Life as a hermit doesn’t lend itself well to blogging. Somehow I feel silly sitting at the computer dressed in a bed sheet with my head wreathed in foliage. That’s part of the reason why I haven’t written an article in nearly a month. But, as my “Drafts” folder insists upon reminding me, I’ve begun writing a few times. One draft, which I last saved on June 7, entitled “A Hermit’s Life Goes on. . .”, is exactly 612 words of utter rubbish. Well, a hermit’s life doesn’t necessarily have to go on. The bed sheet is in the to-do laundry heap, and I removed the foliage from around my head and used it to start the last fire. I’m in Vientiane now, and I’ll be posting two articles, this one, which kind of sums up what’s happened recently, and a more technical one (title pending) which will demonstrate lunacy at its pinnacle. I’ve obviously been alone in the jungle too long.
A couple of weeks ago an English friend of mine, who I’d only just met for the first time after perhaps a year or so of email correspondence, showed me his farm/project on the Plateau. On the way to his land he explained to me how the UXO people, the guys and gals who find, disarm, or destroy the Nixon-Kissinger team’s secret gifts to the people of Laos, were working on a powerful, hotshot Lao guy’s property, giving it such precedence that they were clearing the brush themselves (normally you have to have the land cleared of brush and other obstacles yourself before they will sweep it with their high-tech instruments). He was disgruntled because that meant it would take them longer to get around to clearing the rest of his land (6 out of his 7 hectares are still contaminated). It was about that moment that we pulled up to his pock-marked land. I got out of his pickup and had a better look just as a white UXO Land Cruiser passed by. I looked at his land. I looked at the Land Cruiser disappearing around a corner. I looked back at his land as I slowly, and with some disbelief, asked, “Are those bomb craters?” He probably thought it was a stupid question, because it was. “I’ve got a lot of those around me,” I added, still admiring the landscape. He’d been to my land earlier in the day and confirmed that, saying he saw one on his way in.
This is the one he’d seen, and I’ve seen a hundred times. Why hadn’t I known that I was surrounded by bomb craters? This one shown here is not very picturesque but I could reach it from the doorstep of my hermit house with a pitching wedge even against a strong headwind. There’s another one, even less picturesque, probably only about 30 meters away. I’d use a gentle half-swing with a 7-iron for a hole-in-one. It wasn’t any form of guilty-American denial. I’m a history buff and know quite a bit about what went on here. Perhaps it was because all the crater-like holes down on the second tier of my land were, when I asked about them, dug by Billy to use as fish ponds, but the soil just wouldn’t hold the water. Whenever I looked at the other robust indentations on the surrounding landscape, I always thought, “Jeez, how many ponds do these people have to dig until they realize the soil doesn’t hold water. . .” Perhaps Billy had just expanded on holes that were partially dug by Mr. Nixon.
I suspect the bombs dropped in this area, the western side of the Bolaven Plateau, relatively far from the Ho Chi Minh trail, were dropped after the Bolaven Plateau was “liberated” by the Pathet Lao in, probably, late 1971. But a lot of bombing went on. In fact, The US government delivered $7,000 worth of bombs to every man, woman and child in Laos over a 9-year period (870kg each), all paid for by US taxpayers. An incredible $17 million a day was spent on bombing the country to bits. One quarter of all the money spent on the Vietnam war was used for this purpose (it’s not known how many people were killed, but estimates range between 50,000 and 350,000, 80% of whom were non-combatants). When forced to admit that he was bombing the crap out of a neutral country, Nixon insisted that he was bombing only military targets– I think it’s been well established that Nixon was a brazen liar. In actuality, it was often just a matter of having a lot of planes and bombs and sometimes nowhere else to drop them. Every bureaucrat knows that if you don’t spend all of this year’s budget, it’ll get cut next year. A courageous journalist named Fred Branfman, who risked his life to expose Nixon’s secret wars in Laos and Cambodia, once managed to corner a high-ranking US official back in 1968, pestering him relentlessly until he got a response to his question: “Why is this intensive bombing going on in Northern Laos? It has nothing to do with the war in Indochina, it’s just the destruction of a poor peasant society.” The official lost his temper and replied, “Look, there’s a cessation of bombarding of North Vietnam and we have all these planes, and we don’t know what do with them, so we will bomb Laos.” We know this is true thanks to meticulous record keeping on the part of the US military and Clinton’s declassification of all the military records for the entire Vietnam War in 2000. The bombing got worse from 1968 when the Nixon-Kissinger team were forced to the negotiating table and had to stop bombing North Vietnam.
