Archive for the ‘Adventures in Asia’ Category

San Da Hands (Parts 1 and 2)

In Adventures in Asia, antonio, arts, brooklyn, china, da, down, fighting, Graceffo, grappling, jiao, lian, liu, martial, Martial Arts, monk, odyssey, of sport, san, san da, shanghai, shuai, sparring, sport, striking, sweep, take, takedowns, throws, traditional, training, university, wrestling, xing on January 26, 2015 at 1:56 am

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In his first year at Shanghai University of Sport, Brooklyn Monk Antonio Graceffo, a wrestling major, cross-trained in san da, but only practiced san da throws, because they were part of his research on Chinese wrestling. Now in his second year at the Sports University, he has begun working on his punching, doing up to 10 rounds of pad work each day. Coach Liu Xing has Antonio throwing combinations integrated with throws. Liu Xing believes having solid boxing will increase the likelihood of completing the takedown.

Watch San Da Hands (Part 1) on youtube:

Watch San Da Hands (Part 2) on youtube:

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. The book is available at

See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on

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Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)




Martial Arts Card Sayings Volume 1

In Adventures in Asia, Martial Arts on December 18, 2013 at 8:37 am



EMS Duty in Tondo

In Adventures in Asia on August 30, 2008 at 2:14 am

From Fighter to Paramedic

In Adventures in Asia on July 19, 2008 at 3:09 am

By Antonio Graceffo


 Having spent most of my life learning to end life, it is a bit of a change learning to save it.


“Bakers cover their mistakes with frosting. Carpenters cover their mistakes with paint. Paramedics cover their mistakes with dirt.”


The course began with a playing of the Philippine national anthem, followed by a prayer. Being in a Catholic, rather than Buddhist country, it was so refreshing not having to take of my shoes. And, unlike Thailand, I was permitted to point my feet at anyone I wanted and even rub their head. It’s good to be among my own people…sort of my own people.


Sir Aidan is the owner of our school and the primary instructor. He hates George Bush, which is a good thing. He hates Americans, which I could understand but could also do without. Being Irish, he also hates Briton, which I feel ambivalent about. So, when class gets boring I bring up stories of my family being driven off their land by imperialist British soldiers who burned our thatched hut.


“The F…ing British.” Aidan begins. “They are worse than the Americans.” Once I get him on this subject, we are guaranteed at least twenty minutes that we don’t have to take notes. Or, just one note, in case it comes up on the test, I simplified the British/Irish thing for my classmates. It reads “British bad, Irish good.”


I enjoy studying with the Irish. They are one of my favorite translucent people. And as organ sales are common in Philippines, being the owner of two healthy kidneys, I try to make friendships with rich alcoholics who may need to buy one.


Or is that the liver that alcoholics need? Probably not. Liver and alcohol upsets your stomach. Anyway, I could sell them one of my livers if things got really desperate.


You do have two livers don’t you? That would be an example of one of those times when I should have been taking notes instead of winding Aidan up.


As for EMS emergency medical services, Aidan is recognized as one of the leaders in the world. I was googling his name the other day and was blown away by how many times he is mentioned in professional journals. He founded the EMS systems in a number of countries, higher the staff, trained them, bought the ambulances. He is really amazing. In terms of his practical knowledge, he was a dive paramedic, and a member of the faculty at the dive academy in the UK. He was a military paramedic, and who knows what else. Maybe he was a rescue swimmer like Kevin Kostner in “The Guardian.” The man knows his stuff.


Ma’am Joan, is Aidan’s wife. She is a Filipina, and is certified as both an RN and a paramedic. She is our second primary instructor. Aidan and Joan both said that once you learn EMS you don’t want to do normal nursing anymore because ongoing patient care is boring in comparison.


My friend and classmate Ben is RN, but he is becoming an EMT because he didn’t want to wash the patients. “Sometimes you even have to clean up their poop.” He confessed. I could see why four years of really difficult university studies, followed by intimate contact with excrement could be a downer.


Aidan’s take on EMS versus medicine was, “We see the patient from the time of the injury, to the time they get through the emergency room. After that, they become boring. We are lucky to have them at the most interesting time.”


It also seems that in EMS when you rescue someone, they thank you, and the family thanks you. But once they are in the hospital as long term patients, they behave like hotel guests and start complaining.  Once again, to have four years of university studies capped off by complaints about dinner…It would feel like being a highly specialized waitress.


“I am the only RN ho ever came back to my country.” Said Joan.


Ben told me that the normal RN salary in Philippines is 5,000 Pesos per month (about $120 USD). In most of the world, with the exception of the USA, paramedics actually earn more than nurses. The reason is that the US set up their paramedic programs in the 1970s. So, they are already established and well-manned. In the rest of the world, 911 type response systems are new, and training programs are either developing or non-existent. In these countries there is no shortage of doctors or nurses but a fully qualified paramedic is a rarity.


Most of the course is taught in English, but the students sometimes ask questions in Filipino. It is OK, I am trying to learn the language. Generally, even the instructors don’t know the Filipino words for the specialized medical vocabulary. This country is so America centric it is amazing. I think it is one of the few places on Earth where they still like us. When I walk down the street people always shout, “Hey, Joe.” The first time it happened, I looked around for my father, but then I realized it was me. We all look alike.


There are innumerable dialects and languages spoken throughout the more than seven thousand islands of the Philippines. Tagalog was chosen as the national language simply because it was spoken in Luzon, the big island where Manila is located. Many Filipinos resent being forced to speak Tagalog when they meet their country men from other parts of the country. Since they don’t speak to each other’s dialects, English was seen as a politically neutral lingua franca. So, it is normal for Filipinos to speak English to each other if they have trouble communicating in dialect. It is also normal that university and school courses are taught in English. So, having me in the class only slightly alters the language usage. Still, I am amazed that the Filipinos are so polite that the presence of a single Cano (Americano) causes them all to speak English.


While their accent is American, unlike Hong Kong, their pronunciation is at times, a bit…creative. At first I thought I was the only one missing out on one word in seven, then I realized they have trouble understanding each other.


Ma’am Joan was saying something about blacking the arteries, we asked her to explain what that meant and she wrote on the board, “Blocking the arteries.”

“OH! BLOCKING the arteries. That makes more sense.”

“Yes, blacking the arteries.” She repeated. “Try to listen more closely next time.”


I have no idea what it will be like when I start doing my practice on the streets of manila and people are shouting at me in a language I don’t speak, and then I discover it is English.


Our first lessons were on human anatomy. Here I had another linguistic adventure in trying to understand Sir Aidan. Apparently, in nearly all biological terminology, the people from those islands, UK and Ireland, put the accent on a different syllable than the Americans. The spelling is the same, but they move the accent in capillary, bronchioles, and many other words. They also refer to the gurney or stretcher as a cot. Which was doubly hard for me because, when I used to have a British girlfriend, she taught me that in UK, a cot was what Americans call a crib. But now, in the ghetto, crib is what Americans used to call an apartment. And in EMS class, a cot has wheels on it and is used for moving injured patients.


Many of our training videos are from those islands where leprechauns run free, and everyone drinks tea instead of coffee, and lives in a castle. Most of the English ones aren’t too bad, but Aidan has a slue of videos from Scotland. Those people should just be fitted with a subtitle generator at birth. I have no idea what they are blabbering on about. Judging by the glazed look on my classmates faces, they don’t understand Scottish any better than I do.


This confused me, because in school we were taught that the British invented our language, but none of them seem to speak it.


When I protested, Aidan mumbled, “Bloody American.”


Converting my mind from Martial arts to paramedic has been difficult. I normally refer to the patient as an opponent. I also learned a lot of new terminology like blood is called hemo, and unlike when I am fighting, the blood, I mean hemo, is supposed to stay on the inside.


Through years of martial arts training, I knew some of the anatomy, like carotid artery. This is where I strike with a chop, to knock a man out. This technique is often referred to as a “Jap drop.” Not very PC, I know. Kidneys are something I hit with a knee. Trachea is with the open hand. The armpit contains the axially artery, which is one that has to be done with a knife thrust


Aidan told us, “As an EMT you will have life and death in your hands. And what you do will decide if the patient lives or dies.”


As a soldier, I was taught almost the same credo, but sort of in reverse. 


During this course I am always amazed at what a wide variety of things we learned in high school. We had basic anatomy, biology, chemistry…I didn’t think I had learned anything useful in those classes, but when we see it in EMT class, although I don’t know it cold, I know I have seen it before. What I like abut EMT is learning all of the life saving techniques without having to struggle through biology, chemistry and math which would be impossible for me. That’s why doctors have to be right clever people to get through their years and years of education. I have huge respect for them now.


Our goal in EMS is very simple, to keep Oxygen going to the brain till the patient gets to hospital. Without oxygen, the brain begins to die in four minutes. Organs take 50 minutes, skin and muscles take five hours.


The EMT must assess quickly and decide to “load and go” or “stay and play.” You have to make a lot of decisions, in a short period of time, with the pressure of life or death hanging over you. Being an EMT is not so different from working on Wall Street or even boxing. It appeals to me.


When I teach self-defense, I always tell people not to fight especially if the assailant has a knife. Self-defense is like baseball, the goal is to run home. If you reach your destination alive, you are a winner. In EMS, the goal is to help the patient reach the hospital alive. In most cases, you don’t stay and fight, you run away and save a life. 


Aidan and Joan are very religious, and they have a nice philosophy which they live by. “People arrive on the scene and see problems. We see solutions.” That was Aidan’s EMS motto, but his next statement was like a lifestyle mantra. “The only true problem is death, because once it happens it can’t be solved. Everything else has a solution.”


He asked my class, “Have any of you had a problem in your life? Yes, but you solved it didn’t you? So, you didn’t really have a problem. You had a solution. And you know how I know? Because you aren’t dead yet.”


We learned about the circulatory system. An adult heart pumps 5 Lt of blood per minute. An adult body contains 5 – 6 Lt of blood. That will cause some dry cleaning issues. I remember my Uncle Sonny telling me he preferred a .22 to a .45, “That way your suits will always stay nice and fresh, after a job.” He never went to school, but he had a certain homespun wisdom that you could live by.


The rule book said, Safety first: Size up the scene. Make sure it is safe for you and your patient. Don’t go from being a paramedic to being a patient.


Relating this to going back to Burma as a combat medic, however, you are in the same danger zone as your patients. And you can be injured, but have to focus and work. I had that experience when we had an accident on the Burma border. I was knocked unconscious, but still had to crawl around and render aid. A friend working for a security contractor said that they hire both SWAT and ex-military to work as security contractors. He said that they were both good, but the problem with the SWAT guys was that when they were rushing into a building to get a sniper out, they assume that their back is safe. The danger is only coming form inside the house. But, in real combat the whole area is hot. There is potential danger on all sides. It is the same for combat paramedic. You are almost never safe. In fact, since you are traveling with the troops, then it stands to reason, if they are injured, you are in an unsafe place, but you still have to go about your work.


My family and friends keep sending me emails that say things like, “We are so glad you are out of Burma and safe in Manila.”


I like the people here, so I don’t want to insult anyone, but Manila is a lot more dangerous than Burma. Violent crime is rampant, and people get shot here all the time. And, unlike the States, you can’t trust the police or emergency services to come help you. We are the best EMS in the Philippines, but we didn’t graduate yet. According to Aidan, in Manila, of 280 EMS calls per hour, less than 20 get answered.


One of the UK training videos we watched was of a paramedic on a motorcycle. The idea is motorcycles can arrive at the scene faster and start rendering aid while waiting for the ambulance to come and evacuate the patient.

“Any comments?” Aidan asked, when the video had finished.

“Cool uniform.” I said.

“We all wear that flash-green jacket and helmet in the UK.”

“No, I meant the leather pants. Do we all get to wear leather pants?”

“No, EMTs don’t generally wear leather pants.”

“Well, is there some other career I can pursue where I do where leather pants? I don’t want to throw away six months of hard work and study only to continue wearing cloth.”


The only career I could think of where I could wear leather pants was go-go boy, but I had already done that one. My go-go license had lapsed, and there were no course openings in Manila.


Aidan told us that in the UK all people are assigned a primary care physician from birth. “For the rest of our lives, if we have a medical problem, we get free medical care. If you are injured and need to get to your physiotherapy appointments, the ambulance will transport you for free. That is what a government can do if it sets its priorities on the people.”


Yes, maybe in a perfect world. But, if governments squander their tax budgets on medical care how will they fund the military?


Saving lives is a calling. Aidan served in the military, but in UK an army medic is a noncombatant. In the US military he is a soldier first. He is armed and must engage the enemy if called upon to do so. The same is true in the war in Burma where no one can afford to specialize. I want to learn paramedic skills to help save lives, but I favor a military solution in Burma. I believe there are times that violence is justified or even called for.


Aidan, on the other hand, finds killing appalling. For this reason he is better at his job as a paramedic. “Only God can take life.” He said.


I wondered if he would hate me for my willingness to pickup a gun. It made me a bit sad and introspective. With the exception of psychopaths like Hitler and the Junta who run Burma, no one wants to be the bad-guy. It pained me that someone might point at me and say that I am the villain.


Ma’am Joan taught our next block of instruction. She talks a lot about the rights of patients. The Philippines is a very stratified society, where half of the haves don’t have very much, the other half have everything. The have-nots comprise nearly 80% of the population, and they have absolutely nothing.


“In the Philippines no one is to blame if they are poor. Being poor is not your fault.” She paused to let that sink in. Then she added, “But being rich is. If someone in the Philippines is rich, we have to ask where the money came from.”


Corruption is rampant in the country and is often identified as the single most crippling force holding back the economic development of the people.


Joan gave a lengthy lecture on discrimination against poor patients in the hospital. Sometimes these people were abused verbally and even physically. She said things like “Don’t try this with white people. They will stand up for their rights. But we Pinoys let people push us around.”


Organ sales are common, and apparently, some medical staff accept a commission for brokering the sales when a patient dies. “This is unethical.” Joan told us, as if maybe we didn’t already know. “Let the families make their own arrangements to sell the organs.”


“It is illegal and awful, but poverty makes people desperate.”


This phrase, “poverty makes people desperate,” is a recurring theme in the Philippines. There are a lot of cases in the news of people jumping off of bridges or committing violent robberies that are so public and stupid, they seem more like cries for help. Money is really tight for me during school, and I live in very basic, jail-cell-like conditions, but I still can’t imagine the grind of real poverty. To know that you can’t provide for your family and that there is no hope that tomorrow will be any better must be absolutely incapacitating.


