20 Years of Democracy in Cambodia

©2013 Jerry Redfern

1998. A man hangs an English-language banner from poles at the Democracy Square protest in Phnom Penh. Thousands of people gathered in front of the National Assembly Building for weeks to protest the outcome of the 1998 national election. The banners were for international observers and news crews, as most Cambodians could not read English.

I’m veering away from food again, to note a quiet anniversary that is slipping past the world, largely unnoticed. Twenty years ago, the international community brought democratic elections to Cambodia under the biggest, boldest peacebuiding mission ever attempted: the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).

As the country braces for its fifth round of national polls in July, what’s become of the UNTAC agenda? Where does democracy stand in Cambodia today? I tried to shed a little light on the issue in my latest story for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab.

In a way, this is a story about food. It’s about land and human rights; the struggle for survival. As the article notes, land disputes are among the country’s most pressing problems and the people’s greatest worry. Land is sustenance, security and hope. It’s access to food and livelihood. “Land is life,” opposition politician Mu Sochua wrote earlier this year.

But I’ll stop there and let you take contemplate these photos, stretching across the years we’ve been watching the country’s democracy. Then, if you want to know more, follow the link to the article and take a look at Jerry’s photo gallery documenting democracy in Cambodia.

All photos by Jerry Redfern.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

2012. Police carry a protester to a waiting police van following her arrest. Buddhist monk Loun Sovath videotapes the proceedings. He was arrested two days later. The woman was one of the “Boeung Kak 13″ women arrested for protesting the loss of their homes to a commercial development by Shukaku Corporation, which has since filled in the lake with sand. Many of the protesters were forced out of their homes along the lakefront by the land developer and the municipal government.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

2003. Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy speaks to a crowd of several thousand supporters from atop a truck at a rally, on the first day of the campaign season preceding the 2003 national election. Sam Rainsy showed up two hours late for the event.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

2013. A young boy eats a snack in a shanty town in what used to be the Borei Keila apartment complex in central Phnom Penh. The government sold the land beneath the apartments to a developer who demolished the buildings with little notice. The company had agreed to build 10 new apartments for the displaced, but it built only eight. Many of the homeless now live in squats on the cleared land.

On Boston and the Eternal Tragedy of Bombs

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SCARS OF BOMBARDMENT: an aerial view of the countryside around Phonsavanh, Laos, showing the ubiquitous bomb craters that remain throughout the province, 40 years after US bombs fell across the country.

This week, our nation grieves for lives lost, bodies broken, futures ripped to bits. We mourn the blood splattered on sidewalks of innocents. It is unconscionable, what happened in Boston. As human beings, we struggle to understand. But there are no answers to our repeat questions: Why? Why then and there, to him and her, in that particular city, at that particular event? How long can we expect this pain to last?

As a country, we will move on, because life does. Time does. But grief never expires, it merely moves to the backdrop of daily routine. The memory remains, and many victims will carry both physical and mental reminders through every passing day.

It’s like war: how do we really know the end of war? How do we know when to stop grieving?

It is sadly ironic that the Boston Marathon bombings occurred this week, of all weeks, as we note another key date in a long line of human tragedies with bombs. By some accounts (no one knows for absolute sure, and I’ll explain), April 17, 2013, marks 40 years since the last American bombs fell on Laos. Forty years since the end of that violent deluge—yet nowhere near the end of grief. For nine years straight, US forces flew, on average, one raid over Laos every 8 minutes. They dropped 2 million tons of bombs. An estimated 30 percent of those bombs didn’t detonate, and they remain in the soil today. Since that time we classify as “the end of war,” more than 20,000 Laotians have been killed or maimed by bombs. For many Laotians, the pain runs as deep right now as in any previous year.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that Jerry and I have a book due for publication this June. Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (ThingsAsian Press, June 13) is the result of our seven-year investigation of Lao life among bombs. We trekked across the countryside, interviewed hundreds of villagers, and recorded their thoughts and hopes and losses.

I was not in Boston this week, and I cannot say what it was like to be there. But I can share a few things I’ve learned in Laos.

Every victim is different, and every case unique. But the psychological damage left in the wake of a bombing sometimes lasts years, even decades. Trauma from the blast, fear of more to come, feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, worry about future work and well-being, and the invisible but real pain of a limb no longer there—these are the scars that far outlast the incident itself.

