Finding the Fish Conservation Zone

Finally visiting a Fish Conservation Zone!

Finally visiting a Fish Conservation Zone in Laos!

As our boat rounded a bend in the river among the hills, I asked my colleague Sinsamout, “Are we near the halfway point?” We were touring a 5-km-long Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, on the Mekong River in an area in Laos called Kengmai Rapids. My company has helped four villages designate this FCZ as a no-fishing area to protect an endangered fish species. Sinsamout said, “Yes, it’s just past the curve.” My heart leapt – yes, I realized, I knew that curve in the river. Over the past year, I had seen a map of the FCZ on the regulation signs we designed – I saw how it partially wrapped around two bends in the river. Now, after more than two years of supporting this project from the office – helping to write the grants, manage the budget, and report to the donor – I was finally seeing a Fish Conservation Zone in Laos for the first time.

After overcoming our transportation challenges, we had visited the village of Ban Palat, where we had a meeting with members of the Fish Conservation Zone committee. We met in their village temple, under the gaze of a shiny golden Buddha. Each of the four villages around the FCZ has an enforcement team, and they rotate patrolling duties of the FCZ to make sure no one is fishing in the closed area. We talked about their experiences of patrolling and enforcing the regulations. After the meeting, our team traveled to the river, where we met the enforcement team from Houayla, the village across the river in Xayabouri Province. We ate lunch and I tossed bits of meat and rice to a pair of desperately skinny dogs that scrounged in the trash nearby.

Fish Conservation Zone on the Mekong River

Fish Conservation Zone on the Mekong River

Then we piled into a long boat for our tour of the river. Despite rain that morning, the sun was out and the sky was blue. The rapids, for which the Kengmai Rapids region gets its name, were mostly submerged, but I could see how the water rushed and swirled a bit faster in the middle of the river. Being on the river felt so good, to finally connect with the work I’ve been doing from afar. Leafy trees grew in the water, all but submerged along the banks of the river, which are steep and hilly. Near the center of the FCZ, we climbed out and scrambled up the hillside to visit a farmhouse near the edge of the river. I at last got to see the signs of the Fish Conservation Zones that I had helped design.

An old woman sat chewing betel as she harvested white roots, which I was offered to sample. It tasted a bit like a watery radish, but slightly sweet instead of spicy. As we walked to the farmhouse, little chicks and ducklings skittered across the dirt. I saw seedpods from a nearby tree that were cracked open to reveal insides that looked like cotton or dandelion down. Sinsamout it can be used to stuff pillows or mats. A young man sat cutting bamboo pieces to make a roof for a chicken house. Both he and the old woman told us that since the Fish Conservation Zone was put into effect, they don’t hear people using dynamite to fish in the river at night anymore – it’s very quiet. The woman said she used to fish right near their farm, but now she has to travel outside the boundaries of the FCZ, which is hard at old age. But she said she still thought the FCZ was a good idea to protect fish for future generations.

In the side channel beside a sandbar

In the side channel beside a sandbar

We traveled back down the river, and explored a side channel that becomes an isolated pool cut off from the main river during the dry season. The villagers have discussed wanting to open this pool up for a community fishing day to raise money for their FCZ enforcement activities. Small birds with swallow wings skimmed across the water, and a white egret flew past. Two small boys played with sticks along the sandbar, the only other people we could see for miles. As we motored away, the boys began to run along the sand, and cinematic movie music swelled in my head.

Further downstream, past the boundary of the FCZ, we came across a fishing camp. The fishers hadn’t caught much that day – one showed us a fish trap with a few flopping silvery fishes in it. We looked at their nets, and Sinsamout said he had photographed one of the fishers a few years ago on a previous trip to the area. I distinctly remember those photos, and it felt like pieces coming together to finally see this familiar fishing camp for myself. We ended our trip by handing over some binoculars to the enforcement team that I had brought from the U.S. Several of the enforcement team members are village soldiers or police officers, and they looked very official testing out the binoculars with their camouflage uniforms and rifles.

At last I got to see a Fish Conservation Zone sign I helped design!

At last I got to see a Fish Conservation Zone sign I helped design!

