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My Cambodian Christmas Story

When I was invited to join the ACYPL delegation to the Philippines and Malaysia, they gave us the opportunity to extend our trip.

In college, I learned about Angkor Wat and always wanted to see it. Candidly, I didn't know where it was until researching a possible extension - learning it was in Cambodia. After quick research to make sure it was safe, I booked the ticket and off we go.

My Cambodia goal was singular: see Angkor. I didn't know if life would ever take me back to Indochina, so this was a check mark. Other than a plane ticket and a hotel reservation, I had done no prior planning. I thought I'd rent a bike and go tour. But thanks to 3am karaoke, I'd slept absolutely zero hours before leaving for the Kuala Lumpur airport at 4am. Exhausted and maybe a little hungover, I decided day one probably shouldn't be on a bike. So upon checking into hotel, I went down to the street and rented a Tuk Tuk driver for a whopping 18 bucks for the whole day.

So off we went. For the uninitiated, a Tuk Tuk is a two wheeled cart towed by a moped. In the hierarchy of traffic in Cambodia, its arguably just above a bike. And since the mopeds, cars, bikes and TukTuks tend to drive where there is open road, regardless of lane or traffic direction, every ride was its own adventure.

He spoke decent English. Most "white" visitors are European, so he was a bit shocked when I said "US." We chatted a bit as we rode up to Angkor Thom. After exploring for a few hours, we went to lunch. I bought him lunch to pick his brain on the area, beginning the three day conversation that will stay with me.

To me, Cambodia's poverty is devastating, far worse than Manila or Guatemala, my previous experience with soul crushing poverty. Per capita GDP is just over $2,000, or roughly 4 percent of per capita GDP in US. But in reality, this really overstates it. Some 80 percent live in poverty, defined as an income of 2 dollars a day or less. Most of that 80 percent makes more like a dollar a day. While wealth and cost of living, at some level is relative -- most of the meals I ate in the country, largely from street carts or market vendors, only cost 2-3 dollars, that is wicked expensive for most people who subsist on something akin to a rice soup. Any protein is a luxury here.

Riding by Tuk Tuk provided a vantage that a car or bus would miss: the smell and the noise. Rural Cambodia smelled like fire, because every home had one going in the yard to cook. As for noise, if not for the roar of an occasional tourist bus and mopeds, it would have been silent. We stopped at one particularly beautiful rice field, and it was absolutely still. You could hear animals and men cutting in the rice fields. No hum of development, no loud stereos. Quiet. Almost disturbingly so.

So back to my guy. Turns out we are same age. He's married. Three kids. Age 6, 3 and 1 (spoiler alert), the oldest who I first met when Syem and I ran into each other at a town Christmas lighting my first night there.

He was the first in his family to live outside of the rice fields. His family land was bombed by the US in the Vietnam War. His dad lost a leg to a mine accident, and it sounds like his brother has PTSD, which research unsurprisingly shows afflicts a disturbing percentage of the population here. There is growing evidence in Cambodia that because PTSD is so prevalent that it actually gets passed on to the next generation.

Despite this, my driver self taught English, not perfect, but plenty for us to communicate. Over lunch, I drill him a bit. He listens to voice of America and watches CNN & knows our politics well. He pointed out with frustration the pictures of government officials that line the roads, just muttering "corrupt, very corrupt" as we pass beaten down schools and hospitals. They don't really do anything for the people he says.

Tourism has been a boom for this part of Cambodia. Some 1 million people a year come to see Angkor. Hotels and new construction are everywhere. In fact, I found the town to almost be annoyingly western. You had to get out of city center to find good authentic food. The development has led to jobs, but its hard to say if people are really benefiting. I ran through several neighborhoods on Sunday morning & basic services are completely lacking. The beautiful river which goes through the center of town turns into a dumping ground, sewage ditch and sadly, swimming/bathing pool only a block away from the tourist district.  Running past naked kids splashing in that polluted sewer of a river was jarring. The main hospital in town looked like a war zone from the outside. No westerner would go there except under total direst. Yet the wealth from tourism has led to a series of beautiful homes being built behind walls, just outside the city limits.

My guy came here after peace was restored in the late 90s, and all in all does well. Makes enough to be able to afford to send his kids to private school (50 dollars a month) where they will learn English. He owns his own cart, though he seems to operate as a subcontractor for the hotel, which I'm assuming provides him a lower, but more steady income. His wife does not work now, so he has to earn for him, his family, his disabled dad and his brother, who can't hold down work. In a year, he will make less than I made in a month at 24 years of age.

Like him, there isn't a family that wasn't touched by the war that took some 2 million lives. My guy was a baby during the genocide, but like all Cambodian kids of the 80s & 90s, he grew up dodging landlines and dealing with violence from the ongoing civil war that didn't really end until nearly 2000. We'd drive down the road and he'd point out fields and say "pop, pop, Khmer Rouge" with his hand making a gun. Once he got on his knees to show an execution. And frankly, his story is a relatively tame one. He's still here, along with his parents. Plenty of late 30s/early 40s guys in Cambodia can't say that.

Climbing temples, you can't help but think of families that hid in the ruins for years. And you can't miss the crushing poverty, in part because everyone is really short, growth stunted by lack of basic nutrition. Yet everyone you meet is absolutely wonderful. Cambodians, despite their history and poverty are some of the most welcoming and gracious people on the planet. And that's where it gets you, and if you let yourself dive in, it's no longer a vacation. In fact, I never once felt threatened -- well except when I got a stink eye from a military officer running through town. My gut says most Cambodians probably feel the same way.

