Friday, December 18, 2009

NY Times on Don Sahong

NY Times just wrote an article on Mekong dams and Don Sahong: Sop Ruak Journal:  Dams and Development Threaten the Mekong

They also have a video from Laos:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Burmese Days

I just finished George Orwell's book, what a terrible one! I liked the
British humor for the majority of the book, but as common with
Orwell.. things went awry. He is a great writer though, and his
depictions of Burmese jungle and Burmese people in their small daily
nuances were really spot on. Describing an old woman who was paddling
him along the river, she smoking a cigar and sitting peacefully and
slowly pulling the boat along. He asked her how far they were from the
end point, she put her paddle down to think for a few seconds in
silence, then looked up, took the cigar in her hand, and replied.."a
man's call away."

I am leaving Myanmar today, sadly. I could stay here for another few
months! I had a great time at Inle Lake. Inle Lake is the second
biggest lake in Myanmar and its in the northeastern hills of the
country in the Shan state. It's about 2,900 ft high so it's hot in the
day but cold at night, such a treat after this humid southeast asian

I will be excited to get back to unrestricted internet, but other than
that, seeing Carrie before I take off to India, a haircut hopefully,
and maybe some more shopping, Bangkok does not sound exciting. I will
only be there a night and then I fly to Delhi.

Inle Lake was really beautiful and there are about 70,000 people who
live in villages around or on the lake. There are virtually small
towns on the lake with electricity lines, small canals that make up a
road system, and a huge complex of floating gardens where tomatoes
grow really well. The life here is like stepping back in time, with
this ancient leg rowing that people do with one paddle, weaving and
looming by hand, making thread out of the fiber in a lotus stem, and
making paper from pounding and straining pulp. There is a lot of
tourism, and a lot of farming.

I visited an orphanage where 40 girls lived and practiced weaving and
singing after school. It was on a hill overlooking Inle Lake, and the
girls were very excited to practice English with us. They want to be
tour guides and they study geography. They sang in unison, Country
Roads by John Denver, to my great surprise! I love that song. I
visited Red Mountain Winery also, which was such a treat! All the
equipment down to the bottles are imported from France and Italy.

I had the best interactions with local people in this country. I
didn't really see much of the underlying problems that people have
with their government. I know that they must report when foreigners
come to their restaurants or guest houses, and they record passport
information really thoroughly. Internet is unreliable. The main
problem is the lack of electricity. The people are only given a few
hours of electricity a night in the smaller towns. Power goes out all
the time. People are mainly self sufficient and sell their produce or
fish in local markets, I didn't see any infrastructure or industry
except the logging of teak. I saw barges on the river with huge logs
of teak and I am told this is all sold to India and China, benefitting
only generals and people related to the generals. These were the main
things I noticed that hinted to the military junta.

I was able to buy most things locally so I didn't support the
government as much as I could (except for some entrance fees to cities
and plane tickets). There are parts of the country that are restricted
to foreigners... the northern parts of the country where the tribal
fighting and drug lording are happening. I talked to a lot tour guides
and guest house owners and they all seemed really happy and excited
that I was visiting their country, that I cared about their country.
They seem deprived of outside contact and attention and I think they
really like to see white people here. I never felt unsafe, in fact I
felt safest here. I hope that the people of Burma have a chance to
progress sooner rather than later, they are very smart and very
interested people. It's a really tough situation with the economic
sanctions here, barring them from any progress. I don't disagree with
the sanctions though, because behind closed doors I know that life
isn't fair for the people here.

One piece of exciting news is President Barack Obama is planning to
meet with the Myanmar head of state, Senior General Than Shwe, and
Prime Minister Thein Sein in Singapore, this Sunday to begin talking.
Here is one article about it from the Asia Sentinel -

Hillary Clinton returned from Burma earlier this fall and reported
mainly that US sanctions were not working here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bagan temples

This country hasn't stopped amazing me. Every day just gets better and
I am so in love with the general demeanor of the people here and the
rawness of the land and the pace of life. It's like walking back into
the 1800s with horse drawn carts more common than cars and motos, more
candelit places than electricty lit, mostly everyone wearing longyis
which are just Myanmar sarongs. I have just spend the last few days in
Bagan which is the middle of the country and home to about 4000
temples. Marco Polo described the temples as "covered with gold a good
finger in of the finest sights in the world..." in his
1289 record.
Basically, the story behind the temples is that a Mon king sent a
Buddhist monk north to present day Bagan to convert a Bamar king. The
Bamar king was converted and so enraptured by it he ordered the Mon
king to send scriptures and relics to Bagan. When the Mon king
refused, the Bamar king marched down south, conquered him, and took
everything back to Bagan.And from there architects were hired and
ordered to build building and building to befit Buddha! This was in
850, and Bagan's 'glory days' lasted til around the 1200s. Monguls
invaded the area and tore down some temples and the place was
So now, the place is a dry arid plain between the Shan mountains in
the east toward China and Chin mountains in the west. Daily life
continues amidst these crumbling red brick temples...herds of goats
and cows stumble through the dusty maze of roads followed by their
corralers yelling what sounds to me like "chyyaa! hyyeeeee!
skkkiieeee!" Women in straw woven hats crouch low to the ground and
hack away at grass. I rented a bike and went through the plains alone,
pedaling by paya after paya and in some. Some small ones are kept up
by these gatekeepers who live by the temples. The first one I went
into hadn't been visited in a week or two the woman said. The thing
is, most people visit Bagan and Myanmar in these big prearranged tours
so they are locked into tour buses and sent to the most commercial
places. In American you can't even get a visa for Myanmar without
signing up for one of these. So being alone, I can wander around and
go to places that haven't been visited much and then meet the families
that caretake for them. The temples are crumbling, some of them, from
a big earthquake in the 70s. Many of them restored and some of them
just look like old brick chimneys falling into the ground.
It's hard to put into words the feeling from this adventure in Bagan.
At mid afternoon I reached the top of one of the payas with a giant
veranda on top as the circumference of the building. I walked around
in circles in total awe until I finally sat down. There was not a
single person there besides a herd of cows and their herder on a road
below me. The wind was blowing and the air dry, a simple pleasure I
have been missing for a few months, and the ancient Buddhist feeling
seeped into my skin and my bones I just looked out and wanted to
scream or cry I was so happy! I didn't really know how to express what
I was feeling, and then I thought, why express it?? There is no one
here but me! And I danced around and laughed out loud clenched my
fists and walked around some more!
Being alone here has given me so much opportunity.... to do things
like above, to move really slowly, and to meet local people. Almost
every time I sit down for tea or for food someone comes to sit with
me. Even in the temples in Bagan, a family eating under two sitting
Buddhas side by side asked me to join them, I did, and then I spent
almost 3 hours there talking to them and taking cover from the heat of
the day. People are given licenses to be vendors at different temples
and they live there also. This family lived, ate, sat, and slept in
the most gorgeous red brick temple with ancient paintings on the walls
inside of Buddha, bodhisattvas, elephants, stories of Buddha or his
mother, etc. all painted in cool dark stone hallways with excessively
large dimensions, all in reverence to Buddha. It was so cool.

