Category Archives: Conflict Zones

A Picture of a Bench from My First Trip to a Conflict Zone

Latin Bridge in Sarajevo

Latin Bridge in Sarajevo

My first trip to a conflict zone was to Serbia and Bosnia in 1999. This bench, located on the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, commemorates the location where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, the immediate cause of World War I. The historical plaque that had been attached to the bench to explain its significance had been recently stolen because it was written in Cyrillic and also because, as the gunman was considered a hero at the time of the assassination, the plaque was rather laudatory in nature.  Today the plaque has been replaced with something more neutral and reads, in English, “From this place on June 18, 1914 Gavirlo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia.”

My Condolences to Singapore on the Passing of Founder Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew, founder and former Prime Minister of Singapore, 1923-2015

Lee Kuan Yew, founder and former Prime Minister of Singapore, 1923-2015

Dear Singapore:

The world has lost a giant today. A political strategist of the highest intellectual caliber, he is survived by three children, including current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (who I have had the honor to meet), seven grandchildren, and the proud and prosperous island nation he founded, cultivated, and governed.

To all my Singaporean friends, colleagues, teachers, and leaders whom I have had the privilege to serve, learn, teach, research, organize, and bond over a meal or drink with, I offer my deepest heartfelt grief, sadness, and respects on the passing of your nation’s founder, Minster Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Minister Lee was an iconoclast with a vision to turn a small, poor, vulnerable and recently occupied island into an economic powerhouse with respect for the rule of law, gender equality, religious tolerance, and ethnic harmony.

While there will always be debate about his means–he used both carrot and stick to bring and retain power, authority, and order–there can be little reasonable debate about the ends. While there is a wealth gap (as there is in the country where I write this and almost everywhere else in the world), and an odd clause in our countries’ bilateral free trade agreement requiring Singapore to legalize chewing gum for “medicinal” purposes, where once were a collection of sleepy undeveloped villages–like the ones that remain today in nearby countries which are presently embroiled in political and religious conflict and with even more pervasive economic troubles–today is a multi-cultured cosmopolitan metropolis where CEOs of banks pick up their chicken rice from the same stall as the migrant workers who built your city-state at a wage (albeit with unequal bargaining power) they negotiated. Literacy is high (in multiple languages) and distributed without discrimination. The government is transparent and is quickly responsive to its citizens (though they encourage them to voice their grievances in a rather controlled and courteous manner suspicious to those in some other wealthy, stable nations).

Though he has left this world, he has left Singapore with a hugely gifted, talented, and potentially more liberal son in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Under his stewardship, I am certain investors, nations, foreign talent, and all of Singaporeans can look forward to continued stability, prosperity, and the always achingly slow, but inevitable evolution toward liberalization of civil and political human rights.

As the only lawyer (that I know of) practicing in Florida with a law degree from the National University of Singapore (LL.M. in International and Comparative Law) I will continue to advocate Floridians to invest in a Singapore that invested in me.

It is Singapore that allied with the United States during the cold war, is our partner in free trade, uses much of its huge Sovereign Wealth Fund to invest in the United States and its partner countries and in return encourages U.S. foreign investment by offering low (sometimes no) tax rates on income earned in Singapore.

Very importantly, Singapore kindly provides a safe harbor and home to the U.S. Navy’s sailors and ships of the 7th Naval Fleet.

With love, friendship, and respect,

Richard Junnier, Esq. (NUS Alumni, 2009 cohort)

Richard Junnier's 2009 gradation ceremony at the National University of Singapore College of Law with an LL.M. (a legal post-doctorial masters' degree) in International and Comparative Law.

Richard Junnier’s 2009 gradation ceremony at the National University of Singapore College of Law with an LL.M. (a legal post-doctorial masters’ degree) in International and Comparative Law.

Richard Junnier with Simon Chesterman at the reception celebrating the graduation of the 2009 NYU@NUS cohort. Mr. Chesterman is currently Dean of the National University of Singapore and is considered one of the world's foremost experts on International Law. Richard was his research assistant.

Richard Junnier with Simon Chesterman at the reception celebrating the graduation of the 2009 NYU@NUS cohort. Mr. Chesterman is currently Dean of the National University of Singapore and is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on International Law. Richard was his research assistant.

Your Next Adventure: Gili Trawangan, Indonesia (Just Getting There)

trees on kuta beachGili Trawangan is one of the most remote and isolated atolls in the world.

If you want to die creatively, it’s vaguely situated near the two islands where you can get eaten by a komodo dragon.

In a 1924 New York Times interview, George Mallory was asked why he wanted to summit Mount Everest and he famously answered “because it’s there.” When people ask me why I seek out the most distant and lonely places to travel, I say “Because if nobody goes there, it must really be a place worth visiting.”

Specifically, more than its distant hipster obscurity, I wanted to visit Gili Trawangan because it has one of the most accessible, vibrant, and unique coral reefs in the world. From the shore, it is a ten foot walk on a shallow sandbar that abruptly tumbles into a narrow, mile-long, wonder-world trench of eight-foot wide stingless Rays (which, if you’re crass, you can ride), ancient 700 lb sea turtles (which may casually bump you into the reef inviting a coral-worm infection), kaleidoscope colored fish camouflaging among neon-bright shoals, and about ten million tiny violet attacking jellyfish to lightly sting you as you float twenty minutes down a riptide that forcefully transports you from one edge of the island to the other. The scrapes and bruises are well worth it. For a $1 children will be waiting where the riptide ceases with your belongings so you don’t have to hike the mile back to where you began your swim. There is even a return kiosk for your rented snorkeling gear.

I was also lured by rumors of $5 hour-long beach-side back massages, and two-for-one forty cent whiskey happy hour specials. With basic hammock inside a beach hut accommodation, Gili Trawangan is a remote Utopian paradise on a budget.

Getting there proved difficult.

Easy journeys rarely begin with “First, fly to Jakarta.”

I had allotted three weeks for this adventure. I had planned on taking a train for ten hours to Surabaya (which is a place people normally do not want to be), then switch to another train for a further ten hours, ultimately having crossed the Island of Java, to the port city of Ketapang (which is definitely a place people do not want to be).

In an effort to discourage lingering, a ferry operates 24 hours a day to help sleep-deprived foreigners make the thirty minute crossing to the port of Gilimanuk, in Bali. From there, the plan was to jump on any willing four-by-four or bus making the six hour journey toward the Balinese capital of Denpasar. I would have concluded my trip by taking a twenty minute Bluebird Taxi (never use any other company–they will rip you off–it will only be by a dollar but you will feel exploited and, like an ironic cartoon character, start screaming about “fairness” to a guy who lives off $3 a day) to postcard-famous Kuta Beach. Then, obviously still being in a condition to negotiate hotel prices in Balinese, I would find a wonderfully exotic and inexpensive room for a brief forty-hour slumber.

Yes, it was all a very sensible idea.      

I became discouraged when I looked out the window as my flight into Jakarta made its final descent. It looked like the whole city was underwater, which it was, due to flash flooding.

I had wondered why my roundtrip plane ticket from Singapore had only cost $100.

After a very brief wait at customs (lesser tourists having apparently been deterred from visiting the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim country during a humanitarian crisis) I began my vacation outside the airport pickup area which overlooks the city.

I thought I had walked onto a George A. Romero set during filming. Through windy torrents of rain and thunderclaps, there was a hysterical cacophony of screaming, crying, and the unintelligible noises and sirens commonly associated with mass-human suffering.   I stood silently, unable to process it.

“What would pragmatically be the most helpful thing I could do?” I asked myself.

I walked back to the ticket counter. “How much for a plane ticket to Bali?”

Very cheap it turned out–and so I just got out of everyone’s way and left.

Three hours later I was on Kuta Beach.

Kuta Beach Daqauri

I was slurping an overproof $1 strawberry daiquiri in a no-cover nightclub involving swimming pools, multi-tiered suspended glass dance floors, a whole pig rotating on a spit, and naked lesbian contortionists juggling fire whilst lighting customers’ cigarettes. (Well, not exactly, but my situation was in stark contrast from suffocating under a mosquito net while floating down railroad tracks in a Malaria-infested jungle.)

Pig on a spit, Bali, Indonesia.

Pig on a spit, Bali, Indonesia.

What happened that night will one day be subject to the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation hearing, but for now, I’ll just explain that after three days my fast-fading instincts toward self-preservation prodded me onward.

