Indawgyi Folk Song

Indawgyi Folk Song Recording

One pleasant surprise about my trip to Indawgyi was the number of other foreigners who were also working on the project. It was exciting to feel like a part of something bigger in this isolated place, and I felt like I always had company. I met a French couple, Claire and Hugo, who had lived for several years in New Caledonia, and were volunteering their time with Fauna and Flora International to make a video about the project. Claire shot video, while Hugo recorded audio.

Fallen MangosThe pair decided they wanted to record some local music to use as a soundtrack to the video. Very few people in the village where we stayed spoke any English, but somehow Hugo managed to convey that he was looking for someone to sing a local folk song about the lake. He invited me to come along while he made the recording. We walked to one of the little stores in town to wait for someone to take us to the folksinger. It wasn’t clear how long we’d have to wait, so we ordered some mangoes and other snacks.

Then a woman arrived, and we followed her down one of the dirt roads in the village. A big storm had blown through the day before, and the wet dirt was littered with leaves, tree branches, and tiny green mangoes. I discovered the hard way that the mangoes attracted big red ants. They peppered my feet with fiery bites through my sandals.

We arrived at a house where we met a woman and her daughter, who spoke a little English. Hugo struggled to explain that he needed total silence to make the recording. The first time, a phone rang, and the clock chimed in the background. The singer, whose name is Daw Yee Tee Tin, seemed a little nervous, but obligingly sang us a lovely song. Then we changed positions to have her sit closer to natural sounds from outside, and asked her to sing again. This time, I turned my camera on, trying to keep silent and not intrude on the recording. That was especially hard at 0:52 seconds, when I discovered an ant had hitched a ride on my pant leg and started to bite…

This time, she accompanied the song with graceful hand gestures. I imagined how she might have performed the song with others when she was younger. Will anyone learn these songs to pass them forward? It was a special moment that filled my heart, and I felt fortunate to be part of it, to have captured it. We played the song for others, like the owner of our guest house, and he smiled at the familiar references to the birds and beautiful golden pagoda; he mimed rowing a boat on the lake. Claire had the song translated when she returned to Yangon, and passed them on to me. Learning the words makes the song truly enchanting.

Like a vast silver mattress,
News about this place should be passed,
Let’s go pay homage to the holy pagoda with a boat,
Birds are playing in the water,
In the northern state of Kachin,
Imagine the scenes,
The Shan ladies are pretty,
In renowned charming Indawgyi Lake,
O fellow countrymen and countrywomen,
You must come to Indawgyi,
Residents of the lake have pure hearts,
When you row a boat,
Looking to make friends,
The sound of Shan drums,
Can be heard,
O Burmese brother from the plains,
If you stretch your legs to travel,
We invite you to visit Indawgyi.

You can hear the song at the end of Claire and Hugo’s video here.

 

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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

Spirit Houses Everywhere

Our spirit house, decked out for a holiday

Our spirit house, decked out for a holiday

Laos is undeniably a Buddhist country, as evidenced by the abundance of golden Buddha statues, the monks draped in bright orange robes, and ornate red and gold temples on nearly every corner. But before they were Buddhist, Lao people were, and still are, predominantly animist. As I’ve had it explained to me, animism is essentially the belief that everything has a spirit – from people, to animals, to rivers and mountains and trees.  I think that’s a pretty admirable way to look at the world, especially if it makes you more in tune and appreciative of your surroundings.

Of course, at its extreme, this philosophy can foster intense superstition, and I’ve heard that Lao people may be reluctant to walk around at night for fear of spirits or ghosts. This belief system is also at the root of the heartbreaking clash of cultures in the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. From reading that book, I thought animism was limited to the Hmong culture, but elements of it are quite widespread in mainstream Lao society.

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Before…

The most obvious evidence of this are the little houses seen outside almost every Lao business or residence. At first I thought these little altars were a Buddhist tradition. I wasn’t quite sure how to describe them – an altar? A shrine? The most fitting term I finally came across is “spirit house.” These structures are basically a place to make offerings to the spirit of your home or workplace – essentially, trying to appease it and keep it happy so it doesn’t wreak havoc on your life and fortunes.

