Introducing the Mysterious Cube

Earlier rendition of the Cottage on the Plateau

At the end of February I made a post titled “Little Cottage on the Plateau.” The title was supposed to remind my readers, with no lack of nostalgia, of the old TV program “Little House on the Prairie.” The little cottage was to be a prototype for the lodging which will one day be available at Wrong Way Farm Stay. The design had evolved over the months. Now it used load-bearing autoclaved aerated concrete blocks. The Japanese-style bath has been moved indoors, and I’d solved the under-floor rice husk insulation problem for the radiant floor (warmed with bathwater) by using wooden joists instead of a concrete slab. It retains the dreaded (by women) composting toilet. The idea was to build the shell and get a roof on it as soon as possible so I’d have somewhere to stay while getting my aquaponic system up and running.

Beginning the bagged gravel foundation. Note the high-tech water level to the right. It can be used alone.

As a first step, I’d smuggled 1 cubic meter of proper gravel into Laos from Thailand (I couldn’t find anywhere that would sell me small quantities in Pakse), along with the materials I needed for making reusable forms for the concrete foundation.  I’d bought a new Bosch circular saw and a cordless drill. I was applying a new policy of self-reliance, not so much in the transcendental sense of “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” as espoused by Emerson, but for the sake of practicality. I’m attempting to do things that people don’t understand, or even try to understand, so I just have to do them myself, from scratch. But I must admit that there are times when his slogan, “trust thyself,” has come in handy, such as when a drunken birthday girl in Vientiane suggested with great vigor that I should just stop, stop everything I’m doing on the Bolaven Plateau.

Anyway, the photo above shows about how far I got before I had to return to Vientiane for a bout of heavy drinking with Ross. I enjoy the two-day trips from my farm to Vientiane, usually via Ubon. Plenty of time to think things through. And, being in a new state of self-reliance, I realized that building the Cottage on the Plateau wasn’t practical. The core principle was okay, I mean, get on and stay on the farm. But it would take weeks to get a shell done with a roof overhead, all the time commuting to and from a guesthouse in Paksong. It would cost a lot, too.

I built "The Cube" using Google Sketchup, first. A few times, actually.

What I needed to build was something small and useful that could also provide temporary shelter. And if I could build it out of wood, a material I’m used to, that would be even better. The type of building that I could do quickly and on my own with a certain amount of confidence is what’s known as platform framing, or “stick building,” common in the US and Australia. And I could build it partially knock-down at my house in Ubon, chuck it in the back of my truck, and smuggle it to my farm on the Plateau where I’d only have to assemble it. I call it “The Cube.”

All voids in the floor, walls, and ceiling will be filled with rice husks, the "super insulator."

There were certain limitations to how “knock down” it could be. I couldn’t, for instance, complete the top of the panels by adding a top plate, because then I wouldn’t be able to pour in the rice husk insulation. I also needed access to the voids in the walls in order to bolt them together. For the two floor panels, I applied the plywood to the bottom of each. After bolting them together on site, I’ll add rice husks and then apply the top sheets of plywood. The entire cube is designed with the least amount of waste possible, so it is 2.44 x 2.44m. Not exactly spacious. The “design” timber was 3 x 7cm rough sawed stuff but I wasn’t worried about some dimensional variations. I would deal with them in place without buying a planer.

My Thai Daughter, Megan, carpenter's apprentice.

My house in Ubon has plenty of flat surfaces around it which are perfect for building panels and not far from a fridge filled with cold beer. I spent nearly two weeks there. It didn’t take much time doing the building once I got the hang of it. I hadn’t handled a circular saw in ages, though, and I was surprised how tiring hammering could be. What was hardest to handle was the heat. Daytime temperatures were over 40C. In just 5 minutes I’d be soaked in sweat. The reason it took nearly 2 weeks was that I had to wait to get paid before I had enough money to deliver it to my farm and then return to Vientiane.

Crappy DIY project in the back of my truck

I trucked the entire building, roof materials and all, to my farm in two loads. It’s just an 8-hour round trip. I delivered the first half when it was finished, and the second half a week later. I could probably have done it all in one load, but I was worried about the Lao customs guys. I wanted each load to look like a crappy do-it-yourself project done by a lunatic foreigner, something you’d have to pay to have thrown away. I achieved this with ease.

The cube, all its bits and pieces, waiting to be assembled.

Now I’m back in Vientiane waiting for the madness of Lao New Year to end. When it’s over, I’ll have the local kids load my truck completely with bags of dry rice husks. I’ll get them here because I’m sure I can get them for free from the neighboring rice mill. My helper has agreed to go with me and help piece together the cube, but she’s probably just looking for an opportunity to sabotage the project. What is this “cube” going to be? What is its ultimate purpose? I think I’ll leave you hanging.


