ACAM: What to Do in China

China is a giant country, and I could easily spend my entire trip exploring its large cities and rural villages. But I’ll probably have more like six weeks to spend there, and I want to spend that time well. Here are some ideas to start me off–do you have any other suggestions?

Dissonance

The Forbidden City, Beijing
Foreign visitors to Beijing always make it to at least the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and for good reason. The vast complex that is the Forbidden City is impressive for its scale alone, not to mention the imposing architecture, the royal treasury, and the centuries of history seeping through the walls. Just seeing a giant portrait of Communist crusader Mao gracing the southern entrance of a formerly imperial residence should be enough to set my head spinning.

No, you can’t actually see it from space with the naked eye, but it’s still plenty impressive.

The Great Wall
I’m not sure what there is to say about the Great Wall of China that hasn’t already been said. It’s a giant, mostly failed border policy built and added to over centuries of rule by various dynasties. It’s a testament to human perseverance and a monument to the thousands of laborers who died working on it. It’s falling apart in some places and extensively restored in others. It’s a glorious thing to see and climb, and I can’t wait.

Colonial architecture meets night lights

The Bund, Shanghai
I’d never heard of The Bund until I started ACAM research on China. Apparently, “bund” means “embankment” and in this case, it’s a stretch along the Huangpu River in Shanghai of various colonial buildings. These buildings housed the major banks of the country, as well as hotels for visiting dignitaries and financial folks. I’m not sure why the buildings weren’t razed during the fervor of Mao’s reign, but they remain and in the last thirty years they were renovated and put to use for government departments and pricy hotels. It looks like a nice place for a walk.

Arty design for an art museum

Shanghai Museum
This art museum has eleven galleries, one for each material or medium (jade, calligraphy, sculpture, etc.). Eleven galleries of ancient art! And apparently, if I get there early, I can get one of the free tickets they pass out every day. Cultural nerdy paradise.

Image 1. Image 2. Image 3. Image 4.

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ACAM: What to Do in Laos

Where shall I go and what shall I do in Laos? Here are some ideas; please add your own in the comments!

The literacy mouse of Laos

Volunteer at Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang
Big Brother Mouse is a Lao-owned business with the motto “books that make literacy fun for children in Laos.” They publish books in Lao and deliver them to children all over the country; sometimes these are the first books the children have ever seen. A couple things I really like about this organization: non-Lao people contribute to it, but it’s owned and run by people from Laos who want to improve literacy in their own country, not just foreigners who want to import their own ideas; along those same lines, while they publish some public domain books in English, their main focus is publishing in Lao so that children grow up reading their own language; and as you can see in their motto, they present reading as a fun pastime, not just another form of schoolwork. You can donate money to help fund publishing (you can see how trustworthy they are here). You can also drop by their bookstore in Luang Prabang and do some informal English practice with young folks, and that’s what I intend to do when I’m there. (I learned about the program from this post by the niece of a travel blogger I follow.)

Plenty of storage space

Wander the mysterious Plain of Jars
Like Stonehenge or the Pillars of Carnac, the Plain of Jars is a collection of stone objects with some significance lost to the modern age. No one is quite sure who made these jars or why, but various sizes of stone jars are scattered near the town of Phonsavan, and you can pay about a dollar to walk among them and speculate to your heart’s content. Funerary jars? Food containers? Alien practical jokes a la the pyramids? An interesting tourist destination, anyway, that’s for sure.

Golden grace

Visit the temples of Luang Prabang
Because this formerly royal city is a Unesco World Heritage site, trucks and buses are banned from the city center, so it’s retained much of the calm that attracted worshipers and tourists alike. There are over 30 Buddhist temples in town, most of them active, so many orange-robed monks mix in with the crowds of locals and visitors. The daily alms giving ceremony is either not to be missed or overrun with tourists and devoid of meaning, depending on who you ask. I probably lean toward not gawking at ceremonies of the devout, but we’ll see what the situation is when I’m there.

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ACAM: What to Do in Thailand

Today, dearest fellow travelers, a quick look at some things to do and sights to see in Thailand. My many friends who have been there before: what am I missing? Other than the metric ton of street food I plan to eat, of course.

