Travel Blog Recommendation

Check these guys out. As they say,

Tom and Alex, two travelers from England on a journey of cultural learnings of Kazakhstan for make benefit glorious.

No itinerary

No clue

Your guess is as good as ours.”

Lots of well-done photography. I enjoyed spending some time there. Check ’em out.

Driving in Vietnam

Just driving around in Vietnam is fun. You never know what you’ll see.

Our mission these next few days is to cruise the Mekong delta canals on a boat we’ve arranged to meet us about three hours drive south of Saigon. The driver down there is a precious older gentleman without a word of English and we have no Vietnamese besides some pleasantries and the names of some food.

He’s a pro driver, no doubt about that, in a nice golf shirt and slacks, and he works the car the eight blocks from the hotel down to the Saigon River and then follows it south out of town, beyond Cho Lon, Saigon’s sprawling Chinatown, and holds a steady course until the center falls away.

He gets the left lane and proceeds slowly, a campaign strategy he follows every bloody deliberate inch down there and later, back. He has a deep and resonant voice I don’t understand.

We first came to Saigon nearly twenty years ago. Cycles are still the main way Saigon Man and Woman get around, but since then they’ve largely dispensed with the demure way women rode the back of scooters, both legs to one side. Back then many more women wore the traditional Ao Dai, the thin, body length robe. Maybe that made it hard to sit any other way. Some women still sit that way but today most ride behind their man like they do in America. (There are a lot less pajamas nowadays, too). It makes good sense, the way things work. Eight million people just don’t take up as much room on scooters.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon

Steady ahead. If he hurtles all the way up to 60 kph, even on long, empty stretches, he seems to embarrass himself when he discovers as much and slows down. Maybe he’s working by the hour and if they say this trip should take three and a half hours then no way will he make it in three hours and a quarter.

The river becomes more of a canal. After a half hour the industrial outskirts present themselves, less kempt than in town, still dense, low-rise residential peppered throughout. Smart electric road signs overhead show the way. It’s a divided six lane highway for cars with about a two car-sized lane outside in each direction for cycles, and this goes on for miles and miles.

A web of canals starts. It’s really hazy today and I think it’s really hazy almost all the time. High forecast at only 89 today. It’s December. Winter.

A guy with a cart jammed with coconuts goes chugging by, pulling it with his cycle. A young man with sheaves of office paperwork on his lap angles off to the right. A most unlikely place for the Mercedes Benz Haxaco dealership, and then a stretch of corrugated roof and iron bar buildings, followed by a tended-green-space flyby, with the “584 Group” high-rises set back off the road. I am not sure why, but here is an empty lot full of dozens of mannequins dressed in ladies clothes.

Just about every hundred meters stand banh mi carts by the road. Restaurants that serve a variety of foods are for tourists. Vietnamese people eat at a pho restaurant for pho, a banh mi cart for banh mi and so on.

A dense section of replacement radiator vendors rises up beside a bunch of chest-high fan stores. Brick store. Fruit and vegetable carts. All of a sudden an exodus of huge, tall tour buses swoops and squeezes in with us humble cars and scooters and muscles us all to the verge.

Canals run every which way now and there are signs down here for copper, aluminum and plastics manufacturers, and wild fields sometimes along the canals, sometimes wetlands sometimes traffic and bustle and dump trucks way taller than your car, and fast, and in close and menacing.

A plant known to botanists as eichhornia crassipes, and to everyone else as water hyacinth, thrives in dirty water, and the random industrialization of the Mekong delta means it has come to the right place. Where we cross canals it is not clear that boats could navigate among the invasive, free-floating plants and indeed, later, aboard a Mercruiser with seats for 16, the pilot will be forced to stop and fight repeatedly to disentangle the motor from the plants.

Trash collectors pedal along, riding the wrong way with collapsed cardboard boxes tied to the back of their bikes. Photocopy! Baguettes. Dried fowl hang behind glass in rolling carts parked at the roadside.

Everywhere the length of this country women, men and boys hold down low plastic stools out by the road in front of shops and I will never reconcile their sanguinity with their proximity to the highway.