©2010/Jerry Redfern

Phou Vieng lost his left arm and leg when digging holes for a new house for himself and his new bride in 1998. “I hit something left from the war.” Now he lives in a house on the edge of Phonsavanh and his wife is the family breadwinner.

In the aftermath of bombings, I find the mechanics most difficult to fathom—the mechanics of a device so deliberate in its design, so efficient in its methods, for such monstrous outcomes.

All bombs are ruthless. They obey the laws of science. And bombs like those used in Boston—reportedly packed with bits of metal—are strategically designed to shred human flesh. Whether stuffed into a casing and dropped from an airplane high in the sky, or built with a pressure cooker and planted amid swarms of spectators, that bomb behaves in a predetermined way when it blows.

Tiny bits of metal are shot in all directions, with the straight-forward mission to annihilate. We’re told this type of bomb is a killer device “favored by terrorists from New York to Afghanistan.” But this method of jamming an explosive with bits of metal is also a favorite of militaries throughout many recent wars.

Embedded in that bomb is the same concept used in cluster submunitions, the baseball-sized bomblets that are loaded into casings and dropped from mid-air, little weapons to be scattered across the land. That’s the type of bomb most likely to kill Laotians today—when farmers find them in their fields, or children toss them like toys, or the devices burst into flames as families light their nightly cooking fires on land contaminated with ordnance.

The physical effects of a fragmentation device are gruesome. This Landmine Action report explains the impacts on a human body (taken from a Third World Network emergency medical manual, Save Lives Save Limbs):

“Although the inlet wound looks small, the damage inside can be massive. A stone hitting water makes waves. Our body is 70 per cent water. A fragment sends pressure waves into the tissues. The waves are very fast and hit the tissues like a blow. How the tissues are damaged depends on how elastic they are (how easily they stretch).

The skin is very elastic. It stretches when the fragment passes through then springs back without much damage.

But muscle is not very elastic. The pressure waves tear a wide and ragged wound track through the muscle. Because muscles have a rich blood supply muscle wounds bleed a lot.”

Bone, the report continues, is not at all elastic. It will stop a fragment in its tracks. A pressure wave forms, “like the splash from a flat stone hitting water.” Human tissue suffers the damage of that force, the report states. Imagine trying to heal from that pain, those wounds. And then, imagine the psychology.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Bo Ya, 35, begs for money at the bus stop in the tiny town of Kiukacham. He lost his hands and most of his vision when he picked up some UXO ten years before.

In Boston this week, there were moments of uncertainty and long minutes when no one knew whether more blasts would come. I know a smidgen of that fear, having covered shootings and riots, not knowing for sure when the firestorm would end.

And I have tried to comprehend the weight of such fear when I interview bombing victims in Laos. In decades past, during the height of war, people naturally feared the next day—when more planes would come with more bombs. Today, the fear is underground. It’s in the knowledge that a calm day on the farm could suddenly, abruptly, turn life inside out.

According to the Center for Air Force History’s unclassified report, The War in Northern Laos 1954-1973, the last US bombings occurred this month 40 years ago. And according to Spencer C. Tucker’s authoritative Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (2012 edition), it was on April 17, 1973, that the last Operation Barrel Roll sorties were flown over Laos.

The history is hazy because much of the documentation is. Some sources point to March 29 as the last day of bombings, but the National Archives database contains records of raids and bombings well into April. Not all entries are complete—all of these records, from all the years of warfare throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, were originally filed with punch cards, recorded to tape and subsequently re-recorded to new media. It’s easy to see how clarity was lost. There were years between transcriptions, during which various media degraded. And in some spots, entire months are missing from the records—for unknown reasons. But these archives offer the most of what we can hope to know right now.

I wanted to get a sense of what life might have been like for people living in Laos on April 17, 1973, that supposed “end” of war. And on that day, according to National Archive records, the US Army and Air Force initiated some 60 missions originating at various bases—Nakhon Phanom, Korat, Takhli, Anderson, Udorn, Ubon, Utapau—aimed for Laos. There were F4s, A7s, F111s, EC130s, EB66 Cs, U21s and B52s. Many were reconnaissance missions. Some were aborted. Some were diverted to Cambodia. But three missions originating at Utapau were noted as “heavy bombard.” While there seem to be double entries for those three attacks, the records indicate each plane was loaded with 500-pound MK 82 general-purpose bombs. Their targets were precisely entered into the archive. The planes dumped their loads near a trail snaking along the Nam Ngiap River in Xieng Khouang province.

