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The Mekong Delta

We have been home for exactly three weeks as I write this, and I still have a couple of Vietnam destinations’ worth of blog posts in my notes. Normally I try and write these up while we are still in country, but time and energy levels did not really allow that, so these are all rather after the fact. But hey, I’m here, you’re here, so let’s go.

The Mekong Delta is sort of the Amazon Basin of Vietnam, a network of rivers that collectively create a cauldron of biodiversity. It was the scene of an enormous amount of bloody fighting during the war but is now a placid center of agriculture, fishing, and tourism. And coconuts. They are very big on coconuts there. In fact, the Mekong used to be home to the Coconut Religion, which I swear I am not making up. Adherents to the Coconut Religion — who counted John Steinbeck’s son among their number — advocated eating only coconuts and consuming only coconut milk. The religion, such as it was, was founded in 1963 and even at its peak numbered a paltry 4,000 followers. The authorities declared it a cult and banned it in 1975, possibly out of envy upon learning that Coconut Religion monks were allowed to have up to nine wives. (Historical note: 1975 is the year that Saigon fell and the country was reunified under the Communists. You might think that both sides had more important things to worry about that year, but somebody obviously was all hot and bothered about those priapic coconut cultists.)

Anyway, wives are more parsimoniously distributed these days, but the area is still big on coconuts. We visited a coconut candy factory: here is a photo of some gainfully employed but presumably very bored women, hand wrapping coconut candies all day long.

“Keep wrapping. We’ve still got to make 5,000 Almond Joy bars by sundown.”

 

(It would appear that this was Bring Your Child to Work day.) The machines in the background mix the mix up the coconut goop from which the candies are fashioned; everything is done by hand.

I should mention how we came to this place, which was via a pleasant boat ride on the Mekong River.

The lower boat is a cargo boat, not our little tourist barge. Note the traditional eyes painted on the prow.

You will be unsurprised to hear that adjacent to the coconut candy station was a gift shop, where pretty much everything was made out of or otherwise related to coconuts. The one exception to this were the whiskey bottles with the dead cobras and scorpions added to impart that certain je ne sais quoi venomous flavor.

Yep, they poured us samples into those shot glasses. Yep, we drank them. At this point you are no doubt wanting to ask, “OK Rich, how does Dead Cobra Whiskey taste, compared to the usual “reptile-corpse-free” whiskey?” And the disappointing answer is, that I have no idea. I am almost a complete teetotaler; I don’t enjoy the taste of alcohol and can barely — if at all — tell the difference between rotgut rum and single-malt Scotch. To me, all whiskey tastes like it has a dead snake in it, so there was nothing unusual about this stuff. Sorry.

Flushed with the warm glow of alcohol-infused snake venom, we bid our coconut enthusiasts goodbye and traveled a short distance via golf-cart-like shuttles to listen to a short performance from some local traditional folk singers. Here’s an excerpt, about 1 1/2 minutes long.

I call your attention to the women’s voices in particular, which they pitch to a high chanting timbre. You can hear the effect quite clearly starting with the solo performance about 45 seconds into the video. It appears to be quite typical; we heard a number of such performances throughout the trip, and the women usually song in that high, almost whining warble. I confess that neither Alice nor I find it particularly pleasant; you may feel differently.

I have mentioned in an earlier post that we seem to be experiencing quite the diversity of transportation modes on this. We can add sampans to that list, since that was our next means of travel after the singing concluded. A sampan by definition is a small flat-bottomed boat used on inland waters. Here in the Delta they’ve been weaponized as a means of assembly-line tourism, as we lined up, four at a time, to take about a quarter-mile trip down the river.

The woman in purple, our gondolier (so to speak), you would suppose would work quite hard to paddle people that quarter or half mile, a zillion times a day. And that is doubtless true, up to a point. But is there something you cannot see in the photos. In the bottom photo, hidden beneath the woman’s feet inside the hull of the boat, is a motor, which she turns on to power the boat back upstream after dropping us off. So it’s all a little, um, Disney World-ish. The boats are real enough, the motive power a little more modern than anyone lets on.

We returned to Saigon in the late afternoon and rested for an hour or two before climbing aboard our next transport device: Vespa motor scooters, for a nighttime tour of the city. The Vespas are slightly less throaty and rumbly than our earlier motorbikes, but the adrenaline rush of zipping through nighttime traffic in Saigon no less satisfying. Here’s Alice (red jacket and white helmet at left) behind her driver in typical Saigon traffic chaos.

Down main thoroughfares, and through alleys we putt-putted. Our first stop was a very-local-indeed seafood restaurant in an alley, a sea of formica tables amidst a hubbub of locals, where among other dishes we dined on squid beak. (Spoiler alert: it tastes like calamari.) I am also proud to report that it was in this venue that I won a chopstick-handling contest among our travel group, by transferring 15 spheroidal garlic-coated peanuts into a bowl in 20 seconds. Alice was a close second, but I am the one now in possession of the coveted Wooden Vespa, a nice little model about 8″ long that will no doubt end up in the hands of a grandchild in the near future.

Then it was on to Hồ Thị Kỷ Street, home to Saigon’s flower market…

…and a walk down an alley to try our handing at cooking a rice crepe over an coals. Not dropping the crepe into the coals is harder than it looks.

We ended the night with a drink on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Tower to get a panoramic view of the city, then a quick jaunt across the river to see the skyline.

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A Day in the Life, Vietnam Edition

Every OAT trip includes some kind of “day in the life” activity that attempts to give travelers a taste of what normal, non-touristic life is life in whatever country we happen to be in. These are unavoidably somewhat artificial (“Today’s activity will include contracting hepatitis while bathing in unfiltered sewage!”) but they do make an honest attempt given all the constraints of time, safety, etc. But we did pretty well yesterday, since our “day in the life” started with a big part of every Vietnamese’s life: getting somewhere on a motorbike. This was probably not the safest activity that OAT could have chosen for us — a couple of our group just straight-up refused to get on them — but it was probably the most fun one. So off we went in crazy city traffic…IMG_8716

IMG_8520That’s Alice in the red helmet at right.

IMG_8526We putt-putted and honked our way to the outskirts of the city, eventually making our way to the countryside, past rice paddies and temples.

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IMG_8593Our first stop was a place where guys hang out for hours, drinking and watching some entertainment. Your first thought is no doubt “bar” or “strip club”, but no, it wasn’t either of those. If you’re a Vietnamese city male, your go-to entertainment on a Sunday afternoon is the local….. bird cafe.

Say what?

Bird cafe. Songbirds are a very big deal here, in particular a type of bird called a bulbul, which is found throughout Asia but not in North America. It’s name is Persian for “nightingale” but it actually belongs to a different family. They sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars here, and at the bird cafes they hang in cages by the dozen, the staff moving them around from space to space to get them acclimated to their surroundings and keep them singing.

