February 2010


It is lunch time in a village near Siem Reap,  the children, no more than six years of age, sit on the ground,  the branch between them.  They  tear  off leaves, dip them into the jar of pungent fish paste and  chew on them.   They seem happy and well nourished.   

It  is early evening in a side street in Hanoi.  A crowd of people squash together around small plastic tables; they are talking and laughing.   The cook is preparing the food on simple charcoal braziers; sticky rice and pho, a spicy vegetable stew with chicken or fish, which he serves up on large steaming bowls.   Among the vegetables are tarot root, carrot, morning glory stems and leaves, green beans, green mango, and sliced banana flower.  The spices include garlic, ginger, galangal, turmeric , coriander, thai basil, saw-edged mint and lemon mint.     It smells and tastes delicious and the ingredients; the vegetables  Dessert is sweet mango and sticky rice in caramelized palm syrup.        

The food culture in South East Asia is so different to that of America and Western Europe.  Most people live in the country.   Vegetables and spices are grown locally in small plots outside the villages and transported fresh to markets.   There are abundant fish in the rivers.  They are caught the same day and kept alive in the markets in bowls of aerated water. People keep chickens, pigs, buffaloes and dogs for eating and supplement their diet with rats and squirrels, even spiders, ants  and frogs  and maybe a deer which they have caught in the forest.  They eat everything here.  This creates a very balanced diet with all the essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids, abundant probiotic carbohydrate and fats and protein in moderation.  It is a healthy way of eating. 

The food is enriched by a palette of spices, which are blended together to create the balance of hot and cold, yin and yang, by which the people ensured adequate intake of micronutrients hundreds of years before anybody had heard of vitamins.   People understand  the medicinal properties of spices and know how to use them to enhance the appetising qualities of a meal in order to provide  satisfaction without overindulgence.      

Even very young children have a sophisticated palate.   From a very early age, they become conditioned to the  pungent fermented fish sauces, the hot chillis,  the aromatic flavours of fresh rhizomes of turmeric and galangal, the burn of ginger, the cool sensations of mint and thai basil.  

Eating is a social activity, accompanied by talking and laughter and perhaps a shot or two of Lao Lao rice whisky, handed to each person in a small bamboo cup.  The food is placed in the centre of the table and people share it.   Not only is the food healthy, the whole eating experience facilitates well being.          

In the country, people eat just two meals a day.  They work in the fields until it gets hot and then come back for a midday meal.  Then they might rest and work again in the evening until dinner.  Children work as well, but they also might go to school. 

There is little distinction between lunch and dinner.  Everything is served with sticky rice or rice noodles; and the choice of meat or fish or vegetables determines the balance of spices.   You see very little obesity in the country.   People seem fit, muscular and have spare bodies and good teeth.  

To eat, people squat around the table or sit on impossibly (for westerners) low stools .  They have very flexible joints.  They can squat for hours in a stable fashion, their feet flat on the ground and their thighs almost parallel with their calves so that their bottom nearly touches the ground.   They  have little of the back and joint problems of the western races.        

It is a way of life that we used to lead years ago.  Ian Mortimer’s new book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Mediaeval England, describes how peasants used to grow all the vegetables and herbs they needed in gardens  or on common land.  They also kept chickens, pigs and maybe a cow.  There were  orchards in which they could harvest fruits.   Hunting and fishing supplemented the mediaeval diet. 

Although there were risks of famine and starvation, especially in mediaeval England where food supply is more seasonal and food had to be stored, nevertheless the diet was more varied and nutritionally balanced than it is now despite improved knowledge of nutrition and greater food security.  People were more able to regulate their intake.    

It is afternoon in a village by the side of a highway in Northern Laos.  The trucks rumble past from Thailand to Luang Namatha.  A child of about two is chewing on sweets from a paper bag.  He looks fat and sleepy.  His father, also overweight and dressed in designer football shirt and long shorts looks on indulgently.   Diabetes is a growing problem in South East Asia.  Things are changing and fast.

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Deep fried Tarantula with pepper sauce!  Yum!  This was something new.  I had to try it.  But it was still a shock when four large black spiders arrived on my plate.  Cambodians love them, crunching them whole like crisps.  I tried a leg. It was all crackle and no taste, but the pepper sauce tasted delicious.  Nothing ventured …..,  I took the body of the arachnid, dipped it in generous quantities of pepper sauce and popped it in my mouth. The meat tasted quite sweet, almost like crab, and I was almost able to forget what I was eating.  Nobody offered to join me in my spiderfest, so still smiling, I crunched and swallowed three more!

