Wednesday, August 2, 2017

August 1 – Weasel Poo Coffee

We woke up to a horrible noise. Our balcony backed onto a smaller road and directly across from us was a daycare facility. I could tell because it had stuffed animals and cartoon characters painted on the sides. At approximately 6:15 am the gates of the daycare flung open and they began broadcasting dreadful, whiny, high-pitched, suicidal sounds at high volume, shattering the tranquility of the neighbourhood. When I first heard it, I thought it was the Viet Cong torturing some leftover American POW’s, but on reflection, even that seemed too cruel. And then I realized it was some sort of Vietnamese kids music, sung by tone-deaf children, who were surely being forced to do it against their will. Ok, I will admit, I am not a great fan of kid music at the best of times. In fact it is the only, and I mean only, music in the Olson household that is banned, except for that one Raffi greatest hits album I downloaded to show the kids the “Ten Green and Specked Frogs” song that their uncle Marty and I get to singing sometimes when we are drunk. But it has only been played once.

For our final day in Dalat we decided to do a guided tourist trip into the countryside. We were picked up at 8:00 am and dropped into a 17 passenger van with only a few other tourists, a driver, and a Vietnamese guide who spoke English quickly and confidently, but we still could hardly understand a word he was saying. The biggest problem with many of the guides we’ve met is that they don’t tend to pronounce the latter half of any of their words, making it extremely difficult to understand, even after giving your ear some time to try and tune into their accent. But strangely, they don’t seem to pick up that nobody is understanding what they are saying, and they don’t often ask, “Do you understand?”. It’s very odd, because I get the feeling they do know English quite well, but are just speaking much too quickly.

Our first stop was at a complex of flower greenhouses, most of which looked ill-maintained and dirty. The guide let us wander around in a red rose greenhouse for a while, and all the girls were given roses – Stella was very impressed by this. The guide told us this long, convoluted story about how he had encouraged some Kiwi guy to buy land and build greenhouses, which he did, and was now raking in the money hand over fist. Somehow, I had my doubts.

We then drove for quite some time, descending lower and lower via the mountain switchbacks, and as our elevation dropped I could feel the heat beginning to rise. We noticed vast fields of coffee bushes on the roadsides and down below in the valleys and soon arrived at a coffee farm. But not just an ordinary coffee farm – this one was a weasel coffee farm.

The guide walked us out into the field and showed us the two varieties of coffee they grew – Arabica and Robusta and explained how wild weasels like to climb the bushes and nibble on the ripest coffee beans. But their little digestive systems could only handle the juicy and soft outer skins, leaving the actual coffee beans undigested and expelled through their buts as coffee turds. Well, some enterprising coffee farmers learned that they could pick the beans out of the excrement, wash it, roast it, and sell it to idiotic, wealthy foreigners for ridiculous sums of money, claiming the weasel’s saliva, digestive juices, and natural anal hot press morphed the regular coffee beans into super coffee beans, adding flavor, but more importantly, a well-deserved feeling of social snobbery for the drinker. The guide then took us to the main tourist centre where we saw the caged up weasels and bowls of bean poo showing the various stages: coffee berries, raw poo/bean mixture, separated beans, cleaned and husked beans, roasted beans, and finally the actual ground weasel poo coffee.

Magnus was just dying to try some coffee so we went up to the tasting area (which overlooked the gorgeous valley, full of rows of coffee bushes) and ordered a cup for us to share. Ana at first refused to try it, claiming one of her rules in life is to never eat food that comes out of a butthole. I don’t subscribe to this belief, so I had a nice big sip and it tasted like super strong, mediocre coffee. Magnus was next, but he sugared and milked it up first, and his sip elicited an icky grimace. We all taunted Ana until she relented and had a sip, and she pronounced it horrible. Stella lifted the cup to her lips, but it was just for a photo op and to have something to post to Instragram where she could mention “weasel poo”. One of the tourists on the bus told us she was totally addicted to coffee and had bought seven kilos of weasel coffee in Hanoi, so at around $300/kilo, it put a sizeable dent in her travel budget.

Our next stop was at the Lin An pagoda and, even though we have seen plenty of temples on this trip, this one was particularly impressive. Outside were many large wooden carvings, manicured gardens, and many natural trees and bushes being swarmed by dragonflies, butterflies and hummingbirds. Inside the relatively simple structure were three giant Buddhas, flanked on either side by two intricately carved, multi armed statues. There was also a monk inside the pagoda, chanting and periodically smashing a suspended log into a giant gong, producing a low frequency noise that rumbled the building.

