The fields stretch out across the horizon. An attenuated, high altitude light falls on the dark volcanic soils. The rusted hulks of dead war machines litter the roads. A shepherd boy smacks a goat into line, driving them all back into line. Baboons scamper across the highway. The main north-south artery between Addis Ababa and Axum is a dirt road. It is a more fecund land than I ever expected. But who could blame me for thinking otherwise? After all, in the 1980s Ethiopia was a famine crippled land.
But it is a fragile fecundity, dependent as much on the counter-Monsoon as India is. A full 60% of the water volume that flows into the Nile drains out of Ethiopia, as well. Significant portions of Ethiopia are very arid. The area north of Gonder on the road to Axum is semi-arid, but by the time I arrived in Axum it was all dust and sand with only a little, very sparse vegetation. Most of the Tigray region is like this, as well. The Awash Basin, a newly formed mass (new in geological terms) of sand, sulfur and dust, is being shorn from Africa to the East as the Red Sea and Arabia pull it away from the continent. And to the South of Addis? Well, I don’t know what the farm land is like there. I didn’t see it. Ethiopia is also densely populated. At least in Amharaland–that area in the center of the country which is dominated by the Amharan-speakers. It’s a land of small farms, lots of people and extreme poverty, as they eke out a meager existence farming tef, a crop grown only in Ethiopia used to make injera, that nasty, slightly sour and spongy bread the Ethiopians so love.
And now, into this mix of dire poverty and overpopulation comes the mega-farm. Ethiopia is now selling leasing it’s most precious resource: it’s land. And some people think this is just peachy:
many experts are cautiously hopeful, saying that big agribusiness could feed millions by industrializing agriculture in countries such as Ethiopia, where about 80 percent of its 75 million people are farmers who plow their fields with oxen.
In this age where the US has become a net food importer anyone who believes that industrial agri-business is a good thing needs to have a long talk with Don Henry Ford, Jr. Industrial food production does increase yields, but at the cost of food quality and a serious decrease in the redundancy of food distribution. In a country like Ethiopia, which has suffered famine in the past, a lack of redundancy in distribution can be cataclysmic.
If this trend continues in Ethiopia the following will happen: many, many farmers will be driven off their land. After that they will swarm the cities. And when the crops fail, due to a poor Monsoon, one of two things will happen: the big agri-farms will suck as much water out of the lakes and the Nile drainage in Ethiopia and the Sudan and Egypt will suffer. Or, there will be famine in Ethiopia. Or both.
I was on a mission yesterday when I walked down to the Radisson SAS Hotel for breakfast. (A meal there is probably as much as my hotel was, near the train station. Bucharest photos can be found here, by the way.)
“What would you like for breakfast, sir?” The waiter asked me.
“Two scrambled eggs, toast and eight strips of bacon,” I said.
“Excuse me? Eight slices?” He asked.
“Yes, eight,” I said. “If you have a whole pig back there I’ll take it, actually!” I smiled.
He frowned, a puzzled look coming over his dark Gypsy eyes.
“Listen,” I said. “I’ve been traveling in Muslim countries for almost six months and I want pork!”
“Okay,” he said, taking a step back from the strange American.
“You have bacon, yes?”
“Of course,” he said.
“Well, hop to it!” I grinned. “I’ve got a fierce hankering for lots of crispy bacon. A rasher, if you will. A slab of ham. Porks chops. Hell, bring me a plate of swine flu if you have to.”
“It’s too early for pork chops, sir, the kitchen cooks only breakfast until eleven am. But I can ask,” he said.
“It’s a joke,” I said, smiling at him. “But please, bring me lots of bacon.”
“Certainly sir,” he said, rushing off to the kitchen.
Ten long minutes later he arrived, set a plate towering with glistening, pig fat laden crispy bacon. There must have been twenty slices.
He smiled and said, “bacon’s on the house sir. Enjoy.”
I ate every last piece. Each crunchy morsel followed by a delectable sip of Illy coffee. As I finished the last strip I thought of my old friend Carolina–a Mexican woman originally from Oaxaca–back in San Antonio. We used to have breakfast once a month to catch up on family and friends at a local greasy spoon.
“Juan Pablo,” she would say every time we met, “I only order tocino (bacon) here. Tocino es mi perdido.”
The people, as I have mentioned before, are far less aggressive than I was led to believe. I haven’t seen a Seven-Eleven, McDonald’s or any other multi-national in Vietnam yet, except for one KFC.
