Archive for October 2009
The journey was long – 23 hours from the Hualamphong train station to the Attapeu bus station – but it went as smoothly as imaginable. I didn’t sleep so well on the train for some reason, perhaps because it seemed exceptionally bouncy, and also because the conductor and his friends were jabbering away a few feet from my berth. The stunning thing is that the train arrived on time in Ubon Ratchatani, which is almost unheard of. A tuk tuk drove me through the unremarkable town to the bus station where I bought a ticket for the 9:30 bus to Pakse. I had time for a bowl of chicken on broth-y rice and a coffee. I also realized that my Thai mobile was almost out of credit so I couldn’t send a text message anywhere.
The bus ride took about three hours. Crossing the border was an exercise in way-finding through fences and around buildings, eventually arriving at a black-glass window with a hole far too low to actually see or hear anything through. I passed in my passport and a bushel of papers came back at me, which I dutifully filled out and returned with the $43 fee. Canadians still pay the most of any country for a Lao visa. We must have really offended them at some point.
At another similar window around the side, a disembodied voice asked for an additional 50 Baht, probably for the Lao Border Guards Retirement Fund or something. I paid and walked away with my passport and Lao visa in hand.
Instantly things change on the Lao side of the border: the landscape is hillier and more treed, and things look less prosperous. Most houses are feeble wood things that look like they could blow over or combust at the smallest provocation.
After an hour and on the far side of the stunning Mekong, we pulled into non-descript Pakse. I hopped on a Lao style of tuk tuk – a covered sidecar – and went for a ride through the town, stopping to get a SIM card (using French with an old guy) – then south 8km to the other bus station. I had a couple of hours there until the 3:15 “VIP” bus left, so I drank some drinks and ate some buns.
The 4 hour ride to Attapeu was lovely. We drove around the Bolevan Plateau, which juts up several hundred meters from the plain around it, in places with sheer cliffs and bastions of rock. We made our way clockwise around it in the gorgeous evening light. One thing that I noticed is that Lao people walk with their backs to traffic, which resulted in many of the having the beejesus scared out of them when our bus came barrelling up behind them honking.
The bus pulled into the dirt bus station at 7:30 and shortly thereafter a big blue Toyota Land Cruiser covered in Number 1 condom logos pulled up, and I was greeted by Tick, the young energetic team leader here, and Sen, the driver. Both speak good English. We drove the short distance to the guesthouse.
I had a nice room, but unfortunately it was on the ground floor right by the front desk and door, so I had a fairly lousy sleep because of noise.
I got out of bed at seven, and at half-past, Tick took me for a bowl of noodles down the street. At eight, the entire PSI team showed up (8 folks in two vehicles), and we drove about 30kms down a rough dirt road westwards to the village called Pouy. Flooding earlier this year damaged the whole area and the road is badly scarred in places. An amazingly sketchy suspension bridge with a one-ton limit has been built in one place, and everyone piled out to watch the Land Cruiser creep across it.
The standard practice for the team is to set up malaria testing and also conduct field interviews about malaria-prevention practices. A series of tables are arranged and villagers are invited to drop by, sign in and get a finger-prick blood test on the spot. Results are available within 15 minutes. This was the second day at the village, so it wasn’t particularly busy although by the early afternoon a crowd of about 30 or so had gathered after being tested in anticipation of draw prizes.
The village, like all that we passed, is situated on a large floodplain of the major river in the area (that flooded during the storms). To the north is an impressive forested plateau, possibly the Bolevan, rising abruptly up from the plain with sheer cliffs and waterfalls. While dry right now, this is obviously an area that turns to soup and glue in the wet season. The red soil likely turns to porridge, and then to concrete as it dries. Rice farming dominates although lots of livestock – water buffalo, cows, goats, geese, chickens and ducks – roam. The houses are simple: one or two rooms high on stilts, with a ladder or stairs leading up. The walls are wooden boards for the most part, with lots of gaps for air and mosquitoes. I was able to go into a couple of houses for the field interviews and they were as basic inside as out. For beds there were simple thin mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets suspended from the ceiling. It seemed as if most families slept in one room.