IMG_8534IMG_8536Notice all the guys in the lower photo, basically hanging around and staring at the birds. This goes on for hours. There are huge bulbul competitions, sometimes involving as many as 2,000 birds; they are judged on both appearance and the perseverance with which they keep singing. Hard to see this catching on the US. (“I’m heading out to the bird cafe to have a few glasses of lemongrass tea with the boys.” “Like hell. That’s the third night this week and I’m sick of picking feathers out of your clothes.”)

The next stop on our motorbike outing was the marketplace where, we were informed, we would have to go shopping for dinner. Phil gave us some money and a shopping list, and divided us into two teams: “Tiger”, and “Dragon”. I was the Dragon Leader, which is a title I have always coveted.

IMG_8575Various items were assigned to various people within the teams, but the catch was that we had to ask for all the items in Vietnamese. Remember what I wrote about the impossibility of saying anything correctly in Vietnamese? Now the linguistic rubber was about to meet the metaphorical road. My particular item was sugar, which in Vietnamese is Đường, which you pronounce by shooting yourself since you’ll never get it right. It’s sorta like doo-ong, except that the first syllable is spoken WAY down in your throat, and you glide into the second syllable all the way up top to your palate. Basically it’s the sound that a bullfrog makes, and I am proud to report that after three attempts Phil declared my pronunciation perfect. Off we went, me bullfrogging for all I was worth, and by golly we scored two plastic sacks full of sugar. Here’s more of our team in action, successfully buying a bag of limes.

IMG_8566Groceries in hand, we biked out to the countryside to a village where the headman was a former South Vietnamese paratrooper, Mr. Hoang. After the war he spent two years in a reeducation camp and was eventually fully “rehabilitated” into a position of responsibility in this small village.

IMG_8612He showed us around the village, which included a stop at a local family who derived their income from that most venerable and stereotypical craft, basket weaving. They put us to work. The head of this family was a former Viet Cong soldier.

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IMG_8624Then we went to Mr. Hoang’s house for lunch, where his wife put half of us to work in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. The other half of the group want out to the backyard to use that sugar we bought, along with limes and lemongrass, to mix up some drinks whose name I forget but which involved a whole lot of rum.

IMG_8628Drinks were poured and toasts were raised. The very first toast, in fact, was raised by the four men who actually fought in the war: Mr. Hoang and the three veterans in our travel group. That makes this a fairly remarkable gathering:

IMG_8633That toast drunk, more followed, with everyone getting into the act. Alice and I being teetotalers, our drinks were rum-free, but a couple of our group more than made up for our abstemiousness.

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Things got pretty happy, but everyone settled down for a lunch, which was of course yet another multi-course extravaganza. This one, though, was outdoors, in a shaded grove behind the house.

And then it was time to go. Hugs all around, especially among the vets, and everyone boarded the bus… except for me. Phil had cottoned to the fact that I am an adrenaline junkie — it may have been my look-ma-no-hands continuous camera-clicking from the back of the motorbike — and arranged for me to motorbike back the city instead of riding the bus. So I had my own personal tour of the back alleys, farms, graveyards, rice paddies, and other cool locales from my perch at the back of the bike.

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(The swastikas don’t mean what you think. They’re a very ancient Hindu symbol, appearing widely on temples and other structures throughout Asia. The Nazi corruption of the symbol came thousands of years later.)

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IMG_8684On we went, past the revolutionary statues in the city, back into the maw of traffic, and home again to our hotel. Helluva day!

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Crafts and Markets and More Crafts

Hoi An IMG_8206-HDRHoi An is known as a sort of retail craft paradise, in part because the locals are known to be able to create quality knockoffs of pretty much anything. In fact, last night we had what one might consider to be a dramatic example of this, when upon returning home from our evening’s wanderings (about which more in a moment) we discovered that the hotel had provided a turndown service and, instead of mints, had left a little packages of Oreos on our pillows. But closer inspection revealed that, despite the virtually identical packaging, they were not Oreos but rather “Creamos”. The package and the cookies themselves looked just like the real deal (except for the wrapper saying “Creamos”), and the cookies tasted just like Oreos, albeit a little thin on the filling. So there you have it: knockoff Oreos.

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Speaking of food, there is one item that I forgot to mention yesterday in regard to our cooking lesson of two evenings ago. When one of our group exclaimed “Yum!” upon tasting one of our creations, she was admonished with a wink and a leer not to say that: turns out that “yum” and “yummy” are Vietnamese slang for “horny”. Now you know.

We spent most of yesterday wandering around Hoi An, which in practice meant drifting in and out of souvenir, craft, and clothing stores. It’s one of those places where you can get a good custom suit made in 24 hours for a ridiculously low price, and if I were not retired I probably would have done so. (One member of our group did.) It also meant fending off a nonstop and utterly relentless stream of street vendors, all selling the same two tchotchkes: laser-cut popup greeting cards, and plastic windup birds that flap their wings and fly around for 5 or 10 seconds. The popup greeting card people in particular are implacable; they follow you down the street and into restaurants, and they are everywhere. “One dollah! One dollah!” You can buy them online, though they are admittedly much more expensive than one dollah. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a typical one:

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I was also approached by a perky 20-ish Japanese girl (her name tag was Japanese and her accent was unmistakable) who gave me a bizarre story about being in Vietnam on a business internship involving a project that required developing and selling souvenirs, and would I mind coming in to the store where she worked? I followed her in, having no more urgent priorities, and she proudly produced a bamboo spoon that I should buy. “You can eat soup with it!” she explained brightly. “Yes, I am familiar with the use of a spoon,” I replied, perhaps with unnecessary churlishness. I then broke her heart by regretfully informing her that she would have to complete her internship and return to Japan without any of my money.

We wandered for a while as a group, crossing an old covered bridge of some historical significance, and of course visiting a Buddhist temple or two. The best of these had a spectacular mosaic tile dragon statue in front of it.

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After lunch, everyone split up to do their own thing, which in Alice’s case meant shopping and in my case meant looking for places to take pictures. Hoi An sits on the Thu Bon river, and there’s a lot of activity on the river in the form of tourist boats, water taxis, and the like.

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The Thu Bon is also the channel by which the fishermen bring their catch to market in town. (I hope to God that they do not actually fish in the river itself; the town does not have a water filtration plant and so everything is flushed into the river.) Phil directed me to the fish market on the river, and I spent a happy hour or two taking photos there.

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Note the flags. We’re talking communist fish here.

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The market was bustling, crowded, and unsurprisingly smelled like a fish market. One thing that struck me was that every one of the vendors was a woman; market work is considered woman’s work, since the men go out to do the actual fishing. And hard work it is; there were a lot of careworn faces here. Here’s a gallery of several portraits that I took long distance with a telephoto lens; the subjects did not know that I was photographing them. (Click on the thumbnails to see the full size images.)

After I had been there for a while, it started to rain. Then it started to pour. It rained monsoon-like buckets for a 45 minutes or so, so I just meandered in the market and took a couple of shots out into the rain, like these two.

