One More Southeast Asia Story (February 18, 2019)
I have one more short Southeast Asia story to tell before I bring my blogs back to the United States. This anecdote, however, is not about the trip I just came back from, but about a vacation that happened years ago. A previous blog (see February 2) was about me letting my ego get in the way of things, and mention of that personal shortcoming reminded me of this old incident.
Manyu and I, along with my sister Diane and her husband Paul, were touring sea caves near Phuket, Thailand. After taking a tour boat out to a string of islands in the Pacific Ocean, we (along with a half dozen other tourists and a handful of guides) climbed down out of the larger boat into inflatable kayaks. In my kayak, Manyu was in the bow, I was in the stern, and a young Thai man was in the middle. The Thai guy was doing all of the paddling. The outdoorsman in me could not tolerate this arrangement, so I bribed the Thai guy to switch places and give me the paddle. He was reluctant, but I insisted.
The entrances to the sea caves were exactly at water level. This meant that when waves crested, the openings were beneath the surface. To enter a cave cleanly, a kayak had to glide through the exposed entrance at the precise moment the water was troughing between crests. I misjudged my first attempt. I reached the opening of the cave just as a wave began to crest. The rear two thirds of our kayak, the portion with me and the Thai guy in it, remained outside the cave and gently rode the crest of the wave. Manyu’s section, on the other hand, was trapped inside. The rising water submerged her while simultaneously flattening her up against the roof of the cave entrance. If not for the fact that she was small enough (5 feet tall, 90 pounds) to hunker down lower than the gunwales of the kayak, she would have been hurt.
This miscalculation occurred in the early 1990s. Manyu and I were dating at the time and not yet husband and wife. She has wised up since then and no longer puts herself in such precarious situations. For example, she and I recently went hiking with two friends in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park when I tried climbing over a large downed tree that blocked the trail. Our friends were lined up to follow me over the tree, but Manyu hung back. It was only after I slipped, fell about six feet, and landed in briars that she pushed past our friends to lend me a hand. Her comment was, “He does this all of the time.” I hope that she wasn’t still referring to the water caves in Phuket.
"a dam broke, and they don't come." (February 11, 2019)
My brother-in-law Yves reprimanded me when he found out that I was writing blogs about Laos. “I hope,” he said, “you wrote that it is an awful place and no one should go there.” He calmed down after I told him that, as far as I know, no one reads my blog. Time after time he’s seen his favorite spots in Asia fall to tourism, then overtourism, and he never wants to help speed the process.
I usually go years without traveling more than a few hundred miles from home, but now I’ve made two trips outside North America in the past six months – I went to Southern Europe in September, and now I’ve been to Laos. I don’t think that I could have chosen two places more different from each other. Italy, especially Venice, is the epitome of overtourism (see blog of October 1, 2018). Laos is, I suppose, the antithesis; it has almost no tourists at all.
In the village of Champasak, our last stop in Laos, the guesthouse owner was one of the few people I met who spoke English, so I initiated a conversation by asking him about his business. “It is terrible,” he said. “It is because of the dam. When it broke, the French all cancelled, and I didn’t have the time to find new guests. The dam wasn’t even on the Mekong, but foreigners don’t know that. They just see in the news that a dam broke, and they don’t come.” The highlands of southern Laos near the Cambodian border are part of a major hydroelectric project. Last July a dam broke. It wasn’t a permanent dam, but a temporary earth-filled structure designed to hold back water while the real dam was being built. The number of deaths is not known, but more than 1,100 people had their homes destroyed. The dam was not anywhere near the village of Champasak, but it was in the province of Champasak, so the confusion by French tourists is understandable.
I asked the guesthouse owner if most of his clientele was French, and he said, “At least 70%. Twenty percent are German. A few Americans, a few Thais.” This confirmed my own observations. Of the tourists I’d seen in southern Laos, nearly all were French. A few of them were young adults with backpacks, but most were older folks in their fifties and sixties. Maybe they come because French Indochina is part of their history. More likely it’s just because the French are good at searching out remote places for their holidays.
Here’s a theory for which I have absolutely no evidence. When French people get away from it all, they go to places where all the people are locals. They go to places like Laos. When Americans get away from it all, they go to places where there aren’t any people at all. They go to the wilderness.