Because it was quiet today, the program wrapped up just after 1pm and we piled back into the vehicles and drove into town. I was feeling pretty zonked, so I changed into a quieter upstairs room and had a 1.5 hour nap.
At five, Tick and another team member took me for a walk into the market. The vegetables and herbs looked fresh and delicious, the fly-covered fish and meat, the squirrels, the crickets, and the dried buffalo skin, less so. We walked onto the bridge and peered at the quite-lovely meandering river below, then went to a riverside restaurant, the Champa 100 Years, for a tasty meal of grilled duck, fried rice with egg, spicy salad and zesty watercress or morning glory. And of course, Beer Lao.
Beer Lao was the story of the evening. I went out on the town with a number of the older guys from the team, and each stop involved plentiful large bottle of Beer Lao, fortunately served over ice, which dilutes the beer somewhat. First stop was an open-air karaoke bar on the river. Instead of canned music, a fellow sits at a keyboard playing the tunes will all sorts of other instruments programmed in. Sen sang a couple of Lao tunes very well and won the appreciation of people there.
Next stop was a ‘disco’ full of Lao young-uns. It was a mid-sized room with a lot of tables, dripping air conditioners, lasers and such, and a decent and loud sound system. The youth were having a pretty fun time moving to Thai pop hits.
Final stop was another karaoke place called Happy Days or something like that, also on the river. In addition to a keyboardist was a guitarist; apparently they are brothers, and they were talented. There was less actual karaoke as the band did most of the work, but there was some dancing, which, much to my dismay, involved me as I was dragged up by the guys. Dancing in front of a crowd of Laos was not high on my list of priorities in coming here, but at least the bottles of Beer Lao loosened my inhibitions and mortal terror. It was a late night for Laos – we didn’t make it home until midnight, leaving when the bar shut down.
The final stage of our India journey was a fun and full way to finish up. Ahmedabad brought back to me the intensity of Indian cities. As wild and bustling as towns such as Veraval and Junagadh are, Ahmedabad is that much more so. The streets are larger and fuller, crowds are bigger and the air is even dirtier (although less pungent than Veraval).
Ahmedabad is a very enjoyable place to spend a few days. It has a long history as a city, dating back to its founding by Ahmed Shah in 1411. The old city is full of twisting narrow streets jammed with amazing historical buildings and suitable characters. Many Muslims live in the old city as well, and there are some spectacular mosques.
After arriving at the Hotel Serena, we were soon visited by Jabir, one of Derek’s old friends, who speaks very good English and a raft of other languages. We talked for a while in our room, and then walked over to the wedding feast for one of his relatives. It was a sizeable affair; they expected to feed 1,800 people. It was my first Muslim wedding (technically the wedding was the day before), and there are obvious contrasts (besides the multi-day character). Women and men were in separate areas of the hall, most notably, and ate separately. The food was delicious. We sat on the ground on a cloth and a huge platter was brought to us containing big pieces of ‘Chinese’ style sweet-spicy chicken, samosa-like pastry triangles, cumin meatballs, pineapple sweet, and slightly sweet chickpea flour balls in light syrup and yogurt. The second course was an absolutely delicious rice biryani dish with rich gravy to pour on top. While eating and after there was socializing with all of Derek’s old friends: Jabir, Maboob, Gaffar, Hafiz and more, all of whom are or were salwar kameez (a standard form of women’s clothing – loose pants and a matching thigh-length top) sellers in the old city. We were very warmly received, as were Derek’s photos of Asha.
