March 2010


I’m lying in a hammock in the middle of the jungle in the Cardamom Hills.  I lie in comfort and listen to the sounds of the forest;  the roar in the river going through the rapids; the metronome of a frog, the persistant sibilant whispers of crickets, the two tone plaintive cry of the hunting Nightjar and  the cough of an owl.   It is quite idyllic; but there is that slight frisson of anxiety.  I know there are  poachers about.   The couple that camped here last night had returned  wide eyed with fear,  though all the men did was shine their torches on their hammocks, take some bread and crash off into the jungle.  Nevertheless it unnerved them.  So now there is no contact with the civilised world until the boat comes again tomorrow morning.  Nevertheless, I feel safe.  My hammock, a US Army issue, has a mosquito net built in.  I am enclosed in a psychic shield.  My logic says otherwise, but emotionally I have shelter.  It’s the big issue! 

But you need organisation to do this kind of thing.  It gets dark early and quick here; twilight at six, complete darkness at 6.30.  So prepare.   String up the tarp and then unpack and prepare the hammock, putting anything in it you are likely to need overnight.  In particular keep a torch handy.  Then light the fire.  This was easy.  There was a ventilated earthenware pot.  All I had to do was put a chunk of two of resinated wood at the bottom – an excellent firelighter -,   pack the pot with charcoal and soon there was a glowing brazier. 

I steam  the fish with herbs in its foil packet and roast  some vegetable kebabs on long sticks  and while they are doing prepare a salad.   The beer is a bonus, but not if Idrink it too quickly; I have to think clearly.  Everything can descend into chaos so quickly and then it gets dark and you’re slipping around amid a pile or rubbish.    

So prepare yourself first.  Put on long trousers and shirt to stop the mosquitoes biting,  apply plenty of insect repellent.  Keep any food you are not cooking in plastic containers. There are lots of ants about and they get everywhere.  Some even managed to get inside my camera.  I could see them walking across the inside of the lens housing and a flash was accompanied by a wisp of smoke and a whiff of scorched flesh. Make sure you have paper roll to clean your hands.  Find a flat rock to use as a table and another rock as a stool. Set everything out you will need; containers, utensils, beer, water, paper towels and torch.  Keep everything you need is to hand and the result is packed away.  Organise the fire than organise your food.  Think about the order of consumption and the amount, get everything ready first.  Go for a swim in the river, dry off, relax, have a beer.  There is still an hour before complete darkness.  Enjoy the moment. 

OK so that’s the ideal, but it needs so much foresight and attention to detail to achieve it.  It’s a clash of cultures, you see.  If I had longer, or could understand,  like Ray Mears, how to get all I need from the forest; if I really knew how to live feral, it might be very different.  But to support  one night’s adventure in the jungle, fuel, food, drink, bedding, utensils,  everything has to be imported, just to keep the unsettling wilderness at a safe emotional distance.  But doesn’t that defeat the object?     

A poem and instructions written on the wall of Tuol Sleng internment centre,  Phnom Penh.

 

No chatting

No laughing

No discussion

No answering back

No opinions

 

No theatre

No music

No poems

No literature

No religion

 

No priests

No doctors

No lawyers.

No study

No glasses

 

No football

No games

No playing

No running

No schools

 

No parents

No children

No brothers

No sisters

No house

 

No friendship

No flirting

No sex

No love.

No life

 

 Instructions.

  1. You must answer according to my questions.  Don’t turn them away.
  2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts about this and that.  You are strictly prohibited to contradict me, contest me.
  3. Don’t be a fool, for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes of electrification you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing.  Sit still and wait for my orders.  If there is no order, keep quiet.  When I ask you to do something you must do it right away without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea in order to hide your secret treachery.
  9. If you don’t follow all the above rules you will get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

     

It is 7 o’clock in the evening just a few days after the new year; the year of the tiger.  Any baby born this year will be strong and fierce, like the tiger.  A man is squatting in the gutter tending a little bonfire.  I make as if to take a  photo, but he waves me away.  I look again, hardly able to believe what I am seeing.  For there, on a street in Hanoi, one of the poorest and overcrowded cities in the world, he is burning dollar bills, not just one or two but hundreds of them in all denominations.  There must be about five thousand dollars going up in flames in front of my eyes.  A few yards away, another man is doing the same thing, and on the corner a woman is stuffing twenty dollar bills into a big brazier. All over the city they are burning money. 

What is going on?   My guide explains.  ‘At the new year, we remember our ancestors and we make gifts to appease their spirits and give ourselves good karma.   It’s not real money, but fake paper money.  Some also burn paper models of cars, servants, possessions.  You see, we believe in the afterlife here.  If we can appease the spirits of our ancestors, then we will have a good life too.  It will bring us luck.’

In the Buddhist temples, they sell paper effigies like soldiers in red coats and hats to burn.  Buddhism sits comfortably alongside superstition here.  Many of the tribes in the country are animist, they believe in spirits.  In a wood outside a village in Northern Laos, just a dozen miles or so from the Chinese border, we came across a group of huts on stilts topped by a pole bearing the remains of a flag.  The huts were surrounded by a stockade and a moat.  There was a wooden board in front of it bearing a photograph of the deceased and the dates of his life.   His possessions were stacked under the eaves together with the remains of food and flowers. 

