Quin's Progress


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Me & Miss Tran

P1130487Since I’ve been traveling in Southeast Asia, that soft spot in my heart that is reserved for animals has taken more than a few pointy-toed boot kicks. I’ve told you about some of them; others I’ve kept to myself because I don’t want to bum you out too much. I’ll tell you about this one, though, because it has a happy ending. Or, at least, it will, by the time I’m done.

P1160798Hoi An is an enchanting little town in central Vietnam, at the bottom of the China Beach crescent, about 45 minutes from Da Nang. Pastoral and quiet, flanked by cinematic marble mountains and rice paddies, Hoi An is an ideal place to hit the pause button and regroup for a while after a long stint on the road.

P1160869I was having a most entertaining morning wandering through the town market the other day. I’d been accosted by two old grannies (who turned out to be about my age) who announced “you come, mama take care of baby,” and proceeded to denude me of all unwanted body hair on every decently exposable part of my body, right there on the sidewalk, with twisted loops of thread. spring roll wrappersI’d gotten a lesson on how to make the wrappers for fresh spring rolls from scratch, as well as those addictive, flavored rice crackers that look like hunks of Styrofoam. IMG_0248I’d had a foot massage, and was about to have another cà phê sữa đá, that dangerously delicious Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened milk. It was shaping up to be a pleasant day.

P1160884As I passed the central market square, I noticed a tiny, black figure skitter across the entrance to the food stall area. When I looked closer, I realized it was a kitten. Barely even there, it would have fit in a teacup with room to spare. I gasped when I saw its ribs showing through vacuum-packed skin, its thin fur sticky and dirty, face crusty. A woman selling sugar cane juice nearby saw my shock, and put her hand over her heart and shook her head, saying “he no have mother.” I stood there for a minute, unsure what to do. Deciding there was nothing I could do, I walked away.

fishermenBut, I couldn’t get that scrawny bag of bones out of my head. I took a boat up the river to see the fishing villages that afternoon, but, the whole time, I was thinking about that sad little creature scrounging around the market, looking for food. At dinner, I just picked at my meal, feeling guilty. P1170007That night, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, the image of that pathetic, little thing appearing every time I closed my eyes, reminding me that the vilest thing about me is, and will always be, my ability to observe suffering, and walk on by.

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The market, at night.

Finally, I just said to myself, “To Hell with it! I may not be able to save all the helpless creatures I see, but I can try to do something for this one.” So, I got up, got dressed, and walked across town to the market in the middle of the night, and hunted for him. I managed to find several rats in the process, much larger than the kitten, but I figured they could take care of themselves. They seemed pretty healthy, actually.

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This is where I found the kitty.

There was an older couple still working in the market hall, and I asked them if they had seen a “meow meow,” and indicated “small” with my hands. Oh yes, they knew exactly what I meant, and before long, we had located the little guy, and the gentleman crawled under a booth and grabbed him for me. The lady emptied out a box, and we nestled the kitten in there with my beach sarong, that I had brought along to wrap him in. I heard them laughing as I left. They must have thought I was nuts. They could be right.

formulaI know better than to feed a kitten cow’s milk (unless you want to spend the rest of the day cleaning up explosive diarrhea), but it’s not like there is a Petco in Hoi An, or anywhere I could buy kitten formula and a kitten baby bottle. So, I bought some cooked chicken and fish from a street vendor on the way home. Better than nothing.

I smuggled him into my hotel room, and first things first, gave him a good, thorough bath, which I’m sure traumatized the poor thing. It wasn’t optional, though, considering where I had found him, and the state of his fur and face. Oh, that poor little sticky, goopy thing! He must have thought he was done for.

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Poor baby!

Once I got him clean and wrapped up in a towel to keep from catching a chill in the air conditioning, I offered him some bits of food. He lit into that food with such voracity, he bit the end of my finger with his needlelike teeth several times. I’m sure it was the first food he’d had in a long time. I was worried about shocking his system with too much food too soon, so I only gave him a little bit at a time. But, appetite, he had in spades, so, I knew he was strong. With his belly full, he fell asleep in my hands, purring ever so softly. I was toast. What the heck was I going to do with this baby kitten? I was supposed to fly on to my next destination, Hanoi, in just a few days! But, I had a little time to figure it out, so, I invoked the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara and determined to just think about it tomorrow.

Lookin' a little rough there.

Isn’t that just the saddest creature ever?

The next day, I marshaled my expert information gathering skills to find an animal rescue organization to take my little ward. I enlisted the help of the very tolerant hotel staff, and made calls to every animal welfare organization I could find from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, and everywhere in between. If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s find stuff out.

A tad squinky eyed.

A tad squinky eyed.

Through an animal group in Da Nang, I got the number of a veterinarian, Dr. Quang, who, believe it or not, made a house call to the hotel. He told me the kitten was actually a girl, and that she was dehydrated and had an abscess on the umbilical vestige spot on her tummy. Without asking my permission, he flipped her upside down in my lap, and performed a surgical procedure to clean the infection out, right there on the patio. The poor lamb bit the shit out of my hand in the process—who could blame her?—and I bled all over my pants and the floor and the kitten. It was quite a dramatic scene. The house call and surgery bill came to a whopping $7.

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Either I have giant fingers, or that is one tiny kitty.

Dr. Quang gave the kitty a shot of some antibiotics, fluids and vitamins, and gave me the number of a guy he knew, Phong, who takes in and cares for abandoned animals. I called, and Phong agreed to come for the kitten the next day. Dr. Quang admonished me not to feed the kitten fish or chicken anymore, but to give her rice porridge made with beef stock. Umm, okay doc, sure thing, I’ll just whip up a batch in the coffee maker right here in my hotel room. That wasn’t feasible, obviously. As a compromise, I swiped some paté from the breakfast buffet, and made a kind of mash with some hot water. This went over big with the kitten; she complained loudly if I offered her anything else after that.

"Whyyyyy?  Whyyyyy?  Whyyyy?"

“Whyyyyy? Whyyyyy? Whyyyy?”

She complained a lot, that little thing. With good reason, for sure, she’d had a pretty weird couple of days. When she would cry, it sounded like she was saying “Whyyyyyy? Whyyyyy? Whyyyy?” It reminded me of Nancy Kerrigan after Tonya Harding’s husband whacked her in the knee right before the Olympics. So, I named her Nancy.  It suits her, I think. But, she’s Vietnamese, so her last name is Tran.  Nancy Tran. Miss Tran, if you please.

Nancy thinks Mrs. Meers is creepy.

Nancy thinks Mrs. Meers is creepy.

Nancy Tran likes to watch TV. She is particularly fond of K-Pop videos. But, she’ll watch whatever. Here we are watching Thoroughly Modern Millie, which I contend is one of the most brilliantly deranged and hilarious movies of all time. I could be projecting, but I think Miss Nancy liked it, too. If you haven’t seen it yet, please remedy that immediately. Preferably, with a purring kitten on your chest, if possible. But I digress.

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Snuggly Snookums.

The next day, I got a response to my email to a local animal sanctuary (run by a couple of foreign women, at least one of whom is American), saying they were, unfortunately, already beyond capacity, and couldn’t take Miss Tran in. They are just a volunteer group, with no funding or sponsorship, and they weren’t in a position to accept any more critters. I understood, but it was disturbing, as it began look more and more like Phong was going to stand me up and leave me with this kitten to take care of.

I found a listing online for rescue organization in Hanoi that focuses on adoptions, and read several reviews in English—presumably from expats—saying what a great network it is. So, I rang them up and asked, if I could get Nancy to them, would they take her and find her a good home. Yes, they would, she said.

Looking perkier after only one day of love.

Looking a lot perkier after only one day of love.

But, Hanoi is about a 14-hour drive from Hoi An, and neither the airlines nor the railroad would allow me to take Miss Nancy Tran on board on such short notice, and without health certificates that I couldn’t get until she is healthier and vaccinated. I was going to just hire a driver and make the trip by car, but the director of the Hanoi rescue hotline told me not to do that, that she would make some calls and try and find me some help closer to where I was. Bless her, she did, and guess who came through? Dr. Quang and Phong! The people I had already been in contact with! There just aren’t that many people rescuing animals in Vietnam, much less, central Vietnam.

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Phong, our savior.

The following afternoon, Nancy was already looking and feeling so much better when Phong came for her. What a sweet, sweet man. Dr. Quang had filled him in already, so he knew all about our Miss Tran. As we chatted, I realized he was with the Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization, the rescue shelter I’d already been in touch with that said they were too full to take another animal.

Breaking my heart!

Breaking my heart!

This worried me, but Phong assured me she would be okay. I promised to make a donation over the shelter’s website to help them take care of her and the others, which I did (http://www.gofundme.com/vnanimalwelfare). Nancy Tran and I both cried inconsolably when Phong took her away. I was a wreck for the rest of the day, and beyond. I’ve gotten email updates from them, though, telling me she is doing well and getting stronger every day.

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More coffee.

