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December 22, 2005

Being, Back

A few months back, I was looking ahead to this time of coming home with apprehension, not quite sure what to expect, but feeling that it would be difficult. I must say now that my experience since flying into Los Angeles on December 2nd has gone fairly well thus far. I?ve spent a lot of my time relaxing, catching up with friends and family, and trying to be intentional about making a slow transition back into life in the United States while keeping a positive attitude.

Southern California

My flight from Bangkok to LA was fairly uneventful, except for a brief delay during the layover in Taipei, Taiwan. Before I knew it, I was back on American soil in the Los Angeles airport, tired from nearly two days without sleep, yet full of that honeymoon type of adrenaline for the final ?new country? of the trip. On the customs declarations form that you fill out before entering the US, there is a space to list the countries you have visited during your trip. I decided to fill the space by writing the last five or six, followed by a ???. The man at the counter questioned me about where I had gone and how long I had been away and upon hearing my answers, asked with amazed bewilderment, ?Is that all you brought back?? I replied that I liked to travel light. I guess most Americans bring more stuff than I do.

I spent my first week in the states in Pasadena, CA, spending my days getting over a 9 hour time difference, checking out Fuller Theological Seminary, and hanging out with my EMU friends Joel & Emiley Shenk and Alethia Bailey (traveled with us in Israel/Palestine, March 2005). We also went down to the Santa Monica Beach one evening at sunset and were blessed with an amazing array of colors falling into the Pacific Ocean. Another evening Alethia and I went to an art show in Venice which included a few of my uncle?s paintings. A different afternoon took a group of us hiking to the nearby San Gabriel Mountains rising from the back side of Pasadena.

I took my opportunity in the town of Pasadena to visit Fuller Theological Seminary, a place where a handful of good friends of mine who share similar interests with me are either currently studying or considering beginning masters? work in the future. I managed to find a time to meet with a variety of professors and academic advisors and a lot of these meetings helped me to better articulate what I am looking for in a graduate program. At this point in time, I can say that my interests lie in some combination of cross-cultural learning & education, peace and conflict studies, the American church?s role in international conflicts that have a religious component, and the Middle East region in general. I feel like my Masters degree will be a conglomeration of a lot of subjects that drive me to action and that as I study my specific focus will become clearer. I would like to get started next fall, but depending what happens this year, plans are always open to change?

Southern California was a perfect first stop in the US after a global journey. Landing on the ?left coast? of the country provided a lot of people who were open to talking about international issues and a general chilled out atmosphere that made me feel right at home. Having a few close friends around who understood my experience and a lot of others who were friendly but not overwhelmingly so seemed like the right ratio of familiar people for someone trying to ease into the culture shock of their own country.

The Plan of Surprise

My parents were under the impression for weeks that Alethia and I were driving across the United States and arriving home in Pennsylvania on Monday, December 19. This was the original plan, but transformed about a week before I flew to LA into a cheaper option of a $100 flight from LA to DC. I decided not to tell my parents of the change, but instead go to Virginia for the week and visit friends in the Harrisonburg area and then arrive home in PA on Friday to catch my parents not when they were expecting me, but rather when my sister Kristina was expected to come home from college for Christmas break.

The Capitol

We landed in Washington DC on Sunday evening and were picked up by Alethia?s Mom who has recently moved to Fairfax, VA. Alethia and I met two other friends from EMU, Rachel Miller (we visited her in Peru/Bolivia, December 2005) and Conrad Erb during the day on Monday and we had a nice lunch at an Indian restaurant in the city. We spent the rest of the day walking around the capitol building, the botanical gardens, and hanging out in a coffee shop.

Some of my initial perceptions of our nation?s capitol were ones of solitary power and unspoken sadness. Maybe it was the cold, grey skies that had been a foreign experience to me during the last few months, or maybe it was the way people seemed to be living their individual, forward-focused lives? something about it made it feel like the monuments were to an empire that could use a little hope. If you?ve read Eric?s recent journal about American military involvement around the world, you may empathize with me when I say that as I returned to the most militarily powerful place on earth, it felt like a sad homecoming.