Interactive Google map

When I look at those coordinates on a satellite map today, I see pinpoints—one near a village called Thaviang, another up the road a bit, and the third in a green mess of forest.

I wonder: what was it like on the ground that day, 40 years ago? It’s unlikely villagers would have heard the B52s that dropped those bombs—they flew too high for detection from the ground. But other flights—for reconnaissance or electronic intelligence gathering—civilians might have seen and heard. And feared.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

A man named Bounkheng, who says he fears the unexploded bombs in his village, points out craters everywhere on a tour through the small town of Boualapha.

That’s another thing I’ve learned from villagers who lived through that time: people feared the planes. They never knew when or whether or where the bombs would fall, but the fear set in when the skies rumbled with engines (and later when the ground shook from unforeseen attacks). That fear, they remember clearly. It would haunt them on April 18 and April 19. It would haunt them months down the road. It would haunt them through decades of accidents that have claimed the lives and limbs of friends and family.

That fear haunts them still.

That is the human toll of terror by bomb. We can count the dead, we can tally the injured. But we can never quantify the scars that remain on land, body and mind. And in that way, a fragmentation bomb is the utmost of insidious weapons.

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A local farmer returns home from washing in a stream near Sophoon. The field behind is where another villager was injured by a bombie when she was digging with her husband.

The Cambodian Worker’s Diet

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Srey Pot Mom and Ben Sarith eat a dinner of steamed rice and beef soup with gourd. The slat table on which they sit serves as dining table, kitchen counter, living room sofa, and bed. Their room, like all of their neighbors’, is just big enough for a person to squeeze between that slat bed and the wall. Most apartments this size sleep 3, 4, even 8 people. Srey Pot Mom and Ben Sarith both have factory jobs during the dry season. When the rains return, they will head home to their countryside farm.

The New York Times has a story this week on Cambodia’s economic uptick as companies—notably, factories—shift business from China to Phnom Penh. The article, I think, leaves the impression that Cambodian wage-earners benefit from that trend. But the piece neglects a key voice that might offer a more nuanced perspective: the voice of the worker.

It’s true: Phnom Penh bustles with business, and the streets clog with trucks escorting workers to and fro, and industrial centers sprout from the former rice paddies that surrounded the city not long ago. Big-name brands and international corporations increasingly claim Cambodia among their places of work. And the minimum wage for factory employees goes up and up (again next month, to $75 plus a $5 health allowance). Good, right?

©2013 Jerry Redfern

One family’s kitchen pantry hangs on the wall: a bag of market food, a small bag of oil, and a cleaver. Eight people live in this room about 12 feet by 16 feet. An ailing mother sleeps on the bed while a relative cooks dinner on the floor beneath it. All the healthy adults in the family work in factories. They came to Phnom Penh from the countryside to pay for their mother’s hospital bills.

But here’s what happens: salaries go up, and so does rent. So does the price of food. When government approves a minimum-wage increase, it’s in the news. Everyone knows. Landlords know, vendors know, drivers know. And the workers pay.

Most factory workers come from the countryside. They are farmers, but few can survive on farming alone these days. So they come to the city in the off-season, hoping for work. Or they come to the city when a kid gets sick or a storm wrecks the roof or they run out of food. And then they search for work—not with hope, but dire need.

Many workers plan to save what they make and send it to relatives back home. Or to pull themselves out of debt. Or to send their kids to school. Or to find a better life. That’s the plan.

But what they say, at home, at night, in the cramped quarters they share in a neighborhood maze with hundreds of other workers, is this: very little goes according to plan. They are happy to have work, but sick in mind and spirit to be working their fannies off all day long, every day, with no spare riel to save.

And when the money runs thin, they eat less. They grow weak, and tired, and they often get sick.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

A woman cooks dinner in the alley behind her apartment. Clothes hang on the wall—the rooms have no space for closets or dressers.

But the cycle continues—it doesn’t pause for the time they need to heal. The workers go to work. They sew buttons on shirts and zippers on pants that get packed into boxes destined for department stores and strip malls in every corner of Europe and America. We all wear the labels, we all shop at the stores. They are everywhere. And the work of these men and women hangs on all of our backs.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

A vendor sells papaya salad to factory workers outside their apartments.

Photos by Jerry Redfern.