When I got to Hanoi, I had coffee with Trang, the woman from Hanoi Animal Rescue who had helped me over the phone. She told me about the foster and adoption network they have developed to save dogs and cats from the meat trade in Vietnam. They have miraculously been able to find good homes for almost all of the animals they have rescued, if they are healthy. They interview prospective adoptive homes, and do follow up checks to make sure the animal is doing well. Unfortunately, they are also a completely volunteer-run group, with no funding or sponsorship, and despite their successful adoption program, mounting vet bills are on the verge of shutting them down. Apparently, the only officially organized and supported animal welfare group in Vietnam that deals with dogs and cats, as opposed to wild animals, is Animal Rescue & Care (A.R.C.) down south in Ho Chi Minh City.

bdngpassIn the meantime, though, Trang has been invaluable help, pitching in with me to figure out a way to get Miss Nancy up here to Hanoi, so she can be adopted. Trang even called a cattery that ships fancy cats all over, and they said Miss Nancy is too small to be shipped alone; she’s going to have to travel escorted, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, anyway. Time is of the essence, though, as the smaller and cuter Nancy is, the more likely she’ll be adopted by someone who doesn’t want to cook her for dinner. (Trang told me that, in northern Vietnam, some people apparently believe the meat of a black cat is very good for the health.

Doesn't our Miss Tran look so much better already?

Doesn’t our Miss Tran look so much better already?

There’s no meat on Miss Nancy right now, but by the time she is healthy and strong enough to make the trip up here, there will be, so it is of paramount importance that she land in the right home. I remember my folks had this problem when we had to get rid of our pet goat, Willy, when I was little. There were lots of people calling, wanting him for a barbecue.)

But, we’ll figure it out. There’s a way, I just have to find it and throw some money at it. One thing’s for sure: I won’t rest until my Miss Nancy Tran is settled into a loving home of her own.

Stay tuned….

* * * * * * *

For more information about the animal rescue groups discussed in this post, see:

1.  Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization (Central Vietnam—Hoi An): http://www.vnanimalwelfare.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/pages/Vietnam-Animal-Welfare-Organization/163375270485035.  To make a donation: http://www.gofundme.com/vnanimalwelfare

2.  Hanoi Animal Rescue (Northern Vietnam—Ha Noi): http://venha.org/en/ or https://www.facebook.com/tramcuuhochomeohanoi.   To make a donation via PayPal, click “send” on the homepage, and enter hanoipetrescue@gmail.com as the recipient.

3.  Animal Rescue and Care (A.R.C.), Ho Chi Minh City (Southern Vietnam—Saigon): http://www.arcpets.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/pages/ARC-Vietnam-Animal-Rescue-Care/156253704415502.

4.  Cứu Trợ Động Vật Đà Nẵng — Animal Rescue of Danang (Central Vietnam—Da Nang):  https://www.facebook.com/CuuTroDongVatDaNang?fref=ts (site in Vietnamese only).


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Beauty Night In Mandalay

P1140812There’s an old saying in Asia that the most beautiful women have Indian eyes, a Thai smile, and Burmese skin.   I wouldn’t dream of disputing that, but it’s not as easy as you’d think to verify the last component of that combination. Why? For the same reason that the adage is true. Thanaka. Burmese women cover their faces with it.

P1140469When it comes to unique norms of beauty coming out of Myanmar, most of us who grew up with National Geographic automatically think of the Padaung or Kayan women of the Karenni ethnic group, who wear brass coils around their necks, making them look long and stretched. But the Long Neck Ladies of the Kayan are an oddity even within Myanmar. A far more widespread cosmetic custom—and just as much a cultural identifier to all the people of Myanmar as the brass neck rings are to the women of the Kayan—is the use of thanaka.

IMG_8751Thanaka (pronounced “tah-nah-KAH”) is a cosmetic made of the ground bark of the thanaka tree that grows in the drier areas of Myanmar. Combined with a few drops of water, the ground thanaka bark makes a thin, creamy paste of a color my mother would have ever so daintily referred to as “baby shit yellow,” but that I’ll call more of a Dijon mustard color. Thinly applied to the skin while wet, the thanaka dries to a soft, powdery, buttercup yellow.

P1140400The people of Myanmar have used Thanaka for centuries. You can see ancient thanaka grinding stones in museums, so it’s been a part of their cultural identity for a long, long time. Today, all over Myanmar, even in the big city, people use thanaka as a daily cosmetic, sunscreen, fragrance, and overall skin protection/improvement treatment. It’s supposed to perform all manner of complexion magic, from preventing acne, lightening sun damage, shrinking pores, even killing fungal infections on the skin. But, mostly, folks just think it’s pretty to paint it on their faces. Or their arms. Or hands, especially if the person works outside. But mostly faces.

Usually swiped lightly across the cheeks and forehead, or boldly painted into decorative patterns, thanaka is used by everyone.  It’s an equal opportunity beautifier. You don’t see it on grown men too often, but pretty much everyone else uses it every day.  Women:

Girls:

Boys:

Babies:

 

Thanaka Logs

Thanaka Logs

In the local markets, you can buy a chunk of a thanaka branch, and use the special round stone and some water to grind your own thanaka paste, like so (if video doesn’t show below, click here):

IMG_8946If that looks like too much of an upper arm workout for every day, you can buy a cake of pre-ground bark paste, and just rub that on a wet surface—even your palm—to create the thin lotion to put on your skin.

P1140901Alternatively, it comes as a prepared concentrate, in jars, sometimes mixed with other cosmetic additives or fragrances.  Everyone I talked to said to avoid the ones with added stuff and just get the plain, organic one. Don’t mess with a classic.

IMG_8815Everywhere I went, women were trying to smear me with thanaka. I had a thanaka massage—which was lovely and refreshing—and before she let me up, the massage therapist thanaka’d my face, to go. I visited a rural village, and the matriarch dragged me to the thanaka stone and fixed my face (that’s her in the video above). I just looked unfinished to them without it.

IMG_8842It smells nice, kind of soft and fresh, faintly woodsy, and herbal. But the most awesome thing is that it gently tingles and cools your skin, which is so welcome in the Myanmar heat. It also keeps your skin dry, when it would otherwise be glistening with schwitz.

IMG_8745I got some expert advice from some girls who work in a department store in Mandalay. They busted me, in what I thought was an empty aisle of the store, singing and doing the cha-cha to the Asianized instrumental version of Copacabana that was on the piped music system, and once we were all done laughing at what a dork I am, they started patting my cheeks and saying “you need thanaka!” So, I enlisted their help in choosing a prepared product to try at home, because I wasn’t investing in a stone to grind my own anytime soon.

IMG_8746I knew to get the plain, organic kind, but still, you have to be careful which brand you choose. Some factory-made thanaka products are banned all over Southeast Asia because of dangerous impurities that have caused nasty cases of lead poisoning. Apparently, some kids in Missouri died of lead poisoning after using tainted thanaka paste (it was news to me that there was a Burmese community in Missouri, but apparently, there is). So, beware, and make sure you get the pure, organic kind. P1140898The girls at the store told me this one—“Shwe Pyi Nann”—is good. Several other women later told me, yes, this one is their trusted brand, too. I think you can even get it on Amazon now. I just never would have known to look for it before, or what to do with it if I had discovered it by accident.

IMG_8749My department store girlfriends told me to dig out a small glob of the paste and mix it with a little water until the consistency is right—like paint—and then go to town. So, I went native and had myself a little thanaka party. I think I need some practice.  Okay, so maybe this was a lesson in how NOT to wear thanaka!

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt.  What?  KISS wore lots of makeup.

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt. What? KISS wore lots of makeup.

Although I don’t think I’ll be sporting thanaka-face in public outside of Myanmar, I didn’t toss that jar of thanaka when I left. It makes for a nice weekly facemask that really does shrink your pores, and leaves your skin feeling so clean and fresh. In fact, I’m using it now, as I write! So, thanaka you very much for the wonderful beauty tip, Myanmar! My pores and I are ever grateful.


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Freebird

She saw me coming a mile away.

She saw me coming a mile away.

In the streets of Yangon, and at temple gates in various cities in Myanmar, there are girls with baskets full of finches. Perky little finches, cheeping cheerfully and hopping about. For 500 Kyat (about 50 cents USD), the girl will reach into the basket, bring out one of the wiggling birds, and place it in your cupped hands. Then, you make a wish and set the little birdie free.

finchesBuddhists believe that such small acts of kindness give them extra merit points in their karma banks, to be totaled up with all their other good deeds and weighed against all their bad deeds when it comes time to be reincarnated. Every little bit helps, especially if the balance is already tipping toward reincarnation as a dung beetle or one of those birds that picks dead meat out of crocodiles’ teeth. And, although superstitions are generally inconsistent with Buddhist beliefs, many people consult astrologers to tell them how many of these little birds to set free to balance out a bit of naughtiness, or give extra power to especially important prayers.

You go, little finchy!

You go, little finchy!

It’s quite an uplifting feeling to watch that little creature flutter into the sky from your outstretched hands, carrying your good intentions into the world. The first time I tried it, I was so exhilarated, I ended up buying out the girl’s whole basket of birds. At 30-something finchies, it was the best fifteen bucks I’d spent in a long time. If it keeps me from being reincarnated as a Muni driver, so much the better.

Finch LadyThat girl was waiting for me on the same corner the next day. I knew I was being had, but I was happy to go along with it, and cleaned out her finch inventory again. It really puts you into a good mood to release those little guys and watch them streak off to freedom. That and a good breakfast pretty much ensure that you’re going to have an awesome day.