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It eventually let up enough for me to venture outside with a rain slicker and an umbrella that I had wisely brought along in my backpack. I rendezvoused with Alice and the rest of the group at the prearranged meeting point, she feeling well satisfied at having picked up some suitably classy gifts for the folks back home.

We returned to the hotel, lounged for a while, and came back to the town just after sunset to find some dinner and take in the night scene, which is lively. There’s a tremendous amount of activity both on the river and in the side streets; the shopping and the restaurant scene is going full blast, and everything is lit by lanterns. Boats on the river are all lit with lanterns as well, and there are floating candles drifting downstream. It’s a riot of light and color and yeasty activity.

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We are on our own tonight, so we will probably go back and wander around some more, weather permitting. We leave Hoi An and our snazzy resort hotel tomorrow morning to catch an early afternoon flight to the coastal city of Nha Trang for the next leg of our journey.

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Rickshaws, Wet Marionettes, and a Prison

Fun Fact, revealed to us this morning by our tour lead Phil: 49% of Vietnamese carry the surname “Nguyen”. It’s like “Smith”, “Jones”, “White”, “Brown”, and “Black” combined. The reason, as you might suppose, is historical rather than genetic: Nguyen was sort of the Kamehameha of Vietnam, a strong king who united the country and who was greatly admired both at the time and after, so much so that large swaths of the population adopted his name. He took power in 1802 in the city of Hue, which remained the capital until the end of World War II. Vietnamese autonomy lasted until 1857 when the French moved in and things got ugly. (The French, of course, hung in there for nearly a century until being driven out in 1954 after Dien Bien Phu.)

This genealogical wisdom having been imparted after breakfast, we set out on the day’s adventures. Yesterday I mentioned with just a soupçon of implied contempt about the tourists traveling around by rickshaw through Old Hanoi’s street market area as we ourselves explored it more virtuously on foot. I wrote that, of course, not knowing that this morning we would be those selfsame tourists, 15 of us in a slow-motion convoy of rickshaws, cameras clicking away. And that’s OK… we covered a lot more ground than we did yesterday. So here we are gearing up. 

…and here is the wagon train underway.

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The street scenes were much as they were yesterday, of course, so here are a few selected images. (They should appear on your screen as a slide show.)

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But the still images don’t really convey the sense of pervasive motion and noise. To help you along in that direction, here’s a one-minute video that I shot from the rickshaw:

Now you have a much better sense of what the streets of Hanoi look and sound like. (A more complete impression would require you to smell all the spices, foods, garbage, and everything else. But I can’t help you there.) The bad news is that rickshaws do not have a very promising future. There are something like 350 of them operating at present but the city is trying to cut that number by about 75% because it considers them both obsolete and hazardous. The “obsolete” part I get; but since they are being forced into near-extinction in part by the ubiquity of motor scooters — of which there are nearly one per person  — then to my mind someone has gotten his “hazardous” designations a little confused.

Our next stop was to the studio of Mr. Phan Thanh Liem, an internationally-famous craftsman and practitioner of a vanishing traditional Vietnamese art that I will admit right up front I had never heard of until now: water puppetry. (No, you idiot: you can’t make puppets out of water. You make puppets and operate them in the water.) Here is the 55-year old Liem — the seventh generation of his family immersed in the craft — in his puppet-making studio.

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The performance venue is a small indoor pool, a little bigger than a child’s backyard swimming pool. Liem and his assistant stand behind the backdrop, dressed in waders or even a wetsuit if needed (if performing outdoors on a cold day) and manipulate the puppets via attached rods that are held invisibly below the surface of the water.

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Notice that the water is reddish brown. That is by design, local red mud having been added to the basin water precisely for the purpose of rendering it opaque and thus concealing the control rods. The puppets move around, flail their arms, spritz water, and generally animate in various ways for dramatic effect as the puppeteers present various scenarios to music: a boat race, a fight, or pretty much anything that involves a lot of thrashing and splashing. Here are a pair of peacocks, the one on the left having just extended its neck.

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At the conclusion of the performance, Liem emerged to reveal both his assistant and the mechanism, and then we were allowed to play too. It’s harder than it looks: the puppets are heavy fig wood, so it takes a lot of torque to move them around in the water at the end of the meter-long rods. A puppet that is used regularly in performances only lasts about 5 months.

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Of course, what you really want to know is what the performance itself looks and sounds like. I’ve got you covered: here’s the video.

 

You will be unsurprised to hear that in the age of smartphones it is difficult to get young people (which at our age is almost everyone) excited about this. Liem has two teenage sons whom he is getting involved in the work, but it is unclear how many more generations will find enough of an audience to prevent the art from extinction.

We moved on after lunch to Hoa Lo Prison, best known by its war-era sobriquet: the Hanoi Hilton. (There is in fact an actual Hanoi Hilton as well, or more accurately a Hilton Garden Inn. The difference is that Hoa Lo never put mints on anyone’s pillow, and the Hilton staff are not in the habit of torturing their guests.)

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The original main gate of Hoa Lo

Hoa Lo is of course best known for its 1964-1973 wartime role, but its actual history goes back a lot further, and no less grimly. It was built by the French around 1890 at the height of their colonial subjugation of the region; called Maison Centrale, it was intended to house up to 500 political prisoners, i.e. anyone advocating for independence. It was notoriously cruel even then, with banks of prisoners shackled together and two onsite guillotines.

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It never really shed its provenance as an instrument of political repression, housing a number of prominent independence revolutionaries in the 1930’s and 40’s. These included the wife of Gen. Võ Nguyên Giáp, who scored some serious payback by later masterminding the battle of Dien Bien Phu that drove the French out of the country altogether.

The museum display, needless to say, makes much of the Communist victory over the Americans and the subsequent normalization of relations (though the latter took 25 years; full relations were only established under President Clinton in 2000). It is alas presented in cringingly stereotypical propagandistic terms, very 1970’s Soviet in its gestalt: “brave revolutionary patriots fighting imperialistic aggression,” etc. etc. Lots of photos of bombed villages juxtaposed with images of captured Americans being very humanely treated (medical exams, trimming a Christmas tree, writing letters home). A single sentence remarks baldly and with suspicious ambiguity that US captives were treated as well as circumstances allowed.

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I found this whole tone very unfortunate. Stripped of the propaganda tropes and self-congratulatory vocabulary, much of what they are saying about America’s behavior toward them is true. We as a country were phenomenally, incomprehensibly cruel and stupid to no useful end whatsoever. (Good thing we don’t act like that any more, right? RIGHT? <throws smoke bomb and runs from room>) But having been ceded the high moral ground by our own hubristic foolishness, they kind of throw it all away by denying any and all of their own human shortcomings (e.g., torturing American captives). It seems not to be enough to paint themselves as the good guys, which in many senses they were; they seem so insecure in the role that they deny anything short of moral perfection for themselves (which they most emphatically were not). In that sense the museum seemed to me like a lost opportunity for an honest dialogue. I left the place dissatisfied.

