The (bi-)Weekly Dish – Weeks 2 and 3

Pad thai

Well, it’s proven a little harder to get blogging in than I anticipated. Work has kept me pretty busy (see a post I wrote about the fish passage conference I attended on the FISHBIO blog). but that’s the whole reason I’m here, after all, so I can’t complain too much. I will try to get a little better about more frequent updates, or at least sharing some photos occasionally.

The biggest development of the last two weeks is that I now I have a roommate! My boss’s niece Jacque is fresh out of the Peace Corps and is staying here until December while she, among other things, diligently studies for the GRE (I’m really impressed by her focus!). She’s also been a lifesaver in helping with data checking for a big FISHBIO project that is one of my many time consuming activities here. It’s been really fun to have someone to explore Vientiane with, eat with, and of course, do dance aerobics with! Jacque even has a blog of her own.

Jackie at a smoothie stand as we take a break from bike riding.

Jackie at a smoothie stand as we take a break from bike riding.

Here is a sampling of some of the food I’ve experienced or tried to make in the last few weeks. I am quite proud of my Thai basil bruschetta, but probably one of the best dishes I’ve had recently is the pad thai above. Lots of vegetables! I’ve also given in to fried food cravings in the form of fried rice and crispy spring rolls – although I’ve tried to compensate by making a few fresh spring rolls of my own. I know many people back home who are all about making these rolls, but this is my first attempt. When the raw ingredients, especially the herbs, are so abundant, it’s hard not to give it a try!

My co-worker Sinsamout’s mom was so kind and even gave us some Vietnamese-style dumplings wrapped in banana leaves that she made herself! It’s delicious and reminds me of home – called bánh giò (thanks, Cô Khanh!) I can’t remember the name for it (banh something – someone help me out!). It has meat and mushroom filling inside. Very tasty, and I was able to decently wing the fish sauce dip that Sinsamout advised me in making! I was also thrilled to rediscover the canned drink called coconut freeze that I fell in love with during my brief visit here last year (when I won a can as a prize in a carnival game!). The drink is coconut juice with sweet chunks of coconut meat mixed in – it’s so delicious, I need to figure out where to buy it in bulk!

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.

IMG_1367

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

The Weekly Dish – Week 1

Homemade omlet with some Asian herbsIf you’ve ever eaten a meal out with me, you’ll probably know that I’m one of those people who likes to take pictures of my food. When people make fun of me I either a) blame my brother for getting me started or b) say it’s because I’m Asian (true statement?). In any case, since eating is one of the best parts of cultural exploration, I figured I would do something of a weekly roundup to share some of the highlights.

Although probably not as exciting tastewise, the top photo is an omelet I made to celebrate stocking my fridge. It does have Asian herbs on it (cilantro, lemon grass) so that makes it cultural right? The toast was also a small victory (and attempt #2) in figuring out the settings of our toaster. The rest of the photos are a bit more reflective of the region…

Finally, a bit of cultural trivia I learned today: After Sinsamout (my Lao co-worker) sneezed, he explained that the Lao saying about sneezing is that it means somebody’s complaining about him somewhere. He gave me a ride to buy some fruit today – so it definitely wasn’t me!

Back to Laos, Back to Reality

Reporting for work!

Reporting for work!

A new Dragonfish chapter is starting, so it’s time to blow a little dust off this blog! I’ve returned to Laos, this time for an 11-week stint for my work with FISHBIO.  It’s still hard to believe I’m actually able to live and work in the Mekong – something that just a few years ago I thought amounted to nothing more than a pipe dream. I feel like I have so much to learn, but that’s the reason I’m here.