Girl with finches-2Then some killjoy told me that the birds are trained to return to the owners, and they end up back in the same basket the next day. I didn’t want to believe it, so I asked around, and it’s apparently true. I have no idea how you train a finch, but I guess it’s doable. So, perhaps I released the same bunch of birds two days in a row. But, I say, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! It’s still magical to hold that quivering little body in your hands, feel it pinch you impatiently with its dainty beak if you take too long formulating your wish, and see it take off and reclaim its liberty. Setting it free is all I can do; if the bird has been trained to surrender itself again after being emancipated, that’s on someone else’s karma account. And, maybe one or two of those tiny guys took advantage of the chance to make a real break for it, and didn’t come back. I hope so.  Unless they get eaten by bigger birds or lizards or something.  If so, then I hope they were back in the safety of their basket by nightfall.

Basket of finchesI was so entertained by this finch thing, that I even took some requests from friends back home, and made wishes for them by proxy when I would encounter the finch girls at a temple. I was running out of things to wish for, anyway, so it worked out.

One day, at a temple in Bago, after I had made finch wishes for health and happiness for all my loved ones, strength to those I know who are going through something, peace in places of conflict, and all the selfless, benevolent things I could think of, and placed the special orders given to me by folks back home, I figured I had earned a selfish one that I could use for something vain.

A bird in the hand.

A bird in the hand.

So, on my last birdie of the day, I cupped him lightly in my hands and wished to drop a couple of dress sizes. Now, I’m normally pretty sorted out about being on the fluffy side, but I’ve been traveling in Asia for almost a year now, and I’m here to tell you, if you aren’t built like Olive Oyl, you will be told several times a day, by well meaning, smiling people, how fat you are. It isn’t malicious, but it isn’t exactly a compliment either, and it kinda gets to a girl after a while. So, there I stood, fervently wishing on a finch that my booty be a little less…well, just less.

Go on, little guy!  Please?

Go on, little guy! Please?

I stretched my arms up and opened my hands to release the finch to the sky…and he didn’t budge. I brought my hands down and had a look at him. He just sat there. I shook my hands a little, to encourage him, but he just looked at me and cocked his head to the side.

Nothing doing.

Nothing doing.

The girl, probably concerned she would have to give me a refund for this one, got up and tapped pretty hard under my hand to boost him into the air.  He just hopped down to the cage and got back inside. He wasn’t going anywhere with that wish.

So much for that. Looks like I’d better hang on to my stretchy pants!


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Whatever You Do, Don’t Crap Bananas

Myanmar FlagMingalaba, gentle friends! Greetings from Myanmar.

Oh, Myanmar. You really made me work for it, didn’t you? Having your embassies reject my visa applications because I wasn’t applying in my home country, giving me the run around about the visa-on-arrival program, and then finally having mercy on my passport in Singapore, notwithstanding the “Don’t Even Think of Applying for a Visa Here if You’re Not a Legal Singapore Resident” signs at the consulate.  And, now that I’m finally here, you’re trying to kill me.

Myanmar restaurant, but not the one where the fish bone got me.

Myanmar restaurant, but not the one where the fish bone got me.

First, there was the wily fish bone. I am not a picky eater, but I am a bit fussy about fish with little, thin bones. Perhaps there is a repressed, early childhood trauma at the root of it, I don’t know, but the idea of getting a fish bone stuck in my throat strikes such dread in me that I normally will have nothing to do with anything made from a fish smaller than a coffee table.

Mr. Ko in the Shan mountains.

Mr. Ko in the Shan mountains.

But, when my driver, Mr. Ko—who I only later discovered was not named Mr. Ko at all, but had told me to call him by that name (which, apparently, translates essentially to “Mr. Sir”), because he correctly surmised I would never be able to pronounce his real name—took me to a restaurant in a rural village in northern Shan State, and communicated as best he could in his limited English that the fish soup, made from a smallish catfish caught that day in the rice paddy, was the best, freshest thing on offer, I reluctantly acquiesced. And, of course, even though I was hyper-careful, I promptly got a bone stuck in my throat.

Evil fish bones.

The evil fish bones.

Pandemonium ensued in the little café. Good god, they couldn’t kill a foreigner, it would be terrible for business! After much shouting in Burmese and arm waving, the owner’s daughter rushed over with a bunch of bananas. Mr. Ko grabbed them, quickly peeled one, and handed it to me, urging me through hand gestures to eat it to knock the bone down my gullet.  I put a hunk of banana in my mouth, and as I began to chew, Mr. Ko exclaimed, “Don’t crap!”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Don’t CRAP!” he insisted.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” I assured him, as I continued to chew the banana.

Shan bananas.  Shananas.

Shan bananas. Shananas.

“DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DON’T CRAP BANANAS! DOOON’T CRAAAAAAAAAAP!!!!” he exhorted anxiously. Then, he put the back of his hand under my chin to stop me from chewing, and I finally got it. Makes sense, of course.  The banana has to be in one piece to knock the offending bone down, not chewed into goo that would slide around it. But, I could, at least, breathe with the bone stuck in there, and I was imagining a plug of banana getting lodged on top of the bone and cutting off my air, so I was hesitant. But, they all seemed to think it was a good idea, so, lacking any better solution, I complied. And it worked. As soon as I swallowed a piece of uncrapped banana, the bone dislodged, and peace was restored.

Hsipaw Train Station.

Hsipaw Train Station.

Then came the treacherous train. Two days after the fish bone incident, I got on a train in Hsipaw headed toward an old British hill station in the mountains north of Mandalay.  Myanmar RailwayI decided to spring for the extra forty cents to have a seat in the “First Class” car, which, as far as I could tell, differed from the “Ordinary Class” only in the assignment of individual seats, instead of open seating on benches.  Definitely worth forty cents.

MR BoobsWhen I got to my assigned seat, I noticed these fabric seat covers printed with a symbol that resembled saggy breasts. Having also seen this symbol painted on the entrance to various ladies’ restrooms, and noticing that the only other person seated in that area of the car was an elderly woman, I concluded that the symbol must be the Burmese character representing “women,” and these seats must be reserved for ladies.

LadyI made a conscious decision not to think any further about whether they were specifically reserved for old ladies with saggy breasts, and whether or not it was fair that I had been relegated to that zone without a proper inquiry.

Ladies' Room.

Ladies’ Room.

Turns out I was wrong, anyway. I later learned that the symbol is the Burmese word “ma,” which means both “women” and the abbreviated form of “Myanmar,” which is why it is printed on the seats of the Myanmar state railroad.  So, there you have it.

Bag o' tea.

Bag o’ tea.

Cheroots.

Cheroots.

My seat neighbor turned out to be quite a dame. She brought out tins of dried, sugared mango slices, tied plastic baggies of milk tea, and packages of cheroots—small, hand-rolled cigars—and passed them around to everyone, before producing a deck of cards and inviting folks to come play.

Game3She didn’t have to twist anyone’s arm, let me tell you.  Before I knew it, someone had upended a vegetable basket between the seats and placed a cushion on top to form a card table, and an ever-growing group of people crowded around, laughing, and smoking, and happily gambling away the meager contents of their respective wallets. Game4She offered to deal me in, but I couldn’t figure out what game they were playing, so I judiciously declined.

Systematically, that fabulous old broad took each of those guys to the cleaners. When one of them busted out of the game, she offered to buy his cheroots off him so he would have money to keep playing. Game2He went for it, and then she won the money back off him, leaving him without smokes or coin. She did it with such affable charm, though, none of her victims seemed to mind. I really admired her.

In the meantime, the train was bucking through the mountains like a bronco with a bee in its butt. Kids on a trainThe coaches jumped and jerked so violently, there were times when even my ample behind was thrown all the way into the air. We all had to hold on to keep from being pitched onto the floor, not that it disrupted the card game in the slightest. You could see through the aisle door how the coach ahead of ours was jerking and rocking back and forth like a metronome on amphetamines. It was more than a little disconcerting, but none of the other passengers seemed worried, so I figured it must be normal, and tried to roll with it. No pun intended.

Now I know why they included life insurance in the ticket fare!

Now I know why they included life insurance in the ticket fare!

I was concerned about angering Dale, though. He’s been pretty tame lately, and the fear of antagonizing him with this rock n’ roller coaster ride was real. Ultimately, after about five hours of being relentlessly jolted and jostled, I got off the train and got a private car down the remainder of the mountain.

Shan Noodles.

Shan Noodles.

That is why, when the train derailed in the forest about a half hour later, I was happily stuffing my face with Shan noodles at a roadside tea house, watching the “Chinese Horsemen” come down the highway from nearby China, carrying cheap, refurbished motorcycles—jocularly called Chinese Horses—on the backs of their own motorcycles, illegally importing them to waiting customers in the rural hill tribes.

Pyin Oo Lwin.

Pyin Oo Lwin.

I would never have known about the train crash, but the next day, in Pyin Oo Lwin town, I was accosted by a woman shouting “Hey, there you are! What happened to you?” When she caught up to me, she said she recognized me from the train, and that they had looked everywhere for me, but no one could find me. To the nonplussed look on my face, she said, “Did you get off early?” I said yes. “So, you don’t know that the train derailed?” No, I most certainly did not.

From the train window, shortly before I got off, and it crashed.

From the train window, shortly before I got off, and it crashed.