...and after.

…and after.

My office has a spirit house of its own, and when I finally noticed it, it was clear that it needed some TLC. One hot afternoon, I scrubbed down the moss and mildew – a bit of a delicate operation, since the flaking paint was readily coming off in the process. Once we got it tided up and picked up the garbage that had accumulated around it, Jacque and I made a few small offerings of candles, incense, and fruit to our spirit house. I’ve also seen IMG_1544flowers, drinks, and cigarettes as common offerings.

It turns out we spruced up our spirit house just in time. A few days later, September 4, turned out to be a festival called Boun Hor Khao Padubdin. It seems to be something like “day of the dead.” Sinsamout told us that people would go to the temples early in the morning and make offerings to appease the spirits of the dead who don’t have anyone to pray for them. Vendors sell little offering “care packages” especially for the occasion, wrapped in banana leaves. The banana leaf packets contain nine offerings, including several types of fruit and a cigarette… The local temples had strung up extra flags in preparation for the holiday.

A cat enjoying the offerings.

A cat enjoying the offerings.

IMG_1579Jacuqe and I woke up around 5:30 am that day in hopes of seeing something interesting in the morning. But the dark streets were quiet. We came across a few candles burning on the ground alongside offerings at the side of one temple – and a cat who seemed quite content eating the offerings placed at his level. (A spirit incarnate, maybe?) There were more offerings clustered outside the temple gates, little boats with candles flickering beside them. Later that day, Sinsamout brought flowers for our office spirit house and some delicious offerings his mom had made for the occasion – sweet sticky rice and bananas wrapped in banana leaves. Luckily, we got to sample them after they had been offered!

Offerings for our spirit house.

Offerings for our spirit house.

As evening rolled around, Jacque and I heard a steady drumming and chanting coming from one of the temples down the road. We wandered over just in time to witness a beautiful sight – monks finishing a candlelit procession around the temple, with dozens of community members following behind. Sinsamout later told us they walk around the temple three times. People then took their candles to various parts of the temple grounds, setting them and other offerings next to trees and stupas. Everyone then crowded into the temple where the monks chanted and prayed.

Community candlelight procession.

Community candlelight procession.

Since we walk past the temple pretty much every day, it was gratifying to see it as a hub of activity, and helped me feel like a part of the larger community in our little neighborhood. It felt quite special to observe this traditional practice full of flowers and candlelight, and be able to participate to some small degree. I will have to try to keep our spirit house looking presentable in hopes of good fortune for living and working here!

We’re in the Money

An assortment of Lao Kip - all together about $21.75

An assortment of Lao Kip – all together about $21.75

Now that I’ve been in Laos nearly three weeks (I’ve been a bit remiss in my updates!) I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of the currency and no longer fumbling with the bills as much, trying to add up how many thousands of Lao kip I need to pay. The color coding helps, but really all the bills that aren’t blue kind of blend together in my wallet (yet American currency is only one color and I seem to manage at home just fine!)

It doesn’t help that each bill contains excessive zeroes, and there aren’t even commas to help you discern a 5,000 from a 50,0000 in a hurry. But I can’t complain about the exchange rate. There are about 8,000 kip to $1.00, so I get daily practice at my 8 times tables. The top bills in this picture, the 50,000’s, feel like big bills, like carrying around twenties. Yet they’re only about $6.25. For some quick reference, the 20,000 = $2.50; 10,000 = $1.25; 5,000 = 63 cents, and 2,000 = 25 cents. Approximately.

I can’t help but notice that the images featured so prominently on the back of the bills are all emblems of industry and development. Buildings, hydropower, roads – it’s a telling sign of values, of priorities. This country is a hotspot of natural biodiversity, but those kinds of assets just don’t seem to hold the same kind of value here, or at least not enough. That’s a good part of the reason why my work is here – trying to help elevate discussion of the importance and value of fish.

I have to say my favorite of the bills is the lowly 1,000 kip note, a whopping 12 cents. At least it showcases a bit of cultural heritage – the three women on the front are a common icon in Vietnam as well, highlighting the customs of the north, south and central parts of the country. The 1,000 note even has animals on the back! Albeit cows. With power lines in the distance.

