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!

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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