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Category: SE Asia

RINGING BELLS

Milan, 13 September 2016

It wasn’t until our first Sunday back in Milan that I realized what it was we had been missing all those years we had spent in China and Thailand: church bells. The carillon that pealed out from the campanile of the nearby Church of San Giorgio
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for morning mass startled my senses, and I found myself actually listening. Probably Italians, after a lifetime of hearing church bells, simply shut them out: “church bells? what church bells?”

It’s not as if the soundscapes of the cities we have lived in these last seven years have been very different from what we were used to in Europe. Like for everything nowadays, there was a depressing uniformity.  The noise of traffic predominated; given China’s building craze, construction noises came a close second in Beijing. The one typically Chinese noise which we often heard in Beijing was the machine-gun sound of strings of firecrackers going off to celebrate the opening of a new business.
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Since the economy was doing nicely, this happened quite often. The noise of firecrackers grew to a huge crescendo as the Chinese New Year rolled around.

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We were always in awe of the massive amounts of firepower, in the form of firecrackers, fireworks, and other noise-making products, being sold on the streets in the days leading up to the New Year.
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Bangkok was more interesting, noise-wise. From our balcony, as we admired the view over the Chao Phraya river, we would often hear the local muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. Muslims are a more-or-less tolerated minority in Thailand and as a consequence tend to be very discreet. The Muslim community in our area was no exception. So discreet were they that I never located the minaret and its associated mosque. Was it this one, I wonder? I saw the sign once or twice but never went down the narrow lane to investigate.
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These calls to prayer were counterbalanced by the morning chanting from the Buddhist monks in the temple across the river.
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In Thailand’s current politically charged atmosphere, where an aggressive Buddhism is emerging, one has to wonder if the loudspeaker-enhanced chanting was not calculated to remind the local Muslims of who was in charge, just in case they had forgotten.

There was also a period when a government institution across the river would blare out the royal anthem twice a day, at 8 am and 6 pm, to remind the populace to venerate their king.
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Mercifully, from one day to the next, the loudspeakers fell silent. We never figured out why. But we were thankful for the respite.

Noises from the new religion of our time, fitness, would assail our ears in the early evening, as an aerobic class would start up in the nearby park at Phra Sumen fort, with the disco music booming out over the river, interspersed with the trainer’s shouted instructions and encouragement.

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Memories, all memories now. From now on, our soundscapes will be made up, at least in part, of church bells. Christianity may be fading in Europe, but the bells will remain. They will be ringing out the hours of the day and night (even as I write this, the nearby church bells are striking seven pm). They will call the few remaining faithful to Mass on Sundays. They will toll somberly for our brethren who have departed from this world (“Cold it is, my beloved, since your funeral bell was toll’d: / Cold it is, O my King, how cold alone on the wold!”). I may even witness once more, in a Catholic nation somewhere, the bells of a whole city ringing peel after peel in a mad cacophony to speed the soul of a dead Pope on its way; I heard this in Vienna when Pope John Paul II died.

Yes, these sounds are part of my Christian heritage to which I return after many years of absence.
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_______________________
San Giorgio: http://www.milano24ore.net/cityinfo/churches/church_of_san_giorgio.php
Fire crackers: http://yourenotfromaroundhere.com/blog/firecrackers-evil-spirit-beijing-china/
Chinese New Year: http://chinesenewyearblog.com/cny-fireworks-victoria-harbor-hong-kong/
Sellers of fireworks: http://iainmasterton.photoshelter.com/image/I0000OGZzPAzdPPM
Mosque Masjid chakrabongse?: http://zlynn17.blogspot.it/2010/02/halal-food-in-banglamphoo.html
Buddhist monks chanting: https://monotonundminimal.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/day-240-bling-bling-bangkok/
Thais venerating the king: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/asia/thailand-king-bhumibol-gallbladder/
Aerobic class Phra Sumen Park: http://www.iamwannee.com/a-nice-walking-path-from-tha-phra-chan-to-tha-phra-athit/

Bells: https://www.modernghana.com/news/530796/every-human-being-dies-everyday-a-lenten-reflection.html

TAMARIND IN THE KITCHEN

Milan, 5 September 2016

So my wife and I have finally left Thailand, after having spent two years there – we lifted off one last time from Bangkok international airport six days ago.

What memories of things typically Thai do I take with me?

Well, there’s tamarind.

Readers may find that a little odd, but tamarind is actually a very common ingredient in Thai cuisine. In fact, it was animatedly discussed at the goodbye party my staff gave me. It’s a fruit I had never actually come across until I arrived in Thailand. I had heard of it, but it existed as an exotica on the far periphery of my knowledge, rather like those strange beings which Medieval Europeans imagined lived on the far edges of the world.
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I was introduced to tamarind by the kind lady who brought me my morning coffee in the office. She was in the habit of also bringing me any of the fruits which Thai colleagues had brought in for sharing. I was conversant with the other fruits she served with my coffee, but this large pod-like thing had me stumped.
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I had to go down the hall to ask colleagues explanations of what it was and how to eat it (split open the brittle shell, extract the pasty fruit from its stringy support and eat, making sure not to crack your teeth on the small, very hard seeds buried inside the sticky pulp).
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Thai cooks will extract the pasty fruit and use it as an ingredient in many of their dishes. I mention only two here, Pad Thai and Kaeng Som.

As probably every foreigner knows, since every foreigner coming to Thailand seems to eat it, Pad Thai is at base a dish of rice noodles, these having then been stir-fried with a whole bunch of things: shrimp, both fresh and dried (other meats are used but it’s not very Thai), shrimp paste in oil, soybean sprouts, firm tofu, chopped peanuts, scrambled egg, sliced shallots, sliced Chinese chives, sliced preserved radishes, minced garlic, sliced chilies, and I don’t know what else. What foreigners probably don’t know, because it’s not obvious in the final dish placed before them, is that a tamarind-based sauce has also been added to the mix during the stir-fry. This sauce is a blend of sour-sweet tamarind paste, salty fish sauce, spicy chili sauce, and sweet palm sugar; the particular balance to strike between these four tastes gives rise to much passionate debate in the Thai recipe world.

My wife was particularly fond of Pad Thai, but it is as popular with Thais as it is with foreigners. In our wanderings around Bangkok, we discovered a Pad Thai joint a little south of the Golden Mount, where the people patiently waiting in the long lines outside (which we quickly joined) were primarily Thai.

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Pad Thai may seem very typically Thai, but actually in its present form it is quite a recent dish, having been invented only in the 1930s as a move by the-then military dictator to promote Thai nationalism. I suspect that Kaeng Som has a much longer culinary pedigree, since it has speciated, with every region of Thailand having its own variant. The variant I describe here is from Central Thailand, this being dominant in Bangkok. It seems that every street food stall sells Kaeng Som, although cognoscenti mutter that this is rat’s piss (my words) compared to the Real Thing. I wouldn’t know; I avoided street food stalls like the plague, desirous of avoiding seriously upset stomachs and consequent absences from work.

Kaeng Som is really a curry base to which you then add other ingredients. You will first grind and pound together, preferably in a stone mortar, chilies, salt, shrimp paste, sliced shallots, and meat of a freshwater fish stripped off the bones, until you have a smooth paste. You will add this to a simmering fish stock (preferably made with the remains of the fish), followed by tamarind paste, fish sauce, and palm sugar. Once again, the sour-salt-spicy-sweet tastes have been brought together, and you will fuss around at this point trying to get the “right” balance.