Baby!

Volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park
Elephant rides are popular throughout Southeast Asia, but the elephants usually work in terrible conditions and it’s generally more ethical not to contribute to their ill treatment by paying for rides. Instead, you can pay about $400 for a week of volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, in the northern part of Thailand, and contribute to the healing of elephants who used to give tourist rides or do backbreaking work in logging operations. Volunteers muck in as needed, helping feed, bathe, and clean up after the elephants. It sounds like an amazing experience.

time to relaaaaax

Relax on the beaches of the western coast
Phuket is probably the most famous resort town in Thailand, partly for the name that Westerners love to mispronounce (it’s really pronounced Poo-KET) and partly for the gorgeous beaches. But also there are monuments to the two sisters who defended the town from invaders through trickery, which sounds pretty excellent.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

Visit the Grand Palace in Bangkok
It’s a giant palace compound, made up of multiple residences, temples, gardens, and courtyards. The royal family has lived elsewhere since 1925, and now it’s open to the public, so you can wander around for entire days, taking in the exquisite architecture and imaging yourself dancing along to the soundtrack of The King and I. 

Image 1. Image 2. Image 3.

ACAM: Vietnam – The Quiet American

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American isn’t exactly what I meant when I said I’d do A Country a Month research. I do like to read fiction about the places I’ll be visiting, but I like it to be written by people from those places. It’s hard finding history books at CPS about Asia that aren’t written by white scholars from Britain and its former colonies, but at least the library has more options when it comes to fiction.

just Europeaning my way through Vietnam, don't mind me

But Greene’s novel was one of the ones on my shelf that needed reading, so I picked it up. And it was really good! It’s set during the French part of Vietnam’s decades-long war on its own soil against foreigners and sometimes against itself. Greene is concerned, as many mid-century novelists are, with the changing nature of power as it shifts from Britain to the United States. He’s also concerned with the many ways people can betray one another, and whether it is worth trying to be a good person in a war zone, and how love and friendship might fit in all this.

Greene’s protagonist, Fowler, is a middle-aged journalist prone to philosophizing about what Vietnam means, what the Vietnamese are like, what the French are like, what the Americans are like. So we see everything through his eyes, and through the eyes of a 1955 writer, and thus everything has that special glow of “benevolent” racism–the kind that sees nonwhites as childlike and just looking for guidance from wise Westerners. Greene does complicate this somewhat, alternately acknowledging and disregarding his girlfriend Phuong’s agency and intelligence, and speaking on equal terms with the man who reveals the nefarious plans of the “third way” group. He even seems to realize that Vietnam isn’t just a staging ground for Western political dreams or an escape route for disillusioned journalists. There’s real affection for the country and its inhabitants here, from the dedication at the front made out to friends living in Saigon, right through the story as Fowler travels the length of the country.

It’s a well-written story, and a good meditation on power, innocence, and betrayal. But The Quiet American is not a good way to learn about Vietnam as the Vietnamese live it or see it. So, moving on! Any suggestions?

Image.

ACAM: Hawaii — Where to Go

Now that I’ve included Hawaii on my itinerary, I should do a little research into figuring out where to go and what to see. I told Heather (my sister and traveling companion on this leg of the trip) that we’re flying straight to paradise. But what do you do in paradise? Other than beaches. Lots of them.

Akaka Falls, Hawaii

Anyone up for a swim?

Take a hike
Heath and I aren’t the heartiest of hikers, but we are both excited to explore the many natural wonders of the islands. The Akaka Falls on the Big Island sound beautiful, and at less than half a mile, definitely a hike we can handle. On Oahu, the ocean views on the (paved, mile-long) Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail sound enticing. Some other hikes found on this site look good, too.

Hawaii volcano

One of the few NON-surfing spots in Hawaii

Walk into a volcano
Yes. You can walk into the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes on the Big Island. These are active volcanoes, which means rising steam, flowing lava, and the ever-present (if slight) possibility of eruptions. Exciting stuff. It’d be cool to see the lava flowing at night, but everything seems to indicate that you have to hike in pretty far, over rocky terrain, to do that, which sounds outside the range of possibility for Heather and me. So we’ll probably do one of the easy or moderate walks mentioned here.