Incidentally, that’s after Nixon, who would have likely lost the presidential election if the Democrats achieved a peace accord with North Vietnam, using inside information he got from Kissinger, who at that time was involved in the negotiations, secretly sabotaged the talks by directly convincing the president of South Vietnam to not attend. It took another 3 or 4 years to negotiate an accord that got them roughly the same terms as the one he’d sabotaged. Ultimately, it was all about not wanting to look weak to the Soviet Union and China– China had just tested a hydrogen bomb in 1967. That’s when he hit upon the “madman theory” He explained it himself to his chief of staff:
I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.
It’s interesting, too, that there was another peak in the bombing after the Paris Peace Accords from January 1973 until May of the same year when the US Senate finally put a stop to it. I guess when you get used to dropping bombs, it’s just hard to quit.
Instead of spending $17 million a day bombing innocent peasants, the US should have dropped millions of small parcels of US dollars on them. They’d love us for it, and if the Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese tried to take it away from them, the peasants would surely have risen and pushed them out instead of joining them after their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.
Along with an embarrassingly tiny amount of money that the US gives every year for UXO cleanup (which is expected to take 3,000 years at the present pace), the US provided detailed bombing data to the people tasked with cleaning up the mess. Utilizing Google Earth, one of the organizations involved has made maps available based on this information. They look like the one shown at the left which I got from another source. This particular data set is for Khammouane Province only. I drive through this province regularly and have often stayed at the provincial capital of Thakhek as it’s roughly the midpoint between Vientiane and my my farm.
Notice how the map above compares to this one on the right. But this doesn’t give the full picture. The above file was filtered to show only attack sorties using large general purpose (GP) bombs, so no cluster bomblets nor the sorties that delivered them are shown. Over 270 million cluster bomb submunitions, which we call “bombies,” were dispersed throughout Laos, of which an estimated 80 million didn’t explode. Yet, that is. They are still killing an estimated 300 people a year, of which 40% are said to be children. The sole purpose of the majority of these was to kill or maim people (anti-personnel). Incidentally, the “Convention on Cluster Munitions,” which went into effect in August, 2010, bans the stockpiling, use and transfer of virtually all existing cluster bombs and provides for the clearing up of unexploded munitions. The US refused to be a signatory. The number of cluster bomb submunitions stockpiled by the US today is said to be in the area of 1 billion.
The organization that provides the maps claims it “hoped to make this information accessible and useful for interested parties,” so I filled out their request form, asking for information for the province where my farm is, Champasak. They never replied. I’m not going to give up though. Look at the incredible detail the data offers. The photo on the left shows just how detailed the information is. If you zoom in, you can click on a sortie and get information about it. This particular one is just off Route 13 South, so I pass by here frequently. It tells me that two F4 Phantom aircraft dropped a total of 36 MK-82 general purpose 500-pound bombs here on February 15, 1973. I also know that 2 sorties were flown the day before consisting of two A-7s dropping a total of 48 similar bombs and two F4 Phantoms dropping 24 bombs. According to the data for the three sorties, the targets were “Personnel/Any,” “Troops in Contact,” and “Confirm Enemy Location.” This is interesting because technically the US didn’t have any “enemies” because the Paris Peace Accords went into effect two weeks before these bombs were dropped. It’s going to be fun getting precise information about the bomb craters around me. It’s a good thing the Vietnam War didn’t end in 1968 because then I probably wouldn’t have any bomb craters to write about.
Changing the subject abruptly, each item in the photo to the right was positioned with utmost care and precision so as to reveal the essence of true disarray. First and foremost is the rain barrel towards the back. It is essential not only for harvesting rain, but for providing me with a topic that starts with the letter “B” which fits in nicely between “Bombs” and “Beans on Toast.” Next to it is the little stick that keeps the building from falling over. The purchased gutters are an immense improvement over the ones I tried to fabricate myself; it’s just that one loses enthusiasm for putting them up after you’ve done one. Next to the uninstalled gutters on the table is an empty can of Campbell’s Pork and Beans. It’s worth noting that “pork” is the 8th item on the list of ingredients, followed by “salt” and preceded by “modified food starch.” You would expect a product with an “and” in the name to be named after its two most voluminous items, in which case it would be named “Campbell’s Cooked Pea Beans and Water.” The pieces of cardboard that seem merely strewn about are just that, pieces of cardboard merely strewn about; but by providing them with a purpose they become “The Cardboard Method of No-Till Farming.” To give it an organic twist, I’ve been peeing on them relentlessly.
I had to begin this section with the barrel, because it starts with a “B”, but what I really want to talk about is this baby. It’s a 1500-liter fiberglass tank. I got an excellent deal on it from a friend in Roi Et who discovered it wouldn’t work for him. This is a guy who served as an officer on the island of Borneo during the undeclared war known as the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, and later was involved with building airports and such all over the world as a civil engineer. After Yorkshire Bob, there’s nobody else that I’d turn to if I had a question about building something, fixing something, or securing something firmly to the back of my truck.