It’s never exactly rural but after 45 more minutes I imagine I spy clouds discernable through the permahaze settled back over Saigon and I even talk myself into believing the sky may be a little bit blue. Unlike in town, trees, bananas and ferns move up to the verge.

With all the cycles around here, Honda is a common name. A cycle shop puts a hundred stylin’ helmets in its show window. Next door an open-air, under cover restaurant has just as many chairs.

Furniture: Headboards, many of the same bureaus in different stores. They MUST price fix, or they’d cut each others’ throats.

Eventually traffic lights begin to just flash yellow and the road runs rail-straight to the south.

There is a story to tell (another time) about the route to Latinization of the Vietnamese language. After enough Ca Fes and Ca Phes and Cà Phês, I begin to wonder if Shop Ti Ni is a tongue in cheek ‘little shop,’ which, it turns out, is exactly what it is.

So I wonder if ‘Mai Man’ is trying to act cool.

Out here they seem to have settled into a repetitive rural diet. Restaurant (road stand) advertising is centered around the ubiquitous pho and banh mi, but there is more:

  • banh canh: a thick noodle from tapioca flour or a mixture of rice and tapioca flour.
  • heo quay: a crispy roast pork
  • hu tiu: clear noodle soup with pork and/or shrimp
  • bun rieu: meat, rice vermicelli soup, and
  • com phan, which I can’t seem to find out about. “family food,” maybe.

All of these roadhouses beckon you in to plastic tables and chairs to enjoy your lunch with, likely as not, welders’ arcs next door. Or a floor tile showroom.

Oh no! Just along the side of the road there, the most earnest man has lost his load of joss sticks, doubtless meant to make him a Chinese New Year fortune next month. His whole sorry load bumped off his cycle and burst its packages along the road and you’ll never see a more industrious gathering effort.

You can install lots of pumps in your gas station in a place like this because your customers’ cycles can kind of angle in in a way cars can’t.

After more than an hour and a half, now 50 kilometers south of downtown, we drive past the Tan Huong Industrial Zone, down in the Binh Chanh district. It’s newish and it’s huge, 200 hectares and already only 40 hectares unfilled. Every trip to Asia leaves me smiling at its capricious city planning. Here now comes a cluster of bridal shops.

A man riding pillion holds an eight rung bamboo ladder. It sticks out past the front of the scooter over the driver. That can’t be comfortable for either of them.

Sometimes the storefronts come to ten feet from traffic, with scooter parking, the terrace with plastic stools for the proprietors and the area for commerce in front of that, between the building and all the scooters, intercity buses and us, cruising right on by.

Now, completely nowhere special, we take a right onto a four lane divided highway with a maybe additional four feet per direction for scooters. The eye can see farther out here. Banana trees, right up to the road sometimes. We swing back left, back in the original mostly southerly direction. Then another right, and after two full hours, banana trees and their tropical fruited kin grow right up hard by the road and now, gradually, women have begun to use the don ganh, the shoulder yoke carrying pole.

The don ganh is a metaphor for motherly love. With her baskets of fruit or flowers or ceramics or who knows what for sale, mama shoulders the burden of providing for the family.

Don Ganh pole, non-metaphorically

•••••

Live-aboard boats line the canals tied up to the sides. Roadhouses are open-air under cover, offering shade with your banh canh and hammocks alongside for a relaxing roadside siesta after lunch. They hang side by side in rows, sometimes alternating with chairs.

Traffic police pull people over with their little blue and white police sticks. In a brief rural stretch, brilliant, deep green verdant paddies grow young rice. I don’t imagine you can grow harvest after harvest (at peril of soil depletion), but you could with this weather.

By now the road is a single undifferentiated slab, informally apportioned as a section on each side for scooters, and a loose, slightly larger third for both directions of cars, trucks and buses. We slam to a sweet, complete stop for a mother hen and her four chicks, wee babies all. She has fluttered out of the way of a car approaching on our left, the chicks are stranded on our right and all of Vietnam, at least the whole of this road, comes to a stop until the family is reunited.