We could have slept in the next morning, which would have been appreciated, but instead we woke early to take a walking tour of the old city. Meeting at the Swaminarayan Mandir temple at 8am, our guides took us on a meandering walk through many ‘pols’, or micro neighbourhoods and courtyards and narrow streets, and often connected through tiny pass-throughs. We took in some lovely old architecture, and learned that the city is very proactive in protecting its heritage stock by providing free services of architects and engineers to help in the restoration of listed buildings. Those that have been improved have a plaque on the front. The challenge is that older buildings are often owned by many members of the same family, and they can seldom agree on what to do with their properties. The tour finished at the massive 15th century Jumma Mashid, “Friday Mosque”, built by Ahmed Shah. I have memories of going there to watch evening prayers at dusk back in 1998.
We were not far from the hotel, so we walked back for a rest. Derek napped a bit and I puttered, then we had a great South Indian lunch at the Lucky Restaurant just down the street. When I asked Derek about the rectangular green objects on the floor surrounded by low fences, he said that they were old Muslim graves. Interesting décor! They were well maintained and respected, with flowers laid on some of them.
In the later afternoon, we went to visit the salwar sellers. The streets their shops are on were absolutely mobbed; we were barely able to walk through the thick humanity. The shops themselves – Maboob’s in particular – were jammed full of women buying salwars. We visited both Maboob and Gaffar’s shops, and sat chatting and drinking cold drinks or milky coffee. Around 6pm we squeezed our way out again and went to visit two more folks, this time across the river in newer neighbourhoods: one house was the family of a friend of Derek’s in Winnipeg, and the next was Derek’s research assistant’s – Nerendra’s – place. I actually met him in Sri Lanka in 2005. As a perpetual workaholic, he wasn’t there when we arrived, but we sat and talked with his wife and lovely squeaky three year-old daughter, Jeena. Nerendra eventually showed up at 9 or so, and we have a most tasty Gujarati meal. Nerendra now does AIDS-prevention work, so we had an interesting discussion about what he is up to and some of the projects I’ve been involved with in Southeast Asia.
It was a fairly late night and a very early morning. We woke at 5 and arrived at the airport in good time for our 7:20 flight on Jet Airways. I munched a veggie sandwich and some sweets. An hour after takeoff and we were landing in Mumbai. Derek was staying on board as the plane was continuing on to Chennai, his next destination for a conference, so we said good-bye and I deplaned. Getting to the international departures required a 20-minute bus ride that deposited us outside of security at the terminal, so I had to pass through it again, plus emigration and multiple screenings and boarding-pass checkings. There was surprisingly little time to kill when I finally arrived at the gate for my 11:30 flight.
Bangkok seems orderly and modern after India, which is surprising. We zipped in from the airport on the expressway, but the taxi got stuck in traffic tar as soon as we exited. Yet all the cars stayed in their lanes (there were lanes!), and there was absolutely no honking or chaos. Just resignation. We sat and inched and sat and inched. We got within a few hundred meters of the Atlanta Hotel only to have to drive the wrong way and then sit again due to one-way streets. I really could have got out and walked, and maybe should have, but instead stayed in the taxi.
My sleep was deliciously peaceful and long – from 11pm until 8:30am. I ate my usual muesli with fresh fruit and yogurt, and coffee in the hotel restaurant, then spent some time on the computer uploading blog postings from India and responding to a few emails. Kristi also called and we had a nice chat.
Jeremy Tan happens to be in Bangkok for a month, working with the Thai branch of his company, so we had lunch by his office over in Silom and caught up. Great to see him.
I organized, packed and showered, then headed to the PSI offices, also in Silom, where I had some internet time to check on details for the Laos part of my trip. I met with a few staff to look over some of the pictures I took on my earlier visit to Bangkok. Alex Duke and I had a simple pork-on-rice dinner in a local eatery, then I headed to the Hua Lamphong train station. I’m writing this from the top berth in a 2nd class sleeper car in a train bouncing its way east to Ubon Ratchatani. From there I’ll head over the border into Laos and meet up with the PSI Malaria outreach teams.
Junagadh is an ancient city dating back to at least 250BC when it was the capital of the Maurya empire under Ashok. It is built around a huge Mughal on a central hill. Close by is an impressively-tall holy mountain, and while dry, the city has a certain greenness too it and feels somewhat cooler.