Now you are ready to add the remaining ingredients. Vegetables dominate, and it seems that Kaeng Som will marry well with a large number of different vegetables. I report, in no particular order, the suggestions given in the blog of Thai cuisine SheSimmers: morning glory, water mimosa, summer squash, cauliflower, green beans, daikon, Napa cabbage, green papaya, chayote, and watermelon rinds. This last interests me greatly, since I have always wondered, as I have thrown away the rinds after a good watermelon binge, what if anything could be done with them in the kitchen. I now have an answer. The same blog warns against the use of certain other vegetables: eggplants, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, starchy root vegetables, and green leafy vegetables such as collard greens. Vegetables as an added ingredient seem quite enough, but if you want you can also add shrimps or pieces of fish.
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At this point, I have to confess to one major unpleasant memory I bring back from Thailand, and that is the (super-)abundant use of chilies in Thai cuisine. As I have reported elsewhere, I very much dislike chili and its ‘hot’ spicy cousins. This has been a major difficulty for me in eating – and enjoying – these or any other Thai dishes. I have also reported elsewhere how I made another popular Thai dish, Tom Yum soup, without chili and found that for me at least it worked perfectly well. If I can find a source of tamarind paste in Milan, I can try making Kaeng Som without the chilies and see what it’s like.

My dislike of hot spices also cuts me off from properly enjoying the use of tamarind in Indian cuisine. The use of tamarind is very popular in India, where the tree is widespread. Unfortunately, every Indian recipe using tamarind also seems to use chilies or something equally spicy. So I guess I will have to make do with Lea & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce, a small bottle of which graces the condiments section in our kitchen in Milan; as every aficionado of L&P sauce knows, it contains tamarind extract.
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Legend also has it that this sauce has its roots in India. It is said that Messrs Lea and Perrins, pharmacists in Worcester, created their sauce back in the 1830s on the basis of a recipe brought back from Bengal by a certain Lord Sandys, a nobleman of the county. Although I suspect that this story is a bunch of bull, I’m quite happy to believe it, because it allows me to pretend that I am enjoying an Indian sauce, suitably adapted to English tastes, in particular with the use of chilies eliminated. This is yet more support for my argument that chilies are simply not necessary in cooking.

I think I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. I really should spearhead a movement to eliminate chili and its evil cousins from the kitchen. Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, this is my chance to walk the talk. Chili growers beware!

___________________________
Monpods and others: https://sfcdt.wordpress.com/2010/08/page/2/
Unshelled tamarind: http://nutritiousfoods.blogspot.it/2014/10/why-dr-mantena-satyanarayana-raju-says.html
Shelled tamarind: http://lxia.dvrlists.com/tamarind/
Pad Thai: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pad_Thai
Pad Thai restaurant: https://ohmyfoodcoma.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/legendary-pad-thai-at-bangkoks-thip-samai/
Kaeng Som: http://shesimmers.com/2011/06/thai-sour-curry-kaeng-som-แกงส้ม.html
Lea & Perrins sauce: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lea_%26_Perrins

BAGAN, MYANMAR

Bangkok, 13 July 2016

My wife and I have just returned from a short visit to Bagan, in Myanmar. Back when Harold Godwinson received an arrow in his eye, losing his life and his English throne to William, Duke of Normandy
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the kings of Pagan (as the kingdom was then known) had consolidated their hold on the valley of the Irrawaddy River, swallowing up their neighbouring city-states, and had created the first Burmese kingdom. The kingdom grew rich on trade but also on agriculture, harnessing irrigation for the first time in this dry region of Myanmar. As befits the capital of a prosperous kingdom, the population of Pagan swelled. The kings and the richer citizens, anxious to gain merit for their next reincarnation, used their wealth to heavily sprinkle the city and the surrounding plain with stupas, temples, monasteries, and other religious edifices. At the height of this building frenzy, more than 10,000 such edifices covered an area of some 100 square kilometres.

Alas, this well-meaning search for merit undermined the edifice of state. More and more land was donated to the Buddhist monkhood, land which then became exempt from tax, thereby gradually emptying the state coffers. The resulting internal strife weakened the kingdom, and invasions of its borderlands by the Mongol dynasty of China finished her off. By 1287, the kingdom of Pagan was no more, and its capital city had shrunk to the size of a very modest town. Sun, wind, and rain began their work. The plaster moldings with which all the religious edifices had been covered peeled off, and the exposed brick began crumbling away to mud and dust. Trees and bushes did their part, inserting roots between brick and brick and slowly leveraging them apart. Earthquakes played their part too, toppling walls and cracking open stupas. And so the religious edifices so lovingly erected by earlier generations slowly slumped back into the earth from whence they had sprung.

A score of temples and stupas, which continued to be sites of pilgrimage, were maintained, often with infelicitous results as frescoes were painted or whitewashed over and badly crafted statues took the place of the originals. In the last century, conservation work was carried out – haphazardly – under successive military regimes. This has halted, or at least slowed, the dissolution, but even so only some 2,000 edifices remain standing, more or less, today.

But 2,000 is still a big number. Climb, as we did, the Shwesandaw stupa, and you will find yourself gazing out over flat, wooded farmland thickly sprinkled with red-brick stupas and temples of every size and state of disrepair.
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Get off the paved roads, as we did, and take the dirt roads and paths which crisscross this farmland, and you will come across lonely stupas brooding by the side of fields
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where the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi come to mind:

The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars
An owl hoots in the towers of Samarkand
(it is said that the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II murmured these lines as he visited the desolate ruins of the imperial palace after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453)

It comes spontaneous to compare Bagan to other places. Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia is often cited, but the comparison doesn’t hold. Angkor has edifices which are splendid in their art and architecture.
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The edifices of Bagan, on the other hand, now have little if any intrinsic merit. My wife and I saw nothing superlative in any of the stupas or temples we visited. Pleasant, yes, interesting sometimes, but nothing to take one’s breath away.
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No, it is the overall landscape that makes Bagan noteworthy, and it is to landscapes that we must turn for comparisons. Since many of the edifices in Bagan are funerary in nature, my wife felt a certain affinity between the Italian cemeteries of her youth and Bagan, with the latter of course being on a much larger scale.
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In such a comparison, I would perhaps lean towards the abandoned part of Vienna’s biggest cemetery, the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, which contains many of the tombs of Vienna’s Jewish community, wiped out in the Nazi concentration camps.
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I myself favour a comparison with Ancient Rome, not the Ancient Rome of today, swallowed up in the concrete and bitumen of the modern city, but the Ancient Rome that was the subject of many a painting in the 17th to 19th centuries. This is Claude Lorrain
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this, Piranesi
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this, Palmer
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and this, Lear
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In these paintings I see an echo of the Bagan I looked out on from the heights of the Shwesandaw stupa.

As the lines I cite above show, the melancholy of ruins has always excited the imagination of poets. Rome’s ruins are no exception, with reams of poems written about them. I quote one here, by Alexander Pope.

See the wild waste of all-devouring years!
How Rome her own sad sepulchre appears,
With nodding arches, broken temples spread!
The very tombs now vanished like their dead!
Imperial wonders raised on nations spoiled,
Where mixed with slaves the groaning martyr toiled:
Huge theatres, that now unpeopled woods,
Now drained a distant country of her floods:
Fanes, which admiring gods with pride survey,
Statues of men, scarce less alive than they!
Some felt the silent stroke of mouldering age,
Some hostile fury, some religious rage.
Barbarian blindness, Christian zeal conspire,
And papal piety, and Gothic fire.
Perhaps, by its own ruins saved from flame,
Some buried marble half preserves a name;
That name the learned with fierce dispute pursue,
And give to Titus old Vespasian’s Due.