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2012– The Year of Swift and Relentless Lateral Drift– Part 3

Since the Lao and Thai New Year is just a few days away, I thought I’d wrap up what’s been going on, or not going on. I’m taking the Lao mom to the dentist tomorrow to have a tooth extracted, and I thought that sounds like fun, so maybe I’d have one pulled, too. I’ve begun to resemble a chipmunk with its left cheek full of acorns. I should have had it looked at in Thailand, but it didn’t start swelling like this until I got back to Vientiane a few days ago. Having a tooth pulled in one of the least developed countries in the world is just one of those things you have to try. I put my chances of surviving at 60/40.

Snake for dinner! Yay!

The end of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013 ushered in “swift and relentless” devaluation of the yen, which is the currency I get paid in for my bread-and-butter work. Now that I’m earning a full 25% less in the local currency, physical progress is excruciatingly slow. There have been times in the past few months when I couldn’t even go to my farm because I couldn’t afford the diesel. So, I’m still living under the conditions described in Part 2. In fact, look what Dad caught for dinner last night! It was the first one of its kind that he was able to catch in 3 years, he said. Another case of rarity improving the taste, I suppose. I asked if it was poisonous, and I was told that its bite doesn’t even hurt. So I wondered out loud if its lack of poison made it any tastier. No, but it’s much easier to catch the non-poisonous snakes. This led to a discussion amongst the members of the small group of drinking buddies that gathers nightly about who had seen or caught the largest cobra.

Clearing brush around the Vientiane house-in-progress

If I was keen to get out of the family abode back then, you can imagine how I feel now. But December, 2012, was an exciting time, and that made my living circumstances a bit more bearable. The family had given me permission to use the entire lump of land behind my plot. I cleared away a lot of the brush so I could make an accurate assessment of what I had to work with. What I lacked in funds, I more than made up for in planning.

I’m going to summarize now, as detailing what went on in the months that followed would require a few posts, and I want to put this bit behind me, and as quickly as possible. The idea was to build one room, a temporary one, to get away from the family residence and enjoy the privacy, as well as for security considerations (I still wanted to catch duck thieves). This got me into research on building materials and methods that I could handle myself. I’ve already made it clear that I’m not the most skilled do-it-yourselfer. I stumbled across autoclaved aerated concrete blocks, which have high insulating properties, and figured I’d build one room with them. This way I thought I might convince the family to later have the whole house done in them. Then they could have their concrete which they seem to love so much and the building wouldn’t have to be an oven. I’d insulate the ceiling with rice husks. These blocks are 20cm high by 60cm wide, and sort of glued together, so no playing with sand, water, and cement.

Most of my energy, however, went into planning the farm. It was to be a trial, of sorts, for things I would later do on my farm on the Plateau. Ducks were a given, but a tasty 4-legged creature was needed. After considering and dismissing for various reasons goats, cattle, sheep and some lesser well-known critters, I settled on pigs. I call this my “learning to speak pig” phase. I read everything I could find about them, including Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin.

“I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life, and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.” —Temple Grandin

Pigs on pasture at Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont

Besides the fact that they are as smart as my 3-year old daughter (I mean any 3-year old) and hence can be taught to turn off the lights in their barn before they go to sleep, they make excellent tractors. Why lock pigs in a pen, bring food and water to them, then remove the shit and haul it out to the fields as fertilizer when you can have the pigs harvest their own food, fertilize the fields while doing it, and even plow them when wanted? A pig’s snout is a purpose-built plow. It was their plowing ability that attracted me at first. Goats are good at clearing land, too, but they are picky eaters and get infected by worms easily. My hero when it comes to pigs on pasture is Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont. My often twisted questions about pigs on pasture (do the other pigs mind when you kill one of their brethren?) were answered by him either on his website or on some forum.

Freerange pigs at Polyface Farms

Modern electric fences make it possible to practice Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG). My hero on that subject, and others, is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, the “farm of many faces.” who has written many books including my favorite title (I’ve only read excerpts), The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.  He is every farmer’s champion when he says we should want smart, well-paid farmers. Do we really want something as important as our food to be produced by people who are as poor as dirt and half as smart? The idea behind MIRG is to use electric fences to rotate your animals after they have only partially eaten the pasture. Leaving leaves on the pasture material allows it to use photosynthesis to recover very quickly. When the animals are moved, chickens or ducks are brought in. They paw through the “fertilizer” left behind, distributing it, while devouring fly and other larva before they become airborne. It also disrupts the life cycle of parasites.

