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May 1st

We just completed an exhilarating week WWOOFing on a family-run rice farm about 90 minutes outside of Osaka, Japan, in a town called Nose (pronounced No-say). (Find out more about WWOOFing in general and WWOOFing in Japan in particular.)

Here’s a glimpse of the farm from a nearby rice field.

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Babs’s old friend from school, Chris, joined us for the week. What a great debut WWOOFING gig!

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It’s spring spring spring, smack in time for the busy rice-planting season. There’s plenty-and-a-half to keep us all out of mischief.

I help our host Shigemi to sow the year’s crop. Shigemi grows about 450kg of rice a year, sells two thirds of it to a network of direct customers, and feeds her family with the rest.

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The rice seedlings are nursed very carefully — after a stint in an incubator, the seedlings bask on the front lawn of the house, periodically covered with tarp to keep out the chilly spring wind and rain. Their growth progress is closely monitored to determine when they are ready for transplanting in the fields.

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Rural Japan, if not the whole country, still assigns many roles by gender. So while everyone pitches in for weeding all around the farm, the boys get assigned a lot more outdoor work while I compile a comprehensive (digital) farm instruction manual for Shigemi’s future WWOOFers.

Babs and Chris help to prepare the rice fields for flooding and planting — clearing weeds and stones, leveling the ground, and unchoking the water channel. Here’s a before-and-after shot. Great work guys!

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They also spend the week assembling a giant weed raker, which — once the seedlings are snugly in the ground — will be pulled through the fields once every three days to up-end new weeds. Shigemi’s very excited about this rake because her farm is transiting towards being fully organic. She’s steadily reduced her use of weedkiller over the last few years, and she says with this rake, she’ll be able to stop using weedkiller completely this year. Huzzah!

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We also learn a great deal about foraging and living off the land. Besides garnishing soups and making salad with wild herbs growing around the farm, tis the season for bamboo shoots, and we get a hands-on lesson on spotting and unearthing them. Unfortunately, wild boars in the area have beaten us to quite a number of the delicious shoots, but we still manage a sackful, including Chris’s whopper!

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Last but certainly not least, we learn 2 traditional rice product recipes that have largely disappeared from modern industrial Japan — amazaki, a fermented rice drink, and a very muscle-intensive yamogi mochi.

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Stay tuned!

Dear fellow seafood obsessives,

I’ve seen some impressive seafood markets while on the road, but boy, Tusikiji Fish Market in Tokyo takes the fishcake! Remember when I said I’d died and gone to heaven when I stepped into La Boqueria in Barcelona? Well, take that, add the floor space of all of Barcelona’s 39 other municipal food markets, fill it all with just seafood, and there you have Tsukiji’s inner-core wholesale market. (Tsukiji market’s outer ring sells other food and kitchen products). If I died here due to the stray swing of a tuna hook or axe (below), it wouldn’t be a half bad way to go.

 

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I mentioned earlier that I spent a couple of hours the other morning prowling around the early morning tuna auction. I also trailed the tuna for a bit after they got sold.

The tuna torpedos are transported to their buyers’ stalls and trucks on carts of all shapes and sizes; hand-pulled if it’s just one, motored around if more.

 

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Sometimes just the one is pre-power-sawed before it gets carted off. Possible beginnings of a Damien Hirst piece?

 

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Just imagine the fish stock you could make with this monster.

 

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The route to breakfast at Daiwa Sushi was the ultimate edible aquarium. Here’s an angry looking snow crab.

 

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And here’s some cracked open sea urchin. At Daiwa, we were served the largest sea urchin nigiri I’d ever seen. This stuff still freaks me out, admittedly, so it was quite the I-can’t-fit-it-in-one-bite-but-don’t-want-to-make-it-last-two dilemma.

 

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Did you know that the seafood sold at Tsukiji comes from some 60 countries? Yes indeedy. Tsukiji’s tentacles of influence spread far and wide, though in recent years seafood sales have shifted towards direct channels due to improved global telecommunication.

Pop quiz! If you combined all the squid, cuttlefish and octopus sold at Tsukiji in a day, how many tentacles in total would that be? Bonus question: If today represents a 3% drop in volume from last year, how many tentacles were sold in total last year?

Answer: I don’t know, but I sure wish I got taught Math in school this way.

 

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I also saw shellfish that must have come from Brobdingnag. Each of those mussels(?) clams(?) alien pods(?) (I have no idea, but the 2nd word of the sign reads “mountain”) on the left is larger than my hand. And check out the size of those blood cockles! Almost the size of my fluttering heart.

 

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Ugly pugly, I know, but it’s just the abalone and sea snail’s attempt at presuading predators that “oh no no no, I’m not delightfully sweet and crunchy and chewy at all”. If you’re grimacing “eeeeew gross”, then their ruse has worked, and I’m as pleased as they — more for me!

 

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All in all, I’m happy as a clam. Wish you were here!

Wen

Prologue: Babs and Dave, one of Babs’s best mates from school, are both turning 30 this April. About a year ago I pitched to the gang of ’em that Tokyo would be quite the place for the boys to turn 30. The utter fabulousness of the city worked its magic and convinced a group of 6 from the UK, Netherlands and Hong Kong to come join us for various bits of fun in Japan. Wahey!

