Saturday, March 22, 2008

Fishing: Karen Style

The other day I was privileged to go on a fishing expedition with my friend Da-Na. He had talked about taking me down to the river to “look for fish” for quite some time and we finally got around to going. The river runs fairly close to my house but we had to hike for a little over an hour to get to the best fishing area. We followed the river for a short while and then cut up through the mountains. As we went through the forest Da-Na was constantly showing me plants that you could eat as well as the ones that have medicinal value. The forest here is exploding with orchids. Attached to nearly every tree is a myriad variety of these exotic flowers. The forest here is a thick green jungle during the rainy season but as the dry hot season progresses the leaves fall and the forests is transformed into a different world; a world of the orchid. A few of the orchids were starting to bloom and Da-Na assured me that in a few weeks the forest with be ablaze with yellow, red, purple, and white orchids. I can’t wait to see that! Orchids are prized by the villagers as well. Nearly every Karen porch is adorned with them. I decided that I wanted to have the same for my house and Da-Na has insisted on fashioning me some orchid holders made out of local trees. One of these days soon, when he is finished with the holders, he said he will take me out to the best part of the forest to collect orchids. I’m pretty pumped! It’s amazing how much knowledge all the people here have about the forest. It is a knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation as the kids venture into the forest with their parents.

Being in the forest is second nature to them. While I had my hiking shoes and breathable clothing, my friends were wearing flip flop sandals and long sleeve shirts to protect them from the sun. A large portion of the river near my house is flat and sandy with few rocks. Where we journeyed the river was rocky and absolutely gorgeous. Little waterfalls spill clear water into deep pools that bordered by green saplings. In between the rocks the sand creates inviting pools and there are stretches of flat sand interrupted by the small rapids. The river bank is adorned with tropical trees and bamboo, all in a different state of foliage. Some are green year round while others are turning red and orange and all of this is complimented by the yellow foliage of the changing bamboo. I’m going to be making some trips to camp near the river here soon and it will definitely be on the agenda for my family when they come to visit.

When we reached the river the fishing began. Now this is not the American toss your line in the river and wait for a fish to bite. Our fishing expedition, including Da-Na, his wife, and his cousin, were outfitted with little spear guns, nets, and goggles. I wasn’t sure how they would go about fishing, but soon I found out. Da-Na threw on the goggles and dove face first into the deep pools surrounded by rocks. He stuck his head into every nook and cranny and soon apparently spotted some fish. He said some things in Karen to his wife and soon she was off searching for some unknown implement. She came back with a small bamboo rod and Da-Na quickly make two cuts in the end. His wife then busted out what looked like a smoke ball fire cracker. Da-Na placed it at the tip of the bamboo and lit it. I think the first time he didn’t quite get it where he wanted it and the little “smoke ball” exploded with force. Water went splashing everywhere and I think my ear drums were permanently damaged. Everyone had a good laugh and then he quickly pulled out another one. This time I kept my distance, but Da-Na was more prepared. He lit the firecracker and quickly stuck it deep under the rock. A faint thud was heard and soon small stunned fish were being snatched up by the fishing crew. The fish in the river are at the biggest six inches long and the majorities are large minnow sized which according to Da-Na are much more delicious than the big fish that can be caught elsewhere. We made our way up the river in a similar manner until it was time for lunch.

Da-Na busily made a fire and his wife started preparing the “cold gang” which consisted of roasted peppers, some sort of lime like fruit we collect on the way to the river, onions, herbs, water, and some other ingredients I wasn’t sure what were. Bamboo sticks were gathered and the fish, without being gutted, were speared onto the sticks and roasted over the open fire. Several off the whole small fish, guts head and all, were placed into “cold gang.” All the ingredients as well as rice were packed into banana leaves. We sat to eat and I went about trying to extract the small amount of meat from the small aquatic critters that were placed before me. Da-Na, with a chuckle, said that you could eat there whole fish, no problem. I took his word, but decided that I wouldn’t eat the head, guts, or fins. It was fun and the cold gang was actually pretty tasty.

In the late afternoon we started making our way back to my village. We ran into several other boys fishing and chatted for a while. There were not quite as accomplished at fishing as Da-Na, but still managed to get a few fish. We made it back to the village and sat down for some Karen tea and some friendly chatting. After a short time I was on my bicycle back to my house for a good nights sleep! I’m just amazed at the experiences that I continually have living here in the mountains of northern Thailand. I will never forget them!

Saturday, March 15, 2008


I’ve had quite an adventurous two and a half weeks. As I have alluded to earlier, I finally made my trip to Japan and it was a great time. We had a red-eye flight that left Bangkok at 11:30 p.m. and arrived in Tokyo at 7:30 a.m. Gabe had taken a flight from Chiang Mai earlier in the day and was waiting at the airport so Pete and I went out early to meet up with him and get some card playing in before the flight left. It’s a good thing we left early, because when going through security I think every person thought Gabe was a terrorist. He got stopped at every possible check point and was thoroughly inspected. Before our flight Pete and I were sitting in some chairs while we waited for Gabe to go look for a good place to play cards. After a few minutes of sitting there a white guy with shaggy hair approached the row of chairs we were sitting at. He hesitated a bit, looked around, then set a small backpack on the chair next to and walked off. I looked at Pete and we both asked each other what the heck just happened. We watched the guy for a bit and decided that it would be prudent for us not to continue sitting in those seats. I guess all the airport paranoia from the U.S. had actually had an impact on us. We watched the guy wander off aimlessly and discussed going to tell someone in the airport. We watched for a good ten minutes and the man finally came back and picked up his bag. No matter the paranoia, it is not a good idea to set a backpack down acting all sketchy and then go wandering off. An hour later we were on the plane and on our way to Japan.

