formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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May 15, 2018 Southeast Asia Wrap - Imagine (part XVII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
May 15, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Along the coast of Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, in a pedestrian section of cute boutiques is the Edmonds Bookshop. On our post-coffee shop stroll, we stepped inside to browse. Several titles interested me, but one stopped me in my tracks. A black and white hardback faced me from the top shelf. The cover art depicts a young woman looking out large windows onto the ramp of a major airport, jets taxiing and parking at gates. The picture grabbed my attention. The title made me curious: Imagine Wanting Only This*. I had to know, what did the woman in the airport want?

Sixteen days in Southeast Asia netted sixteen condensed stories, from the unsurprising diversion of our flight avoiding North Korean air space to stories of healing and discovering our sameness with people of different cultures.

Shortly after returning, we began planning our next trip –Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. This was similar to the trip we booked when Hurricane Harvey drowned more than our plans. At some point it hit me: I’ve never set out to visit all the places of genocide, but I can check many off the list.

Imagine being forced to leave your home, wanting only to go back to the way things were. You may know this yearning if your home was destroyed by Harvey. Home, as it was. Life, as it was, before tragedy upended your world.

The author is young and in a different place in her journey, yet I relate to her wish that cannot be. After the death of a close family member, she was drawn to places of pain and uncertainty. Many of the same places I have been. In her grief she replayed memories, coming to grips with the fact that things would be different from that moment on.

Like the people of Cambodia who suffered grisly tortures and death at the hands of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge communist gang; like Laotians whose lives were mutilated at the will of the Pathet Lao; like the good people of Saigon whose own countrymen, and sometimes own family members, forced communism and death upon them.

When survivors returned to Phnom Penh, they began to rebuild. The arts community led the way in healing. They taught their traditions to a new generation to keep their culture from extinction.

Or consider the case of Vietnamese who lived north of Saigon. When their families were allowed to leave the north, many had to rebuild their lives from nothing. Much of what we saw in Saigon was born out of desperation, compulsion to create something new when going home is not an option.

As Kristen traveled in search of meaning, she observed the phenomenon. People would rise again, build, start over, and live however they could manage. But behind them would always be those memories of the time before it all happened. And she imagined wanting only to come home again, as it was. An apropos wrap for our Southeast Asia series.

*Radtke, Kristen. Imagine Wanting Only This. New York: Pantheon Books, 2017.

May 8, 2018 Living in Vietnam Today (part XVI in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
May 8, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We’ll be wrapping up our Southeast Asia series soon, but first we have an exclusive; a powerful story from a young Vietnamese willing to share their reality with you. Here are his words:

We went through a lot of things after the Vietnam war. My dad worked at the Da Nang airport as a helicopter mechanic. He was trained in the U.S. When the war was over we did not have many options. We followed the new government’s direction to move to an area in the central highlands. We did not know we were actually being moved to an undeveloped piece of jungle.

My parents had two small children and no idea about the term, “new economic zone,” that the communist government used for moving city people who did not support the Viet Cong or who had been involved in the war.

Most southern army officers went to jail, or as the commie people call it, “re-education camp.” It’s nothing different than hard-labor prison for former soldiers. They brainwash those soldiers and make them fear to death so they won’t be a threat against the new government when they get released. My uncle who was a navy officer spent almost three years in a re-education camp.

My dad did not go to jail because he worked in an office. We just lost our house as did many city people after that fateful day in 1975. We were moved to the new economic zone in 1976. I was born there two years later.

When people arrived there they did not want to get off the bus because there was nothing there. They cried a lot and asked drivers to take them back to their city, but it was too late. Little did they know they were on the one-way ticket bus and the government had tricked them. Government people showed photos of the “imagined” new economic zone with farms, farming tools, and houses. But when they arrived at the economic zone there was nothing.

We struggled there for more than three years. My dad helped the government officers with their documentation and paperwork because a lot of them actually came out of where they wanted to send us and did not have proper education.

That was a real problem with Vietnam back then, when the well-educated people were shipped to the government’s farm and work was “ruled” by the poorly educated commies.

My dad found that since moving there we had lost thirty percent of our people to diseases like malaria and jungle yellow fever. Sometimes just a regular infection was deadly because there was no health care available.

So he decided to bribe the government officers he knew to get a ticket for the whole family to leave. There were checkpoints everywhere and it was almost impossible to buy a bus ticket if you didn't have connections.