Helpless (February 4, 2019)
I am not an adventurous guy. Maybe I had a daring streak in me at one time, but I am not even sure of that any more. My wife, Manyu, knows that I am a wimp, but others hear about my annual excursions into the Canadian wilderness and equate backcountry travel with a sense of adventure. I reenforce this misconception with embellished stories of bears and big water, but those trips are 95% serenity and five percent risk.
Conversely, my recent trip to Laos qualifies as a genuine adventure. In Laos, I didn’t speak the language. I seldom knew where I was in relationship to anywhere else; the sun came up over Cambodia (or maybe it was Vietnam) and set toward Thailand, but that’s about all I could tell you. I couldn’t even keep straight the conversions from US dollars to Thai baht to Laotian kip. (If $1 US = 31 baht and 1 baht = 270 kip, tell me quickly whether a half million kip is a lot of money; it’s not that easy.) In my defense, I was in southern Laos, the least touristy part of a country that has almost no tourism. My usual fallback position of finding someone who speaks English didn’t worked.
Fortunately I was not traveling alone. Two of my traveling companions, my sister-in-law and her French husband, spoke Thai. The Thai and Lao languages, while not the same, have enough words in common that Thai and Laotian people can communicate with each other. Had Niensheng and Yves not been my interpreters, I might still be sitting at the Thai-Lao border.
This, however, brings me to the subject of my blog. Our travel party consisted of Manyu, me, and seven relatives from my wife’s side of the family. Within that group were three distinct brands of tourist.
Group One: World Travelers
Manyu, Yves and Niensheng, sister-in-law Shau Yu and her husband Claude all are independent world travelers. In Laos, they did not know what was going on about half of the time, but they chose the location specifically because they knew it would not be easy. Encountering and overcoming obstacles is part of the experience.
Group Two: Mass Tourists
My mother-in-law, plus my sisters-in law Min Chi and Mu Tze, tend toward mass tourism. Left to their own devices, they would have hired a Taiwanese tour company (none of which go to southern Laos) to plan their entire trip. Still, as long as Yves and Neinsheng arranged every aspect of our itinerary (transportation, lodging, meals, attractions, shopping), they were content.
Group Three: Me in the Middle
There is a huge middle ground between world traveler and mass tourist, but at least among Manyu’s family, I occupy the space alone. I had a fantastic time in southern Laos, but did not like being constantly reminded of my dependency on Yves and Niensheng. I trusted their judgment, but had a difficult time relinquishing control. During the trip I told myself a dozen times to just let go and relax, but my capacity to do so would last only a short while.
I am very male, and I’m very American. These two characteristics may contribute to my inability to graciously turn over responsibility – even when I need to. As a result, I unnecessarily put a damper on a once-in-a-lifetime experience just because I didn’t like having my inadequacies pointed out to me. There is a personal Catch-22 in all of this, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet.
Champasak, The Ancient City (January 28, 2019)
This afternoon I find myself sitting under a thatched roof on the banks of Laos’ Mekong River reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I don’t remember ever using the term ‘find myself’ in a sentence before, but it describes pretty well the way I feel. A week ago I turned my travel itinerary entirely over to my sister-in-law and her French husband who live in Thailand. Early last night they dropped Manyu, Manyu’s mom and sisters, and me off at a riverside guesthouse, while they went off to spend the evening with the princess of the Champasak region of Laos. The woman is a real princess – at least she was until she was forced into exile when the Communists took over. She recently returned to her home village without an official title, but also without fear of reprisal.
If I could restrict my gaze of the Mekong to the muddy water itself; i.e., if I could somehow not notice the coconut palms and bamboo along the bank, I might be sitting alongside Twain’s and my own Mississippi River. The Mekong along this section is about a mile wide. Yesterday afternoon our van was on the opposite side of the river from Champasak with what I thought was no way to get across. Our driver took a turn off the main road, drove a few kilometers along a pair of sandy ruts, and then, almost without hesitation, gunned the van up a pair of 2 x 12s onto three narrow war surplus boat hulls lashed together and topped with wooden planks. Except for the fact that this makeshift ferry was powered by a propeller attached to an automobile engine, I’m not sure it was anything much different from a ferry the Connecticut Yankee might have used on the Thames or whatever other 6th Century rivers he encountered during his adventures. At the same time that Manyu’s family was engaged with photographing our crossing, I was trying to remember which of them knew how to swim.