 

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Above: Pieces of sushi are hand-made and placed one by one on a wooden board between the diner and the elevated sushi chef, with short intervals in between. This was about as many pieces as I could stand to leave for a sushi group photo before my photographic resolve dissolved

 

If there is anything better than starting your day in Tokyo with a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji fish market, the big Daddy of all fish markets, it is, as I found out, ending your day there.

 

7.30am: Breakfast of Champions

My face is pressed up against Daiwa Sushi’s window, to gauge our waiting time. The sushi chef closest to the window half-smiles with pity but gently beckons me to back away from the glass. I do. I pace. I babble semi-deliriously to Babs, Chris and Helen, my breakfast companions. I’ve looked at a lot of tuna through glass today.

A few diners make their way out, but there is the eternity of the next 2 minutes while their spots are cleared and wiped down. I’m hopping on one foot then the other. I wonder if this is how and why so many Japanese people pursue Zen Buddism.

And we’re in! We’re sat as 2 separate pairs at the extreme ends of the L-shaped counter, but no one minds. We didn’t come here for the conversation.

An empty wooden block is placed between each of us and the elevated sushi chef.

“Mix?” he says. We nod.

And so he does, throwing a series of shapes and layers and textures more sublime than the best of my favourite DJs. Maguro (tuna) and ikura (salmon eggs) maki. A fat raw prawn. Ika (squid). And — as my eyebrows jump and my heart stops — toro (already fatty tuna belly) and chu toro (even more fatty tuna belly). This was going to be financial hari-kiri. But what a worthy death.

Babs and I make semi-obscene little noises of profound enjoyment as we chomp down on each piece of sushi. I don’t understand how the 2 American women next to us are managing to carry on a full conversation about something that is not about sushi. Or any kind of conversation at all. No one else is talking. Not the Japanese businessmen, not the other tourists. Only one bald gaijin with his Japanese friend, but at least he’s talking to the chef about the fish, in fluent Japanese. (I don’t know what about, I just hear the key fish words).

 

6.30am: Gawking At The Goods

We wander through the labyrinth of some 1,700 stalls selling some 450 species of seafood, dodging handpulled and auto carts and forklifts as we go. Separate post to come on this section. Too many photos!

 

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5.30am: Tiptoeing Around Tuna

We’re prowling about the perimeters of Tsukiji’s famed tuna auction warehouse at the back end of the complex, right on the water. Reports in our group’s array of guide books had been mixed about whether visitors were still banned from the auction room or allowed back in, so we peered through whatever open doors and glass panels we could to try and gauge the situation.

 

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In quieter sections I would nip in for a few minutes to get a closer look at the proceedings. It’s nowhere near as loud or as boisterous as I thought it would be. I watch buyers peruse rows upon rows of iced-over tuna torpedos, throwing their scythe-like hooks into shortlisted tails, and hacking out a pinch of raw meat to chew on for the all-important taste-test. Pretty pink pieces of tuna on slabs of rice is one thing. But a warehouse full of tuna carcasses does, I admit, conjure images of casualties of war or some other disaster, laid out for identification and burial.

Inevitably a security guard shows up and nudges me back out the door, apologising all the way. I sure am glad this is Japan rather than Germany, where I’ve seen bouncers super-efficiently pitch over-rowdy Oktoberfesters out of beer tents…

Later I find out that unless you’re in a prebooked school group, visitors these days are not allowed into the tuna auction room. Doh!

We finally stumble into the little area where visitors are shepherded into to observe the auction proceedings from a distance. This is just one of many ongoing auctions all along the length of the warehouse (I suspect grouped into tuna-size batches).

 

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3.30am: Singing in Shinjuku

The group decided that the only way to stay awake for the last hour until it was time to pile into a cab and head east to Tsukiji was to sing at the top of our lungs. Babs scored points for decoding the huge Japanese remote control. Then lost them again as he deliberately experimented with changing the key to a song midway. Three times.

By this time I’m having a splitting headache so right after taking these photos I take a very strategic 30 minute disco nap on the far end of our karaoke room. It made all the difference.

As we leave, Babs and I marvel at all the establishments still open: pachinko bars, karaoke bars, girlie bars, noodle bars, sushi bars, donburi bars, and 24hr internet + magazine + DVD cafes that are a cheap option (compared to taking a taxi home to the suburbs) for partygoers to hang out and nap until the metro system wakes up again. Like New York, this city never sleeps. And as much as I love New York, it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot less trash on the streets and less stress about potentially getting mugged while walking around at night here. I kinda like it that both the police and the yakuza see to that.

 

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11pm: Boys Just Havana Have Fun

Dave and Colin decide they’re in the mood for cuban cigars, so we take shelter from the cold at Havana Bar somewhere in Shinjuku.

Before that we stumble down into a basement bar called God Bar Jazz, where we’re the only people in there and drinks are horrendously overpriced. The jazz comes from a CD rather than a band (I don’t see any space for any kind of band to perform at the best of times). The bar’s saving grace: chocolate covered potato crisps.

 

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8.30pm: Shinjuku Shabu-Shabu

The group was in the mood for shabu shabu for dinner. I didn’t have any leads on where to go for this in Shinjuku, so we had to employ our usual “stare at the menu and stick your head in the doorway” method. This wasn’t our luckiest of discoveries. The hotpot was sufficiently tasty but clearly priced for punters more interested in the pretty waitresses in midriffs and miniskirts rather than the food.

 

3.30pm: Checking Out Cherry Blossoms

We’re in the thick of cherry blossom season, and one of Tokyo’s favourite viewing sites in Ueno Park. There are a couple of fun ways to engage in this breathtakingly beautiful activity (if simply walking under the canopy of a boulevard of cherry trees isn’t thrilling enough for you).