Introducing Sabor: The All-New Must-See iPad Food Magazine

©2012 Jerry Redfern

OK, I’m a little biased. I had a hand in the editing. And I’m proud of the results.

It’s been months in the making, a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of tweaking. A few failed attempts, but mostly success. And I give a huge, whopping platter of credit to editor/publisher Fermin Albert, who has done a stunning job under interesting circumstances and a limited budget (just read his editor’s note).

©2012 Jerry Redfern

But wait til you see the lineup of contributors and their menu of offerings! I mean, there are names in this magazine. There is knowledge. There are things you need to know—like food during wartime in Syria—and things you want to know—like the meaning of Rod Stewart’s bottle of Blue Nun. There is Eric C. Rath eating his way through Kyoto, and Merry White drinking coffee across Japan, and Jane and Michael Stern sampling America’s road foods, and Darra Goldstein reminiscing about Russian mushrooms, and Larry Karol remembering his days at Gourmet. Nicholas Coldicott takes us to a Japanese distillery. Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman take us to Turkey’s Central Black Sea Coast in search of anchovies. Nicholas Lander reveals his favorite meals. Frederick Kaufman tells us how grains stopped being food and became commodities.

And there’s more, so so so much more.

©2012 Jerry Redfern

There are photos that slide, and graphics that move, and recipes organized neatly into their own “vault.”

©2012 Jerry Redfern

©2012 Jerry Redfern

There’s an interactive graphic telling you what to do with each and every part of a goose.

©2012 Jerry Redfern

©2012 Jerry Redfern

There’s even a movie.

There is, in this magazine, every element I think publications everywhere could be, should be, using these days. This is what the technology offers, and Fermin Albert has embraced it. Just think: what if your local newspaper (if it still exists) did this? Or your favorite science magazine?

Full disclosure: Jerry and I have a story inside, too. I’ll tell you more about that later. But now, take a spin through Sabor. Watch it, tap it, scroll. Make it move, and see what happens. If you like it… get ready for another edition later this year. And if you don’t like it, please tell us why. Tell us what can be done better the next time. This is a work in progress, and we want to hear from you!

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Travels in Video

Come, join us in our travels across Asia. Now you can hear the sounds and see the sights in motion. After long hours (hat tip to Jerry) and a fair bit of back-and-forth, we’re introducing the book trailer to This Way More Better. See it here.

What a learning curve! We’re still new to this, recording our work in sound and motion. And now that we’ve created this footage, I know what I will do differently next time. Sound is such a tricky thing. It’s hard to get the mood just right. It’s tough to block the wind or exclude that rumbling motorbike from the background. Then again, sometimes that belching moto is exactly the sound you want to include.

Recording sound forces me to think about my writing through other senses. I spent a lot of time talking about this in the nonfiction course I just wrapped up teaching at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop. As a writer, it’s so easy to think in terms of quotes or the things we see. But how often do we incorporate tastes, sounds, smells and textures into our words? How often do we let our senses overlap in our descriptions? One participant in the course struggled with how to describe the smell of coffee. Perhaps the answer lies within its associations, through our other senses—how does coffee sound? How does it feel, hot on the tongue on a cold winter morning? How do we picture the steam rising from a mug? Sometimes a certain thing is best depicted through the world around it. Often, this is the case for food.

I recently read Barb Stuckey’s fascinating book, Taste What You’re Missing. I love the way she explains that single sense through all the others. Take, for example, her entry on “The Sound of Texture.” Studies show that the crunching sound of a potato chip in the mouth influence eaters’ perceptions of how delicious that chip really is. The crunchier the sound, the tastier people believe the chip to be.

In some ways, I understand these distinctions as I go back through the recordings I’ve taken in Asia. The sound of a market (listen to the start of the video), to me, evokes as much imagery as a picture. Just as the sounds of crickets and frogs will put me right back at that pepper plantation where we stayed in a breezy wooden home overlooking Cambodia’s prized spice.

So, welcome to the journey. We hope you’ll have a look and a listen, and enjoy the ride.

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Brunch on a Lao roadside while waiting for a jackknifed truck to be cleared from the scene.

The Next Big Things in Books

I’ve been tagged! Jennifer Margulis, author of the forthcoming book The Business of Baby, invited me to participate in a blog meme highlighting authors and their new and forthcoming work. I don’t do a lot of memes—but I’m delighted to take part in this one. I have to break the rules a bit, though. (More on that in a minute.)