My impossibly cheap Bali accommodation.

My impossibly cheap Bali accommodation.

Kuta Beach

Kuta Beach

Kuta Beach

Kuta Beach

The impossibly ornate interior of TJ's, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.

The impossibly ornate interior of TJ’s, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.

The impossibly ornate exterior of TJ's, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.

The impossibly ornate exterior of TJ’s, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.

From Kuta Beach it is a several hour transit to the village of Ubud, where you can buy indigenous crafts and antiquities that your children will be disappointed to discover are fakes when they attempt to sell them on a History Channel pawn show. Most people will spend a night here so they can get up at 3AM and preposterously scramble the perilous edge of the magma-smoldering volcano Mount Batur near the village of Kintamani or get pickpocketed by a Macaque at the Ubud Monkey Village.

Ubud

Ubud

I instead continued to Padangbai which runs the 24 hour Bali-Lombok ferry service.

Padangbai, Bali, Indonesia

Padangbai, Bali, Indonesia

Whenever you hear a news report involving a ferry crowded with five hundred passengers and three crew sinking in the middle of nowhere, there is a fifty-fifty chance it happened here in the Lombok Strait. The Lombok Tourism Bureau even warns travelers about the vessels’ “poor condition” and suggests visitors not use them–which really says something since at the time the island lacked an operational airport and this was the only way to get there.

Perhaps visitors were supposed to pirate a local’s fishing boat?

If you didn’t drown on the way to the Lombok nightmare-port of Lembar, you were likely to be killed when you got there.

Today, they have sufficiently cleaned the place up that cruise ships occasionally dock there allowing passengers to experience new and shiny Polynesian fire shows, but when I went guidebooks cryptically advised to have onward transport waiting for you on the pier and proffered suicide as a reasonable alterative to spending the night. Crime in Somalia is noted as “high.” At the time, crime in Lembar was noted as “very high.”

I decided to extend my life expectancy by a day with an overnight in Padangbai. The shoreline village is out of a Daniel Defoe novel. A hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex is a two hour hike up mountainside paths. Dinner is fish and so fresh that you basically explain what you want and they send a local ten-year-old out into the sea to catch it for you. My hotel room was a thatched roof two story bungalow furnished elegantly with indigenous artifacts–$6 per night (including a banana pancake breakfast accompanied by two liters of steaming Balinese tea and a cartoonishly steep and narrow staircase I dubbed the “tort-maker”).

$6 a night for a two-story thatched roof bungalow at the Kembar Inn.

$6 a night for a two-story thatched roof bungalow at the Kembar Inn.

Stairway to Heaven: This is the perilous obstacle course separating a patron who has enjoyed the night from his bathroom below.

Stairway to Heaven: This is the perilous obstacle course separating a patron who has enjoyed the night from his bathroom below.

It is a two-hour hike uphill to  a hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.

It is a two-hour hike uphill to a hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.

Stairs from the temple complex plunge into the water.

Stairs from the temple complex plunge into the water.

Stone gargoyles guard the hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.

Stone gargoyles guard the hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.

The hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex

The hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex

Dine on the freshest seafood possible.

Dine on the freshest seafood possible.

There is one bar in Padangbai. It is Rastafarian themed and the employees seem to be devout practitioners even while at work. Every purchased drink (which were priced at something-like ten cents for a shot of liquor or a quarter for a local beer) was accompanied by a huge complementary cup of hooch that they lovingly distill from home.

It was a long night and I am not allowed back at the Kembar Inn.

That’s not really true, but they weren’t overjoyed with me.

Upon my late night return my key would not unlock my hut’s door and so I violently kept stabbing the lock with the key while cursing and banging on the door. The lights suddenly went on inside.

Oops.

When I finally located my assigned bungalow, during my energetic sleep I utterly destroyed the bed’s mosquito net. Management, the mother of the family which owned the hotel, asked that I pay thirty cents in damages. Feeling bad, I also arranged my ferry travel and for immediate onward transport from Lembar through the hotel. The whole package set me back $4. (Sure you might be killed; but at these prices. . .)

I was looking forward to the ferry crossing in the way a teenage skateboarder secretly looks forward to cracking his skull–at least there will be adventuresome stories to tell.

The ride certainly seemed fine at a distance.

The ride certainly seemed fine at a distance.

I had read and heard so much hyperbole about the dangerousness of this mariner misadventure that I was siked to differentiate the reality from the hype. The waves were to be twenty feet high, the vessel as seaworthy as a dense stone, and it was told that bloody-toothed sharks would be at the ready for their fleshy American twenty-something chum.

As it turns out none of the gossip or admonishments were hyperbole–actually, the gloomy reports were rather euphemistic.

They hand each passenger a small plastic bag as they board.

“For when you vomit,” they explain with vexus calm.

As soon as we crossed the bay into the ocean our almost mini-cruise ship sized craft rocked back and forth at 75 degree angles causing even the toilet water to spill out onto the deck. In the below deck seating area, the windows smashed into the ocean at such precipitous angles that seafarers could see excited tropical fish pressed against the glass.

The fish were resplendent throughout the spectrum of rainbow colors. It was so enchanting that it would have enthralled the screaming passengers if they hadn’t been preoccupied by drafting wills, making amends with estranged relatives over mobile phones, and second guessing a life of confident atheism.

Twice we had dropped anchor because a lifeboat became untangled with the ship in the tumultuous sea. The first time required a twenty minute effort to rescue it and reattach it to our ship. The second time–I’m not joking–the lifeboat immediately sank.

We just stared blankly for a beat. Then, without comment, the crew drew up the anchor and we progressed with an unspoken pact to not think about what we had just witnessed.

After many more hours than planned, and to the apparent befuddlement of the Captain, we made it safely to the Zombie Apocalypse that was then-Lembar.

Despite being very late, I found my driver waiting asleep atop the roof of his van parked at the absolute point where the dilapidated pier turned into dirt. I therefore didn’t enter Lembar, but from a distance, it appeared to be in more need of humanitarian aid than certain refugee camps I had toured.

The driver was a cousin of the hotel matron. “Better luck with the misquote net here.” Gosh, word travels fast anywhere in the world rural. For the hours journey to Senggigi I stared out vacantly at a world of flooded paddy fields and the occasional lonely kiosk sized vegetable stand. As we approached the impossibly long shoreline of Senggigi the driver started recommending hotels at impossibly high prices–$15.

Lombok Rice Patty fields

Lombok Rice Patty fields

I ended up getting a $6 room on the beach (though it turned out you had to walk a quarter mile down the road to actually access it) which I shared with thirty-five mosquitoes the size of tarantulas.

Here is perhaps the most important travel trip I can ever give you: bring mosquito repellant when visiting Indonesia.

The stores really don’t sell it; the hotel managers really don’t understand what you are complaining about; you will simply be moved to different rooms each with the same problem. By the time I returned to Singapore my body was so consumed with mosquito bites that, after enduring my partner’s attempts at applying odious ancient oriental balms, I finally had to check myself into the hospital.

“Why you no bring repellant to Indonesia, la” the Sumantran doctor inquired shrilly, “you  so stupid?”

Bring your own repellant with you. If you fail to do so, your only reasonable alternative is to execute another tourist and take his.

While visiting the spartan town–there were maybe ten other foreigners–I quickly discovered that the local street vendors were decidedly more aggressive–threatening actually, than the mellow ones on Bali.

There is a material fact universally omitted from the guidebooks about Bali–the overambitious entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens.

A very rare picture of an empty main street Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia.

A very rare picture of a near-empty main street Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia.

Every two feet the tourist will be confronted by business people hawking fake jewelry, novelty t-shirts evidencing your journey to Indonesia, and suspiciously low priced “Prada” bags and “Gucci” sunglasses. They are so zealous in beginning their careers in fraudulent retail that many have dispatched with the need to credibly own or rent a brick-and-mortar store, or even a clean blanket splayed on the pavement or sand, and will abruptly jump in front of you screaming as if they are blocking a bullet. If you assert disinterest by not making eye contact, about half of your assaulters will whisper into your ear: “heroin? cocaine? prostitute?”

In my experience, “no, thank you” translates into Indonesian as roughly, “I’m terribly interested in hearing more about what you have on offer and I’m secretly hoping to pay far too much for it!”