1) Rent a boat at the pond on the south side of the park. The pink swan boats match the cherry blossoms perfectly.

 

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2) Pack a picnic lunch and mat and spend the afternoon under the blossoms making up haikus.

 

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1.30pm: Ravishing Ramen

By pure luck we stumble into Kyushu Jangara Ramen right in front of Harajuku metro station for lunch. I find out later that this is one of Tokyo’s most popular ramen purveyors.

The broth (the first thing I always test with any bowl of ramen, I’ve realised) is beautifully rich, and the slabs of meat have their marinade seeped right through. The hard boiled egg has a lovely just slightly runny yolk (think egg fondant), a magic trick all chefs I’ve crossed chopsticks with in Tokyo so far seem to have mastered.

 

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10.30am: Meetup at the Meiji Shrine

We start the day by walking around the Meiji Shrine gardens.

 

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Some 3 million people worship at this Shinto spiritual centre of Tokyo during the major holidays. Many buy these 500-yen wooden blocks below to record their wishes and prayers.

 

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I like this one below.

 

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And on that fitting note, I bid you and this 22-hour day good morning, and good night. I need a nap.

 

Daiwa Sushi
Tsukiji Market Building 6
5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
+81 3 3547 6807
(5.30am -1:30pm; closed Sunday)

Kyushu Jangara Ramen
Meiji Jingumae “Harajuku” metro station
Come out of Exit 3, and it’s on the left

March 11th

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Above: I’ve seen photos of me wakeboarding and skiing. I have the exact same scrunched up face of grim gritted-teeth terror.

After Babs posted his take on our 3-day 2-night jungle-trekking-treehouse-living-ziplining adventure at The Gibbon Experience in Laos, a few friends pinged me to ask “Hey where’s your version? We wanna hear your version!”

This is not because they discount Babs’s point of view in any way. It’s also not because I am any kind of renown travel writer or an expert on nature or gibbons or adventure sports.

Nooooo. This is largely because anyone who has ever met me will know that this adventure was going a complete disaster for me from the getgo. Those who know me best started laughing hysterically the minute they heard I was going at all.

See, all through my growing up years I’ve been a fan of the great indoors. Which means now in my adulthood I have physical coordination of comic proportions. Moreover, I am a mosquito magnet. So the first thing Babs and I do (for a couple of hours) in any new hostel in the road is to seal the room and hunt down every damn mozzie in the room and clap them back to that special chamber of hell where they belong. (But how do you seal off any kind of area in a jungle?) Finally, I am never going to win any awards for being quietly longsuffering about physical discomfort.

In short, if this were a movie, the character playing me would be someone who has the lithe acrobatic coordination of a Chris Farley character and the gentle lilting humour of Roseanne Barr.

Right then.

The Gibbon Experience started off in Huayxai, Laos, on the other side of the Mekong River from Chiangkorn, Thailand.

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Above: View of Huayxai, Laos, from across the Mekong

We check into The Gibbon Experience office in Huayxai the day before our appointed start date. We then sign away any right to sue the organisation should anything untoward happen to us, even if it’s caused by their faulty equipment. I start squawking at Babs.

The next morning, we show up at the office again to meet our gibbon group mates and watch a 10 minute instructional video on how to use the zipline equipment. Interesting that they show this video only AFTER we’ve signed the liability waiver forms. I feel more, not less terrified after the video.

We then pile into 2 trucks and hit the road for 1 1/2 hours to get to the organisation’s village on the fringe of the Bokeo Nature Reserve.

Get your toilet trips done before you head out — otherwise you’ll have to look for a nice bush on the side of the road enroute. You will then have to choose between the risk of exposing yourself if you choose a bush too close to the road, or the risk of encountering a leech or 2 if you wander too far into the undergrowth.

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Above: Toilet break enroute

We have some time at the village waiting for the later van to show up. People start snapping pictures of the very rustic wooden-plank huts, and the kids running around. I went straight for the free-range black pigs.

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Then we kick off a 1 1/2 hour hike into the jungle. It all looks lovely and pastoral here. But see that nasty upward incline on the far left background? That’s where the path heads.

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Pretty soon it’s all uphill, and along narrow paths that overlook a jungly (is that a word?) ridge. Both my heart and my legs are soon constantly threatening to give out — my legs from a combination of trudging uphill and going soft from the terror of being close to the ridge’s edge.

Mind you, we had signed up only for the “basic” package. The “waterfall” package involves an extra 2 hours of trekking on top of our 1 1/2 hours, to get to their (further out) treehouses. What kind of people sign up for this?! I want to meet them. Actually, scratch that. I don’t want to meet them. They might give Babs ideas.

Finally I spy our treehouse (I’d be told ours was the closest). I was about ready to kill somebody or myself if this turned out to be a mirage. But thank God, it’s really there. I fumble with the zipline, take many deep breaths, grit my teeth, and zip in.

Victory! I’m alive! Now I just have to stay put here till we leave in 2 days.

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But no! I’m thwarted! Our guide tells us to drop our bags, and go with him, and that we’ll be back in half an hour. What?! Why?! We just got here! Where are we going?!

Unfortunately our guide doesn’t have enough English for such complicated questions. So I find myself inadvertantly doing another 4 zip-lines. And, as it turns out, learning a thing or 2 about them.