And suddenly we are in a different, proper city with traffic jams and dead stops. Packaged goods are mostly red and yellow. Store after store. Red and yellow. A church displays Chinese temple architecture but with two crosses on top.

After three hours the Can Tho bridge, a monster, looms up across the Bassac River, the Mekong’s biggest contributory channel. Reasonably new (2010) and expensive (some US$342.6 million), it’s 2.75 kilometres long, Japanese built. A 90-meter section of an approach ramp collapsed during construction killing a disputed number of workers, but at least fifty.

It replaced a network of ferries.

Eventually a sign welcomes us to Sa Dec City. Now that the sign says we’re here our silent driver takes the opportunity to free himself from his seat belt. For what, some relaxed, safe city driving?

He sets himself apart from American male drivers by asking directions at a bus stop, directions that yield a right turn on Duong Hung Vuond, and then some local juking, back and forth to a street along the water where we stop beside the vegetable market.

The produce truck just ahead has its back door rolled up. It works with FedEx efficiency. Eggplants, cucumbers, cabbages and potatoes are stacked in bags filled to bursting. The red onion man cycles up and throws on two bags, cycles off. The ginger man rides up on a scooter and places three see-through bags on the ground at the back of the truck. He toots his little horn as he drives away, summoning the truck’s packing boy from a plastic chair down by the river, who packs them in.

Meanwhile across the street, two mere boys bring a cart up to the curb and heave a stack of five bags of rice, each as big as they are, one on top of the other and drive off. A very young woman, maybe the daughter of the shop owner because these little businesses are a family affair, tugs and tussles and drags the top two right back off and sideways onto the ground, opens and rolls back the tops and begins to weigh out smaller bags on a little green scale.

Meanwhile our driver has been on the phone. Soon as he stopped behind the produce truck he flipped on his blinkers and made two phone calls. In between them an incoming call. Another placed, another incoming. We don’t know where we are going.

He makes another call. The engine and the air conditioning are on. Now it’s been fifteen minutes. Across the way a team of three baggers and two women in non las get a production line going. In minutes we have a dozen and a half smaller bags. (Non las are those round, pointy top peasant hats. Coolie hats, some call them.)

Non La hats

We drive off, nothing seems to prompt it. The driver takes another call and we turn around and park in the same place on the other side of the street.

Bikes, shops, scooters, commerce. Busy busy busy. Plastic trash bins and stacks of buckets drive by on scooters. Another incoming call. We can hear that some of these are men and some are female. There is a team working on finding our boat for us. Twenty minutes.

We drive back the other way, and then back up again.

Now when he hangs up, instantly another call is incoming. Too many calls back and forth for us to believe there’s anything organized going on here. But there is, of course, and in the end we find our ship, the Gecko Eyes II, was anchored a scant block away the whole while, just blocked from view by all the activity of the market.

The corner shop approaches three dozen ten-kilo bags filled and still working as our host on the boat, Phuc, finds the car and climbs in, name tag around his neck.

•••••

Rice at that market in Sa Dec

Click here to take a five-minute ride through Saigon on the back of a scooter.

A few more photos. Click ’em to enlarge them:

Feast!

•••••

There are tons more photos of the world’s most photogenic country in the Vietnam Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?

What About Giraffes!?

They’re fascinating animals, that’s what.

Consider:

You may not be able to talk while breathing through your nose, but a poor giraffe cannot even have a drink of water without putting itself in mortal peril. Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey the waterhole at length and in great detail before they commit, because once they do it takes effort, and precious seconds, to splay themselves into their ungainly, legs-spread stance, and just as much time to clamber back upright.

Valves in giraffes’ necks close when they put their heads down to drink, to keep all their blood from flowing to their heads. That’s why they spread their legs wide apart because they’re apt to get a little light-headed. And that is when the big cats might strike.

Rumbling along a safari track once upon a time, B. (short for Bonnetswe, our guide in the Okavango Delta) told us the single most dramatic thing he had ever seen; it was the time he watched a giraffe kill about ten lions before finally going down to the final five.

If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he grinned, “Imagine the giraffe,” whose foot is as wide as a dinner plate. And so lions usually leave giraffes alone. Except when they’re drinking.

