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October 27, 2009

Sumatran fishermen

I watched as a man, perhaps their father, dove into the cold, mountain river over and over.  Every few dives he’d come up with a fish and put it in a bamboo basket floating near the bank.  The boys would wade over to it with him and watch him plop the fish in, look and exclaim over it for a while, then go back to watching the man with intent and focus as he watched for the silver flash beneath the water, then slide in after it.  Sometimes they’d dive in trying out what they’d been watching, but they always came up empty-handed.

Ketambe, Sumatra

October 24, 2009

A fast addiction: durian in Sumatra

Durian is the noxious, spiky fruit that is found throughout Southeast Asia, loved like a member of the family in Sumatra; it just so happened that durian was in season when I hit northern Sumatra.  I had heard about it before my trip from travel shows and books.  Peoples’ reactions to eating it vary greatly.  Some people love it and can’t get enough, some can’t get beyond the smell even before it’s opened.  Sumatrans I spoke to believed it has serious addicting qualities and always stressed eating it in moderation.

I was on my way to Kutacane on a minibus.  All the other passengers had been let off along the way so it was just me and the driver.

“Durian?” he said pulling over to a stand.

“I want to try it, but in Kutacane, yes?” I told him, wanting to get there quickly so I could find another bus to take me to the countryside.  Of course he had no idea what I was saying and so bought a couple durian

Ah, durian.

Ripe durian is the size and shape of a football with rounded ends.  Sharp spikes stud the outside, each about a centimeter in diameter and half as high.  If you throw a durian up into the air and catch it you will have bloody holes dotting your palms and fingers.  Before it’s cut open it smells like any kind of anonymous rotting fruit but slightly sweeter.  Slits are hacked into one end with a machete and the layers are peeled back into sixths when the rotting fruit smell is intensified and the scent of rotting onions is added.  The fruit stall owner carried the carving out deftly and handed us the opened durian.  The stink immediately filled the van and the driver offered it to me.

I pulled out a pit the size of two golf balls coated with goopy yellow flesh and smelled it – not any better up close.  The driver grinned at me, spit his pit into his palm and threw it out the window and grabbed another one.  I put mine in my mouth, ready to turn my head out the window should I begin gagging and vomiting, but instead of tasting apples and oranges and bananas after seething in their own juices in the hot sun for a month, I tasted sweet, sweet custard.  We finished both durians and sat with full stomachs and awful smells wafting from our lips.  I had the same revolted reaction every time I took my first bite during each of my many durian sessions in Sumatra, and each time there was a moment when I didn’t believe there was any way I was going to put this horrible smelling piece of fruit into my mouth and actually swallow it, but after the first taste I would soon be lapping up all the stringy custard I could before whomever I was sharing it with could steal more.

July 12, 2009

The Laos traveler

In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, I walked into a wine cellar.  (If walking into a wine cellar in Southeast Asia seems odd to you, remember that Laos was a former French colony.  Everything drips a mix of Asian and French in Vientiane.)   The girl working the counter was fast asleep sitting in a chair, her head resting on her folded arms.  It’s a common site in Laos, perhaps something to do with the hot sun beating down on you all day.  To call Laos lazy doesn’t mean the Lao people do not work, on the contrary they work very hard.  Rather it means they truly know how to use their downtime.  I cleared my throat and said, “Excuse me,” and the girl jumped up, grinning and grabbing a wine menu and a glass and led me to a table.  Even though Laos is no longer a French colony, they apparently still get good French wine for cheap.

The video below reminds me a lot of being in Southern Laos.  The North has a much larger tourist scene and I spent most of my time there with other travelers.  The South was different.  I didn’t have to choose between locals and travelers because I only got glimpses of other Westerners, never actually coming into contact with any until I hit the 4,000 Islands in the Mekong.  As a result, the majority of the South for me was spent among the Lao people.

June 19, 2009

The freedom of travel

One frustrating notion I’ve gotten out of traveling is that, in regard to travel, anywhere is fair game.  This might at first glance seem liberating, but then how do you make a choice?  You’ve got a place to stay for the summer for free in Namibia, you’ve always wanted to go see Machu Pichu and–why not–all of South America, the Middle East sounds very enticing, and you have vivid dreams and memories of Asia–the smells of the markets, the motorbikes all over the place, and oh God the durian.  Tossing a coin or rolling dice is starting look like the only viable option I have.  I have to stop myself from reading too many things about too many places because then I just add new places to the list.  Of course, this never works, and the list simply keeps getting longer and longer.  I suppose a world tour where the sun never sets is the only acceptable way to go.

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