Monday, 23 January 2017

Tuesday Poem: Swinging in a Hammock on Koh Seh

(After James Wright)

A white egret picks its way through rocks along the shore.
Over my head, the tamarind leaves spread their green fingers.
A black butterfly, the span of my hand, flaps through the canopy.
The sea laps, cat-like, at the shingle, pummelling the hull
of the wrecked boat with a dull percussion.
Pair trawlers and squid boats punctuate the horizon
drawing a grey line between sea and sky
where the new moon is lifting Venus towards
the evening thunderstorm, piling itself in pink, ice-cream cloud.
The long-tail boats are chugging in for the night
their noisy out-boards shattering the silence.
The jetty stretches seaward in a single line of lights.

Time to evaluate; thoughts like the silver flying fish
lifting from the water, bright, elusive.

It's cold here!  But the frosty terrain is very beautiful in the winter sunlight, so I don't mind (much!).
The journey back seemed longer than usual.  We stayed in the small Khmer hotel the previous night so that we could get to the airport on time the following morning - where boats are concerned you never know whether you'll make it punctually.  There's the weather and the whole mechanical engine business. In Cambodia, anything mechanical needs a lot of tinkering!

The hotel gave us time to pack properly and shake out any small hitchhikers from the luggage (I found a stowaway baby cockroach anxious for a change of scene).  These are all the hazards of 'real' travel.  But now I'm home and back to work and the delights of swinging in a hammock with nothing on your mind are long gone.  The poem is a response to James Wright's wonderful 'Lying in a hammock on William Duffy's farm', particularly that ambiguous last line 'I have wasted my life'.  Swinging in a hammock was very definitely not wasted time for me, it was essential unwinding at the end of a terrible, stressful year.  But neither would I want to live like that all the time. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Cambodian Notebook 6 - 'The Isle is full of noises'

‘The Isle is full of noises,’ Prospero told his guests in The Tempest.  Here, during the night, all sound is drowned out by the throbbing roar of the generator that charges up the equipment for the following day, as well as running the safety lights and the water pumps. The big rainwater tanks need to be aerated to keep mosquitoes from breeding.

But last night the generator broke down and all we had was the silence and the night noises of the island.  There was a full moon riding out to sea, so we could see everything clearly.
Nightfall on the island, with a big thundercloud
The night was full of life.  There were geckos talking to each other – “geck-oh, geck-oh” – and whistling bugs in the palm thatch.  Occasionally a cricket chirped.  A bird we call the ‘whoop-whoop’ bird (an owl?) sat on a tree on the beach whooping in various registers and sliding up and down the scale.  This was all very pleasant against the slap, slap of the sea on the shingle.  But then we heard the ‘heavy breathing monster’ on the other side of the bamboo wall.  It sounded ferocious and ominous, but whether it was animal or lizard we lacked the courage to find out!

It was too hot and sticky (29C and 78 degrees of humidity) to sleep without a fan.  Some of the volunteers were playing Khmer music in the communal hut and chatting by torch light.  We walked down to the end of the pier to catch what little breeze there was, and sat and looked at the moon and the winking lights of fishing boats, dangling our legs over the water.

This is our last day.  Tomorrow we begin the long haul back to the cold north and a culture so different in character it’s almost impossible to imagine from here. 

Monday, 16 January 2017

Cambodian Notebook 5 - Life as a castaway

There are no mirrors here, so I have no idea what I look like.  And no one cares.  We wash our hair in the rainwater barrel and comb it through by touch.  No one wears makeup. It seems strange, coming from a culture where appearances are so important.

Life here is not all chasing illegal fishermen.  In between there’s all the business of keeping the conservation station running.  Volunteers pick up polystyrene and plastic debris from the beach (sacks of it) and clean up the coral reef.  They learn to dive, to recognise fish and the basics of conservation and marine ecology.
Inside our hut
There’s a rota for washing-up duty, refilling tanks and water bottles, and generally keeping the place clean.  In between there’s time off for snorkelling, diving, and playing volley ball.