Beside the pagoda complex was the Elephant Waterfall and the guide told us to go ahead and explore it on our own. There were quite a number of tourist groups there, and the descent to the waterfall was bordering on treacherous – narrow and steep paths, slippery rocks, shaky (or no) handrails, and a final spot where you had to leap from one slippery rock structure to another to get to where you could see the actual waterfall. Ana and Stella skipped the final part, but Magnus and I scrambled over and took a few photographs of the waterfall, which was quite impressive. I even took a few selfies, but Ana says they are terrible because I don’t smile and just look mean. I must practice more.

We climbed our way back out, and near the top we saw a small group of Vietnamese people heading down, and one of them was wearing some sort of wedding dress and had her friend directly behind her, carrying the train. That was a disaster waiting to happen.

Next up was the silk worm farm. Yes, we had already seen one in Siem Reap, Cambodia, but this one was quite different. First, the cocoons were completely white (as opposed to yellow) and the guide told us the worms were fed strawberry leaves instead of mulberry. Next, the process for unwinding the thread from the cocoon was much more automated; there was a huge, long machine with dozens of spinning thread collectors pulling threads from a long trough of hot water where the cocoons floated. I used my fancy new credit card knife to slice the top off one of the cocoons and I gave it to Magnus, who discovered the grub inside that he dumped out into his palm was alive and well – at least until he dropped in on the floor and one of the workers accidentally stepped on it.

Our last stop for the morning was to a real all-rounder. It was a non-descript house in one of the villages and a real testament to economic diversification. At the front was a small restaurant, with a few people sitting around drinking coffee and eating. The guide showed us through the back door, and the first enclosure we saw was the rice wine making room, which had a boiler and many vats of fermenting rice. He gave us a sample shot, which I drank, but not before each of the kids dipped their finger and to have a taste. They didn’t care for it. Behind the distillery was an enclosure with a few crocodiles, used for meat and leather. Behind this were two cages with deer, and the male had his antlers sawed off. The guide explained that the antlers were removed and sold to be used as medicinal ingredients.

Next up was the bug room. Yes, a series of shallow brick tubs swarming with crickets and a few scorpions, all sold for snack food. In the same room were many cages containing other animals – guinea pigs (to be eaten), porcupines (to be eaten) and weasels (to be eaten, or perhaps sold to the coffee farm). The guide told us the Vietnamese will eat literally anything that moves.

He then led us back to the restaurant where a table had been set up for our group. On it was a tray of fried crickets, a bowl of chili dipping sauce, and a row of shot glasses and flask of rice wine. Magnus, Stella, and I gobbled up a few crickets (they were actually much more delicious with the chili sauce) and I alone pounded a couple of shots of rice wine. An excellent late morning snack.

The guide announced we were going to head back into Dalat for lunch, so we retraced our route back into town, arriving there just after 12:30. We were told that the plan for the afternoon was to visit the Crazy House, so we decided to part ways at that point, a decision supported by the grim nature of the touristy King’s BBQ restaurant that we had been dropped at.

We started wandering around, trying to get our bearings, and at one point when Ana and the kids were asking a taxi driver for directions, I had a moment of reflection. I was standing on a street corner, wearing comfy shorts, t-shirt, flip-flops and a small backpack, looking around at all the people and shops and Vietnamese signs I couldn’t read, feeling the warm sun on my skin, feeling safe, but yet didn’t have a clue where I was, and I couldn’t even remember what day it was. It was at that point I realized we are in the midst of something much larger than a vacation. A vacation is a break from work. What we are doing is a break from life. Or at least a break from how our life currently is. So many people have asked me how we can possibly do these extended trips. My answer is, how can you possibly not do them? It is such a big world out there. By not seeing it you are robbing yourself of so much learning, so much adventure, so many new friendships, and so many life changing opportunities. It is a huge gift to ourselves, and one we are thankful for.