We rode an autorickshaw through an ancient gate and along several narrow streets up into the old town to the house of another one of Derek’s old friends, Iqbal Vora. They originally met in Veraval, but I remember meeting Iqbal and his family in Junagadh at the house of Razia’s (Iqbal’s wife) parents. I have a couple of photos what I took then of Iqbal and his two young daughters, Shaheen and Shohanna, on the roof of that house.
Razia and the girls, now grown women, met us at their apartment. Shaheen and Shohanna were still quite recognizable although it was somewhat stunning to see them as adults. This has been the pattern for this trip: adults have gone on to middle age and children have become adults. It’s quite fascinating to be able to return to such a place after a decade’s absence.
There is also a new addition: Sohil, Iqbal and Razia’s 8-year old son.
After lunch, some writing and a short rest, we went for a walk around the town, oogling the old buildings and narrow twisty streets, vegetable stalls and chai-wallahs. We climbed up into the fort shortly before sundown and peered into bottomless step wells, apparently 2,000 years old, and at canons taken from a Turkish fleet defeated by the Portuguese in the 16th or 17th Century. Saturday night is the time for locals to head out as Sunday is their day off, so parts of the fort were mobbed. We watched the sun dip down, then wandered back into town eventually meeting Iqbal at his three-wheeler supply store, Speed Auto Agency (Derek helped with the name some years back). Iqbal, like everyone else, has aged and now looks middle-aged, but is still bright-eyed and warm.
After chatting for a while, he closed up shop at around 8pm and the three of us pile on his motorbike only to have it run out of gas after a few hundred meters. We walked down the street pushing it down a dusty busy road for a few hundred more until finding a gas station. Soon we were home for dinner.
The food was tasty little pastry triangles, noodles (Razia’s family spent time in Burma), sweets and jello. A couple of things about meals still take getting use to. The first is that men always eat before and separately from the women even though the women have prepared the meal. I always get the sense that women are stuck with the leftovers. Often they eat in the kitchen too. Second is that almost every meal has been taken sitting cross-legged on the floor, which takes some getting used to. Invariably one of my feet will fall asleep and I’ll hobble to a chair after standing up, hoping that I won’t stumble on my numb appendage and fall into the dinner.
After some chatting and playing karems (a game like shuffleboard), we went to bed and I slept very solidly.
I woke up feeling very refreshed for the first time in days and was alert for much of the day. We had a bit of time before our 11:50am train, so we went to visit Razia’s family in their wonder old courtyard house, then four of us – Iqbal, Sohil, Derek and I piled on his motorbike and drove into the hills outside of town into cool, refreshing air. We went to the town at the start of a famous walk that circumnavigates the mountain, about 37kms in total. During one particular festival, coming up shortly, 500,000 people do the walk at once! I’d like to do the walk someday, but certainly not in that kind of company.
With time getting short, we rolled back down to the apartment, collected our things, said good-bye, then Derek and I and our bags piled into an auto to get to the station.
We had reserved seats for the trip into Ahmedabad in 2nd class sleeper, which mean sitting in an open compartment facing a row of people across from you, will a couple more across the aisle. The back of the seat flips up to make a sleeping berth and there is one more above one’s head. We sat with three young IT techs on their way to Pune after visiting family in Gujarat. Two wives and one young nephew were also there. The three fellows spoke very good English and we chatted for a fair bit of the way.
The journey was quite enjoyable; it wasn’t too hot and there was plenty to look at out the open door – the flat landscape with acres of cotton and banks of cactus, minor rural stations and bustling urban ones, cows and herders and ox-carts. I listened to music and enjoyed watching the world go by.
The trip took about 7 hours and we arrived to total chaos in Ahmedabad. The train was continuing onwards, and there was the usual detraining mayhem as people piled on while we tried to get off. Fortunately we had size and momentum, and some help from a kindly fellow, in our favour. I felt very bad for our travelling companions who had 14 large boxes with them (full of food from home) and a very tight connection to their next train. Last we saw they had three porters helping them get their stuff for the right platform.
