Saturday, October 13, 2007

Don Khone Sloth Rocket

To say that I am a slow traveler is a gross understatement.  I think the term sloth-like is more accurate.  I like to take my time, get lost, distracted, involved in my travels.  I don’t care much for ‘tomorrow’ pressing on my backside.  There are times, however, when I must suspend my preference and rocket through a place.

My tour of Sii Pan Don, Four Thousand Islands, has long been on my list of places in Laos to visit.  It is a shame that I only have 24 hours to spend here.  Located at the southernmost tip of Laos on the Cambodian border, this cluster of islands in the Mekong River is a tranquil paradise.  I skipped the two largest and most popular islands, Don Khong and Don Det, and headed straight for Don Khone – the more serene of the three islands.  As I expected, the island of Don Khone is friendly, laid back and incredibly quiet.

I chose to stay at Pan’s guest house partly because of the owner’s low pressure sales tactic (“I have a guesthouse.  Would you like to take a look?” about as blaze) and partly because I was too tired to look at anything else.  The guesthouse is a series of seven wooden bungalows running perpendicular to the river.  I chose room #7 closest to the river – an end unit offering two sets of windows for ultimate cross ventilation.  Outside, there is a sign which reads “In our rooms the fans work from 6pm to 2am”.  It’s early October, so 2am came around 9 o’clock – plenty cool enough to skip the fan and shut down the generator.  Blissful silence in perfect, cool sleeping weather.

At 3:27am, the roosters do a village check.  Someone close by started it, ‘Is everyone ok?’, he asks the starless night.  Around the village, cockerels sound off their agreement and assurance that all is well in Don Khone.  I lie awake in bed and listen to them settle.

‘Today I arrived. Tomorrow I will leave. Not enough time. Not enough at all’.

I feel like I am a sloth riding on a rocket.

I get out of bed and go outside to look at the night, the silhouettes of the palms in the waning full moon – to squeeze another twenty minutes of observation into a timeline which does my location no justice.  ‘I should have planned for a week here, maybe two,’ I think to myself, sigh, and return to bed.

In the morning I sit and write and drink coffee and talk with a few other travelers.  I don’t want to leave but I arrange for a boat to take me to the mainland around 1 or 2 pm.  I have some more coffee and some rice soup with lots of roasted garlic.  The boat captain arrives.  He laughs at me.  He can take me to the mainland, but there are no buses to take me to Pakse until tomorrow. 

Plans change.  Life is a series of changes and unexpected events.  I ask the guesthouse keeper if room #7 is available.  She smiles.  I tell the boat captain to meet me the next morning around 7 am.  Agreed, I put my bag back in the room, and head off to look at the waterfalls.



"There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."

Douglas Adams
English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 - 2001)


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Alone with Fishhead on Mexican Night

Fish is very fresh and very good in Laos. With a multitude of rivers and lakes, fish is a main part of the Laos cuisine. In fact, fish is the main source of meat protein in the Lao diet. Like most places where fish is a staple food, it is usually served with the head, which is thoroughly consumed, the eyes being a delicacy. The two most frequently seen forms of fish in Laos are Laap Paa (chopped fish with herbs) and whole fish grilled over a fire.

I’ve become so used to fish heads, that a couple weeks ago, I was served fish filets and I found it strange, almost suspicious, that there was no head. It’s not like I eat the heads, I just like having them around. At meals with fish heads, I offering this delicacy to others as a gesture of generosity. Most people see through this ploy, but it gets a laugh and someone gets to enjoy a fish head more than I would. Plus, I can show off some of my limited Lao vocabulary. It’s a good experience all around – except for the fish.

I was left alone this evening with some fish to cook. It’s Mexican night; fish tacos. Fish isn’t hard to cook. Grilled, fried, baked, it’s all pretty self explanatory; just stick it with a fork and if it flakes it’s done. Tonight’s task of frying a few fish steaks should have been a no brainer, but it didn’t really turn out that way.

I finished the first batch which had been started for me. Then I went to work on frying up the remainder. Two steaks, a tail and a head, neatly sliced down the middle. I dropped the head halves in the hot oil, face side up. Then the questions started flowing.