It was Friday, June 21. My life as a hermit had been put to an abrupt halt a few days earlier when duty had crept up on me from behind– a Skype video conference involving myself, my company in Japan, and a customer in Italy demanded a half-decent internet connection, pronto. So, I quite happily accepted divine intervention and sped off to my house in Ubon, without any warning, where I was warmly welcomed by my daughter and rather coolly accepted by her mother (“You come too much!” she said as a greeting). As such, I departed the moment my monthly salary wafted into my Thai bank account a few days later.
The day started off quite nicely. I’d been given a really big cardboard box which looked like it could withstand a lot of peeing on, and I put my chainsaw in it to keep it from blowing off the truck. In hindsight, I realize now that I’d just used up all my common sense for the day. I guess I’m not allotted enough daily common sense. I dropped my daughter off at her school at just after 7:00 a.m. and continued on without incident to Roi Et which is about a 3-hour ride from Ubon. There I was introduced to my tank. It seemed pretty heavy to us. We manhandled it onto the bed of my truck and, after trying a few different positions, we settled on one quite contrary to the one in the photo. We were thinking about aerodynamics, drag and such, but not the important aerodynamics, such as lift. Placed up tight against my cab like an overturned beer cup, we thought it would have the least wind resistance. I disassembled the big box and placed it under the tank. There was some concern about the lid flying away, so I put my chainsaw, which had been relieved of its prior duty, on top of it.
After chatting over a few beers I made my way to Global, a big hardware store, because that’s what the type of guy who carries a big tank in the back of his truck likes to do for fun. I bought a 100-meter roll of black LDPE pipe which, after a short perusal of the situation on the bed of my truck, I decided to place on top of the lid as the chainsaw had bounced halfway off it. Don’t want that lid flying off the truck– could be dangerous, I thought.
Going to Global in Roi Et meant I had to go the wrong way around the ring road, so I decided to try a different route. I was on my last leg to home in Vientiane, which, after living like a hermit for so long, I was actually looking forward to. As my friend in Roi Et had told me, the road to Maha Salakham and eventually to Route 2, which would take me north, was now mostly dual carriageway. I was quite content, looking out at the fresh scenery provided by the new route. I’d gotten used to using the side mirrors as the tank blocked my view with the rear view mirror.
And then the tank suddenly stopped blocking my view. It did so rather violently, with a loud thud that shook my truck as the tank bounded over my tailgate. The first of an assortment of feelings that swept over me in those first few seconds of the affair was betrayal. No, you can’t leave me like this! Then panic enveloped me– I watched in terror as cars behind me struggled to evade the unpredictable movements of a huge, cone-shaped object which, despite rolling from one lane to the other and back again, seemed intent on staying on the road instead of rolling off harmlessly. At this point I paid attention to pulling over and beginning to back up to the “scene of the betrayal.” This took about 10 or 15 seconds, and the predominant feeling, which carried on a good bit longer, like until even now, was disbelief. Disbelief was briefly interrupted by disappointment as it became clear that one car hadn’t completely managed to avoid the 1.5 cubic meter water vessel, and had, it appeared, knocked it into the deep, grassy median (central reservation for you Brits).
It was now time to confront my adversary, a puny Thai girl armed with an iPhone. After having come to a screeching halt as gravity and momentum drew this object, taller than she was, toward her, interacting briefly with her front fender, there can’t be anything much worse than being approached by me. I mean, if some idiot’s going to let their water tank fly off the back of their truck and quite possibly have killed you, let it be another Thai, not a comparatively huge barbarian with a month’s growth of unruly hair on his face. I know how to apologize in Thai as I’ve had to do it frequently, and plenty of the appropriate body signals such as concern and remorse were naturally quite obvious. I decided not to complain about her having knocked my tank into no-man’s land. I did, however, try to get off easy by claiming that the smudge on her fender was “little little.” She said something I didn’t understand, and when she realized I didn’t understand she started walking to the other side of her car and pointing. At first I thought she was pointing at more damage, but how could the tank have hit the front and side of her car? She was pointing at her insurance sticker, actually. When she got off the phone with her insurance company I risked a bit of friendly conversation. I didn’t know how to say, “That must have scared the shit out of you,” so I said, “That was scary, huh.” She spread her arms out wide and put a terrified look on her face, as if she were about to be hit by an asteroid. She was friendly and, though some of my readers may find this hard to believe, there were no apparent hard feelings. This is Isaan, Northeast Thailand. This shit happens all the time. She wouldn’t let me retrieve my tank, though.