She then told me all about it. Apparently, three coaches, including the one I had been in, jumped off the tracks in the woods, far from any town or station, or even the highway. I worried about the card playing granny and her cohorts, but I was assured that no one was hurt, thankfully. The coaches had gone off the rails to the left, into a clearing, instead of to the right, which would have sent the whole train tumbling down the mountainside into a very deep ravine.

Shortly before it derailed.

Shortly before it derailed.

Someone called the police from a mobile phone, and the Gendarme soon came with pick-up trucks to get people out and down to the next decent size town, which was Pyin Oo Lwin.  All train service between Mandalay and Lashio, the last town before the Chinese border, was suspended until further notice, so they could clear the mess off the tracks.

It all sounded very dramatic and inconvenient. I was so grateful not to have been there. Can you imagine? I would have crapped bananas.


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Zali’s Babies

Love has been on my mind a lot lately. Not in a dopamine-soaked, romantic comedy kind of way, but more in the sense of grammar. I know, sexy, right? Let me explain.

People v Animals

Sorry kid, the kitty comes first.

I’ve been accused more than once of having more compassion for animals than for humans, and I can’t deny it. It’s not that I don’t have compassion for humans. I do. Plenty. I just have more for animals. Incidents of human suffering upset me deeply, but my heart twists into the most exquisitely painful knots when I so much as hear about animal suffering, much less witness it. I can’t help it, I just love animals.

But, that feeling, that love, is a noun. Love(n.) It’s a thing that I experience. It means a lot to me, but it exists only in my head and my heart. It’s my feeling, relevant to, and affecting, no one but me. I don’t mean to minimize it–such feelings are what animate us–just to clarify that when people casually talk about loving something or someone, they usually mean Love(n.), as in, the experience of a feeling with respect to that thing or person.

I Love(n.) this Kitty Shirt!

I Love(n.) this Kitty Shirt!

We can Love(n.) all kinds of things—people, the ocean, kitties, corndogs, your country, go-go boots, God—there is a limitless capacity for Love(n.) in the human heart. It’s not like a pie, where the more pieces you cut it into, the smaller each piece, and thus the less love there is to go around. No, with Love(n.), the more you do it, the more Love(n.) you experience. It’s boundless. Remember? It’s all in your own head. You’re the only thing limiting it.

Love(n.) it!

Love(n.) it!

Love as a verb is a very different story. Love(v.) is not, I don’t think, the act of having a feeling of Love(n.). I think that’s better described as an adjective—Love(adj.)—as in, having the condition of being blessed (or afflicted) with Love(n.) for something or someone (it’s not perfect, I know, just bear with me). Nor am I talking about sexy fun time in this instance. No, Love(v.), in my view, is the action one takes specifically for the benefit of the object of the Love(n.), whatever or whoever that may be. Not actions taken with the motive of obtaining or retaining possession of it, getting the feelings reciprocated, or any other intention that relates to our own needs. Acts, big or small, that are done, not for gain of some kind, but because you know that the object of your Love(n.) needs it. You don’t even have to be right, just genuinely motivated by the belief that what you are doing will bestow a benefit, no matter how small. That’s Love(v.) in my dictionary, and it’s the only way that the Love(n.) we feel inside can become relevant, mean anything, to anyone but ourselves. And, unlike Love(n.), it’s limited. Love(v.) is limited by our time, resources, creativity, energy, inhibitions, etc. There are only so many hours in the day, dollars in the bank, places we can be, and a hundred other things competing for our finite attention. That’s why most of us—myself included—don’t do it, or at least, not very much. That’s not the end of the world, I guess, as long as we confine our Love(n.) to those who will do just fine without us. The problem is, not everyone is going to be just fine without us. Not by a long shot.

I saw this pygmy elephant in the wild in Borneo.

I saw this pygmy elephant in the wild in Borneo.

Take the Asian elephant. Between poaching and habitat loss, fewer than 1,200 wild elephants remain in peninsular Malaysia. They are critically endangered, and I recently met a man who Loves(v.) them with everything he’s got.

Zali and his babies. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

Zali and his babies.
(Photo courtesy of Zali)

I read about Zali in a Tripadvisor forum about the Malaysian National Elephant Conservation Center in Kuala Gandah. The Center is run by Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, and is the base for the elite “Elephant Unit,” a group of expertly trained elephant cowboys that responds to reports of elephant-human conflict, and relocates the elephants to safer habitats, such as the Taman Negara National Park, to keep them out of harm’s way.

The Elephant Unit at work.  (Photo courtesy of Zali)

The Elephant Unit at work. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

When the Unit finds elephants too sick or injured to survive on their own upon relocation, they take them back to the Center for care.

Trained elephants in the Unit keep the wild ones calm during transport. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

Trained elephants in the Unit keep the wild ones calm during transport.
(Photo courtesy of Zali)

If, for any reason, an elephant cannot be nursed back into a condition allowing it to be released back into the wild, it remains a resident of the Center, and is then trained to be part of the Unit, assisting the rangers by going along on missions, and using their trunks, bodies and voices to calm and guide the confused and angry wild elephants during capture and transport to the new habitat.  The Unit is, thus, a true man-elephant collaboration.

Zali has been part of the Elephant Unit and a volunteer at the Center since the 1980s. A staunch military man with a special forces background, he is the sort of man you involuntarily say “Yes, Sir” to when he addresses you.

Zali giving us orders.

Zali giving us orders.

He has been chased, kicked, thrashed and had bones broken by wild elephants, and has forgotten more about the pachyderm ways than I could hope to learn if I studied them religiously for the next ten years. He is one tough dude. But, when it comes to his elephants, this tough guy has a big marshmallow heart.

The Elephant Unit men, saving a baby elephant stuck in a ravine.  (Photo courtesy of Zali)

The Elephant Unit men, saving a baby elephant stuck in a ravine. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

The Unit occasionally finds orphaned baby elephants. Elephants are totally dependent on their mothers for the first three or four years of life, not weaned until about 10, and not fully self-sufficient until they are about 16 years old. So, the Unit cannot relocate a baby or juvenile elephant on its own and expect it to survive. The Center, however, has little to no budget for raising orphans. Enter Zali.

Every day, Zali makes the two-hour trek from Kuala Lumpur out to the Center to feed and care for the orphaned babies, at his own cost. To defray the expense, he occasionally brings private elephant enthusiasts along with him, provided they are willing to kick in to the kitty and roll up their sleeves.

Load of loaves for the babies.

Loads of loaves for the babies.

I was happy to do both, so Zali told me to buy a bunch of packages of baby formula and loaves of bread for the babies, and meet him and a couple other volunteers at the end of the monorail line on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Rangers bathing the elephants in the river at the Center.

Rangers bathing the elephants in the river at the Center.

Now, you can visit the Center on your own, as a tourist, and see a few of the older elephants, watch the rangers demonstrate their skills and take them into the river to bathe, and, depending on the level of the water and swiftness of the current, maybe even go in the river with them, under supervision, of course.

Rangers riding the older elephants down the road back to the paddock after bath time.

Rangers riding the older elephants down the road back to the paddock after bath time.

The tourist program is designed to educate visitors about what the Center does, and how they train resident elephants to help in the conservation efforts to save wild elephants.

I got a Backstage Pass.

I got a Backstage Pass.

But, if you want to go behind the scenes, actually get in there and take care of the elephants, see the babies, and stay longer than the couple hours that the Center is open to the public, you have to go as one of Zali’s minions. And you’d better be prepared to follow orders.

There will be no lolling about and leisurely exploring the grounds. You will go where you’re told, do what you’re told, and you will keep up. Zali’s got work to do, and you’re there to help him get it done.

Hand chopped by yours truly.

Hand chopped by yours truly.

Zali peeling sugar cane so the babies can chew it.

Zali peeling sugar cane so the babies can chew it.

There are bushels of papayas to chop, sugar cane to peel and cut so the babies can chew it, poop to scoop, and sheaves of grass to haul.

“When you sweat on the food,” Zali instructed as we stood in the sun, hacking up wheelbarrows full of papayas with a machete, “the elephants will learn your smell, and accept you faster. So, sweat! It’s for your safety!”

Elephant poop, scooped by yours truly.

Elephant poop, scooped by yours truly.

By the time you’re done with the morning feeding and cleaning, it’s time to start over again for the afternoon feeding and cleaning. If you wander off, don’t do what you’re told, don’t pull your weight, or otherwise disobey Zali’s orders, be prepared for an army-style dressing down.

All those bundles of grass need to be hauled to the elephants for lunch.

All those bundles of grass need to be hauled to the elephants for lunch.

It’s as much for your benefit as his, as Zali is not only trying to get his work done, he’s also responsible for the safety of his volunteers while they are inside the Center, working around beasts that could kill you in a flash if they took a mind to. So, be prepared for some Tough Love(v.). If you can take it, you’ll be rewarded a thousand fold.

A haulin' and a scoopin', I was.

A haulin’ and a scoopin’, I was.

Zali knows every elephant at the Center, and the stories he told us about them revealed not only his deep regard and respect for the animals, but also his sense of humor. One of the older female elephants, he told us, figured out how to lie on her side and shimmy under the electric fencing of the large paddock to escape and plunder a nearby tapioca root farm, bringing the spoils back to share with the other elephants.

Nom Nom Nom!

Nom Nom Nom!

“Ooh, the farmer was so pissed at us!” Zali exclaimed, as he demonstrated how the old dowager elephant had wiggled under the wires. “She is so cheeky,” he said with obvious affection. “We had to put in an extra strand of wire down by the ground to keep her in.”