Like how ziplines are not all built equal.

Some ziplines have more of a slope than others. So you have to brake before you reach the end of the line so that you can land at a comfortable speed and find your footing like a pro. I squeeze the brake. Nothing happens. So my backup brake kicks in. By that I mean my right shoulder lowers my speed by slamming into the tree anchoring the zipline. There’s no TV in the treehouse, obviously, but my shoulder provides quite the intriguing range of technicolour developments in the days following.

Some ziplines have less of an incline than others. So you may not have enough momentum to make it to the platform at the other end, and have to haul yourself in, hand by hand at a time. This is still a tolerable scenario. Except I start slipping backwards. I know it’s not far, but for the life of me I can’t bloody reach the end of the zipline! And so instead I reach the end of my rope.

So our guide (I give them a lot of credit for patience with my epic ineptness) has to zip out, hook up to me, and haul me in. Later, while scrolling through the photos on my camera, I discover that my loving husband has captured this moment of panic, despair and humiliation for posterity.

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Finally, finally finally we make it back to the treehouse, and get to settle in and have a proper look around. Here’s our living cum dining room.

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Our 6-person treehouse has 3 “split level” platforms for bedrooms. Each bedroom has a couple of mattresses, pillows, and a large hanging blanket tent for privacy and mosquito netting. It reminds me of the blanket tents I used to set up in my bedroom or living room during pyjama parties growing up. Yes I did my childhood camping trips in the great indoors as well.

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From our “bedroom”, I have a spectacular view of this wasp nest below. Each little round brown “dot” you see in the semi-circle is a wasp. The rougher pattern on the left half of the semi-circle is the awake and moving half of the nest. Delightful.

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Here’s our treehouse bathroom, where the wasps like to hang out. Specifically, in the squat toilet hole, for whatever reason (disgusting creatures). Which makes squatting on the toilet a fairly stressful affair. I suspect we used more water spraying the wasps down the toilet before using it, than showering. A Scandinavian chap from another treehouse tried to use our toilet, but just couldn’t bring himself to. He was completely freaked out. I feel his pain. And you shouldn’t mock him either, till you’ve bared your ass a few inches from 6 angry looking wasps!

And now let us take another “give credit where credit is due” moment to admire the fact that the tree house has a running-water shower at all, some 50m off the ground. Hell, it was more than we had on the ground, while volunteering in Western Kenya.

And by the way, this stuff was drinkable spring water. Amazing. Do not try drinking water from the tap in the rest of Laos, kids.

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The treehouse also has a little solar panel to power a few strategically placed lightbulbs at night. There’s also a canister of gas so that we can make hot tea and coffee. I’m impressed. Especially with whichever little Lao person had to zipline in with that monster of a gas can.

Meals are all cooked by the Gibbon Experience staff at base camp 2 (close to the end of the 1 1/2 hour hike) and then zip-lined into the various treehouses by tiffin-bearing guides. Kinda like Tarzan takeout.

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Our treehouse mates — 3 teachers and a occupational rehab therapist from a mix of Australia, Austria and Canada — are lovely people, but let’s face it, my favourite treehouse mate was this ginger tabby below. Yes. More favourite than Babs, for these 2 days anyway. What’s not to like? The cat is cute, it’s clean, it’s sociable and affectionate, it hunts and eats cicadas and whatever else (people in other treehouses were constantly traumatised by giant spiders and rodent-like gnawing and rustling sounds at night. No such frights at our treehouse). And most importantly, the cat didn’t make me go hiking, did it.

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Above: I catch the cat winking at me. But I think it loves me only for my dinner plate.

The cat does make me nervous, though, when it pads around the edges and railings of the treehouse, which is some 35m off the ground.

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Our meals — mostly rice with lots of vegetables and wee bits of meat — are nothing much to write home about. Much more interesting is our supplied chest of anytime-snacks, consisting largely of local fruits, including green mangoes, tiny and incredibly sweet clementines, and lots of fresh tamarind straight from the pod. Also, some peanut brittle candy and 2 tins of sweetened condensed milk for our lovely smelling hefty-bodied Lao coffee.

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Guides are on standby the next day to take anyone who’s interested trekking and ziplining, in the hopes of sighting some gibbons.

I respond enthusiatically. (see photo below)

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Turns out, the gibbons came to me! Or at least, to a tree in direct line of sight from our “bedroom”. I watch them for about an hour, swinging about, picking fruit, howling their gibbon howl at one another, feeling pretty damn smug.

Eventually everyone else ziplines back from their morning trek and crowds around to watch the gibbons as well. Word gets around and people from other treehouses zipline in as well.

That afternoon I fall asleep in the afternoon heat reading my book. Unfortunately I forgot to use bugspray (usually necessary only starting at dusk). When I wake up my left hand is so bugbitten and swollen that I’ve lost my knuckles and found 2 purple fingers. About the same shade of purple as my shoulder that day. Well if I can’t be physically coordinated I can at least be colour coordinated, I suppose.

Finally it’s time to leave. The hike back downhill to the village is still painfully slow — this time because I am whatever is the complete opposite of a surefooted mountain goat (a cat with taped up paws, so I’ve been told), rather than lousy cardio — but at least my spirits are high.