Here’s how it works: I answer 10 questions about my book, This Way More Better, then I tag five other authors whose work I admire.

Here goes:

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1. What is the title of your book?

This Way More Better: Stories and Photos from Asia’s Back Roads

2. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A journalist travels off the beaten path: 11 countries and a dozen years of narrative storytelling about the peoples and places of Asia.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It crosses into a few categories: travel literature, Asia, narrative nonfiction, narrative journalism. And, for food lovers following this blog… there are a fair number of food stories, too!

4. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Jerry (whose photos appear in the book) and I had been living and working in Asia for several years, and I’d accumulated boxes of journal notes stemming from weeks and months of travels all over the map. Much of that writing hadn’t made it into print. This was creative nonfiction—the juicy bits that often don’t fit into journalistic reports. I needed a home for all that material; all those stories-behind-the-stories. While some of the book’s chapters have been published previously in magazines, most have not.

5. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

That’s a tough one to answer because I’ve really been working on it since I first lived in Cambodia in 1998—although I certainly didn’t know it at the time. I wrote this book in fits and starts amid other assignments, fellowships and teaching jobs.

6. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The many, many people Jerry and I met in our travels, particularly those in rural locations far from the hubbub of mainstream life. The more time we spent delving into villagers’ lives, and the more we learned from our experiences with them, the more I knew I had to write this book.

7. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The book will be published by ThingsAsian Press, which is also publishing our next book on June 13 (yep, it’s a busy year!): Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos. Jerry and I have equal part in that book, a journalistic and photographic investigation of unexploded ordnance remaining in Laos since the U.S. bombings 40 years ago.

8. What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?

I don’t really like questions such as this because I hope to have my own style for telling unique stories. BUT I certainly aspire to write as engagingly as other travel-writing greats, such as Paul Theroux.

9. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I couldn’t imagine actors playing the parts of the people I write about—they are characters themselves! And that’s something I would love to see: all of these wonderful personalities playing themselves.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The depth and breadth of stories in this book can help put current events into context. We trek through Burma’s Shan State and talk to dissidents long before the country began to open up. We tour Sri Lanka amid a ceasefire, right before the 2004 tsunamis, which I write about in the aftermath. The book begins with the story of a 10-year-old Hmong girl in northern Vietnam. More than a decade later, we reunite—and we meet a young woman quickly becoming a leader in her culture and community. What has and hasn’t changed in her life says a lot about the social and economic changes sweeping through Vietnam.

*****

OK, now I get to tag other authors. And this is when I start bending rules. When I was tagged for this post, I had several authors in mind. But it turns out not all of them fit the mold of this meme. I know authors who have taken a hiatus from public work and life—to reconnect with their own world. I know others who are not yet allowed to promote their own books, according to their publishing contracts. And then I know authors whose work has already been published—but I want you to know about it anyway.

So here’s what I’m doing. I’m listing several authors I admire—way more than five. Some of these people have been huge supporters in my writing life—and beyond their own work, it’s important to know what good human beings these writers are. All of these folks have books currently out or on the way. They may or may not follow through with this meme. But who cares? They’re doing great things, and the world should know! This, by no means, is a comprehensive list. Just a few people whose work you might like to see. I give you the links, and I leave it to you to discover who they are.

Janet Brown, author of the forthcoming Almost Home.

Dan Fagin, author of the forthcoming Toms River.

Kim Fay, author of The Map of Lost Memories.

Leah McGrath Goodman, author of The Asylum.

Sasha Martin, author of the forthcoming The Spiced Life.

Mike Ormsby, author of Spinner the Winner. (This one’s for your kids.)

Jonny Waldman, author of a forthcoming book about Rust.

Tara Austen Weaver, author of a forthcoming book about her garden—and what a powerful metaphor that place can be.

Florence Williams, author of Breasts.

And beyond all these, I invite you to check out my fellow fellows at the Schuster Institute, which offers up a whole platter of great books and important reporting.

Enjoy!

Hope and Hard Times in Indian Country

©2012 Jerry Redfern

The Blackfeet Reservation, Montana

“Life here is very hand to mouth. Out here, we don’t have the finer things. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. And I’m going to be honest with you, sometimes I don’t eat. I’ve never told anyone this before, not even my mom, but I don’t eat sometimes because I feel bad about making my mom buy food that I know is expensive. And you know what? Life is hard enough for my mom, so I will probably never tell her. My parents have enough to worry about. I do not know what you can do, but try your very best to help us. Please help us. We can do this. Yes we can!” 