Romdeng restaurant is situated in an old French colonial mansion in the centre of Phnom Penh and staffed by street children. It was opened n 2005 by Friends International, offering students the skills to open their own businesses, while recovering the skills of Cambodian cuisine lost during the hegemony of the Khmer Rouge.    

 In Cambodia,  many children end up living on the streets because of poverty, or domestic violence or increasingly the loss or one or more parents to AIDS.  They do what they can to survive but the conditions in which they live are very dangerous.  Thirty per cent of prostitutes in Phnom Penh are between the ages of 12 and 17.  Drugs are also a problem for street children with children as young as 6 sniffing glue to escape their dreadful reality.  Friends-International offers these children an alternative to life on the streets, providing medical care, food and creating innovative and exciting opportunities to build their futures.  The children in Romdeng were polite and efficient; the food delicious; the concept inspirational. 

The next course was safer;  Fish Amok in banana leaves.  This is local fish from the mighty Mekong (apologies to Dan Dare and The Eagle), steamed in a rich creamy sauce of spices and coconut milk, and presented in little containers contructed from banana leaves pinned together with slivers of wood.  This was followed by sticky rice and mango basted with caramelised palm syrup. 

It was the nicest meal we had in Cambodia.  Later Alex told me that I hadn’t really sampled Cambodian cuisine until I had tasted poung tai;  fertilised duck eggs cooked just before the duckling starts to hatch. The body parts including the emerging feathers and beak are still soft and encased in a creamy yolk.  That was a delight I did not try.  It was just the thought of it!

The past is another country –

they do things differently there.

                                          L.P.Hartley. The Go Between.

 

It starts with the cockerels; first one at the far side of the village, then others join the competition, the bird belonging to the guest hut calling loudly just below.  They soon set the dogs off.   A sow grunts nearby;  her piglet squealing in alarm.  Somewhere a buffalo bellows.  There is a gathering murmer of conversation – a musical dialogue interrupted with long high pitched notes of exclamation.  The cooks come in and rekindle the embers  by pushing the logs into the centre of the fire between the tripod of hearth stones.  Water is heated in the big black iron pot.   The smooth rasp of metal on stone is followed by a busy tapping as vegetables, fresh from the  gardens by the river, are chopped for breakfast.  The aroma  of fresh cut herbs mingles with the smoke which drifts upwards to the rattan roof and  escapes under the eaves.   Within a half an hour, the village has woken up.   

This scene has not changed for a thousand years.  People all over the world used to live and sleep in simple houses with their animals and cook on open fires, but it is something that has disappeared in Western  Europe.   Country towns in England seem so quiet and underpopulated by comparison.

But mediaeval England would have looked, smelt and sounded like rural Laos.  From our perspective, both seem crude, dirty, cold, disorganized  and violent, but they were not.  They were efficient, well regulated societies that by processes of convergent evolution born of necessity and practicality, worked in remarkably similar ways. 

Both communities were run locally with minimal input from central government.  The land and its resources were  owned by the community with usage decided by a committee of village elders.   The community as a whole is responsible for the honesty and good behaviour of the local people and effectively police themselves for most practical purposes.   Because everybody lived together, the community was transparent with little opportunity for secrets and subterfuge.  Both societies were more honest, open and trusting than current day society.  The village shaman or medicine man was  responsible for the health and spiritual welfare of the village and supervised arrangements for birth and death.  The identity of the community was reinforced by beliefs, attitudes and customs around eating, clothing,  marriage, and behaviour.   

This all seems so strange to us because we and our ancestors have witnessed a progressive erosion of community associated with migration to big towns and cities where services have to be organized on a much a formal and regulated basis to cope with larger populations.   Over the last twenty years, this migration has extended to the virtual world wide web of electronic communications.  Such monolithic regulation is achieved  at the expense of community, adaptability and the  kind of common sense that can evaluate every situation on its own merit.   

But things are changing in Laos.  There is a satellite dish and solar panels outside the largest bamboo house and the dark interior of the village store is illuminated by a bank of winking multicoloured lights of the mobile phone chargers.    

This week, as if by fate, my computer short circuited corrupting all my files.   Is this an opportunity?