We still don’t have freedom of speech here, and we don’t really know if we disclose too much information about their dictatorship regime.

May 1, 2018 Sophie's Art Tour (part XV in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
May 1, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Our entry and exit to Southeast Asia was through Saigon. The morning before boarding EVA Air’s 777, we had one more thing to do. We had saved something special for last: Sophie’s Art Tour. Our understanding of Vietnam was like a picture-less frame we did not know how to fill. Our guide, Stu Palmer, breathed life into the jig-sawed history of Vietnam through the art made by witnesses to conflict and members of poverty.

Vietnamese art has long been molded by the party in power, whether insiders or outsiders, yet the artists have strived to retain their cultural identity, and sometimes their very lives. You may know Vietnam’s history, but you might not know the art it inspired. Understanding the context, the art is captivating.

Stu had us meet him for coffee at the Gao restaurant, where we’d begin the tour. We joined him at a table the stunning glass-walled room that was once the courtyard of a French colonial style mansion. This was the home of a rubber plantation owner who worked for Michelin during the French Colonial era. Stu pointed behind us to the massive ornate wood door, itself a work of art. Imagine, he said, the proprietor walking through the courtyard right where we sit, going in and out through that door. He did! And this is where we began a comprehensive introduction.

On his iPad, Stu introduced and summarized the four chapters he would cover on the tour, examining with honesty how Vietnamese artists portrayed life through drastic changes imposed on them.

We would learn pivot points in the intertwined dance of art and history, beginning with written language, followed by visits to the private estate collection of the Duc Mihn Gallery, the amazing Nguyen Thi Hein Gallery, and the edgy Craig Thomas Gallery. The art would cover the periods of colonialism, war, reunification, and the new era. We would see how art was used by the government as a tool to change public perceptions.

One might say that art began with cave drawings. But we would be remiss to ignore the significance of the introduction of the Romanized version of the Vietnamese written language. Vietnamese life was posed for pivot in 1651 when French Jesuit scholar Alexandre de Rhodes wrote a tri-lingual dictionary in Vietnamese, Latin, and Portuguese. He compiled a catechism, replacing the traditional Vietnamese chữ Nôm script with his new Latin-script alphabet. Chữ Nôm had up to 20,000 characters and was very difficult to learn. Rules of pronunciation were inconsistent, and the rules for writing were arbitrary. When the French arrived they supported the easier script to make reading more accessible to the masses. Around 1900, de Rhodes’ new script was refined as chữ quốc ngữ, which is used today.

With more literate people came a new educated, intellectual class. This wider ability to read and share ideas marks the point of departure from traditional Confucian belief to developing more modern thought, formulating and feeding politics and art.

So there we began in the restaurant Gao as Stu explained the importance of literacy in developing art and culture.

Nam Son was a young artist who helped Frenchman Victor Tardieu lobby the French government to support the Superior School of Fine Arts in Indochina, modeled after the French schools. Opened in 1925, Tardieu’s influence on Vietnamese art grew and showed the impact of colonialism on the culture. Moving away from their folk art, the Vietnamese began employing French art theory and techniques: perspective, Impressionism, oil paints. Thanks to Stu, their world opened to us and we could imagine living in a time when emotion was discouraged, and therefore unfamiliar, and suddenly being introduced to a whole new life. How their art changed when they could paint what they wanted!

We toured the private collection of these students’ Impressionistic work owned by Mr. Duc Minh. He began collecting their work to support them, his heirs now owning a substantial gallery full of work from To Ngoc Van, Hoang Lap Ngon, Nguyen Phan Chanh, Bui Xuan Phai and others.

However, Vietnam wanted independence. For Chapter Two, Stu acquainted us with the outcome of war for independence from France, and then what they call “the American War.” Together, these Indochina wars produced great tumult, out of which came propaganda and combat art – deceptive depictions of agrarian bliss created because the reality of hungry Vietnamese or emotional expression was not allowed. Artists were sent to the front lines to portray strong heroes for the people back home. They even held gallery showings for the troops, hanging their drawings by clothespins along wire stretched from tree to tree. Sometimes their art was used to identify bodies. Propaganda art showed support of Russia and China, both with strong power to influence.