As it happens, and thankfully (if you’re the giraffe) they needn’t drink more than every second or third day. To minimize the time they have to spend in that vulnerable stance they manage to get most of the moisture they require from the leaves they eat (For this same reason they need not migrate).

Consider the browsing life of a giraffe. While other animals compete for food on the ground, up in the trees, up there, if you’re a giraffe, it’s mine, all mine. Which means giraffes can afford to be discerning eaters.

Using half meter long prehensile black tongues, they take branches in their mouths and pull their heads away, leaves along with them. Their preferred leaves are thorny acacia. They grind the thorns between their molars (In the Okavango the acacia is known as the toothpick tree. They also use their thorns as sewing needles.)

Now, every bit of explanatory science I have ever seen notes the giraffe’s tongue is prehensile, and then goes on as if everybody knows what that means. What prehensile means is “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, in the sense that we have opposable thumbs.

The giraffe uses his up to eighteen-inch tongue to slide up a branch and grab a bunch of twigs and leaves (They prefer acacia, which are important sources of calcium and protein. Plus, tender acacia twigs may contain 74 percent water.). Nobody except maybe the largest elephant can reach twenty feet from the ground to eat, and you can see this at work in areas rife with giraffes, as they create a “browse line” along the trees.

But if eating is a walk in the wildlife park, with the pick of only the very best leaves in the tree, it takes a lot of leaves – and a lot of time – for a giraffe to get his fill. A 3000-pound bull needs around 75 pounds of food a day, and it may take him three-quarters of the day to get it.

•••••

Charles Darwin developed a theory of natural selection but he didn’t claim it was efficient. To the contrary, he called it clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Clumsy or not, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology David P. Barash points out that natural selection has to work with what it has got.

In the giraffe, he writes, “natural selection has produced a creature that on the one hand is spectacularly adapted to its peculiar ecological niche” and on the other is a poster child for Darwin’s clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Barash points out that to pump blood to the head, seven feet over its heart, giraffes require “exceptionally high” blood pressure. To keep blood from remaining in their feet they have “evolved the equivalent of compression stockings” (which would also be useful for visiting Americans on the long plane ride to Africa to see them).

Barash notes “giraffes are fully six feet taller than other competing browsers, which would seem to argue that competitive foraging as such hasn’t been the main driving pressure behind their altitudinal evolution.” And thus he coyly presents a peculiar practice of male giraffes that he suggests could have furthered positive evolutionary selection for those long necks.

During the rut, male giraffes will stand shoulder to shoulder, parallel with one another and use their necks, as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”

And this can hurt. Giraffe horns, called “ossicones,” are harder than the keratin of cattle horns. They are skin-covered cartilage, actually fused to the animal’s skull, that over time hardens into bone. Only the giraffe and okapi [which deserves its own article] have ossicones.

Giraffes hammer each other with their heads until one of the opponents gives up and cedes dominance. Barash speculates that since the longer the neck, the more force behind each blow, females may prefer long-necked giraffes, and this preference may be passed along genetically. This is the “necks for sex” hypothesis.

At least that is one idea. Cynthia Moss’s 1973 Portraits in the Wild precedes Barash’s work, and back then she was having none of it. To Moss, “A necking match is a lovely sight.” She calls it “gentle sparring,” punctuated by pauses to stare into the distance for some time, affecting “a slight air of superiority.”

Moss notes too that giraffes are different in different places. She cites different researchers’ variable findings.

Giraffes may be found “singly, in twos and threes, and in herds of up to fifty.” One of the researchers she cites, Carlos Mejia, says “They are gregarious but they don’t interact.” Mejia, she says, can’t figure out why they come together at all.

She found researchers agreed that giraffes’ social structures are loose, open, “with giraffes coming and going as they please.”

On the one hand, in Mejia’s study in Tanzania herds may be made up of “males, females, and young, all males or all females, or any combination….” and a “herd rarely comprises the same individuals for more than a few consecutive days.”

On the other, “the sexes in Nairobi park show distinct preferences for different areas. The females and young stay on the plains, whereas the males tend to stay in the forested area.”