You can get Templed out here. On day 2, we did like 12-14 sites. Climbing up old stairs not built for 200lb guys with size11.5 shoes, even when you are decently fit, will wear you out. So by Day 3, I just wanted to explore. There was a temple about 35km north of town and a museum to landmine nearby that I wanted to see. But I told my guy I just wanted him to show me his country, the way he wanted me to see it.

When he picked me up, he had his kid. There were places he wanted to show him too, now that he was 6, who had not been beyond the Angkor temples, which are 10km north of town. So we climbed in the cart and off we went. As soon as we got outside the temple tourist area, Cambodia changed. We passed ox drawn carriages taking timber and rice to the market. We drove by homes, usually just a 15x15 platform, raised up on stilts to avoid the floods, with families cooking on their open fires, kids often playing in nearby ponds, some of which were bomb craters. I didn't run into a single beggar, but I was definitely economic development. Every time we stopped, sometimes for above mentioned ox carts, people would run to the tall white guy trying to get me to buy everything from baskets, to rice, to trinkets and even used Tupperware. When we'd walk around, my driver's kid would often ride on my shoulders (not sure he's hung out with many 6ft tall white people), which only drew more sales people, sometimes other kids who really wanted me to put them on my shoulder as much as wanting me to buy their stuff.

At one temple, I met a girl selling scarves. She looked 11. I asked her her name and age. She was 21, raising money for college, so she said. There was a story with every kid selling things, and prewired to be cynical, I thought it was BS, so I asked her course of study: economics. I was still skeptical, so I asked her why many Cambodians choose the dollar over the Cambodian Rial. Her answer: 2-3 minutes on the micro economics of the country and lack of trust in Cambodian authority/currency policy. So I bought four scarves. Sad thing is, she's exactly who Pol Pot would have targeted- someone trying to better their own lot by being more intellectual. That's who they killed in the genocide. As a result, some studies suggest illiteracy is as high as 90 percent.

This is a crowd that seems to take real pride. Every morning, you'd see ladies sweeping the dirt medians, or cleaning up the market area. Guys were chopping down weeds with machetes. Some of them are paid, but most of them aren't. Kids are taught to bring their hands together and bow to guests. My six year old buddy bowed to me. By the end of the day, I'd proudly taught him the fist bump as a more appropriate greeting for me. His Dad approved.

I could tell stories for weeks about little interactions here or there, and I found myself exhausted of tourists who would treat their Cambodian hosts like second class citizens, and/or those who chose to not show respect at their monuments. For all they have survived, they've earned our respect in my opinion. I haven't had to endure 1/1000th of what the average 40 year old Cambodian has dealt with.

Back to the trip. It's me and the kid in the cart. We rode down the "highway" as he pointed out the animals: monkeys, dogs, and assorted other things. I ran him through his colors and numbers. Smart little dude.

Typically, because my driver hadn't paid the "fee" to be an "official" guide, over the three days, when we got to temples, he didn't accompany me into temples (unless there were no police around). He did ask me to take his kid to one early on day 3, which was more fun for me than him.

When I got to the genocide museum, I expected to go it alone. But before I knew it, I had a six year old at my feet, as well as his Dad. We spent an hour in that museum. He explained to me the pictures, the political figures and the weapons. He knew every gun, it's common name and what country it came from. He showed me the uniforms. His view of foreign policy was impacted by those countries who armed Pol Pot. This wasn't a museum for him, this was his life. His kid had no idea what were seeing, he was just running around like a kid, mostly pointing out tad poles in a nearby pond.

But then we got to a wall of pictures that hit me like a 2x4. It was of child soldiers, some as young as 8. They taught the kids that shooting was a game. There was a poster of a kid asking a dead man to "get up, i want to keep playing." And I looked at that kid who had been in the cart all day. And I had to walk outside. That was all the Cambodia I could take.

I went back up to Angkor Wat for the final sunset. Most people watch it from a hill nearby so they can see the sun set over the temple. That hill can have literally thousands of tourists, which was the last thing I needed. A lady at the hotel told me to go inside, that no one is there, and watch the color of the stone change. And she was right. There were maybe 5 of us in that upper courtyard watching the light change. It was beautiful, as the shadows changed on the carvings. It was also a chance to process.  How is it that people who literally have lived in a constant hell for 40 years still be as warm and welcoming as they are? I'd like to think I wouldn't be angry, or have total disdain for guys like me. I'd like to think that.

He took me to the airport late on Sunday night, gratefully for me, sans kid.  First time in three days we didn't talk. I didn't know what to pay him each day, so I'd give him two $20s, twice his fee, but still way too little.  Each day, as he did at the airport that night, he'd try to give me $20 back, saying "too much...too much." Too much?  I'd pay for his kids to go to school if I thought he'd let me.   We exchanged hugs, I gave him my card, and off we went back to our own, very different worlds -- worlds as different as planets.    

Life's lottery is dumb luck. By world standards, if you are reading this, you like me are lucky. Guys like me don't have institutionalized limits on our dreams -- our dreams are limited only by our work ethic and often the luck we create. That kid's future is predestined largely by the geography of his birth, yet he was like any other six year old. Fortunately for him, he is getting an education, clearly has two good parents, but the history of Cambodia suggests there is no guarantee for him or his age cohort. In a land of such poverty and disparity, violence is always a real possibility. As the kid gave me a hug and a fist bump at the end of that long day, I do know I'll always wonder.

You can go there and rent a car, or hop on a bike and go temple hopping. I expected to be, and was wowed by the temples. What I didn't expect is to get hit over the head by the place. A friend who went to grad school in Vietnam told me that three days was all they could handle in Cambodia before it started to break them down. I didn't understand. I do now.

