Friday, September 10, 2010

Unplanned Pleasures - Ones to be shared

Fishing the Flood Plain Outside of Kumphawapi
Here in Isaan we are still in the midst of our Rainy Season.  However as we progress towards the conclusion of the Rainy Season, the weather is giving us tantalizing hints that the end is at hand.  No the end that I am referring to is not dramatic like the Discovery Channel's obsession with the imminent end of the Earth or at least the end of civilization perhaps even mankind as we know it.  I am referring to the end of this year's rainy Season.

We have rain just about everyday but it is much more localized and does not last too long.  Thunder showers are more infrequent.  Our daily high temperatures have cooled down somewhat. A typical high for a day is now around 30C (86F) rather than 36C (97F).  The lowlands are now flooded.  The rice paddies have been submerged for a couple of months and the new crops of rice are thriving.

With the rice crops planted, field activities have diminished a great deal.  There are some stalls along the road selling boiled peanuts and boiled corn on the cob.  The main harvests are a good three months away.  Farmers are still tending to their "free range" cattle and their water buffaloes.  No matter what time of the year here in Isaan you have to remain vigilant for livestock on the roads.  Cattle freely graze on fallow fields and walk along the road grazing on the lush vegetation that is thriving along the road shoulders. The cattle are typically tended by a single cattle herder.  The herds of 5 to typically no more than 15 head are escorted by a cattleherd carrying a long switch.  They leave their village around 7:00 A.M. and return back to their village around 3:30 P.M. In between they wander in search of food.  Some of the cattle have a long rope strung through their nostrils that trails behind them as they lumber along or cross a road.  I am not too worried about hitting an animal but I am concerned about causing them a sprained neck or whiplash if I were to run over their leash as they were moving out of the way.

Yesterday morning we set out early for Kumphawapi to take Peelawat home from the hospital.  There is some kind of a sickness hitting the small children in the villages.  I suspect that it is either a flu or perhaps Dengue Fever.  Peelawat the previous day had been running a fever and had a couple seizures - very frightening but typical for fevers in small children and typical for Duang's family.  He went to the clinic and they sent him to the hospital.  We visited him that evening and he was on a IV drip and anxious to leave the hospital.  He knew where the stairway was that led to the ground floor and parking lot.  He kept pointing in that direction and indicating that he wanted to go.  Duang diverted his attention somewhat by talking about monkeys and told him that when he got better we would take him to see the monkeys.

Our early morning departure was delayed for about 10 minutes due to Police activity.  From the man that we buy our floral offerings to hang from our truck's rear view mirror we learned that the King's granddaughter was traveling in our area.  When a member of the Royal Family travels by road, Police will close down the road to all traffic except for the Royal motorcade.  The Royal Motorcade is made up of several cars containing government and military officials, several vans of attendants, several Police escort vehicles, and two to three SUVs or vans of the Royal party along with an ambulance.  The motorcade speeds along a very high rate so I am not sure if the roving road closure is for their safety or the public's safety.

Peelawat Purchases Some Peanuts to Feed His Monkey Friends
Peelawat was discharged from the hospital with some medicines to take.  Duang and I kept our word and took him into the center of town to visit the monkeys.  It was a very overcast day with an imminent threat of rain after some heavy rains the night before.  This seemed to reduce the number of monkeys in the park but their were plenty enough for Peelawat to get his monkey fix.

Peelawat Tosses Some Peanuts to a Monkey Friend
After putting some distance between ourselves and a large monkey that we had been warned had bitten a small child, we spent some time observing the smaller friendlier monkeys.  Peelawat has become very adept at spotting them and pointing them out.  He later got excited about a couple of very large and colorful butterflies.  He kept pointing them out to me so I could take their picture.  As I was photographing the butterflies, we received a big surprise - a young elephant came walking by with three mahouts.  I was thrilled.  Peelawat was not very happy at all.  I bought some small pieces of sugar cane to feed the elephant but Peelawat wanted nothing to do with it.  Although it was a young elephant, it was the largest animal Peelawat had ever seen or apparently ever wanted to see.  He remained in the comfort of his grandmother's arms and did not take his eyes off of the animal until it was long out of sight.  Even then Peelawat would remind me by pointing where he last saw the elephant and it was obvious that he was not asking to go there.

Young Elephant Performs In Appreciation For Some Sugar Cane

Peelawat Keeps His Eyes On the Elephant

Chang and Mahouts Leaving - Much to Peelawat's Relief

To take Peelawat's mind off of the "chang" (elephant), we introduced him to the slide.  After overcoming some technical misunderstandings as to how to properly use a slide, Peelawat enjoyed going down the slide as long as Grandfather had his arm around him as he slid down the slide.  I suspect that the slide and monkey bars will become another reason to visit the park in Kumphawapi.

Peelawat Trying To Figure Out How to Use A Slide On His Own

I returned Peelawat to his Mother back at the hospital and returned home alone.  Duang was going to babysit Peelawat while here daughter worked at a local market.  The one hour trip back to our home took about three hours to complete.  I was carrying my backpack of camera gear and came upon some interesting sights along the way home.  You should always be prepared for the unexpected here in Isaan.  Daily activities have migrated from the fields to the flood plains of Isaan.  With the rice crops in the paddies, a man's and a woman's fancy turns to .... FISHING.  During this late stage of the rainy season the Mekong River is flowing very heavily which causes the many rivers and stream that empty into it to back up.  This in combination with the almost daily rains over the past three months has submersed the floodplains.  During the dry season, you will drive past bamboo fishing stands that are two meters above the ground.  Those same stands are now about 1/2 meter or less above the water.