1,000 Lao Kip – about 12 cents

My first few days here, I was keeping a detailed record of every kip I spent, trying to keep track of my spending and get a handle on the conversion rate. I’ve pretty much given that up, since a little money can get you quite far here. It’s possible to eat out for lunch and dinner and only spend about $5.00 total, which I did today. A $10 meal is living large. My bowl of pho for lunch today was only 16,000 kip ($2). However, the box of Great Grains cereal that I splurged on: 52,000 kip ($6.50). Buying imported American goods can add up fast. But a 22-oz bottle of Beer Lao: 15,000 ($1.88) – dangerous. A bunch of Thai basil at the market: 1,000 (12 cents). And the aerobics class along the river that brings me so much joy: 3,000 kip (40 cents). Somehow I assumed that dancing around in a public space must be free, but they still charge you for the pleasure. It’s so much fun though, it’s worth every penny.

I actually had a bit of a money mishap on my first trip to Laos last fall which I have been meaning to post on this blog, so may as well recount it here. I had been in the country only a matter of hours when I visited an ATM to withdraw money. As I had done at ATMs a number of times while in Vietnam previously, I expected to see a range of withdrawl amounts displayed, and I could probably safely choose one of the middle. Instead, at this particular ATM (an ANZ Bank), I was asked to type in the number of kip I wanted to withdraw. Uh-oh, a pop math quiz. Having become accustomed to converting 20,000 Vietnamese dong to dollars, my brain froze up as I tried to multiply 8,000 into some reasonable amount – those tricky 8’s. When the ATM graciously asked me if I needed more time to complete my transaction, I hastily pushed “yes.” And then again. And then once more.

Apparently anyone who takes more than three minutes to withdraw their cash must be up to no good because with some flashing of lights, the machine sucked my card inside and admonished me with a message to the effect of “suspicious activity.” It printed me a receipt that matter-of-factly described a “card capture” and instructed me to go to the bank headquarters to retrieve my card.

Of course, this left me somewhat speechless and I finally caught the attention of my Lao coworker who had been making a call on his cell phone. He was probably stunned that I could manage to lose my card in the machine in a matter of minutes while his back was turned. (This is the same coworker that recently had to extract a piece of a new key from our office door lock that I managed to break in half while testing it out. He probably wonders how I can function on my own.)  Luckily, he took me to the bank headquarters the next day and I was able to retrieve my card a few days later after they emptied the ATM. Lesson learned – do your math ahead of time.

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1,000 Lao kip can buy you a bunch of herbs!

Americans in Vietnam

IMG_0071One of the best parts of traveling is meeting other travelers.  It’s fascinating to talk to other people who have converged from all over the world to visit the foreign place you also happen to be visiting. And sometimes it feels good to meet people who remind you of home.

I didn’t meet as many travelers on this trip, since I stayed with family for the most part, not at hotels and hostels where these kinds of interactions spring up. But one of the highlights was getting to know Ashley and her husband James, thanks to the Halloween party at the hotel I stayed at in Can Tho.

The other hotel guests were mostly Europeans (Germans, Dutch, Danes), who take their world travel pretty seriously, and seem to flock to Southeast Asia in much greater numbers than Americans.  I told someone I studied fish, and he mentioned there was another researcher somewhere at the party.  Instantly, my science radar perked up, but in the midst of flip cup and apple bobbing and “Gangnam Style” blasting over the speakers, couldn’t figure out who it was.

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Halloween Vietnam style! (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

Then at the end of the night, I finally bumped into Ashley and learned that she’s a Ph. D. candidate in Environmental Engineering from Duke University.  She’s already done research in Haiti, and is in Vietnam on a Fulbright Grant to study wastewater treatment with researchers at Can Tho University.  Sweet.

It felt amazing to talk to someone else about the country through the lens of science. To commiserate about her challenges trying to get research supplies and navigate the university bureaucracy.  To express our mutual frustration about the things that shocked us, but that we didn’t know how to change—like the coffee shops that have monkeys tied up outside with tight chains around their necks. And to find someone who understands just how agonizing it can be trying to speak the language.

