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Palm Oil

It’s dusk and the cicadas that have been yelling all day are exponentially increasing their volume as the sky turns a husky pink, giving an odd glow to the forest that surrounds me in every direction.  The cicadas are perhaps only exceeded in noise by the frogs.  I alternate holding my ears and marveling at their ability to raise such a racket.   When the frogs start their hollering becomes so intense you can’t think about anything else.  The birds soon begin swooping about, calling out and catching air born insects.  A group of gibbons adds their chatter to the music that accompanies the sunsetting glow of the sky.

There are dozens upon dozen of other species, big and small, plant and animal that are adding to this overwhelmingly sensory moment.  So many voices contribute that I can’t distinguish their individuality.  But outside these 588 square kilometers of conservation, it’s silent, dusty and bland.  I want to call it a ghost town, but I know it’s full of plants, even if they do seem brain-dead.  Plants don’t grow climbing over one another; they’ve been restricted plots within straight rows.  The magic of the jungle isn’t felt on the Palm tree plantations crowded out the once magnificent Borneo jungle.

According to Rolf Skar, as quoted in http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90714122 NPR story, “The fastest and the worst deforestation rate in the history of humankind is taking place in the tropical forests of Indonesia,” Skar says. “That record-breaking rain forest destruction is being fueled by the clearing of land to make palm oil.”  A simple Google search shows how much easily found information exists extolling the repercussions of palm oil and the easily found alternatives.  Look http://kids.mongabay.com/elementary/palm_oil.html  for another accessible article about the negatives of Palm oil (specifically on Orang-utans) and what you can do to help.

Bad news makes up most of mainstream new media stories, especially environment-focused stories:  such and such is destroying this ecosystem and that subsistence community and giving cancer to a rare species of recently discovered fish.  It’s easy become cynical and to shut it all out.  I find little bites work better.  Even if you do nothing about Palm oil in your life, just realizing what it’s in and how much of connected world we live in is a step in the right direction.  And, isn’t that what it’s all about?

 

Ratanakiri

After a long day of field work in Ratanakiri, Cambodia, six of us are piled into a four-door truck heading to a dinner of unspecified meat, Mekong river embankment weeds (green vegetables?) and a hearty helping of rice. We’ve passed through forest with ancient lava lumps, rows of rubber and palm trees (courtesy of Chinese investors), an one-roomed wooden huts on silts. We’re now driving up to a lake in the middle of town, visited by the occasional tourist, meaning we’re seven minutes away from the restaurant, a relief for my growling stomach.

The last husky red rays of sunlight are making the lake shimmer gray. As we bend around it, hotels come into view across it. I don’t have to have go into them to know their type. I’ve literally seen them across the world. Billed as a “fancy” hotel (and maybe were 5-10 years ago), they now sag into disarray as uncreative three-story blocks, someday to be abandoned. There’s probably ineffective toothbrush wrapped in monogrammed plastic whose sophistication is dulled by the layer of aged dirt.

Behind us our truck throws up a continuous cloud of the street’s red-brown dirt. We go parallel to strung-up white lights, giving an almost Parisian atmosphere to the couples, families, and friends sitting on woven plastic mats on the lake’s sidewalk. This tranquil scene continues for a couple minutes as our drive continues. As it ends with the end of the sidewalk, I look to the other side of the road and see not one but two merry-go-rounds.

Merry-go-rounds in the backwoods of Cambodia! A closer look proves that the horses are crudely chopped pieces of wood, colorfully painted, attached not to a pole but strung to the roof with rope. Roof is a loose term here. It’s five not so straight poles coming off a center pole (that is theoretically propped up, but I wouldn’t bet money on it’s stability) with a large blanket billowing where it’s not tied down to the poles.

I look for a motor, an engine, something powering the merry-go-round. As we drive almost out of sight, I see it. I shouldn’t say “it” because, instead, it’s a “him.” A man is running circles, pushing an empty horse that turns the entire contraption. I’d like to say only in Cambodia but just like decomposing hotels and lakeside picnics these are things seen the world around, only the details are different.

Siem Reap

Hello! I'm putting more stuff up on here!

Hello! I'm putting more stuff up on here!

In an effort of giving many small snapshots, rather than a detailed story, I’m just going to put up a bunch of photos with some captions.  I’m currently in Siem Reap, Cambodia helping out on some archaeological excavations of Angkor.  To read more about Angkor, click here the wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor .  Here’s pictures from a bunch of touristy things I’ve been up to:

So much carved detail can still be seen on the various Angkor structures, even so many years later.

So much carved detail can still be seen on the various Angkor structures, even so many years later.

 

See?  So much detail!

See? So much detail! Though, this one is a bit more worn down with age.

 

It's quite amazing watching how these pillar structures' designs have changed over time at Angkor.