But I guess all those years of comradeliness with the Russians gave the Vietnamese government a propaganda habit that’s hard to break. En route to dinner tonight, we were distracted by an unexpected multimedia event in a city square: an over-the-top schmaltzy song-and-dance, sound-and-light show exalting Ho Chi Minh, the city of Hanoi itself, and, judging from the images projected on gigantic screens, elaborate highway overpasses and construction equipment. Singers and lithe dancers emoted all over the stage at high volume as the fog machines cranked out the ethereal mist; hammers and sickles waved. It was utterly surreal, like some satire of a holiday celebration in the old USSR commemorating increased production of tractor parts by more than 30% over the most recent Five Year Plan.20190919_181937

They call the economic system here “Red Capitalism” and judging from the proliferation of gleeful consumerism that is taking hold here — we passed a Rolls Royce dealership today — that sounds like a pretty good term. But seeing the unabashed embrace of Westernism on the streets juxtaposed with this evening’s bizarre performance is still a little difficult to process.

So that was today. I’m off to bed now to get some rest for tomorrow’s activities. Those tractor parts aren’t gonna weld themselves, you know.

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The Other Red River Valley

The old Western song notwithstanding, it probably never occurred to you (why would it?) that the literal translation of Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi means “between the rivers”, the rivers in question being the Nhue and the Red. Parts of the city are periodically flooded because of this, and there are actually dikes that run through part of town.

We arrived this morning, met at the airport by our group lead Phuc Nguyen, who wisely goes by “Phil” to avoid three weeks of puerile jokes from his American charges. Phil is a handsome, trim 40 year old who like all OAT tour leads seems to require no sleep whatsoever and has an inexhaustible supply of cheery enthusiasm and useful information.

Hanoi has a population of 7.8 million, who get around via a mere 600,000 cars…. augmented by approximately 11 billion motor scooters. The latter are absolutely everywhere, the streets and even the sidewalks choked with weaving phalanxes of them and the air filled with the ceaseless din of their honking. Interspersed among them are the occasional bus and tourist-bearing rickshaw.

Those scooters, despite their tiny engines, clog the streets in such vast numbers and operate with such  inefficient combustion that air pollution is a real issue. The humidity is very high here — it is monsoon season — and the combination of the water vapor and the scooter exhaust creates a hazy blanket over the city through which a watery sunlight filters.  Phil describes Hanoi as a “second world” city: visibly more advanced than a less developed country but still trying to break into the First World big leagues. They’re working on it: the downtown area includes a lot of very modern high end stores (e.g., Prada, Lamborghini) that would be quite at home in a European capital city.

And indeed, Hanoi does present itself as a struggling-to-be-less-seedy European capital. The architectural DNA of its French colonial history is obvious: broad boulevards, ornate cornices and eaves, tree-lined avenues. The trees are stout, leafy, and old; they clearly weathered the bombings of the war, now 50 years ago, just fine. You still wouldn’t mistake it for Paris, though. Traffic is random and dangerous, and that French architecture often overlooks odd, densely packed storefronts selling all manner of jumbled up, vaguely unsanitary looking stuff ranging from random electronic gadgets to food of questionable provenance. (My characterization of the latter did not stop me from buying some delicious still-hot deep-fried dough balls with custard centers.)

Our hotel is excellently situated in the center of town, very near some of the street markets and major  sights (e.g., the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison where John McCain was held, which we will visit tomorrow). It’s also a several block walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a small (600 x 200 meter), shallow (1.5 meter) freshwater lake surrounded by an elaborate legend involving a magic sword and a giant turtle. The weird part is that there are giant turtles in the lake, a species of rare soft-shelled turtles nearly six feet long. Or at least there were; the last sighting of one was three years ago.

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At the northern end of the lake is a Buddhist temple where all manner of activity was going on when we arrived, having walked the mile or so from the hotel. People were lighting incense and praying at the censer; others were posing in rented traditional costumes; and some kind of presumed Ladies Auxiliary were selling something whilst in costume as well.

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We kept walking north past the lake and found ourselves in a no-kidding Asian market district, block after block of crowded storefronts and makeshift sales counters, this street housing a dozen consecutive shoe stores, the next redolent of marinating fish from 20 different vendors. Scooters clogged the sidewalks, vendors spread their wares on tables, on blankets on the ground, on makeshift counters, in Plexiglas display cases on spindly legs.

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The smells were exotic, the colors all saturated, the hubbub nearly impossible to navigate. It was a hoot, the kind of thing you can only experience in a not-altogether-developed Asian or African country.

We walked back to the hotel, at this point drenched in sweat from the humidity. (The weather today was several degrees cooler than in Hong Kong, but the humidity just as bad and the afternoon punctuated with a downpour.) We’ve been going through our clean clothes way faster than planned, and are thus about to drop a small fortune on the hotel laundry service. This is some kind of karmic balancing for the fact that restaurants here are extremely cheap, our nice meals coming in at about five bucks a person. (It takes an active act of calculation to realize this is because the Viet currency, the dong, is of microscopic value: the exchange rate is about 23,000 to the dollar. So one suffers a moment of confused sticker shock when a restaurant tab for two people comes in at 196,000 dong and it takes you a moment to realize that you just spent all of nine bucks.)

Phil took us all out for drinks at about 7 PM, both to show us some typical night life and to teach us how to cross the street without getting killed. (Hints: safety in numbers, and do not waver from your path despite the vehicles weaving around you within inches.) Here’s half of our group, including Alice at lower right. The woman in the red teeshirt is the waitress.

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The Vietnamese love beer, and there are a couple of native brands that flowed freely. Our snacks were also typical for the locals: steamed peanuts, pork sausage steamed in banana leaves, and fried tofu. (I liked two out of three; tofu and I are generally not on speaking terms.)  Afterwards we went out to one of those wonderful $5 dinners and called it a day.

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Hong Kong Heat

Alice and I have long felt that no vacation is complete unless the riot police show up, so when Overseas Adventure Travel called us last Friday offering to cancel the Hong Kong leg of our trip, we didn’t discuss it for long before deciding to proceed. After all, we thought, what’s the worse that could happen?

Turns out that the answer to that question is, “A street skirmish a few blocks from our hotel, resulting in Molotov cocktails being thrown.” Fortunately, that took place a few hours before we arrived at said hotel, blissfully unaware that it had taken place.  It did cause some traffic delays that prolonged our wait for the driver at the airport. We walked into our hotel room at about 11 PM and dashed of a note to our family assuring them that we were safe, we saw no evidence of unrest, and Mom, please lay off the Ambien.

The middle part of that sentence, as it turns out, was mostly but not 100% true. Looking down from our hotel room, we saw a fleet of police transport vehicles turning down the street, and a very small number of (presumed) protesters running very, very fast away from them. But from our vantage point on the 32nd floor, I would not characterize it as a visceral experience. (Turns out that our hotel is across the street from a large police station.)

