Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

21 July 2018

Big Buddha, Muddy Water And Sticky Rice (It's Better Than It Sounds)

Forget about Big Brother.  In this city

Big Buddha is...well, I don't know whether he's watching you.  From what I know about him, and what I understand about Buddhism (which, I admit, isn't much), I don't think he would want to.

Still, it's hard to deny that the man taught much by example.  I would say that even if he weren't about 20 times my size!

You can find that statue of him--the largest in this city, and one of the largest in the world

in the Wat Wisonnarath, the oldest operating Buddhist temple in this city--Luang Prabang, Laos.  I arrived here last night in a heavy rain that didn't let up until late this afternoon.  This original temple on this site was completed in 1513, burned in 1887 and rebuilt.  Although it charges a small admission fee (20,000 kp:  about $2.50 at current exchange rates), it still operates as a temple and thus, visitors are told, a procession of monks might enter the premises.  And, as in other functioning Buddhist temples, visitors are required to leave their shoes and hats at the door.  Also, silence and modesty (no revealing garments) are expected.

I must admit that, if nothing else, I felt very relaxed, as I wasn't thinking about the things I normally think about.  In fact, I wasn't thinking at all.  I didn't try to achieve that: It just sort of happened.  Maybe it had to do with the calm in that place. 

The funny thing is, I've felt really calm since I've been here--even in the central part of town, where most of the shops (and tourists) are.  Maybe it has to do with all of the temples in this town:  There seems to be one on every other block. 

The guest house in which I'm staying is on the Nam Khan River.  This city is built on a peninsula.  At the tip of it, the Nam Khan merges with the Mekong, one of the world's mightiest rivers.

I haven't been to China, and won't make it there on this trip.  But if it's any part of it is like Laos or Cambodia, it makes perfect sense to me now that one of its major rivers is called the Yellow River:  waterways in this part of the world seem muddier than in other places I've seen.  Part of the reason was literally at my feet when I descended some stone steps used by fishermen to the shore of the Meking, probably no more than 100 meters below the Nam Kahn confluence.

Speaking of fishermen, one waved to me and didn't seem to mind that I was photographing him.

The fishing might be the easier part of his job:  I can only imagine what it's like to navigate his boat--not much different from what his forebears used centuries ago--in the raging waters.  (I must say that this is the first time I've seen muddy waters with such a visibly strong current!)

Later, after the rain stopped, a couple of streets in the center of town were closed off to make a kind of bazaar, complete with tents overhead.  This city is justly famous for its fabrics:  Local artisans pride themselves on their skills in weaving and coloring silk, cotton and wool.  

Before I headed down the aisles, I snacked on something called "coconut pancakes".  They are about the size of small macarons, and their insides have an almost custard-like texture.  They're served in a "cup" made of banana leaves and were well worth the calories!

I did a bit of a splurge, buying a sarong skirt, a pair of shorts that look like they could pass a sarong, a scarf, two zippered pouches and a batik collage fabric figure of a cat I probably will give to my friend Mildred, who is caring for Marlee while I'm away.  I bought an embroidered patch of the Laotian flag and a refrigerator magnet.  The total?  257,000 kip.  The current rate is around 8500 kip to the dollar. I'll let you do the math, since you probably are better at it than I am.

After all that, I went to a restaruant called the Coconut Garden for a traditional Lao meal.  Laap consists of marinated meat cooked with a combination greens and spices. My laap had chicken, lemongrass and, according to the waiter, "morning glory."  Surely he didn't mean the flower, did he?  No, not quite:  He meant the shoots and leaves of a flowering plant that's often called "water morning glory" or "river spinach" in English.  

In any event, it was served--like most Lao dishes--with sticky rice.  It's actually a different species from the rice most other people know:  Its grains are shorter and it has a higher starch content--but no gluten.  Although it's usually associated with Northern Thai food, its true origins are in Laos.  As it happens, Northern Thailand has almost as many ethnic Lao people as Laos itself, so much of what is called "Northern Thai" or simply "Thai" in the US and other countries is really Laotian.