Next stop is Inle Lake...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar

Title -Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar

I am sorry I haven't been able to blog for the last week or so. I am in Myanmar and I could not access the blog, but now I have figured out I can email my posts to blogger! The government has blogged various web sites here including gmail and blogspot. All of the internet cafes know how to get around the gmail block, and they all have gmail themselves. This is the first place I have seen gmail used so often. I wonder if it's because it is the one blocked. I asked someone, they said google gives good news, so the government blocked it. I wonder if people here just want the connection to the outside world they figure....use the engine that the government doesn't want them to.

(FYI ... since Phnom Penh I have gone to Angkor Wat and seen the ruins in Cambodia, then onto Bangkok, and now here. I have almost finished the article, just waiting on a few more tweaks, and then I am going to try and send it off to some newspapers. I will update on that as it unravels.)

Myanmar is the most beautiful and kindest place I have ever been to. It is teeming with people who are so curious and so interested and respectful of visitors. Especially since I am along, I am constantly approached at tea shops and on the street.."where are you from? are you alone? why? where are you going!" It's the typical way of greeting someone, to be that interested in their whereabouts. My favorite thing to do so far, since I am so astounded by the sweet people around me, is just sit at tea shops in these tiny little plastic charis on sidewalks and people watch. Within an hour I might have 3 or 4 different people come up to me and sit with me, practice their English and hear my story.

Myanmar is the local name, Britain renamed Myanma Burma after the Bamar people who were the majority, and then the junta restored the name in 1989).

I flew into Yangon from Bangkok a few days ago and immediately noticed differences from the other parts of SE asia. There are no motorbikes in Yagon cause the goverment outlawed them and I don't really know why. There are lots of book binding shops and book shops in general, some mandarin and just burmese books. No one has phones so there are these little tables every block or so with 2 or 3 phones on them for people to come pay by the minute. I stayed next to China town where many Indian descendants also live (their greats came over when Britian was colonizing both countries) so there were tons of Indian and Nepali chypati stands and curry stands. The food is amazing. Lots of fried little veggie balls, chicken cooked so slowly it falls off the bone, tons of little bowls of potato curries, chilis. There are tons of Indian guys sitting around tea shops playing checkers with bottle caps and chewing on betel leafs with areca nuts in them, which is this nut that is addictive and gives you a high, and it turns your mouth blood red. You spit out the remains after you are done so there are big splats of red juice that looks like blood everywhere. Pretty gross but it's always great to get a big smile from somebody with lots of red goop in their teeth! Let's see.... there are very few backpackers around, but there are lots of tour groups. Big beautiful gold pagodas that are 2500 years old sprinkled throughout the country.

Now I am in Mandalay which is about 10 hours north by bus. It's a new city surrounded by ancient cities (first century time period) and it's much smaller than Yangon, almost a million versus 5 million.

I had breakfast this morning with a man who was a retired army captain. I had met him last night at dinner and we decided to have breakfast before he had to go back to his village today. He was about 75 and the nicest, most peaceful man. He wanted to tell me all about Buddhism, about the simple life that brings little suffering, about how he was happy to know English from attending St. Pauls School in Yangoon when the British were here. He was so confused that I, a girl, could go to a St. Paul's also. I tried to explain to him that it wasn't always this way, but I don't think he got it. When I told him I was from Tennessee, he said "Oh tennessee williams! very good!" haha!
We talked and talked. Eventually I got up the courage to ask him about his being in the army and what that was like. He said that it was a small job and he took it because he didn't want to work on the farm at home. Now he has been retired for 25 years and receiving small pensions from the government. When he needs money he buys teak wood from the government and then sells it back to someone. When I asked him about what he thought of the government (very carefully and after a few hours), he said it was good, the country is so poor that it needs the discipline of the militray. I asked him how this could can taking people's resources away and keeping them in poverty be a good thing.... and he didn't really address it but he just said that he thought the government was what the people needed, and the American sanctions are only hurting the country's poverty problem.
So I walked away so confused from this man. He was so peaceful and sweet and had so much reverence for a humble life and for imitating Buddha. He was so understanding of giving, of generosity, and then he was also guilty of being part of the machine. How does this work?

This is the safest place I have been to yet. I am so glad I am alone, I am meeting so many people. People are constantly giving me directions and asking me questions or just giving me the biggest beaming smiles. The Buddhist way of life permeates all corners of life here, people are so generous, kind, humble, and peaceful.

I can't attach any pictures to the blog - access denied - so I will try and update when I can without pictures.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

360 panorama of 4,000 islands

Blog by Paul Stewart --- full 360 degree panoramas of Mekong scenes. Check out 4,000 islands, directly upriver and left a few hundred meters is right where the dam will be.

My photo, dam site in Hou Sahong:

the priorities (development and livelihood) must be balanced --- alan brooks

Today I met with Alan Brooks, director of the greater Mekong regional office of the World Fish Center (headquarters in Malaysia).

In response to me asking if the locals in the Khone Falls care about this dam or not, he said, "Many will see the immediate gains first. The problems will be awareness. There are lots of implications of the longterm facts for fishermen, and the priorities must be balanced."

"There is an estimated 9 million fish that pass through the Khone Falls region per hour."

Brooks would like to link up the World Fish Center with other agencies so that they can all consolidate their information and their power and create a kind of social net, like similar issues have in the West. "If dams are not the solution to the need for power and investment, then what is? What solutions can satisfy these long term needs?"

"The Don Sahong dam will definitely have an impact on fish production, livelihoods, and fisheries. However, the development priorities for benefits derived from hydropower must be considered."

"It's about urbanization and those centers with the biggest demand for power. Green technologies cannot provide sufficient power for cities."

The Cambodian government asked the World Fish Center to do an environmental impact assessment of the dam, and they "declined because we think a Cambodian government institution should lead. We will provide them with technical support. But we are a research organization and it is not our role to do these (EIAs)."

The talk with Brooks was good because it gave me a broader scope on the issue. He was the first person I have talked to to say that the demand for dams for investment and development is there and real, and it needs to be satisfied with something. It just needs to be considered right along with food security and livelihood.

-- We grow these rice fields on top of the backs of our fish --

Yesterday I had lunch with Ian Baird, the expert on Khone Falls, the guy who really knows everything there is to know about this location, and the guy who has written so many of these reports that I am using to base my article.

He is from Canada but has been living in Laos for the better part of the last 15 years. He left the Khone Falls area when it got too touristy and moved to Pakse (the biggest town in the area) to continue his research of the fish and ecology of the region.

His latest report that I use can be found here:

We talked for a long time about the one thing in the research that cannot be found: the total number of fish that pass through Hou Sahong and migrate in general... not just the number of fish caught, but the number of fish that are not caught. It doesn't only matter what's caught at the falls itself, but the numbers caught all along the Mekong. The fish that pass through the falls area migrate all the way up to Vientiane (Laos)," Baird explained to me.

This number would tell us not just the amount of fish caught at the Khone Falls area but how many could be possibly caught all up and down the Mekong. After all, that is the issue at hand - fisheries 1000 km north and south of the Khone Falls rely on fish that migrate through the Khone Falls area.