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I became a regular at this cafe - ordered the mango smoothie three times in one week! (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

I became a regular at this cafe – ordered the mango smoothie three times in one week! (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

In Can Tho, Ashley and James took Quan and me try their favorite meal – a vegetarian dish called bun kho. It’s a version of one of my favorites, with vegetarian spring rolls, and some kind of soy protein instead of pork — I  didn’t even miss the meat! In return, Quan and I took them to Café Queen, where I have discovered what I’m pretty sure is the best mango smoothie ever.  Of course, when we got there, it turned out there was a power outage, so they couldn’t make anything that required a blender.  We ordered yogurt instead and joked that maybe we could wait it out until the power came on. And in the course of talking over a few hours, that’s exactly what we did—smoothies for all!

It’s an easy bus ride from Can Tho to Saigon, and Ashley and James sometimes come up to the city for the weekend.  I had fun meeting up with them for an afternoon.  We got some good food at Givral and visited the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. I enjoyed having some buddies to play tourist with!

So here is the super small world part: in North Carolina, these guys live in Cary, the town just west of Raleigh—where I just happened to spend the first two years of my life. I was technically born in Raleigh (where the hospital was), and I’ve never been back to either place. I may have to change that…Fancy meeting them on the other side of the world.

While my cultural immersion was short and sweet, these guys are the real deal – they’re living in Vietnam for 10 months.  You can check out Ashley’s blog to keep track of their ongoing adventures (like this interesting post on culture shock). Good luck, you two, I’ll be thinking of you!

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A Meditative Thanksgiving

IMG_0184I spent this Thanksgiving at a Buddhist temple in Vietnam. I had wanted to work a little meditation retreat into my trip, and Thanksgiving seemed like an appropriate time for contemplation and reflection. I felt I needed to do something to mark the holiday, to justify spending it away from home.

This was my second Thanksgiving apart from family. The first, six years ago after studying abroad in Australia, included a camper van and three friends as we travelled around Tasmania. We found a pay phone and took turns calling our families, then made stir-fry. Something about spending holidays away from the people you love makes the ones you spend with them that much more meaningful.

Arranging this trip to the temple had taken a bit of effort. Unlike other countries (say, India) where I imagine there is a meditation center on every corner, things aren’t really set up in Vietnam for foreigners to stay and meditate for multiple days, especially if you don’t speak the language. A family friend had suggested I try to stay at a temple with all women. They do take visitors, but it requires a bit of formality and prearranging. I called one Vietnamese temple in California and visited another to meet with the abbess. She recommended I stay at Vien Chieu, the temple she was originally from. The temple is in Dong Nai province, a two-and-a-half hour drive east of Ho Chi Minh City.

IMG_0253The all-female temple is home to 150 nuns and nuns-in-training. My experiences during two nights there can easily fill another blog post, so for this one, I’ll just focus on meditating and eating (in the spirit of Thanksgiving).

To get a sense of the place, it’s worth sharing the daily schedule:

3:00 am: Wake up to the sound of the big bell
3:30-5:00 am: Sitting meditation
5:30-6:00 am: Chanting prayers
6:30 am: Breakfast.
7:30-11 am: Do chores, work around the temple.
11:00 am: Lunch
Noon-1:00 pm: Sleep
1:00-400 pm: Dharma lessons and/or meditation
4:00-6:00 pm: Free time
6:00 pm: Dinner
6:30-7:00 pm: Chanting prayers
7:30-8:30 pm: Sitting meditation
9:00 pm: Sleep.

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The only time I’ve ever meditated consistently was five years ago, during a three-month stay at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington. Those three months were also some of the best of my life, an experience I can’t help but describe as “magical.” Although it was wonderful for all kinds of reasons, I sometimes wonder how much the meditation helped with my mental outlook. What kept me consistent was having a buddy, another girl who sat with me for 20 or 30 minutes every day before breakfast. Being accountable to someone else gave me the motivation to get out of bed a little earlier — which back then was only 7 am or so.

