmers (if you can call Hellfire strikes, gun battles and mortar attacks “low-level”).

Just now
Israel and Palestine resolve their differences. Disney Holy Land is opened, the Jonas Brothers add a few Gaza tour dates, and Israeli and Palestinian musicians join forces to record an uplifting new rendition of ‘We Are the World’. All good, mom!

Glossary of terms I didn't necessarily use but are still important:

Hezbollah: An Islamist political and paramilitary party based in Beirut. They, like Hamas, are generally viewed as terrorists (probably because they've got a pretty strong track record of blowing up buses with suicide bombers and shelling civilian neighborhoods). They're important because they've managed to set off the odd full-scale war between Israel and Lebanon.

Settlers: Israeli civilians who "settle" in Palestinian territory. Their placement is a huge point of contention because they basically set up shop wherever they damn well please and are protected by the IDF.

Terrorist: Something that has become exponentially more difficult to define over the past decade. While organizations like Al Qaeda fall safely within the distinction, others have started to blur as they move away from paramilitary activity and into politics. Hezbollah, for instance, is known to the US as a terrorist organization, but the Brits recognize their political wing as legitimate and the EU doesn't say anything at all.

SPF 40: It is going to be very sunny when I get there. Best be prepared.

Zionism: In the broadest sense, it is the notion that Jews deserve control over the State of Israel by merit of ancestory, historical persecution and religious affiliation. Hard-line Zionism is typically the stance held by right-wing Israelis - particularly Settlers.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Parts of the Bangkok Entry I Don't Mind Publishing Under My Real Name

I just found a write-up of my first few nights in Bangkok. If I had any brains, I would delete the whole goddamn thing. An excerpt:

The bus was mostly empty. I was so accustomed to the pangs of loneliness and homesickness that they were sort of comforting -- something familiar. It was a dark night; large portions of the city only nominally lit. The towers of the city center cast a pallid backdrop to the low, brown clouds. Khao San, however, was lit with neon and open flame.

From an infrastructural perspective, the road serves as a sort of grimy connective tissue between a busy commercial lane and a tangle of dilapidated apartment blocks near Bangkok’s commercial center. The only local foot traffic that Khao San sees is at the end of the work day when bleary-eyed workers make their way from their businesses on one end of the street to the brothels on the other. Culturally, Khao San is the stuff of backpacker legend. It’s where Leo drank cobra blood and found the map at the beginning of ‘The Beach’. It is the epicenter of almost all transient activity in a three country radius.

I stepped out of the bus and was immediately accosted by a handful of adolescents in battered sports jackets. They offered "the last room on Khao San". Simultaneously. I declined.

Setting out in search of accommodation on my own terms, further propositions came in a steady bombardment:

Room with fan - $3

Beer - $1

T-shirt - $4

Cocktail bucket (they tend to forsake the glass in favor of the plastic beach pales you made castle battlements with as a kid) - $4

Watch - $40, down to $5 at first sign of disinterest.

Then there are the drug dealers:

Opium/marijuana/highly suspect ecstasy pills - open to negotiation. (You can get coke too, but common wisdom is to avoid it like, well, Thai coke. High grade heroin is easier to come by than cocaine in the area due to its proximity to the Golden Triangle. See: 'American Gangster'. Both are white powders, and dealers rarely care enough about their customers' wellbeing to make the distinction. A lot of Westerners kill themselves in Asia with heroin overdoses. See: 'Pulp Fiction'). [Note: I don’t do drugs, but I am informed]


The gross commercial overpopulation of the area and the sort of cutthroat capitalism practiced by the locals is disorienting at first, but I found it all fascinating once all of the individual catcalls had aggregated themselves into a babbling, foreign white noise.

I got a place to stay from the street lady who sold me a bowl of noodles. I’d taken my food and made the universal sleep gesticulation: Tilted head over folded hands. My server's eyes lit up and she waved excitedly for me to follow her. She abandoned her noodle cart on the street and led me into the building behind it and up a flight of stairs. We paused before opening the door to my room and she held up enough fingers to represent $2 worth of Baht. I gave her the money, she gave me the key.