Brian had had a flight early the morning before and had therefore been in the airport waiting for us for a good 12 hours. He met us right outside the passenger exit and quickly relayed to us every aspect about Tokyo/Narita airport. I guess he had had some time to check things out! Not much later we ran into Myoko. Myoko is a friend of a friend, Prima, who is a Peace Corps volunteer in our group in Thailand. Myoko actually went and booked us our ski vacation packages and then proceeded to be one of the most generous people I have met insisting on being our guide in Tokyo and tricking us into allowing her to pay for far too many things.

As we made our way through the modern metropolis of Tokyo with its myriad lights and millions of people, there was one thing struck us as being quite odd. Although it is the largest city in the world, it seemed like it was devoid of human presence or activity. Most of the streets were eerily quite. After a while I realized that in fact there were quite a few people, it was just that there was very little noise. No cars honking, music blasting, or buses belching diesel fumes. I think the biggest factor that contributed to this atmosphere was the lack of traffic. The public transportation in Tokyo is amazing and it is nearly all trains. The map of the train system looks like a rats nest made of multicolored yarn. If it weren’t for Myoko’s help I am quite positive that we wouldn’t have made more than a few steps out of the airport! After a long day of visiting temples, ancient shogun gardens, arcades, and sushi conveyer belts we boarded a bus headed towards the slopes of Nagano prefecture.

When the four of us arrived at the bus station it was very apparent that we were the only non-Japanese people doing this ski package. Hundreds of young Japanese with their latest technological gadgets and ski gear were amassed in the station waiting for their overnight bus that would whisk them away for a weekend of skiing. After a fair amount of talking with our hands we boarded the bus and arrived nine hours later in the town of Happo. There to meet us as we stepped off the bus in the early morning hours was a nice little blizzard. We gathered our bags and then battled our way to our hotel. We caught some good luck and there was a lady who spoke a little English working at the desk. She kindly explained everything and then told us that downstairs there was an “onsen” where we could have a shower before we hit the slopes. The onsen was like a public bath house with multiple showers, a hot pool that contained the hottest water we had ever stepped foot in, and a sauna. The onsen became Brian’s obsession for the rest of our stay. Even though we had a bathroom in our room, he would still head down at least twice daily to hit up the onsen. After getting a good shower, we had not taken one for more than two days; we hurried to hit the slopes.

The first day skiing was everything we had hoped for. It was a blustery day with snow falling, but that meant that the snow was great. We went about exploring the resort and enjoying the snow. We took the first run underneath a lift where there was fresh powder that hadn’t been tracked. We noticed that there was loads of powder off in the trees and no one had been skiing it. We found out the most of the Japanese skiers and boarders stuck to the groomed runs and left the good powder in the trees to the foreigners. When we were off in the trees we kept running into Aussies and Americans and almost never any Japanese. That characterized our whole ski experience. Areas that would be all tracked up within the first hour in a resort in America were left untouched in some areas until late afternoon. Floating down through the trees in over a foot and a half of powder made me feel like I was straight out of a Warren Miller or TGR film. I couldn’t get enough of it, and to our luck the weather agreed.

The first day was pretty windy and they didn’t open up the top of the mountain. The second day we had a bright, blue sky, sunny, day with lots of fresh powder from the previous day. The third day it was another blizzard and we hit it hard in the morning and took it easy in the afternoon.

We frequented a coffee house everyday and ate Mexican food and to Brian’s delight found a restaurant that had a salad bar. Now this was no Sizzler salad bar, but it was a lot more of a salad bar than the three of us had seen for a long time. I think the owner’s were kicking themselves for allowing Brain unbridled access to the salad bar as he started with three heaping blows full to the brim and continued to refill them to his hearts content. We tried to go out on Tuesday night, taking a taxi to a reggae bar suggested by a girl at the coffee house, but we struck out. The little nightlife that there was in Hakuba was closed for the night. We resorted to going to a convenience store, buying cheap sake, having it heated up in a microwave, and consuming it outside the front door like the classy fellows we are.

The fourth day the weather let up a little bit and Pete and I got up early to get first tracks. I get goose bumps just thinking about how great the snow was and how the weather just couldn’t have been better. The terrain could have been better.

Given that the Japanese didn’t go off piste skiing too often there were many areas that could have been turned into amazing runs, but were entangled with trees. Luckily, there was enough snow that it allowed us to take advantage of most of it. The blacks were conspicuously lacking and although I heard many complaints from boarders about the amount of moguls there really was only a handful of runs the sported the imposing humps. I was kind of disappointed because moguls are usually my main target, but given that there was copious tree skiing I was content. Two of the four days the top of the mountain, which had the best skiing, was closed because of low visibility and wind. When it was open it was great.

After our last run we went and gathered our stuff and hit up the onsen one last time. We hit up a South African’s bar for a few drinks before we boarded our bus for the long overnight trip back to Tokyo. We made it to Tokyo station and successfully found and boarded the train out the airport and arrived in perfect time to catch our flight. We bid Japan fair-well and left with fond memories of Japanese skiing.