Sunday, May 04, 2008

Where’s the Beef?

In Binh Phuoc, of course.

Where’s Binh Phuoc? Finally, an intelligent question.

Well, I got to find out for myself last week when we flew down to Ho Chi Minh City (f.k.a. and still unofficially a.k.a Saigon) last week to see the Beef of Binh Phuoc. The beef come in the form of 66 cows (or, when Vietnamese-English accents get a little intense, sixty sick cows) that have been given to families of blind people through an ADRA project called the “Cow Bank” project (not to be confused with the “Cao Bang” project – also sometimes a victim of Vietnamese-English accents).

Are you still with me?

Good…where was I…

Oh, yeah, Binh Phuoc. Binh Phouc is a province just northwest of the HCMC area (our [younger] guests from Down Under were momentarily confused by the double name – I finally explained it was for tourists: when you ask if you are in Ho Chi Minh City yet, your tour guide will say, no, you’re in Saigon, and then if you ask if you’re in Saigon, he will explain that you’re in Ho Chi Minh City – and then charge you double price for going to two cities. This is further supported by the fact that HCMC still has an airport code of SGN – is this because airport codes are so difficult to change because Eil in Somalia really doesn’t want to give up the HCM code…or is there some latent subversiveness here? Mental note – capturing and renaming a city may never be completely successful unless you can think of a good, unused airport code…)

…oh, yeah, Binh Phuoc.

So Binh Phuoc, to the northwest of that southern city boarders Cambodia on the west and is generally flat as the Mekong Delta. ADRA Vietnam has been working to nurture a start-up office in the south, and the Cow Bank project in the south adds a nice symmetry to the system, balancing out the Cao Bang project in the north.

So, this last week three of us from the Hanoi office flew down to meet the southern programs director and some visitors from a potential donor office. This was my first chance to see south of the 16th parallel (or south of Hanoi, really), and my first experience of the different culture of the south.

What I enjoy most about these trips is that we get to go to places that no tourist would likely go to. Binh Phuoc is a neat place – and the roads are generally in better condition that up in the remote mountains and the buildings are newer and facilities offer more amenities for the same or cheaper price. The socio-economic picture is also quite a bit different: rather than subsistence farming, most of the livelihoods in that province revolve around two major cash crops: rubber and cashews.

One of the downsides to these trips is that we go to places that no tourist would likely go to. Binh Phuoc, for all its southern charms, is really just one big rubber tree and cashew nut tree plantation. The cashew nuts at least offered, if not a complete break in the monotony, at least the hope of getting to enjoy some of the delicious outputs. The rubber, as an edible delight, wasn’t nearly so appealing. But fortunately we were there to look at cows – not just rubber trees.

And so after the mandatory meetings with authorities, stakeholders and local partners, we were off to look at some beneficiaries and a few of the sixty sick…er, strike that…sixty-six cows. And look at cows we did. Big cows, little cows, baby cows and pregnant cows. And a few pigs, goats, chickens, cashew trees, pepper corns, pigeons, flowers, dogs, babies, worms, grandmas, motorcycles, rubber trees, cashew fruit, jackfruit, and their owners for good measure.

It was something between a circus act and a swat team investigation – a van full of five sweating foreigners, two Blind Association representatives and their handlers, four Vietnamese ADRA staff and three randoms that nobody seemed clear on relation to us and driver piled out in front of a house hauling video equipment and tripod, handheld cameras, still cameras, microphones, notebooks and launch in a series of questions that must’ve been baffling and then asking to see (and photograph, film and otherwise wholly document) “the cow” – yeah, that’s something that happens every day.

It was probably the most fun and relaxing for me – for once, I didn’t have to claim any previous knowledge about the project, the area, or the potential future of the project. I didn’t have to play any part in logistics other than being to the right place at the right time and not get left behind. I didn’t have to photograph anything specific or play any other role than to entertain the star-struck locals that weren’t actively being questioned or filmed (and score at least one marriage proposal from a toothless farmer). And to look at cows. Cows are fun.

This was a scaredy cow - hmm, 16 strangers all coming out of the forest at you at once shouldn't be that unnerving, now should it?

This single, old mother is caring for her blind son...and a cow that probably out-weighed her at birth...

The fatted calf...but not for butchering, yet.

And the real calf. Baby cow.

The principle of a "Cow Bank" is that a family is given a cow that will soon be ready for breeding. The family then cares for the cow until the calf is born, and when the calf reaches 9 months of age, it is returned to the "Cow Bank" to be given to another family. The first cow stays with the original family and continues to provide a source of income and financial stability.

The idea behind cows, as opposed to traditional micro-lending programs, is that a cow is a buffer against inflation. Cash loses value (and in the high-inflation Vietnam economy, that is particularly noticeable right now). Assets devalue. A cow, as long as it remains healthy and productive, however, can only increase with value along with the market. So, people like cows - and the financial stability a cow can bring. Hence the concept of a "cow bank."

And did you know cashew nuts grow on the end of a fruit that has a pleasant, sweet-sour taste? The fruit shrivels and dies and gives it’s life force to the forming nut. If it weren’t that that nut was so good, we’d be savoring cashew fruit. And if you found that cashew fruits have some amazing medicinal properties (as some people believe) would you sacrifice that precious end result to get to the fruit? That would be a difficult choice for me…

This cashew fruit is still unripe. When ripe, it will be a juicy and vibrant red.

Hot as it was, the trip was over as quickly as it started. The morning of the third day found us heading back to HCMC and straight to the airport. We never even got to see any of the parts of the city that tourists would go and see.

This is the shiny, new international terminal where we wandered to kill some batteries gave out before I got a picture of the domestic.

And a few hours later, on April 30, Vietnam’s Reunification Day, with the heavy air and flashes and rumbles from the dark, encroaching clouds acting the part of the approaching Viet Cong, I found myself in a sad reenactment of the anxious wait to escape the Saigon airport. Our flight was delayed by one…two…finally three hours and the heavy clouds kept us pinned to our spot despite the tempting nearness of downtown Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon itself. Ahh, well, the exotic pleasures of that mysterious city will have to wait for another, more fortuitous time.

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