The room was a Malarial petting zoo. Roaches, bedbugs, the scratching of mice inside the walls and a grainy haze of mosquitoes that spawned in the hall puddles. The mattress was out of an episode of Dexter; a blackened stain in the middle and no sheets or blankets. The pillow looked like it had been used as an oil mop in a mechanic's shop. There were no windows. But at least the door had two bolts and an extra loop for my own lock.

I dragged the nightstand away from the wall, placed my pack on top of it and locked the room as I left. My resolve not to actually sleep or touch anything in the room imbued me with a second wind for sampling the city’s nightlife.


“Don’t drink the vodka,” Chris said. I’d just met him, but we were getting along well. “They refill them with homemade stuff. Can’t fault their initiative, but it’s fucking blindness potion.” I pulled a beer out of a cooler behind the bar and put money down.

Megan had fallen asleep on Chris’ arm. She breathed heavy, counter-nausea breaths.

“You want to check out another patio bar I heard about? Supposed to have fire dancers,” Chris continued.

“She going to make it?” I asked, nodding at Megan (who very obviously would not).

“I have no idea who this girl is.”

“Ah, okay.” He propped her against the bar and waved/shrugged to the group of girls she’d come in with. We took our beers with us.

Chris was in his mid-20s and a former member of the British Army. He was on month six in the process of burning or liquefying and drinking every last cent he’d saved over his 5 years of service. He wore a Tibetan prayer flag around his wrist, a half-finished tattoo on his neck and a black tshirt that just said ‘one’ on the front. I’d asked him what he did in the army and he said, “Soldiering”.

[Redacted… Bangkok is ridiculous]

Anyway... Bangkok. I don’t typically recommend a visit. I can’t imagine anyone would.

But it is the way it is because visits are sort of unavoidable. It’s the doorway. Barring some cataclysmic shake-up of the Southeast Asian economic landscape, if you travel, Bangkok will get you eventually. It just does. If you ever find your way there, just relax and enjoy.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Argumentum Ad Hominem

I recently put in for an office transfer with my work (my organization operates all over the place). My boss approved it, and I just got another approval from the director of the other office. I think an IM conversation I just had sums it all up nicely:

Matt: Sup.

Patrick: Yo.

M: How's Africa?

P: Good. Moving to Hebron in June.

M: I’m moving to Shababasaur. I can make up words too.

P: You’re an idiot.

M: At least I live in a real place.

P: Hebron = Palestinian city in the West Bank.

M: Seriously?

P: Yeah.

M: Why would you move there? God you're dumb.

P: To tell you the truth, I’m having a hard time articulating my motivation for this one.

M: My previous comment is a pretty concise way to do it.

P: There’s an element of truth to it.

M: How long will you be there?

P: Two months – until Ramadan. Month off. Then I might go back if I like it.

M: If you like it? What, like if the club scene is hoppin’?

P: Hah.

M: How are you going to come back to the States if you’re on the goddamn no-fly list?

P: Pff. Apparently there are a lot of expats there. Hebron and Ramallah are the hotbeds for NGO/political activity.

M: You remember Sean? He’s moving to Indonesia to do jungle tours or surf classes or something equally ridiculous. Sean is smart.

P: Does sound nice. South America is still on the itinerary. But honestly... that sounds less interesting than what I’m doing.

M: Hmm. Well, there you go.

The move isn't a 100% certainty yet, but I'd put it above 90. Check out the map in the last post for an overview of the scenery. I'm pretty psyched. For a country the size of New Jersey, there's a TON of stuff to see (New Jersey should really be ashamed of itself).

More to come.

More to follow....

(Click to enlarge)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fes, Morocco - Southern Circuit Trip

“We’ll go now?”

“Well, I will. But I’m going alone.” I was beyond the point of annoyance and making a concerted effort to control my temper.

“Your friend said you want a guide today.”

“No, he didn’t. And that’s my friend, not me.”

