14
Sep 2013
POSTED BY Sheena
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Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 8 Comments

Cambodian Dolphin Hunt

Brad had finally reached defeat. His stomach gurgled and groaned and kept him horizontal for 24 hours straight. He lay in bed exhausted by nausea and uninterested in exploring the world around him. He wasn’t the only one.

Four of the seven people in our group (myself included) came down with a nighttime bout of stomach related issues, yet Brad’s seemed to be the worst. Finally he’d stop talking about his gut made of steel and unparalleled superhuman powers. “I only eat at dives. The dirtiest dives you could imagine!! And still, I have not once been sick on this trip! Just eat where the locals eat! You don’t see them walking around sick, do you?

He lay in bed all morning and afternoon and not even the rare and critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin could wake him from his trance. I did what any girl would do. I bought him a bag of sticky rice and a wedge of pineapple and told him I was off in search of the Irrawaddy dolphin.

I closed the hotel door, ran down the stairs and hopped into a tuk tuk with a group of friends. I had high hopes of seeing these critically endangered dolphins. Less than 90 remain in the Mekong River, while larger populations still inhabit places like Bangladesh.

For the next hour our tuk tuk driver skirted up the same pot-holed dirt road that we drove down just the prior day. After crossing the border we had entered our fifth and final country in Southeast Asia: Cambodia.

Once again, we passed by the dolphin-themed karaoke bars, women dressed in their flowered pajama sets, and children on their oversized bikes. I can only guess that some NGO in the past distributed a few truckloads of adult sized bikes and that the kids learned to make do. They worked them like elliptical machines and with each revolution of the crank their tiny bodies would rise into the air and fall back down again. These kids were powerhouses, often times carrying a friend or sibling on the back seat.

I was happy. Cambodia seemed to be everything I thought it shouldn’t be, especially given its horrendous history and all around poverty. It was a place with moody skies, green fields, dirt roads, thatched hut homes with red tiled roofs and beautiful people. It was also evident by the first day that we’d be travelling through one of the poorest countries in our travels thus far.

Back on the tuk tuk we continued down the long straight road. As we approached a shoddy looking bridge our driver slowed to stop and motioned for us all to get out. Would he race away as soon as we got out of the carriage? No, the bridge was just in such a state of disrepair that it was safer to walk rather than drive across in a tuk tuk at full capacity.

In order to see the Irrawaddy dolphins it’s a bit of a game. Like all attractions in these parts of the world, you’re not going see anything for free. A boat must be taken, even if it only travels five minutes upstream, and if heaven forbid it is possible to see something for free from the shores, you can rest assured that they will build a wall to hide it from your view. So we followed our designated boat captain down to the water, just a mere boy really, and like all Cambodians (and Asians for that matter) was dressed in long sleeves and pants to protect his skin from the sun.

Sometimes it can take me a while to notice the simplest of cultural differences. And then one day it just stands out like a sore thumb. This is one of those differences: wearing sunscreen is very much a Western concept. Asians do not tan in the sun- they don’t even let their skin see the light of day. Hats, masks, socks, and gloves are big business here.

Braaapppp…Braaappp…Braapp…Brap! Brap! Brap!  The engine on Boat 21 was irritatingly loud considering that we were in search of the region’s critically endangered dolphins. I was shocked that this was standard procedure. We motored up the river for just a few minutes and parked next to an outcropping of weeds which our captain used to secure the boat in place.

Now it was time to wait. To see or not to see? Earlier in the hour, two Germans had told us that they had tried to spot the dolphins for two days, but for two days had seen nothing. And so we waited in a motionless state, entirely at the mercy of the dolphins.

After a short time, I could hear a sound nearby. Psshhhh…psshhhhh…psshhhh.  It was the sound of a small family of dolphins releasing the water from their lungs and coming up for air. They knew we were there and circled our boat in a clockwise motion for the entire hour; disappearing and rising back up again, quickly revealing their shiny backs and dorsal fins.  We constantly shifted in our seats watching their every move. While I never saw a face I knew they had a silly grin that stretched from eye to eye, as their nickname was the “smiling face of the Mekong.”