This number will also tell us the actual whole monetary value of the fisheries in the Mekong that rely on the migrating fish (most of them), which will inherently tell us the monetary loss that will be experienced if the dam is built. Some countries have tried to record things like this with lasers and cameras. It's very expensive to keep a laser or a camera on something like the Hou Sahong, a 100 meter-wide channel.

Baird also explained to me that he didn't think I had the right interview and the right impression that reflects most the people of the the area in terms of damming Hou Sahong. The policeman I talked to is a border cop and therefore very much in a position to need to say things pro-government. (The policeman said he wanted a dam and that fishermen could easily use other channels). "The people there understand the importance of the Hou Sahong channel and do not want to dam it and lose their fishing income. They are water people. That's what they know, is fish. They actually own parts of the river as if it was land. You can't just move these people inland and expect them to eat lizards and things, their lives are on the river. It's like making a fish into a pigeon," Baird said.

"We grow these rice fields on top of the backs of our fish," is a Lao saying that shows how dependent the people of the Mekong really are on their fish.

Baird said that people are still very afraid of the government since the early 80s when the communist Pathet Lao party took over the monarchy and aligned Lao with Vietnam. He said people were imprisoned in the 80s....and trailed off, but now there is no violence, there is only the memory of it. And so if people see you with a notebook or a camera, they will no say anything anti-government.

Anyway, it was good to clear up on what exactly needs to be known - total # fish - and meet the person behind all of these studies.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cambodia - decentralized energy from the start

This movie doesn't have anything to do with the decentralized energy stuff from yesterday at the conference. I took this when I was actually at the Hou Sahong channel and I just finally uploaded it. This is just one narrow channel of many in this area, where the Mekong stretches to 14 km wide. Shows ya how strong and how much water flows through here.

So the energy workshop proved to be very interesting and brought to my attention a different angle on the issue at hand, electrification of rural Cambodia and how to do it right from the start.

Cambodia and Laos are in very unique positions right now because they cut up their land for energy yet. I mean, they haven't dammed up the most important parts of the Mekong, they haven't cut their entire forests (although they are logging rampantly), they haven't put transmission lines all over their land. What if they were able to skip the damaging steps that a central electricity program takes (entities owned by public or private firms) and start with a sustainable and local form of electricity?

Rural electrification is very expensive (and 40% of the cost is transmission) unless it could be done in a de-central way, that is through things like solar panels, biomass into combustible gas (rice husks, wood chips, cashew and peanut shells), and methane pig farms.

I met Carl Middleton, Mekong rep for International Rivers. He told me that fisherman up in the Khone Falls area just accidentally caught a giant catfish, 200 kg, in one of their traps! It's endangered and they only catch these things like every two years. It is illegal to catch them, and Carl said the government came in immediately and took the fish carcass away. I am trying to find more on this, and I think Ian Baird will be able to tell me more today.

Also present at the meeting was Kamworks, a solar panel light companies with "moonlights," small, durable, inexpensive lanterns that run on solar energy and cost about

There is a micro hydro power dam in Chang Mai, Thailand, that produces 40 kw and profits $13,00 yearly selling energy back to Thailand. A village in Poi Et burns rice husks and uses the combustible gas to make electricity, and sells its energy back to Thailand.

Pig farms in Thailand put manure in a digester and use the methane, which also keeps clean their water supply and village. The laws that Thailand has to make this possible just aren't in place yet in Cambodia or Laos, and that is what these NGOs are trying to get moving.

Bangkok Airport powers itself completely because it cannot rely on the Bangkok
s grid system. It runs off a 45 mw gas fire cogeneration plant, and it uses all of the water heated up to produce air conditioning for the entire place.

Mr. Witoon Permpongsacharoen from Mekong Energy and Ecology Network spoke about decentralizing energy in Cambodia and also about how to forecast energy demands. He said Thailand over forecasts their demands, and this disrupts production efforts in Cambodia and Laos, where they try to produce and sell to Thailand and in turn ruin some of their own resources (ie Hou Sahong channel).

He also spoke of the Pak Mun Dam (136 MW) on the Mun River in Thailand, a shining example of the damage a major hydroelectric dam can do to a region. Built in 94 by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand with US$24 million in financing from the World Bank, the dam has blocked fish migration and hurt the livelihoods of 20,000 people. The fish ladder, promoted by the World Bank’s fisheries experts as a mitigation measure, has proved useless because the species in the Mekong don't respond to it like jumping salmon do, in the US, for example.

(picture from International Rivers)

Carl Middleton, in his presentation, asked the audience, in reference to dams, "Why are we still using technology that is over 100 years old? It doesn't make sense and it undermines other forms of development. We can generate electricity close to where the need is and save money. In Cambodia, we still have the choice to choose decentralized energy. Of course all sources of power should be subject to community approval."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Happy Phnom Penh

This is walking downtown by the Tonle Sap River. People are synchronized dancin on the right, a big rain storm is on its way, and Carrie just got suckered into give an Australian money cause he lost his life on a train, and we need dinner!

I like Phnom Penh, there is a central downtown and a median on the biggest road with fountains and grass and it's lit up with disco lights and glow in the dark toys at night. It's more expensive here and harder to find good cheap food, but I can't say I mind the gourmet (baguette) sandwiches or espresso drinks for a change.

The people here have been the friendliest yet for me, except for in the most rural parts of Laos. People here are goofy, a lot of people speak English and many do heckle you to get in their tuk tuk and go on a tour, but they respond to silly faces or jokes too. I walk out of my second floor room onto a balcony and immediately the tuk tuk driver on the street says, ""Lucy! Lucy! hello! Where you go!" and I will holler back at him, "Can you take me downstairs? I need some coffee!" and he will just burst out laughing.

Phnom Penh is on the Tonle Sap River, which is the only river in the world to run backwards with the changing seasons. Next week the dry season officially starts here, and the Tonle Sap will start draining from the Great Lake into the Mekong River. When wet seasons happens, the Tonle Sap switches and drains into the Great Lake (which is what makes it such a good place for fish to grow). The population of Phnom Penh doubles for festivals and parties by the river.

I've been working in Phnom Penh for the last 3 days or so, trying to organize my facts and my thoughts and put them down on paper. The hardest part about this, after tracking people down, is writing down everything I know now in a easy and interesting to read, flowing form.

Tomorrow I am going to "Powering the 21st Century Cambodia: Rethinking Cambodia's Energy Future Workshop," hosted by the Cambodia NGO forum. It'll be about how to change the policies in Cambodia to help Cambodia meet its energy need more sustainably. It's not about any of the dams because they are trying to stop talking about dams and move onto other types of energy.

I have a meeting with Ian Baird, Mekong fish expert from the University of Victoria in Canada, on Wednesday. And I am trying to meet with someone from the World Fish Center this week before I leave on Friday.

I am with Carrie's TEFL training group and staying with them in their villa. I will go with them to Angor Wat on Friday, but I will be sure to update on the latest from the meetings this week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Notes from Cambodia NGO forum

I met with the an adviser from the NGO forum for Cambodia's environment program, she asked that I not use her name.

She gave me some interesting information:

- a French company is paying for a feasibility study on a different channel in the Khone Falls area close to Don Sahong (DSD). It would be 40 mw and it is EIA (environmental impact assessment approved). DSD is EIA approved also.... and DSD is most advance because it has a project agreement set up between the Lao government and Mega First.