Try “Tidak, Terima Kasih” (exactly translates into “No, thank you”); it is interpreted as “I live here. Go away.” And they usually do.

They are then immediately replaced by someone else who has been refused twenty times in the last twenty seconds, has bore witness to you refusing the exact same items at the exact same prices with the exact same pitches also twenty times, but with that uncanny Balinese optimism, is certain that twenty-one will be a very lucky number indeed.

They are doing this because they are very poor and it is objectively the only way to fill their families’ bellies with rice.

They reason that if a foreigner clearly has enough money to travel to a remote island, they therefore can spare a dollar for a bone-knife or a scrap of coined pyrite masquerading as gold from a “Dutch sunken treasure.” If there weren’t ten thousand of them it would be an emotionally compelling argument.

They (very understandably) fail to differentiate the $1,000-a-night guest in a secured and heavily fortified resort and the decidedly disheveled thirty-year-old backpacker from Surrey who slept in a hammock at his $4 beach thatched-roof hut accommodation and who would have holidayed in Ibiza if he had any actual money.

Reactions to street-vendor solicitation range the spectrum from kindness to frustration to homicidal rage simply because he’s the tenth dude who wants to know if you’ll look at his t-shirts.

Nevertheless, the Balinese, sufficiently relaxed as Buddhists in what is otherwise an entirely secular Muslim county (there is a separation between Mosque and state), are resigned to rejection and just happily harass the next potential customer.

They cannot control the rude attitudes of vacationers, but they can control their own.

In Lombok, they are not Buddhist.

Solicitors on Lombok have a unique approach to customer service–they do not require your purchase to be made voluntarily. The Lombok, not-exactly typical, but frequent enough, sales pitch is aimed at impregnating the targeted patron with duress.

“You Westerners are so damned lazy you can’t even be bothered to stand up while taking a dump. You all have to over-complicate it by requiring a porcelain bowl so you can perch upon it like Colonial overlords. Even that’s not enough, you are unwilling to simply sit on the porcelain, you insist upon a plastic lid, sandwiched under, yet another, plastic lid. Sometimes you even pad the lid with some cushion-like lining–allahu akbar! You’re asses must be so fragile!

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” But what would we Muslims know about engineering–we only invented mathematics.

Don’t even get me started on the Japanese. Their toilet seats must have warmers and include a spouting water feature because they can’t even be bothered to wipe themselves.

Westerners create huge complexes of elaborate piping and wastes Allah knows how much water flushing your decadent excrement into your kleptocratic-governed cities to be cleansed by hugely polluting treatment facilities. Here’s a green tip for you–just dig a small hole and squat like every other living creature, have a bucket of water nearby and use your left hand–it’ll biodegrade in a year without contaminating your water supply.

Now are you going to buy this five dollar Rolex or what!?”

During the whole encounter he has been trying to stab you in the neck with the Indonesian kris he has also been trying to sell you, but is fortunately physically held back by five members of the local tourism board–“Now, Farouk, if you kill this young man it will reflect poorly on all of us.”

While the Balinese seem contented to cheerfully hock wares to ensure basic survival on an idyllic tropical beach to insensitive vacationing inebriants, the Lombok vendor manages to be worldly and irate as an islander who will begin his pleas for sustenance with “hey, dickhead.”

After a few ugly unsolicited confrontations at the beach and then with angry people approaching me while I ate dinner, I retired to the best (and only) lounge. The bartender was unspeakably polite as I asked, which were in hindsight, invasively disrespectful questions like “how do you live on a dollar a day?”

“Carefully,” he nodded while toweling dry a glass. “I have to decide whether to buy my family a protein or a vegetable to accompany our bowl or rice each night. When there is a big problem, like a storm comes and collapses our roof, we depend on our neighbors combining what little they have to our rescue. And when it happens to one of them, we must do the same.”

I yearend for him to ask me how the Western world could sleep at night. He didn’t, of course. He didn’t seem to begrudge the more fortunate for their luckier lot in life. Had he asked I would have probably replied with deep sadness: “comfortably.”

I had about $200 to last me for the next week and a half. I tipped him $20 on a $4 tab and left to sleep and have approximately three pints of my blood harvested by mosquitoes.

I woke up at 5AM feeling anemic.

A three mile walk down the village’s only road introduced me to Senggigi’s postcard stand-sized bamboo-built tourist office. In exchange for about $2, they sell tickets for the 7AM daily departure to Gili Trawangan. This final two hour push first pauses at Gili Air and Gili Meno, each offering their own unique tourist delights. But I wanted Gili Trawangan, the very last and very smallest of the remote islands of the remote itself Lombok.

This portion of the Lombok Strait is tackled with an eardrum-piercing oversized motor haphazardly attached to the back of a wooden canoe. The views compensate for this through their surreal, nearly tear-educing beauty. Cones of verdant granite stab up through the ocean hundreds of feet into the air. Our canoe expertly zigzagged through this oceanic mountain-forest for forty-five minutes before departing for the Lombok sea-proper.

Gili Air comes almost immediately into view and two of our six passengers hop off and disappear into its lush hospitable jungle. The same occurs at the most popular island, Gili Meno.

Finally, there is no pier at Gili Trawangan, and so the canoe just stops a hundred feet off shore, and the four remaining of us jump into the shallow water with our packs raised above our heads.

There are no roads on Gili Trawangan, just one partially paved outer ring and one dirt lane that transverses the island. The only form of transport are wooden carts pulled by donkeys. I eschewed such modern decadence and kept walking eastward until “town”–a collection of a dozen or so bars, shops, restaurants, and hotels spread over a thousand foot-strip–disappeared into a jungle filled with wild goats, and then back into an desolate beach.

The first hotel I came to on the largely undeveloped side of the island was apparently not open, or such is how I interpreted the greeting I received at the threshold–twin kindergarten-aged girls just chillingly laughed at me while giving me creepy steady stares. It was as if they were advertising a telepathic ability to warn me that I was to die that night.

I moved on next door where I plunked down $40 for two nights in my own palatial-furnished bungalow on the beach.

The shower only produced cold salt-water but such was easily forgivable as it was a part of my bungalow’s roofless “outdoor” bathroom-terrarium which came with a rock garden perimetered by lush bonsai trees and other greenery. There was a stone path from the glass sliding door that opened into it to the most agreeably situated toilet in the world.

The street vendor in Lombak would have had a heart attack.

There was no toilet paper but you can’t have everything.

After dropping my back-aching heavy pack I stomped outside for a $1 Nasi Goreng and Bir Bintang. The only other guest in the beach bungalows was a Dutch surfer who seemed more or less asleep with his suspiciously rouge-dilated eyes transfixed at the incoming tide.

“It was arduous getting here, but it sure seems worth it,” I thought aloud.

I started recounting my harrowing tale expecting to hear his own daring adventure in return. From his catatonic appearance, it seemed he was content to live on Gili Trawangan rather than brave it back to the mainland.

Instead he turned to me very slowly: “You do know that there is a cheap forty-five minute speedboat service direct from Bali?”

I swallowed a violent urge to punch the World in its face. Such desires wash over me from time to time.

“I’ll, I’ll, have to look into that for my return trip,” I mumbled stammering.

Logistics:

Fly directly to Bali. Spend some time there scuba diving, snorkeling, trekking, and allowing yourself to vaporize into the raging night-life.

There are now many direct transport services from Bali to Gili Trawangan, which can be researched here.

It is no longer the same idyllic footnote in the National Geographic that it once was, so go now before it becomes even more popular.

Your Next Adventure: Fort Pulaski, Tybee Island, Georgia

Fort Pulaski, Tybee Island, Georgia

Fort Pulaski, Tybee Island, Georgia

While I like history–I love darting around vast areas honeycombed with “secret” rooms and dank passages while being dangerously unsupervised!

I have had an ubiquitous fascination with forts ever since my fourth grade class trip to North America’s oldest fort, Castillo de san Marcos, in Saint Augustine, Florida.

At 260 acres, Fort Pulaski is more than ten times bigger. Castillo is a shoreline coquina-constructed kids’ clubhouse in comparison.

Pulaski flag

Named after Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish noble who got killed during the American Revolution at the Battle of Savannah, this place has eight of everything a wanderlust could want.

It has ramparts that you can climb.

Rampart top cannon

Rampart top cannon

It has “secret” subterranean tunnels and passages you can transverse while not getting ridiculed for wearing a fedora.