When I asked for chopsticks, the waiter gave me a somewhat condescending smile.  So did a waitress who happened to overhear the conversation.  You're really supposed to eat sticky rice with your hands and, in fact, use it as a utensil to scoop up your laap (or whatever else you're eating) in a similar fashion to Injera, Ethiopia's pita-like bread.

This trip is proving to be educational in all sorts of ways!

20 July 2018

To The Temple Of Women

Nobody here should be impressed with me. (Actually, I don't think anybody should be impressed with me.)  But the people I've talked to all seem to look up to me, and not because I'm taller than they are.  

Sometimes it's because I'm a professor (university lecturer, actually), as educators and, more important, education are revered here because so many can't get it, or get enough.  A couple of people were in awe when I did something a lady isn't supposed to do:  reveal my age.  One woman--about whom I'll say more later--said her mother is ten years younger and "looks older."  Days spent in hard, repetitive tasks in the sun, heat and humidity will do that to you. And then there are those who think I'm other-worldly because I live in New York City.

Sokhana (sp?), who works at Green Park Village, the hotel where I'm staying, was simply astounded that I rode a bike about 85 kilometers.  She simply had to tell her co-workers, the manager and everyone about it.  If you've been reading this blog, you know that I've done much longer rides than that.  If anything, if they want to admire me, it should be for going that distance (about 53 miles) on the bike I borrowed from the hotel.  Yes, that one. And, perhaps, that someone from a temperate climate pedaled through the heat, humidity and rain (late in the afternoon).

I could have taken the tuk-tuk.  I'm sure the driver would have known how to get to the Banteay Srei temple.  But I simply felt like riding.

The town and district are named for Banteay Srei, hence the name of the Butterfly Centre I mentioned in yesterday's post.  My ride took me into the countryside, much like the PURE bicycle tour I took.  A curious visitor ambled up to the side of the road:

Just meters away, a farmer waded through a rice paddy, barefoot.  His manner of growing the grain, and the ways in which he tended the cow (if indeed the cow was his) probably don't differ much from those of farmers at the time the Banteay Srei temple was built, in the 10th Century CE.

The temple is known as the "Citadel of Women."  There are indeed many carvings of female figures, but they are mainly divine nymphs or celestial dancing girls knows as aspara or minor female deities, shown standing and called devata. 

The real reason why it's known as "The Citadel of Women," though, would not pass today's standards of political correctness:  It's because of the temple's small size, at least compared to Angkor Wat or Bayon, and the intricacy of its carvings, which have survived remarkably well.  

That detail was possible, in part, because most of the temple was built from red sandstone, which lends itself to such work and at times looks like wood. So, although it is relatively small, the reddish color and those details, visible from a pretty fair distance, give Banteay Srei a striking, unique experience.  You might say that if Angkor Wat is the virtuoso and Bayon is the show-stopper, then Banteay Srei is the crowd-pleaser.

And, yes, you can enter it with a valid Angkor Wat pass. 

On my way back, I passed the Butterfly Center and stopped at the Landmine Museum, but not to look at the exhibits.  The young woman at the admission desk remembered me and allowed me in when I asked to see another young woman who works in the gift shop.  An Youn and I had a very friendly talk when I first visited, and she really liked the pendant I was wearing.  This time, I gave it to her.  Rarely has anyone been so happy for such a small favor from me.

Of course, I didn't tell her the real reason I gave it to her:  I was trying to lighten up the load for the rest of my ride back to the hotel! ;-)

19 July 2018

A Rainy Day Of Contrasts

The rain started some time before I woke up. I think the young woman at the hotel's front desk knew it would rain throughout the day, and called a tuk-tuk driver for me.

That was a really good call.  The rain came and went until about two this afternoon.  Then it washed down in a torrent through the rest of the day and well into the evening.

I first saw Apocalypse Now on a cold, rainy day (Christmas Eve, no less) the year that it was released.  So I guess it makes sense that on a rainy day here I would go to--wait for it--the Landmine Museum.

Yes, such a thing actually exists. (I wasn't so surprised:  After all, I went to a Mushroom Museum and Mustard Museum in--where else?--France!)  But you don't have to be a military buff to appreciate it.  In fact, the aim of Sun Ra, its founder, is not to glorify war or fetishize weapons.  Rather, he wants to alert people to the fact that there are so many landmines and the harm they cause. And he has a goal of de-mining Cambodia by 2025.