I do believe things happen for a reason. Maybe God felt I needed to be reminded of the blessings of life in America. Regardless, His Christmas present to me was that regrounding that we all need from time to time.

With that, the blog will return to politics soon, as life's other journeys take priority. I sincerely appreciate all the comments I've gotten over the last two weeks. Just do yourself a favor: go see it for yourself. Angkor is amazing in its own right, but the people you meet are worthy in their own right of your trip. And if you go, I know where you can find a guy there with a moped and a cart. Just down the street from the Borei Angkor hotel. Only 18 bucks for the day.





Saying goodbye to Malaysia -- For now.

As I wrestle with how to write this last post on Malaysia, I keep thinking of my ACYPL colleague Sarah Fisher's words who said riding to our last dinner: "I don't know if my friends will get this place, no matter how much I try to explain it." I briefly argued the point, because I thought I had it figured out.

But upon the reflection that only comes on 1 hour of sleep, inside a crowded airplane flying over rural Cambodia, I'm not so sure. See, I intended to write a post about the choice facing this country, the choice to fully embrace modernity and grow, or to continue a fairly recent path that is arguably more inward. But the reality is that question --even though I posed it in every meeting or conversation that we had - is unfair because it over simplifies it. Nothing about this place is binary, in fact, I don't even know a word to describe it. Other than love - because I did fall in love with the place and many of the people I met.

The four days in Kuala Lumpur (called KL here) were an absolute whirlwind, seemingly over long before it started. We met with government and political leaders of both the opposition and ruling parties, talked with a broad stroke of media figures, wandered through markets, attended a Christmas party at a home where most people weren't Christian, had fascinating dinners, drank at our hotel bar which looked like the bar scene from Star Wars, and even sang karaoke until 3am. Our Malaysian hosts showed us the time of our lives. Most of us truly fell in love with the place.

So let me set the table.

The scene in KL was more urban than Kuching, and while equally as accepting of religious diversity, KL -- and all of west Malaysia is distinctively Muslim. At the same time, it was more cosmopolitan. Whereas Kuching for us was mostly cultural, the KL days were almost exclusively political.

Malaysia has been ruled exclusively by one governing coalition since independence, and within the coalition, Malay Muslims are the majority. The opposition is a lose affiliation of Chinese, Indians and Malays, and is far more diverse from a religious standpoint.

Malaysia elects its Prime Minister in the British Parliament fashion -- independent elections in constituencies, with the PM going to party or coalition that wins most seats. In 2013, most seats did not equate to most votes, as the opposition coalition won 52 percent of all votes, but only 45 percent of all seats. The way that the constitution apportions seats, one man, one vote, does not apply. Several rural areas have constituencies 1/10th the size of urban seats. The ruling coalition dominated these districts and maintained a majority in Parliament.

Politics in Malaysia doesn't fit in a US right/left paradigm, so this is an over simplification...but the ruling coalition appears to be operating in more of a "base" position, such as embracing a handful of more hard line Islamic positions in attempt to appeal to religion. The opposition is more of a "median voter" position, taking a more technocratic aim on issues of good governance and tolerance.

History says in places like Malaysia, the ruling coalition will eventually fall, so I asked everyone the same question: "where is Malaysia in 10 years?" There was no consensus. What's clear is Malaysia faces a choice. What's not so clear is what the choice is. The ruling and opposition coalitions are loose on their best days.

I did meet two very impressive young leaders, Khairy Jammaluddin, the nation's tech savvy minister of youth and sports, and Nurul Izzah, the 33 year old daughter of one of Malaysia's most famous public figures. Both are bright, charismatic and probably on a crash course to be Prime Minister. My politics definitely align more with Nurul, but both represent a different way of doing business.

The opposition believes the system is rigged against them, and frankly, they might be right. Institutional gerrymandering eschews the balance of power, an bias towards Malays gives the advantage up the ruling party, as do media laws that require papers and radio station to get annual government approval to operate. Opposition candidates get poor coverage, and can't buy ads. But as Japan and Mexico showed, all the interference in the world can't stop a movement for change.

Someone described Malaysia as 80 percent democratic, and that's seems about accurate. And while we met with a more urban crowd, there does seem to be a quiet movement out there for a more forward leaning Malaysia. I will say, I do think the country could be a true Asian tiger - it's geographically well positioned, is small enough to make operating easy, and has a large educated and English speaking population. It's a great Asian entry point for business. But it feels like the country is a bit underachieving.

I had no expectations about Malaysia. From reading, I expected to find a tense, sectarian society, that at times would be uncomfortable for Americans. What I found was an open country, filled with a diverse population of very warm and hospitable people, who despite their ethnic and religious differences, get along pretty well. I never felt like an outsider in Malaysia.

Like America, the differences are at an institutional level, magnified by their politicians, who seek to stove pipe people. But attending a Christmas Party at the home of an Indian, attended by Malay Muslims, Chinese Christians and certainly others, it's clear at least in urban KL, like Kuching, that sectarianism isn't going to win out.

In the end, I came away with lifelong friends, especially Jack Lim, our host, who is a credit to his nation, moving easily and seamlessly through all factions as a trusted person to all -- and a darn good karaoke singer. I also came away with more questions than answers, and a real love for this place. I was prepared to experience Malaysia. I wasn't prepared to fall in love. The people, the culture, the food and the vibe of the place is infectious. As one of my colleagues said, it is modern 'western' enough to be comfortable for guys like me, while still steadfastly Asian, which makes it energetic and always interesting.

Two things for sure. I come home with six new American friends who are now like family to me, and a strong desire to come back and learn more about this part of the world.

Next post: Cambodia.