•••••

In the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we once saw a very baby calf, so newborn that it only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. She kept her calf tight to her side and remained most attentive to us, but that after-the-fact tenderness doesn’t cover up for the brutality of birth.

The giraffe calf receives a jarring first wake up call, being dropped head first some 5-1/2 feet from the womb to the ground, but it is soon standing, close to six feet tall and weighing 150 pounds.

And they grow so fast! In their first year some four feet, and Cynthia Moss cites reports that they can grow nine inches in a single week.

•••••

As a ruminant, the giraffe swallows its food, which must then be rechewed. Ruminants have a four-chambered stomach. Received by the reticulum, the vegetation forms into fist-sized balls and is regurgitated, chewed, swallowed and then passed into the other chambers, the rumen, omasum and abomasum, all in the process of digestion.

This is a three, four, five hour a day process that we call “chewing the cud” in the farm animals back home. All the ruminant are mammals, including yaks and goats and sheep, deer and antelopes and cows.

All that eating takes up most of a giraffes’ day. Moss tells us that in a giraffe’s day no more than five to thirty minutes at a time are spent sleeping. And even then, giraffes, especially moms with young babies, may sleep with one eye open, a practice they share with flying things like bats, ducks and chickens and, it is said, dolphins too.

•••••

If giraffes ran like most other hoofstock, their extra-long legs would be liable to get tangled up, so they move both their legs on one side and then the other, alternating sides. This is called “pacing” and has the effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion when in fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The giraffe can flee a pursuer at 55 kilometers per hour, though not for sustained periods.

In fact, the word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” for “one who walks swiftly.” Zafarah is Arabic, from the land of camels, and the camel runs like the giraffe; it also “paces.” Perhaps that similarity half accounts for the giraffes’ Latin species name, camelopardalis. The “leopardalis” part? There was an archaic belief that the giraffe was part leopard – because of those spots.

•••••

As with other animals on the African plain in general, Moss writes that “It is rare for a giraffe to die of old age; when it becomes very old and weak, it is usually taken by a predator.” Back in the 90’s, when I was very new at this, I remember a visit to Ngorongoro Crater, when a wildlife guide named Godfrey showed us a zebra with a broken leg on the edge of a herd, and said it wouldn’t make it until morning. This horrified me, and I lay in the dark and thought about it that night.

The system in the African wild is efficient, and it is surely ruthless, too. If we humans (some of us) have the good fortune to die in bed, pain-mitigated, that surely is not true on the African plains.

•••••

Got a minute to buy me a cup of coffee?

Vignette: Congo Border Tales

Just a little thing that happened five or six years ago in Uganda. A Congolese Border Tale:

Whenever I read a story with news like this“Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have taken a major border post after clashes with government troops….” I think about a visit to a safari camp in Uganda a few years back, just near the border with Congo. It was small, only ten tents. The proprietor, a stereotypical grizzled white African character I’ll call Dave, said he’d take out three of the tents and only have seven if he had his way but he was only working for the man, just like everybody else.

This place was down along a river, nice location. Oil had been discovered in the ground nearby, but recently enough that not a lot had been done yet; They were still mobilizing to get at it. Just over a ridge was the Congo border.

A four-wheeler drove up and Dave went to see. Came back after a while and told us it was the head of military intelligence for this sector. Said he drops by to buy a beer now and then, but of course the beer’s on the house. The military man makes every visit a “family visit” (Dave sticks quotes up in the air). This time he brought his wife, last time his sister.

I give them some beers, maybe a bite, and we visit a half hour, Dave says. Even though you have to do it, it’s not a bad idea. I mean, it’s calm over there now (thumb in the direction of the DRC), but it only takes them three or four days to cook up a civil war.

Not that this isn’t the safest place you can be, right here. Because it is, he thinks. They’ve got all the oil guys here. They’ve doubled the military presence. Never be the same. Still, it’s good to have a phone number for the head of military intelligence.

 •••••

Uganda is one of my favorite of the countries Donald Trump characterized rudely. Really a pretty place with nice, easy-going people. There are more photos in the Uganda Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.