After weeks and weeks of study, I had it all put together. It was synthesized. Done. The grazing patterns for the 50 to 60 pigs I would have at any one time were decided. They would harvest sweet potatoes for a week on one plot that they had plowed themselves months before. They would slather around in a muddy rice field or two getting them ready to plant rice (SRI, of course). They would rotate through rich pastures of tropical forages such as Ubon stylo, a legume that was developed partially through the work of Dr. Michael Hare, at the Faculty of Agriculture, Ubon Ratchathani University. Not only did Michael answer all the questions I threw at him (I’ve known him for quite some time), he provided this humble, aspiring farmer nourishment in both the solid and liquid form when he passed through Vientiane last month.  Ducks would happily follow the pigs on their meandering course through the property, removing pests and further fertilizing the land. And, most importantly, anybody who dared to penetrate this animal utopia would be zapped by 9,000 volts of intermittently pulsing electrical current which would set off an alarm that would scare the crap out of the scoundrel (I’d been in consultation with a Bangkok security firm that could supply me with a dual-purpose fencing system). It was all sorted. But I’d run out of money, and. . .

Sat shot showing the "Great Expanse"

One afternoon I was sipping beer outside wondering what Mom and Uncle Across the Street were talking about. There was a surprisingly large group of people listening in, like me. Mom’s got another 4,800 square meter lump of land close enough to mine that I may be able to reach it with a 4-iron helped by a strong following wind. She’d been wanting to sell that land, so I assumed the talk was about that, but I couldn’t understand what Uncle Across the Street had to do with it. His wife (Mom’s sister) owns the strip of rice fields beside my land and my projected pig paradise (in fact, I bought my plot of land from her). “What are they talking about,” I finally asked Mom’s daughter, the actual owner of my land. “They want to sell the land,” she told me. “What land,” I asked, a bit flabbergasted. She might as well have replied, “Your land! Stupid!” It never occurred to me when I bought it that Mom might sell off the land that abuts one side of my property, and Uncle Across the Street might simultaneously sell of the land that abuts it on another side, leaving us with strangers on all four sides. “Aah,” I said, nodding diplomatically.

Morning after a "new pickup" party-- Dad's still drinking (or drinking again)

In cases such as these, it’s prudent to go and refill your glass with sparkling, cold beer, taking as much time as possible. It’s a lot more reliable than counting to ten. As I did so, it occurred to me that I’d been oblivious to the madness (or at least one aspect of the continual, profound madness) that had been going on around me since they mostly completed a new road dividing what I refer to as “the great expanse,” a wide plain of rice fields between the village where the family residence is and the village where my land (and Mom’s land) is. See the photo in the previous paragraph (new road not shown). People who had inside information (not unusual in a communist state) were buying up land left and right. There were rumors about moving the downtown government offices to our area. A complete transformation of the landscape was underway. It seemed like every third house in the area had a new pickup truck, including Uncle Beside Us (he’s married to another of Mom’s sisters). They didn’t have anyone in their family with a driver’s license, but they bought a $45,000 Toyota, anyway.

It seemed like it was a done deal. The prospective purchaser was assumed to be a Chinese company. Nobody knew what they wanted to do with the land. I figured they’d build a poorly maintained melamine factory so that they could add it to watered down milk products or infant formula to make them appear to have the right level of protein. That was getting harder and harder to get away with in China after sickening 300,000 people including 54,000 babies back in 2008. On the bright side, I was told that they probably wouldn’t be developing the land for a few years so I could still use it for a while, but the “oomph” had been almost surgically removed from me. Visions of my smiling piggies deflating like loosely knotted balloons appeared in the night. I’m used to setbacks. Most recently, I’d left my sandals on the front steps of the family residence overnight, and some drug addict with a sleeping problem swiped them. Shortly before that, at the Lao/Thai border, I’d left my truck’s engine running while I stepped out to show my papers to the police. My truck wouldn’t let me back in. It had locked itself with the engine still running. My phone was inside. I tried to smash through the corner of the passenger-side window, only to be impressed at how resilient it was (plastic, I think). This was at the border crossing at Chongmek, near Ubon. People kept asking me where my spare key was. In Vientiane, 700km away. Finally, a kind and talented Lao minivan driver taught me how to break into my own truck. I wanted to kiss him but figured he’d rather have money. I gave him some and told him to buy a case of beer. A couple of days ago I took my truck to Hyundai for servicing and asked how such a thing could have happened (I couldn’t recreate the phenomenon). Oh, it’s happened to a lot of people when they slam the door too hard, I was informed. Memories of being a kid and my dad reminding me sternly, “Don’t slam the door,” came back to me. Technicians at Hyundai suggested I always remove the key when I get out or open a window, just in case. People may have begun referring to me as “wrong way,” but “setback” or “setback king” would make a more fitting middle name for myself. This whole odyssey has been a succession of setbacks. But this was a biggie.