- The EIA that the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, CNMC, did for DSD has not been released to the public and it's been completed for years.

- Two dams on the Mekong in Cambodia (Stung Treng and Sambor Dams) have not started building but will relocate 30,000 people if they 'pass' the EIA.

- The value of fish in the Mekong River is $3.2 billion per year.

- There is no way to mitigate water levels and the effects on fish in the Mekong because the fish are so diverse, the water levels are so extreme, and the fish migrate 1000s of kilmoeters yearly. There is no technology to mitigate fish migration. However, the Mekong River Commission says that there are ways to mitigate this and there are ways to be sustainable, such as making the Hou Sadam channel wider manually, but this would not be cost effective and it just wouldn't work.

- Yali Falls Dam in Vietnam (on a tributary of the Mekong) lost 76% of its fish after it built the dam.

- Yali Falls caused many ill effects in Vietnam... drownings, toxic blue green algae from too much oxygen in water, less river farming because of the higher water levels. Tributaries of the Mekong are up to each individual country...mainstream Mekong is up to the MRC.

-Cambodia's position on the DSD is to wait and see if the fish die in Laos. If they do, then Cambodia will build, because saving the fish won't be an issue anymore.

- It's a build - operate - transfer system, which means a private company builds a dam, operates a dam, and 40 years down the road gives it to the respective government. Dams last about 50 years.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Quick facts for Don Sahong

Don Sahong is not actually a dam, but a "run-of-river" project, like a water turbine.

Will be built by Mega First Corporation Berhad, a Malaysian company.

USD 300 million project
240 megawatts of electricity

Monday, October 19, 2009

The dam from Lao's point of view

The ride to Don Sahong to see the Hou Sahong channel (dam site) was quite a trip! The area of the Mekong was empty and quiet - no fisherman out now because it's not quite dry season, another month and the water will below enough for the big fish to be caught again. I am told that the river is packed with fishing boats. But for now, things are still pretty wet and brown, only a few boats show up on the horizon, shuttling people around to different islands. A light drizzle clouds the dotted islands and you can see the silhouette of the hills of Cambodia in the distance.

Mathieu, a Belgian who has lived on Don Det for the last 5 years and is fluent in Lao, is the one who helpd me get all of this done. When I met him and told him I wanted to see the site, he was interested. He said many engineers and government people have been through talking about this dam, and he wanted to know what the deal was with this channel also. So he was eager to organize a trip and get a day off from his busy guest house, Little Eden. He and a friend, Daren (a friend and fellow expat), and I asked a man living nearby to take us across to Don Sahong and show us where the dam would be.

The trip to the proposed site:

As remote as Don Kom is, it has electricity! Because of its high level in relation to other islands, it was the best place to put cell towers, hence the electricity lines. Not even touristy Don Det has electricity 24/7, Don Det only has it via generators (but it should be coming soon, they say).

The man that lived at the south end of this island took us on his small wooden boat over across a confluence of the two biggest channels onto Don Sahong, which is an island that creates the Hou Sahong channel (along with the island, Don Sadam).

We got off the boat on a sandy spit of Don Sahong. As we walked onto the small island, we passed a tiny village of six different families. They lived in bamboo thatched houses, some without walls. They were sitting under their huts avoiding the rain, along with their water buffalo, ducks, and pigs. The whole group looked stunned that we were there on their little island. But I think they have seen more and more outsiders come in and check out this channel.... they are growing more and more aware of something happening here that might mean a move for them, sponsored by the government. This would be a great thing for them - give them new houses and even put them closer to their rice paddies on the adjacent island.

So we walked through the jungle on this island, past some cement spheres for soil samples that have been done already here, to the site of where the dam would be.

The Lao cop asked that I not name him or use his picture in my article, and Mathieu explained that it is because he is a policeman and generally scared of the Lao government. They don't want to be accountable for anything. So that was frustrating since he is one of my few primary sources, but that's just the way it goes.
Using the photo on my blog is fine.

The Lao cop who fishes in the season also, as do most men in this part of Lao, said he welcomes a dam. A dam should mean free electricity for the residents in this area. He thinks a dam (or he was calling it a turbine, I still need to see if it's a dam or a turbine) will not kill too many fish. He thinks that the fish will be able to use many of the other channels in the area when they are migrating up or down. He doesn't mind the dam at all because he will also just move his traps (bamboo traps to catch fish coming back downstream) to a different channel. When asked if this channel was special, he said it was because it's calmer and doesn't have any waterfalls on it. Some of the bigger fish use this channel for that reason.
So I thought, well doesn't this mean that this channel is crucial to big fish, and yes it is, but there is also a channel on the other side of Don Sahong that is very similar, he said, so they can just use that channel.
The Lao also mentioned a grate that the company would put in before the channel started to keep the fish from entering the channel from the start. People could fish off the grate. I asked if he really thought that would work and he said yes (keep in mind this is all through Mathieu's translating).
When asked if he was worried about crowding, he said that wasn't an issue and that people would just share traps and work as teams, like they already do. Mathieu told me that fisherman are very communal here and work together and split profits, a different mentality than that in the west.

The villagers, as I said, would be elated to move.

As we left the site and got back in the boat, I noticed to my right a tiny island with a Buddhist monastery almost hidden behind the brush and trees, the only thing on that island. It peeked out of the top and I saw two monks walking down to the river to boat somewhere. It was so tranquil and solitary there, and I couldn't help but think about the disruption a dam would bring to an oasis like that. But of course everyone reserves the right to develop their land and their power sources and have electricity too.

In the village of Nakasang which is the biggest village in the area of the islands, a woman buys and sells fish.

My thoughts:

I don't know what to think of the recurring trend from Lao - that they don't mind a dam coming because fish will find other ways to get upriver. I know that from Ian Baird's study, this channel is extremely crucial for fish. Even the Lao say it's a special waterway, but they don't seem to be concerned about it at all. They just think the fish will figure it out. Meanwhile, scientists and researchers are coming in and trying to maintain the Lao's livelihood of fishing and stop a huge food shortage, but inherently stopping the Lao from reaping the benefits of a hydroelectric dam in their neighborhood. It is obvious that more studies need to be done with the Hou Sahong channel as well as adjacent channels to see if the fish can use them to migrate upriver.

I am in Phnom Penh now and I think it will be very interesting to get some Cambodian views on the project. Pictures to come soon. Thanks for keeping up with my reporting.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Views of the Mekong

Since my life involves the Mekong so much right now I wanted to share some views. This one is on the slow boat in northern Laos.

This one is downtown in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, with Carrie and Caroline.

This is dinner in Luang Prebang during the Mekong Water Festival. I just like this picture, you can't see the river.

This is from our guest house in Vientiane over an Indian restaurant. yummm.

Mr. Pon on Khong Island

After an overnight bus and a night in Pakse, southern Laos, Caroline and Carrie and I have now reached the Cambodian border of Laos, in the Khone Falls region and Siphandone (means 4,000 islands) in the Mekong River. This picture is our sleeper bus, where we were given the 4-person back of the bus to spread out on, it was hilarious but probably the worst night so far in my traveling because I never stopped rolling around.