Doing my anatomy homework, it occurred to me that this stuff is freaking hard. There is a reason that doctors study for ten years.  In Manila, however, anatomy study is slightly easier, because I can just drop by the market and pick up a human kidney and practice in my room.



For all of their education and training, the Filipino’s approach to diet and exercise is dated. In fact, everyone smokes. They are all fat, and no one exercises at all. The course had a unit which said EMTs should be fit, exercise regularly, and eat right. Joan repeated what was written on the overhead, basically, “you should exercise every day, eat a healthy diet, and keep fit.” But that was the end of it. We went on to the next slide. No exercise program was laid out, nothing was planned. It occurred to me, how many times in my life have I sat in an orientation at a school or a company where they said, “You should do fifteen minutes of aerobic exercise per day, keep fit sleep and eat right, next slide.”


 In America, kids are required to attend gym classes but they don’t work out or do any serious exercise. The kids who are fat or have no fitness or muscle tone in September are fat and have no fitness or muscle tone in May. I think the kids should be given a fitness test at the beginning and end of the year. If they fail, the gym teacher should be fired. Seriously, if we are going to eat up an hour of class time per day, why don’t we demand fitness?


According to a July report, the National Center for Health Statistics indicate 15 percent of children ages 6 to 18 were overweight in 2000, up from 6 percent in 1980. Fifteen percent of youngsters ages 6 to 19 and 10 percent of children 2 through 5 were considered seriously overweight. Sources: AHA.


According to the Weight Control Information Network, which may or may not be a reliable source, today, more than 65 percent of adults in the United States are overweight or obese. Obesity puts people at increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and some forms of cancer.

In our EMT course we learned that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the world. WHAT are we waiting for? Get off the freaking coach already. And as for the kids, kids shouldn’t be fat. And parents shouldn’t make the kids fat. If kids get fat later, at least they had a choice. But as children they rely on their parents to take care of them. Once again, parents of overweight children should be fined.


I spend less than 45 minutes in the gym per day and I am probably fitter than 90% of people. Why can’t we do this for our kids?


The next slide was a dietary advisement right out of the 1950s when bacon was thought to be good for you. It had a picture of the food group pyramid and it said that 60% of our diet should be composed of carbohydrates. Joan stressed to us, “If you want to lose weight please don’t cut carbs. Your brain can only function on glucose.”


While it is true that your brain only functions on glucose, carbs are the first place you should cut when dieting. Otherwise, what are you going to cut? Fish, meat, vegetables, fruit….


Time sense is an issue here. You wait for everything. I waited in line for an ATM for twenty minutes the other day. You are always waiting, things take longer and everyone is late. But no one seems to mind. To travel five kilometers could take one and a half hours, but no one ever walks. I walk to the mall and my classmate got lost on the public transport. It’s only like 600 kilometers away. Why not walk?


My classmates and I got drunk after class and gave each other tattoos with IV needles. We were working together on an assignment. Aidan had asked us to design an ambulance, inside and out. Ours had Playstation, CD, DVD, and a Borat headbobber. For an engine, I chose a straight twelve Hemy. I am not exactly sure what that is, but I suspected it was wicked fast.


When we presented our design, Aidan said, “That all draws current and runs down your battery.” A serious concern in the ambulance is running out of electrical power before getting back to the hospital. Incubators, for example, draw a lot of current. If you get stranded, you increase the chances of your patient dying.


Filipinos talk about America constantly. America is the standard by which everything else is measured and still the number one country they want to go to. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in USA paramedics only earn about $2,500 per month. In the Middle East they can earn $2,500 tax free, and get free accommodations and food. If you did the Middle East deal you could easily save $2,000 per month. In US, after paying taxes and apartment there would be nothing left. In many, many instances my classmates mention that one or the other country in Europe has a better procedure or equipment than the Americans. But America remains the standard. I tried to convince Ben he would be better off as an EMT in Qatar or as an RN in America, but going to America to be a paramedic was not a good idea. They don’t understand that $2,500 is nothing in USA and $2,500 in the Middle East is a better deal.  


Sir Aidan always gets talking and forgets about our breaktimes and lunches. I wrote the word coffee in huge capital letters on the back of my textbook, so when it is time for a break I can hold it up. Ma’am Joan always says “just one more minute and I will let you go,” but it’s generally another thirty five minutes. I had to fake a seizure to get us released for lunch. Monday I have to produce a note from my doctor confirming that I have a medical condition called hypo-cafination and need coffee every two hours or I will descend into a state of hypo-cafiosis. That will cost a pretty penny.

After school, before Ben went home, he took his ATM cards out of his wallet. “This is manila we always have to prepare in case we get robbed.”


EMTs here have not cross trained most police and therefore don’t have advanced first aid and EMTs don’t learn rescue. Sir Erik told us “You are EMTs. That means no Spiderman. No rescue, no rappelling, no defusing bombs, and no terrorist threat elimination, you only think about the medical.”


Too boring. I want to change courses.


Sir Erik told us how to do triage in Manila. “If you have one patient suffering from a gunshot wound and one with a sprained wrist, who do you take to the hospital first?”

Answer, the rich one.


We are only supposed to have one patient in the ambulance, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sir Eric told us that once in the Middle East he had a whole family and a goat, which is strange because in the Philippines, you don’t usually use an ambulance to transport a goat. A pig maybe, a few chickens, but never a goat.



Sir Eric lectured us about the golden hour. Basically the brain starts to die after 4 minutes, but if it is still getting oxygen. It takes ten minutes of no oxygen for the brain to completely die.  Then the next deadline is the internal organs, which start to die after 50 minutes. So, we call it the golden hour, the narrow window of time we have to respond and take the patient to the hospital. Of course the hour starts when the patient gets hurt, not when we arrive. We are told that our goal is to spend only ten minutes on site.


In USA someone sees an injured person, they call 911. The dispatcher uses GPS to locate them, gets some pertinent information, and sends out an ambulance. “But in manila,” laughs Erik, “things don’t work the way they do in USA. If they see an accident they call an emergency number. The dispatcher asks, what kind of emergency do you want: police, ambulance, or fire. You tell her which one you need. Then she asks, where are you? It’s not always easy in Philippines to know where someone is, so a long discussion follows. Then the dispatcher looks up your location and gives you a landline phone number for the closest command station. You call them and they refer you to the specific station. You call them and, assuming they answer the phone, they come. A lot of time is lost in traffic in Manila, where it could take over an hour to travel 5 KM. Also a lot of time will be lost looking for the place. When the ambulance arrives, the police are not trained and don’t necessarily take control of the situation. Often the crowd is a huge impediment to the rescue workers.


“When you have an accident in the Philippines the first people to respond are the onlookers.” In a country where many people don’t have a lot of disposable income and aren’t bogged down by a job which eats up their time, EMS emergencies can be seen as a cheap source of entertainment. “The second group to arrive is the media. Then the politicians.” Ostensibly this ancient system of ward bosses still exists where they would show up and shake babies and kiss hands. “Next comes EMS. Once we are sure the situation is safe the police arrive.”


EMS does their work and transports the patient to the hospital. At present there are only three trauma centers in Manila. It could take ages to reach one of these trauma centers only to find out that the hospital is full and you are being turned away.

The golden hour could easily turn into the golden three hours, especially if your patient is poor. For rich people, once again nearly everything is possible with private ambulances and private admission to the best hospitals.


In primary assessment training, we ask patient “What is the quality of the pain?”

Quality? It sucks. It’s pain, so, I would say the quality is quite shitty.


The book suggests giving the patient a scale so they can measure their pain. The example given in the book uses a scale of 1 to 10, ten being the highest. The book stresses that this is just a suggestion, and we can do it however we wish. Given that creative freedom, I prefer a scale of 3.9 to 11.7 with 11.7 being the lowest.


We studied ten ways to tell if your patient is unresponsive. Aidan pointed out it is pretty easy to determine. “Just say hello to him, and see if he answers. Ask him some questions and see if he gibbers nonsense.”


All the guys in my class knew that Master Frank is the one who took me to the school. They all love the UFC and knew that referee Big John McCarthy is a paramedic. They love martial arts and found my videos on line. Now, they all want to learn Kuntaw. It was one more sad example of a piece of local culture that is dying. I have studied the ancient Filipino martial art of Kuntaw, but they hadn’t.


This course is excellent. I am getting to find out interesting stuff like, what the hell is a spleen? I mean you’ve heard of the spleen, but what is it?


This is the first non-language course I have taken since I was a junior in college, more than fifteen years ago. I like EMT because it has all of the life saving stuff which I find interesting but without having to learn all of the medical and chemistry and biology that I know I could never learn to become a nurse or a doctor. This is also the first course I have taken that was taught in English; well mostly in English. My classmates often ask questions in Tagalog but it is ok. I am trying to learn the language.


I am always amazed at the English spoken here. They do prefer to speak Tagalog to each other but when they have to talk to me in English they are all near native speakers. They watch all of our movies and eat at Taco Bell. So, the cultural differences are not so huge, except for the time issue.


I wrote in my notebook, “Cytoplasm is made up of protoplasm and occupies the space between the plasma membrane and the nucleus.” How many times have I written that exact sentence in my life? Probably at least five times between fourth grade and freshman year of college? Why? And why did it always seem new to me each time? Even now it has very little meaning for me. I barely understand what it means and how it reflects to what I need to do to save a life.


I daydream a lot in class and start laying out screen plays for movies that should never be made. During anatomy lecture I came up with this one, “Thoracic Park, a trip back to a time when the internal organs ruled the earth.”


Sir Eric was excited to tell the guys in our class, “Being a paramedic is one of the only times you get to cut a girl’s clothes off.” Of course he meant without buying her dinner first or getting hit with pepper spray. A training video from USA showed us how to cut the clothes off of the victim. Teacher Eric laughed, “They do it wrong in USA. They cut straight up the front. Here in the Philippines you need to cut along the seam, so that the people can have the clothes repaired if they want to reuse them.”


While I am at school here, I have to continue with the rest of my life. I continue publishing pieces and doing video releases related to the Burma conflict. I am negotiating book and publishing contracts, and I have to keep up with my correspondence.


Over the six years I have been writing and publishing stories I have built up a personal mailing list of about 4,000 people, plus all of the readers of the hundreds of magazines and websites where my stories appear. As a result I get a lot of email from strangers and a lot of unsolicited advice from people I don’t know. If I followed most of it, I would be dead. I would like to take this time to answer some of these emails.


1. Reader: “Why don’t you sell your stories to big magazines, wouldn’t they pay better than the small ones?”

Response: I didn’t realize the big magazines paid better. Now, I feel like an idiot. Big magazines have been offering me huge pay checks, but I stupidly turned them down to write for peanuts in obscurity.


2. Reader: “Instead of putting your videos on youtube for free why don’t you sell them to TV?”

Response: See response number one.


3. This next one is classic. At least the first two readers knew that I do sell my stuff but just don’t make a lot of money.


Reader: “You should try selling some of your stories.” This person suggested after reading one my stories in a paying magazine. “National Geographic would probably be interested in some of your work.”


National Geographic comes up a lot in these suggestions. Let me just head that one off, right now.


Response: National Geographic really doesn’t like queries. More than 90% of their stories are thought up and decided on in house, then they are given as assignments to prominent people working in the field. A lot of the biggest magazines only give assignments. Play Boy is a good example. They pay a huge amount but they contact you, not the other way around.


If you have any contacts please let them know I am very available.


4. Recently a number of TV people have contacted me because of my Burma youtube videos. They all promised to make me a star and all made me promise never to use youtube again. “It is obviously not working for you.” They said.


Response: Well, it brought you to me, didn’t it, Momo? So, it must be working.

As of yet, all I had from any of these TV people was a ton of talk, followed by silence. If I had taken their advice and quit youtube I would have nothing at all. At least now my videos are getting out there.


Currently, Antonio is in Manila attending paramedic training. When his course finishes he will return to the conflict in Burma as a medical volunteer. He is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to his paramedic training or his “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.


Checkout Antonio’s website

Get Antonio’s books at

The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa




Ambulance Duty in Manila

In Adventures in Asia on May 27, 2008 at 2:29 am




The Philippines is a tough place to have a medical emergency.

 by Antonio Graceffo


After graduating EMT-B (Emergency Medical Technician, Basic) course, I started duty, volunteering on an ambulance crew in Quezon City, Philippines. I have to put in 250 hours of service before I return to school for the next round of advanced training.


The emergency call volume in the whole country is pretty low, with the crew only going on about two and a half calls per day. Since Filipinos are exposed to so many more dangers than people in the west, one would expect to have more calls per capita, not less. Vehicles are not inspected. Buses, completely overloaded with people, often drive, without breaks and slam into motorcycles, carrying a family of five. And, of course no one wears a helmet. Electrical wires are installed with little or no forethought. Outside the houses there are massive tangles of fizzing, sparking wires, pirating electricity, just waiting to shock someone or burst into flames. Poor people don’t have any preventative medical care, only going to the hospital when it is too late to save them. A huge percentage of them smoke and drink alcohol. Vegetables are overcooked or non-existent, and pork fat is a favorite dish, served on a heaping mound of rice.


In poor areas, particularly squatter communities, there are massive open sewage and drainage pits, just waiting to support an epidemic or swallow up a child. But more on that later.


The rescue station was small, dirty and ill equipped. They had three ambulances, 1994 model L-3, which is basically like a family van converted to carry a patient. The only equipment in the ambulance was a trolley cot, a small oxygen tank, tied off with rubber bands, and a homemade equipment locker, which contained no equipment.


Some of the regular EMS guys who manned the station, were, by far, the biggest slackers I had ever seen in my life. They smoked. They were fat. And I just got the impression they didn’t want more than two and a half calls per day. It would just mean more work. And God knows they didn’t like work. The bathroom reeked to Heaven. It had clearly not been cleaned since the station was established fifteen years ago. The sink didn’t work and there was no seat on the toilet.


The team leader, and a couple of the others, however, were motivated and trying to do what they could, but if you leave a good man in a quagmire long enough, he will stop trying to swim. Bobo-Lolo, as I called him, was by far the slackiest of the slackers. He tried to relate to me, because we were both soldiers. He was so unfit, I finally said to him. “how can you save lives. You look like you are going to collapse any moment.”


