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.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

My last Friday in Cao Bang I decided to experience yet another first: my first completely solo motorbike trip through the province. I really wanted to get pictures of all of those things that I had always said, "No time now, must press on, really too much of a hurry, it will be there when we come back." Now suddenly there was no "coming back" in the foreseeable future.

Add to it that it was September - perhaps the most beautiful month possible in the mountains of Cao Bang. Plus, the weather had been simply spectacular for a week. There was no stopping me now!

So I left early in the morning - 6 am, just as the sun came over the hills. I set my compass for Trung Khanh District - another race for the boarder and one last glimpse of the famous Ban Gioc waterfall. I traveled comfortably, stopping every now and then to capture the scenery in the changing light.

My first exciting shot of the day came when I stopped for some standard rice-fields-and-mountains and was met by three elder Tây women decked out in traditional work dress. They took to me immediately and asked for their pictures to be taken. Well, couldn't hardly say no, could I?

Beautiful women they were, and the fields of rice and mountains were only enhanced by their beauty. Beautiful spirits too - they babbled on in half Tây and half Vietnamese, inviting me to their homes just up the road. I tried to scribble down their address in half-hopes of being able to send copies of the photos to them. They certainly made my morning and I set out again in high spirits!

My biking partner for a small trip - she and I kept playing tag as I would zip ahead and stop for a photo and she would catch up.

One of the photos I always meant to catch before now was the indigo-dyed cloth used for all the traditional work and daily wear dress of the Tây (and many other ethnic minority) people.

I didn't have a chance to see the process up close (too many kilometers on the agenda), but I have read that it is a fairly intensive process to get the dark black color: the hemp is grown, softened by rolling a stone, spun and woven on large looms, and then dyed repeatedly, often every day for more than a month and dried before the color is dark enough.

The further north I went, the more green and lush the landscape become. The sun slipped in and out of lazy, hazy clouds, making it a pleasant day to be moving and creatig a breeze. The colors threatened to enfold you and just keep you there, bound in their rich and heavy silence.

Anybody who has spent any signifigant time in farming country can understand the intense feeling of richness that surrounds fields just prior to the harvest. Here, in the vibrant greens and deepening golds, lies sustanance and life itself - the promise of full stomaches and warm houses and clothes through the coming winter. Green and gold - any wonder that these are also the colors of our monetary riches as well?

Finally I reached Trung Khanh town and stopped for a quick bowl of phổ, Vietnamese chicken-noodle soup, a breakfast specialty.

You haven't eaten real phổ until you've eaten in a shop like this!

It was market day in Trung Khanh, which is insanity itself, so I quickly pushed on northward to the waterfall. Here the scenery turned to water - Cao Bang's famous "sweet water." I stole some peaceful mintues by the river, seriously debating the propriety of taking a quick swim:

Water wheels - what a fine and noble invention!

Finally I reached the northern-most accessible point on the boarder - and my final glimpse of the water fall for this season.

I hadn't arranged for the special permits and I wasn't really interested in spending yet more time up close at the falls, so I just popped into the guard station to give a cordial hello, take one last picture, and then I was once again on my way.

After returning to Trung Khanh town (and finding the market still in full swing), I decided I wasn't really ready to return straight to Cao Bang, but not willing to stay where I was either. I noticed a turn off marked for a neighboring district in the middle of town. I tried to question a few locals as to the condition of the road, but couldn't get any clear answers. But, well, it was a glorious day, I had 5 hours of good daylight ahead of me, and I knew that that road had to connect in a circle back to where I was going. So, with a full tank of gas, off I went!

The road itself was certainly an adventure - it was nothing as nice as the smooth paved road I'd driven all that morning. After the first 10 km, it was almost completely desolate. My only regret was that the condition of the road meant I had to concentrate much more on the driving (I was NOT going to skid out again - and I was already pretty sore from the tough driving the day before) and wasn't able to take so many pictures. But there were some great moments that just had to be captured along the way:

Water buffalo wallow - it looked so comfortable I almost wanted to join them!

One hard-at-work scarecrow!

At long last I reached the district town I was aiming for - only to get hopelessly lost trying to find the right road out of town and back to Cao Bang. I spent a good 15 minutes driving in circles, asking repeatedly, "Is this the road to Cao Bang? Is this the road to Cao Bang?" The answers varied from, "No, this is the road to China," to "You're already in Cao Bang!" No, no, I answered, Cao Bang TOWN please. Ah, oh, that way.

The last leg of the trip just about did me in. I passed two large lorries hopelessly mired in what by then resembled a water buffalo wallow. There was just enough room for a motorbike to eek by on the side of them - and it never even occured to me to take a picture. I limped down the rocky hill and was never so happy to see the sight of the paved road snaking out before me:

And with that, I cruised back to Cao Bang. The next day we would go on a staff picnic - and by the end of those 3 days, I would have covered more than 300 km and still managed a full day's work and two big parties!


Irony: my entire last trip into Cao Bang for ADRA was a first. A first to travel to Ha Giang and enter the province from the west. A first to travel to the China border in Ha Quang district – our first year working in this new district. My first Noong ethnic minority market. My first time traveling around Cao Bang on motorbike completely solo. My first time to go on a Vietnamese picnic. My first time to stay in a hotel instead of my home.

So, yes, it was bitter sweet.

Erica calls her own project's counseling hotline to help her get through the transition...

But we’ll start with the adventure.

Field visits were organized in and around the usual routine of meetings and office work.

This trip up to a commune on the China border almost resembled more of an invasion than a field visit: a border guard accompanied five of us on motorbike and four more in a car 60 km through fields and then up mountains and down rocky hairpin turns until we arrived in a place that probably hadn’t even seen foreigners before. The road started out normally enough and I chose to ride pillion so I could take pictures while not overly endangering myself or others.

Markets abound on this trip - we came to yet another market on the way to our commune, but we didn't have time to stop - only drive-by shooting: After that, however, the road went downhill even as we climbed uphill. We switched to riding individually at this point - for safety and comfort's sake. The road was challenging to say the least, and when we went to deliver our baseline survey, we discovered that this was probably the most remote area we had worked in yet.
Invasion begins - our team (L to R: Irene, Giang, Oscar, Huong) at obligatory pre-work meet-n-greet with authorities, complete with tea.
Nga explains survey to local women.
The level of literacy dropped off dramatically and we soon realized we were going to have to revise our way of working in order to continue having valid results in these areas.

After we finished with the survey we had just a few minutes to wander the mountain market.

Ethnic Noong Women.
These women knew how to hold their tobacco! They just kept taking hit after hit.
Camera? What's that? Never seen one of those before!
Then it was back down the mountain to home. Going up might be tricky, but going down can be downright dangerous.
This was the easy stretch.
I took my first major spill of my motorbike driving career on one of the gravel-strewn hairpin turns. Fortunately I was well-clothed and more-or-less prepared for the fall. Bruises and scratches and a lot of dust – no serious damage done. And we were traveling individually on bikes at this point, so nobody else was at risk.
The "shortcut" home.

Then, it was a rush back to town to get back to a 3 PM government meeting – could almost cause cultural whiplash!