How would you represent life if you were under so much stress? Imagine the risks they faced: losing their sense of identity, their very existence as a culture, and the fear that the powers allow little to define who you are.

During the war against the spread of communism in Vietnam a young artist named Nguyen Thi Hien began to make a name for herself. In Hanoi she painted portraits of officers, and the elite, ambassadors and counselors of foreign embassies. She also painted what she saw as the beauty of her countryside, and the life she knew in North Vietnam.

Now in Saigon, her world-famous gallery appears as an unsuspecting small shop on “Antique Street”. It looks like all the other shops on the street, open at the front, the dirt of Saigon air doesn’t know to stay away from her storefront. Our eyes adjust from the bright sunny outdoors to the darker interior of the old building crammed between other old buildings. Stu points to paintings on the walls and tells her story. The daughter of a writer and musician, she’s energetic and sometimes she could get herself in trouble, which we’ll understand shortly. No one has come to claim the painting up high on the right. It’s a portrait of a Russian officer. He would have paid her up front for her work. She’s kept it for him all these years. All the others picked up their portraits, many wanting to be closer to her than the artist-client relationship. Surely her husband appreciated her turning down the abundant marriage proposals.

We walk past the antiques on tables, toward the stairs in the back. Upstairs we are privileged to enter the gallery of one of the most highly regarded living artists in the country. She was the first Vietnamese artist to exhibit in Spain, and people came from all over the globe for her show. When they asked the prices of the 50 paintings she’d brought, she had to admit she hadn’t thought about that. Eventually, she came up with prices, and sold pieces for as much as $150,000. The organizers begged her to stay on another month in Spain and to make her exhibition an annual affair.

Stu showed us one of her “controversial” paintings. A thin mother is looking down at the infant on her lap. She isn’t smiling, and appears to not have food for the baby who is clutching at her breast. This portrayal of Vietnamese life was unacceptable to the government. But the paintings of Hien’s youth reflect the beauty she knew, the sorrow she saw, and the hunger she felt. Sometimes, her only canvas was a board pulled from the bottom of a desk drawer. She often painted on both sides – why waste an entire canvas when material is so hard to come by?

Ms. Hien isn’t there when we visit, but her daughter who runs the gallery sits quietly at her desk and smiles warmly for her guests. Nguyen Thi Hien’s work spans three of the four periods on the tour: wartime, reunification, and post-1986.

Chapter Three covered a brief period – 1975 to 1986 – in a study of the communist win they call the “reunification of the country” sunk deep in us. The TET Offensive, planned in Saigon a Viet Cong supporter’s Pho Binh noodle shop in 1968, changed the course of the war. Many Americans and South Vietnamese were killed. Art was destroyed because it was a threat of evidence that could be used for retribution later.

By 1975 Saigon had fallen. Communism would rule with an iron fist. Artists were to be monitored, disciplined if necessary, because art is powerful, and universal. Art speaks and motivates. It communicates, which is something communists worry about, especially those who lust after greater thought control. So freedom of expression was again censored.

Chapter Four begins in 1986 with its crumbling economy forcing Vietnam to open its doors to the world.

In present Saigon, although we know the rulers impose communist ideals (foreign teachers are forbidden to teach art theory or critique in Vietnamese government schools), we see it juxtaposed with consumerism, entrepreneurism, with people working and creating.

Representative of this period, the Craig Thomas Gallery courageously exhibits pieces that surprised us, some depicting communism as the free world does. Thomas focuses on new, emerging artists. His desire is to promote art and young artists in a country that still does not applaud freedom of expression.

In fact, Vietnam’s Ministry of Leisure and Culture will decide if an exhibition is approved for public display, so private showings are not uncommon. In an exhibition at Sàn Art, an independent contemporary art organization, video documentation questioning ideas of psychology and treatments of associated illnesses was censored, shut down just before the show. Patrons arrived to an unplugged TV.

In today’s bewildering free market the same communist party still rules, yet the people seem so much like us.

Vietnam’s history is complicated. Stu seeks to untangle it. Employing Sophie’s Art Tour philosophy, as though he was showing us his vineyard, Stu planted artists’ personal stories within the larger field of history. He brought us to the places where we could almost touch life as it was through the hearts and hands of artisans, a painting for our frame.

