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…