“I am forty-one.” He said, as an excuse.

“I am forty, and you look like you could be my lolo, my grandfather.”

“I am older than you.” He insisted.

“So, in six months, on my birthday, I am going to wake up reeking of cigarettes, hungover, and eight months pregnant?”


Bobo went on to tell me about why he left the army.


“We had to shoot guns, and it made me tired.”

“Armies shoot guns.” I explained.

“No, but this was hard. We had to crawl.”

“Armies crawl.”

“Under barbed wire.” He added.

“With sergeants shooting over your head.” I interjected, before he had a chance. “Those are all normal exercises that soldiers do. You didn’t have it any harder than any other soldier anywhere.”

In the course of this conversation, it turned out that Bobo-lolo hadn’t even been in the army. He was talking about ROTC, when I was in college. So, now I wondered what he had been doing for the last twenty years.


Actually, I didn’t want to know.


In the main room we had a small TV, which played constantly. There was a couch and a sick bed which was missing its upholstery, so you had to sit or lay directly on the smelling, filthy foam rubber.


In defense of how lazy these guys were, their salary was only 6,000 Pesos a month.


A lot of my EMS duty consisted of sitting around the station house, reading. We did practice for about then minutes, doing spinal immobilizations, simulating extracting a victim from an automobile. All the equipment smelled like a thousand sweating bleeding victims had defecated on it,. When it came my turn t play the victim I refused, for fear f becoming infected by having the rescue gear touch my skin. When I played rescuer, I put on rubber gloves for the same reason. We have to buy our own gloves and the regular guys thought I was nuts. My classmates, Ben and Neil, of course knew this whole situation was wrong.


I looked at my watch, then said to Ben. “Two hundred and forty-six hours left.”


In addition to our grueling extraction drill, we had a session of ambulance familiarization. The first thing I noticed when they opened the doors of the ambulance was that the rescue basket had old dried blood on it. I guess two and a half calls a day kept the guys too busy to clean their equipment.


Just before noon, we received word that the Vice Mayor’s birthday was being celebrated at City Hall and we were all invited for lunch. Feeling proud in our new uniforms, my classmates, Ben and Neil, and I followed our EMS team through the crowd at City Hall. Everyone was curious about the EMT from America, so they all came over to talk to me. At one point, I am not sure how it happened, but I wound up leading our procession down a hallway. I stepped through a doorway, expecting to step down a flight of stairs, only to find out that the first step was missing. I fell like a stone, crashing down on my ankle, which of course, had twisted underneath me.


The sudden fall had caused all of the blood to run away from my head and collect in my feet, and I instantly fell into near unconsciousness. The six EMTs all hovered around me, remarking on how white and sweaty I had become. I sat on the floor, with my back propped up against the wall, willing myself to recover. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so nauseous or so feint. Sweat ran off my body like a river.  While I slowly recovered, an employee of the mayor, a woman in her late forties, brought me an ice pack for my swollen ankle.


I had been working as an EMT for about five hours at that point, and I was my first patient. I really felt like a mook.


Eventually, I made it back to my feet. Limping, unsteadily, I followed my friends into the banquet hall, where we ate an excellent lunch for free.


After lunch, we were back in the station house. I was reading Chuck Berris’s autobiography, wondering if he really had been an assassin for the CIA. We received an emergency call. A woman was nearly collapse at City Hall.


I grabbed my medical bag and jumped in the ambulance, not missing the irony of the fact that I was returning to the scene of my shame. If the injured woman recognized me as the patient from before, it probably wouldn’t instill confidence in her.


We met our patient in an office, where she was being tended by none other, than the woman who had brought me an icepack earlier. Luckily, she was too concerned about her friend to laugh at me. The injured woman was 47 years old. While Ben took her vitals, BP 90/70, we asked some questions. It turned out that she had donated blood a few hours earlier. Since then, she had been outside, in the heat, helping to coordinate the events for the vice mayor’s birthday. She hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Making sure that she had no history of diabetes or heart disease, I suggested she rest in front of the fan, eat some lunch and drink come fluids. After a few more questions and niceties in Filipino, the team leader agreed. We returned to base.


To kill boredom, while I read, Ben and Neil took turns splinting my ankle. Neil was better on wrapping. Ben was better at tying. But, it isn’t nice to compare, so I complemented them both equally. You don’t want to squelch the spirit of a new EMT.


We were to be getting off at 5:00. It looked like we weren’t going to get to actually see or do anything interesting, apart from working on each other. At 4:10, we were called to the drowning of a three year old child. Of course our ambulance was stuck in traffic. Even with the sirens blaring, no one made way for us.


In the back of the ambulance, Bobo-Lolo was asking Ben questions about me in Filipino. I have been here long enough that I really understand about 80% of what is being said, if I know the context. One question after another, I simply answered before Ben could translate.


“You speak Filipino?” asked Bobo.

“I understand a lot, but I am just learning.” I answered.

He started teaching me phrases in rapid fire. People do this to me from time to time. They try and make it look like they are helping you, but actually they are taking the piss out of you, telling you a ton of useless language that you can’t possibly remember. At some point they laugh at how stupid you are because you can’t speak THEIR native tongue. The fact that I speak ten other native tongues never seems to make any impression on them. They just feel superior. I didn’t want Bobo to feel superior. So, I shut him down.

“Stop!” I said, holding up my hand like a cop directing traffic. “I don’t need you to throw a bunch of useless phrases at me. Just teach me one or two phrases directly related to our work. That would be helpful.”


“Mahal Kita.” He said, giggling.

“Is that related to or work?”


“What does it mean?”

“I love you.” Answered Bobo and laughed at having baited me. Everyone else laughed too.

“Do you really?”


“Do you really love me?”

Bob began to stammer.

“You don’t love me do you?”

Now everyone was laughing at Bobo-Lolo

“Don’t tell me you love me if you don’t mean it.” I said.


Bobo-lolo left me alone for the rest of the ride.



We arrived on the scene at a squatter village where poor families live in houses made of scrap wood and cardboard. There was a drainage tunnel running off the highway, which had turned into a fast moving river in today’s unseasonable downpour.


In the developed, western countries, it is hard enough to get a straight story, but in the developing world it is impossible. You have to ask, and ask, and ask again. And each time, you will get a different answer or no answer at all. Basically what I was able to piece together was that a little boy was walking along the top of the tunnel. His sandal fell into the tunnel. When he bent over to retrieve it, he fell in and immediately got swept away. The tunnel lead down a steep embankment for about thirty meters, till it hit a valley, which today was completely full of swift water. That is where the story ended. I couldn’t get a straight answer if anyone had seen him swept away or pulled under.


Looking more closely at the current, I saw that the water coming down the embankment was actually flowing in the opposite direction as the river itself. With that, I surmised that the body must not be far away. He would have come down fast, then hit water going in the other direction, which would have stopped his forward progress.


At that point I was certain we were looking for a body, rather than conducting a rescue.


During the course of the conversation, I learned that all of this had happened over an hour before we were called. This tragedy illustrates a number of problems in the Philippines, aside from the fact that they don’t do maintenance or planning and don’t eliminate dangerous situations before or after they kill people.  Beyond this, the people simply don’t know to call for emergency response, or they are afraid to. Quezon City, has a population of two million, but only receives an average of 80 EMS calls per month. In the west, we would expect the same population to result in 400 calls per week. Other problems were glaring, such as, we were the first unit on the scene. The police and fire department were nowhere to be seen. When we arrived, we knew we were in the right place because of the huge crowd that had gathered, clearly looking for something in the river. How many police cars must have driven by the crowd on patrol but chosen not to stop?


When I suggested to my team leader that the little boy must be close to the embankment, he said the locals told him that when the river changed directions, it ran back under the highway and went on for miles, eventually coming out at the sea.


The water was moving at least 5 – 10 miles per hour. If he had been swept in the other direction, he would be long gone by now. Obviously I wanted to save the boy, but since that was not possible, I at least hoped to find the body, so his parents could have a Catholic funeral, and get closure.


We went to the other side of the highway and made our way through the squatter’s market. There were large drainage holes, five meters across, covered in metal grates. The obvious thing to do would be to open one of these grates, repel in, and see if maybe the body had been trapped inside. No one seemed to know, or care if there were screens or obstructions under the water. They ignored me when I asked if it was possible that the body was trapped there or had been washed further on.


We are actually EMTs. We are only supposed to deal with medical emergencies, not rescue, but they asked if I was trained to rappel down and look for the body. I said, no problem, as long as you have safety gear for me. Of course they didn’t. So, I refused to go down.


In the Philippines, big cities, like Manila, are divided into smaller cities, Quezon City being the largest of these small cities. Small cities are divided into smaller units, eventually coming to something called a barangay. The barangay is ruled by a barangay captain who is like a ward boss back in old time New York. Anything that goes wrong, any problem is supposed to be reported to the barangay captain, who, like a patron, will help his constituents.


We found out that no one had called the barangay captain. So, my team leader notified him. The team leader said, “We have to be available for medical emergencies. If we stay here looking for a body, someone may die of heart attack on the other side of the city. So, we need to wait till the barangay captain gets here and then leave.”


This was reasonable. But I was still worried about the family. “Does the barangay have equipment to go in and search for the body?”


“No, but they will call the police.”


I couldn’t believe the police still hadn’t been called at this point.


“And do the police have equipment to search for the body?”


“No, but they will call the Coast Guard.”


On the list of things I couldn’t believe was that you needed to call the Coast Guard for a rescue in a drainage ditch, miles from the ocean.


This is the Philippines. It is a sad situation. Poor people live under dangerous conditions everyday. Then, either through ignorance or fear, they don’t call for help when they need it. But in this country, the help is fairly useless, and bureaucratic when it arrives. Most likely someone in that long chain of phone calls was going to refuse to come till tomorrow, if at all.


If this had been a drowning, or if the boy had been alive when we arrived, I would have had no other choice but to go in after him. The EMTs I worked with during my water rescue course and a few of the guys from this team were taking rescue courses with the Coast Guard and Air Force, apparently, although it is not their job, they see that they need the training to save lives. Although some guys are lazy and resign themselves to working for 6,00 Pesos a month, doing the bare minimum, there are clearly other Filipinos who are dedicated. They are struggling to make things better, but life refuses to meet them half way. Everyone has noble ideas about staying behind and helping the country, but I looked at my classmates, Ben and Neil, who had performed heroically, and I just said, “Get out of here as soon as you can.” I felt guilty saying this to them. They are both bright, Ben is a nurse and Neil is a respiratory therapist. They have a chance to go outside the country, work as advanced EMTs and at least make things better for their own families.


“That is our plan.” Answered Ben, sadly.


I didn’t want to turn this child’s death into a soap box. Please say a prayer for his soul and a prayer of comfort for his parents. The death of child must be the hardest tragedy to endure.


Antonio Graceffo is a qualified EMT, Emergency medical technician. When he completes his training in the Philippines, he hopes to return to Burma and Shanland as part of a medical aid mission. He has been embedded with the Shan State Army inside of Burma, documenting human rights abuses, in his video series, “In Shanld.” You can watch all of the Shan videos released to date on youtube.

Antonio is self-funded. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, or his paramedic training, you can do so through paypal, through the Burma page of his website.


contact Antnio


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Burma’s Other Karen Tribe

In Adventures in Asia on May 22, 2008 at 1:20 pm

By Antonio Graceffo



The Long neck Karen (KarenPadaung) are not actually Karen at all, but they are also refugees, escaping the genocidal madness in Burma. They have become a symbol of tourism in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. On the Burmese side of the border, agents of the junta gather the Karen, Akha, Lihsu, Lahu and other tribal people into human zoos.


In Burma’s Tachylek, I watched in nauseated amazement as drunken Chinese businessmen, exhausted from long nights of gambling, strolled through these Disney-like villages, accompanied by their prostitute girl friends, snapping photos of the “Tribal People in natural habitat.”  Each village maintained one family from each tribe, wearing their traditional dress, and living in an authentic tribal house. The village was a real time-saver, as you didn’t have to travel to have your photo made with one representative of each tribe.


The “cultural villages” like the one in Tachylek, are easily the most horrible and flagrant exploitation of human rights I have ever witnessed. On the Thai side of the border, the Padaung are also exploited, but not to such a degree as inside of their home country, Burma.


 Because of the popularity of these villages as a tourist destination, a number of people have written me and asked abut the true life of the tribal people. In other words, they wanted to know how the Padaung live when they are not on display in a synthetic village. The truest answer I could give is that I have spent considerable time living among the Shan. But, I have never lived among the Padaung. There are rumors that there are no more Padaung living in traditional villages. Word on the border is that the Padaung were a vary small group to start with. In a recent article, bruma Expert, Edith Mirante said that there were about 50,000 Padaung. Nearly one-hundred percent of those who make it to Thailand wind up in tourist villages. Today, nearly all of those living in Burma have been rounded up and forced to live in “cultural villages.”


 I think no one knows for sure, because it is so hard for researchers to live inside of Burma, but I have heard that there are no more true, non-touristic Padaung villages.(This needs to be verified. If anyone has information to the contrary, please, by all means, write to me


What I do know about the Padaung, I will share, in the hopes of brining attention to this horrible exploitation, and as a way of demonstrating that the victims of the junta are countless. It never ends. Life, after life, after innocent life is destroyed by this repressive regime which cares only for its own survival.


There are two closely related groups, who often occupy the same tourist villages in Thailand. There are the long neck Karen, and the big ear Karen. The big ear Karen put large earrings in their ears to make the lobes bigger. They also force rings on their claves. They add one ring to their calves every year, as the Long Neck do with their neck rings.


As far as anyone knows, Padaung women in Burma still keep this tradition, but the total population of Padong is extremely small, but they keep their tradition. Some interviews, which a friend of mine conducted in Burma suggested that many of the girls in the Burmese “cultural villages” were actually actresses. The Akha girl may have actually been Lihsu or from some other tribe. She was told to put on a costume and live in a certain hut, and she did it.


In my own interviews, on the Thai side of the border, we were told that some girls were either not actually Padaung, or were from a group that didn’t normally wear the rings. But, they put on the rings just to get put in the human zoo, rather than be sent back to Burma. We were also told that to make the look more exotic for tourists, the girls were forcing one new ring on their neck every nine months, instead of once per year.