“I have been waiting since ten o’clock,” gesturing toward a time on his watch, three hours past.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I broke eye contact and began to walk down the narrow passage which lead from the riad to the city’s central market. He followed.

“It’s rude for you to make me wait.”

“I'm sorry, but I didn’t ask you to come.” Anthony and Al had stayed in the riad to avoid the conversation I was having.

“Why will you not come with me?”

“It’s not necessary. I prefer to walk alone.” I measured my voice as I spoke.

“Friend, please,” he caught up and walked sideways ahead of me, “why don’t I come with you?”

“No. I'm really not interested.”


“Because the words came out of my mouth.”

He paused, frustrated, to gather his thoughts. “You can call me later?”

“No.” It was the 2nd of 4 times I would encounter the faux (unofficial) guide.

In the off-season, when gullible and lazy tourist populations are in the decline, the shills and drug dealers of Fes are at their most determined. They will press each conversation to the razor’s edge of physical altercation, walk away, and re-engage a few hours later as if you were a beloved relative. The westerner’s hope that some fraction of unsolicited attention might be a genuine extension of friendship is invariably cause for disappointment. It’s a cancer on the touristic appeal of the city. Fortunately, the body is strong enough as a whole that most of the time the obnoxious little cyst can be overlooked.

Tourists, with their euros and dollars and SLR cameras, would not come to Fes if her charm had not been so astonishingly well-preserved over the centuries. The old medina has hovered at or just above the poverty line throughout its 1,200 year history. Buildings and avenues crumble artfully, doorhandles and cobblestones worn to a mirror finish; upkeep performed dutifully with an eye toward maintenance rather than improvement. Angular props, built with bound planks of plywood and paid for by the UNESCO foundation, are sporadically found wedged between buildings, preventing collapse.

The city’s main tourist attractions; a mosque, a school and a few tanneries have been so overgrown with additional housing and storefronts over the centuries that their facades are almost completely obscured. It’s only the odd ornately decorated, guarded door that will open onto a stunning ancient compound. It’s here where the city’s tourist dollars are really seen. Islamic calligraphy, painstakingly carved into porcelain and inlaid with jade is immaculately preserved within; youths tout fake designer jeans to tourists a few meters outside.

Automobiles are barred by police from coming inside the medina walls (easily enforced - there hasn’t been a car invented narrow or agile enough to navigate alleyways). Men lead donkeys, loaded with cargo between the souks as the means of bulk conveyance.

The three of us were staying in a beautiful riad that Al’s family had booked almost three years before. They’d had to cancel their stay and the proprietor had kept the deposit, insisting that there was no expiration date on its use. Riads are fortress-like housing compounds that traditionally house large families – often extending several lateral steps. Their rooms are built around spacious inner courtyards where most of the mingling and eating is done. Very little conversation is necessary to make them suitable for tourist intake as they are essentially built like boutique hotels – each wing of the family taking up its own, semi-enclosed unit. Beautiful and comfortable though it was, however, it was extremely expensive (for us). So we had resolved to stay only a few nights, and then head to one of the youth hostels nearer to the primary medina entrance.

I would vent my frustration with the city’s more aggressive salesmen a few more times before I left. One rug salesmen dragged me into his shop and started pouring glasses of tea while a few of his workers dutifully arranged their wares before me. I was thirsty, so I asked for several refills.

“You remember outside when I said I wasn’t going to buy any rugs?”

“Oh yes, no need to buy – just look.”

“Okay,” I said and drank my tea.

Fifteen minutes later, I had finished my tea and was on my way out of the shop - to the owner’s intense dissatisfaction. He finally postulated that I didn’t want any rugs because I was racist. “I live in Casablanca,” I told him in Arabic. He looked pissed.