Ten days ago I was home in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Today I am in the middle of nowhere truly half way around the world – in a place remote enough that some of the younger kids still find a full beard on the face of a Caucasian a novelty – and the thing that amazes me the most is the serendipity of me bringing along A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. When I leave home for a week or longer, I usually bring along a classic novel that I’ve never read before, but the choice of A Connecticut Yankee… was entirely by chance. That aside, I don’t remember ever reading a novel that coincides quite so well with my own travels. I’ve been temporarily lost in the wilderness a few times, but this may be the first time I’ve been as disoriented as a 19th Century American who gets hit on the head and wakes up in Camelot.
Alas, I must forsake my scribing and go forth to my assigned quarters to adorn fresh linens. I have been paged by the princess for the evening’s repast.
Oh Lord, Stuck in O'Hare Again (January 21, 2019)
I know now that I will be spending most of my day in O’Hare. It is 2pm for a 2pm flight, and my plane has yet to pull up to the gate. With each passing quarter hour, the chance of me making it to Hong Kong in time for my connecting flight to Bangkok gets less. Still when I eventually get to Thailand, it will be worthwhile. I am meeting my wife whom I’ve not seen for two months. Ever since she and I have become empty nesters, Manyu spends a portion of each winter with her extended family in Taiwan and Thailand. When she stays out of the country for a month or less, I just hunker down at home and enjoy my time alone. When her trips extend for three or four months, I get lonely and join her for a month somewhere in the middle.
During my month in Thailand this year, Manyu’s family and I will take a side trip to Laos. In 1995, the northern Laotian villages of Luang Prabang Province were named a World Heritage Site because of their significance to Theravada Buddhism. While the photographs of the area look beautiful, I am almost positive we will not go there. As vital as World Heritage sites are, their official designations instantaneously transform secret paradises into international tourist attractions. When I am in Thailand, I rely upon my French brother-in-law Yves to serve as my Southeast Asian tour organizer – and as far as I can discern, his only criterion for determining destinations is to go where other tourists don’t. If there are tourists in Luang Prabang, then we are going somewhere else.
In all of the years I’ve known Yves, the only exception to his go-where-the-tourists-aren’t rule was a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Fifteen years ago, he offered to take me to Angkor, but only on the condition that we went immediately. Angkor and the neighboring city of Siem Reap had already become a major tourist destination, but the ruins there also are one of great wonders of the world. Yves said that he had one more Angkor trip in him, but we had to go before the onslaught of American, European, Chinese, and Korean tourists entirely took over the place.
Of course, Angkor was fantastic, easily is the most amazing human-made collection of structures I’ve ever seen. The best part of the three-day trip was climbing the precarious stepped pyramid that is the centerpiece of the main temple. If, however, anyone goes to Angkor today, ascending the pyramid is prohibited, although I’ve never learned whether the ban was implemented to protect the resource or to protect the tourists who occasionally fell to their deaths. Regardless, I am glad that I experienced Angkor Wat when I did, and I am afraid to return for fear that I will be disappointed by the place it has become.
By the way, I made my connecting flight to Bangkok. First class passengers were just starting to board as I showed up at the gate.
It may not be next blog, but soon I’ll write to you about my trip to Laos.
My Two Favorite Books that Involve Fish (January 14, 2019)
For the past two weeks, I’ve been reading Cannery Row and Trout Fishing in America. Obviously I don’t need a reason to read good books, but I know myself well enough to know that when I pull out a couple of my favorites novels, one of two things probably happened. Either I’d just read two or three bad books in a row and wanted something I knew would be good – or I’d hit a rough patch with my own writing and needed a reminder of what an outstanding paragraph looks like. This time around, it was the second reason.
I’ve never told anyone this before, nor has anyone ever told me that he or she has noticed it, but I used a literary device from Trout Fishing in America to name my first book, The Leader Who is Hardly Known. The first sentence of the Tao Te Ching’s Chapter 17 reads, “True leaders are hardly known to their followers.” I was familiar with the line well before I started writing my book, and I thought some expression of that sentiment might work as a title.
In the book that did become The Leader Who is Hardly Known, each chapter began with a tale about a skilled leader who solves a problem without taking any of the credit. I struggled with giving this character a name. Using the same name in all of the stories did not work because the various settings and situations were very different from each other. Conversely, giving the leader a different name in each story also did not work either because the mindset of the leader in all of the stories was identical. With the book half written, I needed a name that personified all humble leadership.