It is brutally hot and the sun is strong! From the island we slept on last night, Don Khong, and I took the motorbike to Don Det via Don Som which was a 3 hour ride. To take the bike I ride it on a plank onto a tiny wooden boat, and then ride off and onto some dirt trails onto the next "ferry crossing." It turned out to be pretty treacherous because it rained about 50 liters per square meter last night. I was basically legs out on either side of the bike and walking it through mud so I wouldn't get stuck. My legs were caked with mud and villagers through the rice paddies were laughing at me because I obviously couldn't do it as smoothly as they could. There were no road on Don Som, but there were electicity lines. The islands have just gotten a few hours of electricity a day from a source on the Bolaven Plateau on the mainland. I am still not really sure how they have it.

While on Don Khong, the first and biggest island, I spoke with the famous Mr. Pon, who is the guest house tycoon of the island and the only English speaker. I asked him about the Don Sahong dam. He said that Cambodia's mad and wants 20 to 30% of the electricity from the dam. He said he doesn't think the dam will affect Laotians because the dam will be in the Hou Sahong channel, only 10 meters wide, while the Mekong is about 14 km wide in this area. He said it won't affect his tourism either because the falls will still be there. He said fish will still be able to migrate up through the other channels. In Laos, people want electricity and they need something to export since they ar landlocked and have nothing. This could be electricity, explained Pon.

These comments do not match up with the information I have from Ian Baird and the MRC, etc. What I know is that the Hou Sahong channel is the only channel that the big fish can migrate up in the low water season, and also the rapids in the other channels are too dangerous for them. The Lao government has even recognized the importance of this channel and banned fishing on it various different times in the 60s 70s and 80s.

When I sit out on the edge of the Mekong now, there isn't much going on. There are few fisherman with nets catching tiny cyprinids. The water is too high right now as the wet season just ended and the fish are all in the Tonle Lake area in Cambodia spawning. Come dry season months, the fish will begin their migration north into Laos and Thailand to feed. The fisherman are just idly waiting here in the Khone falls area, catching tiny fish in rice paddies and subsisting off mostly rice.

I am excited to get into the field now. I have met a Belgian who owns a guest house here who has taken an interest in the subject now himself and he is going to take me to the actual site of the dam and take me to different village chiefs so I can get interviews, if all goes according to plan. Everyone moves around by small wooden boat here and some places are dangerous to maneuver because the rapids get so big. Matthew is going to have to do some planning for us and we might have to take a few different boats to get down to Don Sahong which is 3 islands south of here.

*Gumboot sighting - woman in rice paddy sloshing round in gumboots and kindly gave me a long sleeved white button shirt when she saw my skin burning today.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Relevant links for Don Sahong Dam issues

Ian Baird, August 2009 report, "The Don Sahong Dam: Potential Impacts on Regional Fish Migrations, Livelihoods, and Human Health

Mekong River Commission sustainable hydropower development

Carl Middleton, August 2009 press release from International Rivers, "Laos' Don Sahong Dam Could Affect Millions: Report"

Open letter to Lao government from fisheries scientists, nutritionists and development workers

Dam Will Block Migratory Fish on Southern Mekong Which Would Lead to Massive Food Shortage

While I am in the Mekong River Basin, I have decided to research hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River and the possible Don Sahong dam, which would be built on the Laos - Cambodia border near the Khone Falls area. The dam would provide electricity to the majority of southern Laos and the remainder then sold to Thailand.

The problem is that the dam could threaten food security of millions of people in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. An August report by Dr. Ian G. Baird, an affiliate of the Polis Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria, Canada, and a leading expert on fisheries in the Khone Falls area of Southern Laos, shows that the Don Sahong Dam would block the migration of many important commercial fish species that pass through the Khone Falls area throughout the year.

The paper states that “fisheries losses in the Mekong region from the Don Sahong Dam could negatively impact the nutritional status of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people dependent on these fisheries, thus decreasing the health of a large human population, especially in parts of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand where nutritional standards are already low.”

The Mekong River Commission, which is an intergovernmental body between Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnan, has accused China of blatantly disregarding the nations downstream with its Mekong dam plans, but nothing has changed and China is considering 12 new dams. Since the building of the first Chinese dam, the Irradawy dolphins and manatees have become almost instinct on the river.

MRC in Vientiane, Laos.

The Mekong River is the 10th-longest river in the world and the 7th longest in Asia. It flows from the Tibetan Plateau through China's Yunnan province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. China has already built three dams on the mainstream Mekong with another 12 under consideration. There are 5 under consideration in Cambodia and 3 in Laos.

In two weeks a full strategic environmental assessment will be released by Larry Haas, policy and strategy adviser for sustainable hydropwer, of the Mekong River Commission. This will cover the 11 proposed dams on the Mekong mainstream (excluding China's).

I spent all of today at the headquarters of the Mekong River Commission, reading reports in the library, speaking with environmental analysts at lunch, and speaking with Mr. Haas. Tonight I leave on a night bus to Pakse in the south, and from there get to Siphandone, where the dam will be built, which is also known as 4,000 islands, home to the Irradawy dolphins! I will update when I have more.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

a book reflection

This is a reflection of two books I just finished and loved.

Unaccomstomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I recently finished reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran," by Azar Nafisi. Before that I read a book of short stories in "Unaccostomed Earth," by Jhumpa Lahiri, author of "The Namesake." They are strikingly similar - both have a strong feminine perspective of nostalgia yet painful realization of neglect or limitations from their beloved home countries, Iran and India, respectively. Both are renditions of women in the twentieth century with one foot still at home and the other in the freedom ringin' USA. Both women (or narrators) are passionate lovers of their native countries.

Unaccostomed Earth is a series of about ten short stories of Bengali emigrants to the U.S. Lahiri creates different narrators for each story. Some of the stories are connected and others are different, but they all convey an image of middle class West Bengalis coping in America in every crevasse of life - food, school, adolecense, love, profession, stay at home mothering, a parent's death, a new baby. Lahiri really harps on the every day life nuances and how wonderful they can be, especially the nuances coming from India. She misses India, and she especially misses the female details - the virbant cooking and the female space of the kitchen, the ornate saris worn by her family. She doesn't miss the arranged marriages or the lack of encouragement to be professional and independent in her matriarchal society, though.

Her short stories are wraught with anecdotes of women in the kitchen attempting to cook like their mothers - effortless and artistically. This kind of feminine role doesn't carry the same connotation as the American, domesticated woman, but it's more of an esteemed talent in the Indian tradition. Of course, it goes unnoticed that these Indian women could care for their families without stress. Lahiri writes of a first generation mother who hosts her father for a week in her new home in Portland, Oregon and wants to cook him the food he is used to, the food her mother cooked for him before he died. She ends up cooking for days before his arrival while watching her one year old son and trying to move into the new house, and none of the food nor the house satisfies her. The time it takes to make these meals does not allow the time it takes for the mother to care for her child and carry on a Western style life - whatever that entails - successfully.
Another story depicts two Bengali middle class women who moved to Massachusetts while their husbands were studying at Harvard. The women help each other cook for their families all day while sharing tips for each other on how to cope in the Western civilization they were thrust into - a supposed platform for them to break out of their strictly domestic roles but also a clash of tradition and culture that didn't allow for either to do that well. One woman abandons the Bengali meal tradition and just eats out at Italian restaurants with her family, which gives her the time to read the newspaper, shop at modern boutiques, and 'sophisticate' herself. The other woman held onto her Bengali cooking, which doesn't giver her much time for other things and doesn't let her integrate herself or her children into American society.