Sales pitches usually start very soft (“come see my shop – just look and take pictures!”). Once you’re inside, some hospitality is extended to get you to stay. The hospitality is partially genuine, rooted in Islamic tradition. But once you’re sitting, the dealer rapidly becomes more assertive. Most shopkeepers bank heavily on the fact that Westerners often fail to apply analytic filters to what they’re told, being unaccustomed to having salesmen lie to their face. “This rug took 30 hours to make by hand,” “They sell for twice as much on Ebay,” “The dye will never come off.” All said with well-practiced earnestness and in disarmingly imperfect English.

Fortunately, the anger that they express if you ignore their pitch or poke holes in their assertions is equally disingenuous. In some cases, you can even circumvent their desire to take your money and have an actual conversation.

Fes is the reason people come to Morocco. It’s a glimpse at modern life trying to integrate itself with a largely impoverished, millennia-old city. And it’s a beautiful, stunning thing to see. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be real.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bribery and Assault Rifles, Cambodia

The AK-47 is a selective fire, gas operated 7.62mm assault rifle, first developed in the Soviet Union... Even after six decades, due to its durability, low production cost and ease of use, the model and its variants remain the most widely used and popular assault rifles in the world. It has been manufactured in many countries and has seen service with regular armed forces as well as irregular, revolutionary and terrorist organizations worldwide.

I pulled back the bolt on the charging handle and stared into the chamber for the third or fourth time, moving it out of the shadow cast by my shoulders so I could get a better look. The inside of the barrel was black, even in the sun - the first round was perched, ready, at the top of the magazine. My palms were beginning to sweat against the stock. A loaded AK-47 wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be. I shifted it amateurishly in my hands before releasing the slide. A Kalashnikov is meant to function properly for decades with minimal upkeep. Its construction is rugged and simple. It has only 4 moving parts – about as many as a fancy wine opener.

I looked back at Adam who was staring at me in rapt attention. He'd been neglecting the cigarette between his lips - the dangling column of ash had burned almost to the filter. He raised his eyebrows and nodded his head at me expectantly. I looked at the owner of the gun, a diminutive Cambodian police officer who we’d befriended. He didn't speak English, so he just shrugged and gave a thumbs up.

As far as I could tell, all you have to do is insert the ammunition into the bottom of the gun, look down the sights and pull the trigger. Then anything on the other side of the barrel would be obliterated spectacularly. So easy a child could do it.

I turned back to the firing range and brought the rifle up to my shoulder, shifting its center of gravity to different positions relative to my line of sight. Staring down the sights of the most infamous assault rifle in the world was an odd sensation. I felt like I should be yelling at someone in Russian. My eyes locked their focus onto the silhouette a few dozen yards away... then closer, to the iron sights as the bobbed unapologetically over the chest and head of the paper man.

"Bang bang bang!" Yelled the Cambodian policeman. Fuck, I swore, and almost fumbled the gun. The little brown man started laughing so hard he cried.

I rolled my eyes and smiled as I readied the gun again. My mind was a little bit frantic: how many millimeters, how much pressure, how long until the bullets started flying? So I squeezed slowly, continually, purposefully. Thunder. My eyes snapped shut instinctually. There was a tremendous string of staccato explosions as the stock drummed itself into my shoulder. It ended the moment I released the trigger - no more than a second after I had compressed it. I opened my eyes again.

"Fucking awesome," Adam said behind me. The policeman said something excitedly in Khmer.

I stared downfield at the tiny holes I'd left in the paper. For all the noise and force, I sort of expected the paper to have been vaporized. But it just sort of fluttered pitifully. Two of the little bullets had fallen harmlessly onto the white over my imaginary foe's shoulder. The third had landed below the neck, about where the collarbone would be. I couldn’t tell if there were more.

Our assault rifle guide piped up again, saying a lot of things very quickly in Khmer. He was smiling and waving his hands around, apparently gesticulating a detailed explanation of something. At one point he lined up his two index fingers in a trajectory away from his eye which I took to mean “aim better”.

