Posts Tagged With: snake

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.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I Just Met A Girl Named Bahia

I promised some nighttime photos of the main square near Marrakech’s bazaar, so here they are. When looking at them imagine that you can smell the smoke from dozens of grills while hearing chanting, percussive music, flutes, and people shouting. Lots of people shouting. It was total sensory overload, a great deal of high energy fun.

See the musicians in front of the fruit stand in the picture above? That’s a common sight in the square. And sometimes there are dancers as well, one that caught our attention being a fully burkha’ed drag queen who made nice with our friend Jerry. And it was just around that moment, amidst all the dancing and hilarity, that some less entertaining person pickpocketed Jerry’s camera. Welcome to Marrakech, where your fun is best taken with a heavy dose of situational awareness.

The gentlemen below is selling escargot, one of the popular types of food stands in the square.

Our first stop this morning was the Bahia Palace, within walking distance of our riad. It is not especially old, dating from the 19th century, and was built by the grand vizier (yes, they really did have grand viziers) of the time to honor his new favorite wife, Bahia. The architecture is spectacularly ornate, with thousands of square feet of carvings lining the walls and ceilings that look like this:

I mentioned that we went on foot. This is because we abandoned our trusty bus and driver altogether last night and have now adopted a lower-tech means of getting around the city: horse-drawn carriage. We’ve split up among four carriages and go merrily clip-clopping through the street from one destination to the next in grand eco-friendly (if somewhat low-speed) style. And it really is eco-friendly: if you look carefully at the top photo you will see that the horses are wearing poop-catchers.

We eventually cycled around back to the main square, which, while still a cauldron of activity, is far less crowded and madcap than at night. Still, it has its attractions: there are craft merchants instead of fruit stands and for sheer weirdness it is hard to beat the snake charmers:

You may have a mental image of a half-naked turbaned fakir playing a pipe in front of a wicker basket, but it is not quite like that. The are actually three guys, one doodling on a pipe, one beating a drum, and one running around like a madman and actually handling the snakes. The music is not soothing and hypnotic; it is frenetic and insistent, and the handler is in nonstop motion, waving his arms at the snakes, spitting at them, picking them up, putting them down, and generally acting like he’s got some kind of locomotor Tourette’s. There are two kinds of snakes: about a half dozen cobras and some larger reticulated variety that you can see at the lower right of picture. Those seemed pretty torpid, but the cobras were definitely active and not especially happy looking. (Though I will admit that I have a hard time reading reptiles’ state of mind.)

The handler stroked them, waved them around, spit and made kissing noises at them, and in one instance managed to put one to sleep on the ground. Here’s our guy making kissy face with a cobra:

Notice anything unusual about the snake? Remember, this is a deadly cobra who injects deadly poison into its victims with its razor sharp fa…waaaaaaait a minute. Where are the fangs? Back at the snake charmer’s house, I’m guessing. Yep, our snake charmers have a little insurance policy: defanged snakes. They may be weird, but they’re not stupid.

From the main square we clip-clopped around to the other side of the large mosque that overlooks it; the far side of the mosque is graced with a congenial well-kept garden dotted with benches and strolling paths… and water sellers. These are a traditional fixture of Marrakech, exotically-costumed men who carry goatskins full of water and copper drinking vessels in which to pour it for the thirsty wanderer. They announce their presence by ringing bells as they walk around, basically being the Good Humor Men of their day. At least, that’s the idea, and long ago it probably worked exactly like that. Drinking water is now rather more readily available than it was, back in the day, and their main function now is to have their pictures taken for money. So here they are:

Our next stop was the Saadian tombs, which date from about 1600 and were the necropolis for the Saadi dynasty of that era. Their distinction — besides a lot of royal dead people in one place — is the extensive use of marble. Outside the metaphorical velvet rope, in the courtyard, are the graves of honored servants. That’s what you see here:

But inside is the first class seating, with lots more legroom:

Not sure quite what else to say about them, really. They were very, um, marble-y.

Following the tombs, we gamely agreed to visit a rug merchant, which you might correctly guess is a high-risk endeavor. We’d done so in Turkey and enjoyed it, seeing the women weaving the rugs, spinning the silk from the silkworm cocoons, etc., before being subjected to a friendly high pressure sales pitch. This was the same, except without the interesting stuff: it was all sales pitch. A few members of our group bought attractive rugs at reasonable prices, but we were not in the market.  In fact, we have never been in the market; the only oriental rug we’ve ever bought was a small one from our friend Warren, who unloaded it for $100 without explaining anything about silkworms. It’s still in our living room.

We had a blissfully non-Moroccan lunch for a change of pace — pizza at an Italian restaurant, yay! — before heading off for shopping at the souk. By now even Alice has caught bargaining fever, and we bought several items at about half their original asking price. But the highlight if the afternoon was a delightful unexpected encounter arising from the a broken strap on my leather backpack. I hunted around in the souk looking for a replacement but could not find anything suitable and had pretty much resigned myself to carrying the pack around by one strap when Thumper saved the day. She observed perspicaciously that since there were maybe 75 leather craftsmen within 200 feet of where we were standing, then instead of buying a new pack maybe I could find someone to repair it? Duh.

And so I walked into the next leather goods store I saw, about 20 feet from where we stood, and spent a wonderful 20 minutes with the young man in the picture and two of his buddies/colleagues, speaking a combination of French and English and talking about our families and our homes while he effected a repair that will without doubt outlast the rest of the backpack (which I bought about twelve years ago for twenty bucks in Tijuana). He wouldn’t name a price for the repair so I tipped him and his friends ten bucks — very generous by local standards — and everyone left delighted. It was one of those encounters that reminds me why we travel.

We had dinner with Steve and Thumper at an excellent local restaurant down the street from our riad: pigeon pastille (squawk!) topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar, and a belly dancer for entertainment. Then it was back to the main square at night, where Steve wowed the locals with a performance of his own, about which I will regale you tomorrow.

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