The train station was an amazing scene. Masses of people walking and sitting everywhere and massive diesel locomotives pulling in and out, pulling carriages full of more people piling on and off trains. Everything was sooty and loud and gritty and surreal.
Our auto ride to the hotel was a real treat. Our septuagenarian driver was incredibly skilled, smoothly and dexterously weaving around buses, autos, bikes, cars and cows. Never once was it jerky and rough; rather it was being carried in water through rapids. I think that I may have even hooted with the enjoyment of it all several times.
I am writing from the top bunk of an open sleeper car en route from Veraval to Junagadh. It’s 10:15 in the morning, and Derek is sitting across from me typing up notes from the last few days. Those days were three epic and fulfilling ones in Dhamlej and further down the coast.
On Wednesday morning we walked across the street from our hotel to the bus station and boarded a local bus (somewhat late) heading towards Diu. We managed to secure seats, but a fair few folks were standing. When we got to Somnath, the famous temple just outside town that was jammed for Diwali, it turned into a mob scene – folks were climbing in windows and squeezing into any possible open space. ST buses, these local ones, have improved somewhat. Riding one used to be like sitting in a cutlery drawer during an earthquake, but they seem to have tightened things down and made them slightly more comfortable.
The ride took about an hour. Dhamlej is a village in two parts – a fishing village on the water and a farming village inland across the main road. A low area that is inundated during the monsoon separates the two. We spent all of our time in the fishing village, an eclectic mix of houses and narrow paths on the edge of a broad bay. One or two roads are large enough for a single car to pass. Open boats called holees line the beach, and there’s a small lighthouse in the middle of town. A series of small one-room buildings serve as spots for fish purchasers to assess and weight the catches. The ground is mostly hard sand.
We spent much of our time with Derek’s key contact, a man in his late 30s who has spent most of life fishing and is very well connected in the village and the broader community. He is a kharva, a fishing caste, along with the rest of the Hindu side of the village. There is also a Muslim minority living in one area at the north end whom we also spent a fair bit of time with.
He lives in one of the nicer houses in the village with his wife, five children (four girls), and brother. It’s concrete, single story with four rooms, and a separate kitchen and washing room outside, all around a gated front yard or courtyard. There is no bathroom – people use the beach for that, which is about a two-minute walk. While comfortable, it is modest with few luxuries. There is a TV, but few superfluous material things. The kids have nothing in the way of toys, and wore the same clothes much of the time. The household responsibilities start young and pile on as they get older, at least for the girls. There was little idleness in the house.
After arriving, we walked a circuit of the village, stopping and chatting with the fish buyers and other friends of Derek’s. He was treated as a returning hero, with people coming from all directions to chat with him and offer us tea. The primary social protocol here is to sit, chat, and have chai or possibly cold drinks. The chai isn’t copious, which is good, because it is very rich and sweet. One fish buyer gave us some made with water buffalo milk that was incredibly rich and delicious.
In the afternoon we drove on motorbikes into Kodinar, a market town around 10kms away down a dreadful road that is constantly scarred by the monsoon floods. Kodinar is a vivid old town on a hill, with twisting streets lined with tiny shops of all description. Stroll through the town you’ll see goats, ox carts, spice stores, mosques, towers, barber shops, weathered walls in amazing colours, children chasing you yelling “Boriya!” (white guys), and more than you can imagine.
We started with a visit to the fish market, then did a lap of the town over the hill, and finished off at a vegetable market where we bought delicious produce to bring home for dinner.
Back in Dhamlej, we slept in a room with the brother, and the children were out on the living room floor on a blanket. At one point, I woke up to the feeling of the youngest girl tapping her fingers on my head and asking for water. I guess I was where her father usually sleeps.