The island is small, so it’s easy to walk around.  There are a lot of sinister bunkers and gun emplacements as grim reminders of the very recent war between Cambodia and Vietnam, when this island was on the front line.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve also spent a lot of time in a hammock with grandchildren.

And then there’s playing with puppies (there are 7 of them too cute to describe).

At the moment, the volunteers are rehearsing a play (all in Khmer) about declining fish stocks.  It’s improvised theatre featuring a couple of crabs, clams, a lobster and a sunfish wondering where all their relatives and friends have vanished to.  Perhaps it’s the sharks? Then they get caught in a fisherman’s net and they realise why.  There’s then a long sequence of song and dance as they persuade the fisherman that he can fish with a rod and line, and leave plenty of fish in the sea for the future.  When the costumes are finished, it’s going to be taken round the coastal villages as an educational project.
Rehearsal (with 2 dogs) on the volley ball court
All this is far too energetic for a pale northerner who is going to go and lie in the sea for a while to cool off!

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Cambodian Notebook 4 - a visit to Kep

We take the supply boat into Kep for a quick taste of civilisation.  The boat is packed with volunteers doing the same thing as well as empty water bottles, 5 gallon diesel containers and a compressor being taken for repair.  We look forward to toilets! showers! and proper beds! If only for a couple of nights.

We’re staying in an old Khmer hotel, the Palm House.  It’s authentically Khmer – both the rooms and the food.  Most of the staff are not English speaking, so ordering food and drink can be an interesting experience – even with our grandchildren to translate, we get several meals we didn’t ask for!  But the best thing about it is the pool, which the children love.  We’re taking full advantage of it too.

And it also has a tree house, excellent for escaping little monsters and finding quiet time to write.

But there’s another story here too –  a view you can get from the tree house.  Behind the hotel are a series of overgrown plots, some of several acres, with big wrought iron gates and burned out villas inside.  They have not been re-colonised, except by the thin, white cows that wander freely here, and they remain as a grim reminder of Cambodia’s recent history.

The main attraction in Kep is the crab market, with colourful stalls and a lot of street food – squid and cuttle fish grilled on sticks and bowls of crab which are caught just offshore and haggled over on the quayside.  The crabs this year seem to be only half as big as they were last time I was here.

There are also piles and piles of shrimp in the market – most of it caught by damaging methods – either electric fishing or bottom trawling.  We don’t buy any. There is also a political twist to this fish market.  A lot of fish is caught in Cambodian waters by the Vietnamese and sold back to the Cambodians at Kep and Kampot, which causes a great deal of friction.

Then there’s the fruit - most of it unrecognisable.  There are prickly things rather like Lychees inside and big green Jack-fruit with custard-flavoured seeds.  Mangos here are eaten green and crunchy, dipped in chili.

Driven by European, middle-class cravings, we make several expeditions by Tuk-Tuk to and from the French coffee shop we can’t resist.

We avoid the heavily polluted Kep beach and the swarms of Monkeys who rifle through the rubbish bins.  Then, fortified with real coffee and pastries, we head out for the privations of Koh Seh once again.  It’s our final week, so we want to make the most of it.
Not so cute monkeys!

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Cambodian Notebook 3 - Eco-warriers