The specter hanging over this idyllic river scene is that the site of a proposed dam on the Mekong River is just downstream of our project site. If constructed, it would likely turn our project area into a reservoir, flooding the shallow spawning habitat that many native fish need. Sometime it’s hard to work in the midst of such uncertainty. At least now I can carry with me the memory of those two boys running along the sand.

 

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Over the Bridge and Through the Mud

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Just two hours after my plane touched down in Laos on Wednesday, I was in a van on the road to one of our project sites. I had been able to time my trip with a visit from a representative of our project donor, who wanted to assess the project in the field. With barely time to repack my things, and definitely no time for a shower, I ate a quick lunch of fried tilapia, sticky rice, and papaya salad with my Lao colleagues at the office, and then we were off. The weather was cloudy and cool, like I was right at home in Santa Cruz. Just minutes into our three-hour drive, it began to rain – hard. I worried that tomorrow’s rainy forecast didn’t bode well for our field trip.

Mist and rain over the Mekong River

The paved road turned to bumpy dirt as we got closer to our project site. We were traveling east of Vientiane. On the other side of the river was Thailand, with hills shrouded in rainy mist. I saw rocky islands and green plants in the Mekong River for the first time – I had seen photos of these from my colleagues who had visited the project site, but had never seen them for myself. I had only seen the river as wide and flat and brown. When we reached the town of Sanakham, the head of Sanakham District in Vientiane Province, the rain had stopped, leaving puddles in the reddish brown mud of the roads. I was bundled up in all the layers I had brought, thinking it strange to feel so cold in Laos. While I think I prefer the cold to the heat, I was thinking about what my grandma had said about the cold in Hanoi, Vietnam – a damp cold that cuts to your bones. It feels impossible to get warm in such conditions, but I asked for any extra blanket at our guest house, and slept in several layers, which helped a lot.

The next morning we ate noodle soup at a streetside restaurant. The smell of the wood burning fires and the coolness of the morning reminded me of camping. As we left, one of my colleagues approached a black mynah bird in a cage with striking yellow feathers around its eyes. He said “Sabaidee,” or “Hello,” in Lao. The bird answered “Sabaidee,” in a deep, eerily human voice. It could also say “Do you want to buy some beer?” in Lao. It’s pretty common to see beautiful birds in cramped cages in Southeast Asia. I was amazed at the bird’s mimicry, but also sad to see it reduced to a party trick.

Our first stop the district governor’s office for a meeting about the Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, our project helped establish in the area. The district deputy said they had tried to create Fish Conservation Zones with local communities in the past, but these efforts didn’t really succeed because of a lack of training and outreach for the communities to understand and enforce the rules of the no-fishing zone. He hoped that our project, for which we held many meetings and trainings, could become a model for other villages.

By this point, the rain had stopped, but as we headed toward one of our four project villages that shared management of the FCZ, we realized it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. A new bridge was under construction, with piles of rocks blocking the entrance on either side. A dirt side road skirted around the bridge, but a truck had gotten stuck in the mud at the lowest point, blocking the way. Trucks were backed up on either side, and a small crowd of spectators stood on the bridge, watching and commenting on the effort to get the truck unstuck from the mud. A steam shovel arrived and began clearing the rocks to open up the bridge. The local fisheries office offered the use of their truck, since our van had to wait for the bridge to be cleared. I was worried that our project plans would be foiled, but after an hour, we were on our way. It was a good reminder to me that when working in countries like Laos, just getting to the project location is a small victory in itself!

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

A New Season in Laos

Low water on the Mekong RiverAfter nearly four months in Laos, then less than three months at home in California, I’ve just arrived back in Vientiane – and am navigating an interesting sensation where my surroundings are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  This trip isn’t filled with the same novelty of my last one, when everything around me was new.  But after hopscotching on to Laos after a vacation in the Philippines, coming back feels decidedly surreal, like it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I’m here. Much is like I remember, some is not.

