Friday, January 06, 2012

Amateur Anthropology

I've been thinking a lot about one aspect of this trip that has most surprised me. While there have been elements of this trip similar to ones I've taken in the past (e.g., natural scenery - Ha Long Bay; archaeological sites - Angkor Wat; historical sites - Tuol Sleng prison), the dominant element has been anthropological. It's as if we're all amateur anthropologists following along with some National Geographic expedition.

There's a strong element, if not so much among the guides than among the guests, of "see the exotic people." Today, we're going to visit (I'm typing this preamble at 6:40 am, but will post it much later) a silk-making village "untouched by tourism." The only people who visit this town (other than Vietnamese) have been AMAWaterways in the last three years.

But what does that mean "untouched by to tourism?" Does this mean they are some pristine, authentic, untainted culture, guarded like in a nature preserve? People and cultures are dynamic processes. By my very presence, I'm changing the people around me. Is that always a bad thing? Do "exotic" peoples have an obligation to remain exotic to satisfy my desire to see things exotic? Aren't I objectifying them, treating them as "other," like animals in a zoo? These are all questions I've been struggling with on this trip.

Last night they had talent show for the crew. This mostly involved various crew members dancing for us and then trying to get the guests to dance too. Luckily, we were sitting the second row. As I explained to Kathy, Janice, and Jill (with whom we had a lovely dinner - though dad couldn't believe what they were telling him about a Medi-Jet program), I'm rhythm challenged. I have trouble spelling out "YMCA" (which was on the list of songs they did).

[1:30 pm, Cambodia Time]

This was one of the best excursions of the trip. We moored opposite the town of Tan Chao, close to the border with Cambodia. Even at night we could see we were no longer in Cambodia: buildings with neon lights, street lamps, and cars. This was confirmed during our excursions today.

We boarded the tender and sailed up stream to a small island in the Mekong. Until a month or so ago, this island was underwater. Now the level has gone down and they are growing rice and vegetables. Our boat passed sampans and larger fishing boats, as well as houseboats. We eventually landed disembarked on a dried mud embankment. We walked up a dirt path between fields and a bamboo wooden fence. Small children came running up yelling "hi!" Dad really enjoys handing out little candies to them.

There were farmers wearing conical hats weeding among the rice, or growing turnips, elephant grass, snap beans, or corn. Many had cattle such as cows or water buffalo. Most of the cows used in Vietnam aren't for dairy use. Many houses had a dog in front; they guard the house and ward off evil spirits. The dogs are extremely placid and rarely bark.

I snapped a photo of one young farmer, who watched happily as his children played around us. I showed him the picture I took and he grinned. The kids loved to see their photos. The island is remarkably fertile and is bright green from the numerous crops growing here. Some of the houses are raised on stilts to last through the flood season. When it floods, the people move to the mainland. Now, when the water level is lower, they come back to farm.

In one place we were able to see some rice that had been planted just as the water level was coming down and now has grains of rice visible. Eventually, though we had to get back on the boat.

I got on first, and since my life preserve didn't fit at all, I quickly switched it for dad's and waited for him to try it on. He was rather stunned when it didn't fit and I kidded him about eating too much on the island.

Our next stop was a floating fish farm. There were several sleeping dogs on the deck, but they ignored us as we took up seats around a large rectangular hole in the floor, covered by fencing. This was the entry to the fish farm. They raise snapper on this farm, but on others they raise tilapia or cat fish. This was a large wooden floored rectangular boat, resting on drums or booms to keep it afloat, with corrugated tin walls and a metal roof. The roof was high above our heads, and the boat connected to others, so one could if one wished, walk on to other boats and eventually to shore.

The guide explained the fish farming method and then threw in some fish food. We could see the snapper swarming for food. They were so energetic that one splashed water on my legs. After that, we walked back to the tender.

Our next stop was the mainland shore. Dad had a bit of a run in with Frau Fabissiner. She and her husband, like many of us, had trouble with the audio system they gave us (the have a tendency to give out after an hour). She and her husband stopped right after getting off to ask the guide for new receivers, leaving dad perched somewhat precariously on the block one steps on from the tender. He loudly told her that one shouldn't stop at the top of an escalator. She moved.

We walked through a small village until we came to the reed mat-making factory. Red and green dyed reeds were drying on a fence outside. Inside, there were half a dozen looms run by mostly young women, producing rolls of mats. At the end of the path was a gift shop, but most of what they sold looked like it was made elsewhere. I bought one gift that was made in the shop.

From there we walked to get on the cyclos. These are a kind of rickshaw, but using a bicycle. The driver sits in front and the passenger behind. One person per cyclo. After a lesson on how to get in and out, I volunteered to be the first to board. I had no problems. Many people were uncomfortable on them, including dad, though I thoroughly enjoyed it. The problem was that the leg room was too short for people long legs. I didn't mind resting them on top and bending them, but others didn't enjoy that.

Our last stop was the silk-weaving factory. They produce bolts of silk cloth, which are then dyed. They use the punch-card system, in which sheets of cards are used to determine the pattern. The importance of this system in later history is that this is where computers came from. Early calculating machine designers looked at English looms and their cards that controlled fabric designs and used them to make adding machines. These computer punch cards were still in use as late as 1984, when I graduated college, though I think they started to phase them out in law school in favor of the floppy disk.

As with the mat factory, most of the items for sale in the gift shop didn't appear to be manufactured in it, but I found a nice gift there that looked as if it was. After that it was back to the ship for lunch. I found lunch was one of the better meals on the ship. Dad and I both had the cold coconut soup, though he went for the hamburger (sans bun), while I had the fish and chips. Dad decided to bend one of his rules and have the creme caramel. It was quite good. I had some too and a large green (though ripe) banana.

For the rest of today, we sale down the Mekong until we reach Sa Dec. Tomorrow, we will explore the delta. I may swim again in the afternoon and then play the Liar's Club tonight (if I can find out how it's played).

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