Although it may have seemed a safer alternative to returning to the war in Burma, the tourist village, is a sad pathetic place. The people have no normal life at all. According to their culture, they are supposed to be doing rice farming and raising their families, but instead they stand there selling trinkets and posing for photos. Most of the women we spoke to were quite nice, and willing to talk, but they spoke Thai to varying degrees only, so communication was often a problem. They were afraid to talk to us at length because the Puyai Bans (pesanovante Thai/Chinese who run the village and collect the money) obviously told them not to talk to foreigners or journalists. The pesanovante would often crowd in and try to eavesdrop or outright intimidate us.


The tourists were horribly ignorant people who believed that these long neck were part of Thailand or Thai culture, but of course they are refugees from the war in Burma and shouldn’t be in Thailand at all. They are only tolerated by the Thais because they can exploit the women and make money.


If you ask about wearing the rings, most of the girls will tell you that it is not painful, but they are lying. The rings must be painful, because they are forcing their clavicles down and extending the cervical vertebrae. There have been cases of adult women putting on rings just to get into these villages and not be deported to the war. Obviously forcing a bunch of rings onto a grown woman would be painful.


 I don’t live with Padong or with Karen. I live with Shan. So, I only visited Padaung villages, and sometimes work with Karen soldiers in the field. So, I never got to actually see the rings being put on the girls. Again it is important to note that there is no real anthropological connection between Karen and Padaung.


The rings are normally not removed during the entire lifetime of the girls. I have heard that they could actually die if the rings are removed, because the cervical spine will not be strong enough to support the head. In one of the villages, a girl, named Sempre, took her rings off to try and pass for “normal.” She is definitely in danger of suffering a spinal injury. She might get away with it, physically, since she is so young, less than twenty. Culturally, however, she will never recover. The  women who still wear rings have ostracized her for breaking with the culture. Now she doesn’t receive an income from the puyai bans because she is no longer an attraction. She hopes to get an ID card and go to work in the city, but she could quite easily be arrested and deported now.


As I stated earlier, I don’t have a good number on how many Padaung exist on both sides of the border, but, I would estimate about 50 women live in each tourist village, on the Thai side. On the Burmese side, there is normally only one very lonely family from each tribe. In the whole world, however, there are very few long neck. In Thailand there are none in refugee camps, they all get caught and are forced to work in the tourist villages. Once when I was in Ban Thaton, and I saw a long neck Karen women walk out of the jungle to buy food at a hill tribe market. When I raised my camera, everyone asked me not to photograph her because it would jeopardize her freedom. She was one of very,

very few long neck hiding in the jungle and living freely.


A common question people ask is why the women wear the rings. I have heard several reasons. One is that, in Padaung culture, the rings are considered attractive. Anther reason I heard was that if a man wanted a divorce he had the right to take the rings off his wife, which would instantly kill her. I don’t know the reason and I don’t know if anyone does. The women didn’t  know when I asked them. It was a typical Asia moment when I asked, the girls answered. “Someone told us once why we wear the rings, but I forgot.”


People ask me if the rings are healthy, or if the girls could die of infection. Well you can’t die from an allergic reaction to jewelry. Remember the rings are worn on top of the skin. There is no piercing. Tribal people, or anyone living in the jungle, are absolutely infested with skin parasites and infections. This is just normal. Like head lice, it is just something they live with and believe to be a normal part of every day life. At best, they wash with cold water once per day, hiking God knows how far into the jungle to take a “bath.” You are already filthy when you come back from the bath. But some don’t have access to any water, so they just stay dirty.


If girls have died because of the rings, it wasn’t recorded. Tribal people accept death as a normal part of life and wouldn’t record, or think about, or worry about something like that. The culture says wear the rings, so they wear the rings, end of story.


The war in Burma has been going on for sixty years. It is estimated that more than two million people have been made homeless and are now living in camps in Thailand, Bangladesh, India, and Malaysia. These long neck are the most visible refugees, but there are so many others. The Burman’s only comprise about 40% of the population of Burma. The rest is made up of various ethnicities, tribes who are being subjected to genocide. They need help. They need the UN and USA to intervene militarily. You can google my name, plus the words Shan State Army and see the work I have done with the Shan people. At the end of every Burma video I remind people to “Please, say a prayer for the people of Burma.”


Antonio Graceffo is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.




Buddhism and the Party Line in Cambodia

In Adventures in Asia on May 16, 2008 at 12:50 pm



An interview with a disillusioned monk

By Prah Sokha (with Antonio Graceffo)



Prah Sokha has been a Khmer monk, off and on, for more than ten years. He once left the monkhood because he felt the Cambodian monks had strayed from a pure form of Buddhism, in order to follow the mandates of the Cambodian government (CPP).


He feels that the influence of politics, greed and the modern world have perverted the religion. He complains about the lack of discipline among the monks and stringent government controls on the temples’ teachings. Finally, he fears that as the people move further and further away from Buddhist values, the social order of the country could collapse. He sees the monks as being the only ones who could save the people, bringing them back to their core beliefs. But he asks the question, how can corrupt monks be expected to save the Cambodian people?


According to Prah Sokha:


Theravada Buddhism has played an important role in Khmer society for centuries. Khmer people decided to adhere to Buddhism since it was a religion that required the followers to observe strict principles and follow rigid precepts. They paid the highest respect to the people who became Buddhist monks.


Historically, Khmer people have taken the monastery as their refuge, as well as their training centre, where they could develop both their mind and their spirit. Buddhism is one of the strongest influences on Khmer culture and tradition.


In the past, monks fulfilled essential roles in traditional Khmer society, such as teachers and healers. In ancient times, they were the practitioners whose role was closest to that of modern psychiatrists. The monks provided kindly counseling and encouragement to the laity. They helped develop the country, resolving problems that occurred in Khmer society and interceding between the government and the people. A god example is Prah Samdach Song Chhuan Nat, who was the top hierarchical monk and an advisor to King Sihannuk during the 1950s and 1960s.


The Present: Cambodian Buddhism is in Decline


After the Khmer Rouge regime was finished, Buddhism was reborn, and started developing from day to day. But the development came only from outside forms of Buddhism. They new influences focused only on the constructions. They didn’t know what the core of Buddhism was. The roles played by the Khmer Buddhist monks in Khmer society were greatly decreased. The Grand Patriarch, the ranking Buddhist monk, who has traditionally been an advisor to the king, lost most if not all of his influence and power. The monks themselves lost their focus and became selfish. They don’t dare to share what they have in order to help Buddhism.


Why Khmer Buddhism is in decline:


Practitioners, Buddhist Monks, novices and laity, are not strict in Vinaya, monastic discipline. They are only attracted to modern materialism such as motorcycles, cars, phones, televisions, and electronic entertainment. They concentrate on earning money in anyway way possible, even engaging in illegal or immoral behavior. They are crazy with money at the moment. They don’t spend money in the right way.


“Some monks in PP are gambling; betting on football matches. CamboSix centers have opened nationwide, allowing laity and monks to gamble on football matches around the world.” says Phra Nhean, living in Thailand 8 years.


The monks suffer from a limited belief system, because they don’t study and find out the deep core of Buddhism. So, they are reluctant to commit to the discipline of the religion. Monks don’t have enough knowledge to explain Buddha’s teaching to the laity.


The Monk Educational System in Cambodia is not up to standard, and the qualifications are not accepted by any university. Even if you complete your monk education, you must study again from beginning. I, Prah Sokha, was also forced to do this.  I completed secondary school, then I became a monk and studied the same grade again. It takes us a long time to complete our studies because we have to do everything twice.


Recently, a monk decree was issued, stating that monks who have completed their studies in a foreign country will not be allowed to work in the government or monk hierarchy. I don’t understand why they are so crazy.  


“They don’t want us to grab their power,” says Phra Minh, a  Khmer monk who recently went to Thailand for education. “They are afraid because they are ignorant, unlearned, and belligerent.”


Some monks who need power, try to have a secrete relationship with government officers of the CPP. The monks bow their heads down to the government and flatter them. Some even dare to kneel down to receive money from Hun Sen. Some agree to work as servants. This is all wrong for Buddhist monks!


Outside Threats to Khmer Buddhism


Other religions, Islam, and Christianity, are penetrating into Cambodia everyday. They are trying to use money to buy the people to practice their religions by offering gifts or cash to the poor and then force them, behind the scenes covert. Buddhist monks have not shown any interest in this situation.


I think if All of Cambodian monks are still sleeping in ignorance don’t look at the neighboring countries, don’t upgrade their thought or idea, Buddhism will possibly vanish or disappear in the nearest future. And there will be a religious war in Cambodia, no longer, no sooner


Antonio Graceffo has been embedded with the Shan State Army inside of Burma. This article is part of the “In Shanland” project. To raise awareness about the plight of the Shan people Antonio will release one print article and one video per week for a year. He is giving these media away for free to ensure that they will reach the largest audience. You can watch all of the Shan videos released to date on youtube.

Antonio is self-funded. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal, through the Burma page of his website.


You can contact Antonio:


Currently, Antonio is attending paramedic training in Manila, while waiting for word that he can return to Burma as part of a medical aid mission.



Cambodian Government Says no to Khmer Rouge Movie

In Adventures in Asia on May 16, 2008 at 12:45 pm




By Antonio Graceffo


The Red Sense: A new film by Australian Khmer director, Tim Pek, deals with the subjects of forgiveness and revenge, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. A Khmer girl living in Australia finds out that her father’s killer, posing as a refugee, was also resettled in Australia. She must decide if she should kill him or forgive him. The film is extremely significant and timely, particularly in the face of the current Khmer Rouge trials.


After paying his fees and filling the necessary paper work, Tim has waited months for the Phnom Penh release of his film. So far, it looks as if the government simply doesn’t want the film to air.


In the days when the country was lead by Prince Sihanouk, Khmer cinema was on par with cinema in other countries. Today, Khmer cinema is in a state of steady decline. Tim Pek had hoped that “The Red Sense” would shake things up. His movie, filmed mostly in Khmer, would be a palatable way of introducing the Cambodian population, as well as the film making community, to a whole new style of movies. Perhaps “The Red Sense” could have been the catalyst to kick off a new era of Khmer cinema.


The export potential of the current crop of Khmer films is zero. The domestic population loves to watch movies, but foreign movies and DVDs are leading in popularity, with Khmer  movies falling behind.


Mak, a Khmer university student said that he loves watching Khmer movies, and he does so to support Khmer cinema. “I want Khmer movie to be a most prominent ones in SEA and then in the world too. I really prefer Khmer movies even their quality are not good as foreign movies.”


One problem he sights with Khmer movies is the cost of attending the cinema. “Actually I’m poor, so $1 or more than $1 for watching a movie is very expensive for me, but I can spend it to support Khmer movies.”


“I didn’t like to go to the cinema.” Said a Khmer monk, now living abroad. “It had no importance for me to watch the silly movies. Mostly they showed horror or ghost movies and only took from outside (foreign movies). On the other hands, the quality of the Khmer movie is still low. The big problem is ticket cost. It is so expensive.”      


“When I heard that most of the cinemas in Phnom Penh have been closed, I was in tears, I couldn’t sleep and eat. Suddenly I call a Khmer screen writer to ask her about this bad news, and she told me that “Khmer film is died again”


“I watch DVD because DVD is cheaper than cinema. I watch DVDs for other movies besides Khmer movies such as, Thai, China, Korea, American (Hollywood), Indian. I never watch foreign movies at the cinema, just only DVDs.”


The monk echoed the sentiment that he preferred to watch foreign DVDs. “Mostly I prefer American and Chinese.”


When asked if he believed a new movie about the Khmer Rouge was important, he answered. “I think it ‘s important. If may think it is just a small problem of one person, but if we think more than this we will know that the film talks about Khmer people who were the victims in Khmer Rouge. We can compare that, her (the main character of the film) father, a Khmer, was killed in Khmer Rouge, and her father’s killer was also Khmer, and the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were Khmer.”


Because of widespread publicity on the internet, many Khmers and people around the world have heard of the film and seen the trailer on youtube.


“I really want to watch the Red Sense. I have heard of it for a long time, and I have watched the trailer. It seems interesting. Some people told me that it’s not the same as other Khmer Rouge movies, filmed in the past.”


“I think it is good for Khmer young people to see a movie like this because they have to know their history. What happened in the past? Why did it happen? When they know about their history they will use those experiences to change or develop other event in the present and future.”


“It’s the true history, why be afraid to know?”


Most Khmer movies are either slapstick comedies, ghost stories, or romances where everyone cries. The question is, do all Khmer films follow these limited genre lines because this is all the audience wants? Or, do the Khmers watch these types of movies simply because the filmmakers fail to offer them something different?


“I think, most Khmer people like these kinds of because they can see the things from their everyday lives. Second these movies are easy to make. They cost very little and most of them are not intertwined with politics. Another reason, Khmer movies teeter on the brink extinction.”


“Khmer people just don’t know any other kinds of movies. That is one reason that people don’t like to watch other kinds of movies. To watch a movie is like to read a book. A good book is up to a good writer and a good reader (a knowledgeable reader). With movies, if people know what kind of movies they are watching, they will like it.”


Mak believes that the Khmer filmmakers are afraid to take a risk by producing something new. It seems safer to stay with the established formulas.


The monk was less forgiving. He attributed the low quality of Khmer movies to lack of knowledge and paralysis from political fear.


“The producers don’t have enough knowledge to make other stories.” Said the Monk.


One of the very annoying aspects of Khmer films is that they are all dubbed, with all movies being done by the same two men and one woman. The voices of women and children are done in an ear piercingly high falsetto, while male characters all speak in an impossibly low bass, which comes from deep within the caverns at the center of the  earth.


A foreigner working in the radio joked, “We are actually dubbing the DJs voices now.  Okay, being serious now, I’m pretty tired of the dubbing for movies and programs. I feel sorry for Khmer film makers.”


One reason the monk gave for the weak story lines was political fear. “If they know how to make deeper movies, they dare not do so, because they will be taken over by politics. All their stories only support the crazy government.”


“This way, they keep the movies stupid until this government, One Eye Man, Hun Sen, is over. We would like to see change in our country, but it is impossible to do.”




He summed up the death of Khmer cinema like this.


“Why have the Khmer cinemas been closed? Because they have no Khmer movies to show? Why don’t they have Khmer movies to show? Because no there are no people to watch them. Why are there no people to watch? Because Khmer movies are simple, sappy, and silly.”