But this poem is far too frothy, as are all the poems about Rome’s ruins. I prefer the fragments of an Anglo-Saxon poem of the 8th Century, part of an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems in the library of Exeter Cathedral, whose subject is not Rome but the Roman ruins of Bath.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,

For those of my no doubt many readers who, like me, are not conversant with Anglo-Saxon, let me continue with a translation by Siân Echard, of the University of British Columbia, with some modifications on my part.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,

Walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age.
A hundred generations have passed.
Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
In the hard grasp of the grave. How often has this wall,

Hoary with lichen, red-stained, outlasted the passing reigns,
Withstanding the storms; the high arch now has fallen …

(At this point, there is a gap, for the parchment itself has suffered badly from the passage of time)

Indeed, the high arches, now fallen, of Bagan have witnessed the passing of many reigns, the last being but a few months ago, when the decades-long military government in Myanmar finally gave way to a democratically-elected civilian government. Knowing the history of neighbouring Thailand, where military meddling is a way of life, I offered a silent prayer in the Ananda temple
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that this would be the last of the military governments in this beautiful country, which has suffered so much and deserves so much better.

________________
Photos of Bagan: ours
Harold hit by the arrow: http://www.dot-domesday.me.uk/arrow.htm
Angkor Wat-1: https://artmundus.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/the-wonder-that-is-angkor-wat/
Angkor Wat-2: https://artmundus.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/the-wonder-that-is-angkor-wat/
Angkor Wat-3: http://rwethereyetrwethereyet.typepad.com/arewethereyet/2008/04/take-your-kids.html
Cimitero monumentale, Milan: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g187849-d243431-i28163413-Monumental_Cemetery-Milan_Lombardy.html
Jewish section, Vienna Zentralfriedhof: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/lastingimages/2924629401/
Roman ruins:http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk/The_Rubaiyat/Galleries/Gallery_5/g5notes.htm
– Claude Lorrain
– Giovanni Battista Piranesi
– Samuel Palmer
– Edward Lear

THUNDER

Bangkok, 4 July 2016

It’s the rainy season in Bangkok. The normal schedule sees the day start dry with perhaps some cloud cover, which then builds up into impressively nasty-looking, black, whorly cloud piles by late afternoon.

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At that point, lightning rips the sky from cloud to ground
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followed moments later by thunder. And what thunder it is! The air itself seems to crack and splinter, the clouds angrily boom and hammer, over and over again as lightning keeps bursting out of the clouds. Instinctively, my wife and I step back, retreating into the safety of the apartment, and murmur comments to each other about the elemental son et lumière playing outside our windows. And then the rain starts, so dense that the other side of Chaophraya River, normally perfectly visible from our terrace, is blotted out.

At moments like these, I feel pity for our early ancestors cowering in their rock caves or flimsy huts watching the same grand spectacle. With the benefit of science, I can rationalize what I am seeing: why, thunder is just the noise of the sonic shock wave created by the very sudden expansion of air caused by the almost instant increase in pressure and temperature brought about by the passage of a lightning bolt! That’s all … But they did not have this intellectual crutch to lean on. They must have found such dramatic displays by nature very frightening. So I suppose it’s not very surprising that all the early religions had a god of thunder, who no doubt had to be ritually appeased.

What I do find surprising, though, after a quick zip around the Internet, is how decorously many of these gods of thunder have been portrayed in art. If I were cowering in my cave 50,000 years ago, or even in my flimsy hut 5,000 years ago, listening to all that tearing, splintering, and booming mayhem going on outside, I think it would come naturally to me to depict the god of thunder as a mean, nasty, angry son of a bitch. Some portrayals do seem to go in this direction. For instance, those of Tawhirimatea, the Maori’s god of thunder

make him look satisfyingly nasty. So do portrayals of Raijin, Japan’s god of thunder
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who to my eyes looks apoplectic. Chaac, the Mayan god of thunder also looks suitably nasty
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although as in so much Mesoamerican art he looks gruesomely nasty – they really seemed to have a need for downright disgusting-looking gods, the Mesoamericans did. I think Thailand’s own god of thunder, Ramasura, could perhaps be added to the list. I suspect he has a nasty monster’s face, but the nastiness of it is offset by the graceful balletic poses he is depicted in, a pose common to any flying spirit in Thai art.
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After that, it gets difficult to find angry-looking gods of thunder. Take Zeus, for instance, the Greek god of thunder and lightning. The angriest depiction I could find was this one, on a vase, where frankly he just looks a little snippy rather than rip-roaring mad.
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His usual mode of representation seems to be that typically Greek one of Olympian calm and good muscle tone, like this magnificent statue of him in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (the lightning bolt which he is, calmly, throwing has gone missing).
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A rapid whizz through the pantheon of thunder gods in the Middle East gave me nothing better than this representation of Teshub, the Assyrian and Babylonian god of thunder
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who, let’s face it, is looking petulant rather than angry as he wields his axe and lightning bolt.

I was hoping that the Norsemen, who after all seemed to spend most of their time stoving in their enemies’ skulls and drinking mead from those they hadn’t stoved in, would come up with a suitably horrible portrayal of Thor, their god of thunder. Not a bit of it! The best I could find was this
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which, let’s face it, is a really pathetic representation of this god, who, if I’m to believe the Icelandic sagas, was testosterone-fueled and badly in need of anger management classes. Marvel Comics have done a much better job at depicting him
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(and, by the way, have done a much better job of depicting Zeus too)
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What to make of all this? Perhaps that the trick of our ancestors was to personalize these frightening phenomena. By personalizing them, they could clothe them with known and understandable personality traits, thus rendering the unfamiliar familiar. And/or maybe the ruling classes who arose out of the early agrarian societies and needed the acquiescence of the masses to their rule, if necessary through force, rather liked the idea of the masses equating their power to that of natural forces like thunder and lightning – but also wanted that power to look regal rather than just plain nasty; the fist of iron in the velvet glove, as it were.

Well, that’s my two-cent’s worth of pop-anthropological musings. My wife and I can now go back to watching the spectacle through our apartment windows – but from two steps back; you never know.

____________________
Thunder clouds over Bangkok: https://paulandsarahinthailand.wordpress.com/author/artyfooty/page/5/
Thunder clouds over Bangkok-2: http://2bangkok.com/2bangkok-weather-index.html
Lightning over Bangkok: http://www.digitalphotographytipsonline.com/my-image-gallery.html
Tawhirimatea, NZ: http://auckland-west.co.nz/2011/08/09/twhirimatea/
Raijin, Japan: http://www.esamskriti.com/print.aspx?topicid=969&chapter=1
Chaac, Mayan God of rain: http://archaeology.about.com/od/mayaarchaeology/a/Mayan-Rain-God-Chaac.htm
Ramasura: http://www.thaifolk.com/doc/mekkala_e.htm
Zeus on pottery: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K1.1.html
Artemisium Zeus statue: http://www.crystalinks.com/zeus.html
Teshub, Assyrian-Babylonian: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/12525705192076524/
Thor: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyrarland_Statue
Thor comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor_(Marvel_Comics)
Thor and Zeus comic book: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeus_(Marvel_Comics)

CORAL REEFS AROUND SURIN ISLAND

Kuraburi, 18 April 2016

It was a few minutes before we turned back to the boat that my wife and I spotted them, a school of pale lemon yellow fish, browsing on the bottom of the reef. Much internet surfing suggests that we saw yellow runner fish.

Yellow runner school fish in Similan, Thailand

As we watched, another school of fish, light blue this time, floated by, pulled by some unseen current. They were fusilier fish, I think
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During our two-day snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands National Park, just north of Phuket, we saw much more besides on the four or five reefs we visited.

