Small Fish, Two Ponds

Pile o' data for checking

Today I put on my scientist hat for a decidedly unglamorous task. I spent a number of hours poring over data sheets and referencing them with a database, making changes on the computer where our intern had noted discrepancies between the written and the typed data. There is nothing like tedium to drive you to reflection.

I admit, I can appreciate my share of mindless, repetitive tasks. You can’t beat ‘em for that satisfying feeling of productivity. What else could have powered me through dissecting 1,000+ fish stomachs for my master’s thesis? Even data checking itself is a somewhat comforting and familiar zone, in which I also spent many an hour of grad school. But sometimes, now as then, this kind of work makes it hard for me to keep my eye on the end goal. What’s the point?, I wonder.  What’s the value in how I spent my day? How is this work meaningful?

These data I’m wading through are from the village fishing survey project that I helped organize last fall – which has been one of the most challenging and rewarding projects I’ve worked on at FISHBIO so far (and which I have yet to write about…).  And if I still want to call myself a scientist, I can’t just drop in for all of the “fun” parts of doing research. It can’t all be just hanging out with the fishers, holding workshops, going out on boats, taking pictures of pretty fish, and drinking Beer Lao – as much as I’d like it to be. (I once told someone that my dream of being a science writer was to tag along for all of the hands-on field science, then play with fun ways to communicate it while the scientists wrestled with analyzing the data. “That’s cheating!” he said. Is it?) But I don’t want to just pay lip service to this science, I want to be able to say I really understand it – and mean it. So I have to be willing to dive into the frustrating minutiae of the nitty gritty. It’s part of piecing together a bigger picture that will only be as accurate as every pixel that makes it up – every fish length, every net size, every fishing time.

So now that means trying to make sense of all of the information we asked ten fishermen to collect for three months – and at the most basic starting point, it means making sure we’ve cataloged all of that data as accurately as possible. I’m learning small things along the way: how to decipher Lao handwriting, how to translate the difference between “didn’t catch fish” and “didn’t go fishing,” understanding how fishermen measure the height of their nets in the number of mesh holes, not in meters.

It’s easy to get impatient – how is this leading me toward my goal, down my dragon fish path? I find myself wanting the pay-off now – I want to be an expert, a credible source of information, I want to be making a real difference in conservation and help people understand and care about this complex and fascinating setting that I’m just learning to understand myself. Staring down a few massive binders of datasheets sure forces you to take the long view. I’m trying to learn as much as I can in a new environment, which takes time. I’m building my confidence, which comes with experience, which takes time. I’m still on the path. But I have to pay my dues, and I have to earn it.

Illustrated American Idioms

Today my Lao coworker was leafing through his dog-eared copy of “Illustrated American Idioms” from 1982 – a gem I found buried in the closet yesterday while trying to make an inventory of our books.  It’s quite the slice of American culture – illustrated in the style of ClipArt. Someone has turned it into a coloring book, probably before Sinsamout came to own it. He flipped to the phrase “big fish in a small pond” and asked me what it meant. I said it’s like feeling important in your small village, then coming to the big city, being surrounded by lots of accomplished people, and realizing you don’t really know very much. Naturally, this also introduced the concept of a “small fish in a big pond.” Actually, the book listed the phrase as “big frog in a small pond,” which I had never heard of – so we both learned something.

Today I definitely find myself relating to the small fish (frog?).  And I often think I’m swimming in two very big ponds – one called science, the other called storytelling. I’m trying to paddle my way through both of them, realizing I have a lot to learn about being one small fish among many. Humility. Patience. Letting go of ego. Finding reward from the work, not the recognition. This path that I’m on is the work of a lifetime. So as a wise fish once said, just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

Big frog?

Big frog?


Low Water, High Heat

Mekong riverside garden

A Mekong riverside garden

Well, you can disregard the report in my previous post of this season’s cooler temperatures. After I experienced one day of refreshingly chilly weather, the heat has flipped back on and stayed there. People are remarking that it’s turned warmer earlier than usual this year. “You’ll learn to love an air conditioner,” one friend said. One of the traditions of Lao New Year that I’m looking forward to experiencing next month is people relieving the oppressive heat of April by throwing water on each other. I’ve heard more than one proposition that maybe this practice ought to start a month early this year.

Tending a riverside garden by the Mekong

I am still fascinated by the low water level of the Mekong River in the dry season. One product of this recession is I’ve noticed people tending gardens on the exposed land along the river. These riverside gardens are an important seasonal component of Lao culture that cycles with the river. When the water level is high during the rainy season, fishing is in full swing. When the river drops, people plant gardens on the fertile riverbank soil. My FISHBIO colleagues have taken photos of riverside gardens in Lao villages – it was interesting to see some for myself right in the city of Vientiane.

Organic farmers market (in September)

Farming is a very important part of life in Laos, and farming and fishing often go hand in hand. It seems like a lot of people are part farmer, part fisher, depending on the season. Rice is the primary crop in Laos, and other important crops include corn, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and various fruits and vegetables. Coffee is also grown in the southern part of the country. At the organic farmer’s market (where I think it’s more likely to find crops grown locally rather than imported) I’ve seen bananas and many vegetables and herbs, including cucumbers, pumpkins, okra, and leafy greens.

Fishing in a side channel

Despite the lack of water, people are still fishing in the cut-off side channels, searching for whatever hapless fish are trapped in what essentially amount to large puddles. I can only guess as to their success. The Mekong is known for its highly variable water flow between the rainy and dry seasons, so I shouldn’t be so surprised by its contraction. But seeing so much dry land is a sight I haven’t quite gotten used to.

Coupled with the heat and the low water is the dust. If it seems dusty here in the capital, I can only imagine how it must be in the villages, with a lack of paved roads and an abundance of red dirt. Lots of plants and trees here look like they’ve received a dusting of cinnamon. When I asked a friend about the haziness of the sky, she thought it was a result of the dust ­– I suppose that’s a bit more comforting than my smog hypothesis, though my guess is the true cause is probably a mix of both.

Fishing in a side channel

Fishing in a side channel

Leaving a drought-afflicted state to land in another country’s dry season heightens my constant thirst has me craving rain. I’m thankful to hear California is finally receiving some much-needed rain and snow back home. I’m increasingly reminded how precious water is – especially when you have to drink it from a bottle. But more on that later.

Hazy morning sky