Me getting ready to explore the subterranean tunnels.

Me getting ready to explore the subterranean tunnels.

Subterranean tunnels beneath Fort Pulaski

Subterranean tunnels beneath Fort Pulaski

There are about a half-dozen nooks and storage rooms beneath Pulaski.

There are about a half-dozen nooks and storage rooms beneath Pulaski.

One of the many false exits to the underground labyrinth at Pulaski.

One of the many false exits to the underground labyrinth at Pulaski.

You can reenact civil war battles by pretending to shoot through the tiny slits of the claustrophobic turrets.

Turret with a view of the drawl bridge

Turret with a view of the drawl bridge

It has a furnished officer quarters, a pharmacy, barracks, the disconsolate jail used to dispirit confederate prisoners of war, cannons galore, earthy smelling storage rooms, and a wonderful lack of velvet ropes and “do not touch” signs. 

This is where the Fort was officially surrendered in the Commanders' quarters of Colonel Charles H. Olmstead

The Commander’s quarters of Colonel Charles H. Olmstead–this is where the Fort was officially surrendered.

Pulaski jail

The Jails of Pulaski

For the thirsty, there is a gift shop where you can buy a bottle of water for $28 or a can of soda if you will trade away your spleen.

It’s a venerable fantasyland for historians, the young, and the socially awkward.

Under the ramparts It just seems to honeycomb on forever. . .

Under the ramparts it just seems to honeycomb on forever. . .

If you have time or energy leftover from what should be an engrossing two-hour exploration, there is a visitors’ center and an alluring signage of plaques where you learn the following:

  • The Fort was Robert E. Lee’s first assignment after his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy and he oversaw part of its construction.
  • Every surviving officer-engineer involved in designing Fort Pulaski became either a Confederate or Union General.
  • The Fort was thought to be impenetrable because its walls were between seven and a half to eleven-feet thick. This meant they could only be destroyed by the then-height of technology–the smoothbore cannon (barrel without rifling). The range of the smoothbore cannon maxed-out at between 700 and 1,000 yards and the Fort was built more than a mile away from any reasonable staging ground for an enemy force.
  • Construction was finally completed in 1847 at a cost of $1,000,000.
  • Perhaps because it was thought to be invincible to an advancing enemy, the U.S. Army never bothered to station anyone there besides a caretaker and a single gunnery sergeant.    
  • In preparation of Georgia secession, Governor Joseph Brown sent 110 men from Savannah to take control of Fort Pulaski. Apparent experts in probability theory, the caretaker and sergeant gave the Fort over and left peacefully.
  • Robert E. Lee briefly returned to the Fort to explain to its new and very inexperienced commander, Colonel Charles H. Olmstead, that, since the Fort was considered impenetrable, all he had to do to protect the Fort was–well, nothing.
  • Rifling (adding spiral grooves to the inside of a barrel, thus increasing the range and intensity of anything intended to be fired from it) had been discovered in Germany at the end of the fifteenth century; rifled cannons, however, came about just in time to threaten Fort Pulaski.
  • The battle lasted two days with Pulaski’s ramparts quickly eviscerating under the attack of Union Captain Quincy Gillmore and the new James Riffled Cannon.
  • Confederate Colonel Olmstead promptly surrendered.
  • Union Major General James Hunter, an ardent abolitionist, took command of the Fort and surrounding environs and wrote General Orders No. 7, freeing the slaves in the surrounding area.
  • Emboldened when he heard no rebuke from Washington D.C., on May, 9, 1862, Hunter issued General Orders No. 11 where he wrote: “Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States–Georgia, Florida and South Carolina–heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.”
  • On May, 19, 1862, President Lincoln rescinded Hunter’s Order, instead wanting to engage in a single national approach.
  • On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

This plaque commemorates General Hunter's signing of General Orders #7--a precursor to General Orders #11, which is commemorated on a very similar looking plaque in the historic district of Savannah.

This plaque commemorates General Hunter’s signing of General Orders No. 7–a precursor to General Orders No. 11, which is commemorated on a very similar looking plaque in the historic district of Savannah.

You can read an exhaustive account of the battle for Fort Pulaski here.

You can read Major General Hunter’s General Orders No. 11 and President Lincoln’s Proclamation of May 19, 1862, rescinding General Orders No. 11 here.

You may still see the cannonballs embedded into the ramparts of Pulaski by driving twenty minutes out of Savannah’s historic district and visiting here.

The cannonballs remain visible today.

The cannonballs remain visible today.

Logistics:

This is an easy day trip from Savannah but you will need a car. It is a twenty minute ride from downtown.

If you leave after breakfast, you can view the introductory film, watch park rangers shoot muskets (or whatever they are demonstrating that day) and take a thorough tour of the Fort, its tunnels, and its ramparts–and be back in time for a late lunch and more tunnel exploration at the Pirates’ House.

Both the visitor center and the Fort are open from 9AM to 5PM. If you leave at closing don’t amble around the parking lot too long–they shut the bridge-gate promptly at 5:15. 

There is a $5 entrance fee. Admission is free for those under 16, and for everyone on a few select weekends and holidays, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day Weekend, and Veterans’ Day.

If you’re thrifty, bring your own refreshments. 

Major General David Hunter and General Orders No. 11

Actually, the plaque commemorates General Hunter's signing of General Orders #7--a precursor to General Orders #11, which is actually commemorated on a very similar looking plaque in the historic district of Savannah.

Actually, the plaque commemorates General Hunter’s signing of General Orders #7–a precursor to General Orders #11, which is actually commemorated on a very similar looking plaque in the historic district of Savannah.

On May 9, 1862, Major General David Hunter issued General Orders #11 where he wrote: “Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States–Georgia, Florida and South Carolina–heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.”

On May 19th, President Abraham Lincoln rescinded General Hunter’s Orders! So much for “forever.”

Fort Pulaski, Tybee Island, Georgia

Fort Pulaski, Tybee Island, Georgia

Lincoln offered a compromised and nuanced preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. In this version, Lincoln offered to withhold emancipation in exchange for the rebellious states’ voluntary, “immediate or gradual abolishment of slavery.” Additionally, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation explained that, if the rebellious states cooperated, slave owners would “be compensated for all losses by acts of the United States, including the loss of slaves.” 

(The U.S. always seems ready to give a bailout to the bad guys.)

Justice and freedom were delayed until January 1, 1863 when Lincoln finally signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

General Hunter’s foiled attempt at ending slavery a few months prior to Lincoln is commemorated with a lone plaque at Fort Pulaski in Georgia.

My new “Adventure Lawyer” Facebook page

Richard Junnier at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, Thailand

Richard Junnier, Esq. at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, Thailand

My new “Adventure Lawyer” Facebook page is filled with unusual, and occasionally accurate, facts about international diplomacy: Did you know that Thailand once briefly declared war on the United States? Neither did the U.S. Department of State. The Thai Ambassador refused to forward the message to Washington!

So please like my new “Adventure Lawyer” Facebook page. Pretty please, with sugar on top! It’ll be a fun adventure we can share together! 🙂

What to do When Attacked by a Jaguar

My readers will probably pretty immediately realize this is not a picture of me in South America. It's quite distant in fact--Marrakech Morocco, distant.  My camera was stolen during this journey so I thought I would use a picture of what I looked like in 2000 when I went adventuring in the Pantanal.

My readers will probably pretty immediately realize this is not a picture of me in South America. It’s quite distant in fact–Marrakech, Morocco, distant. My camera was stolen during my travels described below so I thought I would at least find a picture of what I looked like back when I went adventuring in the Pantanal.

The most tantalizing part of the brochure was its title.

Its provocative use of the word “when” rather than “if” or, the even more proactive, “to avoid being,” offered a certain daring inevitability to the adventure.

This was Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. People get attacked by jaguars here. It’s something to do at Iguassu National Park, between gawking at the world’s largest waterfall (by volume) from Devil’s Point and inflicting your curiosity on the privacy of an innocent anteater. At Three Borders Landmark you can be bored in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay–all at the same time!

In the previous month a park ranger’s son had actually been killed by a jaguar that had decided to abruptly live in the immediate vicinity. Jaguars are endangered so the locals weren’t going to hunt it. Foreign visitors were even more rare at the time so they weren’t going to close the site. So with that certain reckless synergy infused into any visit to South America, they decided to endanger the tourists instead.   But they would prepare the hapless sightseers first–with a photocopied quad-lingual pamphlet.