Everything was calm the next day (yesterday), and the city is quite normal though there are scattered signs of unrest: graffiti, wall posters, and the like. But for the most part, it is business as usual in Hong Kong. And there is a lot of business: Hong Kong hums with a population of 7.5 M but a wall-busting population density of over 17,000 per square mile (almost 7,000 per square km). This year it will receive just about 60 million visitors, including us.

There are several regions of the city, distributed over the mainland and a few islands, but the hub and best known parts are Hong Kong Island itself, and — a stone’s throw across the bay — Kowloon, which is the peninsula at the southern tip of the mainland. Many of the major tourist destinations lie in those two areas. The city has changed unrecognizably in the 39 years since I was last here but a number of the major sites are eternal verities: Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island still offers spectacular panoramic views of the space-age skyline; the Star Ferry still plies the bay for under half a buck US; Stanley Market still has the look of a polite Moroccan souk. We only have two full days here, so in our usual fashion we checked off a fair number of boxes yesterday alone.

The weather is hot and humid, a damp hazy 90 F (32 C) at 85% humidity. The operative word is “sweat” so rather than deal with public transport we relied a lot on taxis to get us to various transportation termini. The first of these was the tram that runs up Victoria Peak, the 1800′ (550m) peak that dominates the island and is the go-to spot for the most traditional panoramic view. The tram ride is very steep and more than a little rattly with almost Victorian-looking cars, like some venerable theme park ride, and one of the primal HK experiences. The trip alone is, um, worth the trip, but the view is the destination.

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The tram terminus at the top is now a virtual shopping mall, but you can hike upwards from there to the more idyllic Governor’s Gardens at the actual peak. It’s a steep uphill mile, which in this weather is an Olympic-class workout for your sweat glands. But we did it.

Returning to sea level, our options were either to return to the hotel for a shower or maximize the sweat content of our clothes by continuing to explore; we opted for the latter by taking a taxi to Stanley Market at the southern end of the island. It’s a less crowded area, with some resort beaches on Tai Tam Bay, which has beautiful aquamarine water. Stanley is basically a waterfront resort and shopping area whose traditional draw, as I mentioned, is a souk-like tchotchke market a couple of blocks long. It’s like Marrakesh with slightly fewer pickpockets, and if you keep your eye out there are some nice items to be found (found, of course, by Alice). But mostly, being a warren of narrow shaded alleys, it’s cooler than everywhere else.

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(Historical side note: this being a former British colony, I wondered if the eponymous Stanley was the same Lord Stanley who was the late 19th century Governor General of Canada and after whom hockey’s Stanley Cup is named.  It isn’t: Hong Kong had a different Lord Stanley, who was the British Colonial Secretary about 50 years before the hockey guy. Apparently Stanley was a good name to have if you were part of 19th century British colonialism, which was a growth industry at the time.)

We wandered around the market for a while before ducking into a side street into a pleasantly crowded hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurant for lunch. Hong Kong is notoriously expensive but in fact there are a myriad of such restaurants that can be both very cheap and excellent. This was one: we had enormous bowls of noodles, dumplings, and shrimp for a total of not much over US$20 for the two of us.

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By this time we were the consistency of wet sponges and our clothing belonged in a pro football locker room so we retreated back to the hotel for a couple of hours before striking out again after sunset. Our mode of transport this time was the Star Ferry, which along with Staten Island is one of the most famous ferries in the world. It is certainly one of the most charming means of transportation in Hong Kong, making the five-minute shuttle across the bay between Kowloon and Hong Kong every few minutes for an utterly negligible amount of money — literally pocket change — while offering the most wonderful views of the skyline, especially at night. When in HK, you cannot not take the Star Ferry.

Hong Kong’s skyline does not even remotely resemble what I saw in 1980. It is now a sea of high-tech high rises, many of them pulsing with animated light displays; no still photo can do it justice but here’s one anyway.

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The Star Ferry terminal on Kowloon is a block or so from the southern end of Nathan Road, which used to be called Hong Kong’s Golden Mile. It’s a less-impressive version of Tokyo’s Ginza, a straight two-mile neon stretch of traffic, high-end stores, boutiques, and legions of skeevy little guys (for some reason they are all five feet tall)  trying to sell you Rolex watches and designer handbags. Oddly, they all phrase it exactly that way, like they all went to the same Skeeve School: “You want Rolex watch or designer handbags?” Even more oddly, a few seem to have pangs of conscience by actually asking “You want fake Rolex watch or designer handbags?” You have to admire their candor.

We successfully repeated our side-street-hole-in-the-wall restaurant strategy to get a good inexpensive dinner, then continued our humid hike up Nathan Road. (Even at 9:30 PM, the weather was oppressive.) Our end point was the Temple Street Night Market, a sort of demimonde version of Stanley Market, four or five blocks of close-packed white-tented vendor stalls selling food — the occasional wiggling crustacean — and… crap. To characterize the wares as knockoffs would mostly be an insult to knockoffs since that term implies the existence of a quality original. This stuff all looks like it’s designed to fall apart ten minutes after you buy it. The only possible exception might be the gaily-decorated USB flash drives, all of which I am quite certain come loaded with only the highest-quality malware sure to make your home computing experience an exciting one.

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That is not to say that absolutely everything was low-quality and unoriginal. There were some decidedly original decorative metal plates, about the size of car license plates, sporting amusing slogans, designed perhaps to brighten up a dorm room or nursery. My favorite one said “NEVER ONE NIGHT STAND SHE CUT OFF YOUR DICK AND THROW IN RIVER”, although Alice preferred “SAUSAGE HUNTER.” Inspired by these new life mottoes, we strolled back down Nathan Road and took the Star Ferry home and to bed.

 

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Poke Your Eyes Out

That’s “po-keh”, which sort of rhymes with “okay”, as opposed to “poke” that rhymes with “croak”. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We are back on the Big Island, comfortably ensconced in our beautiful annual rental house for the next month or so, and enjoying our view of the blue, blue Pacific while all our East Coast friends and family gnash their teeth in envy. Feel free to gnash along: it’s gorgeous here. Photos in later posts.

Our first order of business upon arrival was picking up our rental car, which was, um, shall we say, more “expansive” than anticipated. Expecting a midsize SUV or large Jeep, we were presented with a Lincoln Navigator, a Brobdingnagian exercise in libertarian consumerism of such exuberant eco-criminality that Greenpeace now has a price on my head. A technology-laden behemoth, it is the size of a full-grown bull elephant and has a fuel economy measured in “crushed dinosaurs per mile”. At speeds above 60 mph, or whenever in four-wheel-drive mode, it requires its own convoy of refueling tankers. But it is roomy, quiet, and comfortable, so we’ll live with it. At least until I have to parallel park somewhere.

But mostly I wanted to talk about food, that being one of the sybaritic mainstays of our annual sojourns here. As you may know, the de facto state food of Hawaii is…. Ha! You were going to guess poi, weren’t you? But no. Poi is indeed a traditional staple here, but for historic reasons dating from World War II rationing, the go-to food in these parts is pig parts in a can, i.e. this stuff:

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Hawaiians eat more Spam than any cohort in the known universe, or at least the U.S., an average of 5 cans per year for every man, woman, and child in the state. And as you can see from the photo, it comes in a wide variety of disguises flavors to suit every taste. That is, every taste except ours, since we never touch the stuff.