Finding Peace in Sarawak

We all landed in Malaysia exhausted. The Philippines was hard on everyone: the travel, the pollution and the long days had taken its toll on all of us. Don't get me wrong, the Philippines was a magical experience on many levels, but it beat us up physically and emotionally. We all showed up at the airport looking pretty rough, and excited that our travel day only included a dinner.

So we were a bit shocked when we got to the connecting airport in Kuala Lumpur to learn that we were meeting with the Deputy Chief Minister (think Lt Governor) of Sarawak, the eastern Malaysian state where we'd be spending the first half of our Malaysian trip -- and the visit was a "state courtesy call" meaning we'd need to be in business attire -- and the meeting was 45 min after we landed in Sarawak. Fortunately the parents of our host in Sarawak was kind enough to let us change at her house.

We headed to our first meeting not quite sure why we were in Kuching, the Capitol city of Sarawak. It's a smallish city located on a remote part of the island of Borneo, part of east Malaysia. It has a very tropical feel, located just 1 degree north of the equator, where the length of the longest day of the year and the shortest are separated by only 12 minutes. The weather is very Florida-esque and frankly, I liked the city the moment we landed.

Our first meeting was with the state government. Their power structure is highly centralized, though not autocratic. They talked about the relative lack of poverty and racial strife in a state that is home to 26 different ethnic and tribal groups. The government is hyperfocused on development: industrial farming, hydroelectric and aquaculture - and essentially they use development to buy peace in their state. The leaders were amazingly on message, deflecting any hard question we asked, and the press was very controlled. One paper included a quote from a colleague which bore no resemblance to what he said. That being said, they had a clear idea of what they were trying to accomplish.

The next day we met with opposition leaders who spoke of widespread corruption and a lack of civic participation and discourse. Many of their observations matched my gut feeling about the meeting with government.

However, what was most interesting about the several hours we spent with these leaders was the fact they came from all walks of life: a Muslim woman running the women's empowerment division, their elected leaders represented several tribes who were Christian, while their young social media maven was Chinese. Their platform actually endorsed both naming Islam as the official ceremonial religion of the country, and further enshrining religious freedom in the constitution.

Wandering around town I saw the same thing: extreme diversity coexisting in total peace. Mosques right down the street from churches, Buddhist shrines located in the parks across the street from Hindu places of worship, and young women wearing the hijab would walk down the street with Chinese boys in shorts. I imagine a poll of this town would have found widespread confusion why there was even a debate in the US over whether a mosque could be built in downtown New York City. Here you could almost imagine Christians offering to help their Muslim brothers build a Mosque, while maybe the next week they'd all go work on a Buddhist temple. It's a outward display of religious freedom not frequently seen. Frankly, it was very cool.

Our visit here was much more casual than the Philippines. We went to a cultural center, toured a museum, attended church for a high school band concert and walked through the market. But more than anything, our gracious host Sharon Ling arranged for us to share meals with real people, and gave us time to explore this really interesting town.

On our second to last morning, I went for a long run, made much longer by my getting very lost. I ran down neighborhood streets, by the bus station, along the river, through a park and generally anywhere I thought would get me back to the Hilton. Despite being conspicuous (running white guy in a bright shirt), it's easy to feel very at home here, because everyone here is different.

Cultures are married here. I met a Brit, turned Kiwi who decided to settle in Kuching after working a project in town. He said the town celebrates every holiday, and I saw it with my own eyes. My colleague Nathan Dahm, a Republican state senator from Oklahoma and I walked a few blocks in the Christmas Parade, blending in with a group from a local church, and lining the streets on a dark rainy night were plenty of Muslims and Hindus.

And the band concert we attended was at a local church, though it seemed from the attire of the parents there to see their kids, that the vast majority weren't Christian. You are getting the idea.

It began to make sense why we came. This part of the exchange wasn't supposed to be like the Philippines, which was formal and official. Rather this was pure cultural exchange, a chance to immerse in a town for a long weekend, bond as a group, have meaningful conversations with real Malaysians, and just be a part of it all.

What is amazing about this uniquely unremarkable town is its a place where all of the things that cause conflict around the world manage to survive in peace, because it seems these people have decided to embrace their differences and revel in their diversity. As a result, even though we were clearly outsiders, we all felt very comfortable here, and it showed. We marched in bands, some of us danced at a reenacted tribal ceremony, ate really amazing and exotic food, and some even did karaoke with a Malaysian lounge act, which among other things, performed history's most amazingly horrible rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. It was easy to let your guard down here, because seemingly guards aren't allowed here.

Kuching isn't perfect. There's plenty of dirt around the edges, it's worn in many areas, and the city could use a good pressure wash and paint job. Further, there seems to be widespread agreement -- and in some circles, acceptance that the government does enrich itself. It's also not fancy, as the aforementioned Brit/Kiwi said, "it's a three star town." You will never see it in a travel magazine, and it won't blow you away. But there is something about it.

The people who live here are relaxed and happy, and they content to trade a few luxuries in exchange for peace, mutual understanding and middle class prosperity. After three days here, I get it. Hope to see you again Kuching.

Onward to Kuala Lumpur.



The week in metro Manila has been amazing, but the last full day brought home the true blessings of being an American.

The unique relationship between our two counties is often forgotten on our side of the fence, but in the Philippines, the relationship brings immense pride. The Philippine population living in the states is four million strong, meaning you hardly meet anyone who doesn't have family in our country. The country feels like a bridge between east and west, a marriage of Asian, Hispanic and American influences, though the identity is clearly more west than east. They know our national issues -- sometimes better than us, embrace much of the culture, and watch our sports, particularly the NBA.