The Time Traveller’ Guide to Mediaeval England by Ian Mortimer is not a dry historical treatise, it is a living account written as if you have just got off the plane to the middle ages.  No wonder it is so similar to accounts of more remote developing countriest like Laos.  We do, after asll, travel in time.   

Monkeys in Phnom Penh hunt in packs.  One scratches your legs while another raids your shopping bags for bananas, mango’s, crisps, sweets.  They are very quick at undoing the packets.  They copy the children.  They have even taken to sniffing glue.  That might explain why they are so out of control. 

When the Chief of Police was recently criticised for killing the leader of a pack of bandit monkeys, he was unrepentant.  ‘We treat them like people; he retorted, ‘you identify the leader and then you shoot him’.

It is not that long ago that the country was in the grip of the Khmer Rouge.  Then indiscriminate killing was commonplace.  A third of the population died in the genocide of the Pol Pot regime.  In the Killing Fields outside the capital, millions of people were executed, often on the instigation of children and for minor offences, like staring or answering back and just because the kids didn’t like the way they looked.  Pol Pot was so paranoid, he killed destroyed the countries intelligentsia.  Lawyers, teachers, doctors, clerks, even those wearing glasses, were taken, forced to kneel and executed by a bullet or a blow in the back of the head.  The unfortunate ones were taken to Tuol Sleng, once a school, and tortured to reveal names of their friends and colleagues before being executed.  Of the twenty thousand taken there, only seven survived. 

The UN are only now bringing those responsible to justice, though in truth the people have no heart in this.  They just want to put it all behind them and forget.  Besides, there is danger in this exercise.  Bribery and corruption are rife in Phnom Penh.  Like the monkeys; it’s the way of life.  

Thirty years on, there are relatively few survivors and they, like the country’s president, used to belong to the Khmer Rouge.  (The  Khmer Rouge was still operating as a guerrilla force well into the 1990s).  Cambodia is no country for old men.  40% of the population are under 15, 70% are under 30.   They want to get on with rebuilding the country, but it takes time for both attitudes and even the fabric of the country to change.     

When the people moved back into Phnom Penh, they kept their old house and street numbers wherever they lived.  So the streets are not numbered in sequence and house numbers can appear quite indiscriminate.  Like the road traffic regulations, anything goes, and somehow the motos and tuk-tuks all keep moving.

It was shocking to learn that Dr Haing S.Ngor,  who won an academy award for Best Supporting Actor for his moving portrayal of Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, had been murdered in Los Angeles.  

Is it about life or about learning, about facts or meaning?  Do we get it from reading or from experience?  Jenny found out the hard way.  The real lessons of life are never acquired without pain. 

Jenny was 16, clever, bright, confident and ambitious.   She was in line to go to Oxford.  Then she met David.  It was raining.  He offered her a lift in his sports car.  She should have read the warning signs.  Perhaps she did.  Nevertheless she accepted with alacrity.  

David was much older; in his thirties, she guessed.  He was sophisticated, urbane, experienced; he had the money to enjoy the good things in life.  He was fun.  He transported Jenny out of her narrow suburban orbit into a world of plays, concerts, perfume, wine, and jewellery.  He showed her that there was more to life than school work.  She was captivated.  For the first time in her life, she was living, not just existing.  Somebody really seemed to recognise and care about her.  It was wonderful. 

So she ignored the fact that he never took her to his house and she overlooked the way he made his money.  For David was a con man; he  cheated old ladies.  He inhabited a facile domain of make believe, in which he felt entitled to get what he wanted by whatever means that did not require work.  He had no sense of right or wrong, no feelings of shame or guilt, no responsibility.  Money, sex, love; it was all the same.  If he wanted it, he had the charm to get it.  He even charmed Jenny’s rather straight-laced parents into allowing her to go to Paris with him.  It was all so easy, but so meaningless.               

Jenny was seduced, but not unwillingly.  She wanted it as well.  It was more a case of mutual exploitation, but Jenny was the child.  So when David proposed marriage, Jenny relinquished her plans for Oxford with a flash of her engagement ring.  But then she found the letters addressed to David’s wife.  

It was quite an education.  Jenny had learnt at an tender age about life and love and the way people are.  At a stroke, she had lost her innocence and acquired a mature cynicism that made her so adept at seeing what lay behind the charm and sophistication.  This experience  forged her character as much if not more than going to Oxford.  (she retook her last year at school and gained a scholarship to Somerville College). 