Part of the change is that I’m experiencing Laos in a new season. My previous trips have been in late summer and fall, and now it’s winter. It’s odd to feel like I could use another layer of clothing or a blanket on the bed – although the temperature flipflops from hot to cold from day to day. I’ve missed the legitimately cold weather of January, and I’ve heard people refer to February as spring, since April brings the scorching feeling of summer. I’ll get to feel it for myself, since I’m planning to stay until mid April to experience Lao New Year. There’s a haziness in the air, and the color looks bleached out of the sky along the horizon – could be that the lack of rain means there’s nothing to wash the city smog away.

Orange flowers blooming

In perhaps the biggest change, I was stunned to see the water level of the Mekong River so low. People were walking and playing soccer on wide expanses of sand that I remember being covered with water, and fishing platforms stand high and dry among clumps of exposed vegetation. I felt like it would be nearly possible to walk across to Thailand. It is the dry season, after all ­– although my coworker thinks that the river is lower now than it used to be, due to dams and water diversions upstream. There are other changes, too: work at the construction site next door to my office grinds on, relentlessly grating and rumbling, as a massive concrete structure rises. Neighborhood puppies have grown into shaggy dogs, some trees have lost their leaves, while others bloom with bright orange flowers I’ve never seen before.

But other things are familiar and the same – the restaurants, the night market, the aerobics class by the river. It’s comforting that I’ve built up a handful of go-to places and favorite spots. I hope these will help me get back into my routine, while I’ll open myself up to new experiences and learning in this latest season.

Familiarly delicious

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!

In the Land of Golden Flowers

IMG_1268 IMG_0220I suppose it’s time I wrote about something other than food. At the end of a long day, it’s hard to wrap my brain around anything too serious. Tonight is no exception – but I figured I could write about the other thing I love to take pictures of: flowers. In Laos, it’s not flowers growing in gardens or yards that catch my eye, but the heaps and heaps of marigolds for sale for people to use as Buddhist offerings. Finally I can post some photos that do justice to how much beauty can be found here.

IMG_1261The sight just fills me with happiness on so many levels – especially seeing the flowers as offerings in the temples and on people’s personal altars and shrines. The color is one of my favorites and the idea of offering the flowers to the Buddha also makes me smile. I was just reading that, while marigolds are native to the Americas, they were introduced to South Asia in the 1500’s or so (at least according to these websites). I’ve definitely seen stunning photos of marigold-draped Buddhas in India. Gold is certainly everywhere when it comes to Buddhism here. Unlike the Tibetan, Chinese, or Vietnamese Buddhist images that I’m more familiar with, in Laos (and I’m guessing Thailand), the Buddhas and temples are all ornately carved, golden, and gleaming. The sight is like being filled with sunshine.

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Monks on a cell phone

Monks on a cell phone

The bright orange that I love is also everywhere in the fabric of monk robes. With so many temples around, monks (or rather, young monks in training) are constantly passing by, often with an umbrella in hand to shade their shaved heads from the sun. Apparently it’s quite common for families to send their sons to become monks just for a few years – they aren’t necessarily becoming monks for life, just a temporary service. I’ve learned that monks aren’t allowed to drive scooters – although apparently it’s ok to ride on the back. Many ride bicycles instead.

I love the fact that our office is right between two large temples. There seems to be a temple every few blocks, and you can usually walk right through them. They often have the best trees in the city. Sinsamout and I cut through two to go to lunch last week and avoided the traffic completely. You can even drive a scooter or car through some of the temples during the day time, although I find that a bit disconcerting. Jacque and I stopped into a larger temple while we were biking around a the other week – since it was a Sunday, many families had come to make offerings and receive blessings from the monks.

The monk "dormitory." I just love the color combinations.

The monk “dormitory.” I love the color combinations.

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Receiving a blessing.

Around 5:45 pm every day, I hear the faint sound of the temple bell ringing next door, low and resonant, almost somber. It reminds me of my stay at a temple in Vietnam. Sinsamout said it’s calling the monks in to pray, and anyone can join to pray or meditate with them. Jacque and I peeked in last week on our way off to aerobics and saw the monks sitting there in rows before a giant statue of the Buddha lit up with spotlights. I will have to make a point to join them at least once before I leave. I could hardly find a better spot for a meditative reflection.

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