At times, at least in relative terms, our trips were sterile. We traveled by embassy bus, often under escort (for traffic navigation, not safety) and met with government officials, many of whom had prepackaged presentations. And everywhere we were greeted with a fanfare and distinction unworthy of our traveling motley crew. Banners greeted us everywhere and most of the time it felt like we were being followed by paparazzi, with 10-20 fotogs recording every handshake and every expression.

But nothing matched Manila, where we were met City Hall with a red carpet and the city marching band playing Stars and Stripes Forever, as literally hundreds of people - surely mostly curious, watched from the sidewalk or their windows. It was a moment I'll never forget. In Manila, we were also escorted by the historical society director on a tour of the historic walled city, and met with the country's youngest Senator, Ban Acquino, who in his historic family's legacy is very bright, thoughtful and committed to good governance. In a country where birthright dictates political prominence, there is no doubt he is on a path to the Presidency and frankly, in my short hour with him, he showed the tools of a great leader of his country.

Yesterday, we also ran into poverty on an unimaginable scale. Shanty towns built inside flood drainage tunnels by the river, old barges and boats permanently docked as housing for construction workers, naked children diving from an abandoned crane into the polluted river to swim -- the same river adults were bathing in 100 yards away, while others fished for their dinner down stream, and everyone collectively living in a smog that literally chokes off a complete breath.

What was stunning is rarely did public officials speak of this, and until the last 48 hours, I was afraid to ask. It felt as though poverty was a "don't ask, don't tell" issue. But as I got courage, the answers were interesting, from stock "economic development" to more thoughtful ones. Senator Acquino was easily the most versed in actual policies to create opportunity through education and micro economics. Many of their solutions hardly make sense viewed from a US right - left ideological lens, which also created in reverse interesting questions. One woman flat asked me why our country, as rich as we are, was even debating whether everyone should get good health care. Forgive the editorial comment, but frankly after being in the Philippines, it's hard for me to understand that question either.

That being said, you can't come here and not come away with a more fuller understanding of how lucky we are as Americans -- and how the vast majority of people here look to us to be the world beacon. Yesterday I found my Philippine sea legs, often walking away from the group and finding people to talk to. Everywhere people would talk of their dreams to visit or ask about something happening with their family in the states.

At City Hall, I met four young college students, each studying tourism, all who wanted to see Disney World. At a historical site, I met a woman who had visited 30 states to see her "almost 500 relatives" in the states. And even the photographer from the National Movement of Young Legislators, who escorted us the entire trip, talked of coming to the states to one day see his son box.

But one particular moment got me. I was boarding the "coaster" (our bus) and this lady was standing on the sidewalk about 50 feet away waving, holding her child. She was obviously quite poor, but smiling ear to ear. I walked over to greet her, and as I got close she pointed at me smiling and said to her kid "America." I touched her kid's hand, who looked by development to be 16-18 months old and said to the mom "he's beautiful -- how old?" Two and a half she said. Despite the obvious love of his mother, poverty had clearly stunted this boy's development. I choked back a tear before walking away.

The Philippine leaders haven't always had the right priorities. Senator TG Guingona, who chairs the equivalent of the Senate Ethics Committee estimates that 40 percent of all government revenue is lost to corruption, a number that if even half right is stunning. And we certainly met at least one local leader who seemed more than willing to let that persist. One even blamed anti corruption laws for slowing economy progress. But most real people I talked to held the opposite view, that the country's woes, from poverty to infrastructure were a direct result of corruption.

But for all of the problems, this not a sad place, in fact, it's quite the opposite. In the face of gripping poverty, there is a contagious vibe here, and we met countless young leaders committed to better governing and innovative progress. And with 40 million people out of 97 million living on less than 2 dollars a day, it's going to take those leaders to help move the country from developing to developed status. That being said, I found lots if reasons to be hopeful, surrounded by problems of a magnitude that our elected leaders cannot imagine.

One of the country's great former leaders Manuel Quezon once said words that can still apply today -- universally: "All that is necessary is that every public official, from President down to the last police officer, is to know that the office is not given to him for the purpose of his own personal aggrandizement or profit, nor with the idea of permitting him to abuse the powers of that office. Public office is given to a man in the interest of the people of the country." Leaving, I'm confident that a younger generation is truly embracing this, both here in Philippines, but also in the USA.

Most of the Philippines I didn't feel well, due to the combination of food, 16-18 hour days, bus rides that were indescribable (imagine weaving in and out of traffic on a motorcycle -- except instead of a motorcycle, you are riding on a bus), lack of sleep, poor air quality, lack of western sanitation standards and jet lag. For two days, I subsisted on Advil, Imodium, Jamba Juice, Gatorade and Gu. But regardless, I definitely go to Malaysia a healthier person, with many new friends from a country that generally loves ours, and a renewed appreciation and pride of the blessing that comes with American birthright and citizenship.

Everyone in America should be so lucky to experience a similar journey.

Now Malaysia...


Making the change

Yesterday, we visited the embassy and spent several hours in briefings.

The challenges facing the Philippines are staggering when compared to our own, namely 42 percent of the population living in poverty - at a poverty line of 2 dollars a day. And the poverty is everywhere, you can't miss it.

Along with the poverty came an interesting statistic: only 20 percent of the population uses banks.

The visit to the City of Quezon City was an insight into how governments are addressing both of these. Quezon City, with a population of 3.3 million citizens, has nearly 65% of its population in substandard housing, due to a massive migration over the last 20 years.