Snorkeling

The coolest look

Snorkel
Such a Seussian word, snorkel, like the Snorkels of Pampozzle wear sneeds (a sneed being, as we all know, a thing that most everyone needs). Anyway, it looks like you can rent snorkel gear from just about everywhere, or even buy it if you’re going to be there for more than a week. You can go out and find fish on your own, or you can join a tour and they’ll take you out on a boat to their favorite snorkeling spots. Either way sounds okay to me. Now how do I wear my glasses under those goggles?

Lisa hulus in Dirty Dancing

Any excuse for a "Dirty Dancing" reference

Attend a luau
I’m a little wary of luaus for tourists; they seem to be an overpriced show of razzmatazz. (After all, you can see free hula shows elsewhere, like at the Volcano Art Center on the Big Island.) But Heather is excited about the idea, and I’m not trying to pretend that I don’t like a good show. (See how accommodating I am of my traveling partner’s needs? Join me on the trip and this could be you!) Also, at some luaus, there’s a hands-on arts and crafts portion before the meal and show starts, so you can get a slightly bigger picture of Hawaiian culture before gorging on pork and mai tais.

What am I missing, dearest fellow travelers?

Image 1. Image 2. Image 3. Image 4 from my personal movie collection.

ACAM: Vietnam — Where to Go, Part 1

Rounding up guidebook and Internet advice, here are some places to visit and things to see and do while I’m in Vietnam. Part 1 because I know commenters will have suggestions!

female puppets dance on the water

Do they break out in song? Do they dance?

See a show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi, or some other water puppetry venue. Apparently this art form developed as a way of appeasing spirits and entertaining fellow workers in flooded rice fields. Today, puppeteers stand offstage and manipulate the puppets via bamboo poles and string, and the puppets appear to walk on water. The shows are usually comedic. Sounds like fun!

Yum

Eat a lot. Here are some foods I’ve been encouraged to sample: phở bò, bánh xèo, bún thịt nướng, cơm tấm, bánh mì, banh bao vac, lau, and French-influenced foods like croissants and duck. I think every single person who learns I’m going to Vietnam says a variation on “oh the food!” This is a promising start.

imposing, with a flag in front

Mlle. O'Leary has a souvenir t-shirt from here

Visit war memorials and museums. I have a longtime fascination with what we Americans call the Vietnam War, and I’m interested to see it presented from the other side. The Hanoi Hilton, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and his mausoleum, and the National Museum of Vietnamese History are all in Hanoi and should give a pretty comprehensive view of the struggle, and there’s also the Vietnam History Museum and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

Take a boat to Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue. It’s one of the oldest structures in Hue (a town midway between the two major cities of Vietnam, on the coast), and it’s still a working temple populated by monks.

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Travel Gone Terribly Wrong

Dearest fellow travelers, I wanted to start off the month of Vietnam research with a good book review, but instead Karin Muller’s Hitchhiking Vietnam made me more anxious. I was excited to read about her solo trip up and down the narrow Southeast Asian country in 1997. Muller envisioned traveling to remote villages on bike, making friends with the locals, and capturing it all on film for a documentary. She had a straightforward plan, a Vietnamese-English dictionary, and a lot of optimism, but instead of a thrilling adventure, she got a shitshow.

Vietnam in the late ’90s was still recovering from the war of the ’60s and ’70s, and corruption pervaded every level of government, which made traveling outside the rigid parameters of officially sanctioned tourism difficult. Muller wasn’t allowed to go outside the city limits of Saigon on her own, so she had to travel with two guides selected for her by the Communist Party. Her guides fleeced her for at least twice as much as the agreed-upon price, took her to suburbs instead of the villages she was promised, and even hid her shoes during their naptime to keep her from exploring on her own. Later, she shook off her guides and met up with an American with a motorbike, and the two of them went north off the beaten path. But the roads were terrible, the bike broke down literally every day, and they had to dodge any military personnel who might ask for the travel papers they didn’t have. Muller and her American companion didn’t get along very well, but she stuck with him because she needed someone to train the video camera on her for the documentary. She didn’t make friends, and until the last few weeks of her trip, she didn’t see any of the remote villages she’d flown to Vietnam to see. It sounds miserable!