The last time I’d snorkeled was half a century ago, in the shallow waters of a bay near Buea, Cameroon. My father had some work to do there, and he had brought me along. An English family living in Buea had taken me with them on an afternoon outing, and so it was that after a merry hour spent sinking up to my thighs in the micro-quicksands which dotted the bay, I spent another hour floating on my stomach, watching with fascination the tiny, brilliantly coloured fish darting back and forth across the black sand, fruit of the nearby volcano, Mt. Cameroon. A badly burned back was the result of this excessive curiosity. Still remembering the pain of that red and peeling back, I snorkeled this time with a shirt on. Alas! In the intervening five decades, my hair has thinned so I found afterwards that my scalp was burned from floating face down in the water (my wife instead got burned just below her swimsuit, on what our personal trainer calls the glutes).

All of which has not taken away one jot from the pleasure we derived from the wonderful sights we took in as we paddled slowly hand-in-hand along the reefs, with no sound but our breathing, witnessing a riot of colour as fish swam into our line of sight and then disappeared, intent on their business. Below is an incomplete catalogue of our sightings:

Powder blue surgeonfish
imageRainbow parrotfish
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The wonderfully named Moorish idol

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Lined surgeonfish
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Black surgeonfish
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Emperor angelfish
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Triggerfish
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Melon butterfly fish

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Blue lined grouper

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We saw other denizens of the reefs too:

A powder-blue starfish

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The aptly named crown-of-thorns starfish

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Squamose giant clams, which would snap shut as we floated over them
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Magnificent sea anemone, whose green tentacles would wave this way and that, revealing a wonderful blue-mauve body beneath

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And of course there were the corals, around which all these other species revolved:
Staghorn coral, whose tips seemed to glow phosphorescently
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Table coral

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Mushroom coral
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But really, although it was fun to point out to each other new species that we spotted, it was the reef communities as a whole that were most fascinating

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those tens of species all working in and around a coral mount which surged up from the bottom towards the light.

I suppose we’re lucky to have seen this. As we were floating over the reefs around Surin Island, an article appeared in the Guardian about massive coral bleaching going on at the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The immediate cause is El Niño, which is leading to much warmer waters than usual; coral dies if the water is too warm, and all you are left with are the bleached bones of coral, devoid of that blizzard of life with which it would normally be surrounded.

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But behind this latest episode is climate change, which is making El Niño events ever longer and more intense. Two days before this article appeared, the Guardian had another announcing that the month of March had been the hottest on record.
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But so had February. And so had January. And so had 2015 as a whole.

One of the many, many – many – impacts of climate change will be the die-off of coral reefs the world over. Coral reefs everywhere are showing signs of increasing strain. And with that die-off will come a steep decline in fish species: coral reefs are home to an astonishing 25 percent of the world’s fish species. That favourite cartoon character, Nemo, will lose his real-life counterpart.
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Can we really let this happen? Surely we humans can collectively take on our responsibilities for controlling climate change. Let’s not destroy this beautiful planet we inhabit.

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Yellow runner fish: http://www.123rf.com/photo_24661711_yellow-runner-school-fish-in-similan-thailand.html
Fusilier fish: http://www.123rf.com/photo_16881582_blue-and-gold-fusilier-fish-at-surin-national-park.html
Powder blue surgeonfish: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/acanthurus.html
Rainbow parrotfish: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/303922674822811295/
Moorish idol: http://diveadvisor.com/sub2o/the-moorish-idol
Lined surgeonfish: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acanthurus_lineatus
Black surgeonfish: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/wallpaper/surgeonfish-laman_pod_image.html
Emperor angelfish: https://cococares.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/maldives-emperor-angelfish-at-3-different-stages-of-life/
Triggerfish: http://www.seafocus.com/species_triggerfish.html
Melon butterfly fish: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thailandbeach/3568555120
Blue lined grouper: http://www.aquariumdomain.com/viewSpeciesMarine.php?id=49

Blue starfish: http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-3387803/stock-photo-blue-starfish-close-up-similan-islands.html

Crown of thorns starfish: http://www.bubblevision.com/underwater-pictures/racha-noi/pages/crown-of-thorns.htm
Squamose giant clam: http://forum.scubatoys.com/showthread.php?t=9755
Magnificent sea anemone: http://www.shutterstock.com/video/search/heteractis
Magnificent sea anemone: http://forum.scubatoys.com/showthread.php?t=9755
Staghorn coral: https://www.fau.edu/facilities/ehs/info/elkhorn_staghorn_corals.php
Table coral: http://adamjadhav.com/2010/
Mushroom coral: http://www.messersmith.name/wordpress/tag/mushroom-coral/
Reef life: https://www.govoyagin.com/activities/thailand-phuket-snorkel-and-see-sea-turtles-and-sharks-in-phi-phi/2039
Bleached coral reef: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/17/great-barrier-reef-worst-destruction
March global temperatures: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/15/march-temperature-smashes-100-year-global-record
Clownfish: https://prezi.com/m/m7zrpx-gkdqs/life-cycle-of-a-clown-fish/

TENNYSON IN HALONG BAY

Hanoi, 5 April 2016

It was our second day in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

image

We’d climbed up the 173 steps to the Surprise Grotto, we had politely looked at the stalactites and stalagmites (“stalagTites from the Top, stalagMites like a Mountain” had helpfully intoned our guide) and been quite taken by the cave’s ceiling, a tracery of dimples formed by wind and water, a natural flamboyant gothic.

Shot taken at Surprised Grotto of Halong Bay. A Massive Cave system with thousands of gigantic stalactite and stalacmite decorating of almost all parts of cave's wall, based and ceiling.

We had climbed back down the 215 steps to the dock, we had puttered back to the boat, and now we were lying on the sunless sun deck waiting to be ferried to our next activity, a bicycle trip to a small village on the island of Cat Ba followed by lunch. All around me, rising sheer out of the water, were cliffs of greying limestone, topped with vegetation which tumbled down to the water’s edge.
image
I spotted, high above me, a black kite, hovering, scrutinizing the water’s surface. With a slight trim of its tail feathers, it wheeled out over the little bay, waiting. A quick flap of its wings and it made up for lost height. Again it circled, and glided, waiting and looking. In an instant, it plummeted down to the water, grasped its prey with its talons, and soared upwards again. And there rose unbidden in my mind the lines by Tennyson:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

________________
Halong bay: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/search/asia-pacific-region
Surprise grotto ceiling: http://evelinakristanti.com/portfolio/series/ha-long-bay
Cliffs in Halong Bay: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/halong-bay-limestone-cliffs-at-sunset-high-res-stock-photography/542678795
Black kite: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tyleringram/8538728245

BETEL CHEWING

Bangkok, 27 March 2016

I said in my last post that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In that case, I was talking about citrons. But this homey dictum is that much truer about the subject of this post, betel chewing. To explain what I mean, consider this picture of a betel chewer.

Betel chewer

Now, if I were to meet such a fellow, I would be nervously looking for an escape route, half expecting the man to make a lunge with his pointed canines at my jugular. But in the village where he comes from, where no doubt half the population have red goo drooling from their lips, this man would be seen as a nice, friendly village elder. Perhaps a little less on the extreme side of things, if I were to meet this smiling Indian gentleman

indian betel chewer

my earlier post on teeth would come to mind and I would make a mental note that he badly needed to see a dentist rather than thinking what a lovely smile he had and what a nice man he must be. As I said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I first came across the habit of betel chewing in Delhi. I was there for a meeting of some sort, and after it was over and I was being walked back to my hotel my colleague stopped at a betel stand such as this one

SONY DSC

and ordered himself a betel quid to chew. He asked me if I wished to try one, but I politely declined. I watched with curiosity to see what might happen to him, but nothing untoward did. I did realize, though, that this habit explained his somewhat orange teeth.