In keeping with my impressive practice of going to all the right places at the wrong time, I was there for the dry season and missed viewing the Falls at their most sublime.

On the positive side, I did not get attacked by a jaguar–until a week later.

Step One: Remain Calm

I was taking a dump in the middle of the Pantanal at 2AM. I was armed with my jacket, John Grisham’s “The Testament”–ironically set in the Pantanal, a flashlight, a roll of toilet paper, and the most intensely-relevant, yet ultimately unhelpful, brochure in the history of world tourism.

For purposes of brevity, I will greatly abbreviate how I came to be there. It involved an illegal border crossing (I didn’t know it was illegal, there was nobody at the gates so I just wandered on in), an attempted coup by Lino Oviedo, the assassination of Paraguayan Vice President Luis Argaña, and the election of his opposition replacement, Julio Cesar Franco, who was probably responsible for the assassination.

Paraguayans practice politics at a terminal velocity. The Tea Party are amateurs.

The American embassy, after an enthusiastic discussion, suggested I leave on the then once-a-month caravan through the Pantanal and Andes Mountains to Bolivia. Something close to a road has since been completed, but at the time, it was considered one of the most difficult border crossings in the world and it was optimistically estimated to take about 72 hours.

The embassy wanted to be clear about two points. First, I had to leave immediately using the Trans-Chaco Trail. Second, I would definitely be killed by the Trans-Chaco bandits.

“You are telling me two conflicting things,” I objected.

“No, Mr. Junnier, we are telling you only one thing in two different ways. There is a difference.”

I knew then that my writing ability would be too linear for the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

I resigned myself. “When does the bus leave?”

“Today, at 7AM.”

“But it’s 2PM now!” I anxiously gestured toward the clock.

“This must be your first trip to South America.”

It was. I was nineteen.

When I arrived at Terminal de Ómnibus de Asunción (Spanish for the somewhat less-grand sounding “Asunción Bus Terminal”), the bus was still stationary and the driver and porters looked unhurried to begin an 800 mile journey through the mud and slop swamps of the Chaco.

The ticket cost $8.

I sat next to the driver in the front. The words “closed due to Cholera” were neatly printed in Spanish and English on a sticker slapped over the handle of the bus bathroom. The only meal service began within the first five minutes of what would be a multi-day journey. The protein wasn’t immediately identifiable.

“Moo?” I plaintively asked.

The driver laughed with an animated shaking of his head.

“Oink?” I was getting increasingly nervous.

More laughs and shakes.

“Quack?” I was desperate.

“No!” The driver laughed manically–“Arf!”

It had been days since I had eaten. I wouldn’t eat that day either.

Despite it being the dry season, the rain began almost the second we left the asphalt. It was a heavy all-consuming rain. It was the kind of rain that just sends you back to bed on a Sunday morning.

But there was no time for sleep. We would get stuck, everyone would get off the bus, including two pregnant women, and push the huge coach through the oozing muddy mire. Eventually the vehicle regained traction and we would reboard. It seemed like we would repeat this every half-mile.

When we were on the bus I volunteered my services as the consummate buffoon. I entertained the driver, porters, and passengers with public silliness, grotesque attempts at dance, and by playing perpetual charades with myself. I made everyone laugh and shared pictures of my home and family. Then they shared theirs. It was pretty awesome. We couldn’t speak each other’s language, but we passed the time by trying.

After the promised 72 hours, we were still in the drudges of nowhere.

I was starving in that authentic way of not feeling hunger because my body had already begun to eat itself. Every muscle I had was destroyed by ineptly actually trying to push the bus–before I decided to pretend to push the bus like seemingly everyone else. I hadn’t slept because the driver kept himself awake by blaring music at decibels normally reserved as a police tactic to end a hostage crisis. I hadn’t had an opportunity to make a bowel movement in three days.

I wasn’t at my best.

Then, at 2AM, the axle broke off.

We were a hundred miles away from anywhere and it was time to go to the bathroom. I simply decided I would carefully navigate my way into some adjacent jungle and find a place of privacy.

For the sake of my public reputation, let’s assume I went to the trouble of digging the required trench.

I was hovering over the trench, squinting my eyes, and wishing for a life that didn’t presently resemble my own–when I spotted, at a distance of thirty yards, passed some brush, a suspicious nocturnal twinkling of two beaming gold orbs.

I stared. Moments passed as my eyes struggled to focus. I continued to stare. Abruptly, my situation was processed and understood.

It’s a good thing my pants were already down because my reaction was expressed biologically–first I thought the noun and then I verb-ed it.

Next, I remembered the contents of my jacket pocket. I thought to myself, “now would be a truly excellent time to review the brochure, ‘What to do When Attacked by a Jaguar.'”

Step one–remain calm–struck me as imminently practical. It was better than the advice the embassy gave me generally, which was to panic.

So I kept calm. I even cleaned up a little, moving very deliberately and slowly. The cat, which wasn’t moving, seemed so unthreatened by me that after twenty minutes I pulled up my pants. I was relaxed. The cat was relaxed.

I can’t believe I didn’t just walk away.

Step Two: Make loud noises while waving your arms aggressively to look as imposing as possible; throw any available article of clothing at it.

I blinked many times as I reread “step two” to ensure it was a correct translation. This seemed like pretty bad advice.

Despite my belief that this was in sheer disregard of “step one,” which had thus-far led to some promising results, I shrieked like a ten-year-old girl, threw my jacket vaguely in the direction of a resting two-hundred pound death machine, and outstretched my arms to embrace the results of bad judgment.

Due to the laws of aerodynamics, the jacket missed the cat by about, well, thirty yards.

The John Grisham novel which flung out of the jacket pocket however, faired better, scoring an undesirable direct hit on the nose. It responded with a bone-tingling roar–and by getting up.

The damn thing had been asleep this whole time.

It trotted within twenty feet of me and abruptly turned. Relief swelled over me. I had demonstrated such grotesquely ridiculous behavior that I had confused it into being afraid of me. Then I saw it turn again. And again. And again. I believe the technical term is circling.

Step Three: By now you have scared the jaguar away, so immediately proceed to the nearest ranger station to report the incident. 

My eyes darted repeatedly from the pamphlet to the stalking jaguar. He continued to spiral around me. (I assume it was a he; I felt it impolitic to check.)

I needed to improvise a “step four.”

Step Four: Though you were viciously bullied in primary school for an inability to do pull-ups as a child, inexplicably discover a latent ability to climb trees quickly and to dizzying heights.

Having proceeded with “step four” I learned an important thing about jaguars.

They can climb a tree faster than me.

Constantly losing my grip, banging my head, and scraping my stomach against jagged bark, they are also infinitely more graceful about it.

I was about to resort to what I did before “step one,” but my pants were on.

Luckily, in a moment of genius, I implemented “step five.”

Step Five: Have a more competent person than yourself rescue you with a loaded gun clenched in his hands.

The bus driver had heard my child-like screams and came running. Since we were fleeing a revolution, it was understandable why he was armed.

From the time I implemented “step two” to the time he pulled the trigger, only about twenty seconds had passed–but it seemed like a year.

For those imbued with the crassness to be more concerned about the welfare of the jaguar than my own, the driver missed it by ten feet–though the bullet did wiz passed my face. The miss was presumably purposeful. It is an endangered species and a miss had accomplished the goal of frightening it away.

I never got to ask him. I jumped down (fell, actually) from the tree and I profusely thanked him in two languages.

He responded by robbing me at gunpoint.

He was kind about it. He didn’t ask for the money belt he surely knew I had. It became fairly obvious how the Trans-Chaco bandits were so thorough in finding the foreigners on the route–they drove the busses. He must have known that if I reported him to the authorities they would find him easily. There was paperwork as to who was driving.

Maybe he took a risk. Maybe the local authorities were being bribed and it wouldn’t matter what I claimed to have happened.

In any event, he stared at his goofball passenger who had shared pictures and cracked jokes in a language he didn’t understand.

Then, after a pause, he didn’t kill me.

Without comment he walked away. I felt a general expected understanding that I was to wait where I was until he was gone. I did, and upon returning to where the bus had been, I found my pack and a hysterically crying German. He was the only other foreigner. I wasn’t sure if it had always been the plan to rob us or if the driver was just giving me a companion for the long walk ahead.

Even though the driver left us for dead, I still rank his company’s customer service above that of Greyhound.