My rendition of the Vientiane house with an extra room for Mom

And then it didn’t happen. Which isn’t to say that it won’t happen. It just didn’t happen. One day somebody supposedly representing a Chinese company comes around and offers to buy your land for 2,000 baht ($69) a square meter, you say okay, and you expect the guy back any day to consummate the deal. And nothing happens. That’s the way they do business here. No contact information whatsoever. It could have been one great, big practical joke. But, before it didn’t happen, I had a great time thinking up practical if a bit self-serving ways for the family to spend some of the money. I needed to do this for comfort at the time. You see, I owed the owner of my land on the Plateau, Billy, the third and final payment for the 30-year lease. He’d begged me to make the second payment earlier than agreed, and I did, so I just assumed he’d let me be a bit late for the final payment. Nope. So I’d suddenly had to put my entire salary plus a bit extra into paying him promptly. While it felt good to be all paid up, there remained the annoying fact that I had no money to live on for an entire month. So I was living off my side business, translation, getting paid chapter by chapter, which I guess is a genuinely lucky thing to be able to do, but really sucks, nevertheless. To be so acutely poor while at any moment the Lao Beverly Hillbillies, as I’d started to think of them as, were about to be paid nearly half a million US dollars for a lump of land that wasn’t even very fertile was, well, hard to adjust to. So, perhaps like the intake of opiates or practice of adultery, neither of which I’m familiar with, by the way, I took comfort in mentally spending their money. I couldn’t help it. I mean, every family that sells off the family land buys a pickup truck. But they don’t even know how to drive one!

Eventually, it still didn’t happen, and it still didn’t happen for long enough that I stopped caring. When it happens, Mom will pay to have the house finished. She’s as eager to leave the family residence, it appears, as we are. So, that’s one weight off my shoulders.

I remain an American with unlimited if somewhat irrational optimism. This lateral drift, which a pessimist would dismiss as having been a huge and needless distraction from making progress on my Bolaven Plateau project, has been an opportunity to learn about things that I would otherwise not have. It’ll all come in handy when I put things together. The cracks are filling, the missing links are revealing themselves, and the loose ends will soon be tied.




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Little Cottage on the Plateau

My mate, Ross, from Down Under, is visiting Vientiane next week. He comes now and then to pan for gold downstream from the existing gold mines during the dry season, and in the muddy puddles along the riverfront lane in Vientiane at night during the rainy season, but he spends much of his time treating me to some solid drinking and heartfelt words of encouragement whenever he’s here. When things are going particularly badly, I can count on Ross to cut straight to the chase by highlighting what I’ve got going for me, you know, my strong points, such as, most recently, his enlightening comment (via email): “Boston, you are insane. Cracked. Done for. A complete fruit loop.”

Any home-made beer requires patience.

I know that the first thing he’s going to do after shaking my hand and ordering some Beer Lao with vodka chasers is ask me about my beer-making catastrophe. In fact, many of my readers seem to be delighted about this reported failure of mine and have asked me for the details. But, to set the story straight, does this beer (left) look like a failure? Don’t let the Chang bottle fool you. I smuggled the empty bottles in from Thailand. The report of a failure of catastrophic proportions was premature. I’d decided that the beer was doomed when I first opened a bottle around the end of 2012 with a very, definitely, not-a-pop sound. I had attempted to krausen it. Even the Germans have, for the most part, stopped krausening their beer. According to an article posted on,

Krausening is a traditional German method for carbonating beers without using sugars or other adjuncts.  Instead actively fermenting malt wort is added to the fermented beer to provide the malted sugars needed for carbonation.

All you have to remember is a simple formula: Quarts_of_wort = (12 x Gallons_of_beer) / ((Specific_gravity_wort – 1.0) * 1000). I could figure that out in my sleep, but not while intoxicated in the worst of ways– intoxicated while making beer. Anyway, too much krausen and the beer bottles will explode furiously in the fridge at some point, which is an entertaining alternative to almost nothing happening at all when you open them. But, a full 6 weeks after I’d given up on the stuff, I pulled out a bottle to use in some ingenious soup I was conjuring up, and as I poured it into the broth, it began, yes, wait for it, foaming! It wasn’t bad (I drank all 30 bottles over the next few days).