I was reminded of this scene from long ago when I was in Myanmar recently and saw the tell-tale signs of betel chewing all around me in Yangon – the orange teeth, the betel stands, and most revolting of all these bright red splotches on the pavements.

spit from betel chewing

Betel chewing generates a lot of saliva, which the chewers either swallow or spit out (which if not done vigorously enough no doubt leads to dribbles on the chin as in the case of the old gentleman with whom we started this post). The fact that these are spit is revolting enough, but their bright red colour further gives the impression that half the population have advanced cases of TB and are coughing their lungs out (my childhood memories have retained stories of older generations with consumption coughing hard into their handkerchiefs and seeing with horror that the handkerchiefs were stained by bright red blood from their lungs; the end was nigh for them).

For those – I hope – many readers who have no idea what is in a betel quid, allow me to elucidate. At its most basic, the betel consists of slices of the “nut” (actually fruit) of the Areca palm

Ripe and Raw Betel Nut Or Areca Nut Palm On Tree

wrapped in leaves of the betel vine

betel leaves

which have been liberally smeared beforehand with slaked lime. Depending on your fancy and which part of the world you come from, your local betel stand holder can add tobacco, spices, and various other ingredients – note the various little pots which our betel stand holder in the picture above has spread out before him.

Since I had first come across the betel chewing habit in India, and since every betel stand holder in Yangon seemed to be of Indian extraction, I sort of assumed that this was an Indian tradition which had been exported elsewhere. Not a bit of it! It’s actually the other way around. Although it’s not yet clear where the Areca palm and the betel vine originated from exactly, there is general agreement that it was in South-East Asia somewhere. But they didn’t originate in the same place. Evidence points to the betel vine and Areca nut being initially consumed separately, their use spreading out from their point of origin until they overlapped, at which point some bright spark had the idea of putting the two together. Early trade between South-East Asia and India brought betel chewing and then the plants to the subcontinent – and migration brought them out to New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, where the dreaded signs of betel chewing are to be found.

PNG betel chewer

But why, some readers may be asking themselves, does anyone bother to chew betel quids in the first place? Because both plants contain mild stimulants: arecoline in the case of the Areca nut, eugenol in the case of the betel leaf. So chewing the quid gives the chewer a mild high. It joins a number of other plants which are chewed for their stimulating (in some cases very stimulating) effects: coca leaves in the Andes,

coca leaf chewing

khat leaves in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula (I remember a colleague once telling me that Djibouti came to a halt on Fridays as everyone waited for the weekly supply of khat to be flown in from Ethiopia)

khat chewing

kola nuts in West Africa.

cola chewing

And then there are the plants that are smoked, those that are swallowed, those that are made into infusions and drunk … Early humans were exceedingly resourceful in figuring out how to get a high from the plants which surrounded them. I wonder, though, how they ever figured out which of the thousands of plants around them gave them highs.

Luckily, the practice of betel chewing seems to be dying out. For instance, Thailand was once a hot-spot of betel chewing, but I have never seen anyone in Bangkok, or anywhere else for that matter, chewing it. Nor have I ever seen anyone chewing betel quids in Cambodia or Laos. I say “luckily”, even though this perhaps betrays a cultural imperialism. I mean, one could argue that if people want to chew betel why shouldn’t they, as long as they don’t kill me or their family or themselves in the process, and don’t become a burden on the public purse because of it. Normally, I would indeed be tolerant of cultural diversity, but for this particular practice I draw the line: people with red mouths and teeth à la Dracula generating bright red spit marks all over pavements are beyond the civilized pale. This should be the new normal, everywhere.

indian lady smiling

_____________________

Betel chewer: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1f/Betel.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betel)

Indian betel chewer: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/131025001452-betel-nut-12-horizontal-large-gallery.jpg (in http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/04/world/asia/myanmar-betel-nut-cancer/)

Betel quid seller: http://www.loupiote.com/photos_l/3699347097-man-selling-betel-quids-delhi-india.jpg (in http://www.loupiote.com/photos/3699347097.shtml)

Spit from betel chewing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c8/Spit_from_chewing_Areca_nut_02.JPG/800px-Spit_from_chewing_Areca_nut_02.JPG (in http://tijgercoverlover.blogspot.com/2015_10_01_archive.html)

Areca nuts: http://previews.123rf.com/images/gamjai/gamjai1404/gamjai140400129/27628649-Ripe-and-Raw-Betel-Nut-Or-Areca-Nut-Palm-On-Tree-Stock-Photo.jpg (in http://www.123rf.com/stock-photo/areca_nut_palm.html)

Betel leaves: http://freepressjournal.in/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/lead-19.jpg (in http://www.freepressjournal.in/the-ubiquitous-betel-leaf/483947)

PNG betel chewer: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/6b/81/24/6b81245676a7dfacc68d282d1a908b37.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/WorldofBacara/betel-nut-chewing-paraphernalia/)

Coca leaf chewing: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/QFzuYzGkifM3AVIMjeToTuZ6ggFZLzzxh9eltPXpqaGv-Ei41rXq_VzjVByqHC0DuWmLqNQsad-W4bP9p775OicO_XVLhDjLfp19m-1hbGrZnvchpVdklqA_qfma-r3oRTzLVcfIgQ (in http://cocainekillstherainforestoo.blogspot.com/2015_03_01_archive.html)

khat chewing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/ff/Qat_man.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khat)

kola chewing: http://igboclass.umunagbor.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Kola-.jpg (in http://igboclass.umunagbor.org/the-kola-nut-as-an-igbo-cultural-and-social-symbol/)

Indian lady smiling: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/indian-lady-smiling-14122626.jpg (in http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-indian-lady-smiling-image2316986)

CHOFAHS

Bangkok, 13 December 2015

I’m not a great fan of Thai religious art. Much of it seems to be made up of endlessly repeated and very dense geometricized forms, like on this temple door

Vine Pattern Door

or on this one, where the temple guardians or whatever they are have been surrounded by dense geometricized foliage

temple door-2

or here on a temple’s roof gable, where it is now a representation of the Buddha that is surrounded by endless curlicues

gable

and which often in Bangkok are terrifically bling, being made with reflecting coloured mosaic tesserae (I understand that only temples with royal connections can use these reflecting tesserae).

Or on the so-called bargeboards which run along the gables

bargeboards

the designs often representing, as is clearly the case here, a naga snake; the naga snake design is less obvious in this next photo.

bargeboards-2

The interiors of the temples are not much better, with the walls normally being densely carpeted either with an endlessly repeating series of Bodhisattvas or some such, or with very dense scenes of the life of the Buddha or some similarly holy personage.

temple interior-1

As I’ve mentioned in at least one previous posting, I’m not a great fan of busy artwork, so I generally feel uncomfortable in Thai temples. The one exception is my feelings for the chofah. Chofahs are the very distinctive finials added to the end of temple roofs, and which are quite striking, especially from a distance. Here are two views of Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, showing that temple’s chofahs, this one from a certain distance

Wat Phra Kaew from a distance

and this one from closer up.