Two days later we crossed the border and the German reported his robbery. I decided to remain silent. I know that was morally wrong–inconsiderate of potential future victims. I was a kid. I must have felt a degree of loyalty. The rational thing for him to do was kill me, but he chose to let me live and risk the consequences. I wanted to reward his risk.

Always a student of economics, I like to incentivize people not to kill me.

Also, I couldn’t be sure that he was one of the actual bandits. In total he took my wallet, a camera (left on the bus), and about $40.   In my money belt which he let me keep, there was a few hundred dollars in cash, a credit card, an airplane ticket, passport, pictures, and a bank card. He also saved me from certain death–before relegating back to a near-certain death.

It didn’t matter. My impromptu travel companion explained everything to a serenely disinterested police officer who typed out a report pressing one typewriter key at a time. I entertained myself in the rustic lobby area before asking the desk sergeant if I could go into the courtyard. He nodded smiling rows of gold teeth.

I immediately reentered when I saw that the courtyard was actually a prison yard.

“No, no, it’s safe,” he gestured. He started to lead me on what I thought was a tour. He would unlock a gate, usher me into a hallway, unlock another gate, and so on.

At the last gate, he closed it on me and I found myself in a crowded cell. I did a pirouette. The guard smiled at me as if to ask “Did I do good? A story to tell if you ever get home?”

I turned back to look at my cellmates. There was the worrying sort of animated response to my unexpected presence usually associated with the introduction of a pretty woman to a flock of construction workers. At nineteen, I was a situationally ill-advisedly good looking dude. A particularly burly man with a tear-drop tattooed under his eyes stomped forward to hover over me. I could feel the warmth of his breath on my cheeks.

He proceeded to try to sell me handcrafts.

Prisoners are responsible for their own room and board and those without family or friends on the outside depositing money into their jail accounts, rely on selling trinkets to tourists who occasionally visit prisons on so called “reality vacations.”

As it happened–I was in the market for a new wallet.

The German and I went to the nearest bus station to book a ticket to the nearest airport. We had both had enough travel. We were both too hungry, too tired, and too annoyed to even enjoy the Indiana Jones aspect of our adventure.

Burgers from a street cart while we waited–our first food in days–were ten cents a piece.

“You know, Richard, I don’t see too many cows around here and I’m not sure that beef prices fluctuate this much.”

Two rats ran between us and the cart and the seller with no teeth cackled aloud.

Whatever. It was food.   We each had two more burgers and went home.

*The more skeptical of you may question the veracity of the above tale. I only say that all of it is true–except for the parts which are not. To find those committed to the accurate reporting of world events, I recommend the Washington Post. Like the class clown, I merely endeavor to entertain my audience.

Welcome to the Revolution

Richard Junnier at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, Thailand

Richard Junnier at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, Thailand

In the winter of 2008 I went to Thailand to witness a revolution.

I came to observe and research the latest sporadic iteration of a conflict that (almost) every traveler, internationalist, or avid newspaper fiend casually knows as–the red shirts versus the yellow shirts. Sadly, as of this writing, the political unrest has devolved into a military coup, urban curfews, and an appointed legislature.

Thai Monks in PrayerThis is discordant with the almost universal-Western perception of Thais as peaceful, differential, and obsequious. This perception is itself fascinating, because they and their ancestors, have been at near-perpetual war with themselves and their neighbors since the time of the seventh century Mon, and while their national religion may be Buddhism, their national sport is kickboxing.

They even briefly declared war on the United States, though their ambassador declined to forward the message to Washington, D.C.–how very non-confrontational of them.

Factually, coups are not unusual for the Thais–they had 17 of them between 1932 and 1991.

Perhaps it gives the military something to do when it’s not involved with border disputes to their North and West, rescuing its citizens from deranged soap-opera fans in Cambodia,* occasional but presumptuous logging in Laotian territory, and enforcing martial law throughout half the country.

*Dialogue in a Thai soap-opera argued that Thailand owned title to Angkor Wat, which was reported in Cambodia as if it were a serious sentiment. The locals replied by burning down the Thai embassy and Thai-owned businesses throughout Phnom Penh. The Thai military briefly intervened to get its citizens airlifted home. Eventually, the Cambodian government agreed to pay for all of Thailand’s expenses.

So it can get dull. Whatever the reason, the military are avid fans of defending the voting minority.

At the Palace

The Thai military has celebrated every successful free and fair election since World War II by promptly overthrowing its Democracy.

It then appoints a committee of monarchists, Army officers, and Bangkok elites to draft a new constitution (this time they’ll vote right!), hosts an election, is again thrown out of power, and then immediately hosts another coup. There is a magical symmetry with American politics in that the whole process takes about four years.

The routine of these tug-of-war proceedings are internationally ignored, creating a global perception of calm throughout the chaos.

This is potentially because, until recently, the Thais had their unique ways of having a revolution. They were often conducted politely and quietly, largely without blood or violence, and carefully choreographed not to pique the interests of foreigners. The whole process is quite Buddhist.

Therefore, such dull news reports simply cannot compete in international import with a Kardashian’s new dress or a tea-partier’s attempts to distinguish “legitimate” rape.

Thai Gaurd in WhiteBut this one was different.

The world ignored it as seas of red shirts and yellow shirts flooded the squares and parks of Bangkok. The world ignored it when members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (“PAD”) (“yellow shirts”) seized and occupied the Government House. It went largely unnoticed that PAD had also taken the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand. When the railroads went on strike, people took the bus.

Then they stormed the runways of Suvarnabhumi Airport and blocked the roads leading out of Bangkok–effectively stranding 300,000 foreigners in Thailand.

PAD had wanted international attention, and like a thunderbolt, it got it.

What it didn’t have was a plausible explanation for shutting down an international airport.

The previous batch of coups, elections, and more coups, culminated with a revised 1997 (and now already twice-defunct) Thai Constitution.

The first elections under that Constitution occurred in 2001 when the Thai Rak Thai party (“TRT”) (“red shirts”) was elected into power with Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire, as Premier. He governed as a populist, introduced rice subsidies helpful to the rural North, and became extremely popular with almost anybody outside of the Bangkok elite. (He was also not popular with Amnesty International due to his alleged encouragement of extrajudicial killings of drug traffickers.)

Thai Palace Without Gaurds

In 2005, Mr. Thaksin became the first prime minister in the history of Thailand to complete a full term in office. (Yes, you read that right!)

Not wanting to encourage such blatant stability, the military replaced Mr. Thaksin while he was attending a U.N. summit (as if attending a U.N. summit was not punishment enough) and his TRT political party was dissolved. Commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 1997 Constitution, the military introduced a new 2007 Constitution. The former leaders of TRT formed the People’s Power Party (“PPP”) (still the “red shirts”) and were immediately elected back into power under the 2007 Constitution.

In December of 2007, the PPP’s Samak Sundaravej, a celebrity chef (I’m not kidding), was elected Prime Minister. Mr. Samak, viewed as an extension of voluntarily-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, was then removed from power nine months later. The PAD had asked the Constitutional Court for his removal due to his brief status as a culinary talk-show host during his first few months as Prime Minister–and got it! (It’s illegal in Thailand to have any outside employment while being Prime Minister.)

Government HouseThe PPP, still in power, replaced him with Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat. So Mr. Samak, viewed as a political proxy for ex-PM Thaksin, was replaced by Mr. Somchai–who was ex-PM Thaksin’s brother-in-law. Since Mr. Somchai didn’t have a cooking show, the Constitutional Court instead cited “election fraud” as a reason to boot both Mr. Somchai and his PPP-led coalition out of power–which seems somewhat disingenuous, as the PPP opposition, which brought the lawsuit, boycotted the elections entirely. Also, the PPP were only allotted two hours to mount a defense to a panel of judges, one of whom had a wife who was an active PAD officer. The Samak and Somchai removals are popularly called “judicial coups.”

These are the lessons learned by foreign judiciaries from Bush v. Gore.

So when foreign governments and journalists assertively inquired as to the reasons for stranding 300,000 of their various nationals, the PAD folks began with “well, you see, there once was this popular cooking show. . .”

Their audience stopped paying attention before they got to (probably exaggerated) allegations of corruption and Mr. Thaksin reducing the capital gains tax just prior to selling a chunk of his family-owned company to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings–thereby avoiding millions of dollars in Thai taxes.