We’ve just had a clear demonstration of the realities of defending a very fragile environment.  The Marine Conservation organisation have a fast patrol boat funded by a Canadian environmental protection group and it was asked to go out yesterday to check out a Vietnamese fishing boat not only in Cambodian waters, within the conservation area, but also suspected of illegally ‘pipe-fishing’.
a pipe-fishing boat with the pipes showing at the back of the boat
This is a very dodgy practice indeed.  The fishermen go down to considerable depths, breathing through a thin plastic pipe connected to the surface.  They have no safe diving practices and the death rate is horrendous, either from the ‘bends’, or from respiratory and circulatory diseases or drowning. Pipe fishing is often combined with spear fishing, which is illegal here.
The fast patrol boat
Neil happened to be on the pier when the ‘shout’ came in, so he hopped into the patrol boat with the others, expecting nothing more than a routine stop and search.  But when they arrived at the Vietnamese boat the crew of three immediately became very aggressive and picked up meat cleavers and a spear gun - the latter pointed at Neil’s chest so that he hastily ducked down into the cabin.  Someone hurled a piece of metal – possibly a lead fishing weight – which struck him on the leg but luckily didn’t break it.  There was a struggle until the patrol boat managed to back away to a safe distance.  One person (other than Neil) was hurt.
Note the meat cleaver at the front, the iron bar aloft, and the metal weight at the back about to be hurled at Neil
Environmental protection is very dangerous.   A journalist recently wrote up the work that Neil’s son is involved in for the New York Times, stressing the risks that are being run. [It's a good read - click here] Currently an American documentary film maker is staying on the island filming fly-on-the-wall stuff, including the encounter with the pipe-fishing boat.
You are  being filmed
It’s a big worry when your children are involved in something so risky, however much you approve the values that drive them. What is happening to the life of our oceans is horrifying.  Every night we watch pair trawlers from China and Vietnam ripping the bottom up from the sea bed.  The hammocks on the island are made from the nets that have been confiscated.  The mesh is so fine that nothing, even the smallest shrimp, could escape.
Neil with the trawler net
This can’t go on, or our oceans will become deserts.  There has to be a solution.  Otherwise the environment is going to become more and more of a battleground. 

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Cambodian Notebook 2

This morning, a strong wind is coming from the mainland.  The banana palms are flapping like windmill sails and the sea is running strongly.  Overnight there were squalls of  heavy rain.  We could hear the sea crashing on the shingle outside and the tin roof of the big building banging to and fro. But it’s cool now and the sun is making a bright path across the water to our doorstep.

We head for breakfast, wondering what we'll get.  Some of them are wonderful – we have hot and sour Thai porridge, banana pancakes, chicken and rice in rotation, but this morning it’s eggs and noodles, so I have to go on voluntary fast as I can’t eat eggs. I should have brought some biscuits for the days when there is food I don’t like or can’t eat.  This is no place for a fussy eater.  You’d be ok if you were gluten or dairy free since there’s no wheat flour and no dairy products, but egg is everywhere.
The cook
Everything is cooked on gas or charcoal burners, with an array of pots and pans and implements that is bewildering. All the cooking, for up to thirty people, is done by my daughter-in-law Sao and my 15 year old grand-daughter.
The kitchen
During the day we sleep off the jet-lag in hammocks listening to the sound of the sea which is currently too rough for diving or snorkelling on the reef.  Land bound we walk around the beach to the small fishing vilage at the end of the island.  Last night’s storm has washed up sea-grass and bits of coral – debris from the illegal trawling.
Cambodian 'long-tail' boats moored on the island
As I write this, swinging in the hammock at 6 pm, the light are twinkling brightly across the water on the Vietnamese coast, and there is already the audible rumble of trawlers waiting out at sea for darkness to fall before they come in.  It looks like another night of action.

And it’s not long before something kicks off.  The lights of a fishing boat are spotted well within the conservation area and the shout goes up for a crew to take the boat out.  We can hear voices off-shore and see the lights of the conservation vessel and the fishing boat.  Soon, they are both chugging up to the jetty to tie up.
A lot of talking going on
I walk along the jetty to find out what is happening.  The conservation team are sitting on the end of the pier with the fisherman and his son, sharing beer and cigarettes. A barrow load of gleaming silver needle fish is being hauled up onto the jetty and any still alive are thrown back into the water.  Some of them are a metre long – testimony to the success of the fish nursery they’re creating here.
A mature needle fish more than a metre long
The fisherman is sad, but it seems that it was just a case of ignorance.  He didn’t know about the conservation area.  His son had been so pleased to get such a wonderful catch. They also hadn’t understood about the need to create sustainable fish stocks.  He is very contrite and seems genuine. He is Cambodian, not Vietnamese, so not fishing illegally.  His nets are returned to him, with much grinning and handshaking, and then a portion of his catch is also given back as a goodwill gesture. He won’t come back into the conservation area again, but around 60 beautiful, mature fish are dead and won’t be around to breed for the future. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Cambodian Notebook 1