The above quote comes from a letter written by a 15-year-old student at South Dakota’s White River High School to S. James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Anaya read this quote last week during a talk at the CU Law School. Most of White River’s students come from the nearby reservation of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Their letters, Anaya said, reflected a combination of hardship and resilience common to the indigenous people of this country.

This all stems from Anaya’s mission to America last year in order to report on the human rights situation of indigenous peoples in the United States. What he found was disturbing evidence of historical wrongdoing that continues to hinder the rights and livelihoods of this country’s native peoples today. He called for reconciliation. He called for American leaders to remedy the past. And he named the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as an important guide.

You can read the full report here. But a few key points to consider:

  • Poverty rates on reservations are nearly double those of the national average
  • Native Americans have lower life expectancies and higher rates of disease, alcoholism and suicide
  • Indigenous peoples face higher rates of incarceration
  • Violent crime rates on reservations exceed those of any other ethnic group and are double the national average
  • Indigenous women are more than twice as likely than other women in the United States to be victims of violence.

This is not “mere happenstance,” Anaya’s report notes. It stems from this country’s history of taking vast tracts of land and resources from the people who used, occupied and honored them. This loss of land has gouged deep holes into the heart of native hunting and fishing traditions. And it’s irreparably altered indigenous diets (something I wrote about here).

Anaya’s report cites particular examples of public policy that can hamper indigenous food security—from subsistence salmon fishing closures on Alaska’s Kuskokwim River, to offshore oil and gas development that threatens Unalakleet seafood, to certain measures of the Marine Life Protection Act that restrict fishing and foraging along the California coast.

Anaya’s talk comes at a pivotal time in my writing, as I’m thinking more about the big, global state of food and how inseparable the overall picture is from issues of conflict, politics and human rights. Analysts talk about boosting agricultural yields to feed a growing global population. But is that enough?

In my mind, no. It’s more complicated than that.

Anaya’s work as special rapporteur underscores that point.

What a Piti

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I’m thinking of piti. I’ve been thinking of piti since the air went cold last week and the temperature slipped to single digits. That’s the sort of weather for piti.

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But that isn’t how I had my first taste of this sheep-and-chickpea stew. It’s a specialty of Sheki, in Azerbaijan’s mountainous north. It’s a rich dish, the sort that keeps a body warm; keeps a person chugging through a long day of physical labor. But that isn’t the sort of day I had when I tried piti. I was in a place called Zagatala, some 50 miles outside of Sheki, on a hot July day when the sun beat my face and drenched me in sweat.

Zagatala is a quiet Caucasus town of roughly 30,000 people. Its terrain faces twin borders. In one direction, the mountains lead to Georgia; in the other, they lead to Russia. If news of Zagatala makes it this far to the States, it’s probably due to earthquakes. The region is prone. Twenty-eight earthquakes hit the area last year, the strongest on May 7.

Two months later, I traveled to Zagatala to lead an entrepreneurial journalism workshop with local reporters. I flew into a land of lush green mountains sprinkled with mist. The air was filled with birdsong and the scent of sweet vegetation. We worked in an old compound with rambling buildings made of stone and brick. A giant mulberry tree outside the office blanketed the ground with its many white berries. Just outside the compound was a yellow bridge over a wide riverbed with swift-flowing water. Mountains rose tall on the horizon.

On the last afternoon, we ended class and boarded a cramped bus to a village in the hills. We climbed the rocky road past stone houses behind stone fences in big verdant yards with chickens and cows. And then we walked higher, to the woods, where a path led down to clean mountain waters tumbling over rock. We spent hours that evening—with summer light shining strong—drinking tea and singing and dancing at an outdoor café in village family’s big backyard.

And the next day, I played tourist (led by a fabulous young woman who volunteered to be my guide). That’s when she took me to eat piti.

Piti

I was told there is protocol in eating piti. The stew is served in little clay jars with chickpeas beneath a rich, oily stock of sheep meat and fat, cooked in the same clay pot. It’s meant to provide two meals: first the broth and fat, into which bread is dipped; then the chickpeas topped with raw onion.