It's quite amazing watching how these pillar structures' designs have changed over time at Angkor.

 

At this temple complex near the contested border with Thailand, you can bribe the military personal to use their binoculars to look across at Thailand.

At this temple complex near the contested border with Thailand, you can bribe the military personal to use their binoculars to look across at Thailand.

 

Thailand.  If I understood correctly, that's also where the Khmer Rogue used to have a stronghold back in the day.

Thailand. If I understood correctly, that's also where the Khmer Rogue used to have a stronghold back in the day.

 

A typical TukTuk.  For a dollar or two, you can get a ride pretty much anywhere.  And there's always plenty of people yelling out to you "Miss!  Miss! Hello!  TukTuk?"  4 tourists can fit in it quite comfortably, but I've seen 7 squished in before.

A typical TukTuk. For a dollar or two, you can get a ride pretty much anywhere. And there's always plenty of people yelling out to you "Miss! Miss! Hello! TukTuk?" 4 tourists can fit in it quite comfortably, but I've seen 7 squished in before.

 

Would you like some gasoline for the motocycle part of the TukTuk?  These stands can be see quite frequently around Siem Reap.  The gasoline is poured out of the bottle through a funnel into the motorcycle.

Would you like some gasoline for the motocycle part of the TukTuk? These stands can be see quite frequently around Siem Reap. The gasoline is poured out of the bottle through a funnel into the motorcycle.

 

In the various markets of Siem Reap, you can find a lot of odd goodies, like wallets, purses, and bags made of out old cement bags.  A whine-like tone is often used as the "selling" voice by most hawkers in the markets, around the temples and in the streets.  It drives me slightly crazy to be constantly bombarded by people in my face, asking me if I want to buy whatever it is they are selling in a voice that sounds to me like a annoying, annoying whine.

In the various markets of Siem Reap, you can find a lot of odd goodies, like wallets, purses, and bags made of out old cement bags. A whine-like tone is often used as the "selling" voice by most hawkers in the markets, around the temples and in the streets. It drives me slightly crazy to be constantly bombarded by people in my face, asking me if I want to buy whatever it is they are selling in a voice that sounds to me like a annoying, annoying whine.

 

In the markets, you can buy bronze castings of many different religious figures or replicas in any shape or aged look you could imagine.

In the markets, you can buy bronze castings of many different religious figures or replicas in any shape or aged look you could imagine.

Scuba Diving

I’ve spent the last week learning how to scuba dive on an island off the southern peninsula of Thailand.  It is great fun floating around under water checking out fish, sea turtles and sharks eye to eye!  The water is clear and warm (though, I still wear a wet suit because I get cold).  The Thai food before, between and after dives is tasty.  The sun warm and the people I meet friendly.

 

I spent last evening watching the sunset as I floated in the water off a beach close to where I am staying.  As pink intensified on the clouds against the blue sky, the colors reflected onto the water causing it to turn a speckled purple that gently moved with the small waves.  The setting sun caused the limestone cliffs of other, smaller islands in the distance to become black silhouettes against the sky.  Small sail boats had dropped their sails for the night.  The water was that perfect bath temperature where you can’t feel the difference between you and the water, where it softly swirls around you.

Chiang Mai

After leaving Nepal, I went to Chiang Mai, Thailand. There my friend, Alison, is a Grinnell Corps Fellow teaching university-level beginner’s English at Payap University. I spent a week and a half there mostly just hanging out, doing nothing. It was great. And a good way to relax after Nepal and India (both of which, in their own ways, were quite stressful).

 

I had access to strong internet (a first since leaving the USA) and used it to the fullest by watching old episodes of Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. (Didn’t use it to update the blog…sorry. I thought about it, but I was just too busy hanging out and watching television).

 

Alison has a group of friends in Chiang Mai (expats and Thais), so together the eight of us had lunch, had dinner, got ice cream, went to a bar, looked at Wats (temples), and, generally, hung out. It was wonderful and something I really had missed.

 

I made some non-human friends as well.

I made some non-human friends as well.

 

I didn't take this picture.  The cute little guy's handler did.

I didn't take this picture. The cute little guy's handler did.

 

Alison getting ready to let the lantern go.

Alison getting ready to let the lantern go.

The first night I arrived, a bunch of us went to a lantern festival (I can’t remember the name). It began with about an hour and half of monks chanting as the sun set. The chanting went along with a melody of stringed instruments, giving a surreally beautiful feel to the field where 200 people sat quietly and listened. When darkness finally arrived, we were allowed to release our lantern but only as directed. Placed in rows before we arrived, poles with wicks on top gave even more order to the calm ceremony. As the chanting ended, people working the festival walked around lighting the top of the poles. Then, at the exact moment of everyone else, we held our white cylinder lantern (same size as everyone else) above the flame. We let the flame catch the wick on the bottom of the lantern, which filled up with hot air. Then, when we couldn’t hold it down anymore against the power of the hot air pushing up, we let go. Slowly, it floated up, joining the others to become a small yellow dot in a cloudy sky filled with slowly moving yellow star-like objects. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

 

 

Lanterns

Lanterns

 

Lanterns

Lanterns

 

Doesn't it look like bright stars?