The next day, Thursday, was another day of socializing. This time, much of the visiting was in the Muslim part of the village where Derek has some very meaningful contacts. Living conditions are more basic here: most of the houses are wood with sand floors, and the social space is a covered open area in front of each house surrounded by a fishing-net fence. Here we would sit with an ever-increasing crowd of men, the occasional middle-aged woman, and sometimes-younger women and kids on the periphery. Derek would chat at length with his friends in Gujarati while they smoked bidis and chewed pan. We would drink tea, and I would photograph the goings-on.
Derek’s closest friend there is a twinkly-eyed patriarch who has done quite well for himself, possibly by producing 7 or 8 sons who are now fishing. He owns a big new house made of sandstone blocks, three holee boats, nets and motors. As the owner of the boat, nets and motor, he is entitled to 50% of the catch while each of the three-man crew gets one-sixth each. His face, like most of the fishers, with weathered far beyond his years and is as dark as ebony. His hair has gone grey, or in reality has turned red, as henna is applied to grey hair to make it red. Hassam loves basically shooting the shit and joking with Derek about every matter in his life. He likes to lounge on his nets smoking bidis and looking out over the ocean as fishing boats come and go off of the beach.
At dusk we walked along the beach back towards the house where we were staying. I took a different route from Derek and ended up having about 50 yelling and jumping kids show me the way.
Yesterday we booked a car and driver to take us down the coast to the south-eastern end of the district. Derek’s contact and his son joined us for an epic-but-rewarding twelve hour day down horrendous roads through various market towns and ultimately reaching Rajpara.
The first stop was a small, very basic fishing village not far from Diu and across a bay from an old Portuguese fort. Much of the fish was dried on expansive racks under the hot, dry sun.
Rajpara, our destination, is a malodorous fishing port, also focusing on dried fish. In the centre is the town itself built around rutted and muddy streets strewn with little bits of garbage. Next are acres of racks where the fish is hung to dry. After that, the beach, where the catch is sorted into various piles and carried hither and yon – to drying racks and to fish buyers. Finally, all along the water are colourful, larger fishing boats being offloaded by carrying pole, metal basin (on the head), and styrofoam float. We arrived at just the right time of day for the light to be perfect along the beach. As Derek chatted and networked, I photographed.
It took us longer than planned to get out of the town due to social obligations (tea and sitting), and we didn’t get on the road until 6pm. We got his contact and his son back to Dhamlej around 9pm. Our original plan was to have dinner with Derek’s old friend from the inland side of Dhamlej, a very warm Brahmin whom I remember meeting in 1998, then head into Veraval for the night. He lives just outside of the town in staff housing at the chemical plant. We arrived so late, however, that the only reasonable thing to do was to spend the night. We had a lovely simple supper, then had a great night’s sleep which unfortunately ended at 5am when we had to catch a shuttle bus into town.
We still had a booking at the hotel, so we checked in. I napped under mild air conditioning while Derek took care of a few things in town. Our train arrived at 10:05 and there was the usual mayhem of people simultaneously trying to get on and off the train to claim the unreserved seats. The young man next to me tells me he’ll be on trains for three nights to get to his final destination. The unpadded bunk is doing damage to my rear end after only an hour. I don’t think that I’m cut out to be Indian.
In the port of Veraval, they build giant wooden ships. In 1998 Derek took me to see them, and I took a few photographs then, but I was very interested in returning to get more images. The ships are massive, about 1200 tons, and take two years to build. The wood once came from India, but now is mostly from Malaysia, apparently. They are about 4-5 storeys from the keel to the top deck, and perhaps 150’ long.
We arrived at the port at dusk, and I spent time photographing the five large ships under construction. They had just laid the keel for one, but the others were closer to half-way done. Kamlesh’s family was once in the boat-building business, so he knew a number of the people working, so we were invited into a boat half-way to completion. The men were working almost exclusively with hand tools – saws, hammers and chisels; I didn’t see anything more powerful than a power saw. It’s stunning to think that they can build such ships by hand.