Jenny, the character, is the youthful Lynn Barber, the Sunday Times columnist  and queen bee of the celebrity interview, whose autobiography, An Education, was published  last year and made into a film.  When her first collection of interviews, entitled Mostly Men, was published in 1991, The Daily Mail reviewer wrote, ‘it is her flair for stripping a person of all the phoneyness and presenting the bare bones of a character that sets her apart.   Well, she didn’t learn that from Oxford! 

How different things might have been if she had said, No.

 

‘An Education’ was released late last year.  The young actress, Carry Mulligan was quite superb in the lead role.  She even looked like Lynn Barber and managed to capture just the right balance of intelligence and naivety.  She has just been awarded a BAFTA for best actress.     

He raises his fist, thumps the back of the chair, shouts at his assistants, seizes them by the  lapels, reduces his chief script writer to a quivering wreck and has even forcibly removed a secretary from her seat in front of a computer for typing too slowly.

So Mr Brown is in trouble again.  The release of a new book,  The End of The Party,  describing how the Prime Minister bullies his staff has coincided with the disclosure that staff at number 10 have phoned the  national helpline supporting those who are bullied at work.  So Gordon is not only incompetent and difficult, he is also a bully.

Well, we’ve known that Mr Brown had a temper for years. There were reports of rows with Mr Blair a long time before the latter left office.  And Peter Mandleson has found himself on the end of Gordon’s tether on many occasions.  Others have resigned, notably Ruth Kelly and Geoff Hoon because they have found the heat in the ‘kitchen’ too hot. 

So why does he do it.  The emollient, not to say unctuous, Mandleson, has sought to play down the difficulty by claiming that his boss is a deeply committed and passionate man, who demands the highest standards from himself and others and is determined to get things done. That’s all very well, but he is also the chief executive of UK inc. and if the same behaviour is expressed in the international arena, it could start a war.  It’s a thin dividing line between irritability and tyranny.  Josef Stalin was also a bad tempered man.

So Mr Brown has become a liability.  He has shown himself to be dangerously impulsive and emotional. Of course, other political leaders have shown the same characteristics.  The new film ‘Into the Storm’ depicted Winston Churchill as impulsive, boorish and at times bullying, but he was also capable of listening, reflection, honesty and diplomacy.  Are we sure that Mr Brown expresses the same qualities?  Tony Blair did, but perhaps he was more duplicitous.       

To lose one’s temper demonstrates weakness.   Anger is very closely allied to fear.  If we feel threatened, it takes maturity not to turn on our assailants and attack them.  Mr Brown is an insecure and frightened man.  We only have to look at his bitten nails to see that.  He has a hunted look in his eyes.  He has reached the point where he can trust nobody.  If his greatest supporter is Peter Mandleson, then it really is time to go.

He stares wide-eyed and innocent, thin of face, with his moustasche and trademark long wispy beard slightly curved at the tip, from the all denominations of banknotes issued in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  Ho is the father of the country, the leader of the revolution, one time prime minister and president for life and enduring inspiration.  But what sort of man was he; this one time teacher, waiter, cleaner, and  chef at the Drayton Court Hotel in West Ealing: a man of simple tastes, a remarkable intellect, a compassionate leader of his country, a dangerous revolutionary, a tyrant or all of those?  And what is his legacy?

He was born Nguyen Sinh Cung ,  the second son of a poor rural family living near the centre of Vietnam.  His father was a Confucian scholar, teacher and magistrate, who was later demoted for abuse of power but also because of Cung’s nationalist activities.  While Cung  was still at primary school his parents separated.  His elder brother went with his father down south, Cung went with his mother and sister to Hue.  But at the age of 10, his mother died and he went to live with his father.  He received a French education at the Lycee and then left to teach at a small school on the border. 

In 1911, he left on his great adventure.   He sailed to Marseilles and from there went to Paris, where he took jobs as a cleaner, a waiter and a cook, but spent all of his free time reading history and newpapers to familiarise himself with western politics.  The following year he travelled to America.  He worked in Boston and New York and made contact with Korean Nationalists.   1913 saw him in Britain, where he worked for a time as a pastry chef at the Drayton Court Hotel in West Ealing.  Returning to France, this idealistic and handsome young man restyled himself as Nguyen ai Quoc (Nguyen the patriot) and embraced communism as the only type of government that would restore the rights of his people from French colonial oppression.  He even attended the Versailles peace conference in 1919 in a borrowed tuxedo and bowler hat and petitioned for recognition of the civil rights of the Vietnamese people.  He was ignored.  That same year, citing quotations of the American Bill of Rights, he petitioned President Woodrow Wilson to remove the French from Vietnam and replace them with a nationalist government.  Wilson ignored him too.  Two years later he and a group of like minded revolutionaries, founded the Parti Communiste Francaise.  Later that year he visited Moscow and  became Comintern’s principal theorist on colonial warfare in Asia.  While in France, he had a relationship with the dressmaker, Marie Braire.