I don’t have quite the same agenda as Muller, or the same desire to steer clear of any and all tourist locations, but I am traveling alone and looking for some adventure. What if my trip turns out to be a series of misadventures like hers, a succession of wretched missteps and broken promises, no one to trust or enjoy spending time with, frozen out by locals and cheated out of cash by officials? She tries to spin it as the exciting journey she was looking for, but her frustration burns through every page.

That’s the danger of travel; we say we’re looking for the unexpected, but we’re expecting a positive experience. We don’t expect to have a bad time. It’s worse than just having a bad few weeks in our day-to-day lives, because we’ve planned and anticipated the travel for so long that it’s a greater disappointment when it all goes wrong.

Yet that’s a risk I’m willing to take, over and over, each time I take off on a new trip. I’m certainly hoping for a positive experience overall, dare I say even overwhelmingly, but I know that statistically that can’t be true for a year and a half trip. There are going to be some bad times, but those times can’t be predicted, so I just have to do the old “expect the best, prepare for the worst.”

And hope to high heaven that it’s nothing like poor Muller’s months in Vietnam.

Image from here.

ACAM: Cambodia’s Dark Past and Bright Future

I’ve finished John Tully’s A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival, and damn if it isn’t a discouraging read. It’s all right there in the subtitle–Cambodia was once a strong empire with the largest city in pre-Industrial times, an intricate system of canals and farmland, and an impressive collection of intricately carved temples, and now it is one of the poorest countries in the world, riddled with corruption, and desperately trying to pump up a tourism industry centered around the ruins of the greatness that once was.

cover of A Short History of Cambodia

A Short History of Cambodia

Of course, every country has its ups and downs, and no empire lasts forever. But the way in which Cambodia got totally screwed, over and over, from the mid-19th century through today, is both upsetting and instructive. Basically, although European colonization came late to Cambodia, it came with a vengeance. The French used an anti-missionary assault in Saigon as an excuse to send over a “protective mission” that quickly became a “permanent occupation force” (p.80). From Saigon to Cambodia, and soon they had control over Indochina (the colonialist term for much of Southeast Asia). Cambodia was officially a protectorate, but basically France treated them like a badly behaved colony, giving them strict governors and overhauling their entire system of government with no local input so it never had mass support (even measures like abolishing slavery and setting up schools for children).

By 1954, Cambodia had been caught up in the French fight with the Vietnamese, and the people wanted out. Prince Norodom Sihanouk successfully maneuvered to have the Geneva conference name Cambodia a sovereign nation, albeit with strings attached. I mentioned in another post that the intersectionality of world politics in the 20th century astonishes me, and while I’m sure that makes me sound naive, the extent to which the Cold War affected politics in literally ever corner of the globe in the latter half of the century can’t really be overstated, I don’t think. For example, the only way Sihanouk managed to get Cambodia free of French rule was by promising up and down and back and forth that Cambodia was a neutral country that would never enter into military alliances with any other country. Not to mention he had to beg to have his country back in the first place, and the US and USSR, along with some other countries, granted that. (This granting of sovereignty to nations that already existed and just need their colonizers off their backs is deeply puzzling to me. See reservations, Native American.)

Prince Sihanouk

Prince Sihanouk

This is not to say that either world power gave up hopes of using Cambodia in its Southeast Asian chess game, and the US presence in Vietnam went far toward stirring up discontent in Cambodia with the US and any pro-US factions. The Khmer Rouge, staunchly anti-US, started gaining followers. (“Khmer Rouge” means “Red Khmer,” the Khmer being the ethnic people of Cambodia, and the Red being a reference to their Communist affiliation–a context I never knew about or wondered about before. Funny how names can hold one meaning for you–deadly Pol Pot regime!–when they started out with quite another meaning entirely.)

Eventually, the country descended into civil war, with the war-weary Vietnamese, the jungle-hardened Khmer Rouge, the covert-bombing Americans, and the under-supplied national army all entangled in a mess of a fight. When the US and Vietnam got out, it became unwinnable for the national army, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge stormed into power.