April 24, 2018 Coping (part XIV in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 24, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We had arrived in Luang Prabang on one of Lao Airlines’ turboprops, an ATR-72, and departed for the country’s administrative capital, Vientiane, on an Airbus A-320.

Vientiane has much to offer. We had too little time to take in everything. The city is busy as one would expect, with heavy traffic, but also great coffee shops, and a mix of old and new architecture. As we did in Cambodia, we stayed in a traditional wood house. We had asked around, what kind of wood is this? Mahogany? Rosewood? People replied, “Something like that,” but no one recalled the names of the rich native timber used for building houses that last over a hundred years. So we looked them up: sokrom, kokoh, koki, sroloas and beng. The trees are lovely. The landscape is stunning. It’s a beautiful place to have a war.

Here, recovery is still a current event. We are drawn to how healing comes. Throughout much of Cambodia we learned the vital role of art in helping generations deal with genocide. In Vientiane, we discovered the hope that comes from C.O.P.E.—Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, dedicated to helping people move on. This locally run non-profit works with partners to provide rehabilitation service for Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survivors across Laos. They make prosthetic legs and custom-fit arms and hands.

UXOs still litter the countryside as a result of U.S. and Laotian bombing to rid the world of the evil Pathet Lao. This year, hundreds more Laotians will be killed or injured by UXOs left behind forty years ago. Most are farmers plowing and children playing. They live in rural areas without emergency care. Funding from countries and companies throughout the world, including the United States, covers the cost of travel, accommodation, and treatment for all patients who come to any of C.O.P.E.’s five rehab centers.

In the visitor center and museum we learned their perspective of the history of bombings and resulting disabilities. We walked through a mock-up of a typical family’s house, with pictures on the walls and all the comforts of home, except this mock-up also included all the dangers of a home in this area. We read the stories of survivors and the stories they told of those who didn’t survive. In a tape-recorded interview, a kindergarten teacher recounted losing one of her students who was playing in the dirt and dug out a UXO. She couldn’t stop him in time. A film documentary introduced us to one of the thousands of people born long after the war, caught in crossfire that lay dormant for decades—a young farmer now surviving without arms.

C.O.P.E. is one of the most highly rated attractions in Vientiane, with five stars on every travel site. Each star given speaks to the preciousness of life.

Ten to thirty percent of the two million tons of bombs dropped on Laos did not explode. Teams from several organizations are moving through the country, finding and detonating them. But for those innocent victims, there’s C.O.P.E.

April 17, 2018 Mount Phou Si (part XIII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 17, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Last week we shared our amazement at the storytelling talent in quaint Luang Prabang, Laos. They told of myths, legends, and folktales of kings and monkeys; of fruit from trees with magical powers; of villains and heroes, threat and beauty, comic fantasy and triumphant goodness.

One of the best loved tales of Laos is about Mount Phou Si (“sacred mountain”), which we climbed. Twice. It’s only about 328 feet tall, topped with a temple, Wat Chom Si, and sits right in the middle of the city, facing the Royal Palace (now the National Museum).

Uneven, somewhat-crumbly stone stairways are on two sides of the mount. Around lunch time we scaled 328 zig-zagging steps originating on the northwest side for the famed panoramic view. One of us was satisfied with the rewarded exercise.

The second time we abused our quads (355 steep and uneven steps on the southeast side, by the Nam Khan River) was because one of us had this brilliant idea to go again in time for a photo opportunity at sunset. Great idea, but not original. It turned out that about 500 of our closest strangers shared that brilliance.

While space was crowded at the top, sharing the moments with people from all over the world was actually quite fun. We took pictures at 5:36 p.m., 5:37, 5:38… When that last little pop of brightness was sucked down behind the mountains, all those stranger-friends with whom we now had something magical in common let out one big collective “Awww…” of jesting disappointment, and then, applause! We looked around at the happiness on every face.

With our new friends we would make it back down to the busy night market just getting set up. The main street between Mount Phou Si and the National (Royal Palace) Museum hosted the nightly event. Streets closed to vehicular traffic filled with local craft makers and sellers of popular authentic souvenirs. We also found the vegan buffet an English couple had told us about in a riverside café the night before. Vegan buffets are rare in any country. This solo chef was tops. We piled our plates, picking from about 30 options. The chef then heated our choices in his wok and we savored our meals in the fresh night air.