Monday night we drove out to the I81/I66 split and met my sisters, Maria & Kristina, driven by Maria?s fianc?, Jesse, who managed to leap out of the car and beat my sisters to the first hug. We then started to drive south on the familiar I81 to Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Virginia

I?ve basically lived in Virginia for the majority of the last four years of my life that I was in the US, so returning once again felt like home. Many of my friends that graduated with me a few years ago are still in the area as well as others younger than me. I had a wonderful week popping into my professors? offices and surprising them as well as some amazing conversations with old friends over a cup of hot tea or coffee. It was good to see Lin & Janet Stutzman (Sailing Acts, April 2005) again, who are gearing up once again to lead a Middle East cross-cultural semester this spring.

Virginia is a quiet place in relation to many that I have traveled through during the last few months. It was a nice space to just spread out, know the area around me, and be able to fit right into after a long time away. The five days there went fast, but helped to stretch out my transition in coming back to Pennsylvania.

My sisters and I managed to keep the secret of my presence in the area from my parents to the best of our ability. It really seemed like a possibility that someone might pass on the word to them when they found out that I was in the ?burg. From what I know now, they suspected, but didn?t know for sure what was going on.

Pennsylvania

We borrowed a car that needed to be driven to PA, loaded up with Kristina, Alethia, Kurt Rosenberger (Eastern Europe Bike Trip, May-July 2005) and I and drove the remaining four hours to southeastern PA. We stopped about a quarter mile up the street from my house and took everything from the trunk and piled it into the back seat. Since Alethia and I were expected to be arriving home a few days later, we piled in the trunk and Kurt and Kristina sat up front.

We pulled into our driveway and Kurt and Kristina went inside to say hi to our parents while Alethia and I waited outside. They asked for some help to come and unload the bags from the car and my dad came outside first to bring some things in. When Kristina had come into the house without me, my parents gave up the hope that I might have also been with her, so when my Dad opened the trunk and saw me there, he screamed and yelled my name, ?DAVID!? I was ready with the camera and got it all on video. It?s on the site, and definitely worth checking out. Sorry Dad that I keep putting a plug in for this. Mom came out a few minutes later, looking a little pale and like she didn?t believe that I was back.

Since last Friday, I have been around the area, unpacking all the stuff I had sent home at various parts of the year, rediscovering how much stuff I still own, and trying to get my life organized enough to start from here.

Life from Now?

It has been a good transition so far and I am excited to be back. In many ways, coming home just feels like another stop on the larger journey and that I will never be done ?traveling? as many of the ideas behind the vision of this last year continue with me as I start whatever is next in my life. It would be very easy to be negative about the things that frustrate me about this country, but it seems obvious that this will do no good for the world. My hope now lies in implementing what this trip has shown me into action and devoting my life to working towards a better understanding of these issues in this country. Coming back has also shown me how much I have to learn about what is going on here, and the very least I can do is be aware of these changes and discover the needs wherever I might be in order to fill open niches.

I have been struggling to write this journal entry for the last few weeks. Each time I start, and then can?t quite finish. I suspect that I have been just a bit burned out on written digital communication, and when the alterative is a live conversation with a good old friend, it?s difficult to be inspired to express myself on a computer screen. I?ll probably be either in Pennsylvania or Virginia during the next several months, so if you?re in one of those places, hopefully we can connect sometime. I don?t own a car anymore, and really don?t want to for as long as I can possibly manage without one. The next few months will be an interesting time for me to begin to figure out what this experience has meant for my life both now and farther down the road.

Posted by Dave at 02:51 PM | Comments (0)

December 16, 2005

Home, Hope, and the Holidays

Suddenly, the end has arrived. Even with the past two weeks to spend in reflection (and an entire year of gradual anticipation!), this day has still somehow managed to catch me by surprise. In only a few hours, I will be heading for the Bangkok airport to begin the long journey home. While at times words have come easily on this journey, I now find myself with not a whole lot to say.