Epilogue

I learn that for all my whingeing, things could have been far worse (is it perverse that that always makes one feel better?). Back at the village, I meet an Australian girl I don’t recognise from our troupe going up 2 days before. I say hello and we start chatting. Turns out she was in the waterfall group which started a day after us. It also turns out she was too large to fit comfortably or safely in any of the harnesses. So she and her friend had to part ways and she had to sleep overnight in the village to hitch a ride back to Huayxai with us.

We later met another girl from that same waterfall group. This was hours later. It was hours later because in the whatever deeper darker part of the jungle these crazy waterfall people go, she too, had failed to brake adequately on a zipline, and so braked by slamming, and potentially breaking her leg against a tree. And so with this potentially broken leg, she, her boyfriend, and a guide, had to inch their way back to the village through an excruciating combination of ziplines, motorcycle and donkey.

Gotta love those indemnity waiver forms.

To wrap up, I’d just like to say, in case you feel like I’m just rubbishing the whole thing, take another look at the title of this post. The gibbons were fun to watch, the guides were patient and sufficiently attentive, the jungle was lush etc etc. It’s just not for everyone. Some, like Babs, will have a whale of a time. But some others, like me, will simply feel like a whale the whole time.

18th March 2010

I confess. Earlier this week I was ready to pull the plug, throw in the whole travel-eat-blog towel, and crawl under a rock. Maybe somewhere softer.

We’d been in Laos for… I lost track of how long, I realised when a fellow tuk-tuk passenger asked me. Two nights and too many hours were spent trekking, treehousing, gibbon-spotting and zip-lining around the jungle canopy, a terrifying 150m above ground. Babs loved it, of course. Unfortunately the only enthusiasm I experienced was my now-purple shoulder enthusiastically slamming into a tree during a clumsy zipline landing, and a plethora of nasty bugs enthusiastically chowing down on my arms, neck and ankles.

And then there was the food poisoning from Luang Namtha. Was it the buffalo satay? Or the skewer of chicken butts? Or the noodles with meat ragu? Or the BBQ duck? Say it ain’t so, night market BBQ duck!

Whatever it was, it made for 14 hours of stomach churning, a mild fever, a splitting headache and the shakes as our bus wound around endless half-baked Lao mountain roads, with even more endless Thai / Lao karaoke videos which all seem to be about 1) a girl who gets her heart broken by a cheating bastard pretty boy; 2) a boy who gets his heart broken by dating a rich girl with a disapproving father; and 3) how life in the country is idyllic and how life in the city sucks. Just in case you didn’t pick up the pattern within the first 5 songs, there’s another 80 to help you out.

IMG 0407I’d lost interest in writing. Posts, emails, tweets, whatall. I’d lost interest in taking photos. I just gave a weary shrug when I realised I had lost my little Canon Ixus somewhere in Luang Namtha (the grief is sinking in only now). I’d even lost interest in eating — always the point where Babs starts to really worry.

And then.

The bung-me-up pills finally worked for long enough, for Babs and I to walk through Luang Prabang to sign up for Tamarind’s cooking class, run by Lao-husband and Australian-wife team Joy Ngeuamboupha (right) and Caroline Gaylard.

Being back in the arena of delicious sights, smells and tastes (on terra firma I might add) was just the thing to yank me back from my personal netherworld of jungle-trekking-bus-meandering-gut-treachery.

The morning started with the very bubbly Caroline taking us around Luang Prabang’s Phosy Market, the city’s largest market, introducing us to local herbs and snacks.

I was especially intrigued by how the spartan waste-not-want-not Lao lifestyle — influenced by a mountainous landscape and a war-torn history — showed prominently in their food.

Turns out, for example, that chunks of chili wood (the short stumps 2nd from left below) are added to stews, and have the taste and numbing effect of Sichuan peppers.

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I forget the Lao word for buffalo, but it translates to “paradise meat”. And the Lao eat it nose to tail and then some. Below are dried buffalo skin, which can be added to stews or deep fried to make buffalo scratchings, tofu bricks made from blood, and (this takes the cake) the half-digested contents from intestines, which are bagged, sold, and cooked along with buffalo meat to tenderise it.

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Below is padaek, the Lao rendition of fish sauce. Mekong fish (I saw some tilapia), spices and water are left in the sun to ferment… until the rapture it seems. The stuff is bloody pungent, but offers more way depth and earthiness than the much thinner and more sugary Thai or Vietnamese factory-bottled fish sauce. I wonder how the sniffer dogs will react at customs…

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Breakfast snacks at the market include a young jackfruit salad. Lovely and light.

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IMG 0332And we’re off to class! The Tamarind classroom is 10 minutes out of town, a tranquil spot on the river flanked by its own fishponds and the beginnings of a few veggie beds. The workstations give plenty of elbow space for a group of 12, and the “stoves” are a line of charcoal-fire pots, all fired up to perfection.

The unflappable Joy — with twinkles of deadpan humour — first introduces us to the key building blocks of Lao cooking, then gently guides us through our assignment of making a whopping 6 dishes for lunch: Steamed sticky rice; Jeow, the ubiquitous salsa-esque dipping sauce made from whatever you dream up; Mok Pa, fish steamed in banana leaf; Ua Si Khai, lemongrass stuffed with chicken; Orlarm, a Luang Prabang specialty stew; and a dessert made from purple sticky rice cooked in sweetened coconut milk, topped with fruits, tamarind sauce and sesame seeds.