Beyond questions about cinema, the problems Tim has bringing out his film make us wonder if the Cambodian government is afraid of a film dealing with the Khmer Rouge, or presenting a version of the history is which differs from the official government line.


“He who controls the present, controls the past.” George Orwell, from “1984”


A foreigner working in Khmer cinema said, “It’s a shame that Tim can’t get the film screened over here, but then this is the country where the Khmer Rouge period has been erased from school text books.”


Mak said: “There have been some Khmer Rouge movies made in Cambodia. They were all the same, just talking about what happened in the Khmer Rouge, all the suffering and pain of Khmer people…but they don’t talk about who were the offenders, who was behind the murders, who was leading the Khmer Rouge?”


“The Khmer Rouge is not too recent, but people are afraid to think about it or make movies the about Khmer Rouge. Democracy in Cambodia is not the same as in USA or Europe. Sometimes people can’t say anything about how they feel. Many people have died because of politics, so they are afraid. They don’t say anything.”


“This is also the experience I have dealing with Khmers in Cambodia, I think this is because Khmer people don’t like reading or researching yet. Khmer youngsters growing up in Australia can learn about their cultural history, sometimes better and more clearly than Khmers in Cambodia.


“Interestingly enough, the French Film Commission have been over here to advise on setting up a Cambodian Film Commission. It could happen before the end of this year. Sounds like a good idea in principle, but could easily be hijacked by the CPP if it is deemed to have commercial potential.” Reported a foreign film worker.


“Many movies have been made about the Khmer Rouge.” Said the Monk. “Three days ago, when I went to visit the Toul Slang Museum, S21, there were many Khmer Rouge movies there were about 6 or 7 packs. They talked about events before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge. Mostly they were taken from outside. But I think they cut out some important points, especially involving the top ranking officers who are still alive and working in the current government.”


“There is a new movie which has just been made in Cambodian by Swedish producer. It talks about a Khmer family which was separated from each other before the Khmer Rouge. But it doesn’t talk about the Khmer Rouge, only the life of a family until now.”


“For old people, maybe they are still afraid. But for young adults, 30 and under, we would like to see the real background of the Khmer Rouge story.” 


The monk went on to explain, “the new youngsters do not know the real history. At school they teach us only the events that happened, and that the Khmer Rouge killed people. We also learned the dates that we were freed from Pol Pot, and who helped us. They don’t have enough open documents to study. So, how can we know our history? Until now some younger Khmer people have no feeling about the Khmer Rouge. They have nearly forgotten it.”


The stated the most powerful reason he believes the red Sense can’t be shown. “You can show any movie in Cambodia, AS LONG AS you don’t have any impact on the government or Top Officials.”






We don’t still have a good studio to make a film. I think they only show the good place with sightseeing at the riverside to the world and portrating the poverty to the world to get the domation with rice farmi. And if they go to the different locations, they have no enough funds to do that. So one Film, one Location.   We do know that it is the same place.   


Is there any reason that the government or others wouldn’t want your movie shown in Cambodia?







Article Submission: Cambodian Cinema in Decline


Australian Khmer Film Struggles to be Shown

By Antonio Graceffo


While Cambodian Cinema teeters on the brink of extinction, the Cambodian officials put stumbling blocks in the path of Tim Pek’s Khmer Rouge film, “The Red Sense.”


Tim Pek’s film, “The Red Sense,” depicts the struggle of a Cambodian woman who grew up as a refugee in Australia after her father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. The basic plot deals with the concepts of revenge and forgiveness, as she discovers that her father’s killer posed as a refugee and is now alive and well in Australia. Should she avenge her father’s death, or should she allow the killing to stop?


Khmer Film fans and martial artists around the world will know Tim Pek from his work with the Khmer kickboxing film “Krabai Liak Goan,” and his work as director and producer of “Bokator, the Great Angkorian Martial Art.”


His latest film, “The Red Sense” is extremely unique in many ways. It is probably the first movie shot in Australia which was done almost completely in Khmer language. It is also one of the first Khmer movies ever shot outside of Cambodia. The topic of revenge vs. forgiveness is one that most Cambodians live with on a daily basis, in the after math of the Cambodian auto-genocide. In other genocides, certain identifiable groups suffered at the hands of specific perpetrators. In Cambodia, the entire population was collectivized and subjected to horrible torture, starvation, and execution. One hundred percent of Khmer who were alive bwtween1975-1979 were victims, perpetrators or both. The parts of Cambodia, such as Ratanakiri province, came under Khmer Rouge control before 1970. Other regions, such as Pilin, were not surrendered until 1997, which means that some of Cambodia’s current teenagers suffered, directly under the Khmer Rouge.


When the war was over, and twenty years later, when the surrender came, these Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadre didn’t necessarily move away. Many remained in the villages, where they live beside and among the very people they tortured and whose family’s they killed.


With the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal already underway, and the world looking at Cambodia, “The Red Sense” becomes an even more powerful and more poignant film.


Why then has it been so hard for Pek, a young Khmer refugee from Australia, to debute his film in Phnom Penh. One would think that in an age when even Khmers have stopped watching Khmer cinema, the powers that be would welcome an international film in Phnom Penh.





According to Tim, he finished work on the film in late 2007, and lodged the paperwork in Cambodia in early January 2008. In an Orwelian twist of nomenclature, The Ministry of Information is the government bureau in charge of censorship and film permission.


Tim explains why he wanted to show the film in Cambodia? “Firstly it’s a Cambodian film, and it’s made by Cambodian living abroad. Second, it’s the message in the movie.”


I always wanted to examine what reconciliation and forgiveness means for those Cambodians who left the genocidal nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime, but never escaped it. And how do the survivors of a civil war such as that suffered by Cambodia reconcile the fact that there were no foreign invaders? The only criminals were their own people. And most importantly how do individuals find justice, or forgiveness? What would you do if you ran into the murderer of your parents in the street?”


When asked if Cambodia has a law preventing foreign movies from being shown in cinema? Tim answered, “Yes, I believe there are, plenty of them.”


There are also strict laws in Cambodia forbidding radio broadcasts in foreign language. The English language station must operate under strict guidelines. But, the first time the Cham ethnic minority wanted to have a Cham language broadcast, they were denied permission. Cambodia even has strict laws about the size of billboards which are written in foreign languages. Everything must be written in Khmer also, and the Khmer letters must be larger than the foreign language script.


Tim outlined the many steps he had to go through in the hopes of obtaining permission to show his film. “I was asked for a business registration number, a transferring letter and I sent them all. I paid film fess. Then they needed to have a few meetings amongst other organizers, that’s including the Australian Embassy and so on…I didn’t expect it to go on like this.”


What reasons might the government have for preventing Tim from showing the movie? “They think it’s a political issue, which I and other people don’t think it is, it’s the individual related issue.”


Tim believes the Khmer film industry is dying. “From my own perspective, and I have seen heaps of Khmer movies, which now have drawn my attention to why our film industry is severely declining. It still can not reach the international standard. If we go back to the 60s and 70s our Cambodian Films were the most prominent ones in SEA. These days most local film makers have very little choice, and they’re stuck within one boundary and can not pursue or expand their creativity.”


“These are the main obstacles from penetrating to the international market or SEA market, and the audience doesn’t understand that. It’s not healthy if we stay like this.

Most films that are allowed to screen in public are PG rated. The most popular film genres are: Super Natural, Ghosts, Romantic, Drama, and Period Piece. These are their best and safest genres. They only distribute domestically and to Khmers living abroad.”


In Cambodia, only one company has a monopoly for dubbing movies. All movies, whether shot in Khmer language or shot abroad, are dubbed. You never hear the actual actors speaking their lines. Worst of all, ALL voices in a movie are done by the same two men and one woman?


Yes, that’s so true. When I heard people talk about Khmer film, the only word I hear first is DUBBING. That’s one of the biggest issue we’re facing right now. We shouldn’t have any dubbing companies at all, unless for foreign films. To me using someone’s voice is like your hard earned 50% of the movie quality is gone.”


The dubbing studio is extremely archaic and when they dub, they shut off the original soundtrack and just lay Khmer voice tracks over it. So, you lose all the sound effects, music, and foley. If you are watching a “Die Hard” movie and Bruce Willis says something clever during a gunfight, the gun sounds are suddenly gone, as is the explosion happening in the background, and the same Khmer man who does the voice of Leonardo DiCaprio or Toby McGuire, gives some terrible Khmer version of the original text, and it isn’t funny, and makes no sense. Worst of all, each time Bruce Willis speaks, the dialogue is preceded by several seconds of the audio being cutout. The audio doesn’t return till several seconds after he finishes speaking. If two characters are having a conversation, the background sounds come in and out like a kid dragging a stick along a picket fence.


This dubbing only happens on films shown in the cinema or on TV. For one to two dollars, the original of any movie can be purchased any number of markets in Cambodia. Khmers who can’t even speak English would generally prefer to watch the original “Star Wars,” with all the laser sounds, rather than the Khmer version, which is like a silent movie with dialogue.


“No matter how great your movie is, and not to mention a major impact on character’s emotions and body gestures” the quality is lost when they re-dub it. And this dubbing is not just for foreign language films, but also for films shot in Cambodia in Khmer language. They are all re-dubbed by the same two men and a single woman. “That’s the key point I would like to address for all Khmer film makers. If the actors can act, they also can speak. All you need is a little training. Let’s move forward and make a change.”


Once your Khmer movie is approved, and re-dubbed, there are a number of options of how to get it into the cinema. “There’s always a negotiation. First they like to see your film. Then you can either rent the theater out or share 50/50. The best way is to know someone there and find a distributor.”


Cambodia is one of the most centralized countries in the world, with the possible exception of Lao, where all of the development and services are in exclusively located in the capitol. The first high schools were opened outside of Phnom Penh in the late 1990s and the first university around 2003.

“I know that’s there is one cinema in Battambang, one in Siem  Reap, one in Svay Reang and a few in Phnom Penh. That was in 2006.”


“Piracy and DVDs are the biggest problem, not only in Cambodia but around the world just a matter of more or less.”


Minutes after a film is shown in the cinema, it is available at the markets. Local movies sell for $1. A single ticket at the cinema can cost $1 or more, so a whole family can watch the movie at home for the same price of a single ticket.


Tim hopes that if he obtains the rights to show his movie, that it might generate worldwide interest in the Khmer cinema.


“I know a few young talented Khmer film makers living abroad. Their works were sensational, and I can see the big potential for the Khmer film industry.”


As for the powers that rule the cinema industry in Cambodia, Tim had this to say.


“We need their supports if they need us to bring the Khmer film back on track, and I am sure we will.”



Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website



Adventure Writer Looks at Forty

In Adventures in Asia on May 11, 2008 at 12:29 pm



It sucks getting old but it is better than the alternative.

By Antonio Graceffo


Until someone asked me I had no idea that it had been seven years since I had quit my job on Wall Street and come to Asia to be a full time adventure writer.


“What have you been up to?” asked a Facebook message from an old friend who I had attended merchant marine school with in 1991. After shipping out on the high seas, I went on to university in Germany and Ryan went on to the Merchant Marine academy. We met again in 1997, when the question, “What have you been up to?” was easier to answer. I had been at school in Germany, Spain, and Costa Rica. I had graduated with degrees in linguistics and business. I had been divorced, and I was back in New York, looking for a job in finance.


Now, keeping up with our once in a decade schedule, Ryan found me on Facebook and asked “What have you been up to?” He followed this with, “Why are you wearing a uniform in your profile photo? Are you back in the army?” And, “Why does it say you are in the Philippines?”


The life of an adventure writer is not easy. For one thing, I am the main character in my writing. Just like a TV show that has to change its format from time to time so audiences don’t get burned out, I need to shake things up to keep it interesting. I never have enough money, in fact, each month, I live hand to mouth until my small writer’s income dries up. Then things get really tough.


Things get so shaken up, I feel like I am suffering with a British nanny.


Right now, I am living on the bottom bunk of a dormitory in Manila. The room is charming, with cinderblock walls and no windows. I share the bathroom with eight people, and like them, I am a full time student, at paramedic school.


The following is the incredibly strange and twisted storey of how Antonio Graceffo became, the Monk from Brooklyn, the infamous travel writer and reality TV guy, and why he is attending paramedic school in the Philippines. There is also a side note, or perhaps a sub-plot, which explains why the police are looking for him (me) in China and Burma.


If you don’t know who Antonio Graceffo is or what he has written, you can first check my website, there is a story on there called “Four Years of Living Dangerously,” which tells about my first four years in Asia. Also, I have four books on and a new one coming out later this year. Next, you could google my name, there are like 50,000 (no lie) pages about me. Finally, put my name on youtube and youw ill find a lot of videos I shot around Asia and inside of Burma, as well as a lot of stuff that I did for History Channel and for movies.


When First Engineer Ryan and I met in 1997, I had just come back to New York, looking for a job in Finance. It was a struggle. I eventually got into a financial planner training program at a well known company (who might sue me if I print their name. they have forbidden me to even speak it. But suffice to say, it rhymes with purle.) I completed a three year education in seven months. Working a hundred hours a week, I got all my certifications, while living on the floor in my office with no money. Once I got fully qualified, I made three job changes in about 18 months and each time increased my income by about $40,000 USD. Eventually, I became assistant head of private wealth management for the third largest private bank in the USA.


After 911, I decided to drop out of life. I had so many dreams and things I wanted to do, most of all, to live a Jack London/Hemingway life and write books. I left a lot of unpaid student loans, taxes and other federal debts behind at that time, which puts the US on the list of countries I probably should never visit.


I took a job teaching school in Taiwan so I could start learning Chinese and practice Kung Fu. I was the first foreigner to live and train with the team there. I had practiced martial arts and boxing my whole life, but after leaving the service I stopped fighting in competitions.  Taiwan set a precedent and martial art became a full time part of my life from then on. I left Taiwan and studied at the Shaolin Temple in mainland China. By then, I spoke Chinese well and was completely fit again, recovering from years of university and banking.


Because of the SARS epidemic I had to flee China, I was actually arrested and held in a hospital and had to fight the monks…grabbed an old sword off the wall, and threatened and cajoled my way out of the medieval doors. The full story became my first book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” available on


Because of the SARS quarantine I only made it as far as Hong Kong and couldn’t get any further. The money I had left from working in New York basically got eaten up at a rate of over $100 USD per day for six months of living as a deposed refugee in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was like “Rick’s American Café,” in “Casa Blanca.” It was full of people like me, waiting for our exit visa. I shared my plight with Brits, Thais, and Rhodesians, who insisted that the countries name “has not and will never change.”