So the city has taken two interesting steps:

One, they have instituted a tax on homeowners to create a corporation to move people out of substandard housing and into safe homeownership. Residents who qualify pay roughly 50 dollars a month for their new home mortgages, and the interest is returned to the taxed homeowners. The city appears to be having some issues meeting the demand, but it is an interesting concept for getting residents into better homes.

Secondly, working with USAID, the city is allowing its residents to pay taxes and other fees through their cell phone, and will begin paying employees through direct deposit. Along the same line, there is an effort to educate residents on saving and banking.

The challenges here are so different than our own, thus the solutions may seem a bit foreign, but it's fascinating listening to some of the interesting ideas that officials are trying to address problems that are seemingly intractable.

And the journey continues...


An Amazing Country

After a day to adjust, we set off for our first real day of work with a jammed schedule that took us to two provincial capitols.

The Philippines is a colorful place, with equally colorful people. Like other developing countries I've visited, it literally smacks you in the face, from the smog of an early morning run, the sight of cops with machine guns, the gripping poverty that borders the edge of every highway, or the traffic which is as ubiquitous as the tropical humidity.

But it's also home to absolutely wonderful people, who love and are proud of their country. I could spend a year here just visiting the people who in the last 48 hours have invited us to their homes and communities. One woman gave me a beautiful piece of art she had woven after simply talking to her about her community and craft for 5 minutes. I don't think you could spend time here and not want to come back.

Today was interesting in many ways. We traveled with police escort most of the day to help us get through traffic, which was a little like riding inside a video game. We met the populist and politically ambitious Governor of Cavite, who graciously spent well over an hour with us. And we stopped at Taal Volcano, one of the most stunning views anywhere in the world.

But nothing quite prepared any of us for our state visit to Laguna. The Governor of Laguna, Jeorge "ER" Ejercito, is a top Philippine actor, whose colorful character is only topped by the energy of his government's commitment to transforming his constituency. His ideas are bold, maybe even a little cheesy and crazy, but the guy is all in. And he's taking his skills and marketing his community like he'd market a movie. The music videos he's produced to market tourism in Laguna in a word are epic.

He spent nearly four hours with us and other leaders from his community. His Chief of Staff, Carlos Dolendo, could do stand-up. I've never laughed so hard through a power point. And his staff are tireless and there is a real spirit of can-do attitude.

And in a nutshell, that's been my Philippines experience so far. Bright people, with lots of energy, who love their country and almost universally love America. The challenges here are real and you can't miss them, but everywhere we go, we find leaders -- particularly young leaders, who are going to find a way to will their communities to a better place. It's inspiring, and in the absence of sleep, it's fuel to keep going.








Welcome to Manila

The adventure is finally here as our seven member delegation landed in Manila after 20 hours in the air.

Landing in Manila is like landing in Florida, the humidity just smacks you the moment you walk off the plane. We were met by Embassy staff, which made immigration a piece of cake, and off we rode to our hotel, driving through a lively and colorful suburban neighborhood.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the President of the National Movement of Young Legislators, our hosts here in the Philippines, who invited us to a party they were hosting in the hotel. Granted, we'd all been up 30 hours, but what was 15 more minutes?

After checking in, I wandered over to their party. They asked us each to speak (which none of us were prepaed for!) then my US colleagues and I wandered around to chat with the 60-70 leaders in the room. I met a ton of interesting and gracious Philippine electeds: a young man representing a community in North Luzon, who immediately offered to host me in his community, a young woman, April Marie Dayap, who represents one of the extreme southern islands, who was very helpful explaining to me the insurrection movements near her community, and a fellow my age, Dave Almarinez, a Harvard educated businessman who does work in Florida.

But one conversation will haunt me. I introduced myself to a young man, who I regret not getting a card from. He represented a community impacted directly by the Typhoon. He rode out the storm in a bathroom, and when I asked him if his family had made it through OK, he just shook his head no. But he went on to talk about the resiliency of his community and the response of the international community, and how the two combined give him nothing but hope about the future.

And in the end, that's what this is really all about. We are all just people, occupying the same space, living through triumph and tragedy, interdependent upon each other. The extra two hours last night at the height of exhaustion was well worth it.

It's truly an honor to be a part of this trip.



The Debate is Over

In late September, Representative Ray Pilon, a Republican legislator from Sarasota, filed a piece of legislation that makes an interesting, and probably unintended statement about the state of Presidential politics in Florida.

Representative Pilon's bill, House Bill 75, would change the way that Florida allocates its Presidential electors from winner take all, to an allocation by Congressional districts.  In other words, Florida would no longer be worth 29 electoral votes to the winner of Florida, but instead would be worth 2 to the winner, plus however many Congressional districts carried by the candidate.  

So instead of President Obama winning 29 electoral votes, he would have won 2 for carrying the statewide vote, plus 11 more for the 11 congressional seats he carried for a total of 13.  Mitt Romney would have won 16 electoral votes, for the 16 Congressional seats he carried.  In other words, despite losing the popular vote, Mitt Romney would have carried a three electoral vote advantage out of Florida, which is very similar to the advantage he would have had under Pilon's proposal if neither campaign had contested the state.

Notwithstanding the many issues with awarding by Congressional seats, the bill is an interesting admission:  Republicans are finally admitting some 20 years after Florida entered the pantheon of swing seats that the state is no longer safe GOP territory, but in fact, Florida might even lean a slight tinge of blue in Presidential years -- enough so that a few members of the legislature would rather trade the chance of carrying home a huge electoral prize in exchange for a guarantee of a small plurality every four years.