Wat Phra Kaew - chofahs

What exactly are they? What do they represent? Well, the literal meaning of chofah is “bunch of air” although someone has given it the more poetic translation of “sky tassel”. The name may be poetic but I don’t feel it helps much, since I don’t see any obvious connection between what I see before me and bunches of air or tassels, skywise or otherwise. More helpfully, they are generally considered to be representations of the Garuda, the half-bird, half-man which the Indian God Vishnu is said to fly on (and which is now the national emblem of Thailand), although there is a competing theory that actually they represent the hamsa, which is a goose, or a gander, or maybe even a swan, which in Hindu mythology is the mount of the God Brahma. Whichever it is, there is a definite resemblance to a bird. Looking at the last picture, I think it’s easy to see a head, a beak, a neck, and a breast of a bird (what’s a little less birdlike is the long tuft-like extension on the head; we’ll come back to that in a minute). Contrary to the baroque ornateness of everything else in Thai temples, we have here a simple ornament, where resemblance is implied with a few graceful strokes chiseled into wood.

Just to make the bird connection a bit stronger, I throw in a picture here of a brahminy kite sitting on a stone.

Brahminy Kite

I choose this particular bird because it is currently considered the contemporary representation of the Garuda. More irreverently, I also throw in a picture of the cover page from one of Lucky Luke’s comic books, where the reader will note another raptor, the vulture.

Lucky Luke vulture

Vultures are always hovering around in Lucky Luke’s stories, waiting for their next meal in the form of a dead Lucky Luke or other dead meat; note the drop of saliva falling from the beak – it’s looking forward to that meal of dead meat …

If I introduce comic books, it’s because that tuft-like extension on the chofah stirs a vague memory in me of some comic-book bird with a long tuft on its head. Maybe I’m thinking of Woody Woodpecker.

woody woodpecker

But Thai temple builders definitely weren’t thinking of Woody or anyone else when they added that long tuft to their chofah design. They originally believed that the tuft would actually act as a skewer and protect the temple from flying demons by impaling them should they get too close.

So maybe the chofah is a sort of lightning conductor before its time.

____________

Temple door-1: http://static5.depositphotos.com/1031223/456/i/950/depositphotos_4560014-Golden-Buddhist-temple-door-at-Wat-Phoechai-Loa..jpg (in http://depositphotos.com/4560014/stock-photo-golden-buddhist-temple-door-at.html)

Temple door-2: http://previews.123rf.com/images/trahcus/trahcus1007/trahcus100700017/7330394-Thai-style-painted-door-Stock-Photo-door-golden-temple.jpg (in http://www.123rf.com/photo_7330394_thai-style-painted-door.html)

Roof gable: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/wat-thai-temple-decorations-phra-kaew-bangkok-thailand-30782920.jpg (in http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-decorations-wat-phra-kaew-details-temple-emerald-buddha-bangkok-thailand-image47184437)

Bargeboards-1: http://www.asiaexplorers.com/pics/gable-northern-thai-temple.jpg (in http://www.asiaexplorers.com/thailand/northern-thai-temple-architecture.htm)

Bargeboards-2: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/buddhist-temple-roof-detail-thailand-46162088.jpg (in http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-buddhist-temple-thailand-phra-choeng-chum-ornate-thai-town-sakon-nakhon-image35533934)

Temple interior: my wife’s pic

Chofahs – Wat Phra Kaew from a distance: http://www.gigaplaces.com/place/144_max.jpg (in http://www.gigaplaces.com/en/gigaplace-wat-phra-kaew-144/)

Chofahs – Wat Phra Kaew: http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/6018/1224/1600/Bangkok%20-%20Wat%20Phra%20Kaew%20301.jpg (in http://marcsala.blogspot.com/2005/09/temple-guardians-in-thailand.html)

Brahminy kite: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/files/2013/05/Brahminy-Kite-Gururaj-Moorching-600×822.jpg (in http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/tag/macaw/feed/)

Vulture in Lucky Luke: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-m2HaZEeDsfk/VYQHOyjtjAI/AAAAAAAASMo/NJ805YwsIWs/s1600/LuckyLuke46a.jpg (in http://mysterycomics-rdb.blogspot.com/2015/06/critique-648-lucky-luke-tomes-43-46-le.html)

Woody Woodpecker: http://vignette4.wikia.nocookie.net/woodywoodpecker/images/4/44/477098-villi.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20141107234707 (in http://woodywoodpecker.wikia.com/wiki/Woody_Woodpecker)

SWEET POTATOES AND CATAMARANS

Bangkok, 22 November 2015

I was in Vanuatu recently, which, for those readers not familiar with the Pacific, is one of those many little island states that dot the Pacific Ocean, like Tuvalu or Palau or Kiribati. I was there on business, for reasons which are too long to explain here. In any event, as is my habit, when I had a little bit of spare time I went down to the local market in the capital, Port Vila, to see what fruits, veggies, and other local delicacies they might be selling.

market port vila

Much of what I saw was familiar, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen taro before (those neat little bunches behind the potatoes)

taro

and I’ve definitely never seen sea grapes, which is a kind of seaweed if I’ve understood correctly (no idea how you eat them).

sea grapes

Sweet potatoes fall into the category of the known. Nevertheless, I did pause in front of them and go dreamy.

sweet potato market port vila

It wasn’t so much for the sweet potatoes – I’m not a great fan of this tuber, to be honest – but rather for its story here in the Pacific. Let me explain.

As previous posts attest, I have a great interest in the movement of foodstuffs around the world, so whenever I go to markets I always mentally map how the fruits and vegetables (and sometimes meat) must have originally ended up on the counters before me. True to form, I went through the same exercise in that market in Port Vila. Much of what I was seeing was brought into the Pacific Islands from the West, either brought along for the ride by the original inhabitants of the islands when they migrated out of South-East Asia, or through later regional trade between the Pacific Islands and South-East Asia, or even later through the colonial masters when they took over the islands. But the sweet potato was different. As I’m sure my readers know, the sweet potato originally comes from northern South America and possibly Central America. So how did it make it to the Pacific Islands? Well, it could definitely have come with the Spaniards after they conquered Latin America and set up a long distance trading system between Mexico and the Philippines – and in fact, at least one type of sweet potato was introduced to the Pacific Islands this way. It could also have come from the other direction, via Europe – and this is indeed the way that the Portuguese introduced the sweet potato to this part of the world, mostly to the islands of South-East Asia rather than the Pacific itself, as they sniffed around the area for spices. But there was another route of introduction of the sweet potato to the Pacific Islands, one which is much more fascinating, and this was by the Pacific Islanders themselves, who sailed all the way to South America and brought the sweet potato back with them (and may have left the chicken, although this is much debated). Since I’ve been talking about maps, here’s one which summarizes nicely the spread of the sweet potato in the Pacific:

map of sweet potato spread

The blue line is the Spanish introduction, the yellow line is the Portuguese introduction, and the red line is the introduction by the Polynesians. The evidence for a Polynesian introduction is archaeological (remains of sweet potato in Polynesian tombs datable to a time long before the colonial period), linguistic (as the map shows, there is a definite similarity between the Polynesian/Melanesian name of the sweet potato and its original South American name), and more recently DNA-related, through comparison of gene sequence mappings of the DNA of South American varieties with old specimens kept in European herbariums collected during the first trips of exploration by James Cook, Louis de Bougainville, and others.

The map also shows the most probable route taken by the Polynesians to reach South America, via Easter Island. But now, let me tell you, East Island is far away from South America. It’s about 3,500 km far away. And on the other side it’s far away from other Pacific Islands. It’s about 3,600 km far away from the islands of French Polynesia, which are the closest biggish islands. Yet, the Polynesians sailed these vast distances – and not on some big comfy ship running on oil and crammed full with the latest navigation equipment but on a boat like this, powered by sail, and where they could only rely on their reading of stars, cloud formations, sea swells, and bird flight patterns to navigate.

polynesian ship

This picture clearly romanticizes the vessel. It must have been a cramped, dangerous voyage. Many times, the ships must have got lost at sea – James Cook writes of coming across a boatful of Polynesians in the middle of nowhere, who had been driven off course by a storm and were asking where they were.