Do you want to go get a coffee now? We aren’t even close to explaining why I am wearing an army uniform and studying in the Philippines.


Where’s Burma?


One adventure I always wanted to do was to cross a big desert ala Laurence of Arabia. Stuck in Hong Kong, I had nothing to do all day but, train in Filipino martial arts ( I am leaving out some steps here) and read up on the Taklamakan Desert. Eventually I took the train back into China, where I was wanted for assault, after physically flattening a guy who was ripping off my former employer in Hong Kong. (Once again, I have left out a whole chapter of my sorted relationship with China and my industrial espionage there.)


I did a solo crossing of the Taklamakan Desert on a tricycle rickshaw. I made it to Kashgar, near the Pakistan border, where the hotel manager asked me to put the bike on display in the lobby and to hang around and regal visitors with stories of my adventure, in Chinese. I left the bike there, chained to the spiral staircase, when I snuck out at five in the morning, returning to Hong Kong.


I arrived back in Hong Kong with about ten dollars in my pocket. I checked into a guesthouse owned by a mainland Chinese family who treated me like a Shaolin Priest, and collapsed on the bed. I went through several days of fever and pain. One day, the son of the family burst into my room, excitedly, to tell me that Taiwan had finally opened up. I flew back and took another teaching job.


The Taklamakan Desert became my next book, “The Desert of Death on Three Wheels.” Also on amazon.


Accelerating the story a bit. I was not able to hold a job in Taiwan because every time I turned on the Discovery Channel someone was doing something more interesting than me. I kept quitting my jobs to go do adventures around Taiwan, like cycling the entire island 1,500 KM alone and without a plan. Assorted Taiwan stories became a book, “Adventures in Formosa.”


I had heard about a monk, Prah kru Ba, in Thailand who did drug interdiction work on the Burma border. He took orphaned hill tribe boys to live in his jungle monastery, where he taught them Muay Thai (Thai boxing). Together, they patrolled the border, beating up drug dealers and telling the hill tribe people not to get sucked in by yaba (meth amphetamine) and opium, the two crops that were being used to fund the longest civil war on the planet. At this point, the war has been going on for more than 60 years.


I lived with Kru Bah, the monk, for three months. He taught me Thai language, Muay Thai, and Theravada Buddhism. I had learned Mahayana Buddhism in Taiwan and China. After I came out of his monastery, I did a series of adventures in Thailand, which became a book, “Boats, Bikes, and Boxing Gloves.”


I went to Cambodia searching for ancient Cambodian martial art, called Bokator. It took me eighteen months to find the master. Along the way, I learned the Khmer language and working as a freelance journalist, I published about 200 articles about Cambodia.


Since leaving Taiwan, my existence had been hand to mouth at best. I lived in $2 a night hotels. Slept in villages and temples. I didn’t always have money for food. I once sold my books so I could eat, then went back and asked the bookstore guy to loan them back to me so I could finish reading them. “I won’t get them dirty.” I promised.


Each time I moved, from a mountain village to a hotel, from an island nation to a mainland….I left most of my possessions behind, taking only what I cold carry, and traveling by the cheapest means, bus, bicycle…. Until a few weeks ago, everything I owned fit in two backpacks. I lost one of the backpacks in an accident in the war zone. Now, everything I own fits in one.


In Cambodia I used my diplomas to get myself a very well-paid teaching job at an Australian school in Phnom Penh. I took an apartment. Settled down. Began buying boxed sets of The Office, the Sopranos, Futurama, Sympsons, and Family Guy.


I trained hard in boxing and Khmer boxing (Bradal Serey) and I fought some pro-fights. I was physically at a peak I had never hit before, and I was in my late thirties.


But at night….the voices…the images from Discovery Channel (that channel should be banned)….A tour company offered to sponsor me on an adventure tour through Cambodia. I quit my job and it became my next book, “Discovering the Khmers” which is due out in 2008.


At the end of those adventures I was out of money again. I had to give up the apartment, the Sympsons, everything. I flew to Hong Kong to find a job, but ran out of money while I was waiting, so I flew home and went on a speaking tour to promote my books. I spoke seventy times in the States. I competed in the World Championships of Public Speaking, and made it to the semi-finals. I got really fat and never found a niche for myself back in North America. Out of desperation, I took a teaching job in Korea. In exchange for me signing a one year contract, they flew me to Asia, and gave me an apartment and a good salary.


I was miserable in Korea. To keep myself busy I studied Korean language and began working on a masters thesis, tracing the origin of the Korean language from Lake Baikal in Russia, which is a common origin for Manchurian language as well as many tribal languages spoken by nomads in central Asia and the Asiatic parts of Russia.


I published one article on the subject, comparing Korean and Chinese, and received a lot of recognition for it. But because I am more practical than theoretical I also received a lot of criticism for what I wrote. That and a lot of my articles are very insulting and if people don’t like it I threaten to Kung Fu their ass.


I can beat up most of the serious linguists I know.  


I was offered a scholarship to do my PHD at Dong-A university in Busan, Korea. But I didn’t fancy spending five more years in Korea. I also didn’t want to be in a classroom teaching Korean kids. And I didn’t want to do all my research from a book. I wanted to be back in the field. On a personal side note, I hate to be racist, but once you have had sex with a Korean you never quite get the kimchi smell out of your sheets. Seriously, I think there is something about smell and genetics. If westerners don’t use deodorant, we reek, and most Asians don’t. But, for whatever reason, if Koreans smoke or drink alcohol, they stink way worse than other people. And of course they eat kimchi three times a day.


I quit after seven months and returned to Thailand. I had a lot of unfinished adventures there.


My first order of business was to hook up with my old friend, Dave, who is the other half of our small production company called Two Guys from Brooklyn Productions. We had met years ago, in an Akha tribal village. He was doing a film. I was writing. We always said we’d work together again. Our first story was a documentary on the Long Neck Karin, one of the most exploited hill tribes in the world. Refugees from Burma, they are locked in tourist villages, like human zoos, where people pay money to gawk at them. You can google “Antonio Garceffo Long Neck Karen” and find the story.


Next we did a documentary on a Spanish monk, named Kru Pedro, who taught ancient spiritual Muay Thai.


I lived in Bangkok and studied Thai in an experimental program called ALG Automatic Language Growth. It was something I had read about when I was at graduate school in Germany. I got heavily involved with the program and began working on a book on Thai linguistics. To date, I have published a number of articles on ALG as applied to Thai language. At one point I went to stay in a temple in Khmer Surin, a part of Thailand which used to belong to Cambodia. I was there studying with one of my best friends, a Khmer monk, named Prah Sameth, also I was there to train with Tony Jaa’s martial arts teacher, “In the Footsteps of Tony Jaa.” While there I also did an article on the difficulties of constantly switching between Khmer and Thai, two languages, which, without sharing a common origin, share 30% of their vocabulary. It’s a long funny story, “Tongue Tied in Surin.” All my linguistics articles are actually pretty funny.


In Thailand I signed a one year teaching contract but lasted only three weeks. That was my record.


I quit the job and went to Philippines to study martial arts and write on an island called Palawan. Somewhere in here I worked on a Discovery Channel show called “Fight Quest.” Then I went to Cambodia to do a show for History Channel. After the show, I returned to Thailand briefly writing and studying more Muay Thai. I went back to Philippines to write on an island called Coron. In Philippines I write a lot about the indigenous people. There are countless tribes here, nearly a hundred, and an incredible number of languages and dialects. There are also a lot of martial arts, so Philippines is a good place for me. On my way back to Thailand I lived with a martial arts master, named Master Frank, in Manila. We are still friends and I still study Kuntaw with him.


I left Philippines and worked on a show called “Human Weapon” in Cambodia. I was employed for about three months writing and doing field research, although I only appear on screen for about two seconds. Very cool, one of my jobs was to find and fight every master in Cambodia and write my opinion of them. It took weeks of following up on rumors and traveling into remote rice paddies and villages to find these guys. Most of them were pretty fragile from malnutrition and never having recovered from the Khmer Rouge years, so I only played around sparring. The wrestlers were good, though. And try as I might, they made me look pretty silly, wrestling in the mud in their villages.


I went to Vietnam for a couple of weeks to explore Kampuchea Krom, a Khmer province which was given to Vietnam fifty years ago. I also documented Vietnamese martial art and sparred while I was there.


Somewhere in all of this I turned 40. I went back to Cambodia to work on a History Channel show called “Digging for the Truth,” and got about fifteen minutes of screen time. My big break. Also, my last date with Hollywood. Since then, we have kissed and flirted, but not yet married. I have come close to getting my own show, but it hasn’t happened. I do, however, have an internet TV show, called “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which airs on youtube. So, that is better than nothing.


I went back to Thailand to follow up on the most important and life changing adventure of my life.


We are getting to the most important part of the story here. So, I would appreciate it if you would take a long break, stretch your legs, drink some coffee, and be fresh when you read the next part.


Because of the Monk, Prah Kru Bah, who took me in when I lived in the jungle on the Burmese border, and because of the numerous tribal stories I had written, I had always been very interested in the war in Burma. A westerner I knew in Chiang Mai several years before had been heavily involved with the Shan State Army. There are a lot of Shan people living in northern Thailand. In fact a lot of my friends at the monastery and around Chiang Mai were Shan. They are extremely good looking people. I call them the proto-Thais because they were the original Tai people who migrated down from China to settle in Burma. The Thai, The Shan, and The Lao are all part of the Tai ethnic group and share a language which is 70% similar. The culture and the religion are also very much alike.


Through a series of events which I can’t publish yet, I wound up making it to the Shan State Army rebel stronghold inside of Shan State, Burma. The Shan share no similarities at all with the Burmese. They were never a part of Burma until the British drew a line on a map, around the end of World War Two. In 1962, there was a military coup in Burma, and General Ne Win took power. He began waging war, akin to genocide, against Burma’s many ethnic people. Since then, several million have fled across the border to become refugees. No one knows how many were killed exactly, because journalists and international organizations are banned from Burma, but we have been able to document countless cases of whole villages being burned and the villagers executed. The army uses gang rape as a weapon, and I interviewed a 14 year old girl, who at age eleven, was gang raped while her parents burned to death inside of her house. She could hear them screaming.


Since 1962, the Shan formed their own army and have been fighting to form an independent country, called Shanland. The right to secede from the Union of Burma was guaranteed them by the British, but so far neither Briton, nor the world has done anything to enforce this agreement.


I hit it off with Colonel Yawd Serk, the commander of the Shan State Army. He invited me to wear a uniform and to come and go as I please in Shanland. When  I am inside, I carry my cameras and document human rights abuses. I film interviews with the refugees. The Shan State Army base has become a safe zone for refugees, driven from their villages by the government forces. They have a school and a temple there and a dormitory for about 650 orphans. Many of the orphans actually have one or more living parents but the parents gave the children to the army so that the could be raised in safety and educated in the Shan State Army school, which is the best quality school in Shan State, offering a curriculum in four languages: Shan, Burmese, Thai, and English. In Shan State, it is illegal to teach Shan reading and writing, so for most kids, they don’t learn to read and write their native language.


If you are a parent, could you imagine things being so bad that you would give your child to strangers in the hopes that they would survive? Once a Shan person goes to live on the rebel army base, they can never re-enter Burma because the Burmese would capture them and torture them to find out information about the rebels. The parents don’t have phones or mail service. After a long trek, often several months of hiding, slowly making their way through the jungle, to hand their child over to the Shan State Army, the parents say “good-by” to their children, and they will most likely never see them or hear from them again.


When I am in the base, I do interviews all day, and often break down in tears. I interviewed two small boys whose parents were murdered. When I asked them, they couldn’t even remember the name of their village. They had blocked out the first several years of their lives. After they left, I told my translator hwo upset I was that two little boys should be made orphans for absolutely no reason. He said, “It’s normal.” My answer was, “It shouldn’t be.”


After more than forty years at war, there are very few Shan who remember a time of peace. “It’s normal.”


When I am inside I teach hand-to-hand combat to the soldiers. Outside, I publish my videos and articles and try to raise awareness of the Shan situation. I also coordinate donations through a great NGO who have the guts to go inside and render medical aid to the children. Most big NGOs and the UN won’t help the Shan because they have rules in their bylaws which say they can’t break the law and that they can only render aid if the government invites them. In the case of Burma, the government is doing the killing, so that invitation has been lost in the mail. Other large NGOs, who solicit millions of dollars from Americans every Christmas, have a policy of not aiding armed groups. “If the Shan lay down their weapons, we will come help them.” They said. Obviously if the Shan laid down their weapons, the Burmese would kill them all, and there would be no children to help.


The orphan dormitories are surrounded by trenches in case the base comes under attack again.


There are two small NGOs who are willing to risk their lives running aid missions into Burma. I have been in the filed with them both and I have great respect for them. The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) run training programs. The leaders of the tribal armies each send a few of their men to get trained as Rangers. The FBR teach them field medicine, patrolling, navigation, and photography. The men learn to do human rights abuse documentation. FBR even gives them cameras. If you have seen the movie Rambo IV most of the actual footage of atrocities was shot by FBR teams who risk their lives to get in and film. They also give direct medical aid when they can and provide physical security when they can. Many of the refugees only made it to the Shan base because an FBR team found them in the jungle and rescued them.


I have become very close with some of the young teachers in Shanland. It breaks my heart to see their students playing football on a field surrounded by landmines and knowing that if those mines were removed, they would all be killed. The day after Chidlren’s Day, the Burmese forces surrounded the base, waiting to ambush families who were taking their children home after the festivities.


I started a project called “In Shanland.” Basically I publish one video on youtube for free and one article for free which I send to about 4,000 people and organizations. I send out one article and one video per week, and will do so for a year. Hopefully by the end of the year, the project will have gained momentum and someone important will have heard about the Shan and come help them.


You can see some of the youtube videos


Now I am in Philippines, attending paramedic school. I am taking as much training as I can in emergency medicine but also going to be taking courses with the police and army to get trained in close security and renew my training with heavy weapons. I plan to go back into Shanland in October or so. After I finish my training in Philippines, I may take a paying job somewhere in the world to help me continue my volunteer work in Shanland. The amazing part of this story is that I don’t work for any aid organization. I am self-funded and a number of nice people around the world have written in, making donations, helping me get through school. Among them are several deposed Shan princesses. The world is so strange. And people are inherently good.