Overall it was definitely an exciting new palette of tastes for me. Very green, and on the woody, bitter medicinal end of herby. Anthropologically stimulating to taste, but not about to become a source of comfort food anytime soon. Three of the dishes, however, I look forward to introducing to friends and family over a dinner party at some point. Though that might have to wait, because the Joy of Luang Prabang’s Tamarind has, for now, revived in me the joy of travel. And for that I am thankful.

Jeow

Take your desired concoction (in this case I went for tomatoes, 2 chilis, garlic, shallots and a spicy green pepper) and skewer and chuck on a charcoal fire to singe for a lovely smoky edge. Remove skins, bash about with mortar and pestle, and then use as dipping sauce for sticky rice. Also great with BBQ meats.

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Mok Pa

Herbs — shallots, garlic, chili, kaffir lime leaf, dill, basil and spring onion — are chopped and pounded, then used as a marinade for chunked up whitefish. As yummy as it is, I think it’s all about the pretty banana leaf package, secured with bamboo twine.

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Ua Si Khai

Again, a combination of fresh herbs is used as a marinade — this time, minced chicken. The real fun here is using a scalpel to creat these lemongrass “cages” to hold the meat. Dunk in beaten egg mixture, then deep fry.

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Tamarind: Restaurant and Cooking School
Opposite Wat Nong
Luang Prabang, Laos

+856 20 777 0484
As of March 2010, the class takes 12 people per session, runs from 9am – 3pm, and costs US$28 per person.

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One of the most special meals I had in India this past January was in the langar, or community kitchen / dining hall of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

The langar is committed to serve free food to anyone who comes through its doors, almost 24 hours a day (Golden Temple opening hours are 6am – 2am).

Cover your head, remove your footwear, take a plate, cup and spoon and find an empty spot among the long rows of the hungry. Leave a donation at the entrance / exit if you feel so inclined.

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It may not be much to look at, but the toasty chapatti, spinach with paneer, dahl and the rice noodles cooked in sweetened milk that got doled out were all pretty damn tasty — and the perfect antidote to having walked barefoot on marble on this chilly foggy January night. Your plate will keep getting refilled for as long as you need.

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It was a simple meal but I found it to be a heartwarming, even moving, experience. Because this massive, all-day, come-all-who-are-hungry kitchen is run entirely by volunteers and donations. The Golden Temple is the HQ of the Sikh faith, and Sikhs everywhere are encouraged to spend 1 week of their life at some point volunteering at the temple.

And so they do, all around the temple. In the langar volunteers prep an endless Himalayan range of veggies….

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… and wash enough dishes and cutlery to fill the Ganges.

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Some believe that food tastes its best only when it it made with love. The fanciest dish can ring hollow, and the simplest dish can shine, all depending how much love went into its preparation. Which probably explains the gut-nourishing, heartwarming delectability of that humble langar platter.

Thank you and good night.

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11th – 13th March 2010

Here’s a video of me zip-lining through the forest in Laos, where we stayed in treehouses for two nights, watching Gibbons and other wildlife in the Bokeo Conservation Area as part of the Gibbon Experience.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Some gibbons we saw from our treehouse:

We got pretty lucky in seeing Gibbons as they roam in troops over a large area of forest, and there’s no guarantee that they will be anywhere near the treehouses on any given day, though the guides take you trekking to try and find and see them. More photos at SmugMug.

Wen also went zip-lining, possibly because there was no other way to get to our treehouse for the night:

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In short, I found our WWOOFing stint in Kenya to be utterly confounding. Three months on from our October (2009) stint, I find myself with many more questions than pithy quips or verdicts. I hope these anecdotes provide some colour as to why. I didn’t have any grand ambition to get under Kenya’s skin during our mere 6 weeks in the country, but I suspect Kenya’s gotten under mine.

“Hallo Mzungu! How Are you? Give Me Money!”

“Mzungu” is Swahili for ATM.

Well.

Actually it means white man, or more broadly, foreigner. Many people we met in Kenya associate foreigners (especially whites) with money. Including our WWOOF host. Who asked us to contribute US$5 a day for food and lodging. Not a large sum. But because it was sprung on us only after we arrived — despite multiple emails exchanged beforehand — and because it goes against WWOOF’s no-cash-exchange principle, it set our stint off to a sour start.

We agreed, giving him the benefit of doubt that finances on Rusinga Island were tough. But we made our view clear, that as WWOOFers we were here to offer our labour and ideas in exchange for food and lodging.

Midweek rolled along, and our host asked us to pay up for the week. We told him we were planning to go to the ATM (half hour away by motorcycle taxi) on the weekend. If we went today, it’d eat up most of our afternoon farming shift at Badilisha.

“Skip your shift today,” our host said.

Evidently his view was now clear as well.

Later on we found out we got off relatively easy. Daniel and Cyrill, our co-volunteers from USA and Germany respectively, got various appeals to finance the schooling of 2 of our host’s grandchildren. And a list of grocery and sundry items anytime either of them went into town.

Just before we left, our host asked if we would donate a month’s worth of sorghum flour for his kindergarten. Babs and I debated the proposition. I’d grown attached to some of the kids during our stint. But something clicked and soured further when Babs pointed out, “The guy owns his house, the guesthouse we live in, and all the land around us. None of us volunteers own a house. And he rents a separate house in Homa Bay (the nearest town 20km away). And he’s making US$5 a day from each volunteer when it must cost less than US$2 a day to feed us, cos that’s what the average daily wage is around here.”

We heard the same requests for money from quite a few people we met while just walking to and from Badilisha or the local trading post. The schtick was pretty standard. “Mzungu! Eh Mzuuuunguuuu! How are you? Can you give me some money?”