They were so consistent in their actions that I didn’t even have to watch to know what they were doing. With the sound of each re-surface I knew where they were and in which direction they were moving. The sunset was gorgeous that night. In one direction the sky exploded in vertical bands of blue and in the other direction, fluffy clouds lit up among a motley of yellows, oranges, and reds.

No wonder the Irrawaddy dolphins live here.

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12
Sep 2013
POSTED BY Sheena
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Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 6 Comments

A Chance Encounter

It all started with a note clipped under Nacho’s windshield wiper.

Hello friends- I am a fellow Volkswagen T3 owner and have some questions for you about your set up. Please call and we will meet up. – Soenke

We found the note shortly after we had wandered out of our hotel and into Nacho’s living quarters. As we cooked our morning eggs and espresso three shoeless kids in tattered clothing wandered past our open sliding door. As they passed by they froze mid-step and stared at us like little does in a set of headlights. They had never seen a kitchen inside a car.

I invited them in. Whatever they were doing and wherever they were going didn’t seem to matter anymore. Two sat next to me on the couch and the last one stood facing us. They were enamored by all of the new objects around them and wanted to touch every last one of them. They pointed to every book on the shelf and I obliged, hypnotized by their gorgeous chocolate eyes and radiant smiles. I showed them photos of India and Laos, and plenty of other photos that looked just like their back yard. They peered inside our empty sticky rice container and I could see the confusion in their eyes. If we didn’t store our sticky rice here, where did we store it? They found everything and wanted everything. Mostly though, they wanted our food. They rubbed their bellies and stared at the eggs in the pan.

Suddenly, the hotel staff member who slept on a cot in the hotel lobby rushed over to the van, worried. He could only see that our door was open and that kids were inside. We told him everything was a-okay—we had invited these little rug rats in with us.

It was a weekday and I asked the staff member why these kids weren’t in school.

He seemed surprised by the question. “These kids don’t go to school. They are poor children. They find bottles on the street and collect them for their families to sell.” He moved to the side to display the evidence: the children’s plastic burlap bags. They were massive—big enough to hold a few hundred bottles. So far they only had a handful but it was only eight in the morning and they still had the whole day ahead of them.

The whole thing just sucked. It was all so wrong and unfair and I wondered how these kids would ever break the cycle of poverty. How could they though if they never even got the chance to go to school?

We packaged up a bag of fruit for the children and gave them a stupid little stuffed animal that I had promised my family I’d take pictures of. I was quite certain they’d cherish it more than I would.

Well, that’s Cambodia for you. It’s sad and beautiful all at the same time.

Soenke, the man who had left the note on our windshield turned out to be a blue eyed German man. He had married a sweet Cambodian lady and now split his time between Cambodia and Germany. He had just bought a boat and kindly invited us to join his family on a sunset tour around the nearby island. We instantly accepted. He said we could even invite our friends—the more the merrier. And it just so happened that we had some friends to invite. We had met a few new faces just that day on a bike ride on the same island that we’d be circumnavigating on our sunset boat ride.

Soenke met us in front of the hotel and led us down a road that paralleled the Mekong. In the center of a maze of streets he led us to his home—a true mansion in comparison to the stilted homes that surrounded his. His home had glass windows and the walls were painted and made of brick and mortar. The driveway was a clean sheet of cement and the bottom floor was a combined garage and commercial space. We cut through his backyard and in between the neighboring yards until we reached a steep embankment that dropped down to the shore.

“Now I have to tell you, I have a medical kit but I don’t have any life jackets. You enter my boat at your own risk!” It made no difference to Brad and me. I felt pretty sure I could maintain a butterfly stroke across the Mekong if push came to shove.

Soenke passed by us and waved us on. “Ah yes, here is my new boat!”

It was a tiny boat, and easily the smallest boat I had been on in recent memory. We slipped off our sandals and piled onto a wooden platform overlaid with a decorated bamboo mat. Beside Brad and me sat our new friends Karen and Heath, Soenke and his wife, her father, and another family member. Soenke climbed in last and worked his way to the far end, viciously rocking the boat from side to side. I thought we would likely sink, but I made it unknown. Karen and I locked eyes and it looked like hers were going to pop from their sockets. We made for a comical site. I wasn’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into, but something about it was fun. I felt like we were going on a danger picnic.