In spite of his Japanese-sounding name, he's actually Cambodian.  He chose that name for himself after a Japanese journalist gave it to him.  Before that, he had a number of different names, not because he was trying to evade debt collectors, but because he was essentially "adopted" so many times.

Except that his "adoptors" weren't well-heeled go-gooder Western families.  Rather, as he says, he doesn't know exactly when he was born, but he believes it was in 1970.  Orphaned early, he was conscripted as a child soldier, first by the Khmer Rouge and, later, by the Vietnamese army after that country invaded.  As he recalls, he was taught how to use a rifle that was bigger than he was, and he preferred using rocket launchers because, at least, he could lie down while aiming them.

His training also included the installation of land mines.  He became such an expert with them that he was called on not only to install them, but to find them.  That also gave him the expertise to find other kinds of munitions  on the ground.

After the fighting ceased, he used his expertise to de-mine.  He's not the first to undertake such a task:  Many a Khmer peasant has dug up, or simply stumbled upon, these explosives.  To give you an idea of just how poor they are, they disassembled them to sell the scrap metal.  Some didn't live to tell about it; many others lost limbs, eyes, ears and other body parts.  I have seen a few such unfortunates in my travels here.

Sun Ra himself admits that, even with his expertise, he is very lucky to be unscathed--at least physically--from the thousands of mines and other munitions he found.  They became the basis of the collection in the museum he started, which is run by an NGO he helped to found.  Today, that organization works to detect and extract land mines, not only in Cambodia, but in the Middle East, Europe and even the Americas.  

As the museum's commentary reminds visitors, once placed, landmines can cause damage indefinitely.  In 1965, an explosion in Alabama resulted from mines placed a century earlier, during the US Civil War.  And, less than a year ago, 70,000 people were evacuated in Frankfurt, Germany when a British bomb from World War II was found.

The NGO Aki Ra helped to start is staffed entirely by Cambodians and, it says, pays "liveable wages".  It also runs a school adjacent to the museum, but not accessible to visitors.  Many Cambodian kids never attend school for a variety of reasons--mainly, because their families need their help on the farms or other enterprises, or because they can't afford the fees.  The stories of some of those students are posted in one of the museum's exhibits.

So, on a rainy day, what did I do after spending a couple of hours among munitions from the US, China, the USSR and other countries, as well as art and other works related to them?  I went to another museum--a preserve, actually, about two kilometers down the road.

So what was preserved there?  Not dragonfruits or lychee nuts or pineapples.  The things "preserved" there were living and not meant to be consumed, at least not on the grounds of the preserve. I'm sure, though, that someone has eaten them:  They sound tasty, at least in the English word for them.

I'm talking about butterflies.  More species have been identified in Cambodia, and in Southeast Asia, than in any other part of the world.  But, even though this area isn't as developed as the US, Europe or Japan, some of those species are, if not endangered, then declining in numbers.  As the exhibit reminds visitors, butterflies are a good "barometer" of ecological health:  Where they can't live and thrive, there are other problems.  I couldn't help but to think about how, last year, I didn't see the flocks of migrating Monarchs I had seen in earlier years on Point Lookout, Long Island.

Like the Landmine Museum, the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre is run by an NGO that employs Cambodians, from farmers who collect butterfly eggs to the tourguides and the folks who raise the butterflies through all of their stages of life.  Some of the butterflies--which, of course, I'd never seen before coming here--look more like other kinds of insects, or even birds or bats, than what we normally think of as butterflies.  Others look like the ones most of us in the developed world have seen, only in different colors and patterns.

Admission is five dollars (two for kids).  For another four dollars, you can have lunch in the center's cafe.  I had something a staff member recommended:  a Khmer curry with chicken, pumpkin and other vegetables.  Frankly, I would have gladly eaten it no matter where it was offered, and at a higher price!

I can't help but to wonder whether there's some "product placement" going on here:  a butterfly center with a sumptuous lunch just down the road from a landmine museum.  It's sort of like watching Breaking Away after you've seen Apocalypse Now.