We waited in our air conditioned vehicles for the insurance guy to show up. He took lots of photographs, my license, my truck, my tank down in the deep, wide ditch. I don’t know why, but I was expecting him to scold me, but he just carried on with his business as if everything was perfectly normal. After he’d photographed my tank, I pulled it up out of the ditch. I thought he might offer to help me put it back on my truck, but he completely ignored me. It was a case of blatant ignoring. I’m familiar with this, too, as nice people will feel compelled to help you if they make the mistake of making eye contact. I summoned all the strength I had, dragged the tank across the road, and somehow managed to get it back up on the truck. For some reason my friend had drilled a series of holes just under the rim of the tank. I had a short length of nylon rope and I used it to tie the rim securely to the framework behind the cab. Before tying it I waved the rope in the air in the general direction of the puny Thai girl I could have killed, and she smiled back at me.
I paid 2,500 baht (about $80) for the cosmetic damage and was on my way again. Although not a feeling, the tank had become an enormous distraction. I have a vivid imagination, and as the tank wobbled back and forth, the rope securing it pulled tight, I imagined the sharp edge of the hole through which the rope was tied gradually sawing through it. I checked on it several times. It wasn’t happening, but I wasn’t in a normal frame of mind. Eventually I used all the remaining length of the rope to make another knot. Irrational me. And, as if things couldn’t get any worse, the distraction of the tank made me miss a turn that my friend had warned me about. This mistake added 80km to my trip. I got to the border just as they were about to close. I’d been a bit concerned that the Lao customs people would try to get some money out of me. It’s not as if I’d been shopping in Thailand and was bringing back a few grocery items. The customs guy who signed my paperwork for my truck asked me, in English, if I had anything with me. “Just an old water tank,” I replied. It was looking old and beaten up even though my friend had never used it. I was careful not to make eye contact as I passed through the gate to freedom on the other side. It was almost 10 p.m. when I got to the house in Vientiane. The trip had taken 15 hours.
This is what I left behind, and to which I will soon be retuning, hopefully with my little Lao helper in tow. I’m using tarps to catch the rain, and I’ll be adding more soon. The idea is to get the tank filled up with rain water, add some of Billy’s pig’s shit, and coax some algae to life. Then I’ll stock it with 1,000 tiny tilapia, each about 2.5cm in length. They will be able to grow in there for quite some time without becoming too crowded. While they grow, I’ll finish up the rest of my aquaponic system. You can see that as I gradually extend the concrete footing on the right-hand side, I’m putting up wooden panels on the left which will form one side of this hydroponic trough. Billy, who I paid to do much of the concrete work that you see, apparently can’t read a simple drawing, having gotten things off by just enough to require a complete design overhaul. I’m making this hydroponic trough as deep as the pond liner material I have will allow. Since that material is 2.5m wide, I’m making the sides 40cm high. This will make it possible to double as a fish tank in the future. It will hold about 8,000 liters, as much as the main fish tank. I thought about using other materials, but finally settled on wood as I can insulate it with rice husks and I know how to work with it. Each 3.66m length of panel is anchored to the concrete footer in two places and bolted to the next panel. After the voids are filled with rice husks, the panels will get a top plate. Bracing will connect between the top plates and the posts running down the middle of the system. My next article will be mostly about my rather far-reaching plans for this system, which have changed considerably, so I’ll leave it at this for now.
For nourishment during my hermit adventure I depended mostly on beer but also had the occasional solid food item. I’d made a trip to Ubon in early June to use my bank, buy some building materials, and stock up on food. I bought some good bread and made an excellent tuna salad mixture, enough for a sandwich a day for a week. Having only a charcoal grill, my focus was on things that could be heated up easily, preferably from a can. Cleaning up was a distraction from getting things done, so I rarely cleaned up. A tuna salad sandwich requires very little cleaning up, but, as you’d suspect, I forgot to bring the all-important tuna salad. So, there I was one night, with some leftover pork and beans in the fridge and numerous slices of bread with no friends to play with. When I lived in Hua Hin about 10 years ago I had a couple of British flatmates. One was called Tony Chang after the popular Thai beer. He didn’t usually wake up until late afternoon and I don’t remember his eating habits, if he had any, but the other guy, Martin, would eat a tin of beans on toast every day when he came home from work for lunch. As my computer was in what would best be termed the multipurpose room, I couldn’t help but watch him day in and day out eating beans on toast. I swore I’d never eat it myself. Asceticism, which is sort of the way a hermit lives, is described as a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals. Being reduced to eating beans on toast taught me a valuable lesson: hermiting just plain sucks.