‘When a parent dies, we look after his spirit in death in the same way as we looked after his body in life.  That way we will get good karma and show our children how to look after us when our time comes.’

‘But the people who live in the village, the Black Tai, do not go to the wood after dark.  They are afraid of the spirits.’ 

A few days later, in the Khmer village, we came across an structure that looked like two sets of poles for growing runner beans.  Between it was a table with clay figurines on it. 

”The people here believe that if they touch the body of a dead person, they will die.  So the shaman  builds these arches and covers them with leaves and symbols.  The relatives then pass through the arches three times and leaves a clay model on the table to protect them from the spirits who might take them too.’

We met the shaman, jolly toothless man with a wispy beard, no shirt and a cigarette tucked behind his ear.  My guide left him some indigestion tablets for his wife.  Strong medicine!

Alfred Russel Wallace, who nearly beat Darwin to the discovery of evolution, described it like this.  “It is like buttery custard, flavoured with almonds intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, ground cherries [sherry wine?] and other incongruities.  It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy.  Yet one feels the want of none of these qualities for it is perfect as it is.  Eat it immediately.”

The durian is a large fruit, like a spiky rugby ball.  It is so smelly that it is banned from airline cabins and some hotels. But the Asians love them; they consider them an aphrodisiac.  There’s a Malay saying that when the durians are down the sarongs are up.

Every morning at Rainbow Lodge, we were served a plate of exotic fruits.  It was an education. 

The Soursop is related to the Durian, only smaller, not spiky, but with an irregular surface. It has a chewy, sweet white flesh with flat black seeds. 

The Custard Apple is like the Soursop.  It has overlapping greenish flesh and is very juicy, sweet yet slightly acid.

 And then there’s the Mangosteen.  These when they are ripe are small, dark purple, round fruits with a rosette of sepals on the top of them.  The flesh is juicy, white and sweet yet slightly acid.  The bark and the skin of the fruit can be used to treat diarrhoea.

But for flavour, I just love the Long yong or Durkin.  It tastes like a lychee, but is softer and sweeter and one the flesh is peeled off, it is in white segments like garlic.

The Pomelo is the largest grapefruit.  It can be used as a salad vegetable or fruit.

The Dragon’s Eye Fruit, is a true lychee but contains a much larger black seed  and has the smooth white surface and disconcerting consistency of an eyeball.

The Rambutan is a hairy lychee.  “Rambut” means “whiskery hairs”.

The Sapodilla is one that I really like.  It’s a brown fruit that tastes like toffee, like a pear flavoured with maple syrup. 

The Snake Fruit looks interesting.  It’s shaped a little bit like an inverted comma or the head of a cobra.  The brown spotted skin also resembles that of a snake. The flesh is milky and sour. 

Then of course there are the sweetest mangos and papayas, (though the Cambodians also like to eat them unripe in strips as a vegetable) and pineapples.  The seeds of the pineapple are arranged in a spiral.  Cut them out in a shallow wedge with a sharp knife for a perfect presentation.

And did you know that the cashew nut nestles into the base of the green cashew apple, which tastes sweet not unlike an apple.

From a distance, it looked like a rotten stick, covered in white lichen, such as you might see in Derbyshire, but no!   The lichen was moving.  I looked more closely.  The stick was covered with   hundreds of bright white insects,  each one decorated with appendages resembling flower parts, tiny stamens,  bifurcate stamens, delicate microscopic petals.  A wonderful mimicry, but where were the flowers?  There were none, just a stick covered in insects.  And what kind of insects were they?   I later found out they were the larvae of leafhoppers, the same miniature bugs that hide themselves in blobs of cuckoo spit by secreting foam from their anus.   

A magnificent butterfly, I thought,  so eye-catching in its dress uniform of red and black with white flashes, but it’s forewings were long, black and lacy and used for propulsion; only the hind wings were designed for display, like banners or the logo on tail of an airliner with its fuselage  painted the brightest red.   No butterfly this, but a magnificent lacewing, some two inches from wingtip to wingtip.   It flew in figures of eight but always returned to dip its abdomen in the same patch of wet sand and deposit a few more eggs.    

They call them inch worms, but they don’t slither along like most worms, they grab with their mouth parts then bring their nether regions up, folding their body like a paper clip before stretching forward again.  Not that they move very much; they lie in wait in the damp shade under leaves  for months and then drop off and attack themselves to any large mammal (like us), who comes past and brushes against the vegetation.  They are so sticky, wipe them off with your hand and, like burrs, they stick to your fingers.  But most of the time, you don’t know they’re there unless you knock  them and they burst in a pool of blood.  Leeches secrete an anaesthetic and an anticoagulant.  They inch their way into your clothing and secretly latch on to a tender area of naked skin and only detach when they are full and distended, whereupon they seek moisture and shade for their long digestion.

 

Caught in the sudden stare of the cat,

it clung, sticky fingered,

to an impossible beam

under a palm leaf thatch. 

and in freeze frame mime,

advanced along a leftwards flank,  

then turned, paused, and

Ignoring the claws,

sprung,

seized,  

crunched,

 grinned

and milked the applause .

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