Pol Pot

Pol Pot, looking creepily cheerful as he palms a gun and plots genocide

Pol Pot’s socialist agenda was extreme. He immediately banned all private property, currency, manufacturing, and education. He force-marched his fellow Cambodians out of the “corrupt” cities and into the countryside, and along the way murdered thousands of people the infamous killing fields outside the city. Displacing hundreds of thousands of people, killing as many, and utterly changing the basic structure of everyday life was not, surprise surprise, a successful plan. The country plunged into disrepair, and Pol Pot went back to war with Vietnam, which no one was equipped to handle. At the end of 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and took over for the next ten years.

The sickening thing about this post-DK (Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot’s name for his regime) era is the international response. The bloody and drawn-out Vietnam War had done nothing to convince the US that that country wasn’t out to conquer and convert all neighboring countries to communism (the domino theory! a real winner of an idea), and China was equally upset with Vietnam’s perceived overreach into its physical and ideological domain. They were both dead-set on punishing Vietnam for its ambition, so since Vietnam had invaded/liberated Cambodia, that meant Cambodia got to suffer too. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK, the post-DK regime name) “was cut off from assistance from the UN Development Programme, the Asian Development Bank, the IMF and the World Bank, with only a trickle of humanitarian aid from UNICEF and the International Red Cross” (p. 207). In effect, the international community abandoned Cambodia.

domino theory graphic

Apparently this is how it was all gonna go down.

Not only that, but Pol Pot had fled when the Vietnamese invaded, and he ran guerrilla options for many years in the jungles, ratcheting up Cambodian civilian deaths with no one pursuing him on any serious level. The Western world was so concerned about the threat of Vietnam ruling Cambodia as a puppet state that it gave tacit (and sometimes material) support to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I repeat: we supported Pol Pot. Ask anyone with a basic knowledge of the world history of the last century who Pol Pot is, and they’ll tell you, a dictator, a genocidal madman, a brutal murderer. And yet, because it seemed politically expedient to do so, the United States and other countries supported him for a number of years, until Cambodia proved it was no Vietnamese puppet nor Communist state, and aid could be sent without troubling the conscience about the red threat (p. 213). And Pol Pot died peacefully in his sleep in 1998.

The PRK government had its fair share of gross human rights abuses, yes, but if the international community had stepped in with aid right away, and called for the swift and impartial trials of Khmer Rouge war criminals, then it would have been a very different story. Basing foreign policy a paranoid idea like the domino theory is not only foolish, it’s dangerous. It has real consequences for millions of people on the ground. The United States’ treatment of Cambodia in that twenty-year period–from Nixon’s bombings, through the support of the Khmer Rouge, to the lack of basic aid during a famine in 1979–is inhumane and unjustifiable.

So, see what I mean about Cambodia getting the wrong end of the stick for decades? The corrupt nature of its officials on every level, combined with the self-interested interference of neighboring countries and world powers, led to a war-torn nation in which the people suffered mightily. Nowadays, the country is run by a corrupt prime minister, Hun Sen, and millions of people remain in dire poverty. But aid from outside countries (especially China) does help, and the textile and tourism industries have grown the country’s economy rapidly in the last ten years. Education and health levels are rising, as well, and a healthy, educated population is much more in a position to tackle its issues and guide its own path. Cambodia’s recent history is dark, yes, but that doesn’t mean the country doesn’t have a bright future.

Remorque-moto travel in Siem Riep

Cambodians moving on

Image 1 from here. Image 2 from here. Image 3 from here. Image 4 from here. Image 5 from here, credit Felix Hug.

ACAM: The Time Warp Effect of Travelogues

I’ve just finished Hard Travel to Sacred Places by Rudolph Wurlitzer, and I was struck by how of its time it is. Published in 1994 (written in ’93), it’s about Wurlitzer and his wife traveling to sacred sites in Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia as they grieve the sudden death of their son. They’re American Buddhists looking for some measure of peace at various temples and shrines, and the book is full of quotes from various Buddhist texts and religious thinkers.

book cover of Hard Travel to Sacred Places by Rudy Wurlitzer

travelogue/time machine

The jacket copy on the book mentions the word “classic” more than once, and certainly Wurlitzer’s meditations on grief and loss are moving and timeless. How do we cope with the death of a child? How do we hold that unspeakably personal sadness and also hold the tragedies of deaths on a massive scale in various parts of the world? How does the death of a loved one force us to face our own mortality? Wurlitzer’s prose is simple and swift as he grapples with these questions, and I appreciated his insight even while I, as someone who doesn’t practice a religion, couldn’t quite grasp the religious framework he’s working with.