Doesn't it look like bright stars?

 

Lanterns over the crowd.

Lanterns over the crowd.

 

Fireworks started to be set off at the end of it all.

Fireworks started to be set off at the end of it all.

Trekking 2

I am a morning person. Anyone who has seen me get tired at 10pm or wide awake once I wake up in the morning knows this (Okay, yes Dad, sometimes that is not so early.). So, when our trekking group decided to wake up at 4:30am to see the sunrise, not only was I okay with this decision, I had been doing it for the past couple of days anyways.

 

The alarm on my watch rumbled me awake in a little trekker’s tea house along the well established hiking path. Only needing to put on my boots because the night time temperatures dipped so low, I slept in all my clothing under the musty blanket provided. I had slept fairly soundly, passing out soon after my head hit the pillow. My roommate, Lucie, however, didn’t. The walls between the rooms were as sturdy as cardboard and as soundproof. We could hear every bit of our neighbor’s long conversation in Russian. It had been going when I fell asleep and was going when I woke up. I didn’t ask about between the two times but feared the worse, seeing Lucie’s tired face.

 

Lucie, I and the rest of our hiking group slowly plodded outside, where we needed our headlamps to see in the darkness. We weren’t the only ones. Uncertain about the exact route to the nearest peak, we saw other groups walking past. Figuring that they must be going in the right direction because they were going up, not down, we followed.

 

An hour and 1000 feet later, we reached the peak of Poon Hill. Us and our closest 300 friends. At no point during this trek was it ever a “alone in the wilderness” type of experience. Beautiful views, yes. Solitude with the Himalayas, no. Tourist season had come full strength.

 

We slowly climbed in one line, following the slabs of stone turned into steps. In front of me was hiker, behind me was a hiker. All of us wearing headlamps. Looking up the hill, I could see the line of headlamps snaking up and around, making one line of light. Slowly the lights were turned off as the sun light began to spread. The sun, itself, was not up but it’s light was running ahead of it coming to us. This haze highlighted the himalayan snow peaks. I watched as silhouettes of giant mountains turned different shades of gray. The closest were the darkest. The farther ones fading into the sky, which was the lightest shade of gray.

 

The colors began to seep into the picture as the sun continued to rise. Unfortunately, fog began to come as well. As I reached the top, so did the fog. The air there was crisp with elevation and full of a thick fog. We sat up there for an hour, hoping the fog would burn off. It didn’t. But every once in awhile, it offered us a tiny opening through which we could see a snow covered peak, like a little secret.

Trekking

Look Mom, I really am brushing my hair.

Look Mom, I really am brushing my hair. Also, if you squint, you can see Himalayan peaks in the background.

 

Here are some pictures from the trek I just went on.  I’ll post some more up in a bit along with some writing about it.  I don’t have time at the moment–I need to run to Nepali class!

 

 

Hiking Path.

Hiking Path.

 

Hiking next to Himalayan glacier run-off.

Hiking next to Himalayan glacier run-off.

 

Himalayan mountain in the full-moon light.

Himalayan mountain in the full-moon light.

 

Another peak in the distance.

Another peak in the distance.

 

Sunrise at 5:33am.

Sunrise at 5:33am.

 

This is what a lot of the "tea houses" that we stayed in while trekking looked like.  Pretty clean and full of tourists.

This is what a lot of the "tea houses" that we stayed in while trekking looked like. Pretty clean and full of tourists.

 

 

 

India Sri Lanka Nepal

More bats!

Jones hiding in the forest.

 

I’m now in Nepal.  A couple days ago I was in Sri Lanka.  I needed a break from the aggressiveness that seemed be around every corner of India.  I thought maybe I had become used to the economic, social and political disparity, having spent almost four months seeing it everyday.  I hadn’t.  Nor had I gotten used to being gawked at, yelled out at, and constantly reminded that I stood out as different.

 

Upon arriving in Sri Lanka, I noticed how much more easily I was breathing.  I wasn’t constantly alert.  I wasn’t avoiding looking at certain people while also keeping tabs on everyone around me.  When a group of students asked to take my picture in the park and I said no, they walked away.

 

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy India.  I certainly had my moments of enjoyment.  But overall, I was overwhelmed by every sense.

 

Staying with Professor Campbell and Karie (before she took a long LONG trip back to Iowa) allowed me to get the break I needed.  It was quite nice of them to put me up.  I saw amazing gardens, jungles, and temples but most importantly, I decompressed.  I had time in a comfortable, safe place to just breathe and relax with lots of good company.