Maybe I'll begin with a few things that I'm looking forward to. The first, without a doubt, is the experience of flying. Many of my friends think I'm crazy, but I get pathetically excited about everything having to do with air travel. Starting with the often incomprehendable task of finding the best deal on tickets, to the moment of collecting my bags and leaving the airport... it's all a thrilling and fascinating experience. And the longer the flight the better. Extra hours only mean more time to look out the window, watch the cool little map of the flight's current location, eat a few more of the carefully packaged airline meals, and a chance to accumulate those precious extra frequent flier miles. I know this is all a bit strange. Sometimes it has led me to believe that I should have studied to become a pilot. Or at the very least done a few stints as a baggage handler down in Philly. Yeah, we'll have to see about that.

Perhaps part of this fascination with air travel is the way that it brings the world together. Watching the arrival/departure board at a major international airport, it doesn't take long to arrive at the conclusion that the world really is a small place. In less than a day's time, one can be across the globe, suddenly transported to a completely different context. On the plane in one country/culture/climate; off the plane in a completely different one. In a way, airports represent a kind of "third-culture", a unique environment where people from all corners of the globe come together and rub shoulders with each other. I like those kinds of places.

Enough about airplanes and airports. Another thing that gives me great joy is looking ahead to spending time with family and friends. Fourteen months is a long time to be away from the people that you care about. And although I have been blessed to have many opportunities to communicate with these people via email during my time away, I'm ready to be finished with that for awhile. Letters and emails are great, but they simply don't compare to the beauty of spending time being physically present with another person or group of people. In the past year, I have continually been amazed by the growth and interest that people have expressed for this website. Yet I have also learned quickly of its limitations. Without a doubt, it doesn't come close to the importance and necessity of personal, face-to-face conversation and dialogue.

Bangkok, in my mind, is the epitome of budget backpacker travel. The flashing neon signs, the ridiculous "just to prove I was there" little souvenirs, and the dirt-cheap guesthouses full of spaced out travelers... there is a shallowness here that is repulsive. Yet it is a neccesary evil for anyone heading into or out of Southeast Asia. So that's why I'm here. As I wondered the infamous Khao San strip last night, my thoughts drifted to the subject of community. Yes, it may be a cliche word in many respects, but at this moment in time I find it profoundly exciting. I guess sometimes it just takes going away to see these things.

Finally, I'm excited to get involved in things that I believe are important. Being a part of an honest and open-minded community, like I mentioned earlier, is certainly one of those things. But so is education, the work of the church, cross-cultural understanding, inter-faith dialogue, and so many other things. There are times to withdrawl and be contemplative (as I have done in the past two weeks), but there is also a time to engage and get involved. For many months during this trip, the prospect of "engaging" with my home community and sharing my experiences brought more fear than it did excitement. But somehow in recent weeks I have turned that corner, and begun to find hope and potential fulfillment in those areas. There is no life without hope, and what better time to discover this concept than during the holidays.

Although this is my final entry from abroad, I hope to write a few more once I've settled in back home. And Dave and I are also plannaing a few changes to the site, as well as other ways to expand the vision of Viva el Viaje. But that will all come in time... right now, it's time to enjoy the Christmas season. I will look forward to seeing many of you soon, and talking more in person. Your support, encouragement, and prayers have meant much more than I'm sure you realize. Thank you.

As I post this, I'm off to the airport. Somehow the cheapest ticket I found was with Malaysia Airlines, an excellent company that also provided me an overnight stay at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur this evening. Then tomorrow morning the 23-hour flight flight to New York begins. Although a bit of a disappointment, I found out after buying the tickets that we would have a refuel stop in Stockhold, Sweden, meaning that we will not be flying to North America over the Pacific. So much for the "round-the-world" trip!! Oh well, it was close... :-)

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I didn't write much here about my activities of the last two weeks. You can get the picture by checking out the Laos photo album, and reading the captions if you're interested.

Posted by Eric at 12:58 AM | Comments (0)

December 06, 2005

Earth to America: What the World is Saying... Will we Listen?

It was business as usual on Friday morning as I crossed the Mekong River from Thailand into northern Laos. This particular border crossing, although merely connecting two rural fishing villages, receives quite a substantial amount of traffic, due to the many backpackers (like myself) planning to take the 2-day riverboat trip to Luang Prabang. With my battered passport in hand, I stepped casually up to the immigration desk. Laos marks country #43, my final destination in this fourteen month journey around the world. It was somewhat of a personal milestone for me, but of course the immigration officer couldn't have cared less. He was too distracted by the glossy emblem on the front of my passport. "America," he muttered, shaking his head with disgust, "America."