So that part was, despite the personal nature of his grief, universal and timeless. But the rest of it was so specific to 1993! He’s horrified by the commercialization of Thailand, specifically the Coke-drinking, sex trade-working, neon-lit city of Bangkok. Now, of course, the seediness and Westernization of Bangkok is well-known and few travelers are surprised by it when they visit.

In Burma–wait, he visits Burma (Myanmar). That, right there, is different from now. According to Wikipedia, about 800,000 people visited the country in 2010, compared to 1.13 million overseas tourists visiting Chicago alone in 2009. When Wurlitzer visited, Aung San Suu Kyi had only been under house arrest for a few years, after the 1990 elections that saw her party overwhelmingly elected were disregarded and the military junta decided to stop having them for awhile. Wurlitzer talks about an antiquated country, one with very little new industry or commerce since the outside world isn’t dealing with the junta (his descriptions sound like descriptions I’ve read of Cuba), and while he wonders at the brutality of the junta, he sounds relieved to be in a calm, quiet country after the electric buzz of Thailand. Nowadays, some groups advocate tourism to Burma to bring money to the local people and help them keep in contact with the outside world, but most activist groups discourage it, since the junta has forced labor in tourist destinations and the industry mostly supports the junta and not the people. A far cry from the sleepy country Wurlitzer visited almost 20 years ago.

In Cambodia in 1993, the Khmer Rouge were still a major threat; Wurlitzer heard gunfire and saw holy sculptures vandalized by people taking parts of them over the border into Thailand to sell on the black market. He describes a country in chaos, with elections right around the corner, but no one sure of who will win or who ought to win. Today, Cambodia has finally prosecuted some Khmer Rouge as war criminals, and humanitarian groups have sprung up all over the place, but its prime minister, Hun Sen, has kept in power through some very shady means, and the country is still one of the poorest in the world. The biggest change on the ground is the lack of Khmer Rouge with guns around every corner, although the mines from the civil war that could blow up at any time in 1993 can still blow up on any unlucky pedestrian today.

I enjoyed reading Hard Travel to Sacred Places both for Wurlitzer’s thoughts on death and grieving, and also for the time warp experience. It’s fascinating to read a contemporary travelogue alongside a history textbook and see how personal experience intersects with facts.

Image from here.

It’s A Small, Horrifying World

I’m 2/3 of the way through John Tully’s A Short History of Cambodia, and page 104 made me put down the book and say out loud, “holy shit!” When World War II started, Cambodia was still a French protectorate. In 1940, the French government capitulated to Nazi Germany and the Vichy government took over, and the governor of French Indochina, Jean Decoux, went all-out in his support of the new regime. Partly this was because Japan (a German ally, as we all recall) was quickly moving south, and there weren’t enough French/Cambodian troops to resist if they tried, so he wanted to put on a good show of support. But hoo boy did Decoux go all in. The press switched immediately from siding with the Allies to spewing hatred against Jews and cheering Allied losses. He had members of youth organizations goose-stepping in parades and doing the Nazi salute. (Tully even says that he set up concentration camps, although he doesn’t say where or who was imprisoned, and I can’t find independent verification of this.)

There’s a picture in the book (can’t find one online) that shows Cambodian youth goose-stepping. They’re all doing the Nazi salute in front of a parade dais. I just found it utterly bizarre to see Khmers doing an Aryan salute, to see that specific gesture of European terrorism imitated in Southeast Asia. The politics of why Decoux adopted these symbols and gestures for his protectorate are clear, and the Cambodians were in little position to resist his orders, but it’s still sickening and dizzying. That it reached to the other side of the globe — it really was a world war.