One of the dishes was mushrooms, which takes us back to the tale of Mount Phou Si. According to lore, the queen woke one morning craving mushrooms and sent the monkey king to gather them. The problem was that she wanted one specific type of mushroom, but she expected him to read her mind. He made several trips up and down the mountain, and each time she scoffed because he brought the wrong fungi. Finally, Monkey King had enough. He ripped the top off the mountain, brought the whole thing to the queen and told her to pick her own mushrooms. This explains why the mountain sits in front of the palace.

We didn’t see any ‘shrooms up there, so maybe drama queen finally found them herself.

April 10, 2018 Folklore (part XII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 10, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Hopping city-to-city around Southeast Asia on several different airlines gave us more time to experience that part of the world than had we opted for ground transportation.

In Laos (meaning “Land of the million elephants”), Luang Prabang, the provincial capital, is home to many ornate and colorful wats—Buddhist temples—built within the last hundred years. They’re decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha and topped with golden roofs. Lush green jungle and rugged mountains complement the view. Here in this city is the National Museum, formerly the royal palace.

It’s a typical royal palace museum—he slept here, she slept there, here’s where they dined, original furniture and all, and here’s their library holding books from centuries ago and gifts from world leaders…clothing, portraits, weapons, crowns—the usual stuff. What I adored more than the dazzling jeweled walls, however, was the ancient Lao folktale, “The King’s White Elephant.” Each framed page and sketch hung along the hallways so one could read the story a piece at a time while viewing the life of royalty. It was a regular tale about magic powers, evil and good, sin and forgiveness—a fun read.

Mike: Speaking of stories, we had a date night with Garavek, a Laotian company that performs traditional storytelling. The small, black-box theater seats about twenty. Comfortable chairs are arranged in a quarter-circle in stadium-style rows.

On the corner stage are two rattan chairs, a small table between them, and a large drum made from animal skin. Two men enter, wearing black robes, red scarves wrapped loosely around their necks. The storyteller sits as the elder plays an ancient instrument, a khene, a handmade bamboo mouth organ—eight pipes of varying length tied together.

He plays what must be root music, grown from Laotian spirit and soil. His eyes meet every visitor as he blows on the end of the khene. A call of natural beauty emanates. His musical introduction informs us of Laotian tradition.

His song finishes to rousing applause of forty or so hands energized by his show, every mind allowing a proud smile because we in this small theater are the privileged few—the wise few who chose this experience over any other.

The elder’s eyes are bright and his leathery smile is genuine. He bows, hugging his instrument, and takes a seat on the simple stage.

Behind them, a mural, maybe four-by-five feet, hangs in front of the black drape covering the walls. Rich and busy, the painting is filled with images from folktales we will hear: elephants, birds, monkeys, dragons, and giants; waterfalls, rafts, and lush gardens; rivers, mountains, and humble thatched houses; royalty, temples, and ordinary people.

Linda: The storyteller is young and handsome. Animated and enchanting, he draws us in as if magically powered. Garavek means magical bird.

His tales recount origins of landmarks such as Mount Phusi and the Mekong River, and exploits of legendary characters. Spellbound, the audience doesn’t want the show to end.

This was a most exquisite date night, with one of the world’s best storytellers.

April 3, 2018 The Bookseller (part XI in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 3, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: His name is Douk. He’s a street peddler. He isn’t a beggar, and he doesn’t want to be. On our last full day in Cambodia, Douk approached us among the busy markets of Pub Street. On the bin of books strapped over his neck and shoulders was a sign that told his story in English. Severely injured when a long–buried landmine exploded, he is doing what he can to support his family. His entire body is scarred; his arms were blown off, his bronze skin a patchwork of pieces used to sew him back together.

Tragically, this is not uncommon. Many unexploded landmines are still quite prevalent in rural farming areas, posing great danger to farmers and children. About half of the country’s minefields have been cleared, but beautiful Cambodia remains one of the most landmine–impacted countries in the world.

Douk is an honorable man. In my small way, I wanted him to know he blessed me. I picked a book on Cambodian history. This book I hold dear because of its own history, carried to me by a man who will not allow horrific circumstances to stop him.

Linda: People who have suffered so much for so long yet persevere with kindness are the ones we wish the world would emulate. Not that pain is what we wish for others, yet those who suffer greatly often have a greater capacity to live and love. I’ve experienced this throughout much of Central Africa, and we witnessed it all over Southeast Asia. And the contrast is everywhere in our own country.

