MIssion Completed

We are sitting on our veranda drinking the last of what have been our ritualistic morning coffees. Vietnamese coffee is served iced or hot, with a healthy heaping potion of condensed milk. It is sweet, has a serious chocolate presence and is the best way to start and/or end the day. It is also served with a side order of tea, which has allowed the Vietnamese to eschew the ever troubling intellectual puzzle, coffee or tea? They do both. The coffee is served in a glass just slightly larger than a shot glass. The drink is stratified, with the condensed milk occupying the bottom third. The glass is immersed in a white porcelain bowl filled with water and acts as a heating supplement to keep the drink hot. A couple of vigourous stirs with the small accompanying spoon and voila, a velvety caramel coloured concoction that represents the best twenty-eight cents you’ll ever spent (tax & tip included).
As we await the arrival of our tour guide and driver who will be escorting us down the Mekong River later in the day, I pause to reflect on the goodwill portion of our trip. Again, as was the case with India last year, ostensibly, we undertook this mission to help others. The actual result is that we help ourselves. The gratification that comes from participating in an activity that will improve the lot of another is immensely gratifying. ‘Making a difference’ is a hackneyed and trite cliché, but it possesses a deep underlying truth. Lori and I are as much the beneficiaries as the donors.
Most of the volunteers who do the types of global work that we hope to continue to accomplish for years do not come from the same privileged background as us. Being able to go out for dinner and treat the staff to a great meal and a few beers for next to zero dollars is another way that we are able to lend a hand. In a more concrete sense of involvement, our host organization, Wildlife At Risk, offers the opportunity to become a lifelong sponsor for any animal currently under its protection. Adopting the animal requires a one time fee and results in a plaque with a picture of the animal, the name that you’ve chosen for it as well as the name of the sponsor being placed on its cage. With Lori’s birthday a few days away, it seemed like a logical gift. Particularly since there is a rare and endangered species here – a tiny, tawny, vegetarian furball with huge saucer eyes that offers up the cutest most disarming look. The species is called the Loris. I kid you not. This particular genus is the smallest of the family and is known as the Pygmy Loris. My Lori is now the proud benefactor of two Loris’. One is now named Lorilei,  the other, a one year old, is called Antrev, after the boys. The elder one is destined to live out its days on the reserve; the younger one, if all goes according to plan, will be released in a year or so. Mr. Lam, the director of WAR suggested that spending the money on an animal that will ultimately be released into the wild may not be cost efficient. Lori, to her credit, argued that the raison d’etre of the shelter is to return animals back to its habitat and that she would be happiest being associated with an animal that regained it’s full circle of life. Hacunah Mitada. I agreed with her in principal but still tried, to no avail, to bargain down the price on the temp Loris.
A few reflections on the people with whom we’d had the pleasure of working with over the past 2 weeks. The crew are dedicated, meticulous, hard working and are a bunch of pranksters as they warm up and get to know you. Little things – like threatening to lock you in the bear cages as they are about to open the trapdoors allowing the killer beasts back in. Their proficiency in English varied considerably and it seemed that each time we were introduced to a new member of the team, his use and knowledge of English was greater than any of his predecessors. The result was that the door swung open wider with each subsequent introduction. The ability to verbalize allowed the workers to increase our level of activity by offering enhanced explanations of both the task and what was expected of us. It also allowed us to satisfy our curiosity as to the origins of several animals, their history and their future.
The last individual who we caught up with was the most proficient and most interesting. Probably one of the more interesting people we’d ever met. His name was Thai;
 it should have been Viet, but that’s another story. Thai was the WAR’s vet. Vetranaryism was his third profession. We spent significant amounts of time talking together. He was fascinating. His original training was in accounting. He landed a job working the numbers in a furniture factory and was exposed to English and got to travel to Europe and Australia. He ultimately left the company and, with another former employee, went out on their own starting up their own furniture manufacturing compay. The business grew very quickly and Thai decided to follow his true passion. He sold off the company, keeping a few shares to ensure future income and went to vet school. His friends and family thought he was crazy, but Thai possesses a vigourous zest for life and does things his way. In addition to obtaining his degree in Veterinary Science, he also built a farm for himself out in the country and has a dozen or so beef cattle and his dogs on it. He travels, runs his farm, and is an integral part of the Wildlife At Risk organization. Like all other workers there, he does not cling to position or stand on ceremony. Nothing is considered too menial; if leaves need raking, he rakes, if animals need feeding, he feeds, if cages need cleaning, he cleans. He also has great hair. I don’t know what kind of product he uses, but its always light and fluffy and with a slightly off centre part that has a playful little flip. While all of the other staff wears plastic or rubber sandals, Thai is always visible from far since he sports pink Crocs. He loves to party and dance, favourite drink – tequila, favourite singer – Madonna, taught ballroom dancing during his gap year. We were out for dinner as a group a few nights ago. I was aware of the marital status of most of the team. Some were recently hitched, other had girlfriends, etc. When we had some quiet time together, I had to broach the subject and mentioned to him that he seemed to be such an accomplished person that I hoped he had someone special to share his experiences with. He didn’t say “So, you know”; it was a bit more subtle than that, but he was happy that I brought it up and was more than pleased to let me know that he’s been in a relationship for 17 years with this guy and that they were very happy together. I was very pleased to hear this since I was unaware of the particular mores of Vietnamese society, and while I still don’t know the specifics, I’m so happy that his life is complete.
With New Years around the corner and our impending departure looming, we took the opportunity to invite the gang out to dinner. While most of the local restaurants are small walk-in 4 table affairs, Mr. Lam and the guys took Lori and me on the backs of their motor bikes to a remotely located place that was situated off several dirt roads and perched on the bank of a river. In fact, our table was situated on a platform built on top of pilings right in the river. 