Zali, next to the elephant transport truck.

Zali, next to the elephant transport truck.

“Miss Tiger Proof,” Zali beamed with pride, introducing us to another adult female in the main elephant barn. “She got attacked by a tiger, but fought him off, and got away only losing her tail. How embarrassing for that tiger, eh, to have to face his friends after catching an elephant and only getting a tail!”

Miss Dara

Miss Dara

Dara is just a few years old–too old to be in the nursery with the little babies, but too young to be out in the paddock with the big guys. So, she hangs out with the teenagers in the front barn, who protectively look after her, stroking her with their trunks and cooing to her when she gets upset or spooked by a noise.

She's about to chuck that stick at me.

She’s about to chuck that stick at me.

Zali showed us how to train her to use her trunk to grasp, and how to communicate with her by making sighing sounds as you offer her food. Like any kid, she is given to moods and spells of naughtiness.

Zali and Dara.

Zali and Dara.

When she decided it would be fun to throw sticks of sugar cane at me—which she did with surprisingly accurate aim—Zali scolded her like any dutiful father would, teaching her manners, and reassuring her afterwards with a loving pat to the shoulder. And it worked. Just one stern word from Zali, and Miss Dara behaved herself like a proper little lady.

Many of the elephants still bear the heartbreaking marks of the injuries that lead them to be at the Center in the first place.

Miss Tripod.  Notice her missing front foot.

Miss Tripod. Notice her missing front foot.

Several have rings of scars around the entire circumference of a leg, showing where they were caught in a snare by poachers looking for tusks or elephant feet to turn into decorative table bases or umbrella stands. One of the Center’s residents lost one of her front feet in a snare. She is alive because of the Center, but they could not save her foot.

Miss Tripod with her prosthesis.  (Photo courtesy of Zali)

Miss Tripod with her prosthesis. (Photo courtesy of Zali)

Zali nicknamed her “Miss Tripod,” and she is a functional member of the troop, because of the prostheses he fashions for her. The design of the prosthesis is an ongoing project for Zali and the Center.  Miss Tripod figured out how to take off the first few iterations, but Zali fixed that glitch. She still goes through them every few months, though, because she’s a growing girl, and outgrows them just like a kid outgrows shoes. And, well, she’s an elephant, and she wears them out quickly. Zali is currently looking for someone to manufacture the latest design of the prosthesis so he can accurately determine the production cost, and then try to crowdsource the funds to keep Miss Tripod in shoes.

(If the video does not show above, click here.)

By far, the most visceral memory I took away from my day working with Zali, though, is of Lepar, the littlest baby in the nursery. Little Lepar is just barely a year old, and is covered with copious amounts of bushy black hair. She stands about as high as my hip. Far too young to survive after losing her mama, Lepar would not be here if not for Zali.

(Photo courtesy of Zali)

Baby love.  (Photo courtesy of Zali)

As I was feeding her chunks of papaya and sugar cane, she coiled her trunk around my hand and pulled it toward her mouth. “Relax your arm,” Zali said. “Put your thumb out for her.” So, I did. And Lepar put my hand in her toothless mouth…and sucked my thumb. “Now you see why I call her ‘Miss Thumbsucker,’” Zali laughed. I hummed to her softly, like he taught me, and she closed her eyes, leaned against me, and made whimpering baby sounds as she suckled my thumb, just like the sweet, innocent baby she is, with her velvety trunk wrapped around my wrist. I could have cradled her like that forever.  “She likes you,” Zali smiled approvingly. “Mother’s touch.”

Snack Stand

On the drive back to Kuala Lumpur, sunburned, scratched up, exhausted and exhilarated by a long day of hard work, and hearts overflowing with Love(n.), we stopped at a small village to have some tea and a snack at a stand owned by one of Zali’s friends.

Having tea on the way home.

Having tea with Zali on the way home.

As we chatted, I asked Zali what he would like me to say to all of you about the Center, or him. “Just tell them what is happening to the elephants,” he said. “Tell them what we do here. That’s all. Just tell them about the work we’re trying to do.”

Now, that’s Love(v.).

 

  * * *

If you would like to contact Zali to arrange a day volunteering with the elephants, or to find out any other ways to help him take care of his babies, you can email him directly at jungletrekker69@gmail.com.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There is apparently a website—www.myelephants.org—and related Facebook page, that purport to solicit donations for the National Elephant Conservation Center at Kuala Gandah, but the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks has officially disclaimed any affiliation with that websites or the bank account for donations listed on the website. Please contact Zali or the Department of Wildlife and National Parks directly if you want to support the elephants.


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Unga Bunga Bunga!

Brace yourself, gentle friends, today’s episode of the QP is all about the Bunga.  Now, I know what you are thinking, and no, I am not referring to that naughty old chestnut of a joke about “Death by Unga Bunga,” nor to one of the best Bugs Bunny scenes of all time (although it did inspire the title of this post):

Get your mind out of the gutter!

Get your mind out of the gutter!

(Click here if the video does not show above.)

Nope, I’m talking about the exotic Bunga of Borneo. And what Bunga they have in Borneo. Believe me, the Bornean Bunga will blow your mind, Baby! Get your mind out of the gutter. “Bunga” is the Malay word for flowers.

Lobster ClawEven if, like me, you’re not usually one to get all giddy about plants, you will want to do some Bunga hunting in Borneo. You will not be disappointed.

Mt. Kinabalu

Mt. Kinabalu

A good place to start is in the forests of Kinabalu National Park, around the base of Mt. Kinabalu in Sabah, the northern state of Malaysian Borneo.

Bornean Forest.

Bornean Forest.

I hired a local guide in Kota Kinabalu, slathered myself with a thick frosting of DEET and sunscreen, and set off for what would prove to be a day of botanical superlatives. In one day, I saw the smallest, biggest, and definitely the weirdest flowers in the world.

Tiny OrchidWe found one of the smallest orchids in the world, or at least, in Kinabalu Park. I apologize for the fuzzy photo, but that little white speck at the end of my out-of-focus sausage finger is a teeny tiny orchid. Just trust me.

Pitcher2

The Rajah.

Borneo is also home to multiple species of carnivorous nepenthes, or pitcher plants. Locals call them “monkey cups.” There is a liquor in the bottom of the peculiar pots that grow on these vines, which attracts and then drowns insects, or even small lizards or animals. The movement of the prey’s struggle causes the release of a digestive acid, dissolving the poor victim, whose nutrients are then absorbed by the plant.  Although they mostly eat bugs, the biggest of the nepenthes—the Rajah—has been known to consume small squirrels. Talk about death by unga bunga.

Bunga Pakma, or Rafflesia.

Bunga Pakma, or Rafflesia.

My main quarry of the day, though, was the elusive Bunga Pakma, or Rafflesia flower. This is one weird blossom. The Rafflesia is the largest flower species in the world, growing up to three feet in diameter, and weighing up to 22 pounds. They are entirely parasitic, and have no roots, stems or leaves.

Rafflesia Bud.

Rafflesia Bud.

The buds look like, and are the size of, heads of radicchio, and just appear on the forest floor like space alien pods. Those pods percolate for 10 to 16 months before they mature and open. It takes up to two days for the thick, waxy petals to uncurl and open fully. Rafflesia CorpseOnce open, Rafflesia blossoms only live about a week before they turn black and collapse in on themselves in a pile of ashy goo resembling a cow patty.

Rafflesia CenterDuring its short lifespan, the Rafflesia emits a most malodorous perfume, often described as that of rotting flesh, designed to attract bluebottle flies to pollinate it. The closer the bloom is to dying, the stronger the stench.

And the flies go bonkers for it.

(Click here if the video does not show above.)

We found this Rafflesia blossom in the bamboo forest behind the home of a lady running a small catfish farm near the road, who offered to lead us to it for 30 ringgit. She said it had opened two days before, so it wasn’t too terribly stinky yet. In three more days, it will reek something awful. It was 35 inches across, just a couple inches under the documented record.

It's HUGE!

It’s HUGE!

Rafflesia BodiesYou could see the corpses of other recently deceased Rafflesia blossoms nearby, decomposing quietly in the sylvan shade, having completed their flash of weirdness, and yielding the stage and the attention of the bluebottles to the newcomer. Truly, the stuff of B movies.

35 inches in diameter.

35 inches in diameter.

I half expected Ann Francis to walk out of the trees in a silver lamé space suit and tell me to get my mitts off her garden before she called Dr. Morbius.

I so wanted to touch it. Its petals—actually, “petal” is too delicate a word, this thing had flaps like a dressage saddle—looked like they should be warm and soft to the touch, and have a pulse. But they are cool and turgid, like a succulent.

I hope I didn’t get any spores on me. I’ll let you know in 10 to 16 months.  In the meantime, remember, don’t forget to stop and smell the Bunga!

P1090590


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A Hardworking Monkey is a Sexy Monkey

A man and his monkey...and their motorbike.

A man and his monkey…and their motorbike.

I was hanging out on Koh Samui in Thailand for a few weeks, at a pleasant little retreat on the west side of the island.  One day, this man showed up on a motorbike with a monkey.  (I assume the man was driving, but I have to confess, I didn’t really notice one way or the other, as I was too busy thinking that the monkey, at least, should have had on a helmet, and then designing said monkey helmet in my mind.)