The world largely dismissed it as a temper tantrum.

Khao San Road

Khao San Road

By the time I arrived, the airport had been reopened, which was helpful, because I flew there.

They had gone through three prime ministers in three months, and my best option for knowing who was in charge was to constantly hit “refresh” on the U.S. State Department’s “About Thailand” page.

I arrived in the middle of the night to a near empty airport–tourist season having been canceled for the conceivable future. I took a taxi to Khao San Road just as the bars were legally required to shutdown. One perk of being in a lawless land, however, is the fairly naked flouting of attempts at authority. Novelty-sized bottles of Singha, Beer Chang, and Leo Beer, were on offer from impromptu carts surrounded by bright-colored plastic children-sized chairs. If a police officer were en-route, their imminent presence would be signaled, and within seconds the road would be deserted of all evidence of debauchery. Once the officer was gone, sin-commerce would again reappear with an abruptness reminiscent of street magic.

khao san road 2

This is one way a poor people cope with poor conditions that are unlikely to improve. During the conflagration of coups and protests, counter-coups and counter-protests, daily life continues amongst the exhausted populace.

I bought a beer while watching the world burn before going to bed in a $6 hotel room. It was hot and the fan rotated with an almost willful sluggishness, creating an awake-all-night scene from “Apocalypse Now.”

I was partially using the trip as an excuse to visit with a college friend who was then a part of a diplomatic security team operating out of Bangkok. It wasn’t the sort of job where the employees are allowed to bring their cell phones into the office, so I would have to wait until the evening before contacting him.

The protests continued even though PAD had surrendered back the airport in response to the Constitutional Court effectively giving into their demands.

Gothic templeThis is the obligatory warning and, despite my example, it should be taken seriously.

Always avoid protests or other large political gatherings when visiting another country.

First, it is none of the visitor’s business and his curiosity will be perceived as foreign arrogance and an attempt at intervention. People are hurting and, unless it’s done by a news organization, taking pictures of suffering is usually interpreted as the height of insensitivity and disrespect. While they will likely just assume a visitor’s presence indicates a tourist so mentally incompetent that it would be immoral to punch him, in the unlikely circumstance that they confuse him for a Western-intelligence operative–they will beat him up and confiscate his camera for their permanent personal use. Finally, if it gets crazy, the visitor might get arrested/kidnapped/shot by the police, army, or rebels.

Never do it.

And so I went to the protests.

Whether the ruling force is a Junta or a corrupt politician, Thailand adheres to an axiom: a legitimate government does not kill its critics.

When the yellow shirts rushed the Government House, the ministers, staff, and guards let them have it and simply held government elsewhere. Rather than excite violence at the airports, particularly ones filled with innocent foreigners who might get caught in the crossfire, the authorities ordered security to retreat. If citizens wanted to camp in the parks and squares–so be it.

Thai soldier

I went to the tent cities at Lumpini Park, where protesters had been corralled from the streets to ease traffic congestion and for everyone’s mutual safety. Joggers were annoyed that they could no longer use the area for their runs. Exercise equipment was commandeered by shirtless teenage showoffs. During the day, some of the protesters were bussed away to sundry ministry buildings or businesses owned or associated with ex-PM Thaksin. They spent the day blockading access and causing general nuisance before being bussed back to their temporary tent homes.

Before entering, I asked pedestrians on adjacent sidewalks about what was happening in the park. Perhaps out of national embarrassment that their country’s political parties couldn’t cooperate, (I can relate) or simply wanting to project the best possible impression to tourists, they never volunteered that it was a protest.

“It’s a kickboxing tournament, but you do not want to go–the tournament does not start until after dark.”

“It’s an outdoor concert, but you do not want to go–it’s only in Thai and there is a much better concert at Overtone Music Cave.”

The closest to a truthful answer I got was from a deeply saddened man who looked to be about as ancient and tired as Siam itself: “It’s just some politicians talking, but you do not want to go–every politician tells lies here so it would bore you.”

 

three thai templesI quickly walked through the park, not engaging with eye-contact. I had expected more of a festival-like atmosphere.   After all, until the next election where Thaksin allies would be inevitably restored to power–they had won the day! But their grave faces were serious and angry. Aside from the odd agitated or curious look, they ignored my brisk passage amongst their mist. Those who were not wearing yellow (so picked because it is the color of the King), were decorated in the colors of the Thai flag–ribbons of red, white, and blue, cascading down their shirts and jackets.

Like some political groups in the United States, and pretty much everywhere else, they hijacked their nation’s identity as if it were only their own–implying anybody with the audacity to disagree with them were disloyal to King or God and country. 

Arguing legitimacy through patriotism or religion is a heuristically universal tactic, neither new nor unknown to any political culture.

boats and skyline

I contacted my friend who was bemused by my activities and gave me a light scolding–“I appreciate that you know what you are doing, but please be careful, it’s been very few but people have died.”

I got the address to his compound-like apartment complex, hopped into a taxi, gave very specific directions, and was immediately deposited at an infamous strip club.

To the driver’s annoyance I declined payment. My escape consisted of a strident walk through the strip club to its back-alleyway exit. Then, having previously memorized maps of the area, I hiked up and down pedestrian bridges, dodged cars crossing unsignaled highways, slid down an overpass, crossed a river and a shanty town, and ultimately ended my journey confidently walking passed the complex’s guard without comment. He gave me a polite solute.

“I’m sorry I’m late–the taxi took me to a strip club.”

“Yeah, that happens here,” my friend casually sighed. “A lot.”

It had been about ten years since we had last met, and we caught up over very cheap food and beer from a succession of street stalls. Commerce continued uninterrupted and we rose for the Thai royal anthem set to images of their King at the beginning of a movie.

The Thai Forbidden CityWe both understood that the King could, with a royal wave, send all parties home.

Having reigned in excess of 68 years, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (or Rama IX which is way-easier to pronounce), is the longest serving head of state in the world. With an estimated net-worth of $30 billion dollars, he is also probably the wealthiest.

He is surely the most loved.

I have been to many countries where law mandates that a picture of the King adorn every home. Such a law is unnecessary in Thailand.

During the uncertainty and disorganization of twenty coups he has maintained calm and order. He jokes and teases during public speeches and public panics. He presided over Thailand’s modernization while constantly visiting his most rural and poorest subjects. He used his incredible wealth to build roads, hospitals, and schools. He protected the defenseless and empowered the oppressed.

Reclining Budda

He did so as a consummate Buddhist, with modesty, non-judgment, and respect for all life. He is perceived as being morally flawless, and you may go to jail if you publicly discredit this perception. This is due to a lèse-majesté law intended to protect the King’s dignity and reputation to the detriment of the freedom of his detractors.

As King he is perceived to have adhered to a duty to remain above politics and common culture–so in those vacuums when his is the only voice which must be heard–people seek his wisdom. The public may not always adhere to his guidance, but they always respectfully listen.

He is revered as a God, but is also considered to be a member of every family. He’s that favorite uncle who serves as a supernal moral role model, but nevertheless taught you dark and dirty jokes when you were a kid.

He is the grand stabilizer of Thailand.

Today he is in frail health. While his crown is inheritable his moral authority and public respect is not. For some, the question of what shall happen when he goes is grim.

This is actually from a show on Koh Tao, as photographing in a Bangkok nightspot is enthusiastically discouraged.

This is actually from a show on Koh Tao, as photographing in a Bangkok nightspot is enthusiastically discouraged.

For the next few days I continued research by day and sought trouble with my friend at night.

He took me to bars and clubs that would excite the moral judgment of an Amsterdam prostitute. I bore witness to tricks involving ping pong balls which can not be propitiously described–even on a blog. In rousing guessing games of gender nobody really wins.

Eventually he had to go couriering in some other countries, leaving me time to sneak up North to visit the misnamed bridge on the renamed River Kwai.

On Christmas Eve, I met my friend and some of his colleagues at Club Santika. It was designed as a three story gothic cathedral, and we were setup in a special 3rd floor-VIP deck overlooking a stage and a vast pit filled with a thousand Bangkok partiers. Table service of Johnnie Walker Black was twenty dollars a bottle.

Bridge on the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai

Visiting the bathroom is an intimate experience as the attendant surprises the customer with a neck massage as the patron pees.