Azar Nafisi writes of her true intense identity crisis and trouble love for her country as she is forced to leave it after the Islamic Revolution. She starts writing in the 70s before the Revolution took place and continues to describe the lives women lead or did not lead as a result of the Revolution. She taught at the University of Tehran and quit when she was not allowed to teach how she wanted. She was extremely conflicted with either not offering her students her class and not succumbing to the regime's idea of an English class. She describes so painstakingly watching her female students being forced to veil themselves and their intellectual and emotional selves so as to keep men from being sexually tempted by their beauty. She laments over the lost female souls of her generation that made Iran 'human,' or gave it the decency of being a country by allowing the female sex to contribute to life itself.

She read American classics - Lolita and The Great Gatsby are two - in a covert reading group made up of only females from her classes. They met at her house and discussed banned topics such as sex and adultery and 'decadent' American dreams. They talked about how the female, or oppressed, was driven undergound but the power and the emotion was still there, lurking. They used Lolita and Nick in Gatsby to talk abuot the power and tragedy of the subtle hero combatting the relentless, imprisoning antagonist (Humbert Humbert in Lolita, or desire for wealth, in Gatsby).
Nafisi, as much as she hated abandoning Iran when she moved to the states, did not punish the West or even dislike it. Neither did Lahiri. Both women explained the intense personal freedom and lack of freedom that the West meant for them as victims of their own cultures.

"I went about my own way rejoicing, thinking how wonderful it is to be a woman and a writer at the end of the twentieth century." Nafisi.

Reading this quote gives me chills of excitement. I feel this kind of excitement when I walk around a town or city that I have spent a few days in while I am here in Asia. I feel capable and comfortable and excited. I feel a wave of accomplishment in this basic feeling of getting used to a place. I thank these women for what they've done and for putting it into words so well.
For the sake of freedom with Nafisi or circumstance and progression with Lahiri these women forsake all they know to be free, teach, write, and live. In doing so they never fully belong to either country. They create a new personal culture or identity for themselves - of sacrifice and lov for writing and freedom to write. They liberate women by giving them such an independent and unique voice and counter-voice to any overarching culture. As I walk around these foreign places as a white woman, trying to defy stereotypes of Western women and trying to respect women in their own countries, I feel a little confused myself. I wear what I want because I don't feel like I have to hide myself for the sake of others. But I also see the women here, working hard, walking along in their ankle length sarongs, long hair tied back, and I don't really know what I think! I just respect them for what they do and how they deal with Western women invading their space and looking so different, inevitably catching the attention or the gaze from a tuk-tuk driver or a passerby.
Anyway, these writers are only two who have made it easier for women like me to do what I am doing... so I want to thank them!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mekong Water Festival...and more of Luang Prebang

After about 4 full days of travel, Caroline, Carrie and I made it to Luang Prebang, Laos. Carrie and I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chang Mai which totaled 16 hours.

We scooped up Caroline in Chang Mai and headed to a border town on the Mekong River, and the next day we climbed aboard the slow boat that took us down the Mekong River to Luang Prebang in two days.

The Mekong is wide, slow, and muddy. There wasn't any development on it - just a few people getting picked up by the boat every so often. There was lots of silt on both sides of the river and the hills rose up right from the river into the low clouds. It's the end of the rainy season here. The night we arrived in LP it happened to be the first full moon after the rainy season. The Awk Phansaa water festival marks this occasion with thousands of tiny little floating lanterns that people push into the river upstream by a big Wat (Buddha statue) from town. They were also lighting lanterns that worked like hot air balloons and lifting them off into the air. Fireworks were going off on all sides of the river and kids were running around with bottle rockets, even shooting them at tourists!

This is kind of what it looked like.

A boat that some monks were lighting up with candles.

This is a street vendor selling some fruit- mangoes, apples, dragon fruit, banans, lime, leechy things that are furry on the outside and taste like grapefruit, and more.

Luang Prebang looks very French still in architecture. There are old colonial mansions scattered throughout the town - white walls with black or red shutters. These buildings have all been turned into restaurants, cafes, book stores, and boutiques. It's over run with swankiness, which is too bad because 4 years ago when my sister was here she said it was empty.

We decided to rent some bikes and bike 32 km south to the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls. It was a beautiful and hilly bike ride into the countryside. We passed tons of waterbuffalo basking in the river, rice paddies, gardens of herbs. The waterfall was beautiful and the water itself was bright blue green and pretty cold. The park also housed some Asiatic black bears, rescued from hunters who cage them and sell their bile on the black market as herbal medicine to solve just aches and pains. There were about 10 bears who all looked healthy and playful in this park.

On the way home we stopped at this Minority Weaving Center, where women were weaving cotton into shawls and scarves. They were actually separating the cotton seeds from the cotton with a small wooden wheel, then threading the cotton, and then dying the cotton with dye from the flowers in their organic butterfly farm! She had indigo, marigolds, lotus, anatto for orange, Indian trumpet for green, and even some wild almond. The Center teaches other women around Loas how to dye their own cotton and sell their own product.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Northward... from Bali to Bangkok

The last day of my and Isabel's motorbike trip we stopped at a water palace of Balinese royalty from the 20s. An earthquake had destroyed it in the 70s.

This photo is taken from one of the buildings on the top looking up at a central mountain.

This is the view to the right. Manicured ponds dotted a courtyard all the way to the sea.

I loved my time in Bali. It is a really unique island; a rich Hindi anamoly in an archipelago of Muslim tradition and oppression in some places (Aceh, Java has approved shariah law - stoning and lashings for adultery and prostitution), and environmental disaster as of the last week. Projections of 1,100 Sumatrans in the death toll from the earthquake two days ago. Sumatra is an island close to Bali. (

I will definitely go back to Bali. I think I would like to go back for a month or two and road bike around the island.

September 29 I arrived in Bangkok to meet Carrie, an old friend from Memphis, and immediately started the process for getting my visas to Laos and Cambodia. The city is big and smoggy, so I am very excited to get out of it. I walked around this market early in the morning with Carrie, the pungent smell of fish, humidity, and exhaust. The market borders this canal, and these canals run through the city.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

on the road 'round bali...

Isabel riding on the bemo, the public bus, to the Bukit Peninsula. The doors never shut. Coconut.

- 5 days at Balangan Beach, Bukit Peninsula, South Bali (surfing much too big a wave, nose dives and reef scrapes)
- 2 nights in Kuta, Bali (waiting for friends to arrive and surf the smaller stuff...way too many tourists here)
-----rented bikes-----
- 2 nights in Medewi, Bali (good beginners' wave)
- 1 night in NW national park (snorkeling)
- 1 night back in Anturan (on the road to the east for a complete loop of the island)
- 2 nights left in Bali.