What we do eat a lot of here, is poke, which is a genuinely traditional Hawaiian food that has gone mainstream. Poke (remember, it is pronounced po-keh) can take many forms but is most commonly served as marinated ahi, i.e. raw yellowfin tuna. The word itself is Hawaiian for “sliced”.

Japanese cuisine has a strong influence on poke’s preparation, Japanese being the second largest ethnic group in the state, slightly behind Filipino. For one thing, poke is prepared with an enormous variety of marinades that include both Japanese and Hawaiian influences, such as soy sauce. And for another, at even the most hole-in-the-wall poke restaurants, it is presented with a certain symmetric Japanese aesthetic, as you can see from this photo of my lunch a few hours ago:

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We had this little masterpiece at “Da Poke Shack”, just down the road from our house; it is possibly the mostly-aptly named restaurant in existence. That’s seaweed salad in sesame oil at the upper right, white rice with dried seaweed and sesame seeds at lower left, and two flavors of ahi poke in the other two diagonal corners. It is a little bit of culinary heaven that has now made its way to the mainland US with varying and usually dubious degrees of authenticity. I can assert from personal experience that if you are eating it anywhere outside of Hawaii with fish more than 10 hours old, you are not experiencing the good stuff.

Having thus officially alerted our digestive systems to our arrival in Kona, we moved on to the largest local farmer’s market, a frequent stop of ours. We bask for a while among the tropical fruits, a spectral riot lilikoi (a.k.a. passion fruit), rambutans, soursops, mangoes, tiny “apple bananas”, carambolas (= star fruit), and of course pineapples. The faces there are comfortingly familiar: we see the same multi-ethnic smiles at the stalls every year.

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(This picture dates from three years ago, and we bought lilikoi from the same woman today. I showed her this photo on my phone; she gave Alice a big hug and asked me to email it to her.) We loaded up with a few bags of fruit, our eyes ever larger than our stomachs, before moving on somewhat reluctantly to the more conventional and cringingly expensive grocery shopping at the Kona Safeway. We will be entertaining a lot of visitors during this year’s stay; there will be many such trips to the farmer’s market, the Safeway, and to the KTA, a local family-owned grocery chain.

So in summary, we’re here, happily nestled into our house in the delightfully-named area of Kahalu’u-Keauhou. More posts later as this year’s adventures unfold.

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Oahu and Aloha

We left the Big Island 2 1/2 days ago with our usual reluctance — meaning that a commando team was required to get Alice onto the plane — but as usual have arranged to ease our transition back into non-tropical life by spending three days with our old friends Laura and Brian in Honolulu.  This having become part of a pleasant yearly routine, we by now have a certain number of haunts on Oahu that we visit with them.

The first of these — it having impressed us so much in the past that we now schedule our visit around it — is the Saturday morning farmer’s market at Kapiolani Community College. Trust me, if you’re used to farmer’s markets on the mainland this one is a revelation. Here’s a panorama of a small piece of it:

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The sign on the left says “Kimchi Poke Bowl”, which already tells you a lot about Hawaii: kimchi of course is Korean, whereas poke (pronounced poke-eh) is a Hawaiian specialty, basically marinated sushi (and most wonderful, I should add).  At this market you can also enjoy (among many other delights) sushi sliders, lilikoi (passion fruit) popsicles, grilled giant shrimp, and kimchi sausage on a stick. And we did. In fact, the entire time we are visiting our friends here we eat very exotically and very, very well. And very excessively.

Most non-Hawaiians’ mental image of Honolulu is probably dominated by visions of Waikiki, and it is true that that iconic strand is a very visited place.

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But there are in a sense really two Waikikis: the tourist one that you see in the picture above, and the one frequented by the locals, from which the photos above and below were taken.

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The “local” part of Waikiki is smaller, dominated by an old World War I memorial and a decrepit and long-since-disused public swimming people, long gone in disrepair . But there is also a pleasant beach with no hotels hard upon it, and a large park filled with exercise classes, picnickers, and — on this particular day — a gathering of the Aloha Koi Club, presumably there to compare their respective decorative fish. It’s a pleasant place with a family atmosphere. There is also an old concrete jetty, perhaps 40 meters long, extending into the shallow green surf and offering an excellent platform from which to throw bread crumbs to the waiting fish. The water is clear as glass, and it’s a lot of fun watching the surgeonfish and the triggerfish (“humuhumunuknukuapua’a!”) go after their targets.  That abundance of fish makes it a pretty good place to snorkel; you can see two snorkelers in the foreground of the photo above.

The central part of Oahu, north of Honolulu, is overlooked by the 550′ (16m) high Punchbowl, an extinct volcanic crater that is now home to a military cemetery. A little further north than that, perhaps 10 miles north of the city and about twice as high as the Punchbowl, is “The Pali”, or more formally the Nu’uani Pali Lookout. (Pali means cliff in Hawaiian.) It’s an overlook on the volcanic side, overlooking the central valley of the island and and flanked by the crenelated basaltic cliffs, long overgrown with vegetation. The wind howls up the cliffside from the valley below, and on especially windy days requires you to lean forward to avoid being blown over. It was unusually calm when we visited, and afforded us this view of the plain below.

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Those craggy hillsides are completely typical of eroded volcanic landscapes, and make every setting a dramatic one.  (On rainy or foggy days, they become looming and ominous, as you’ll see below.) And as you can see from the picture, from this 1200′ (360m) vantage point, you can see all the way to the ocean to the northeast.

Heading eastward from Honolulu quickly brings you to the eastern end of the island, Makapuu Point. It’s a commanding viewpoint from which you can easily see the islands of Lanai and Molokai on the horizon, with a glimpse of Maui as well on a really good day. Closer to shore, especially in the winter months, you can see whales, and indeed we saw a handful of them, including one performing a spectacular breach perhaps 200 meters from shore below us. We don’t see a whole lot of those around Washington DC.

The lookout spot where we parked offered an ideal spot from which to launch my drone, but I hesitated because of the cop directing cars into the lot. My hesitation vanished about a minute later when we saw a guy flying a drone about fifty feet from the cop, so off I went. I flew along the coast for a mile or so, keeping both a drone and a protoplasmic eye out to see in case the opportunity to fly above a whale presented itself. It didn’t. (It would have a lot of patience and a lot of drone batteries to pull it off; the whales do not stay on the surface for very long, and it is unlikely that I would have been able to get the drone position before the beast dove again. Those BBC and National Geographic guys have a lot more patience than I do.)

Makapuu Point is dominated by the Makapuu Lighthouse, activated in 1909 and still in use. It has the odd distinction of having the largest lighthouse lens in the US, and is also the third highest lighthouse in the country at 422′ (129m). (The two higher ones are both in California, in case you were wondering.)