If I wasn’t so poor, I never would have reached out, asking for help. And I never would have proved just how wonderful and caring people can be.


After I return to Shanland, I think I will carve out a niche for myself as a combat medic, doing aid missions in trouble zones all over the world. I love the Shan. But their plight made me realize that there are groups of displaced, stateless people all over the world and because of uncomfortable politics no one is helping them. Darfur is probably the example most people will know, but there are many, many others. And it doesn’t matter what color their skin or what language or religion, people are people, and more importantly, kids are kids, and they deserve the right to live and grow in safety.


Wow! I can’t believe how long this story was. I think I am going to try and sell it to a magazine.


Please write me back.



Contact Antonio:



Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.



Drinking the China Sea

In Adventures in Asia on May 11, 2008 at 12:25 pm


Drinking the China Sea

Learning water rescue in the Philippines

By Antonio Graceffo


The first day of swim rescue, the instructors had us practicing getting in and out of the swimming pool. Next, we learned to put our face underwater. To keep us organized and avoid accidents the 60 or so participants were divided into two groups, swimmers and non-swimmers.


Why someone who was classified as a non-swimmer would join a rescue course was beyond me. 


“You are doing the exercise wrong.” Shouted an instructor. I was shocked when I realized he was talking to me and not one of the people who was near drowning.


“What do you mean! You said put my face underwater ten times. So, I am putting my face underwater ten times. What more do you want from me?” I shouted. I was more than a little frustrated with the elementary nature of the course.


“No,” he corrected. “That was the beginners exercise. Now, we are doing the advanced exercise, put your face underwater and blow bubbles.”


I must have missed this slight nuance of instruction when I tuned the teachers out. I was ready to quit this silly child’s swim course, but I didn’t want them to think it was because I was incapable of making bubbles. 


“Don’t be scared.” He added. “It’s just water.”


This wasn’t really the Kevin Costner, “The Guardian,” training I was looking for. On day three we had an elimination test, swimming two miles in the pool, timed. Day four we had to tread water for forty five minutes, while supporting a dead body. Day six, we were required to swim nearly two miles in the open ocean. Talk about crawl before you walk, I had never seen a course, in any subject, which started so infantile and ended so advanced.


Thirty minutes into the water treading, I vomited chlorine through both my mouth and nose.


“Are you OK?” asked one of my classmates.

“More than OK, I am finally starting to enjoy myself.” I answered. Taking in so much water, my brain was running on only about 50% oxygen, and I started to hallucinate. The hallucinations were those half-real-half-dream kind of trip you get when you have a high fever or mix Benadryl with wine, so most of the hallucinations still reeked of chlorine. You can over analyze these things, but for a brief moment, I was Kevin Costner. The tabloids would have us believe that being rich, good-looking, and famous, is allegedly not everything. But I can tell you, from my short foray into nirvana, NOTHING sucked about being Kevin Costner.


Amazingly, this six days of fun, eight hours per day of grueling training, only cost 800 Pesos. This is the beauty of the Philippines. There are so many great courses here, things you have always wanted to learn, but never felt like spending the money for. Courses here are cheap, and they are mostly taught in English. The students frequently ask their questions in Filipino, but learning the language is just part of the experience. A lot of courses in the Philippines are not accredited elsewhere, so you would just be studying for yourself, for your own knowledge and for the incredible experience of getting to know the Filipino people on a personal level. The EMT (emergency medical technician) course I just finished at LSTI is accredited by Australia, so there are exceptions. The fee for the EMT course was 20,000 Pesos, which for a Filipino is a lot, but is not even a tenth of what the same course would have cost me back home.


The Basic Water Safety and Rescue course was sponsored by the Philippine Red Cross. The advantage of the Red Cross courses is that they are cheap even by Filipino standards, and they are internationally recognized. To qualify for this course you had to already have completed your Basic Life Saving (BLS) which is the CPR course, and a first aid course. All the courses were offered at Red Cross. I qualified because these courses were included in my EMT course. If you are an ex-pat or just want to make friends with locals, taking these kinds of classes is an excellent way of doing it. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but Red Cross classes are available in nearly every country, so no matter where you live or work overseas, this would be a good option to look into.


Sir Jun, the director of the program told me that life guarding in the Philippines is horribly behind the times. This is unfortunate in a country made up of more than 7,000 islands. A large percentage of Filipinos can’t swim, and if they get in trouble in the water, there generally isn’t a competent life guard around to save them. The Basic Water Rescue is the highest level course offered in the Republic, and most beaches either don’t have life guards or if they do, the life guards haven’t had any training at all.


Money is always a problem in the Philippines. I suspect that the reason why we had people labeled as non-swimmers in our course was because they just couldn’t or didn’t want to spend the money to first take a swimming course and then take a life guarding course. So, the two courses were compressed into one. But, the standards were maintained by making the exams and qualifiers so difficult. Well-over half my group failed. Amazingly, at least one of the ones who made it was originally listed as a non-swimmer. On Monday morning he didn’t know how to swim. On Saturday he completed a two mile ocean swim. You have to respect that kind of hard work and courage.


Having a background in swimming or diving is a huge advantage in this type of training, but it is no guarantee that you could pass. I swam competitively and did triathlons till I was about twenty-one, but in competitive swimming you only learn the four racing strokes, which are different from the four rescue strokes. Rescue strokes include: modified crawl (head out of the water), modified breast (head out of water), side stroke, and elementary back (your arms don’t come out of the water as you do in racing.) I have never liked back stroke because it just seems t force water up my nose like some type of interrogation torture. And sidestroke is one of the slowest most awkward strokes. Or at least, that’s what I thought before I tried swimming sidestroke carrying a victim.


You don’t know the meaning of the word slow till you are swimming an awkward stroke, that you hate, and towing a human being at the same time. I kept wishing the whole world would just learn to swim better, so there would be no chance they would need me to rescue them.


The course started out frustratingly easy. We had to practice getting in and out of the pool alone, then helping someone else up onto the side. Actually, I am getting ahead of myself. The first lesson we had was on a black board, where the instructor drew a map of the pool area.


“The bathroom is located here.” He said, pointing. Actually in Filipino-speak they call the bathroom the comfort room or CR. “If you want to go to the CR there are two entrances, here and here. But this one is locked, so you will need to go to this one.”


I could not believe how silly this was. I had never had someone explain the layout of a pool to me. I usually just figured it out when I got there. But, just like lessons in getting in and out of the pool and making bubbles, these instructions were important for people who had never been in a swimming pool before. Being American you just take it for granted that schools have pools and people know how to swim. But here in the Philippines only people with a lot of money have access to a pool. So, we were starting from the very basics.


Amazingly, three days into the course we already had our first test. They kept calling it a mile swim, but actually, it was 3,200 meters, which is two miles. I came in fourth. It would be the last event in the course where I would push for time. I only pushed because they told us if we didn’t come in under a certain time we would be cut from the program. Actually only six people passed, but somehow the others weren’t cut. All of the other events were about completion or completing with your partner, so I didn’t push to be first.


The following day we had to tread water. Which the instructors pronounced “thread.” Originally I thought it was a sewing test, like if we were going to learn to repair our swim suits or something. This was the big test, where they actually did cut people out of the program. We were in a deep-well pool and had to complete various tasks while treading.  If we touched the bottom or the walls, even once, we were disqualified. One thing that made it more difficult was that there were so many bodies piled in on top of each other. You were constantly getting kicked and bumped into by other students. I was particularly wary of having someone panic and grab onto me or even just trying to support their body weight on me. It was hard enough keeping myself afloat. I didn’t need any passengers weighing me down.


We had hardly begun when Sir June, standing at the side of the pool, shouted “Tums up.”


I thought, he was saying, “times up.” This is too easy, I thought. I can’t believe they made such a big deal about this. We were only treading for like five minutes. How could this be the big elimination exercise? But then I noticed that no one made any effort to get out of the pool. And they were all holding up their thumbs.


Dugh! Not, times up! THUMBS up. It was one more Tagolish moment that added to the difficulty of being a native speaker in a group of semi-native speakers.


Thumbs up is really hard for me. First of all, it is a biological and historical fact that I don’t float. That is to say, I can’t float on my back, but I find it very comfortable to do turtle float, face down, just a few inches below the surface of the water. Also, I have a good, strong kick for Muay Thai and for swimming, but not for treading. I need to rely on my arms to stay afloat. Any time Sir June called “Tums up,” I sank into the water, barely able to gasp air, while I held my arms aloft and counted the painfully slow seconds.


As I sank helplessly below the water level, I pushed out my lips like a snorkel, to gain precious centimeters.


Each time he called for us to float, I would just about get into a comfortable floating posture, until I bumped into another swimmer, or someone kicked me. It broke the delicate, spell-like balance, and I would have to start swimming. Slowly, I would return to floating on my back, at which point, someone hit me and it all started over again.


“This is like a shipwreck.” Explained Sir June. “You may not be alone in an empty sea. You have to swim with all the other survivors.”


Next, Sir June yelled. “Plane crash.” He told us a plane had crashed nearby, and we needed to save the pilot. One of the fat instructors became the pilot and we had to pass him over our heads, from person to person, around the circle, while we treaded water. Each time I saw the pilot coming back around, I would scream “PILOT” to alert the person after me to be ready to take him from me. Then I would take a deep breath, put my hands over my head, sink beneath the water and inch the pilot over me to the next person.


After the pilot had made several trips around the circle, Sir June shouted again. “Here comes the stewardess. Now we had two victims, one male and one female. Although the girl weighed less, she was actually more difficult to handle.


This being a Catholic country I had to be careful not to touch her in an inappropriate manner. This is also funny since much of my job as an EMT consists of cutting off a stranger’s clothes and blowing in their mouth.


“Here is the black box.” Said June, adding a ten pound weight to the list of items we had to hand off. Earlier in the day, we had been diving to recover the black box, swimming the length of the pool underwater, carrying it. Now we had to hand it off to the next rescuer.


One by one, people quit. There was some cheating as well, some students found a place where the bottom was within bobbing distance and they could take a rest. Others skipped their turn passing victims and boxes. With so many people in the water I think it was hard for the instructors to keep complete control.


On all of the “lean back and float” commands I could feel water being forced up my nose and ears. The next morning I woke with a wicked cold. On one of the longer, thumbs up exercises I swallowed a ton of water and began hacking so much I was retching. It reminded me of the story of the seven Chinese brothers who each had a special skill. One of them could swallow the sea. I was off to a good start at swallowing all the water in the pool, but I still had a long way to go. I actually vomited a little, and my throat burned for the rest of the day. You wouldn’t want to do that during CPR.


The hardest moment came when Sir June yelled, “Thumbs up! Now, sing the national anthem.” While the other students were singing “Mabuhay,” I considered it would be fair for me to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” but since the American national anthem is hard enough to sing on dry land, let alone while drowning, I decided it would be more politically correct to just listen.


After the song had finished we passed the pilot, stewardess, and box several times. At some point, they stopped coming around. Sir June was staring at his stop watch. “TIME!” He yelled. “Congratulations. You have all passed.”

With no preplanning at all, the entire class began shouting “Guardians!!!”


After lunch, we lined up by twos. Two instructors played drowning victims in the deep end. We had to dive off the wall, swim out, and rescue them. The instructors weren’t making it easy, however. They were flailing about and extremely combative. Simulating an extremely panicked victim, if you got anywhere near them they would grab your head and pull you under.


In rescue swimming there are three basic approaches, front approach, rear approach, and underwater approach. Since all rescue carry positions require the victim to be laying on his back, supported by the rescuer, approaching from the front or underwater requires you to rotate the victim around, so you can get him in a good carry position. Approaching from the front has the added disadvantage that the victim, in his panic, can grab you and drown you by accident. So, the easiest approach is the rear approach. This way, you are safer. You just have to grab the guy, support his chin with one hand, shoot the other hand over his shoulder and grab him in a cross chest carry. Then you swim side stroke and transport him to safety.


When it came my turn, I swam out to Sir Jun. he was flailing like a banshee (assuming that banshees flail). I gave him a huge birth as I swam around behind him. I supported his chin, then shot my arm over his shoulder and began to swim. He immediately turned violent in my grip, rolled over and pulled me underwater. The lessons I was to learn, was: one; hold the victim very tightly so he feels secure and so he doesn’t attack you, and two; never let water go in the victim’s face or mouth or he will panic because you are restraining him, and he will feel like he is drowning.


Jun wrapped both arms around me and instantly, my military, combat swimming training kicked in. In combat swimming you are taught that the normal reaction, when someone tries to push you underwater is to resist. This is a bad reaction. First of all, it is futile, you can’t resist the combined weight of yourself and your opponent, which are both driving you under. Second, you will get even more fatigued by resisting. So, the proper technique when someone tries to pull you under, use your legs to do a fast, powerful scissors kick, while at the same time raising up your arms, shooting yourself even faster below the water.


In rescue swimming they also use this technique. The next step is to slip out, under the victim’s arms and swim away. Or, to attempt to slip out, then push the victim in the center of the chest, with a stiff arm, and then swim away and try again. In combat swimming you can use this escape technique or you can grab the opponent and keep descending, pulling him down with you. Either way, the first part of the technique was the same, and I did it instantly. When I tried to escape, Jun had a hold of me really tightly, so I used my foot, rather than a stiff arm, to push off of him. Luckily, I didn’t go completely into combat mode. Remembering it was a rescue mission, I was careful not to injure him.


I escaped, returned to the surface, got a good breath of air and did another rear approach. I secured Jun’s chin, then did my cross arm carry. Again, he went wild, and we wound up doing battle below the water.


After several more abortive attempts, and when I thought I was too exhausted to continue, I finally got Jun to the nearest wall. It wasn’t till the next day that instructors explained to me to keep a tighter hold next time. I never forgot the lesson, and in later exercises when the instructors tried to roll out of a save, I nearly crushed their ribs with my cross chest grip.


We had to line up and each do one more save, which was pretty similar to the first one. I my second save I wound up using one of the Judo type moves they had taught us. When a victim grabs your arm, rather than trying to pull away, you can use his grip to spin him around and grab him from behind. I couldn’t believe how quickly and instinctively the technique came. The rescuing came pretty easily for me I think because it was so similar to wrestling in mixed martial arts (MMA). In MMA, We are always trying to spin the opponent around, get behind him, lift up the chin, and choke him. As long as I substituted a save for a choke I would be fine.