Isabel and I just left Balangan where we stayed with a family for 5 nights in a thatched bungalow on stilts above the beach. This was interesting when one morning we woke up to an earthquake, we looked at each other in disbelief and 20 seconds later it was done and we feel back asleep. This earthquake did make international news however, my friend Topher in Australia heard about it.
It was one of the prettiest beaches I have ever seen. At low tide a huge reef was exposed with vibrant green moss coating the volcanic looking rock. It was a true surfer hangout, if they weren't surfing, then they were staring intently at the waves, almost nervous to think they could see their perfect wave go by. Isabel and I rented boards at a beach on the other side of a cliff that has bright green grass on it for a golf course. The whole area is being encroached upon as resorts fill up the once rustic style beaches. You can hear bull dozers working as you sit in the water trying to catch waves. Surfing is really hard and pretty scary for me. The first wave I caught I nose dived into a reef, the board so long it awkwardly flailed on the end of my leg, and me so worried about getting thrown under water that I managed to keep my head above the wave the whole time!

After basically camping for 5 days (the home lost power almost all the nights because the family hadn't paid the electricity bill) and asking a member of the family to drive us to an ATM because we had no money to pay for anything, we made it back to dreaded Kuta to meet some friends flying in from Jakarta (teaching English). Kuta is just full of Australian and Europeans ready to club. We stopped at ground zero for the night club bombing in Kuta in 2002, and saw how the names of all those who died, a vast majority being Australians. It was nice to see a memorial and not another night club like there was talk about.

We met up with Nick and Heather, rented 2 motorbikes and started driving westward to Medewi, a wave that supposedly is good for beginners, not too big or fast and a beach landing. Turns out that post-Ramadan's vacation Idul Fitri was just ending and thousands of vacationers were driving back on the same road as us to the ferry in Java. That was a lot of traffic. We travel slowly with two people and a pack per bike, so it was a slow-going day of travel.

We drove right by Medewi at first because it wasn't a town, it was just a tiny alley street ending on the rocky beach. It reminded me how purely these random breaks around Bali sprang up little villages into money-making surf beacons for people from all over the world. Families who have lived here and fished here for ages are now barraged with surfers who need meals and rooms and boards.

These are the volcanoes in Java.

From Medewi we went to the Bali Barat National Park in the northwest. We stayed here a night and indulged in a mangrove bungalow and a half day snorkeling adventure off the coast towards Java. It's amazing how cheap things like this are here - $36 for the snorkel and lunch on the narrow wooden boat, in a protected national park.

Nick and Heather have gone back to Kuta, and Isabel and I are driving on the north coastal road all the way to the east coast. It's so fun being on a motorbike. We stopped today for a Coke on the side of the road. The Muslim owner of the stand asked us the usual..."where are you from, where are you going, have you been to bali?" which is not intrusive, it's just a getting to know you routine. We said we were from the USA, and he immediately said back, "Good, Obama, (with a thumbs up). Muslim, ya?"
We said no, he wasn't Muslim. (Btw, I had a dream last night that I was Obama's babysitter because their old one was kidnapped. I hang out with the girls all day and then he asked me if he could put my number on the fridge for later. I said sure and realized then that every surface in the kitchen was covered with chaulk boards and dry erase boards...for parents on the go! Strange.)
Then we asked if we could go see the monkey temple that was up some concrete steps on the side of a cliff by the road. He said yes and as we crossed the street he said "ten thousand!" (rupiahs, which is a dollar). I yelled back, "we're just looking!" and he waved his hand. People are extremely nice here and not resentful or conniving, and sometimes they try to see how much they can get out of you. Since we are American we immediately seem rich.

Scene as we are stopped on the roadside taking a break.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ubud - Balinese dancing and a midwives' clinic

The past 2 nights we spent in Ubud, "the cultural center" of Bali. It used to be a strong arts and market town, with local painting and traditional Balinese dance ceremonies. That attracted a strong expat community, and now the place is very commercialized and full of boutiques and stalls of people selling beautiful traditional batik-woven sarongs and cloths, wooden sculptures, and trinkets and chic Indonesian fashion.

We went to a Legong Dance at a temple last night that was incredible. The dances were shortened because they are so repetitive and long in real ceremonies for the Hindu gods or for traditional Balinese life. The girls were made up in ornate gold, dark green, and dark red costumes. They danced more with their eyes than their bodies, opening their eyes really wide and ominously moving them back and forth, and then relaxing their eyes. The women were bound up tight in their costumes so they couldn't move too much. They shook their hands really fast. I thought the dance seemed like a combination of indulgence and being morally alert.

This morning we walked through rice paddies and fields to a midwifery clinic called Yayasan Bumi Sehat ( This place was started in 1994 by an American woman and has virtually ended infant and maternal deaths due to births on the island. While we were there there were 2 day old babies and their mothers doing reiki with some other people from he neighborhood. The place was very impressive - clean, orderly, humble and sweet. Another branch of the clinic moved to Aceh shortly after the tsunami and provided lots of relief there.

We've started playing rummy 500.

Musings from Anturan

from 9-13

We've been at the Gede homestay in Anturan for 3 nights now - it's so serene and idyllic here. I feel rather spoiled. It's a tiny street with 2 stores and 3 beachfront restaurants. The tuna and mahi mahi have both been grilled in banana leaves and seasoned in balinese spices. Isabel and I have been reading all day - getting lost in our books, ignoring the sweat on our stomachs and the burns on our thighs.

Chickens peck at specks on the black sand, and finally the cluster of women has stopped heckling us with their tacky jewelry and sarongs. Days pass so quickly while we've done little. I ask myself why I come so far away from home to sit on a beach and read, but I know it's not this simple. The challenges and idiosyncrasies run deeper than surface and will stay with me.

The contentness of the women on the slow-moving beach, under trees, scoping up and down for buyers. The old woman, skinny and flexible, with a large white tshirt and a small straw bag, washing her mouth out with water and spitting. Speaking to a male companion. A rooster crows. Wooden chimes, unrelenting and cliche. A lone German eats a lunch at noon in the restaurant. He just returned from the book shop to re-amp for the day-lazing.

Isabel and I dined with 2 German girls last night...proud to show them our fresh-thinking yet not unique American perspectives on public transportation in cities. An urban planner and a freelancer for graphic design at The Daily Mirror of Berlin, interested and goofy and almost middle-aged.

Isabel and I got a ride on a motorcycle offered up by a passerby and scooted slowly home, getting surpassed by truckloads and fast motorcycles. Our driver prided himself on his slow and careful pace - now that he had 2 livs behind him.

Isabel's enraptured in Prince of Tides now. I have a $3 massage in an hour. Class, Isabel would say. Only 200 meters inland the main road bustles with bikes and bemos - smog and heat rising from sewers - produce markets getting flushed with exhaust and smoke.

I look at a white couple who has just planted themselves at the cafe where I am supposed to have a massage. Blonde ponytails, big sunglasses.

Now the only lady has sauntered over to the French couple who woke up late and looked grumpy at breakfast. They sit under the sun and reject her proposals, " price. price. " The woman's tempted, the man, a techno DJ, unaware completely.