Mike: We’d say good-bye to our wonderful hosts in Siem Reap and board Alex’s tuk tuk for one more ride—to the airport where Vietnam Airlines would whisk us north in an Airbus A320 to the provincial capital of Laos, Luang Prabang.

Our friend Lance calls Luang Prabang “Shangri-La,” as it is the most beautiful place on earth to him, and a place he stayed for a time during the Vietnam War. The city has lots to offer. While we don’t recommend group tours, such as to the gorgeous waterfalls or ancient caves, it’s only because the tour buses seat sixteen, but the Chinese business owners crammed in eighteen. The unfriendly non-natives drove furiously over pitted roads, and never once smiled at customers. Private tours with native Laotians resulted in a much better experience.

On our first night in “Shangri-La” we strolled along clean cobble-stoned sidewalks in front of a mix of architecture in French Colonial, Chinese, and Vietnamese design. Impeccable landscaping incorporated the most beautiful flowers and greenery. Mod coffee shops, small restaurants with local cuisine, and other businesses filled one side of the main but winding road that followed the meandering Nam Khan River to where it meets the Mekong. We would call Villa Sayada our home for a few days full of wonderful sights, each day ending with an awe-inspiring sunset behind jungle mountains.

See you next week with more on amazing Laos.

March 27, 2018 Phare (part X in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 27, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Following our (fairly) fearless feat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, our feet freshly furbished by fish, we would have one more night at our hosts’ exquisite traditional Khmer wooden house. We had climbed through ancient temple ruins, watched the sun set behind Angkor Wat, the largest Buddhist temple, toured a silk farm, boated around the floating village on the Tonle Sap, experienced Pub Street, and gained a new friend, Alex, the hard-working young man with the entrepreneurial spirit who drove us all about town. The one other item high on our list was the Cambodian Circus.

This is no Barnum & Bailey–Ringling Bros. It’s an exhibition of life before the Khmer Rouge, through the genocide, and the restoration journey since. This “circus” will break your heart and make it leap in your chest as you cheer because the story is real and there is still so much healing needed—personal tragedy beyond comprehension. It is painful, powerful, and hopeful.

Phare” was organized with the intent to provide a way for children in poverty to learn a skill and earn a living, to rise from atrocities of genocide and foreign occupation and to keep Cambodian heritage alive.

In 1994, nine young Cambodians and their teacher, Veronique Decrop, returned from a refugee camp near the Thai border to create a school called Phare Ponleu Selpak (“brightness of the arts”). Many of the students had spent their childhood at the Site 2 camp in Battambang. Ms. Decrop and other French volunteers taught them to use art to cope with trauma, poverty, and abuse. She would help children overcome and rebuild their society. To this end, the organization grew to offer classes in visual and performing arts, with academic and social support.

We claimed our seats under the small tent. With few props and no nets, the troupe performed “Sokha,” a story about a child haunted by war. Her memories of the Khmer Rouge combine with surreal visions and nightmares to create a distorted and bleak reality. Scenes move from her happy days at school to the invasion of her town. As she tosses in her sleep, a live band carries the mood and supports the action: acrobats leap into the air only to fall violently to the bang of gunshots, one after another after another. An artist rolls out his easel and paints stunning portraits to fit the moments: beautiful homes and countryside replaced by the darkness of war, starvation, and fear; faces of evil; then a new sunrise as the small, scared refugee discovers her strength through art and finds the tools to heal herself and her community.

The acrobats flipped, danced, and balanced atop each other. Their muscles were upstaged only by their dedication to show the long term effects suffered by post–war victims and that art is still providing a powerful way to heal and rebuild their country.

Deep and purposeful, Phare provides a hope for tomorrow in Cambodia.

March 20, 2018 Pub Street (part IX in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 20, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We didn’t travel thirteen time zones in tightly packed aluminum tubing to be shielded from our hosts’ culture. However, happy to be vegan, we passed on the opportunity to eat snake on a stick, crispy scorpion, seasoned tarantula, and assorted fried bugs in favor of a veggie pizza in the lively Pub Street section of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

This place defies the idea of a small dusty bit of a town in an under-developed country. One can explore Pub Street ‘round the clock. Amid the many ornate Buddhist temples are day markets and night markets. Luxury hotels and beautifully aged colonial buildings fill spaces between impeccably clean and well-lit streets. Cross the canal to the Art Market to find great deals on original native art. Many talented artists proudly display their renditions of elephants, monks, temples, jungle, and sunrises in brilliant oils.