When we finished the second save, Sir Jun called out a list of names, including mine and said, “You have passed your rescue test.”


Rescue test? I was still pretty hypoxic from treading water. I didn’t realize this had been our test. I thought it was just an exercise. In the end, it was probably better off this way, because I wasn’t nervous. When I was fifteen I had tried to pass this course, but had failed it. I was swimming competitively at that time and I was so competitive and arrogant, that I was in capable of putting anyone else before myself. A rescuer is not there to make himself look good. He is there so that some stranger will get another day with his family.


The war in Burma taught me that lesson. Sadly it has taken me forty years and a brush with genocide to understand the importance of saving lives. But thank God, now I know the lesson. And in addition to learning life saving in a pool, I was ready to begin my work as an EMT, working on an ambulance, which would be starting in a few days.


The next day was the easiest of the whole program. We checked into the pool in the morning and had to swim 4,000 meters, 1,000 of each stroke. The event wasn’t timed, it was just additional practice and confidence building to prepare us for the ocean swim the next day.


After the swim, we had lunch and a shower. Then we drove to the beach at Batangas for our final exam.


Driving anywhere in Manila is pretty hit or miss. With traffic it could literally take an hour and a half to travel five kilometers. As a result locals don’t even measure distances in time or kilometers. They measure in rides. “It takes three rides to get there,” means you have to change buses twice. Going to Bantangas we were driving, but of course, no one in Philippines does preventative maintenance so, less than an hour into the trip we got a flat tire. The spare was flat too, so the driver had to go to a gas station and get it fixed. This all set us back by about two hours.


The lesson I learned about survival in the Philippines is, you have to just not care. I had no where to go. I was with my friends. I didn’t know anything about Batangas and had no special plans for when I got there. I had to just not care that it was taking an extra two hours to get there. I took my backpack out of the truck, using it as a pillow, I lay down on the blacktop and took a nap.


It was late when we finally arrived at the beach. No arrangements had been made for our lodgings, so, after interminable speeches and explanations about the swim the next morning, we all just scoped out a comfortable place on a pick-nick table and slept in our clothes.


No one really slept the night before the swim. The pick-nick tables weren’t as comfortable as they looked, and people were a bit loud. I think nervousness kept them joking around till about two in the morning.


At 4:00 AM we were called to form up on the beach. Swimmers were divided into four teams. In each team buddy teams were assigned; one weak and one strong. I was elected leader of my group. At one point both my EMT class and my swimming class asked me to be class leader. Both times I refused for two reasons, one I really believed it was better to have someone who spoke Filipino and two, they didn’t need one more white man telling them what to do. Letting them elect their own leader gave some Filipino a chance to learn about people management.


Elmer was chosen as our class leader and he flourished. I never saw someone change so positively overnight. I was so glad that I deferred to him. I know I can lead. Give someone else a chance. When they asked me to lead my swim group, however, I accepted. This swim would hold a certain element of danger, particularly since it was still dark and the boats wouldn’t be able to see swimmers in trouble.


I told my people. “Rule number one, stay with your buddy no matter what. Rule number two, the group stays together. If you have a problem or need a rest, tell your buddy and tell me. I will call a halt.”


The swim started out well. The eight of us, four buddy teams stayed together. They kept telling me to get in the front because I was leader. But I explained that I needed to stay in the back so I could watch everyone and see who needed help. For the most part, the week of intensive preparation had readied these guys for the swim, but there were still a few who got upset when water went in their mouth or when their goggles came off. Some of them didn’t feel comfortable treading water and adjusting or cleaning their goggles at the same time. My partner was a fat, smoking, drinking, martial arts instructor, named James, who I had no relationship with other than the fact that he was my partner. I didn’t know him, and I have trouble liking martial arts instructors who don’t live the life. But I looked at this as part of the challenge. It is easy to care for someone you like. But caring for James was a test, like donating a kidney to someone you find annoying.


I kept my team together pretty well till a panic swept them. In our interminable briefings about the swim we were told that there was a current which emerged from the right side of the harbor and would push us back out to sea. We were told that when we reached this current we needed to cut left, swim parallel to shore till we got passed it, then cut for the beach again. Suddenly, my team decided they had hit this current and started barking orders, “cut right, change to side stroke or crawl, the current, the current…” I mean they were really going nuts screaming and scrambling.


I felt a very minor current of probably less than one knot and I figured all we needed to do was continue to swim dead ahead. Also it was dark and our target was a white light on the beach which I didn’t want to lose sight of till the sun came up. James was so much slower than the other guys, that by this time, my guys had given up on staying with us and were pretty far ahead of us. By the time we arrived, the guys had abandoned us, disappearing into the darkness to the right.


I stayed with James. He asked me several times in a panicked voice, “You won’t leave me will you.”

“Of course not.” I said. A mile swim is absolutely nothing and in the ocean, with the added buoyancy, just floated face down, occasionally kicking or sculling my arms to keep up with James.


“Antonio, you are my sensei.” He said repeatedly. “I need to hear your voice.


No worries, I rolled over on my side, swam side stroke and sang military cadences to keep James going.


“See one thirty rolling down the strip, airborne ranger on a one way trip, mission top secret destination unknown, the SPDC in Shanland had better go home. …”


James kept apologizing for being so slow, and I kept telling him it was fine. Once again, I thought about Andy. I was in a military course once, where the top guy, the one who won every competition was not even nominated for an award. Instead, the sergeants nominated the worst guy, the one who nearly failed every event. Why? Because he never quit. He learned something. The strong guy, the one who aced every evaluation, didn’t learn a thing. He had always been good before and he was good now. I just knew Andy wasn’t learning. As for me, I am forty, I am beyond learning. My goal in the course was to learn the techniques for rescue, and I had, so I was happy. I didn’t need a second place in a one mile swim to make me feel good about myself. I was fine. James…hopefully James was learning something. He certainly was struggling.


I wasn’t wearing a watch, so it is impossible to say how long we had been swimming. But as the sun began to rise, I saw that we were even with a hotel on the right side of the harbor. When the sun was full up, we were still parallel to the hotel. I began to worry a bit. When I swam free of James, I passed easily through the current. But as soon as I stopped to wait for him, it carried me right back to where he was. The first few times this happened I thought he had caught up. But then I realized he was swimming at exactly the same speed as the current. Like running on a treadmill, he was never going to move any further forward.


“James, we need to cut left because of the current.” I said.

“No, it is ok, we are moving forward. Look.” He said, pointing vaguely at the same hotel we had been swimming in front of for the last few hours.


Watching James exhaust himself and get nowhere gave me time to think about my own command abilities. I think I did do a good job of keeping everyone together. These guys had never been in the army and knew nothing of discipline. If this were the military, when I arrived on shore I would punish them horribly and make sure they understood the importance of staying together. We would do the exercise again and again until the whole team functioned like a single man.


Several rescue boats came and asked if James needed a pick up. I had been optimistic and encouraging, but now my own strength was starting to give out. Secretly I hoped James would give up and I could just swim in alone. I could see the shore and knew it would only take about ten minutes.


But James kept saying, “As long as my sensei is here, I can make it.”


Great! I had to be the sensei. I couldn’t just be an asshole and leave him.


We kept on. James was going so slow I wasn’t 100% certain we had got around the current yet. So, I swam a few fast strokes ahead, and once again, I was moving well, but I had to stop and wait for him. This time, I stood still and he eventually reached me.


Sir Jun pulled up in a boat. “Are we passed the current?” I asked.

“Yes.” He said. He also said something else, which I would later find out was, “you can leave your partner and go eat breakfast.” But I was screaming too loudly with joy and missed all that.


A few minutes later, Elmer appeared, he had swum out on a rescue can.


I was so glad to see my friend. We talked a mile a minute. I suddenly realized how lonely I had been, watching James swim slowly. Elmer and I laughed and joked. He told me about Andy.


“Andy was the leader of his group, but as soon as they got in the water he abandoned them. He was the first one to complete the swim.” Explained Elmer.


This was what I had expected from Andy, but you would never believe that someone would do something so awful.


“How did his group do?”


“He lost six people.” Said Elmer.


Eventually, Andy swam up on a surf board. “Hey dud!” he shouted all happy. He held out his hand for me to give him a hi-five. “I won, I was first.”


“And what happened to your team?” I asked. “Were they also first?”


He saw in my eyes that he had done wrong. Trying to make up for it he said.


“You can go have breakfast. We will take care of your partner.”


“Like you took care of your team?” I asked.


“Ouch!” said Elmer, feeling the sting.


“I’ll take care of him. Right, James?”

“That’s right,” he gulped between breaths, “Antonio is my sensei.”

“You see that?” I asked Andy. “I am James’s sensei. Are you someone’s sensei?”


Elmer and I continued to chat and gossip, ignoring Andy.


When we finally arrived on the shore I was completely shot. Because of all the motivational speaking and singing I had done for James, the inside of my mouth felt like a pretzel factory. Not only was I completely dehydrated, but the taste was something I wouldn’t wish on an enemy. It was like drinking urine, and not even from a diabetic.


It turned out the swim was actually two miles. Alone, I could have done it in about one and a half hours. Instead, it had taken nearly four. I had never swam that long in my life, without touching the ground or the walls of a swimming pool.


The instructors all knew what had happened, and without making awkward speeches, they let me know that I had done the right thing. I stumbled to the kitchen to get some food and drink, while I gorged myself a student and several instructors came to me and said, “For six years it has been James’s dream to complete this swim. And, now, because of you, he has finally done it.”


I felt really good. At the same time, I felt even more guilty for my fleeting wish of James quitting while we were stuck in the current. The swim had meant nothing to me, finishing an hour earlier I wouldn’t have won an award, but for James, this swim was the completion of a six year dream.


All told, only twenty-five people, including James, had completed the swim, and successfully passed the course. The rest of the swimmers had had a few hours to eat and relax. I got ten minutes, and then the next classes started, down on the beach.


“I will go get drunk now.” Announced James. “Are you coming?”

“No, I have class.” I said. If it had been a movie, James would have been my friend and we would have blown of class and got drunk and it would have been funny. But I didn’t see anything funny about it. The reason this guy and 55 other people didn’t complete this swim was because of alcohol and cigarettes. Had James learned anything? Had I helped him? Now he would get his rescue certificate but be incapable of rescuing anyone.


Maybe I had violated the Prime Directive, like on Star Trek.


The whole world doesn’t have to live like me. But, why do they have to drink so much and why the cigarettes and the drugs. Even if I came in fourth or sixth in the timed exercises, the guys I beat were in their twenties. What will they be like when they are in their forties? James was nearly ten years younger than me.


I made my way to the beach on unsteady feet. The first lessons were scuba familiarization. Once again, in the west, most people have used mask, snorkel, and fins at some point in their life. Here, it had to be taught.


“Are you swimming?” the instructor asked.

“I will have to sit out the first bit because I have no equipment.”

“It’s OK, just follow with your goggles.”


It was an effort to stand, let alone get back in the water, but this day of training turned out to be some of the best training of the whole course.


We trained in using the rescue can, this is that red flotation device that Pamela Anderson carries when she runs down the beach to save me, in my dreams. We all tried running with it, but our breasts didn’t flop like hers. The rescue can was so versatile. You could sue it to support yourself or your victim. You could throw it to someone or hand it to someone to avoid making physical contact with the victim. After you secured a victim, in your usual cross chest carry position, you could use the can to support him and tow him back to shore.


“Why don’t we do more training with the can?” Asked Jun.


He looked a little sheepish. “We only have three of them.” He answered. “We had one that someone had donated from Australia. Then a student saw it and thought he could make them in his factory. He made two more for us.” Jun shook his head. “This is the Philippines. We have no money to buy anything.”


Daryl, the professional surfer from Australia was opening a surf academy in Manila. He will also be teaching surf rescue. When I talked to him about starting a part two, an advanced level to the lifeguard training, he said. “The problem is advanced life guarding means learning to use the toys. But in the Philippines, they don’t have the toys. So, the training is useless.”


By toys, Daryl was referring to such equipment as jet skis. If someone is drowning a hundred meters or more off shore there is a chance that the rescuer couldn’t get there in time or would be too tired to rescue and swim back.


One of the drills we did was saving a scuba diver. We had to free dive under the water and pick up an unconscious person, surface and swim to shore with him. The cold I had been nursing for several days was in full swim. My head was completely stopped up and my ears wouldn’t clear. I pushed it a bit hard and wound up with some blood coming out of my nose the next day.


Other than difficulty clearing my ears, rescuing someone off the bottom wasn’t that hard. I reached down, grabbed his T-shirt, lifted him up, slipped my arms under his and surfaced, already in a good position to go for a carry. In real life, I think the difficulty would be finding the unconscious person under the waves. And, as an EMT, I know that from the time he sinks beneath the surface, we only have four minutes to rescue him. That four minutes is a best case scenario, assuming he doesn’t involuntarily start breathing and take in water.


In EMT school Aidan had told us that in the old days, lifeguards had a barrel on the beach.  They lay the drowning victim, belly-down on the barrel and rolled him to make water come out of his lungs. This method was just as effective as it sounds. If the victim survived it was simply because there was no water in his lungs.


In reality, the way you get water out of the patient’s lungs is by using positive pressure ventilation. But I might have been the only person on the beach who knew this. At the end of the day, it didn’t really help anyone that I knew this, because in the Philippines the equipment was unavailable.


The crazy part of our training was the medical. We learned how to rescue someone with a spinal injury and immobilize them in the water. You can even give them rescue breathing while you tread and wait for help to arrive with a spine-board. It is good training, but I believe if you dive in the ocean and get a spinal injury there is no way the lifeguards can save you without damaging your spinal cord. I think they can save your life but you will be paralyzed.


The tolerance inside the spinal column is only a few millimeters. If you are supporting an injured swimmer on your chest, holding his arms up beside his head to immobilize his spine, and breathing in his mouth, all while treading water, the probability is that you will move more than a couple of centimeters.


Just when it was getting interesting, the instructors blew a whistle, signaling that course was finished. Wow! Was all I could say. I hadn’t been pushed so hard, physically in years. It was great. I just wanted to do it again. Most of the classmates became close and exchanged phone numbers. I hope I will see them again.


Pinoy paramedic, EMT and rescue swimmer, it’s all about saving the lives. And remember, the lives you save might be Filipino.


Antonio Graceffo is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

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