So now consider 3 am. At that hour, it helps not only to have a buddy, but also a giant bell that sounds a like a cross between a gong and an enormous clock chiming. It rings in a low, rhythmic but insistent tone, prying me from sleep. I grab my two cushions, a large, flat square one and a taller round one, and head downstairs from the guesthouse where I’m sleeping.

IMG_0234In the kitchen, a young novice nun hands me a pack of instant sweet coffee and a small glass. She pours in about a quarter of the hot water I normally use. I almost ask for more, then watch her gulp down her own strong glass in a few sips, almost like a shot. It’s time to get moving.

In the pre-dawn darkness, under glittering stars, we head to the meditation hall, a beautiful building shiny with dark, polished wood. We climb the curved wooden stairs. The novices carry cushions for some of the older nuns. The nuns sit in two long rows on either side of the long hall; the novices and I sit on the balcony, facing outwards.

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Before sitting, we line up in two long rows, facing each other, and they chant some prayers. The big bell sounds, someone else beats a drum. The rising and falling tones of Vietnamese lend themselves well to singing. It sounds almost Native American. It’s enough to get your heart going.

We prostrate to a statue of the Buddha three times, then disperse to our cushions. The big bell sounds a few more times. Then, silence. Except, not really. Crickets chirp, a few early morning birds twitter. During the evening sessions, frogs croak in the pond and dogs bark in the distance. Bats flit around the white flowers of the large tree in front of me. There are plenty of stimuli to distract me from the task at hand if I want them too.

The view from where I sat for meditation—except, it as always completely dark.

The view from where I sat for meditation—except, it was always completely dark.

The nuns practice zen meditation, which, in theory, appears deceptively simple. Observe your mind. Notice when a thought arises. Realize it is just an illusion. Let it go. Return to observing your mind. Simple, until you realize just how incessantly and thoroughly your mind fills with thoughts. Thinking about people, places, events that have happened or have yet to happen. These thoughts that bring about our happiness and sadness—they don’t really exist. They’re just projections that prevent us from truly experiencing the present moment.

The first evening I sat with the nuns felt like the longest hour ever. My thoughts jumped all over the place. I felt almost afraid of quieting my mind, afraid of the emptiness I would find if I let go of my world of thoughts. I felt myself tensing up, thinking that all of this was hard work, how exhausting it was to watch my mind at every moment. And sometimes, in fleeting moments, I felt myself relax. I’ve read that sitting on the cushion should just be an extension of your real life. Your mind should be in a similar, watchful state at all times. Except on the cushion, there are fewer distractions. It’s the training ground—and it can be challenging enough.

There are distractions aplenty for an untrained mind. In addition to the sounds of nature, I found myself puzzling over a periodic, wooden sound, thwack, thwack, THWACK, like two blocks hitting each other. Was it some kind of ritual happening behind me? Then one of the walking nuns knelt next to the woman sitting next to me, who rubbed her shoulder slightly. The kneeling nun proceeded to whack the sitter on the back with what looked like a wooden flyswatter. Thwack, thwack, THWACK. Clearly this was welcome relief for a cramping muscle, because the sitter acknowledged the thwacking with a little bow. But for me it brought to mind the image of Catholic nuns wielding rulers in the schoolroom. I couldn’t help but tense up when the walking shadows passed by. Don’t hit me, don’t hit me, don’t hit me… Kind of funny to think about it now.

IMG_0227Sitting for long periods can definitely cramp up your body. After thirty minutes, the cushion felt as hard as a stone. Trying to shift my crossed legs discretely was a challenge —like the nuns, I was dressed in a long shirt and pants, with an outer tunic-like dress over that. And I was sweating. My legs and fabric and everything felt stuck together. The sun wasn’t even up. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to sit here at the height of summer in its muggy, humid glory.

On the second morning, it dawned on me as the bell sounded and we settled down to sit, that for everyone except for me, this was the real deal. This wasn’t some special event, and certainly nothing staged for my benefit as a tourist. Every single morning and evening, these women sit and confront the true, stripped-down nature of their minds. And though I admired them for it, I found myself relieved, almost desperate, to return to my familiar world of distractions. It’s one thing to acknowledge that the sensory pleasures of the world actually bring you suffering in their impermanence. It’s another thing to walk the talk, to renounce them entirely.