In our previous writing for this site, Dave and I have occassionally commented on our experiences sa traveling Americans. Situations like I described above have taken place on a regular basis, in countries all over the world. And not just at immigration desks, either. In restaurants and hostels, on trains and in overflowing chicken buses, with local peasants and photo-clicking travelers... the reaction, unfortunately, is nearly always the same. It has gotten to the point that I now am very hesitant to reveal my identity, unless specifically asked. It's not that a fear the reaction, as much as I am tired of the predictable direction the conversation will turn, and the questions that everyone is only too eager to ask.

"Is it true that most Americans don't know the capital of Canada?" I have been asked on several ocassions. "So... what do you think about Bush?" is another common starter line. Or from the backpacker crowd, "Why don't more Americans like to travel?" These questions, while seemingly innocent and part of casual conversation, are often asked under one particular premise. People WANT their perceptions of America to be descredited. They WANT Americans to convince them that we aren't as ignorant and arrogant as the rest of the world thinks we are. People the world over are pleading, "Please... please, say it ain't so!"

While in Chiang Mai last week, Dave and I browsed through several used bookstores around town. With a long boat trip coming up, and two weeks of downtime before my flight back, I decided that this might be a good opportunity to do some reading. One of the first books to catch my attention was Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies. Although I didn't know it at the time, the book is currently an international bestseller, and would turn out to concisely summarize and add factual merit to many of the observations that I have been making during the last year. Pulling it out of my bag partway down the Mekong, Patrick (the burly Australian sitting next to me) remarked in typical half-question / half-statement style, "I hope you already know the answers..."

Maybe the first place to explore some of those answers is right here, among the rolling hills of Laos. As I sit on the balcony of my guesthouse, the street below is a maze of energetic children, jumping rope and cheering joyfully for each new contestant. In a yard across the street, roosters and chickens (the same ones that woke me up at 6am this morning!) peck at the earth like it's all that matters. And next door, two young musicians work their fingers over beat-up guitars, their melodies spilling through the windows and lingering with the spreading shadows of late afternoon. It is an atmosphere of undisturbed peace and tranquility. Not bad for a country that despite its tiny size, bears the aweful distinction of being the world's most heavily bombed country. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States of America dropped two million tons of bombs across the country of Laos. This unexploded ordinanace (UXO) continues to kill and injure hundreds of people each year, long after the war is officially over and forgotten by the world. Not to mention that it continues to render their precious farmland utterly useless. No matter how remote the village, you can believe that every civilian knows exactly where these "weapons of mass destruction" came from.

While Laos may have received an unjust portion of the U.S. military's wrath, it is certainly not the only country on the list. In fact, I wsa disturbed to find that nearly every country that Dave and I have visited on this trip (and many that we haven't!) were at some point in the last 120 years an object of U.S. military intervention. While I thought of publishing the entire list on the site, you can find Zoltan Grossman's comprehensive list of U.S. military interventions during the last century here. It gives a simple and straightforward explanation for America's reputation across the globe. As a sidenote, imagine for just a moment what the U.S. response might be if a foreign government was to be found "intervening" within our borders... even just once! It would not be pretty.

But this issue is not just about the misuse of military power. Citizens of developing countries around the world are suffering because of U.S. economic policies as well. Through controlling global financial institutions, such as the World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO), world markets are marginalized to favor the U.S. and American corporations. Americans get richer and poor countries of the world get poorer. It is no wonder that many countries express hesitation at jumping into the "free market economy" that is championed so heavily by the United States. They know that before long, their private and national companies will no longer be able to compete with the unlimited financial resources of corporate America.

This manipulation wouldn't be quite so disturbing if the U.S. was more generous in our foreign aid distributions. But as Jimmy Carter once pointed out, "We are the stingiest nation of all." As a percentage of our national wealth (GDP), the U.S. ranks twenty-second out of the 22 most developed nations in foreign aid contributions. Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries are consistently at the top of this list. Come to think of it, when was the last time I heard a negative remark about the Danish government?