Arriving in Phnom Penh after a long flight we walk out into a wall of heat and humidity. From sub zero temperatures in Cumbria to the tropical intensity of Cambodia is a shock to the system. The driver is waiting for us as arranged, holding up a placard with Neil's name on it. The driver doesn’t speak English so conversation is limited to our few words of Khmer with a bit of miming and a lot of gesticulation and laughter.

Driving in Cambodia is unnerving. On the busy roads out of Phnom Penh there is undertaking, overtaking, double overtaking and vehicles coming towards you on the wrong side of the carriageway.  There are rickshaws, motorbikes with whole families on board, bicycle carts laden with goods, lorries, jeeps, farm vehicles and the occasional cow in the road.  But our driver is steady and sensible and we reach Kep unscathed.   Kep is a small coastal town only 18 kilometres from the Vietnam border.  It's small and still fairly unspoilt.  This was the French region of Cambodia and there's still a very continental feel to the old buildings here.
Market. Rural Cambodia is not for the faint-hearted!

Most places are closed for Khmer New Year but we manage to find a cup of tea and cool beer in a small teashop next to the pier where our boat to the island is waiting. Some of the eco-volunteers from the conservation project have come over on the boat to grab a couple of hours in civilisation to stock up on supplies.  They expertly throw our luggage on board before doing the same with us.  
Leaving Kep
Out to sea the wind freshens – it’s blowing strongly offshore at the moment.  The coolness is very welcome.  Flying fish hover over the surface like flocks of silver birds.  There are islands everywhere, wooded peaks and bumps poking up through the sea like mountaintops in a submerged landscape.

An hour and a half later the mainland to our left is Vietnam and we are approaching our destination, Koh Seh - Horse Island.  The children have formed a reception committee on the jetty and, once we’ve been hugged and fought over, they excitedly show us our accommodation.

From now on we sleep on a slatted bed covered by a thin piece of foam with the ocean a few feet away from the door.  The shower is a scoop in a plastic barrel filled with rainwater.  There’s no electricity during the day and in the evening only a small generator for essential power to charge lap tops and provide lighting.

We eat with the others in the big communal building that serves as canteen, recreation hall and office space.  This is the home of Marine Conservation Cambodia, staffed by post-graduate interns and a group of international volunteers. The area around these islands is a marine conservation area and research project.  There are coral reefs and sea-grass beds that serve as nurseries for young fish and which, once they are restored to full health, they hope will be a source of eco-tourism for Cambodia. On shore they are nurturing young mangrove trees which will protect the islands from coastal erosion. Educating others about marine conservation is a large part of the work.
Sunset on the edge of the South China Sea
 We eat with the others on long tables. Cambodian food cooked Thai style – vegetables in a peanut sauce and the remains of the New Year’s Eve pig. They don’t serve fish here! Then, in the darkness offshore, there is the ominous rumble of illegal pair trawlers.  Half a dozen of the men get up and leave, preparing to take the big boats out for a confrontation with the trawlers.  The Fisheries police are called and a rendezvous arranged.  I ask if I can go too, but they refuse. It’s too dangerous. We hear the marine diesels start up and the boats creep off into the night, without lights, to police the conservation area.  It’s a tense moment, but a couple of hours later they return and the trawlers are gone.

Just how dangerous this really is, can be seen on the beach in front of our hut.  One of the conservation vessels was rammed and lies as a wreck on the shingle.  It won’t sail again.