Saturday, October 11, 2008

Last Day in Cao Bang

For my last day in Cao Bang the whole staff turned out looking like a bad motorcycle gang, ready to tear up the roads of Cao Bang one last time. For all the kilometers I had covered in the last few days, they were bound and determined to show me that I hadn't even scratched the surface of the mysteries of Cao Bang province, and to convince me that I simply needed to come back for much more in the future.

We set off on a road all of us could have driven blindfolded, but before we knew it, we had turned off onto a little dirt and gravel path that quickly gave way to a tiny clay path. Somewhere, back here, around the bends, really and truly, they promised, there was a lake. Cao Bang doesn't exactly have a reputation for doing lakes. Rivers and rice paddies, yes, lakes, no. So most of us were incredulous, but a few knowing individuals told us to press on.

And then, suddenly, there it was. And not just a little Hanoi-style pond either. This was a true blue lake that would rival many on the Three Lakes chain. All this time there was a large body of water just back of my doorstep and I never knew. This was the place for swimming!

But swimming wasn't on our agenda that day, even though it was warm and sunny and we had prepared for a picnic. No, the knowledgeable ones insisted, there was more back here. Somewhere, way back here, in the middle of nowhere, there was supposedly an ostrich farm.

First though, we had to cover 10 more kilometers of road that looked like this - only worse.

And then, again, suddenly, there it was. Some 20 ostriches were being raised for meat way out here in the middle of Cao Bang Province for reasons that never really did receive a good explaination. Ostrich meat is not in any way a part of the normal Vietnamese diet, and the only places I have seen it is on a few menus in Hanoi restaurants (usually those serving an Australian crowd). Having ostriches in a small yard in a location that is extremely difficult to access by road in an already remote province seems utterly absurd. And yet, here they are.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the birds didn't look so incredibly healthy and spent most of their days hen-pecking each other in their tiny run. Yet their very existence was a fascination as most of the staff had never seen such an exotic creature.

There were only three females in the whole bunch as usually the farm received young chicks and were only expected to raise them to maturity, not breed them. But occasionally an egg is laid - and then the local caretakers get the treat of a really big omelette. Apparently the taste is similar to a strong duck egg.

One chick reportedly costs 10.000.000 VND, or about $650 US. That's quite an investment!

And then, true to form, our team lost interest in everything else except our own group and keeping our hands busy. The girls that worked at the farm were busy chopping dried corn kernels off the cob to make feed for the ostriches. As our team meandered away from the ostriches, they were drawn to where the work was being done. One by one they picked up knives, machetes and meat cleavers and set to. The employees of the farm themselves suddenly found that all their work had been taken away from them and the guests were now chopping corn and sweeping and generally doing household tasks.

I even tried my hands at this job eventually - and managed to not chop any fingers off. Okay, just a slice.

We sat and talked and gossiped for a couple of comfortable hours in the shade, with a few random games of charades and jokes breaking out using props left lying around the farm. Then stomachs started rumbling and everybody decided it was time for lunch. The team broke out the goods - a full Vietnamese picnic!

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but when I saw it, it made perfect sense. Yes, you can take rice on a picnic - and it doesn't even need to be sticky rice. You just cook rice with a little bit more water than usual, press it together into a ball, and, voilà, you have transportable rice! Add to it a little meat pâté, some dried fluffy pork and a lot of ground peanuts, wrap it all in banana leaves, and you have a perfectly serviceable lunch. Cut and serve.

We dug in with relish.

After lunch we took a siesta and spend another couple of quiet hours puttering around the farm. In the end, though, there wasn't enough to keep some 20 pairs of hands busy, so we decided it was time to jump on the bikes and make the ride back into town.

The fat lady still hadn't sung yet. The final bow was a chicken hotpot dinner at one of our favorite (recently remodeled) restaurants in town. Of course, there were the requisite flowers (despite the fact that I was leaving town), but they got far better mileage with the whole team using them before they were given to me!

Then, after the toasts had been made and dinner was eaten, they presented me with the their gifts. The first is a table runner made in Cao Bang ethnic minority style...they were a little concerned I didn't understand it's real purpose when I tried it on as a shawl...

Next was a traditional silver necklace and ring. Silver, they told me, is traditionally given to a girl who is leaving home to get married. (Well, since I'm married to my work, it seemed an appropriate substitution). The silver will protect her from illness due to cold and from heatstroke. It is also a sign of the family's riches and wealth and a woman will wear all of her silver until she bequeaths it to her daughter at her marriage.

These gifts showed once again how intuitive the team are about people. They understand that I am most interested in traditional culture and understanding the people, and so they chose gifts that allow me to carry parts of that culture with me. They really are an amazing bunch of people.

Finally, my gifts to them. When in Thailand I was able to find a large number of ADRA polo t-shirts - enough for the entire Cao Bang team. ADRA Thailand had been unable to sell them because of their unusually small size - which meant they were just perfect size for our staff! The team looks more like a team than ever - and they loved their new shirts!

The next morning was my last morning in Cao Bang. And still, yet another first. I chose to take the public bus from Cao Bang back to Hanoi. My first public bus ride since Madagascar.

The trip was fine and allowed me a lot of anonymity (unlike Madagascar, people on Vietnamese busses leave you alone and don't try to talk to you), and plenty of time to think and reflect on how lucky I have been to be where I was for two years.

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