The Vietnamese are a proud and fiercely independent people. They don’t like the Chinese at all and unlike many places in South-East Asia there are zero overseas Chinese here. Plus, their language is, so far as I can tell, devoid of any Mandarin influence. I’ve a damn good ear for cognates and loan words and I’ve not heard many at all. I also flipped through a grammar-cum-dictionary and found little of Chinese influence there either. (Although there is a passing resemblance in some of the structure and tonality with Cantonese, but Cantonese is so different from mainstream Mandarin that I hardly consider them in the same language family. Yes, you linguistics folks out there can slam me all you want, I am an amateur, I confess.) As a side note, I’ve found the tones here in Vietnam much easier to speak than those of Mandarin. As there are six in Vietnamese I find this odd. But they are easier to say than the four ‘ma’s’ of Mandarin. Go figure.
Vietnamese numbers (mot, hai, ba, bon, nam, sau, bay, tam, chin, muoi) unlike those of Japan and Korea, bear little resemblance to Mandarin either. Mandarin-putonghua from one to ten: yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi. Korea from one to ten: il, i, sam, sa, oh, yuk, chil, pal, ku, ship. See the resemblance? If not, eat me! (The Koreans also have a second set of native numbers, but they are less used and infrequent; the Sino-based numbers being much, much more common, especially in commerce. You’d never hear a merchant using native Korean numbers in price negotiations.)
But the language, like all in the region, with the possible exception of Bahasa Malayu, is tonal. And it does seem to bear a passing resemblance to the levels of politeness and formality with slight leanings in a masculine or feminine direction, exceptions that are found in Royal Thai, and Isaan, also known as Lao. Like most East Asian languages there are no plurals (now you know why your waitress at your local Sichuan Diner says such outlandish things: it’s called Engrish.), no tenses (Korean, however, has simple past, present and future), and all questions are answered in the affirmative. For example: “this rice doesn’t have peas in it?” The answer is invariably, “yes.” Contrary to what most people believe, this isn’t about a supra-Asian distaste for saying, “no” and thus saving “face.” It’s actually a quite logically answer to the question, as opposed to how we answer in the West. “This rice doesn’t have peas in it?” The answer is, “no.” How does that make sense? Although it leads to lots of frustrations when ordering food at a Chinese takeout joint back home! Call me a wanna-be anthropologist, as I can now count in Vietnamese, ask for the check, ‘dun ting’; say OMG, ‘cho yoh’; ask for the salt ‘muiou’ like the Spanish muy, with a slight rise in tone; say excellent, ‘huan hao’; and say hello, ‘xin jao.’ Hell, I’m going native aren’t I?
But enough about the nerdy shit, right?
One wonderful thing about traveling in Asia and Europe is the quality and tastiness of the vegetables (my recent stomach episode notwithstanding). Unlike our industrial corn-based food chain in America everything here is organic in the truest sense of the word. All is small farm grown. The tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes, as opposed to cardboard boxes as they do back home. Just the other day I saw carrots so huge, orange and fat that would make an American carrot farmer blush and would give massive wood to Bugs Bunny. I love markets here in Asia, especially the meat and seafood markets. Here you can pick the live animal you want to eat. It’s butchered right before your eyes. You pick the choice cuts, and in seeing the animal die before you, you are brought into communion with its sacrifice. This is right and good, in my opinion. We are too detached from our food in America and it shows.
Fish of all kinds, squirming black eels, darting elegantly painted tiger shrimp, oysters, crabs, lambs, chickens and other meats are all there for the picking. (They don’t eat dogs or cats here in Vietnam as they do in China and Korea.) Everyone, for the most part, is healthy. Everyone works. I’ve seen men with one arm, or a leg missing, working in the food markets, or at kiosks. I’ve seen even fewer beggars here in Vietnam than in Thailand and Laos. It’s all a part of the communal Vietnamese need to ‘get ahead.’ It’s a national obsession. They also happen to be excellent hagglers–giving way only at the end and then only a very little, just to close the deal.
There are a lot of hawkers, however. Oftentimes in other countries I’ve pretended not to speak English when approached by them. I’ll fall back on my Russian and it usually works. But in Da Nang I was approached by one hawker and when I shot back something in Russia he let loose one of the foulest barrages of ‘Mat’ I’ve ever experienced. He said things that would’ve embarrassed my ex-wife, and a sailor’s mouth that one had! I slunk away in shame, not daring to let him in on my duplicity.
So far it is safe to say I like Vietnam much more than any other South-East Asian country I’ve been in yet. There is an energy and purposeful chaos here that I much prefer over the smiles of Thailand and the laziness of Laos. Did I mention the women were gorgeous? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Well, let me tell you: they look good.
Malaysia, at least what I saw of it, was nice, but not overly impressive. But I will be back there at some point (maybe even visit Sarawak) so the jury is still out. And Singapore? Ahh, my Singapore. Wonderful. Clean. Orderly. Modern. Antiseptic. All good and wonderful and there will always be a special place in my heart for that lovely gem of sanity on the Straits, but give me crowds and chaos, curious stares and a little filth over order and fixed prices any day. It’s too easy to live outside the moment otherwise.