In an attempt to get a well-rounded perspective on global events, I ocassionally log on to Al-Jazeera's English news website. Several days ago, they were featuring a fascinating interview with David Dionisi, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer (full story here). He is the author of a recent book entitled American Hiroshima, in which he argues that even in the spectrum of global politics, "kindness begets kindness." Instead of writing off the Taliban and Osama bin Laden as evil crazies that just want to destroy the world, let's get to the root causes of this desperation and hostility. In his interview, he asks the world to "imagine if Bush had said after 9/11: 'People are capitalizing on our mistakes in the Middle East. So, let's ensure that there is no hunger, lack of clean water, lack of education, etc. in the Muslim world.'" Had that been the case, we certainly would have a lot more friends than enemies. But we all know that this potential gesture of goodwill and earnest soul-searching was very far from the actual U.S. response.

It is true, we can't live our lives dwelling on the mistakes of the past. In many respects, the damage has been done, and we will now live with the consequences. But are we at least learning from the past? Watching the news of this last week, it seems as though very little has changed. At the United Nations climate conference in Montreal, the administration in Washington continues in its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which has already been approved by 40 of the world's other industrial nations (full story here). Despite strong scientific evidence of the drastic effects of global warming, the United States rejects the proposal, saying it would be "bad for business." What message does this send to the rest of the world? Clearly, all that matters to America is money, even if it means that portions of the world (including low-lying areas of the U.S.) will go completely under water in the next several hundred years.

Or let's examine the recent allegations that the U.S. is secretely using European airfields to transport CIA detainees (full story here). This has created an enormous uproar in Europe, and deservedly so. By interrogating these suspects in international locations, the CIA is free from the restrictions of the U.S. Justice System (in other words, right to a lawyer, illegality of torture, etc.). The U.S. defends its actions, saying that these are "special cases" involved specifically in terrorism-related activities. The message again to the world? Human rights apparently only apply when it's convenient, and the U.S. will take its orders from nobody (even on issues related to the sovereignity of other nations). Not surprisingly, when I last checked their website a few hours ago, CNN was barely even covering this story.

Finally, let's briefly skip over to Kazakhstan. On Sunday, this central Asian nation held presidential elections, in which the corrupt and heavy-handed Nursualtan Nazarbayer was reinstated into power (full story here). The country of Kazakhstan has never held an election that has been judged democratic and fair by Western observers. Yet the U.S. doesn't say a thing. Clearly, this remote country with little economic opportunity is outside the realm of U.S. interest. The message is a complaint that I've heard over and over... double standards.

Four years ago, I watched the events of September 11 unfold with a crowd of fellow students in the Oakwood dorm at EMU. Just like everywhere else, the "why" question was at the heart of our thoughts and conversation in the days that followed. Finally, on September 20, our president provided a direct answer. "They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other," he told a joint session of Congress. In the most simplistic of terms, George W. Bush described the entire problem as nothing but jealousy, pure and simple. Since we do everything right, they hate what they don't have. That being the case, there's nothing we could/should have done differently. They're just evil... end of discussion.

The world is not a simple place, nor is it easily read through a black and white lens. Likewise, the issue of why so much of the world despises America is stubbornly complex. As I discussed earlier, our constant use of military intervention and economic manipulation throughout the rest of the world has bred bitter resentment. As has our government's arrogant way of relating with the world ("it's our way or none at all") and the American public's seeming ignorance to it all. And I haven't even mentioned the War in Iraq, the effects of cultural imperialism and so-called "McDonaldization," or the proliferation of Hollywood entertainment and American television (and the values they promote) across the world. There is reason to hate America. And interestingly enough, not one person I have ever talked to has suggested that it was because of our freedoms. Because most of the world would be quick to point out (and I tend to agree) that we aren't as free as we think we are, anyway.