Why would they do this?  Well, under virtually any allignment in nearly the last 100 years, the GOP doesn't have a real path to the White House without winning Florida.  In fact, Calvin Coolidge was the last Republican to go to the White House without Florida, at a time when we only had six electoral votes.  They simply can not make up the 29 electoral votes if they lose Florida, but if they can guarantee a 3-5 electoral vote plurality -- even if they lose Florida, their math gets a lot easier.  At the same time, given the way Congressional districts perform, it would also mean Florida was as significant in the Presidential arena as Idaho or Maine.

I bring this up for this reason:  in my space in the Florida punditocracy, I feel like I've spent much of the past six or seven years debating the silly question of whether Florida is actually a swing state.  No less than Nate Silver openly raised this question between 2008 and 2012, and countless GOP pundits (that's mostly you, my brother from another party Albert Martinez!!!) love to spend the summer months of each leap year spinning the tale that the Democrats don't actually take Florida seriously in Presidential elections.  In fact, as late as a week before the 2012 general election, I was still having to make the case to both national and state press -- not whether we could win Florida, but that the state was even competitive for President Obama.  Frankly, as a few of my friends in the press corps know, I found that debate mindnumbing.

But here are the facts:

Since 1992, the Presidential elections in Florida have been decided by 2, 6, 0, 5, 3, and 1% margins, in that order.

The Democrats have won 3, the Republicans have won 3.  I'd argue one as a tie, but history gave it to the team that was the home team that year.

Since 1992, 39,134,751 ballots have been cast in Florida for President, and only 132,763 votes separate the GOP and the Dems -- with the edge going to the Democrats.

That margin is only .34%, within the margin of recount here.

In other words, despite the every four year debate, the facts are clear, Florida is a swing seat at the Presidential level.  

And my friend Ray Pilon, whether he meant to or not, simply confirmed it.






A moment of actual political courage

Five years ago today, something extraordinary happened.  A Republican Governor, working with the House Democratic Leader in the Florida Legislature, issued an executive order to extend early voting hours.

Reading the recollections of from my buddy Dan Gelber on his blog today, I wanted to write down my own.

I was in the midst of the dream ride of my life, running the Florida operation for then Senator Obama.  The blur of the previous four months had given way to reality:  early voting was open and people were voting.  In fact lots of people -- too many people for the capacity of Florida's early voting locations.

The enthusiasm for Senator Obama had literally flooded the first few days of early voting, and we were now facing a real issue, would people stand in line to vote, often four, five, even six hours? The evidence was that some would, but many would not.  I talked to our legal team as we considered taking legal action to force the state to lengthen the voting hours, but we honestly thought it was an uphill battle against the state, led by then Republican Governor Charlie Crist.

Late the night of the 27th, I was sitting on the dark floorboard of a campaign bus on a Joe Biden tour across Florida worried about this problem.  Our staff and volunteers were calling every minute of
everyday to flag the growing problem of the early voting hours.  With my perpetually low on battery cell phone plugged into the one cigarette lighter on the bus, inconveniently positioned pretty much
under the steering wheel, I did the one thing I often did when I wasn't sure what to do: call my friend and former boss Dan Gelber.

We talked for a good 30 minutes that night about options, none of them were very good.  Basically, in order to ensure the franchise of Floridians, our only option was a long shot legal case.  I didn't sleep much that night in the Holiday Inn Ocala, worried we could lose this election simply because our people couldn't vote.  The number 537 was basically imprinted on my forehead after 2000 -- and working the recount that followed.

The next morning, we had this very cool rally with about 5,000 people at a ranch outside of Ocala.  I remember it was an absolutely beautiful morning, and I was having a conversation with Senator Nelson
about the voting lines, when Dan called me back and said "why don't I just call the Governor and see if he will issue an executive order" to extend early voting hours.  With great skepticism, and probably a
caffeine induced sarcastic expletive or two, I said sure.  It was as good of an idea as any, but frankly, it had to be the longest of long shots.

Dan called me back about 15 minutes later. To my surprise, he had reached Crist and shockingly, at least to me, he was willing to do something.

Like many Democrats, I had found Crist to be a reasonable guy, but clearly on the issue of voting, he had to toe the party line, right?  I mean, this is a guy who just two months earlier was on the short list for VP of the guy we were trying to beat.

Turns out, Dan had found an executive order from 2002 which Jeb Bush had issued when a shibacle with voting machines in Broward had led to voters being turned away or standing in long lines.  That order extended voting hours, and created a precedent.  It was enough for Gov Crist to issue his order:  four more hours of voting each of the last five days of early voting.  When Dan called me that afternoon, I was shocked.

Almost immediately, Speaker Marco Rubio suggested the House might challenge Crist's ruling, but in the end, I am assuming decided that even if he succeeded in reversing the Crist order, it could come at
great political peril.

The rest is history.  People continued to turn out in literal droves. In many places, the lines were still very long, but the opportunity to cast a ballot was much less cumbersome.  The extension of hours had a secondary impact:  it meant more than half of people who would vote in 2008 cast their ballot before Election Day, making that day run much smoother.  The three day drama of 2012 did not happen in 2008, in large part because Election Day was a breeze.

It also gave me a very cool personal moment.  The sheer number of people who had turned out before Election Day meant that our likely lead going into November 4, 2008 was likely bigger than McCain could overcome, giving me the opportunity to tell then Senator Obama on  November 3rd in Jacksonville that we had likely already sealed the deal here in Florida.  And with the last Republican to win the White
House without Florida being Calvin Coolidge, winning Florida meant it was pretty much game, set, match.

Fast forward four years, and we all know what happened.  Long lines, created by shorter voting periods, an Election Day that was in several places, a complete mess, and a Florida election once again a punch line on late night TV. The current Governor chose not to take action.