We ate and drank and drank and ate. The beer here is pretty good although its served at room temp with large blocks of ice dropped into mugs. The Asians here also get off on the macho drinking games, ‘inviting’ or more accurately challenging each other to down a full mug at a single draught.
Lori and I played along but did not get too deeply sucked into the program. Their drinking methodology consists of “1, 2, 3, cheers!, or as they say here” mot, hai, ba, yo!” Good clean fun mostly and when you consider that $40 covered the 6 meals plus a serious amount of quaffed beer, it’s something, in fact, to yo 


As mentioned, Lori and I had often dined alone at the end of each work day, venturing out to a nearby eating establishment, I’ve learned that ‘ca’ means fish, I also carry an “I’m allergic to fish’ paper in my wallet which I pull out and show to the proprietor as we go in. I feel a bit like one of those pen selling deaf mutes who hover annoyingly over you and thrust a sheet of paper indicating their handicap as you try to ignore them while having a conversation with someone else. Nonetheless, I still relate to Robert de Niro’s character in The Deerhunter in which, at the behest of the Viet Cong commandant who bets with his two cronies on the upcoming result, engages in Russian Roulette with two other US POW’s. Instead of a revolver, I use a menu. We had determined that nuong meant grilled and the local resto knew that (fish) wasn’t a good choice for us. So, one evening we pointed to ‘thuot’ and took a shot. A little grilled creature was served to us. Split down the middle with the liver presented on top. The liver was a bit smaller than a grilled chicken liver and just as tasty. Lori and I finished up and back in the room, congratulating ourselves on our adventurous dining exploits. We looked up the word in my newly downloaded App – an English-Vietnamese dictionary. There are many words with the same spelling, the differential being the various tones and accents.  I confided to her that my thoughts were that we’d just eaten guinea pig. There were other somewhat less appealing translations associated with thuot and I chose to ignore them. However, speaking with our guide today, apparently thuot that we ate translates to ‘rat’. Not the bubonic plague variety. The rats which are captured for food dine only on rice. Apparently, they are quite discriminating and only choose the most select morsels of the farmer’s rice, leaving the daily rice to one side, feasting only on the long grain highly marketable stuff. The rat situation had become so serious that the farmers were pressed into an unusual form of pest control. They have imported cobras and released them in the fields to dispatch the rats. Now they seem to have a cobra problem. 
Which brings us to tonight’s menu. Remember our guide from the other day Quon, or lake or kingdom or trousers? Well, he picked us up this morning and drove us down to an incredible spot. We are staying overnight in a beautiful guest house on an island in the middle of the Mekong River.

Bonsai plants abound, the canals lap at our doorstep. Fruit such as rambutan, longan, and milk apples grow in abundance. Quon is a wonderful, artistic and sensitive person,
a fine human being and a great chef to boot. He is a very welcomed guide here at the guest house and is given free run of the kitchen. An 8 course meal was prepared for the 9 or 10 of us who are sharing rooms in this very comfortable abode.  
Well, 8 courses are apparently not enough for Quon. As we switched from car to boat prior to the final leg through the Mekong backwaters, he disappeared into the market and surfaced ten minutes later with a wiggling bag. Two live cobras were soon going to be dinner for the three of us. We learned about the fine art of the proper way to kill them (throw them in boiling water and after they are dead, cut off the heads which are burned and buried lest no highly poisonous venom is accidentally left lying around).
Preparing them is an art in itself. Once lightly boiled, they must be descaled. Then they are split open and the offal is removed (some eat, we chose not to), then the spinal column is carefully cut away. The remaining meat, the small ribs, and the skin are then finely chopped into kind of a mush and the stuff is mixed with MSG, salt, lemon grass, garlic and chilies and stir fried. The resulting taste and texture is akin the ground meat that is used to stuff tacos. The meal required serious preparation and was absolutely scrumptious. Intellectually, the hardest part was realizing that yesterday we were doing all we can to save snakes, today we are eating them. They were certainly not on the endangered species list, but with a chef like Quon they may be soon.

  • MIchael Eskenazi
    Posted at 01:18h, 03 January Reply

    Seeing you with the snake around you and reading your story about Thai brings a close association with your autobiographical movie. Curiouser and curiouser.
    Mmmm. Rat and snake. Quel délice! I hope you'll have an opportunity to try the two together, perhaps after the rat is only partially digested!

  • stevo_
    Posted at 18:59h, 03 January Reply

    Exactly how much is it gonna cost me to name one of the monkees…….and do they send anonymous gift cards to the nominees?

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