Makapuu Lighthouse

There is a fairly steep trail leading up to the lighthouse. Last year we were ambitious enough to make that hike; this year I let the drone do the work. Here’s the video:

We had a gorgeous day for it, as you can see. And yes, the water really is that color, so feel free to hate us.

However, not every day is gorgeous here — only most of them — and today, our last day in the islands, was emphatically not. It rained buckets for most of the day, a relentless drenching of the sort that you only get in the tropics. Unusually, we had thunder and lightning as well. But hell, it was our last day here and we weren’t going to let a little rain stop us. Or a lot of rain. Or an insane nonstop deluge that left us cowering in the car saying, “What were we thinking?”. But we pushed on anyway, Laura bravely navigating her new car through flooded roads whose Stygian depths may well have harbored entire new species of sea life.

But we were not seized by the kraken, and made it around the coast to the North Shore, stopping at a beach whose famous landmark is an offshore island with the condescendingly racist (but nonetheless apt) name of Chinaman’s Hat. You can see why:

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Trust me, those pendulous clouds represented a break in the weather. Turning 180° from this scene to face inland revealed this vista:

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And now you know where Darth Vader goes on vacation.

The rain kept up all day and into the evening, our phones screaming out flash flood alerts every hour or two as they were broadcast by the authorities. (No incoming missile alerts, though.) The downpour finally tapered off about 9 PM, after we got back from our farewell dinner with our friends.

So I guess it is time to leave the islands. We’ll be spending about a week visiting various friends on the mainland before getting home for real at the end of the month. But we’re already talking about next year’s visit.

 

 

 

 

 

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Whirlwind Windhoek

See, “Windhoek” actually means “wind corner” in both Afrikaans and Dutch, and today was a whirlwind tour, thereby compounding the cleverness of my title and, oh forget it.

As I mentioned yesterday, Windhoek is about a mile above sea level, sitting on Namibia’s central plain. But it is on a plain within that plain, basically a bowl defined by the encircling Auas Mountains. (That’s pronounced “ouse“, in case you were wondering.) So here’s the view from our hotel restaurant.

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Recall that the neighborhood surrounding the hotel is an affluent one, filled with clean if somewhat boxy-looking houses as you can see here. Come down off the hill, however, and things are markedly grittier. The main downtown streets are about four lanes wide, lined with slightly down-at-the-heels looking businesses and some more prosperous looking banks and financial firms.

Downtown is also home to the National Museum of Namibia, whose main building is a bizarre structure donated by South Korea, and resembling some kind of postmodern water storage structure, i.e.:

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That’s national founder and first president Sam Nujoma standing out front. The perspective of the photo is a little misleading: Sam’s statue is about 20 feet tall including the base, whereas the building is about 10 stories high including all that empty space at the bottom (which, by the way, channels the wind in most spectacular fashion).

The actual museum part of the building is on three floors and is a more or less hagiographic accounting of the battle for liberation and Sam’s role in it. There are a number of informative and dramatic photos of the war and the people at the time, liberally interspersed with propaganda and neo-Stalinist art like these inspiring tableaus:

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Now there is more than a bit of irony here, astutely noted by travelmate Steve: we have here a museum celebrating a successful Communist-supported national liberation movement, built and paid for by… South Korea. What’s wrong with this picture?

Adjacent to the main building is an old German fort that has been repurposed a few times, most recently as part of the museum. But between 1904 and 1907 it was a German concentration camp for the native Herero and Nama tribes, whom the German colonists were determined to extirpate. Chillingly, the fort includes a plaque from that era helpfully explaining that the purpose of the facility was to house tribespeople as part of an effort to aid communication and ease intertribal tensions. Which it certainly did, since it is hard to argue with someone when you are both dead.

Several years after the attempted genocide, the Germans erected in town a memorial to the dead from the 1904-1907 slaughter………. the German dead.    The statue is of a German soldier on horseback, and in a further display of sensitivity the builders oriented the horse so that it faced Berlin. The locals reacted to this with all the enthusiasm that you’d expect, and the statue was removed from its home in a public square and relocated to the fort, where you can see it to this day.

We walked around downtown for a while, past the seedy little casinos, past the bare-breasted Himba tribeswomen selling handicrafts. Then we reboarded our bus and headed to the edge of the city to Katutura, one of many all-black so-called “townships” just outside the city. The townships were created as part of apartheid policies spilling over from South Africa; they were basically enforced suburbs, since blacks were not allowed to live downtown. Indeed, the word Katutura is Herero for “we have no place to live”. It is a downscale suburb, thick with single-story simple residences and small businesses such as barbers, car repair shops (used tires are a big business) and shebeens, the latter a sort of a hybrid gathering place, sundries store, and speakeasies for sometimes-illegal liquor.

But among the townships, Katutura has a particular draw: the Oshetu Community Market. Oshetu is a big tented farmers’ market offering everything from haircuts to wholesale freshly-killed sides of beef. It is a combination marketplace, business center, restaurant, and social hub.

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The beef business is of some note. At one side of the tented area are the beef wholesalers, standing by their tables piles high with huge slabs of meat, and the occasional flyblown cow head and legs lying on the ground nearby. They sell to the retailers, barely more than an arm’s length away, who then grill it and sell it in consumer-friendly quantities.

01 Windhoek 2017-083This we ate. We took small strips of barbecued beef off the grill, dipped it in seasoned salt and chili pepper proffered on a paper towel, and ate by hand. It was quite delicious, as long as you could avoid thinking about the likely bacteria count. A typical lunch, which followed, included this plus a loaf of polenta, chunks of which one would grab by hand and dip into a tomato salsa, also delicious. It is a communal activity: we all shared the same loaf of polenta (called “pap” locally) and bowl of salsa. So I am desperately hoping that no one in our group of 15 (including Lloyd) is sick, because in that case we all are, or will be shortly.

The grocery part of the market offers all the usual produce and staples, the former including a number of fruits that we had never seen before, e.g., a “monkey orange”, which is a variety of orange with an astoundingly hard rind, almost like a thin coconut shell. The staples included a variety of beans, dried vegetables (such as a spinach “cake”), sardines, dried worm skins, and…wait, what?

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Yes, those are dried worm skins in the front (and no, they do not come in a can of Havoline motor oil). You take a worm, see, and squoosh out its guts like squeezing toothpaste from a tube. Then you dry the remaining skin in the sun, creating (in effect) worm jerky. When you’re hankering for a snack, you put it in water to rehydrate it, then pan fry it with salt. It has a mild taste (yes, I ate several), slightly chewy and a little salty. I mean, come on, you pan fry and salt pretty much anything and it’ll be perfectly palatable, right? Stop making that face.

Our final stop of the day was the Penduka Women’s Collective, a combination school (for children of both sexes), restaurant, and craft center, where local women produce pottery, batik, and bead jewelry for public sale.