My place of work and residence! (the upstairs)

My place of work and residence! (the upstairs)

So just what will be doing in Laos? My first few days were a whirlwind as I attended the Lao National Fish Passage Workshop, where researchers shared findings and strategies for improving the movement of fish past floodplain barriers, such as irrigation weirs. For the next few weeks, I’ll be trying to learn as much as I can about Mekong fish, meeting with our local collaborators, pursuing funding, and trying to help set up a pilot study for a standard fish sampling program for the Mekong Fish Network. I’ll also be working with my Lao coworker to check the data entry from one of our previous fisheries studies, and helping write a manuscript on that data.  And I’ll also be keeping up with my regular editing and writing duties for the FISHBIO website—and hopefully finally getting into some video editing.  I obviously will have plenty to keep me busy!

Hopefully in the midst of all that work, I will be able to explore my surroundings and get a taste for life in another culture. The other night, I met up with the Vientiane Foodie Group – a group of ex-pats that meets every week to eat—and of course drink plenty of Beer Lao. I only talked to a handful of the large group, but what struck me was how brief my not-even-3-month stint suddenly seemed compared to those who have been here for 9 months, 2 years, 2 and a half years. When I was preparing to depart for my trip, 3 months seemed like a long time away from my family, friends, and the new place I was finally starting to settle in to near my beloved Pacific Ocean. But now that I’m here, I feel incredibly fortunate for the chance to immerse myself in this corner of the world. I know I will be learning a great deal about the work I hope to dedicate myself too – and undoubtedly learning about myself as well. Looking forward to sharing thoughts and experiences with you on this blog!

With a few of the fish passage meeting participants.

With a few of the fish passage meeting participants.

Butterflies

If you don’t count the markets or the zoo, I haven’t seen much by way of wildlife during my trip—that is, animals on their own terms. I suppose that’s inevitable when staying in cities—although even there, the geckos are constant, if uninvited, houseguests. But one group I hadn’t expected just knocks itself out in fleeting but breathtaking displays, reminding me that Southeast Asia is, in fact, a tropical hotspot of biodiversity.

I’m talking about butterflies. Some are orange-and-black Monarch look-alikes; others wear pale green with black stripes, dark blue or light blue, white with orange markings, bright yellow. Aside from the occasional Monarch flutter-by in Santa Cruz, I’m not used to spending so much time in their winged company. Whenever a butterfly zips past, it feels like an event, calling to mind trips to an orchid greenhouse or the rainforest exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences. Adding to my excitement, each new butterfly was usually different than any I had already seen.

Can you see me?

The abundance of these pretty insects signals their ability to survive in urban areas, but undoubtedly their habitats here are changing. As we drove to visit a village in Laos, I would watch a passing butterfly try to power its way above us, only to get swept up and sent sailing in the drafts of air the cars created with speed.  A four-lane highway becomes a non-stop death corridor—not to mention the clearing of vegetation on either side. Watching a derailed butterfly go tumbling away, I could only hope it would recover, that it hadn’t collided with our windshield.

As much as I marveled at these wanderers, I had pretty much given up hope trying to photograph them. I grew up playing the computer game Amazon Trial, the more modern, ecologically conscious cousin of the famous Oregon Trail game. Rather than trying to shoot buffalo (or those annoying squirrels), the goal in the South American version was to shoot photos of rainforest wildlife. If an animal like a butterfly darted across the screen, you just had to click it with your mouse-based “camera.” And presto, a perfectly framed, focused picture of the animal appeared on the screen, as if it had kindly posed for you. Even at the time I had a sneaking suspicion this type of photography was a notch easier than the real thing. Here, as I watch the butterflies darting around, I am definitely pining for that kind of Go-Go-Gadget-style camera magic.

From the back…

…and the underside

Happily, the bushes and flowers at the Vien Chieu temple, where I spent Thanksgiving, turned out to distract the butterflies just long enough for me to sneak up on a few and snap their pictures. Poised with my camera instead of a net, I felt like a modern day insect collector, tracking my flitting quarry from one branch to the next, usually in vain.  These are the successful encounters—hopefully you can extrapolate from this small sampling to their amazing and colorful diversity.

And a moth, so as not to be too biased.

And on the subject of moths, one startling one from Laos.

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…