This is a modern version of one of these ships, built in the 1970s,

modern polynesian ship

which clearly shows the unique aspect of their design, the use of two hulls. In fact, this design inspired modern ocean-going catamarans and eventually the truly amazing catamarans that now race in the America’s Cup.

image

These beauties can go up to 80 km/hr, but a more typical speed on a modern ocean going catamaran would be 15 km/hr. Doing a little maths here, it would therefore take a modern catamaran about 10 days to sail from Easter Island to South America. So if luck was with them, if the winds stayed steady and did not get too boisterous, if there were no nasty storms to drive them off course, the Polynesians probably would have had to last 10 days-two weeks out in the Pacific before hitting South America, which seems doable. Getting back, though, must have been considerably harder. I mean, on the way there, the Polynesians just had to hit South America, which is kinda big. On the way back, though, they would have had to hit these tiny specks in the ocean, specks which on top of it were much further away – taking the trade winds out of South America would have meant their having to aim for the French Polynesian islands for their first landfall, and these are 8,000 km away, or something like three weeks’ sailing if all went well.

But some Polynesians made it to South America and a few others made it back, with the sweet potato in tow. Because of these very skillful and very courageous sailors, I was looking at sweet potatoes in the market at Port Vila. No wonder I paused and smiled when I saw these not very tasty tubers.

______________

Port Vila market: https://scottmathiasraw.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/img_4446.jpg (in https://scottmathiasraw.com/vanuatu-welcomes-australian-raw-food-chef/)

Taro, Port Vila market: http://www.asiapacificnazarene.org/wp-content/uploads/s_Market-food.jpg (in http://www.asiapacificnazarene.org/five-months-post-cyclone-pam-vanuatu-recovering-thank-you-for-your-prayers-and-partnership/)

Sea grapes: http://photos1.blogger.com/img/164/977/1024/IMG_0110.jpg (in http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/2005/09/nama.html)

Sweet potato, Port Vila market: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/DFEN99/purple-colored-sweet-potatoes-in-a-basket-made-of-palm-leaves-on-a-DFEN99.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-purple-colored-sweet-potatoes-in-a-basket-made-of-palm-leaves-on-a-61174997.html)

Map of spread of sweet potato in Pacific: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2205/F1.large.jpg (in http://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2205/F1.expansion.html)

Polynesian ship: http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/kane_waa_small10-640×422.jpeg (in http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/01/polynesians-reached-south-america-picked-up-sweet-potatoes-went-home/)

Modern Polynesian ship: http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/images/canoes/hokulea_circa_1975.jpg (in http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/index/founder_and_teachers/nainoa_thompson.html)

America Cup boat: http://www.examiner.com/article/america-s-cup-event-authority-launches-new-sailing-simulation-app

A STUDY OF FEET

Bangkok, 19 October 2015

One of the interesting side-effects of living in Bangkok is that I can carry out a comprehensive study of feet. The climate here is such that the wearing of open footwear is exceedingly widespread, so I can examine – surreptitiously, of course – a very large number of feet as I walk around, sit in public places, or – as was the case when I started this post – sit in buses stuck in Bangkok’s perennially dreadful traffic. Since so many foreigners come to Bangkok, the study is very cross-cultural: I study not only the feet of the Thai, but also – judging from the shards of phrases I overhear as the foreigners walk by – Australians, Europeans of all stripes, North Americans, some Latin Americans, quite a number of Middle Easterners, a sprinkling of Africans, and of course Asians from every corner of Asia. I am now ready to report back on the findings of my study.

Let us first set the benchmark against which I can compare the feet I see. This would be a foot in its natural state, that is to say a foot that is perennially shoeless. This photo, which I’ve used before, gives an excellent example. What we have here is a band of Amazonian Indians who are coming into contact with the modern world for the first time. Their astonished and somewhat fearful faces upturned towards the helicopter (I guess) are fascinating, but I would invite the reader to focus on their feet, feet which have never been shod.

amazonian Indian feet

As the readers will quickly agree, these feet are in the state that most human feet have been in for 99.99% of the time we have inhabited this planet.

I throw in here an older photo, taken – no doubt by some amateur anthropologist – to deliberately show a natural foot. And of course it has to be an old photo, because wearing shoes is probably now the norm rather than the exception. Finding a foot nowadays which has never been shod must indeed be hard.

natural and baby feet

Note the way the toes in the natural foot, especially the big toe, are splayed out. A minute’s thought will show that of course this is the way it should be. By spreading out like that, toes are giving the foot a wider footprint and therefore making it easier for the person on top of those feet to balance.

In this photo of a baby’s feet, the reader will notice that they naturally take this splayed form

baby feet

Only later, through imprisonment in shoes, do the toes come closer together

feet with toes close

sometimes too close together.

toes too close

I am reminded of TS Eliot’s poem Animula, which tracks the evolution of a person’s soul from birth to adulthood, but which actually describes very well the fate of our feet: “‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’ …Issues from the hand of time, the simple soul … misshapen, lame, unable to fare forward …”.

But back to the matter in hand. Having set the benchmark, I can now report the results of my pseudo-sociological field experiment in the streets and other public spaces of Bangkok.

Generally speaking, the feet of Thai people look in considerably better shape than those of foreigners from “civilized” countries. A good number have quite splayed toes, fruit no doubt of hardly ever wearing shoes at home. In fact, it’s quite common to see their little toes falling off their flip-flops or sandals. Clearly, the basic “chassis design”, if I can put it that way, adopted by shoe manufacturers simply ignores the natural form of the foot with splayed toes. Shoe manufacturers take as their starting point an already somewhat malformed foot. Well they would, wouldn’t they? After all, it is their products which have malformed out feet in the first place. Other Thais have moderately straightened toes, fruit of some level of constriction by shoes.

thai girl's feet

I detect a social element here. It is clear from their dress and occupation that the Thai owners of feet whose toes are splayed come from the poorer strata of society, while those with feet with straight toes come from the richer ones. And I also detect a gender element. Young Thai women show more evidence of constricted toes than do the men. I will come back to this in a minute.

As for the feet of the foreigners, those of people from more developed, richer, more “civilized” countries show toes much more tightly squeezed together

white feet in flip flops

along with more extreme signs of foot distress: bunions

bunions

hammer toes

hammer toes

calluses and corns.

Like in the case of the Thai, women’s feet seem more malformed than men’s. Which gets us of course to the cause of all these foot problems: canons of accepted (feminine) beauty.

Let’s face it, for hundreds if not thousands of years, there has been this insidious idea that those members of society who are more civilized, more refined – and richer – have delicate (for women) or well proportioned (for men) limbs and features. Hands, of course, have always been a particular object of this odious social creed, because having big hands, and especially having big fingers, meant that you were poor and so did a lot of manual labour.

working hands

If you were rich, on the other hand, you could pay people to do your manual labour for you, leaving your hands and fingers slim.

slim hands

With feet, it must have been a little different. Like grand clothes, the fact that you wore shoes showed that you had money to burn, not like that bum on the street who had to run around in his bare feet all day. And of course, slim, petite, shoes (that is to say, narrow, horribly constricting, shoes) showed (or pretended to show, since your feet were actually squashed into the shoe) that you had slim, petite, feet, not broad feet like that bum on the street etc.