I realized that I have only cooked a fish head when it was attached to the fish. What should I do? Should I cook it extra because there are more bones, or is it tastier to leave that tiny tad of think matter a bit more… shall we say… tartar?

The eyes looked up at me and glassed over. They offered no assistance.

I voted for the bones theory. I left the head cooking extra, bringing it to a crispy set of triangles, the eyes long ago hard to distinguish. I took the two fish head halves from the frying pan and put them on a plate. I wonder what kind of reaction they will bring. They’re cooling on a plate now, the fish head halves. I don’t think fishhead is coming to dinner dressed as a taco. Too big, too cooked, can’t even see his eyes.

Monday, October 08, 2007

*Which* Action Day?

It was not long after I made a post about Blog Action Day that events in Burma* stole a little bit of thunder. Blog Action Day, an experiment to see what kind of impact a unified, blogospheric focus on a particular subject might have – in the case of Blog Action Day, the subject is the environment. Well, it seems that regardless of happens on October 15th, it is clearly evident that the internet, and blogs in particular, can have a tremendous impact on public awareness. Whether it is a global issues such as the environment or human rights abuse or a more localized concern, we are in the early throes understanding this very powerful form of communication.

Despite a subsequent blackout on information coming out of Burma, what did arrive on the international “news” scene before the plug was pulled, was both unstoppable and historic. The distribution of news occurred at light speed and there is no way these ruthless oppressors will ever be able to squelch the evidence – no matter how hard they might try to claim shooting Kenji Nagai, a Japanese journalist, was an accident. What is historic about this event is that this was a major piece of evidence that even though it is not being reported by professional journals, the international community shares a common watchdog notification system. Connect the eyes on the ground to the internet and no violation can be hidden from the rest of the world.**

I said we are in the early throes of understanding how this medium can be used. Some might argue that we are already aware and in many respects we are – we know that we can get information out to the public very quickly and it’s replication makes it impossible to destroy. However, what we have now in it’s current manifestation can be equated to the very first few printing presses – solitary, one-way, mechanical devices for materializing printed ‘information’. However, what we have not achieved is the leap between Gutenberg’s printing press of 1450 to the desktop publisher of the 1990’s. Carrying my analogy into the science-fiction predictive model, it is not just an 12page per minute, collating laser printer on the desk of a home office, rather, it is that printer churning out pages in a place which is half Quaker meeting house, half Roman forum.

In the present case of Burma, and potentially countless violations to human rights occurring around the world, we are serving as a watchdog against bad behaviour. However, not all is doom and gloom and I predict – or at least I hope – that as we learn to harness this medium, we will begin be more proactive about situations around the world so that university students no longer need to be run down by tanks before someone steps up and says “Hey, that’s not right!”.***

In my dream, sometime and I hope not to far from now, my congressional representative will begin to expose their choices, their issues, their goals openly in their politi-blog and soliciting their constituents opinions. Eventually, maybe through this type of medium, we may actually see democracy… real democracy… occur. Or call it something else?

Naturally, there are challenges to this. Not everyone has computers. Not everyone is interested. Not everyone can form an intelligent decision when presented with the facts. However, whatever challenges may be before us, the sacrifices and silenced voices of the Burmese monks should be saluted, not only for their bravery to benefit themselves and fellow countrymen, but the remarkable step of progress for humankind.

*I call it Burma because it is BurmaMyanmar? I’ve yet to meet a Burmese person who calls themselves Myanmar-anese.

**There are plenty of cases already where internet-distributed information has either been squelched, confiscated and/or censured. However, the days are not many when people will realize this is not right – how would you feel if your government came and took all the Post-It notes off your refrigerator?

*** The situation in Burma is NOT a domestic issue. Beating monks, shooting journalists, and planting evidence of weapons in a monastary is an international issue. If the UN is too insipid to apply pressure, it is up to the people of the world to stop buying Burmese teak and heroin until the junta is ousted and the legally elected National League for Democracy Party is given their elected due.