CocoMonkeyThe monkey was a beautiful, very healthy macaque, with some fearsome fangs on him.  He also liked to pull his penis out and play it like a banjo.

Mr. CocoMonkey, on the job!

Mr. CocoMonkey, on the job!

The man quietly spoke a few words in Thai to the monkey, who then scampered up a coconut tree and started chucking coconuts down.  Apparently, this is his job.  He’s a CocoMonkey!  He was very efficient.  The man said he could pick about 500 coconuts per day.  This is handy, because coconuts are an important commercial product in Thailand, and it would take a human a long time to pick 500 coconuts.  A monkey can do it in a few hours.  Most farmers have two or three monkeys, who take turns picking coconuts, so no one gets overworked or too tired.

See him up there working?

See him up there working?

The monkeys are trained to go up, find the coconuts, spin the coconut until it snaps free from the tree, and then drop it on the ground.  The farmer usually takes it from there, and gathers them up.

There’s actually a coconut-picking “Monkey Training College” in Surat Thani, Thailand, just across from Koh Samui on the mainland.

Don't drive your shiny black Audi under where Coco Monkey is working. Coco Monkey don't give a shit.

Don’t drive your shiny black Audi under where CocoMonkey is working. CocoMonkey don’t give a shit.

The monkeys are trained with concepts from Buddhism, using kindness and gentleness to teach them their trade, never force or violence.  There are three levels of schooling at the Monkey Training College.  Elementary School teaches the monkey basic coconut picking, and how to free himself when his line gets hung up in the tree.  It costs about 6,000 Thai Bhat ($184 USD) to put a monkey through elementary school.  This is the extent of most monkeys’ training.  But, there is also Secondary Monkey School, where the monkeys are trained to gather the picked coconuts, put them in bags, and take them wherever they are instructed.  This extra training is expensive, though, at about 25,000 Thai Bhat ($767 USD) per monkey–a little beyond the budget of most farmers.  Then there is Monkey High School, which is customized to what the owner needs, and priced accordingly.

Koh Samui

Koh Samui

You can visit the Monkey Training College, and even stay overnight, so you can see the students in action:  http://www.firstmonkeyschool.com/index.html.  Or, you can just hang out on the beach in Koh Samui and wait for coconut picking day, and watch the Monkey College graduates, quite literally, throw down!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Some Stuff – Pacific Islands Edition

In Batangas, Philippines.

In Batangas, Philippines.

As of today, I have been on the road for exactly six months. I can hardly believe it. Seems like just a few weeks to me, and yet, when I consider how much ground I’ve covered since leaving San Francisco, how far away my life as an office denizen feels, and how many truly lovely people I’ve been privileged to meet along the way, it seems like an awful lot for such a short period of time.

IMGP0621

One of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. Steven, of Yap.

In this edition of Some Stuff, I bid adieu to the islands I’ve visited since New Year’s Day 2014, in Micronesia and the Philippines (I know the Philippines is officially categorized as part of Southeast Asia, but it’s also one of the Pacific island nations, so I’ll cover it here). There are so many wonderful people and amazing things I will remember fondly from my travels around the Pacific. Without repeating things I’ve already written in other posts, here are just a few.

Everything’s Pretty in Saipan

Saipan

Saipan

Banzai Cliffs in Saipan

Banzai Cliffs in Saipan

Saipan is pretty. It’s quiet and lush and the water is so blue it looks fake, like it was dyed with Tidy Bowl toilet cleaner.  But, when I say everything is pretty in Saipan, I mean everything is “Pretty” in Saipan.

Kokoda, Kelaguen & Corndogs

Foodspotting App.

Foodspotting App.

I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings by saying that I don’t think the food is the best reason to travel to Micronesia. The Philippines, yes. But, Micronesia’s culinary offerings are, to me, a bit less of a draw, in part because of the difficulty of obtaining fresh ingredients, other than fish and taro root. That’s just my opinion, but I don’t think I’m alone in it. In fact, the Foodspotting app—which uses GPS to direct foodies to delicious dishes in their immediate proximity—recommended popcorn at K-Mart as one of the top lunch options in Guam. This, I don’t understand, when there are corndogs on that island.

IMG_6843Yes, corndogs! There is a Wienerschnitzel inside the airport, and a Hot Dog on a Stick in the Micronesia Mall, where, on weekdays, it’s buy one get one free. IMG_6737I was so happy! By the time I left, the girls at the Hot Dog on a Stick and I were on a first name basis.

As much as I would like to try, one cannot live on corndogs alone, and there are a couple of stand out Micronesian foods that I still crave.

Kokoda

Kokoda

Kokoda is the Marshall Island’s coconutty take on ceviche. It’s a soupy concoction of lime-marinated seafood—squid, fish, clams, whatever is fresh—with chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro and coconut milk. You scoop it up with salty tortilla chips and wash it down with beer. So delicious, so rich, so messy.

Kelaguen is Guam’s culinary crowning glory (if you don’t count barbecued fruit bat, which is illegal now). Saipan’s, too. A Chamorro specialty, it is actually pretty healthy, and would be a huge hit with anyone watching carbs, or looking for a unique dish to bring to a barbecue or potluck. KelaguenEvery local family has its own recipe, and most of it is inexact kitchen science; a little of this, a little of that, spicy or not, as you like. Originally, kelaguen was made of minced raw fish or shrimp, cooked only in the acid of lemon juice. Today, the one I saw most prevalently was made with barbecued chicken, but you see it at the night markets made with any and all types of lean protein, including beef, shrimp, fish or even octopus.   Some add shredded fresh coconut, usually to chicken or fish versions, but I prefer it without. It’s served by itself with “titiya” flatbread, as a salad topping, or as a side dish with barbecue, or grilled fish. Here’s the recipe and instructions I got from Randy, the ATV driver on my jungle safari, after we bonded over a mutual love for kelaguen. It’s his family’s recipe.

Randy’s Chicken Kelaguen

ŸBarbecue a whole chicken, cut into parts, making sure to get it black in places, so the flavor of the smoke and char gets into the chicken meat, without drying it out. (You could use a rotisserie chicken, but Randy says it’s best to barbecue the chicken yourself, so you can make sure it’s good and charred and smoky.) Let cool, and remove skin and bones.

Ÿ Chop the meat very finely. The chopped bits should be about the size of grains of rice. You can use a food processor, or if you have some aggression to get out, a Chinese cleaver works well, too. Transfer chopped chicken to a mixing bowl.

Ÿ Finely chop about six or so scallions, and add to the chicken. You could use a red or a Spanish onion, if you prefer, or a combination, but the classic has scallions.

Ÿ If you like a little spice—and Randy and I both do—finely chop a Serrano, jalapeno, or bird chili—any hot pepper of your choice—and add as much or as little of that as you like. You can take the heat level down and keep the flavor by removing the seeds and ribs before you chop the chili. Add to the chicken and onions.

Ÿ Add the juice of one large lemon, and toss to coat well.

Ÿ Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ÿ If you want to add some coconut (I don’t care for it in this), mix in a handful of FRESHLY grated, unsweetened coconut. Don’t even think about using dried coconut. If you do, the police will spontaneously show up at your door and…pull your hair. I don’t know, just don’t.

Ÿ You can serve it right away, but Randy says it’s better if you let it sit in the fridge, and allow the flavors to marry really well, for a few hours at least.

Enjoy!

Candygram

Dear divemasters of Palau:

This guy was probably 12 feet long.

This guy was probably 12 feet long.

If there is even a slight possibility that there will be a school of huge sharks circling under the boat, please do your divers a favor and tell them about it before they jump in the water.  It’s just good manners.

Coconut-Eating Chickens & Snorkels the Pig

ChickenutsHere’s something I bet you didn’t know: Chickens love coconut. I learned this in Yap. I know chickens aren’t typically discriminating diners. I had chickens when I was a kid, and ChickensI saw one eat a piece of string so long once, that it started pooping out one end of the string before it had finished swallowing the other end of it. But, they go really bonkers over coconut. It’s like…chicken nip.

Also learned in Yap, vis-à-vis barnyard animals and coconuts: you shouldn’t park your pig under a coconut tree. This is Snorkels. Snorkels was my friend. Snorkels lived under a coconut tree.

(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)

Gentle friends, may you never hear the sound of a coconut falling on a pig. (Don’t worry, Snorkels was okay.)

Tuba

IMG_6543“Sweet Tuba” is not a really nice brass musical instrument. It’s a milky wine made of the fermented sap of a coconut tree. You see Tuba all over Micronesia and the Philippines.

Bottles of Tuba

Bottles of Tuba

The Tuba Man has to climb up the tree and hack at the base of the fronds every day to make sure the sap continues to run, so he can gather enough to make Tuba.  Tuba comes in sweet, for beginners, or the regular, high-octane variety for the hardened Tubaholic.

Sweet Tuba in a coconut cup.

Sweet Tuba in a coconut cup.

I only had the sweet version, which is not as lethal, but will still give you a hell of a hangover. The morning after I hung out with the Yapese Tuba guys, I felt like Snorkels after the coconut.

Subterranean Flows

On an island in Palawan, in the Philippines, there’s a deep system of limestone caves, through which one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world flows directly to the sea.

The mouth of the Underground River, Palawan, Philippines.