In 1923 he was in Moscow and China, where he betrayed Pho Bo Chau, the head of a rival revolutionary faction to the police in Shanghai.  His excuse was that he hneeded the money for the communist party and he expected Chau’s trial to stir up French resentment. 

In 1926 he married Zeng Xeiming and when criticised for this, he replied that he needed a Chinese woman to help him learn the language and to keep house.  He was married in the same place as Chou en Lai and lived at the residence of Mikhail Borodin. 

But he was soon on his travels again.  In 1927, he was in the Crimea recuperating from TB.  He then travelled to Italy, Switzerland and Germany.  He was imprisoned by the British in Hong Kong in 1931.   In 1938 he was adviser to the Chinese communist party which forced the evacuation of the nationalist government to Taiwan.

By 1940 Quoc adopted the name Ho Chi Minh, (bringer of enlightenment) and the following year returned to Vietname to lead the Viet Minh independance movement against the Vichy French and Japanese occupation.  In this he was supported by the United States but later imprisoned by Chiang Kai Chek for his revolutionary activities.  On his release he lived with a Tay woman, Du Thi Lac and had a son by her.  

In 1945, Ho ignited the August revolution,  persuading the Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate.  He issued an American style Proclamation of Independance and petitioned Harry S. Trueman for support. Trueman failed to reply.  That same year, 200,000 Chinese nationalists arrived in Hanoi.  Ho agreed to dissolve his communist party and hold elections.  He then negotiated with the French in which Vietnam was recognised as an autonomous state in the French union, but his real purpose was to drive out the Chinese.   As soon as the Chinese troops left, fighting broke out with the French.   The following year the Viet Minh went on a purge of rival revolutionary groups and banned all rival political parties.   By 1950 Stalin and Mao, no doubt impressed by Ho’s single min ded ruthlessness, had recognised his government and given promises of support.  

In 1954, Ho defeated the French paratroopers at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  The French ceded sovereignty to Ho’s government and the Geneva accords divided the country along the 47th parallel into the communist North and the non communist south, providing electrions were held in 1956 to unify the country.  US Colonel Edward Lansdale working in Siagon for the CIA persuaded the Vietnamese catholics to move south by claiming that the virgin Mary had herself moved south out of distaste for communism.  This propaganda was no doubt backed up by Ho’s land reform in which hundreds living in the north were accused of being landlords and either tortured and executed or fled south.  

Ho ignored unification of the country by elections and instead started supplying the southern rebels, the Vietcong via the Ho Chi Minh trail while moving his own forces south.  The French will still supporting the corrupt Diem government in the south, but Diem was assassinated by his own troops, a n action supported by America.   But fearful of a domino effect, in which the whole of south east Asia would come under communist influence,  Johnson committed combat troops to support South Vietnam in 1964.   it was a war neither side could win.  America had overwhelming fire power and helicopter mobility.  The Vietcong knew the country and could best wage a guerilla war merging into the jungle.  But Ho, ever the strategist,  recognised the weakness of the South Vietnamese forces and vulnerability of the Americans to public opinion at home.  He risked all in the Tet offensive, which, although a tactical failure was a great moral victory.  Americans lost heart and began to negotiate  a withdrawal. 

Ho didn’t live to see Vietnam reunfied.  Never of robust health, he died of diabetes and heart failure in 1969 but up to his death, he insisted that his forces continued to fight in the south.  Time and politics were on their side.  When the communist tankis rolled into Saigon, soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in 1975, they bore banners proclaiming, ‘You are always marching with us, Uncle Ho.’     

Forty years after his death, Ho Chi Minh, is revered in Vietnam as a great patriot.  Despite his wishes to be cremated, his ashed scattered on mountains in the north, the centre and the south of his coutnry,, he was embalmed in Moscow and his body lies in the big square mausoleum adjacent to the presidential palace and where he lived his simple life in a House on Stilts by the lake.

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