Brad assured me us that since we were on a boat, which by design is wider at the top, it would be nearly impossible to sink the boat at its current capacity.

“The lower the boat rides in the water, the more pressure it takes to sink it. Seriously, we’d need twice as many people in here before we’d have a problem.”

I felt better. [editor’s note: making up sciency-sounding reassurances is a great way to make your spouse feel good in times of despair]

As we motored against the current I attempted to talk to Soenke’s father-in-law. He was positioned last on the boat and I was his only company. Our conversation involved many blank stares and silent pauses and despite my constant answer of “no”, he proudly asked me over and over again, “Parlez-vous Frances?” Like many older Cambodians and Laotians, he could speak French. I nudged at Karen and begged for her to be my translator. She was from Quebec but she said Soenke’s father-in-law was incomprehensible. His accent was just too strong.

As we rounded a bend Soenke’s father-in-law pointed down the river toward a few dozen homes that rested above the water. “Vietnam, Vietnam!” This area was known locally as the Vietnamese floating village. We passed by and peered into a world of fishing nets, wooden boats, and homes patched together with wood, dried palm leaves and scraps of tin. Wardrobes hung from bamboo poles outside and despite the very evident lack of resources, every home had electricity for their bare hanging light bulbs and television sets: the ultimate luxury in these areas.

The sun was beginning to set and I was starting to feel hungry. Fortunately I had come prepared, having bought a snack of steamed sticky rice and coconut milk inside of a bamboo stick. I tried to open it myself, but Soenke’s father-in-law quickly confiscated it from me. He took the bamboo and rolled it against the deck like a rolling pin, loosening the sticky rice from the inner walls of the bamboo. He dug his nails into the giant wad of leaf roughage that served to plug the end, and discarded it in the Mekong. And then, like a banana, he peeled the bamboo siding down in layers. The rice held its shape: one gelatinous floppy tube of goo. Everyone broke off a chunk and enjoyed its subtle coconut sweetness.

As we rounded the far tip of the island a new setting appeared before us. The trees disappeared and only a grassy field and a sandy stretch of beach remained. I thought maybe we’d stop but we kept going. We cut the engine and finally began moving in the direction of the current. It was quiet and peaceful and as the sun set the guys practiced their gondolier skills. Brad was fond of his new role and brought us all the way back home.

I felt lucky—lucky to have had this chance encounter with Soenke and his family, and also to see new things and make new friends. Inevitably, these types of chance encounters always beg the question: who we will meet next?

Back on land we walked down Kratie’s boardwalk. In our hands, two servings of ice cream melted in their bowls, the remnants of us accidentally ordering durian-flavored ice cream. Near the end of the busy boardwalk a vehicle called out to us. It appeared to be lit up the way a vehicle is lit up when it is lived in. Just like the Cambodian kids, we walked past the open sliding door and stopped mid-step to stare inside. Chad and Chompa, the Indian-born couple from England eagerly invited us into their home—a converted Sprinter van—where we spent the next couple of hours sharing stories of home and the road, drinking tea, and reminiscing of our old lives.

 

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10
Sep 2013
POSTED BY Sheena
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 11 Comments

One Day, Four Thousand Islands

Just as the captain pushed the boat away from the shore a seventh body catapulted onto the deck. He was winded but clearly excited to have made it with not a second to spare. We didn’t know who he was but he surely wasn’t a local. He was like the Incredible Hulk with tan skin and curly shoulder length hair.

Once he settled in on the bench he spoke. “Excuse me, but can you tell me where we’re going?”

What kind of crazy person…?

Someone explained to him that we were on a boat trip down the Mekong River to Don Khon—a different island—where we were going to ride bikes for the day and then later in the afternoon head back to our island. It would be an all day kind of thing.