Woman's_silk_brocade_shoes_1770s

This last pair of shoes, with their modest heels, allows me to segue smoothly into that terrible habit of wearing high-heeled shoes. As we all know, it’s mostly women who wear them, but men do too, depending on the state of fashion. I am ready to reveal at this time that when I was young and foolish I went through a phase of wearing platform boots, one black pair and one brown, which looked like this.

platform shoes

Apart from feeling pretty cool as I walked around Uni, I found a most satisfying side-effect to be that I was taller. No doubt that’s one reason why women do this to their feet

high heels

which when you strip away the shoe looks like this.

foot in high heel position

Modest heels I could understand. I mean, I fell for them. But why subject yourself to the pain of excessively high heels, not only a pain that comes today but also a pain that dogs you for years to come? Because men still rule the world, and they like to see the accentuated swish in a woman’s gait caused by walking in high heels, or maybe they like the fact that her legs look longer, or that her feet look smaller, or her toes shorter, when wearing heels. Or maybe it makes women take smaller steps, to avoid falling over (my wife still remembers her father exhorting her to take small steps, because that was more ladylike and refined). Or maybe because it makes men feel strong to see women tottering around on heels, not able to walk very far before complaining of sore feet and needing help.

Fanciful? Perhaps. But consider this. For nearly one thousand years, from early in the Song dynasty, about 1000 AD, to the early 20th Century, many Chinese women were subjected to the unbearably painful process of foot binding. To appreciate the full horror of this practice, let me give the readers a quick summary of what girls were subjected to. The process was started when girls were between the ages of 4 and 9, that is, before the arches of their feet had had a chance to develop fully. First, after softening the feet and cutting back the toenails, the toes of each foot were curled under and then pressed with great force into the sole of the foot until – the – toes – broke. But it didn’t finish there. While the broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot, the arch of the foot was also broken so that the foot could be drawn down straight with the leg. So you basically smashed the little girl’s feet. Then you started the binding. The idea was to pull the ball of the foot ever closer to the heel, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath the sole.

As the readers can imagine, a girl’s broken feet required a great deal of care and attention if she was not to die from this process; it is estimated that 10% of girls died from gangrene and other infections due to foot binding. So their feet were regularly unbound, they were washed, the toes unfolded and checked for injury, and the nails carefully trimmed. The broken feet were also kneaded to soften them and the soles of the girl’s feet beaten to make the joints and broken bones more flexible. Then the poor girl’s broken toes were folded back under and the feet rebound. Every time the feet were rebound, the bindings were pulled even tighter. The ideal was to end up with a “foot” no more than 10 cm long.

The Chinese are nothing if not eminently practical. Recognizing that mothers might well be too sympathetic to their daughters’ pain, it was generally an older female member of the family or a professional foot binder who carried all this out. Oh, and the process was usually started during the winter time since girls’ feet were more likely to be numb from the cold, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme. How nice of them.

This was the result:

crushed bound foot

Chinese lady with bound feet

Of course, no-one except the persons caring for the feet ever saw this. What they saw was this, these oh-so dainty little shoes.

Lotus-ShoesAnd why were Chinese women subjected to this horrible procedure for a thousand years? For beauty, of course. Men ruled China (they still do), and crazy as it might sound to the modern reader, men considered bound feet to enhance a woman’s beauty by making her movements more dainty and “ladylike”. As readers can imagine, it was difficult to walk on broken feet. Women with bound feet tended to walk predominantly on their heels. As a result, they walked with a cautious, unsteady gait, taking tiny, swaying steps. And, of course, that most important thing where women were concerned, well bound feet helped her parents contract a good marriage for her. It could also be that it was found to be an effective way of forcing women to be housebound and completely reliant on men. In this view, traditional societies forbid women from leaving the house; the Chinese simply broke their feet.

So what is the moral of all this? Look after your feet! Stop obsessing about narrow, dainty feet. Celebrate splayed toes. Go to the office in flip-flops and take off your shoes the moment you sit at your desk (which is what most Thais do). Put on sandals until the dead of winter; our feet can tolerate quite a lot of cold. Throw away all your high-heeled shoes. And if a man ever asks you to wear high heels, cut him mercilessly out of your life; he is clearly a swine.

_____________________

Amazonian Indian feet: http://birthdayshoes.com/media/blogs/bdayshoes/2013_Photos/.evocache/human_feet_look_like_if_you_never_wear_shoes.jpg/fit-640×540.jpg?mtime=1386261566 (in http://birthdayshoes.com/what-a-natural-human-foot-looks-like-if-you-never-wear-shoes)

Natural human feet: http://origin.ih.constantcontact.com/fs096/1102283092773/img/101.jpg?a=1102864935304 (in http://www.sukiebaxter.com/could-your-feet-be-the-source-of-that-pain-in-your-neck)

Baby feet: http://naturalrunningcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Screen-shot-2012-02-26-at-5.30.11-PM.png (in http://naturalrunningcenter.com/2012/02/27/enhancing-natural-pronation-control-feet-designed-that/

Feet with toes close: http://www.guide2health.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/bare-feet.jpg (in http://www.guide2health.net/2012/08/life-long-immunity-to-disease/bare-feet/)

Feet with toes too close: http://i.imgur.com/aURQcnm.jpg (in http://www.inquisitr.com/931111/lebron-james-feet-picture-of-stars-messed-up-toes-goes-viral/)

Thai girl’s feet: http://www.zeefashionstore.com/ProductImage/18391/1.jpg (in http://www.zeefashionstore.com/womenshoes.php?brand=79&section=6)

White feet in flip-flops: http://blog.diagnosticfootspecialists.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/flip-flops.jpg (in http://blog.diagnosticfootspecialists.com/)

Bunions: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Hallux_Valgus-Aspect_pr%C3%A9_op_d%C3%A9charge.JPG (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunion)

Hammer toes: http://images.medicinenet.com/images/slideshow/diabetes_foot_problems_s13_hammertoes.jpg (in http://www.medicinenet.com/image-collection/hammertoes_picture/picture.htm)

Working hands: https://scpeanutgallery.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/working-hands.jpg (in http://scpeanutgallery.com/2015/02/04/morning-prayer-4-feb-heb-124-7-11-15-mk-61-6-get-a-grip/)

Slim hands: http://hoocher.com/Agnolo_Bronzino/Portrait_of_Lucrezia_Panciatichi_ca_1540.jpg (in http://hoocher.com/Agnolo_Bronzino/Agnolo_Bronzino.htm)

Woman’s shoes 1770: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/Woman’s_silk_brocade_shoes_1770s.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1775%E2%80%9395_in_Western_fashion)

Platform boots: http://img3.etsystatic.com/000/0/5381238/il_fullxfull.291560419.jpg (in http://galleryhip.com/platform-shoes-for-men.html)

High heels: http://www.glamour.com/images/fashion/2013/08/heels-w724.jpg (in http://www.glamour.com/fashion/blogs/dressed/2013/08/check-out-this-3d-scan-of-what)

Women in high heel position: http://www.tellwut.com/uploads/media/image/12607e1398914701o270.jpg (in http://katherincruikshank.blogas.lt/tag/hammer-toes)

Crushed bound foot: http://www.buzzfeed.com/hayleycampbell/lotus-feet#.vj027qN6E (in http://www.buzzfeed.com/hayleycampbell/lotus-feet#.eegdQJg3y0)

Chinese lady with bound feet: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_binding#/media/File:A_HIGH_CASTE_LADYS_DAINTY_LILY_FEET.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_binding#Variation_in_practice)

Lotus shoes: http://www.top5ives.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Lotus-Shoes.jpg (in http://www.top5ives.com/top-5-most-weird-shoes-in-history/)