After walking for a bit, we soon recognized the big market from the day before, so we made our way back to the street with all the restaurants we found the previous evening. The weather was absolutely perfect – sunny and probably about 23 degrees, so the walk was an enjoyable affair, as opposed to the sea elevation walks which are basically an exercise in lurching from shade patch to shade patch. We checked a few menus and decided on the Goc Ha Thanh restaurant, where we had an amazing three course set lunch menu for five bucks each…and that included a beer! What the hell are we going to do when we arrive back home and get smoked with a $60 lunch tab for burgers and fries? I’m thinking the answer may be to learn how to cook Asian food and eat lunch exclusively at home.
I had previously told Magnus I’d give him my credit card knife when we got home, but after finding the need to use it at least four times in the past 24 hours I told him to forget it and buy his own. He and Ana set off to the market while Stella and I went for a beer at the agreed upon rendezvous point. Stella and I had a great chat and talked about all sorts of things. I can imagine us doing exactly the same thing again in about ten years, when she is 21, and that is going to be just as cool, and she will be able to order her own beer instead of taking sips out of mine.

Ana and Magnus returned, and he had bought this playing card mat he has been looking around for so was very excited. Since it was only about 3 pm, we decided to continue exploring the town, so we strolled down to the big Xuan Huong lake and started walking around it. The lake was nice, and currently populated with dozens of swan shaped paddleboats, part of the elemental kitsch of Dalat. We walked, and walked and walked and it dawned upon us that this lake was a lot larger than we had anticipated (I learned later it was 7 kilometres around), but since we had absolutely nothing else to be doing, it was a perfect activity. Along the lake we saw families and young couples out for a walk. We saw fishermen digging up grubs in the grass, skewering them on hooks, and tossing them out on bobbers into the lake. We saw horses and even horse-drawn carriages (again, the Dalat kitsch) for rent. We met and were passed by many runners, all looking very fit.

And then it happened. Ana said, “What’s that on your shoe?”

“Huh?” I said as I looked back and then looked down at my shoe. “Looks fine to me.”

“Wait. Lift it up.”

So I lifted up my shoe and pretended not to see that the damn heel was starting to separate from the sandal fabric.

“OH MY GOD!” she spouted.

“Looks good to me.”

“You have to get new shoes.”

“Aaaaaahhgg! I am not getting new shoes! These are fine. I have duct tape. Magnus will help me”

I looked over to Magnus who was smiling and nodding and said, “No problem Dad. We’ll fix those shoes.”

I had this familiar and horrible vision of Ana dragging me through a hot, sweaty market making me try on shoes, none of which fit, and none of which would fit. It was terrifying. So I had to stop it right there. I gave Magnus the nod and we picked up the pace, putting several valuable metres between us and the girls, out of earshot. The best approach in these sorts of situations is to ignore the problem, change the subject, and get the duct tape ready just in case.

We finally rounded the end of the lake and continued on until we found this huge orange structure rising out of an enormous raised concrete structure with steps leading up to it on all sides. Beside the orange globe was a smaller green one, shaped like a Christmas tree lightbulb. We had no clue what they were so went in for a closer look. As we approached, Magnus spotted a sign that included the word “Cine” so announced to the group that it must be a movie theater, which was met with great enthusiasm. We walked right up to the orange globe, but couldn’t find an entrance, so we walked over to the green structure and discovered it was a restaurant, but still couldn’t find any theatre entrance. There were local people everywhere, some having picnics on the concrete steps, some skateboarding, and others had small charcoal grills set up with tiny chairs where you could sit down and enjoy a hot, rice paper seafood burrito. Confounded, we descended the stairs and finally found an entrance, so we walked in and discovered that buried in the concrete bunker was not only a six screen movie theater, but also a full subterranean shopping mall! It was very strange, but yet what a fantastic idea – burying your ugly shopping mall in the ground and leaving the “roof” as a massive and attractive public space.

We bought movie tickets and had an hour to wait so we browsed through the mall and then went back outside to do some people watching and try out one of those fresh rice burritos. It was so simple and yet so delicious. The young girl running the operation was sitting on the ground behind her charcoal grill and pulled out a stiff, round rice paper wrapper which she placed on the grill. Next she put in a spoonful of onions, some kind of red sauce, a scoop of dried shrimp flakes, and cracked an egg and then stirred the mixture around with a spoon as it started to cook. Then, she pulled out a small sausage and sliced it up into the mixture. It cooked for about five minutes and then she folded it into a burrito shape, wrapped it in paper, and handed it over to me in exchange for a buck. Of course, it was delicious. I am going to set one of these up in the park across from my office one day and change the course of history for Brantford, Ontario.

The movie we saw was called Valerian and it was quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the past. If you combine Shark Boy and Lava Girl, Star Wars, and Days of our Lives and then add in some extra luscious, black eyebrows on the female lead, then you have it. We loved it and it was an interesting end to a very full day.

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