 Pub Street only takes up two blocks in two directions but it’s buzzing with people. Excellent restaurants offer traditional Khmer and Thai food, or Chinese, or Indian. Tempting aromas of herbs and spices waft through the crowd. Street vendors sell goodies from their carts (besides those creepy crawly things for a dollar a skewer), like delicious bite-sized fried dessert nuggets made with coconut milk. Along the main drag and down the numerous lanes and alleys, live music and street entertainment fill the air with fun. Spas are popular here, and especially the kind where you can get a pedicure by fish.

We first experienced Pub Street at night. Having passed a few of the party-sized tanks filled with fish dining on dirty feet, we gave it some consideration. One of us had to get up the nerve though.

The next morning, our driver, Alex, took us back to Pub Street for the day markets. By then, we were feeling brave. Well, one of us was. We joined other tourists seated along the wide frame edges of the tank and dunked our feet into the water. Well, one of us did. One of us made several attempts, squealing, shivering, and pulling the feet back out. However, both sets of Ely feet eventually got the treatment. Alex was amused. Feeding the fish tickles terribly at first, but after a few minutes we didn’t feel more than a light sensation touching our tootsies. The bragging rights are worth it, and the result is amazing. These little black fish left our ped paws so much smoother than what any pedicurist pumicing them raw can do.

With freshened feet we stepped into a beautiful restaurant and filled our bellies with five-star veg meals before getting back in Alex’s tuk tuk to go on a boat tour of the floating village.

The houses are on stilts like the ones in Galveston, only built much higher for the wet season. For children growing up on the water there are no lawns to mow, but there’s plenty of fishing and vessel work to do. Catch you next week. There’s plenty more to this story.

March 13, 2018 More Siem Reap (part VIII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 13, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Welcome back to Ely Air Lines. We’re in the middle of a series on our flights throughout Southeast Asia and all the adventures in between. If you missed any of the previous episodes, scroll through to catch up.

We left you last week in Siem Reap, Cambodia as we introduced our private driver, Alex. The bright, young businessman arrived promptly each morning to take us to explore the city. On our first full day we visited a silk farm where every step in the process is present, from mulberry tree groves feeding the worms, to the growing and harvesting of them, to dying, spinning, and weaving, and the final products. The tour is impressive and the entire farm and factory clean and modern, but also includes demonstration areas showing the older ways to spin and weave silk. No tourist attraction would be complete without a museum and gift shop, and this one even had a coffee bar. The colorful silk products are made with amazing talent—scarves, dresses, shirts, handbags, wall hangings, and many other kinds of gifts. We were fascinated watching some ladies work to spin the cocoons into fine threads and others who wove beautiful patterns for assorted items.

To make the most of our time, when we finished the tour we piled back in Alex’s tuk tuk, securing our silk purchases in a secret compartment and went on to see the small village he calls home. Beyond charming tourist places, we relish seeing the real life of a foreign country, and this next stop provided that in full. Away from the city, like living in Hull or Daisetta, we came upon the village entrance. We toured the welcome area with Buddhist temple and park, the village school and its garden, and then came to Alex’s home. Surrounded by gardens, his house is a typical style. The ground floor is open and airy for all those hot, humid days, and sleeping quarters are on the upper story. After meeting his lovely grandmother, we walked along dirt roads through the village and said hello to Alex’s aunt and several other relatives. At a neighbor’s house, coconut palm sugar boiled over a fire in the largest cast iron kettle we’ve ever seen. Our mouths watered from the sweet smell. Down the road in a common area, two teams of young men played a competitive game of volleyball, but stopped to say hello as we passed. Life always moves at a slower, friendlier pace in small towns.

We felt special as recipients of a private tour off the beaten path in rural Cambodia. Enriched, and grateful to Alex for sharing his part of the country, we boarded his tuk tuk and headed back to Siem Reap to explore the touristy Pub Street and markets. Happy to be vegan, we passed up the opportunity to eat snake on a stick, scorpion, seasoned tarantula, and assorted fried bugs in favor of pizza. See you next week for more adventure!