In recent months, I have received several emails from friends asking me if this trip has made me anti-American. This is a question that I find difficult to answer. I still remain an American citizen, appreciate much about my home country, and am eagerly looking forward to my return in two weeks. Yet my perspective has indeed changed in the last year. I have seen first-hand the devastating effects of American policy on people scattered across the globe, and the anger and distrust that results. My blissful ignorance has been shattered, and I can no longer passively accept all that my government says and does (in my name) throughout the world. Does my choosing to speak out against the injustices I have witnessed make me anti-American? I certainly hope not.

Years ago, the British historian Norman Daniel coined the term "knowledgable ignorance." It can be described as "knowing people, ideas, civilizations, religions, histories as something they are not, and could not possibly be, and maintaining these ideas even when the means exist to know differently." In the United States, we are blessed with some of the world's best communication technology, giving us easy access to a nearly infinite amount of information from anywhere on the planet. Yet we still refer to the rest of the world in terms of deeply-ingrained cultural stereotypes. Or send our kids through educational systems that promote a triumphant and egocentric American view of history, while neglecting the perspectives of the "losers" around the world who have suffered because of it (starting with the Native Americans). Or the fact that most of us chose to receive our news through CNN or the other broadcast networks, all of which are owned by a handful of U.S. companies, each with deeply vested political interests. Case in point: Surf over to CNN and then BBC, and notice the difference in headlines. These are all examples of "knowledgable ignorance."

So what's my point with all of this? This journal entry probably reads more like a ranting and raving session than anything else. But if you've stuck with me thus far, thank you. Either you've somehow resisted the temptation to stereotype me as a "typical world traveler who thinks he knows it all... DELETE; or you are my parents. In either case, congratulations. :) In all sincerity, my intentions in writing this lengthy entry are not to offend anyone or to advocate one particular political persuasion over another. More importantly, I do not claim (nor ever will) that traveling the world has somehow provided me with an indisputable list of answers to the world's many problems. If anything, I humbly arrive at the conclusion to this particular journey with more questions than I started with. All I can truely offer is my own meandering experience. And if there's some bit of truth of word or wisdom to be gleaned from it, that's great. In the meantime, I'll just keep moving on.

"Since America is both the object and the source of global hatred, it must carry the responsibility of moving us all beyond it," writes Sardar and Davies. On a similar thread, I would add that for those of us that follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, the calling couldn't be any clearer. It is difficult enough to bear witness to the injustices that are being carried out by our very own elected government. Yet even more troubling still is to hear of them being done under the banner of Christian faith. I sometimes wonder if the Christian church has lost its voice in confronting such hypocracy, or if these actions are indeed an accurate reflection of theological belief within the broader church in America. Under either scenerio, it seems that we have drifted somewhat from the persona of Christ that is portrayed in the gospels. The Jesus I know and serve lived a simple life of peace, standing up for the oppressed and rejected, and calling all to repentence. If Jesus were alive today, I wonder what he might have to say...

At the close of the book Why Do People Hate America? the authors suggest that the process of transcending global hatred begins with a willingness to engage in dialogue and self-reflection. They make the statement that "if America has become a country that cannot debate, engage, or negotiate with itself, cannot wrestle with different meanings among people who are all Americans, then what hope is there that it can extend a listening ear or open mind to the rest of the world?" Somehow, we must stand against this perception that it is "unpatriotic" or "cowardly" to question ourselves or reflect on past mistakes. The process of self-reflection, on an even more personal level, is about learning to see ourselves as we appear in the eyes of others. Hopefully this journal has been a step in that direction.

Here in Laos, the day has faded and I have spent way too much time sitting on this balcony writing. Just a few blocks away, the night bazaar is in full swing, and the town residents are out enjoying the cool, refreshing air. I think I'll join them. In a few days, I will make my way south to the capital city, Vientienne, and then back to Bangkok for my flight on the 16th. This is the beginning of the end for me, and all things said... I'm very excited to be returning home.

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Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

-Prayer of St. Francis

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Again, if you have the time (and even if you don't), take the time to pick up Why Do People Hate America? It is an insightful and thought-provoking read. You can get it used on Amazon.com (current price = $4 USD), or I'd be glad to let you borrow my copy when I return.

Other sources used here include:
Al-Jazeera
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
CNN
Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia
Sojourners: Christians for Peace and Justice

Posted by Eric at 12:31 AM | Comments (1648)