The politically expedient move Governor Crist on October 28, 2008 would have been to hit ignore on the phone when Dan Gelber's number came up, and simply to say there was nothing he could do.  But he took the call, and worked with a member not of his party to solve this problem, just as he had on big issues before and just as he would after.  He didn't check with his base, or run it by a pollster, or go out and do some focus groups.  Instead he simply took a phone call from a member of the other party and made a decision that he knew many in his own party would not like.  

Unfortunately for him, and frankly unfortunately for America, too often these days, elected officials are measured only by their blind party loyalty. In the end, because of his bipartisan approach, his party base basically threw him out.  This isn't just a problem in the GOP -- though it seems more acute their today, it is a problem in both parties.  The word bipartisanship in the political echo chamber is now a bad word, even though I am convinced Americans are begging for it.   I truly worry that rank partisanship on both sides is slowly tearing apart the fabric of our country.  

Dan used to say about his Republican friends in Tallahassee that when they bucked leadership it took real courage and should be celebrated.  On that day, five years ago, Charlie Crist showed real courage, the kind of courage that is rare today, in any state, and sadly, by either party.


Remembering Matt

I don't use this space to write about personal stuff much.  Today I will diverge.

Today is my friend Matt Grindy's birthday. He is 33.  Or well, he should be.  Instead he left us, just a few days before Valentines Day in 2008.  He barely saw 27.

I met Matt, like we all meet so many people in our lives, simply by chance.  In the summer of 2006, I went back to graduate school. I had initially signed up for a class at FSU in the Political Science department, but a friend of mine, Trevor Kincaid, suggested I take a political communications class taught by Danielle Weise in the Communications Department.  So I did.  

I walked in the first day and I was both the oldest one there, at the ripe age of like 31, and one of only 8 grad students in a class mixed with graduate and undergraduate students.  I was in a suit, and rather stuck out in an afternoon summer class at FSU.  I am sure you can imagine.

Matt Grindy was a PhD student in the class and on that first day, introduced himself, probably mostly curious what this guy in the suit was doing.  Tall and casual, the look of a lifelong grad student, I liked Matt immediately and we started to hang out.  And when the class was over, we would occasionally meet for coffee, debating things like who would be the next Democratic nominee for President.  I liked Obama.  I think he was more a Richardson guy at the time, but think I helped him get there on the junior Senator from Illinois.

About that time (I may have calendar a bit wrong), Matt found out he had a rare and rather devastating form of cancer.  He spent a lot of time getting treated at Shands, and spending a lot of time on the road, I started to go see him, typically as often as I could get an hour or so off the interstate in Gainesville.  I often stopped too so I could update our mutual friend, Alex Acosta, who was living in Mexico about how Matt was doing.  It was about that time that I met his wife Amber Bell, who if there is ever a book written about caring for a loved one, should be the subject.   Unconditional love doesn't even start to describe the way she cared for him during that time.  

Matt's treatment was brutal.  They threw pretty much everything they had at it.  It seemed every time they would get close to some new treatment that might get him on a better path, he would have a setback, and by the time he got to Moffit the last time in 2008, he was in bad shape.  Anyone who has walked the cancer journey with a loved one knows this story all too well.

But this isn't a story about death. Its a story about living.

The whole time Matt struggled, he kept those around him in good spirits.  And he never stopped chasing his dream, finishing his Ph.D.  While undergoing some of the hardest cancer treatments around, he co-wrote a book, finished his coursework and dissertation and never lost hope that he would live.  Simply, he never stopped living.

I remember going to see him in Tampa maybe a month before he passed.  He was surrounded by old friends who had come to be with him in this apartment near Moffitt where he lived between treatments. All he seemed to want was to go home.  His pain was hard to watch. Yet even as he would squirm in his chair trying to find any comfortable spot, he was quick witted with his friends.  And while the drugs didn't seem to matter to his comfort, going home did.  That was his wish.  And he did, on a journey that Amber once told me was probably as hard as a lot of his treatment. 

I got to see Matt a few more times before he passed.  But like the 50 or so others that were there, I'll never forget the last time.  See FSU's administration had learned how sick he had become and knowng that Matt had completed his requirements for his Ph.D., much of it done while surviving cancer, made the determination that he was ready to graduate.  But since Matt had no chance to living until graduation, the President of FSU came to his room, with his Major Professors, and graduated him in his hospital bed.  He had done it. 

I tried to go see him one more time and Amber said it wasn't possible.  In the end, he lived two more days. 

Matt and I had talked over the couple years before he passed that maybe we'd work on a campaign together, starting by helping Barack Obama together in 2008.  I had this little dream that maybe they would call me and give me a shot to run it.  It wasn't likely, but it was fun for us to talk about those times in the hospital, or in the coffee shops in downtown Gainesville.  He'd always say "why not you" or "why not go after it -- what do you have to lose?"

In the end, I did get that call, but he didn't make it that far.  Had he, Matt probably would have been the first guy I hired, just because I liked him that much.  And trust me, when days got tough in that campaign, I'd often walk into the little park across the street from our office and think about Matt.  In fact, I still often do.

In life, we are shaped by the people we meet.  You never know when the next new person in your life is one who will have a profound impact.  Meeting a friend like Matt was the last thing on my mind when I walked into that classroom in the University Center in May of 2006.  

In the end, I knew Matt less than two years.  But his impact on me, like so many others who he met, will last a lifetime.   In the end, even in his hardest days, he never gave up, he never got angry, he never said why me, and he never, ever, stopped chasing his own personal rainbows.  A lesson for all of us.

Amber - Thanks for letting me part of your family for those two years and Matt, thanks for your friendship and I can't wait to go find a cup of coffee with you one day.