The mouth of the Underground River, Palawan, Philippines.

UNESCO put it on the World Heritage list in 1999, and in 2012, it was named one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” by that group in Switzerland that has appointed itself arbiter of such things. I can see why, too, it’s a pristine and eerie Underworld.

He's about to snatch my friend's purse.

He’s about to snatch my friend’s purse.

The mouth of the river is guarded by a band of extremely larcenous monkeys. Underground RiverIts vast caverns are full of bats, stalagmites and stalactites. They said there were tarantulas, too, but thankfully, I didn’t see any, or I would have jumped out of the boat.

Midget Boxing

If you’ve been watching the news about the vanished Malaysia Airlines jet, you may have noticed reports that the USS Pinckney—a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer—was dispatched to assist in the search. IMG_6853It was close by, according to the Pentagon’s official explanation, conducting “training and maritime security operations” in international waters. Well, apparently, by “training and maritime security operations in international waters,” they mean refereeing midget boxing matches over drinks at the Ringside Bar in Manila. Busted!

I want to join that Navy.


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Gettin’ Around Manila

Manila

Manila

Manila is a lovely old city, but it has notoriously ghastly traffic.  If you’ve ever driven in Rome or India, it won’t scare you much.  But, car rental companies, even big ones like Avis, all offer “chauffeured” rentals (which aren’t much more expensive than self-drive rentals), to keep tourists from mucking things up even worse with their panic and confusion.  Insurance is much cheaper if you go that route.  If you don’t want to hassle with your own car or driver, thank goodness, what the public transit options lack in number and clarity, they make up for in color, literally and figuratively.

Jeepney

Jeepney

The most common, and the one with which Manila’s identity is inextricably interwoven, is the jeepney.  Jeepneys are jitneys—little buses that run along a regular route—fashioned out of converted jeeps.  Hence, “jeepneys.”  They came to be after World War II, when the Americans left a bunch of army jeeps behind in the Philippines, and the ever-resourceful Pinoy folk put them to use for much needed public transport.

Jeepney8A typical jeepney has a standard jeep nose, and a paddywagon-type caboose, with two bench seats set in the back, lengthwise along the sides.  The routes are established, but there are no set stops, except the start and end points on the route.  So, you can stand anywhere along the route and hail them like a taxi.  Jeepney13Passengers hop in and out the open back, cramming themselves in like sardines, passing their 8 peso (about 18 cents, US) fare to the driver, and hollering or banging on the roof to signal when they want to get off.

Jeepney1The routes and fares are all regulated, but the jeepneys are privately owned, so the owners/operators are free to let their creative juices flow, and emblazon or festoon them in any way that tickles their fancy.  It is here that Manila lets its personality show.

Jeepney2Some are semi-tasteful, two-toned jobs, whereas others are the canvas on which to flamboyantly express style or devotion, to God, or the wife, or maybe Superman.  Many have bright tiaras of letters spelling out the vessel’s name above the windshield, almost always female, like a ship.  Jeepney11The siding artwork is often evocative of those awesome black velvet paintings they sell in Tijuana, that glow in the dark.  These festive arks zip, careen and shove through the clogged arteries of Manila, giving it a comic, carnivalesque sparkle.  You almost expect plumes of glitter to emit from the exhaust pipes.

ManilaJeepneyFBCManila is so proud of its jeepneys, that it even has a professional football team called “Manila Jeepney.”

There are jeepneys outside of Manila, too, of course, but they tend to be a bit less flashy.  No less crowded, however.  JeepneyGoatsIn the countryside, if the jeepney is packed, folks just take their goats and climb up on top.  No ladders or steps, no boarding platform.  I don’t know how they do it.  Jeepney10Maybe those goats are not cargo, but there to teach people how to jump on top of the bus.  You know…because goats are always getting up on top of things.  See here.  And here.  And here.  But I digress.

Jeepney5Alas, jeepneys, beloved as they are, have their downside.  They tend to be a haven for pickpockets, purse-snatchers and thieves.  I was told that armed robbers sometimes jump in the back while they are still moving, rob the trapped passengers, and jump out before the driver even admits to knowing what is happening.  Muggings at the congregation spots along the popular routes are also common.

Tricycles2Not to fear, though, if you don’t want to rub elbows and everything else with the hoi polloi in the back of a jeepney.  There are other options.  “Tricycles” are motorbikes or bicycles with covered or enclosed sidecars, and are sixteen kinds of fun to travel in.  Not the most comfortable, but quick and cheap, and also resplendent with style.

Taxis are also plentiful, and relatively cheap, but you have to be careful.  Some are nice, late model sedans, and others are heaps, just barely holding it together with rubber bands and chicken wire.  If you get in a taxi at a hotel, the bellman will hail a good one, and likely ask the driver for his taxi license and write down his name and license number, as well as the license plate number on the car…just in case you go missing or something.  He’ll also tell the driver where you want to go, which is important, because communicating with the cabbies isn’t always easy.

Jeepney7For example, one morning, I was in a hurry to meet some friends across town, so instead of waiting for the bellman to hail me a proper taxi, I just hopped into one that I saw pull up to let someone out.  It was kind of busted, but I’m not fussy.  I told the driver that I needed to go to Makati, and I handed him a business card for the building to which I was headed, so he could see the exact address.  He looked at it, put it in his shirt pocket, and off we went.

Manila

Manila

Well…the car started to stall every time we came to a halt, in traffic or at a light.  He’d get out, pop the hood, fiddle with something, and get back in and start the car up, and on we’d go a few hundred meters until it happened again.  Then, after a while, the guy was so visibly distraught, soaked with sweat, he turned and asked if we could please pull over to a service station so he could use the “comfort room,” as the restroom is called in the Philippines.  “Of course,” I said.  So we stopped, and he disappeared for about fifteen minutes.  I figured he must have been sick.

.Another way to get around

Another way to get around.

On we went, stalling every time we stopped, until we got to Makati, whereupon he began to drive in circles, clearly lost.  We stopped three different times to ask directions of a traffic cop, to whom he would show the business card and ask, in Tagalog, where to find the listed address.  After much pointing and gesticulating, we’d drive on, until it became plain we were lost again, and have to stop and ask someone where we were.  Finally, after an hour and a half, we turned down a street that I recognized, and I was able to guide him home.  When we finally got there, the poor man looked so miserable and distressed, I really felt badly for him, so I tipped him extra well.

Along the roadside.

Along the roadside.

Then, I went inside and told my friends what happened, and they laughed at me.  Apparently, everyone but me knows that many of the cabbies in the Philippines are illiterate.  “Quin, he was probably too embarrassed to tell you he couldn’t read the card, so he did all those things to frustrate you and make you get out and take another taxi.”  Hence the showing of the card to everyone we stopped to ask directions from.  I was stunned.  The idea that the man would drive off with me, without the remotest clue where we were headed, and then try to irritate me into abandoning ship, never occurred to me.  Well, the laugh’s on him, because I just sat there, a model of patience and understanding, and then I gave him a big, fat tip.  That’ll learn him.

No one likes to get stuck in one of Manila’s famous traffic jams, but at least one hack is doing his part to make the ride more entertaining.  For a few pesos, you can have your own private, inflight concert of the musical stylings of the Karaoke Cabbie.

(If video does not show above, click here.)

For a few pesos more, you can do the singing, if you want.  There’s even a screen with the lyrics, just like at a karaoke bar.  But, this guy’s got a pretty nice voice for a serenade, actually.

(If video does not show above, click here.)

He’s going to have to get a Bluetooth microphone, though, as soon as legislation catches up and bans karaoke while driving.

(Thanks to my friends Ariel and Ghie Gubatina for the karaoke taxi videos!)


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Cold Hard Cash

The next door neighbor, who made Tuba coconut wine.

The next door neighbor, who made Tuba coconut wine.

When I told people I was going to Yap—this strange, unheard of land in the Pacific, where women are expected to cover their thighs, but not their breasts, and you have to carry a green stick or leaf around with you so as not to be suspected of looking for trouble—the most common reaction was “Huh,” followed by surreptitious googling it to see if I was making it up.

Our village on Yap.

Our village on Yap.

That is, until an economist friend heard about my trip there.  Economists know about Yap.  Tell an economist you’ve been to Yap, and you’ll have one excited financial analyst on your hands.  I think it’s probably something like telling a lawyer that Helen Palsgraf was your great aunt.  Apparently, econ scholars studying abstract concepts involved in the idea of “money” read a lot about Yap.

License PlateWhy?  Because, Yap is the Island of Stone Money.  We’ve all absorbed knowledge from books, cartoons and movies, that various ancient cultures around the world used shells or beads or pelts or camels or what-have-you for trading, before modern currency, represented by coins and, later, notes, was invented, leaving us with vestigial expressions like “that’s a lotta clams!” to mean something is expensive.

Stone Money

Stone Money

Well, Yap has one of the most intact ancient, native cultures in the world, and they still use stone money.  They don’t walk around with pockets full of pebbles.  On Yap, big, round chunks of limestone with a hole in the center are money.  And I don’t mean they are money as in “that’s so money,” in the parlance of hip hop and, my favorite, the movie Swingers:

(Click here if the video doesn’t show above.)

Or, maybe I do mean it that way, to the extent Vince Vaughn said “money” to mean something that is rare, attractive, desirable and therefore, valuable.  Because Yap stone money is certainly not susceptible to our usual definition of money as fungible currency.