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The women make their own glass beads individually, starting with empty bottles, which they pulverize and take through an elaborate and very hand labor intensive process. We were served lunch, and as part of our visit were presented with some traditional dances by some of the women.

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And that was our whirlwind day in Windhoek. Tomorrow we fly in small planes to our desert camp in Kulula, there to behold a whole lot of sand — notably the Namib Desert’s famous dunes — and, I hope, a spectacular night sky. I expect that we will be altogether off the grid for the next several days, so I will resume posting when connectivity allows.

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kauai? Because I Said So, That’s Kauai!

(Stop groaning. If our flight here had been canceled then the title of this post would have been “Kauai? Kauai Not!”)

Hawaii is on the move, as you may know. The entire chain sits on a continental plate that is sliding in a northwesterly direction over a “hot spot”, a magma plume in the Earth’s mantle, racing towards Japan at the breakneck speed of about 3″ (8 cm) per year.  (I would suggest that the entire archipelago is fleeing the results of the presidential election, but it has actually been going on for a lot longer than that.) The underlying magma plume is actually the very source of the islands, each in its turn having been born as a volcano over the hot spot. And indeed, the next island in the chain has already been spotted in its expected location, southeast of the Big Island, still in the form of an underwater volcano. It even has a name — Loihi — so if you’re a canny real estate investor you want to get in on the ground floor of some great beachfront property in half a million years or so.

The major Hawaiian islands average roughly 80 miles (130 km) apart. Moving at 3″ a year over the hot spot, do the math and you’d expect each island to be roughly a million and half years older than its neighbor to the southeast. And you’d be right: the Big Island is about a million years old; Kauai, which is four islands and 315 miles (500 km) away, about 5 million.

I mention all this geology because it explains the important differences in appearance between Kauai and the Big Island, i.e. the islands appear to be eroding “in reverse”. Back on the mainland, young mountain ranges like the Rockies are all sharp and craggy; as they age they are eroded down into more gentle slopes like the Appalachians. But the Hawaiian Islands are different: unlike the granite Rockies or Alps, they are made of comparatively soft basaltic lava. Since lava is more or less liquid, the young Hawaiian islands, e.g. the Big Island are smooth with gentle slopes; the wind, rain, and sea gradually chip away at the lava like aeolian parrotfish gnawing on coral, sculpting it into rough craggy shapes. So where the Big Island has the smooth slopes of Mauna Kea, Kauai has the angular, crenelated Na Pali Coast:

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…and vistas like this:

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That’s taro growing in the foreground, by the way, the stuff from which poi, that famous Hawaiian staple, is made. It looks and tastes like library paste. If you visit the islands, eating poi is an experience that is definitely to be missed. And no, I did not unintentionally leave out the word “not” in that last sentence.

For similar reasons, the very sand and soil of Kauai differ markedly from the Big Island. On the Big Island they are basically crushed lava, black and granular. On Kauai the elements and plant life have had more time to do their work: sand and soil are finer, and rather orange in color from the high iron content. And very, very fertile: Kauai is nothing if not green.

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We arrived early yesterday afternoon and will be here for a week. However, I confess that we made something of a tactical error in choosing where to stay. Kauai is small and oval in shape, about 33 miles (53 km) wide by 25 miles (40 km) from north to south. There’s basically only a single main road, one or two lanes in each direction,  encircling the island… except that it doesn’t actually encircle it. There’s a chunk missing in the northwest corner where the Na Pali coast is in the way, so if you’re staying on the north side of the island and you need to get somewhere in the southwest, you basically have to drive 3/4 of the way around. This is happening to us.

The southern and southeastern parts of the island is — with the exception of the Na Pali coast itself — where a large fraction of the island’s activities take place: snorkeling, sailing, and such. That is especially so in the winter, since the surf on the northern shores is especially rough at this time of year. The other times that I have been here have always involved staying near the town of Poipu in the southeast; Alice and I decided to do something different this time and stay up north, near the town of Princeville, a rather more lush and wild area that is closer to Na Pali and home to a lot of the island’s very upscale resorts (i.e., places that are too rich for our taste and bank account). But precisely because the north shore is so rough in winter, a lot of our planned activities are going to involve 1-2 drives. Oh well.

The north does enjoy the most beautiful beaches on the island — pity that we’ll die if we actually use them, since their surf these days is up to nearly 20 ft, which is a damn big wave. At least we can look at them before driving an hour if we want to go snorkeling. One of the most beautiful beaches is at Hanalei Bay, fronted by a tiny town of the same name that consists of 500 residents and a couple of locally-themed strip malls with restaurants and souvenir shops.  A lot of movies have been filmed at Hanalei because of the spectacular beach, and it is a popular legend that the name of the town was the inspiration for “a land called Honalee” in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”. There is alas no actual evidence for this whatever. (Feel free to pass it on as an “alternative fact”, though.)

As you can tell from the above photos, the weather today was mostly overcast, though we did get sun in the afternoon. As you might expect on a small tropical islands, conditions can change dramatically with very little notice, though only up to a point: the north shore is relaiably rough in the winter, and the sailing and diving tour operators shut down their operations on this part of the island during the winter months. But the Na Pali coast is still accessible on foot and can be viewed from the sea; we hiked about a half mile into it (and up it) this afternoon to get the topmost photo and this one:

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The white surf in that image tells you everything you need to know about the desirability of going into the water. The hike up to this point was real work, a steep and treacherous stone, mud, and tangled-root path whose reward was these vistas and a gale-force wind at the top. How windy was it? While I was taking these photos the wind blew every hair clip out of Alice’s hair. That’s how windy it was. Oh, and here are the signs at the trailhead welcoming you to this particular undertaking. “Have fun! You’re going to die!”

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Roads on this part of the island are scenic and a little too exciting, being narrow and frequently punctuated with hairpin turns overlooking green cliffs. (This is especially fun at night, there being no street lights or towns to provide even a ghost of illumination.) There are a number of one-lane bridges over small rivers; the local convention, when there is a line of traffic in both directions, is for about a half dozen cars from one side to go, then switch to the other. I accidentally transgressed this tradition at a somewhat confusing juncture that had two consecutive bridges separated by a tight turn: two consecutive drivers coming from the oncoming direction informed me of my error in terms that very definitely lacked the Aloha Spirit.

But what northern Kauai lacks in infrastructure it makes up in local charm in a glorious setting, e.g, this farmer’s market where we bought local fruit, nuts, and other goodies:

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Our B&B certainly has its own share of atmosphere. It is called “Asia House”, a rather incongruous pagoda-like residence in the midst of a spectacularly-manicured upscale golf resort community. It is the residence of a cheery unconventional couple who I’d guess to be in their 60’s: short and portly Coral, an artist who makes jewelry, and her husband Ian, a tall and lanky Scot who designed the place. They have quarters for two sets of guests but most of the house is their residence. I’ll post some photos of the place later if I get a chance.

We are hoping that the changeable weather is not too changeable, since we are scheduled for a helicopter tour of the island tomorrow afternoon. If that comes off, you’ll see the pictures here.

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