The massage is far more pleasant than many may intrinsically suspect. Thailand has never been colonized or particularly influenced by Abrahamic religions. Therefore, the Thai conscious has never held a negative opinion about non-heteronormative behaviors or transvestism. Next to the King, the most popular person in Thailand is Parinya Charoenphol–a trans-gender Maui Thai kickboxing champion. There is, therefore, nothing sexual meant about the massage. Borne out of pragmatism, they just want a tip.

Relaxing in affordable luxury, we chatted about the role of the Monarchy and the causes of fervent support of the rural poor for a deposed self-exiled billionaire.

The stage-show involved perilous pyrotechnics paired with blaring American and British music, perfectly recited in English by uncomprehending bands who could not actually speak the language.

There was only one public exit, though my new-friends knew about a private staff exit. Flyers decorated the walls. They were advertising their “Goodbye Santika” New Year’s Eve party. “Burn” would be performing.

Years later I still think about that prophetic flyer.

Thirty minutes past midnight on January 1, 2009 Club Santika abruptly caught fire and burned down. More than a thousand revelers were trapped inside. Sixty-seven people died and more than two hundred were injured. Among the dead were employees who ushered their guests to safety until they themselves died.

One such employee was the bathroom attendant. He carried out a tourist who had collapsed unconscious through smoke inhalation, resuscitated her in the parking lot, and then rushed back into the blaze, presumably looking for more of the club’s guests. He never came back out.

I was in the Gulf of Thailand on Koh Tao when I heard the news report. I quickly called my friend to make sure he was safe. Thankfully, though it was their usual hangout, none of the members of our group were there that night. Of course, for various practical reasons, he might have been lying to me.

Thai BeachThe Bangkok unrest is dwarfed by the violence of a second and continuous revolution in its South.

It was the end of the few weeks that had been allotted for Thailand–most of which had been spent in its rebelling capital.   But there was one more adventure lingering for me in the shadows.

Those who are hyper-aware will know about what locals euphemistically call “the unrest in southern Thailand.” Without international notice or intervention, the southern provinces of Songkhla, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have been in a perpetual violent revolt since the days of Siam.

Koh Tao

The South Thailand Insurgency has killed thousands and those provinces are an absolute “no go” zone for travelers. This admonishment includes those who are experienced with conflict-zones. Such was a lesson I learned the hard way.

In the early hours of January 4, 2009, an explosion on the tracks, engineered by South-Thai separatists, derailed a train on the Bangkok-Hat Yai route. I was the only foreigner stupid enough to be on board. It was not a fun day and impromptu self-evacuation amid urban-quasi-militarized violence is a learn-as-you-go sport. Luckily injuries were minimal and (I think) nobody died.

For weeks afterward I tried to find information online about what happened but found nothing: just another anonymous event of war, during an internationally ignored war, not even worth recording.

I knew about the conflict, I knew not to go, I even knew that they were tampering with the railroads–I was simply arrogant and rolled the dice trying to save a few bucks on a plane ticket.

Koh Tao 2After the derailment, we were helped off the train by railway employees and a fleet of busses arrived. They drove us to the bus station in Hat Yai, but as I needed to continue my journey by rail, (and having very little money available), I had to hike across an unwelcoming city to find the train station.

I found a map and memorized it. (You never want to get caught reading a map in an unsafe area–it betrays a lack of local knowledge or belonging to anybody who might wish you harm.)

The city itself was similar to any anonymous city in a developing country, but it did have a functional semi-modern center.

When conflict and sporadic street violence is the norm, life, society, and commerce find a way to continue. Rebellious Hat Yai has embraced this philosophy–I even planned my escape to the Malaysian border at a McDonalds. The city was totally open for business.

I was not perceived as an enemy–they probably thought I was a wayward tourist who had used the wrong airport to begin a trip to Phuket. Still, there were no smiles. I confused quizzical stares as sinister. I felt no immediate danger, but there was no encouragement to linger.

Thai Beach rural

After hours of hauling a heavy pack on not an entirely uninjured back I made it to the closed railway station. “Of course it’s closed,” I rebuked myself, “there was a derailment so they’re going to close the whole system.   That’s why they took you to a bus station. That’s why the passengers competent in the language of this land stayed there.”

I hoofed it back to the bus station by late afternoon. They weren’t running buses to Malaysia. They asked: What was I really doing there?

I paid a random woman eight dollars and took an informal taxi to the border with three other foreigners who had explicitly come to explore the conflict and were also trying to flee. When I refused to pay a bribe on the Thai side of the border I found my possessions laying on the street as the Taxi tried to abandon me in the middle of a jungle-surrounded nowhere.

Rural Thai Island LifeOne of the other passengers resorted to violence in expressing his dissent to the driver. They promptly returned for me.

We were unceremoniously deposited in the outskirts of Penang, left to find our own way to further transport. We separated. I was down to my last $20 in U.S. currency and despite Malaysia being a Muslim country, all the exchanges were closed on a Sunday. Eventually a cafe owner took pity on me and Googled the bank-rate and exchanged my bill with what little he had in his register. It was enough for some food, toilet paper, and an overnight coach ticket to Singapore.

When I arrived at the border I hadn’t slept for forty-eight hours, was unkempt, slightly bleeding, and lacked my visa which had disappeared in the Hat Yai chaos.

I wasn’t looking my professional best.

This gave rise to an enthusiastic and engaging customs interview:

“Why don’t you have your visa?”

“I lost it during the explosion.”

The examiner offered me a look of concern, questioning my surprise answer and perhaps wondering about my mental hygiene. “What explosion?”

“The one caused by Muslim separatists in the south of Thailand.” After a pause, I added, rather helpfully I thought, “they blew up some railroad tracks derailing my train.”

“Why did Muslim separatists in the south of Thailand blow up the railroad tracks?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t feel they would accommodate my curiosity if I asked,” I shrugged, “to keep me from getting to the other side?”

“Why were you in Thailand anyway? Did you know that it can be violent there right now?”

I stared as I gently rubbed a slightly blood-caked contusion on my forehead–“Well, you see, there once was this popular cooking show. . .”

Food Street Singapore

Eventually he gave up and ran my name through the system. Within seconds he apologized for my detainment, fast-tracked me through the rest of customs, and my madness was once again Singapore’s problem.

Thailand’s madness continued with another election and another coup.

The military appointed opposition party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva Prime Minister. It would be three years before an election would be allowed.

When Mr. Abhisit replaced Mr. Somchai, voters were told that it was because he was too closely related to ex-PM Thaksin, who was Somchai’s brother-in-law. In 2011, voters responded by electing Yingluck Shinawatra–Thaksin’s sister–Prime Minister.

(And people accuse the Bushes and Clintons of behaving dynastically.)

Screaming Thai DragonAgain the yellow shirts rallied in the parks and squares. Again there were allegations of corruption–this time over a proposed comprehensive amnesty which would have, among pardoning both pro-and-con government protesters, allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand (he faces a two-year prison sentence for a corruption conviction commenced in absentia).

Then, on May 22, 2014, after a coffee break during yellow shirt-red shirt negotiations, General Prayuth Chan-ocha informed all parties that he was now in charge.

Elected leaders were arrested. Curfews were put in place. Independent media was blocked. Less explicably, the video game Tropico was banned.

In an effort to win popularity, Operation “Return Happiness to the Public” hosted free concerts and carnivals for the masses. Citizens were even able to watch the World Cup for free while getting a complimentary haircut.

Crying Thai Dragon

The junta has announced the appointment of a committee of monarchists, Army officers, and Bangkok elites to draft a new constitution (this time they’ll vote right!). They will host an election, again be thrown out of power, and then immediately host another coup.

At least that has been the cycle experienced for the past seven decades.

Elected populists have systemically been deposed by self-appointed elites–through the guise of contrived criminality–disguising the cynically rationalized delusion that the rural poor are too uneducated to properly participate in self-rule.

But there has been a variable steadfast these past seventy years–the King, who, although perhaps reluctantly, must, at least tacitly, signoff on these military misadventures.

City of GoldThe King is very old, and his only son, the Prince–is good friends with Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Prince is unpopular right now, but the death of a loved King has a way of changing public sentiment about a grieving son–particularly one inheriting thirty billion dollars.

I imagine he’ll abruptly find friends he never                                                                                  knew he had.

It may even be enough to dissuade the often monarch-obedient military from its quadrennial political takeovers.

The death of Thailand’s great-stabilizer may ultimately usher in an era of actual stability.