Stone money along the road.

Stone money along the road.

To get to the bottom of the stone money situation, I pestered Al, the owner of the cottage I rented on Maap Island in Yap, and other locals I met, with endless questions about how the stone money is used, how its value is determined, what kind of records are kept about ownership, etc.  Al’s big brother is one of the high chiefs on Yap—responsible for teaching young Yapese the ancient cultural ways, and for keeping track of all his people’s stone money—and Al is apparently next in line, so he was a great source of information.  (He was also super patient with my stupid questions, like “how do you give change in stone money?”)  Here’s what I learned:

The Backstory

Yapese Canoe

Yapese Canoe

The Yapese are great sea voyagers.  They build these amazing, sturdy canoes and go all over the Pacific, navigating by the stars and other mystical means that are still taught and practiced today.  A group of guys from Al’s village went all the way to Japan in one of these canoes.

Old Stone Money

Old Stone Money, scrubbed clean.

Anyhoo, several hundred years ago, some Yapese fishermen got stranded several hundred miles away in Palau, now famous for its limestone rock islands.  There’s no limestone on Yap, and these fellows thought it was super pretty stuff.  So, while they were waiting for the winds to change so they could get home, they hacked out a piece of limestone and used shell tools to carve it into the shape of a whale, or a “rai” in Yapese.  When they got home, they gave the stone rai to the chief, and told the tale of their great adventure, and everyone went ‘ooh…aahhh’ at the pretty rock.  It was exotic and rare in their eyes.  Precious.  Money.

Stone Money by the road near my cottage.

Stone Money by the road near my cottage.

After that, the Yapese would make journeys to Palau to get more of this money.  These were long, perilous voyages.  People died, boats were lost.  Palauans tried to stop them from nibbling away at their island.  The stones were heavy and difficult to transport.  In short, the stones were hard to get, which just made them more valuable.

Pieces of Stone Money outside the grocery store in Colonia, Yap.

Pieces of Stone Money outside the grocery store in Colonia, Yap.

The stone money pieces were called “raay” or “rai” in Yapese, i.e., the word for whale, after the shape of the original one.  But, after that first one, they made them round, in the shape of the full moon, with a hole in the center to facilitate transportation.  (You stick a bamboo pole through the hole and use it to roll the stone money like a wheel—not really feasible if they were still shaped like Shamu.)

Clearly machine-made.

Clearly machine-made.

Then, an American dude showed up in Yap in the late 1800s—David O’Keefe—with big ships and tools and machinery he imported from Hong Kong.  He revolutionized the production and transport of the rai, inflating their numbers on Yap, thus devaluing them, and basically spoiling all the fun.  If there’s lots of them, they aren’t rare and precious anymore.  For this reason, in the early part of the 1900s, they stopped bringing new rai to Yap.

How Much Is It Worth?

Very old, very valuable.

Very old, very valuable.

When you look at the rai with western, industrialized-nation eyes, it seems logical that the nice, smooth, large ones should be the most valuable, and the ugly little, ragged-edged, toads would be the least valuable.  Not so.  The value of a piece of stone money is based on its individual story.  The riskier the voyage to get that particular rai, the more lives lost, the more blood, sweat and tears shed in its creation, the bigger adventure getting it home, the more valuable the rai.

Notice the difference?

Notice the difference?

Accordingly, the bigger, shinier, machine-tooled ones with perfectly cylindrical center bores that O’Keefe zipped up and delivered, lickety split, on his big, fancy ships…not so valuable.  The uneven, hand-hewn little guys that look like those salt licks you put in hamster cages, after the hamsters have been at them a while, are more likely to have a harrowing story behind them, and thus be more valuable.  So, there’s your treasure, right there, in the symbol of the adventure.

Center bore of an old, handmade, very valuable rai.

Center bore of an old, handmade, very valuable rai.

It’s the job of the chief of the village where the stone money is owned or located to know the story of each rai under his supervision.  So, when the owner goes to use the stone money, the chief comes along and imparts that rai’s story so the recipient can understand its value.

Center bore of a machine-tooled, much bigger, but less valuable rai.

Center bore of a machine-tooled, much bigger, but less valuable rai.

So, when I asked Al, “so, how much is that one over there worth?” he furrowed his brow and, after a thoughtful pause, said not to think of it that way.  It’s not like you can say this one over here is worth $500 and that one over there is worth $130.  There is no stone money exchange rate, per se.  They can’t be converted on xe.com. There’s no workers’ comp-like chart that indicates “2 year voyage+8 fatalities+typhoon on the way home = $325.”  It’s much more abstract than that.  Just think of them as “valuable things,” and that they are “worth” as much as the person accepting them is willing to trade for the honor of “owning” the respect due the underlying story.  The value is entirely cultural.  Chew on that.

Spending Stone Money

They kind of look like Flintstone car wheels, don't they?

They kind of look like Flintstone car wheels, don’t they?

Obviously, you don’t roll your stone money down to the grocery store and expect to use it to buy Spam and Folgers crystals (which is pretty much all they have in the stores the week before the monthly supply ship comes).  There’s no stone money ATM to hit on your way to fill up the gas tank or restock your betelnut supply.  For commodities, daily use type stuff, and most modern business transactions, they use regular, fungible currency.  The U.S. Dollar, in fact.

RaiBut stone money is still used today in many ways.  It’s used for apologies, to settle disputes.  The more serious the dispute, the more valuable rai it’s going to take to settle it.  It’s used to request a bride’s hand in marriage, and as dowry.  It’s used as offerings to chiefs, as tribute, and shows of respect.

It’s also used, in combination with modern dollars, to sweeten a proposal on land transactions, or business deals.  If you’re selling a piece of land, and two people offer you the same purchase price, but only one is offering some stone money on top, well, you know who is getting the property.  The deal with the addition of stone money is a better deal, to the Yapese.  It has respect in it.

Stone money is basically a cultural currency.  So, it’s used in transactions that have a cultural aspect or meaning.

Who Owns It?

That's not a "take a pebble, leave a pebble" invitation, that stone money probably belongs to the shopkeeper.

That’s not a “take a pebble, leave a pebble” invitation, that stone money probably belongs to the shopkeeper.

Stone money can be owned by individuals or groups, villages or clans, just like any other tangible thing.  Usually, but not always, if a rai is sitting in front of a house or a store, it belongs to the owner of that home or business.  But, the ownership of the rai you see along the roads, or in front of the village men’s houses, is not determined by its location.

Our village's Men's House.  See the stone money out front?

Our village’s Men’s House. Click to enlarge, so you can see the stone money out front.

Each village in Yap has a “men’s house,” where only men are allowed to enter, for meetings or to socialize with each other, or just to hang out in peace and quiet with no women around.  The more important villages also have women’s houses, but those are less common.

Here is a group of Yapese women rehearsing a traditional dance and song for the 2014 Yap Day festival in front of the Women’s House in a village on Maap Island:

(Click here if video doesn’t show above.)

A "Maraal," or Stone Money Bank.

A “Maraal,” or Stone Money Bank.

Stone money is usually found on the ceremonial grounds around these village men’s and women’s houses.  The collections of stone money at the village houses are called “maraal,” or stone money banks.  The maraal pictured here is one of the larger stone money banks in Yap.  It is the responsibility of the chief of each village to know who owns each rai in the bank, and the owner may or may not live in that village.

Security at the Stone Money Bank is obviously very tight.

Security at the Stone Money Bank is clearly very tight.

Obviously, the bigger the rai, the harder it is to move.  Even the small ones are pretty hefty.  So, often, when ownership of a rai changes hands, it does not have to change location, and usually doesn’t.  But, the ownership transfer is conducted in front of the whole village, so everyone will know that, say, Norman is transferring this particular rai to Betty, or to her clan.  There’s no need to move it to Betty’s house, or to the stone money bank in her village, it can stay in Norman’s village.  Everyone knows it’s Betty’s now.  Indeed, the Yapese take great pride in owning a rai that is located outside their village.

Another kind of giant clams on the bottom of the ocean in Yap.  (Photo credit to Matti Dahlbom, although I was with him when he took this.)

Another kind of giant clams on the bottom of the ocean in Yap. (Photo credit to Matti Dahlbom, although I was with him when he took this.)

In fact, there’s apparently one at the bottom of the ocean that fell off a boat on the way back to Yap during a storm, and the chief over the sailors who lost it decided…close enough.  That’s still good.  Great story, in fact.  So, that submerged rai belongs to someone, and is actually quite valuable, even though the owner has never seen it.  It’s sitting safely on the ocean floor, drawing interest.  Well…interest, as in, that’s interesting, not 0.3% APR.

4I asked Al if there were any records kept, in case a chief died unexpectedly, or to have a way to resolve any disputes over rai ownership, and he said “No.  People just know.”  When I asked what would keep someone from stealing a piece of stone money, and making up his own story so he could inflate its value and trade with it, or manufacturing a claim to ownership of a given rai without basis by just saying “that’s mine!” he said, “People don’t do that.  The chiefs would know.  People would know.  It just  wouldn’t work.”  The chiefs know the story, location and ownership of every rai in their care, and woe betide anyone who tries to scam them.  Transfers are done in public so everyone knows the score.  It’s the Yapese fraud detection program.

That’s so money.