IMG_0393A little wind chime over my head faked me out once or twice during the sessions into thinking the meditation was over. Another time, I stole a glance at my watch and it was 4:59. The session ended at 5 am—couldn’t I have held out for just one minute longer? The bell sounded to mark the end of the meditation, and the nuns spent a good five or seven minutes stretching and massaging their faces, necks, backs and limbs. I always felt relieved.

Altogether, I sat five times over the course of three days, for an hour or an hour and a half each time. Each time was a challenge, though it got easier. And in the best moments, it became clear how many of the things that cause me stress and distress don’t really exist. That I can have more control over what runs through my head. That I’m mentally stronger than I think I am.

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And now, a few words on eating. The vegetarian meals I ate with everyone in their common area—breakfast and lunch—were marked with ceremony. Once everyone has piled up their food, buffet style, and filed into the cafeteria, the nuns recite some prayers and bless the meal.

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The Buddha instructed five basic points for monks and nuns to contemplate while eating in silence. Huan, my translator, broke it down for me like this:

1. Think about all the people and effort necessary to bring this food in front of you.
2. Contemplate your virtues: have you worked hard enough to earn this food others have given to you?
3. Guard against being greedy in your eating.
4. See the food as medicine to nourish your body (more than a source of pleasure)
5. The purpose for eating this food and nourishing your body is to study the Buddhist path and help yourself and others reach enlightenment.

To me, these seemed like fitting reflections for Thanksgiving. The nuns recite the contemplations, then bless their bowls of rice. You balance the bowl on three fingers of your left hand and hold it to your forehead.

On Friday morning, around the time many people back in the US gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, I sat down to a breakfast of rice, greens, eggplant—and, to my great delight, butternut squash. Golden and delicious, and one of my holiday favorites, it felt comforting to eat thousands of miles from home. We also had a bright pink broth, the color of beets (or cranberries) that looked festive, but was rather sour, and I think flavored with some kind of fruit. Bananas for desert.

All in all, it was a holiday unlike any other, and one I’ll remember for a long time. And I even made it back to my cousin’s house on Friday after an eventful bus ride (25 people crammed into a 12-seater van, the woman next to me throwing up into a plastic bag…) to Skype my family at the end of their Thanksgiving. After being “away from it all” for a few days, there’s nothing like technology to bridge the distance of an ocean.

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To Market, to Market

Forget the mall. My favorite kind of shopping is visiting the farmer’s market.  Or here in Laos, it’s simply “the market.” There are no big chain stores for produce here in Vientiane where I’m visiting the FISHBIO office. So for fresh food, including fish, head to the sprawling maze of vendors under tarps or umbrellas in one of the city’s many outdoor markets.

Luckily, I’m in “window shopping” mode only on my visit—even for an open-air market fan like me, the selection is overwhelming. Piles of bright, colorful food usually tempt me into buying way more than I need. And next to the food there are stalls and stalls of clothes, jewelry, incense, toys and other things for sale. How anyone does their shopping here without getting lost is beyond me.

Chickens spin on spits, fish flop in vats of water, workers push carts of ice through the narrow aisles. Vendors, mostly women, swish sticks with air-puffed plastic bags over their tables to keep the flies at bay. And they scrape fish scales and yield cleavers with deadly efficiency.

My co-worker Mout and I meandered through three different markets so I could film the different species of fish for sale.  And I have to say, some of these fish from the Mekong are huge!  Catfishes two and a half feet long. Granted, that’s nothing compared to the true Mekong giant catfish, a species that can grow more than ten feet long. Still, these big guys are far larger than anything I’ve seen at any grocery store. It’s impressive to think how many of these hefty fish are swimming around in the river­—and how there were probably even more, even bigger fish in the past.

And what do the vendors do with the fish they can’t sell? Dry them or ferment them. Nothing goes to waste. Although based on the smell, I’m guessing that fermented fish is probably an acquired taste…