Success! The blonde runs to the shade while the old woman snappily sets up a massage station in the sand. Smiles, glances to her husband who just panted up to the shade where I sit, feet scorched from the black sand.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Bali is throbbing with tourists, Balinese, flowers, and old and crumbling temples and stone walls throughout. So far I have landed in Denpasar, spent a night Seminyak (right outside of Kuta), 2 nights in a central town called Bedegul in the mountains, and 3 nights in a northern beach town called Anturan (right ouside Lovina). Today I have finally found internet! I didn't think an island so used to tourists and catering to tourist needs would lack internet and I was happy to learn that it did.

Bali is awesome - it's paradise. It's filled with big beaches and giant surf in the south, quaint quiet towns in the north, where I am now, and mountains in between. The southern central coast is swamped with tourists in skimpy bathing suits "showing more than I'd like to see!" one German friend put it. So Isabel, a friend from high school, and I immediately drove north to the mountains first to get out of the crowds and see some of non-coastal Bali. Regardless of where you are on Bali, the locals are used to tourists and trying to make a dime. Since the Kuta bombings of a night club in 2006, tourism here has slowed down, locals have told me. They are eager to drive you to guest houses and hotels of their friends, who then give them a commission, and then recommend tons of tours of temples and waterfalls, or places to rent motorcycles and cars, and the list never ends. Each town there is a monopoly of people connecting hostels to tours to restaurants and taxis. It takes a lot of willpower to turn them away and do things yourself! The locals can easily convince you that you can't do something alone, like walk 10 minutes to a temple on the water! You start second-guessing your skills and then paying for a boat ride to get there! This actually turned into a really fun boat ride from a Hindu temple to the middle of the misty, magical looking lake for a swim and making a new friend from Germany, Helgue.

Bedegul, this mountain town, was a little eerie though and lacking many tourists, it felt like a place out of time beacuse the fog hung down so lowly and the air was chilly and grey. The people were a little poorer but much more honest-seeming than people on the beach capitalizing.

Now we are in a tiny village named Anturan, right outside the larger Lovina. It's a black sand beach littered with fishing boats all quaintly painted different colors. Chickens, dogs and cats scavenge the beach though and there are trash piles every so often and strings of rustic beach shacks along the coast. Beautiful flowers pink red and orange grow everywhere and overflow into corridors through the towns and even grow out of the gutter. The local people seem happy and slower paced here, true island time. Women sit on the beach and try and sell sarongs and bracelets and massages for $5 an hour. Men orchestrate the monopoly of tourist services. Nights in guest houses are about $5 for me and $10 for the room. Dinners are about $8, and chartered taxis from town to town (2 hr rides) are $20 total.
There is a large dead reef here because in the 90s locals would bomb the water for fish. Now the fishing boats leave around 4pm and go fish for mackerel. They bob up and down at night like lanterns on the water and don't come back until 11 or so. December will bring the tuna and maybe some marlin.
I had some really good mahi mahi yesterday grilled with spicy greens and cabbage and a big pile of rice and tempeh. It's refreshing to find light and good flavorful food. A lot of places are not so good and try to westernize themselves with pad thai or even spaghetti etc.
isabel and i are getting along great. we both like the quiet but are also itching to start surfing so we will have tomove to the more crowded beaches.

Bali is 5% Muslim and about 60% Hindu. Ramadan is happening now so the Muslim are fasting. In a week or so, for Ede, Bali anticipates large crowds from Java or Jakarta coming to vacation. The call to prayer in the early mornings is waning and beautiful and long. Besides the traditional professional roles of women and men here, the women seem to share priveleges. I see women driving on motorcycles everywhere along with men. Both sexes speak a lot of English, at least enough to sell the latest tourist gimmick or have a short conversation!

So far I have met lots of Germans, Austrians, some French and Dutch, and no Americans, which isn't that surprising as America is so far away. Surprisingly most people are reserved when asked if they like Obama. They respond saying I don't know yet. Then there are some bars or restaurants with big pictures of his face right next to Bob Marley's. I thought they would have liked him a lot, but people aren't so easily impressed with America it seems!

I would like to post more than this, but I don't know how available internet will be. For now, these are my impressions of Bali. I don't know where I am going next so I will post as things unfold.


Thursday, September 3, 2009


(This is from about a week ago)

Hello from Melbourne!

It's my third day in Australia, and I've made it from Coogee, Sydney to Melbourne. Coogee, a suburb of Sydney, is where I met up with a friend, Christopher Baldwin, who is studying there. It's a gorgeous spot on the beach which is out of the main hustle and bustle of Sydney. I arrived at 6 am so by the time I got out to Coogee it was around 8 and everyone was out exercising on the beach in groups with teachers. I stopped at a beachside spot called "Chish and Fips" and got some coffee. The woman at the shop was very nice and let me use her mobile to call Topher and tell him I was a block away. (I've found people are very nice here about giving directions, getting out their 'rollers' or giving me numbers of buses trains and trams) and then walked up to Topher's address. He lives with 3 other guys who are also studying. I shed my backpack and took off for the coastal cliff walk from Coogee to Bondi, which was absolutely gorgeous and zipping with joggers and walkers. It went through 4 different beaches and 4 different cliff points.

Things are pretty expensive here, a 30 pack of beer is about$35 US. A latte is $4. However, I managed to hit Coogee the right night- $2 steaks!

The next morning I woke up at 6 from the jet lag and ran out to the first cliff to catch the sunrise. I got it at about a half inch about the horizon over the ocean. Then I took my book back to the beach where already several different groups were exercising. People were swimming laps in the bay without wetsuits. It's the end of their winter right now. People were doing sprints back and forth. There was even a group of about 25 young girls in black and white uniform posing for a picture from dawn til about 10. I felt bad for them. I was deep into my book and letting the sun warm me up slowly as it rose.. and as sand sprayed on me I heard an Australian say, "Come on, I've been easy... let's get joggy!"

I raced to the Opera House later that morning with Topher. It was much bigger than I expected. And I took the train to the airport and left for Melbourne to meet some cousins who just moved here. They live right by the University of Melbourne in Carlton. Melbourne was colder and rainy, but it has a very good vibe with students everywhere and lots of authentic small chops and restaurants. I met up with my cousin Hannah and we walked through a park in her neighborhood. Her son, Silas (4) showed me where he found a possum's home in the hole of a tree.

We left the next day on a road trip organized by the one and only Sam Poore, Hannah's husband. He rented the car and the 4 of them and one me piled in to leave Melbourne and head to the Grampians national park where we all saw 2 emu and a big kangaroo at the vineyard we stopped at near Hall's Gap.

We continued to see many more 'roos all hangin out and grazing in the yard of our hostel ... we saw many parrots and an aechidna, which Sam was glad to find after he saw a glimpse of it and then started to question himself for minutes and wonder how he could be hallucinating at this point! It is part duck-billed platypus family and has spikes like a porcupine.

The next day we moved on to the southern Coastal Highway and drove by the Bay of Islands and the 12 Apostles.

It was magnificent with the huge rocky cliffs dropping down into tumultuous white and aqua surf and then scattered rocks still standing in the water.

It was a very quick trip to such a big place. The people were very friendly helping me work the trains, trams, and buses. Now off to Bali and southeast Asia...