I broke protocol, though, and steered clear of the bread. And that was hard. Oh man oh man oh man, that was hard. It’s not often I miss wheat bread—but in Azerbaijan, where bread is considered the staple of life, I missed it dearly. I ate it once, at a Georgian restaurant in Baku, which was entirely worth the pain I suffered in my gut for the next two days. Bread.

And fat. That’s another key to piti—you can see it in the picture above. Sheep fat. As I mentioned, piti is a dish for the hills, for the cold, for a hard day on the farm.

We quenched our thirst and cooled our tongues on big chilled glasses of ayran, a yogurt drink popular throughout the region, as well as across the Middle East. In its most basic form, it is yogurt and water, blended with a bit of salt. It’s not thick, but delightfully cold and light. Yet one large glass can fill the belly.

yogurt drink

We were, as women, a distinct minority in the restaurant that afternoon. The place, on the edge of the Zagatala bazaar, was hot and noisy, filled mostly with men eating lunch and drinking mid-day drafts.

A few days later, back in Baku, I found a copy of Azerbaijan Cookery (Qismet 2008), which contained two recipes for piti—a plain “pyty” and “pyty a la sheky.” Both recipes require a bit of further exploration (on my part, anyway) and investigation, as I am not well-versed in Azeri cooking. But the recipes are written in that beautiful language of translation, both linguistic and cultural. I have not tried making my own piti. I have no further information than this. But here, in case you are up for an adventure:

Pyty (taken from Azerbaijan Cookery, compiled by M. Humbatov, Qismet Printing & Publishing 2008)

Ingredients are similar to the kjufta-bozbash soup. In the summertime saffron is replaced for fresh tomatoes (50 gr). Take 2-3 pieces of mutton (55-60 gr) per each portion. Soak peas (as noted in kjufta-bozbash recipe: 25 gr) for 4-5 hours. Simmer meat and peas in the pyty-pot. Before 30 minutes the soup is ready add potatoes (150 gr), cut onions, alycha (kind of damson), saffron infusion and bring to the readiness. As a rule the pyty soup is served in the same cooking pot. Use a deep plate or cyasa (bowl). Served peeled onions and sumac powder separately.

Pyty a la Sheky

163 gr mutton, 30 gr peas, 20 gr sheep fat, 18 gr onions, 30 gr chestnuts, 20 gr dried plum berries, 0.1 gr saffron, pepper, salt, sumac. Make as usual pyty but use motton without bones. Chestnuts are boiled in water separately. In autumn 30 gr of quince per a helping are added. Serve peeled onions and sumac powder separately.

piti4

Two further items of note:

1. I just love to say “pyty-pot.” Period.

2. Next month, I plan to return. Not to Zagatala, but to Baku. May the adventures continue (but not the earthquakes)!

Happy New Year!

Seaside drinks KepRS

Sailing Club, Kep, Cambodian coast, 2012.

 

Happy New Year to all! May 2013 bring much peace, good health and happiness (and maybe, if you’re lucky, a couple of those tropical drinks on a breezy coast for a happy-hour view of a monsoon storm rolling in). I’ll be back in a few days… with Rambling Spoon goodies to mark the new year.

Darkness, Light

Green Mt9

It seemed the right thing to do—to climb a mountain today. Alone.

I find my grounding in nature. When I want to make sense of the world, when I want to catch my breath, I head outside. I don’t necessarily find answers, but I find everything. I find a world of extremes—beauty and disaster, darkness and light. The sweat of a climb, the chill of descent.

Green Mt

I left Chautauqua and hiked Green Mountain, over rocky steps with lookouts across the plains.

Green Mt2

The sun never really broke through, but it tried.

Green Mt3

This is not the time of year for bright colors. It’s the time for contrast; for black and white

Green Mt4

and dark green in a forest of muted light.

Green Mt5

The sky—it has its own palette of grays…

Green Mt6

a halo of silvers

Green Mt7

a platinum patina.

Green Mt8

There is beauty in the cold December light.

Green Mt10

There is some kind of majesty in nature’s black and white.

I find it every time I hike high or far; every time I run long miles in my own groove of solitude.

Researchers say we as humans find our happiness in that groove. Our groove. Our zone. Our flow. It’s not money that brings us joy. It’s not stuff. Instead, it’s the sense of something larger in life.

We don’t have to understand everything in this world. We never will. But we can try to grasp its enormity, its boundless beauty, even on the edge of darkness.