Street kids at bus stations aside, many of these kids obviously had a home and a school to go to. That’s what I infer, given they were hollering to us from their front door stoop, wearing school uniforms.

What in their upbringing has signalled that asking for money from strangers as a salutation is acceptable behaviour? Am I just being skint?

“In Kenya We Just Wait”

One evening we were all gathered in our host’s living / dining room, and I asked casually “what’s for dinner?” Our host replied “In Kenya the men never go into the kitchen and ask and find out. In Kenya we just wait.”

There’s a lot of waiting that goes on around here. For the elusive rains to come, to start planting. For foreign donations to kickstart community help programmes. For the arrival of foreign volunteers to staff them. And, so says the crackly radio news every morning, for The Hague to swoop in and “take away in an aeroplane” the perpetrators of bloody violence during the 2007 elections.

I’ve never been good at waiting for anything. But especially not for rain, when the island resides in Lake Victoria, the 3rd largest freshwater lake in the world. What else might be good to go, right there, right then, if only one would stop waiting?

Moving Stationery

Our co-volunteer Daniel had bought 2 packs of pencils as a gift for the kindergarten kids. He walked up the hill with our host and us one morning to gift them. Our host gave one of the packets to my class’s teacher, and told Daniel he’d hang on to the other packet.

“But I’d like to give all of the kids a pencil each,” said Dan.

Our host said it was better for the teacher to hang on to the pencils because the kids would lose them. Daniel stood his ground, asking why not just give the other packet to the other teacher then.

This went back and forth, and admittedly was getting increasingly awkward. Class was starting so Babs and I went to our separate classrooms.

Later, at recess, Babs told me that our host finally came into his classroom with the 2nd pack of pencils. Then went out and ended his conversation with Daniel, who then went off to Badilisha to start his morning shift.

Said Babs: “Then he (our host) came back in, grabbed the pack of pencils off the teacher’s table, and walked out.”

It made me wonder, “Does he really think word won’t get back to Daniel? And if he doesn’t, why not?”

I turned the question on myself: To what extent do my donations to anything go to where I think they’re going? How much effort do I put into finding out what portion of my donation goes to the agency’s staff salaries vs the cause’s recipients? What kind of seeds do programmes hailing “move towards self-sufficiency” actually give farmers? To what extent are they patented one-generation-only seeds, so that the farmers are always reliant on the aid agency for the next season’s crops? Where is the longer-term incentive for subsistence farmers to grow any surplus crops to take to market, if they are constantly up against heavily subsidised food aid?

Or do I consider my work done once I get that warm fuzzy feeling after handing some money over to a philanthropic cause?

“I’m Positive”

I left Kenya pretty much ranting and raving, but I find myself unable to write Kenya off, and nowhere near giving up on WWOOFing (we hope to do some WWOOFing in Japan, New Zealand and somewhere in South America in the months ahead).

Because for every mzungu leech I remember, I can’t forget those that are doing the best they can.

Like my class’s heavily pregnant teacher, walking the half hour every day to and from school even though she was due to deliver the week after we left.

Like the women who sell little piles of tomatoes and onions and little blocks of cooking fat and stalks of sugarcane, from a piece of canvas on the side of the road, with their babies strapped to their hips.

Like 6-year-old Michael Jr, on loan from his parents who live in another town, since his grandfather (our host) fell quite ill a year ago. Michael Jr’s after-school chores include bringing the empty porridge bucket from school back to the house, running to and from the local trading post, setting and clearing the dinner table, helping to drive the donkeys to and from the lake to get water, to the point where he’s always falling asleep in his dinner plate.

Like Esther, a woman we met one day on a village road. She stopped to say hello, and introduce herself, and thank us for visiting and volunteering on the island. And shared a little of her life story. That her husband had died of AIDS. But she and her son do as best they can. “I’m positive, and my son is positive.”

With nary a request for money.

Recounting this episode to our friend Louise in Dubai about a month later, I said, “Quite sunny and scrappy wasn’t she? Her husband’s dead but she’s still positive.”

Babs and Louise both looked at me, incredulous. “She meant she’s HIV positive.”

Good God. I am such a doofus. But my statement stands. All the more.

Related Posts:

While our Kenyan WWOOF host Michael Odula had plenty of land around his home (and more in other parts of Rusinga Island, some told us), there was no farming activity to be seen on any of it. We were told that the crops from the previous year (2008) failed, and he had not done any planting this season (Oct 2009) because the rains had not come.

So in the afternoons we were sent a 20-minute walk downhill to help out at Badilisha, a community centre with a garden run by Mr Odula’s son Evance.

Badilisha offers HIV counseling and non-violent communication workshops to members of the community. It also houses a couple of sewing machines as part of a programme to help women to make and sell crafts (though I think I saw only 1 or 2 women using the machines during our 2 weeks there), and a small library of book related to farming methods, international aid, and spirituality. There are also ambitions to host an orphans feeding programme, but this currently remains unfunded.

Badalisha’s garden hosts an array of banana, papaya, and passionfruit trees. Out here is where we spent most of our time.

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Our main standalone project here was to build a chicken coop to house a couple of donated chickens. The idea was to build a structure that could harvest the chicken droppings so that it could be used for fertiliser. The easiest way to do this was to build a portable coop with a wire mesh floor.

