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.