 

 

Bats!

Bats!

More bats!

More bats!

 

A beautiful swing bridge that lets you leave the botanical gardens, technically.  That is, unless the guard doesn't  you go past halfway point.

A beautiful swing bridge that lets you leave the botanical gardens, technically. That is, unless the guard doesn't you go past halfway point.

Interviewing

According to Navdanya staff, it should have taken us 4 hours by shared jeep to reach Jackwal Goan.  It took us 13.  Ooops.  It wasn’t our fault.  Instead, we waited awhile for shared jeeps to leave (they won’t until they are crammed packed, even if that means waiting 30 minutes for one more person), and the Navdanya ppl weren’t so right in their estimation of time.

 

 

While waiting for one jeep to leave, I scared a lady to tears by being white.  You know, cause my skin is so pale and freckly that it TERRIFIED A LADY.  Seeing people  getting into th I jumped into the jeep next to her.  Suddenly, she started looking uncomfortable and glancing sideways at me.  Suddenly, she grabbed all her bags (there were a lot) and ran out of the car as far away as she could.  She stood there crying staring at me while her husband tried to convince her to get back into the car.  Finally (because I wanted to have the jeep leave and not wait around for a dumb lady to pull herself together), I moved to the back of the jeep.
Before I had been sitting in the middle row.  This row faces frontwards (less car sickness), its relatively cushy and spaceous.  Now, I was in the back.  In the back you sit perpendicular to the front of the car, often without any window to look out (immense carsickness).  You are cramped next to people whose body odor rubs onto you while your knees are constantly slammed into the person sitting opposite you as the car swings around curves.  Basically, not so fun.
We finally arrived at Jackwal Goan.  Its a small village that overlooks the Tehri Dam Reservoir.  The Tehri Dam, as a sign says, is “One of the Highest Dams in the World.”  I don’t know about that, but as far as large scale projects that are culturally and environmentally degrading, it was quite pretty.  Blue water, green mountains…etc.  The village itself was small with typical concrete houses painted white with brightly colored accents and mold creeping up the walls.
I didn’t actually see much of the village because our host (a Navdanya coordinator)  seemed to think that the best way to show us hospitality was either forcably overfeed us or frog-march us to a nap.  We spent the entire visit either stuffing down daal and rice (Bri was a trooper who threw up in her mouth and kept forcing food down.  I would not have done this, but I can respect that.)  or being watched (by their children to ensure we were resting) while we uncomfortably laid down on a stranger’s family bed.
We did do four “interviews” between the eating and pretending to sleep.  I use quotes here because these interviews are worthless.  Maybe, in a extremely positive light, they could be seen as a way to get a general understanding about perspectives on monsoons.  But they were done in a manner that was a waste of time for all involved.
During the first interview, the interviewee got up and walked away.  Not because she was offended, she just was bored of the questions.  The Navdanya coordinator (asking the questions in Hindi/Garwahli, acting as my translator) didn’t do anything about it.  Instead, she just filled out the rest of the interview as if nothing had happened.  And then this happened with the second interview.
Both interviewees happily signed the survey (when asked by the coordinator) to indicate these answers were true.  At this point, I realized the other interviews would probably follow the same pattern and told the Navdanya coordinator I only needed four.  I thought this a good number that was not overwhelming but also didn’t seem too small.  During our after lunch forced rest, I woke up to find the Navdanya coordinator sitting on the floor filling out the last two interviews.  When she saw me staring at her, surprised, she asked “You needed four, right?”   She found someone to sign the surveys.
The previous village I went to was not much better in terms of ethically collecting qualitative data (The living arrangements, however, were much more pleasant.  No small children watched me “sleep.”).  This coordinator already knew what answers he thought I wanted from the questions.  When someone didn’t know an answer (something that was of interest to me, since I wanted to know what information was known where and by whom) he would ask such leading questions that eventually all the surveys had basically the same answers.
In both villages, I tried to explain what I wanted and why, but perhaps language or cultural barriers prevented me from properly getting my point understood.  I may not have learned much about many people’s perspectives on agriculture, water and livestock in relation to a variable monsoon.  I have, however, learned a lot about data collection, different cultural perspectives on what is important, and that I really, truly hate being force-fed multiple servings of various dairy products.

Internet Stick

Bri and I bought an internet stick (think: a USB stick that gives you wireless internet for about $10 a month).  It works decently well in certain places.  It didn’t at all in Sangri.  It’s major fault, however, is that its signal is not strong enough to upload photos or videos to the internet.   That’s why you don’t see any here.  When I get to Delhi in a week and a half (to leave to Sri Lanka), I upload a whole bunch.  So don’t worry, I have photos, you’ll just have to wait to see them!

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