He didn’t seem like the bike riding type so I was quite curious to hear what he thought of his new itinerary. He laughed and clapped his hands. I think he was pleased. “I saw the boat leaving and said to myself, I don’t know where it’s going, but I want to go!” He smiled and then looked at his feet and was silent for a moment. “Do you think they rent scooters?”

On the boat there were six of us now: Manuel from Germany, John and Karen, who we’d met in Laos, and now a crazy free-spirited Algerian.

I told him he was the first Algerian I’d ever met in my life and he laughed, clearly excited to be representing his nation. His excitement about pretty much everything was contagious.

The day before, we had arrived at the highlight in southern Laos: Si Phan Don or 4,000 Islands. It’s here that the wide and shallow Mekong allowed for the formation of a great number of islands, which vary largely in number and size depending on the season, although it’s safe to say that even an estimate of a thousand islands would be a bit of a stretch. We could only guess that the exposed lumps of grass and random tree saplings must have been included in the count.

Within these “4,000 islands” only three were inhabited, and of these three, only one had a car ferry. So, we drove Nacho onto a rickety ferry and headed to Don Kong. It was an easy crossing and while we waited at the ferry’s loading platform, we watched the locals on the motorcycle ferry. It was a creative contraption; merely a wooden platform that stretched across two canoes.

Within five minutes of arriving on Don Kong we had pretty much seen and done everything. We expected that would happen—hence the reason that the entire island’s foreign population was now aboard a boat on the Mekong headed somewhere else.

Aboard the boat we moved down the Mekong. The water was murky and brown, but it was still beautiful. The weather was good with sufficient shade and plentiful breeze. It was a quiet morning and we didn’t see another boat for the entirety of our commute. At an hour and a half we broke our huddle under the boat’s canopy and followed our boat captain up Don Khon’s steep embankment. Once at the top he settled into a hammock and told us when to return.

We stopped at the first nondescript restaurant and had lunch, delaying our bike ride by an hour to foolishly coincide with the hottest part of the day. Lunch took forever and Brad joked that the lady must have had to go catch a fish before preparing my meal. My dish of pok la was definitely worth the wait; a moist and fragrant mix of river fish, coconut milk and herbs of ginger and basil steamed in a banana leaf.

From the same establishment we rented cruiser bikes at $3 for the day. I loaded my cruiser’s wire basket with a few liters of water and Brad loaded his with a new cat friend. Our dirt road wandered through the sleepy village where families rested under their raised bamboo homes and water buffalo faces poked from the murky ponds.

We continued on until our road turned into a boulder strewn mess and pitched down to the beach. The rocks were sharp and loose and for a moment I imagined I was on my mountain bike somewhere in the desert. Brad and I raced down and I can’t remember for sure, but I think I won [editor’s note: she lost]. At the bottom was a fishing village of some sort with nets stretched across the burning hot sand and wooden boats pulled up out of the water.

This remote little sandy beach acted as the primary take off point in Laos for spotting the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. With only seven Irrawaddy dolphins left in Laos, they are verging on extinction and even despite the species being fully protected, the numbers have continued to decline. Locals don’t know why but it’s thought it is related to polluted waters and loss of habitat.

We walked for a bit and cooled off in the shade under a nearby shop’s canopy.  The shop owner wasn’t interested in selling me a drink or food, rather he just wanted to show me his adorable son sleeping in a nearby hammock. Various stuffed animals held the boy in place, and his mother slept in a hammock next to his.

“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” the man asked, stared at his son with admiring eyes, and then rearranged the baby’s arms to make him more comfortable.

Our last stop for the afternoon was Don Khone waterfall, a wide and powerful cascade. Up to this point, I had not seen the Mekong looking so fierce. We all expected this would be an ideal place to swim, but we were clearly mistaken.

Our bike ride had been too ambitious and we arrived back in the village far beyond our allotted time. I feared our captain would be put off, yet this was island life- even better, island life with Buddhists.  It was hard to put them in a bad mood.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that our captain hadn’t moved since we had last seen him. He looked to be in no hurry and slowly rolled out of the hammock, stood back on his feet and said his goodbyes. We were off, back down the river amid the 4,000 islands.

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