Adam and I had been introduced to our police friend a day earlier by a local restaurateur named Bruce. Bruce spoke good English, so we engaged him when we could - asking about his work, his family, his country. Bruce, like every other Cambodian we'd had the opportunity to speak with, was a cheerful and outwardly goodhearted person. He'd told us about his brother the police officer and assured us, almost pleadingly, that the broad understanding tourists held about the Cambodian Police (that they were corrupt and malicious to the man) was overblown. His brother, he said, never took money from foreigners - he couldn't even afford to buy his wife a present for her birthday. Bruce had never asked us for anything besides our bar tabs, and even then he had flatly rejected every gratuity we offered - so we asked if there was anything we could do to help.

"No, no," Bruce said. "But he is back in the kitchen with the dishes - you should meet him when he is finished."

Some hours and half a dozen beers later, Bruce's brother emerged from the kitchen and took off the apron that covered his police uniform. He put it back into a closet behind the bar, took out the AK-47 he had left there and slung it over his shoulder. When he sat down to talk to us, the presence of the rifle was a small elephant. Adam and I, both drunk, found it difficult to reconcile the competing horror and curiosity that it evoked - just dangling from his shoulder, occasionally bouncing against his chair as he spoke.

Learning to use it must have come up at some point in the conversation - and the idea must not have been new to Bruce's brother. His face lit up immediately. In fact, stories are rife in backpacker circles about the Cambodian police and military renting out their firearms to tourists. There are whole businesses dedicated to it. One British backpacker had sworn to me that he had been offered a live cow and an RPG to shoot at it for $200. Bruce did a bit more rough translating (which couldn't have made much sense by the time we slurred out the English and he translated it into Khmer) and we all agreed to meet the next day at noon.

The rifle was still slung over the little policeman's shoulder when we arrived. He and Bruce both smiled their bright white Cambodian smiles and waved to us as we approached. Adam and I both gave Bruce's brother the equivalent of $9*, and I threw in a postcard I'd brought from New Zealand. He seemed to be more excited about the postcard than he was about the money; holding in outstretched arms like he were hanging it on a wall. He clapped my shoulder appreciatively and started talking to us in Khmer as we walked to his truck.

None of this ever registered as a bad idea. Writing it in my journal the next day – “got in unmarked vehicle destined for undisclosed location with heavily armed Cambodian” – struck me for a moment as reckless.

We’d spent the first 10 minutes at the firing range (the land behind some guy’s house) listening to Bruce’s brother explaining things to us. We understood nothing. But the gesticulations helped. Somewhat surprisingly (and perhaps a little disconcerting) his arm waving, combined with what I had seen in movies, actually proved to be all the formal instruction that was required in loading, readying and firing the weapon.

I was pleased with my first salvo of rounds. If some foe of mine took a bullet in the chest, I felt confident that they would be fucked. Maybe even dead. I smiled and took aim again. In video games, you never aim at someone’s head with an automatic weapon right away. You aim somewhere on the torso (or “center mass” in gamer/military speak). It’s a bigger target and the recoil from the initial few rounds will usually raise the barrel a few fractions of a degree. So the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds will bounce upwards towards the head. I always thought that made perfect sense, and saw no reason why it wouldn’t work in real life.

I fired again, for a little longer, concentrating on keeping my eyes open. More rounds in the black; one of them through the neck.

“What’s it feel like,” Adam asked.

I fired off a few more rounds. “Fuck.”

I kept shooting until the rifle went ‘click’. Very Hollywood. I squeezed the trigger again to be sure. Click. I thought about it, and the weapon seemed a little bit lighter. Empty. I still kept it pointed in the air as I handed it back for fear a phantom round might still be perched above the firing pin.

It was an utterly foreign, almost euphoric, experience for the time that we were there. We took turns with the gun for an hour or so. Even tried to talk to Bruce’s brother for a bit, but without much success. Adam and I were getting good by the end. Even Bruce seemed impressed when I snapped in a new clip, leveled the weapon and deftly sent two fresh rounds into the silhouette’s face.

Broader implications of the experience would unfold over the next few days.

[*$18.00 USD is, as of 2007, 1% of the per capita GDP in Cambodia. The American equivalent would be $460.00]