Fisherwomen Of the Flood Plain Alongside the Road In Isaan
The local people set about fishing using drop nets.  I have written about these in previous blogs but I am still fascinated by the effort and techniques the people use to catch fish.  Yesterday was no exception.  I spotted a location where several "fisherwomen" had set up along side a highway bridge over the flood plain outside of Kumphawapi.  I pulled the truck over onto the side of the road and placed my backpack on my shoulder.  At first the fisherwomen were curious about a foreigner stopping along the road and walking along the bridge.  I said hello and asked if they were happy.  I asked if there were a lot of fish and proceeded to pull out my camera.  My limited Thai and Lao vocabulary broke the ice quite easily.  Their curiosity quickly turned to amusement that someone would be interested as well as would take the time to photograph them.

Yes There Also Are Some Fishermen In Isaan
Across from the fisherwomen was a fisherman and a fisherwomen, perhaps his wife, fishing a different section of the flood plain.  When I first started to take their picture I released that he was answering a call.  No it wasn't a call from his cell phone but a call from nature.  He noticed me and I yelled out in Thai that I wanted to take pictures of fish and not his @#6&.  He smiled and the fisherwomen all laughed like crazy.  Now that all the ice was broken I was set to enjoy two hours of photography and they didn't feel threatened or intimidated. They could relax, be themselves and go about their business which is exactly what I wanted to photograph.  As is often the goal here in Isaan "Good for you. Good for me"

The Best Fisherwoman And Her Catch
The people were catching tadpole sized fish in their dip nets without using any bait or lures.  I showed my wife these pictures and she knew exactly what they were catching - "Bahtou".  I asked if they were used to make Nam Pahla (fermented fish sauce - with the emphasis on FERMENTED FISH).  Duang said No that the people ate the fish.  This was an eye opener to me.  Back in the USA these fish would be considered too small to even use as bait but here they were a highly sort after source of protein.

Just as when I used to go fishing with my grandfather, one fisherwomen seemed to dominate in catching the fish.  We could switch sides of the boat.  We could swap fishing equipment.  We could swap baits or lures.  It all made no difference he always seemed to catch more and the biggest fish.  The best fisherwoman was in the middle of the row of the fisherwomen.  She dropped her net into the water just as the other women.  She used no lures or bait just like every one else.  She waited about 5 minutes like the others did prior to pulling up her net.  Whereas the others might catch 3 fish occasionally, she typically caught 4 to 6.  Her hand made nylon creel was filled with tiny fish demonstrating her prowess.

A Lao Loum Farmer Cutting Vegetation On the Flood Plain

Lao Loum Man Clearing Portion of Flood Plain
I crossed the road and watched a man up to his neck in the water.  he was using a sickle on the end of a long bamboo pole to cut the vegetation.  I had seen people in Isaan doing this alongside the road to harvest food for their cattle or pigs.  I had watched people in China do this to obtain food for their water buffalo.  I asked the man if the plants were food for his water buffalo. He indicated to me that he was clearing the vegetation in order to create channel and space for fish that he could catch with a drop net from his close by fishing stand.  He had finished his cutting for the day so he climbed out of the water up to the road level where I was at.  Prior to climbing up from the water level, he was very meticulous about washing the mud off of his clothing and bare feet.  He was wearing a typical knit pullover polo shirt and thin trousers.  When he came up to my level I noticed that he also had tight elastic bands of recycled tire inner tubes around his ankles and around his waist.  He proceeded to check around and under these straps very carefully when it occurred to me that he was looking to see if he had any leeches on him.  I asked him if and more importantly pantomimed if he was looking for leeches.  He affirmed and showed me some scars on his arms that he attributed to leeches.  I am not aware of leeches leaving a scar, so I suspect that the leech incisions had become infected or that it might have been another parasite such as flukes that he had encountered.  I checked the back of his neck and down his back underneath his shirt to ensure he was OK this time.  I left it up to him to check any other places under his clothing for unwanted critters.  It was time to check out some people fishing closer to town.  Rather than going back to the truck and driving down, I decided to walk.  Talk about being a fish out of water.  There were many people who drove by on all types of vehicles surprised to see a foreigner walking along a main road with a backpack on.  Fortunately there is no ordinance against WWW (Walking While White) so I was not stopped by the policemen that drove past me.

Old Mamma Preparing To Chew Some Betel Nut
I later returned to the fisherwomen near my truck and one of the older women was taking a break.  As she sat on her fishing stand her clothing wet from her fishing efforts, she had opened up her handbag of goodies and was preparing to chew some betel nut.  Betel nut chewing is similar to chewing tobacco and just as disgusting to me.  The process of preparing to chew betel nut is quite involved - taking a leaf, putting what appears to some dry wood chips on it, putting a clump of lime (the chemical powder not the fruit) on the leaf, cutting a piece of betel nut and pounding it to bits with a brass mortar and pestle, adding it to the leaf and wrapping it into a package before placing it in your mouth.  I yelled down to the woman in Lao if it tasted good.  I then told her that she should use the ensuing spittle as bait for the fish.  At first she misunderstood me and was preparing to share her stash with me.  I quickly corrected her and got her to understand that I thought she should use the bright red spit from chewing to attract fish to her net.  She laughed like crazy.  Soon all the fisherwomen were laughing.  The joke was so good or perhaps I was so funny that they yelled over to the fisherman to tell him.  I thought that this would be a good time to break away and finish my journey back home.

Seven Fish To Be Added to the Creel

It had been a day of unplanned activities that ended up providing some pleasant experiences.  I was fortunate to once again participate in Peelawat's personal development - even though he did not appreciate the elephant.  I was also fortunate to once again observe some of the unique aspects of life here in Isaan.  These are the pleasures that come from unplanned and unexpected activities.

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