The twist in the plot was that to build this coop we had to deconstruct and recycle a disused rabbit hutch (previously used to house a few donated rabbits… hmm). And we had to use mostly recycled nails, a hammer donated by fellow WWOOFer Dan, and a borrowed saw. All in all, more people than tools. So I often wandered off to get a start on digging and watering.

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Other tasks: Starting seeds in recycled pill bottles, and watering beds of corn, tomato, cow pea, lemongrass and carrot seedlings.

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A couple of the new beds we started.

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We also built birdbaths from recycled mineral water bottles to hang in passionfruit trees. The hope was to attract birds so that they would eat the bugs that would otherwise eat the passionfruit. On the right is a passionfruit flower, which I had never seen before.

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Digging and watering 5 days a week for 2 weeks may sound mundane, but it’s not. You never know what’s going to pop up out of the ground. Sometimes it’s a pretty seedling. Sometimes it’s a baby python. Eek! I’m trying to remember if this is how we finally managed to convince Dan to stop farming in flipflops…

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After our shift is done we usually troop over to the local trading post for some warm soda. Which I am not a fan of. It always makes me burp very painfully through my nose. So instead I gnaw on a snack lovingly remembered from my youth — raw sugarcane, at 1 Kenyan shilling per segment (see size below).

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Related posts:

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Above: I’ve been told I’m the first Singaporean to show up on Rusinga Island.

During our 2-week stint WWOOFing in Kenya, we spent our mornings being teaching assistants at Millimani Academy. It’s a grand name for what is a 2-classroom structure with a concrete floor, wooden beams, aluminum walls and roof, and chicken wire windows, built on our host Michael Odula’s land, further up the hill from his family home. Many kindergarthens in Kenya are community-run and funded, as state funding for education starts only at the primary school level.

Millimani houses 30-40 children (depending on absentee rates) from the neighbourhood, aged between 2 and 7. Some of the kids are orphans — raised by their grandparents because their parents (who would have been around my age) have died of AIDS. Some orphans have parents — raised by their grandparents because their young (sometimes single) parents have gone to the cities in search of work.

School starts at 9am, usually a combination of English and Math. English usually involves learning the alphabet, and learning context-specific words (e.g. a lesson on weather involved learning words such as “sunny”, “rainy” and etc). Math at this stage is about counting, and addition and subtraction. There’s more class participation and leadership than what I remember from my kindergarthen years.

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Above: Vivian leads the count; the class choruses. I am where I have always sat all my life in class — at the back with the tall kids and sometimes troublemakers

Our tasks for the stint weren’t set out in any particularly organised fashion. Well. Not at all, really. The kids spoke mostly Luo — their tribal language — and were just starting to learn basic English and Swahili. So any kind of involved spoken communication was out. Mostly Babs and I tried not to be too much of a distraction during class, and nudged the kids along during “homework” sessions — making sure they were following instructions and trying to coach the slower kids.

One terrifying morning my class teacher was absent, so after the other teacher held a combined teaching session, I was left alone to oversee and mark the homework session. And enforce class discipline. I’ve grown up with teacher stories all my life, but I remain completely mystified at how my mother, Babs’s mother and all our teacher-friends manage to do this.

Babs took on the younger class of 2-to-4-year olds. Only the older half of his class had desk space. The “babies” sat on the floor, learning mostly, I imagine, by osmosis. Outside of helping his older kids with homework, Babs’s main focus was trying not to tread on the babies with his giant boots.

Recess runs from 10.30am to 11.30am. The kids have a huge amount of open space in front of the school building to run around in. Some of them are constanly climbing nearby trees to pluck and snack on a particular yellow pod. One of them gave me one to try, which I did, much to Babs’s horror. It was unpleasantly tart, but hey, it didn’t kill me.

When I was in school I played a game called “five-stones” — kinda like jacks. The “stones” were little stitched bags filled with beans or rice. Here, many of the girls compete intensely on a local version of the game played with real stones. It took me days of watching closely, but by the end of the stint I could follow the game and call them out when they were cheating.

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Sometimes the kids decided they haven’t had enough class for real, and play out a pretend class. I think Vivian has teaching potential.

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Sometimes they just wanna dance.

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Sometimes they gather round and do some combination of cuddling up and/or poking at me out of curiosity. This was especially true when I broke out in hives due to a reaction to over-zealous use of insect spray. Averse to any kind of fuss, I got them to count along to how many spots and swells they could find on my arms. They learned some new numbers that day.

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At the end of recess each kid is given a large plastic mug of sorghum porridge (made by Mama Odula in the morning and carried in a large bucket up the hill by one of the teachers or Babs). For many of the kids this is their first meal of the day, which means there is ALWAYS vicious pushing and shoving in the queue even though there is always enough to go around. Babs and I act as line bouncers — spacing out the squished, picking up the pushed down, and pulling into line the dopey drifters. Then the teacher leads them in saying grace, the stuff is doled out from the bucket, and then there is about 15 delicious minutes of complete silence.

Finally there’s a last half-hour of singing and dancing to a mix of English and Swahili folk songs. Still not convinced Babs and I add much value here. Possibly just ridiculous entertainment by singing and dancing along — always a great cause of giggling among the kids.

It’s noon. Time to go home. I’m pooped. To all the teachers out there, Respect.

Related Posts:

WWOOFing in Kenya — The Homestay
WWOOFing in Kenya — Afternoons at Badilisha community garden
WWOOFing in Kenya — Perspectives