One morning in a coffee shop, Trout Fishing in America came to mind. At first, I only realized that the words ‘leader who is hardly known’ had a cadence similar to the title of Brautigan’s quirky book. Then I thought about Brautigan using the exact same phrase for his title, for the name of several of the characters in the book, and as a metaphor for just about everything in the book. This was exactly what I needed. Trout Fishing in America, however, is absurdist, so the question became whether I could get away with applying a concept from a non-conventional book to a book that was very conventional. Still, by the time I was ready to look for a publisher, The Leader Who is Hardly Known was both the title of the book and the name of the main character. I expected potential editors to like the title, but make me change the name of the character. When David Wood of Wood N Barnes Publishing expressed interest in my manuscript, he did not like The Leader Who is Hardly Known as a title (it was not self-explanatory), but let me keep because he was so taken with its use as a person’s name.
Cannery Row is another matter. It is the first book I ever read where I consciously marveled at the quality of the writing. That was in my early twenties, probably a decade before I even knew I wanted to write. Most chapters in Cannery Row work as stand alone short stories, making them perfect snippets to read as motivation for my own writing.
If I'd Never Left the Woods (January 7, 2019)
Last week I received an email inviting me back to California to help celebrate San Mateo Outdoor Education’s (SMOE) fiftieth anniversary. The startling part of the invitation was not that my old nature center was half a century old, but that I recognized the name of the person who’d sent the email. His name is Mark Nolan. Mark had been teaching children about nature when I worked at SMOE thirty-five years ago, and he was still doing the same good work.
I have never questioned my decision to leave residential environmental education to attend graduate school. Like Thoreau, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” There is, however, one thing that I sometimes wonder about. SMOE was a secluded refuge in the heart of the redwood forest about two hours south of San Francisco. It was the only time in my life when I was immersed in a natural setting day after day after day. Since those years I have lived only in urban areas – sometimes in large metropolises (e.g., Taipei, Minneapolis), but usually in much smaller communities like Ames, Iowa and La Crosse, Wisconsin. After SMOE, nature, at least wild nature, became a place to visit rather than a place to live in. What would my relationship with nature have been if I’d stayed in the woods?
One thing that I can say with some certainty is that I did not intellectually dissect my relationship with nature while I actually lived in nature. I was in my twenties at the time, and maybe that’s too young to expect anyone to be particularly introspective – but I think that my indifference to environmental philosophy was not a matter of chronological age. Contemplating my place in the natural world just did not seem particularly important when I felt part of nature all of the time. Even though I worked alongside noisy and active kids most of my waking hours, I still had opportunities for reflection had I taken them. At least once a week I sat alone on a beach at sunset or hunkered down under a redwood tree, but back then I enjoyed solitude with a Tao-like emptiness and did not, as I recall, use my quiet moments to philosophize. I felt no need to consciously think about my place in the natural world when nature was my home. I never took my wonderful work or the beautiful surroundings for granted, but I also never analyzed them. During those years, I read almost no nature writing; I don’t remember keeping a journal. I did start a writing group with two of my fellow staff members, and while it seems remarkable now, none of us wrote about nature.
It was only after I left the woods that I began to seriously look at my connection to the natural world. The atmosphere of university life required that I become more reflective than I had been, but the direction of that reflection could have gone in a half dozen different directions. I chose to ponder humankind’s relationship with nature because wildness had disappeared from my daily life. I’d moved into a four-story walk-up with a futon, and I owned no car with which to leave town. Nature, at least wild nature, went from being a concrete reality to an abstraction. Either I had to intellectualize my relationship with nature or temporarily lose it altogether. In this instance, absence did make the heart grow fonder.
Obviously a harsh one-two punch of long-term nature immersion followed by nature deprivation is not the only way to develop a personal environmental philosophy. That is a good thing, as most people in the developed world do not have the opportunity, nor perhaps the inclination, to live in a wild place for an extended period of time. For me, I was lucky. The job in the redwoods fell in my lap, and it was a job that, until the email from Mark Nolan, I thought a guy did for a couple of years and then moved on. One of my duties as SMOE director was to meet with the classroom teachers who visited camp to get their assessment of the week just completed. Rarely did a week go by when one of the teachers didn’t ask, “Steve, when are you going to get a real job?” When asked this question, my knee-jerk unspoken answer was that I wanted to avoid a real job for as long as possible, but I also agreed with the teachers that working alongside a steady rotation of college kids and earning $200/week was not a career. Better, it turned out, that I get a job as a university professor where I worked alongside a steady rotation of college kids and earned $1000/week.
Still, it was the quick transition from wild nature to a major city (Minneapolis) that triggered thoughts about a personal environmental philosophy.