In order to live up to my reputation of being “Insane. Cracked. Done for. A complete fruit loop,” I decided I’d start building a cottage, of sorts, next to the non-progressing aquaponic greenhouse. I mean, what can be more enticing than having two non-progressing projects happening at at the same time? But, as you’d expect, just as I’d worked out the last details of a design I’m actually quite pleased with and was ready to begin assembling the necessary items and implements, an uncle in Vientiane conspired to, well, cease. I was in Ubon with one bare foot in my truck, and the momentum of the second one headed in the direction of my farm on the Plateau. But I’d learned a long time ago in Japan that if you want to make a good impression on “the family” then drop everything and go to the funeral. Attending a wedding or otherwise planned family get-together is easy; it’s the funerals that separate the men from the boys.

The funeral that went on forever (well, a week, anyway).

So, I raced back to Vientiane. After a 10-hour drive, I spent 5 minutes lighting 3 sticks of incense and pretending to pray (to whom, I don’t know). Nobody paid much attention. The women were all playing cards (gambling is strictly illegal except during funerals), and the men had all been drinking the local moonshine night and day. And this just continued. . . and continued. . . and because the monks were all predisposed, it just continued. At one point they borrowed my truck and the uncle was taken somewhere to be cremated. I’d had an ulterior motive, however, for going back to Vientiane before going to my farm. As Ross would surely agree, I am hopeless, and helpless, but not always helperless. So I waited for the funeral to end, but it refused. If I am to properly skin a knee or two and begin the formation of calluses on my palms, perhaps even let the back of my neck become a bit brown and leathery, then I can’t wait any longer.

Assembling the instruments of destruction (construction?).

So I came back to Ubon, bought some stuff, and am off to see if I can smuggle it all into Laos tomorrow. If you want to know why on earth I’m hauling a ton of gravel 180km into another country, look forward to Part II.

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A Breif Departure from Normalcy

“When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do.” – Herman Hesse, Siddhartha.

Earlier this morning I went shopping for the ingredients for a homemade bone stock which I’ll use as a base for a wholesome chicken and brown rice soup to be partially consumed sometime this evening. It was a thrilling experience. My sense of smell could rival a truffle-seeking French pig. Even my other senses seemed more acute– the carrots a brighter orange, the more expensive garlic perfectly shaped. It was kind of a Lao Tzu experience. I have had nothing but water to drink and not a spoonful of food for 9 days, 13 hours (as I begin writing this), and I decided that this evening, at about 10 full days into my fast, is a good time to break it. I mean, it’s my fast, right?

Although I should be working (translating) I’ve decided to reward myself for my diligence by lecturing my faithful readers about why water fasting is anything but insane, talk a bit about nutrition, and as your reward for putting up with me I will take you through the composition of my first meal after 10 days, a model of healthy food the way it was made in the old days before MSG, though it will take 8 or more hours to make. Eaten regularly, it could add years to your life.

Morning after breaking the fast. I still have enough fat to go many more weeks, but I miss food (but I don't need it).

The last time I mentioned fasting was in my article “Gandhi-Inspired Aquaponics” back in May, 2012. It was just a quick warning that “I may at times sound a little bit less delusional than usual,” because I was into my 4th day of that particular fast. Despite the fact that the article was chock-full (never used that word before) of useful, if not inspiring information, all I got was comments about fasting. Mike in Phana (outside Ubon) seemed to think I should at least take in some salt. MeMock wrote: “I think the project you are planning is quite amazing and I look forward to seeing it first hand. That is of course if you are still alive! Please tell me more about this fasting thingo. I mean, how do you get to 4 days drinking nothing but water voluntarily? How long do you plan to go for? Have you done this sort of thing before? I can skip a meal, sometimes even two but I have never gone a whole day without food, let alone four!” But by far the greatest comment, which I didn’t allow because that would have dragged me into a full-fledged fasting debate, was from my sister-in-law’s charming mom, Lisa. It’s kind of flattering so here it is in full:

During the relatively brief time I spent with you while you were in Stow I was delighted with your wit, energy and curiosity but occasionally startled by your unbridled goofiness. This fasting falls into that category. If you’re doing it to sober up or lose weight you’ve undoubtedly already done so (bravo!) but if you continue your teeth will fall out (probably will anyway due to your aversion to dentists), you’ll lose muscle tone and coordination, and your brain and toe nails will be permanently adversely affected. Love your writing, even if I often don’t understand it. Fondly, Lisa

A blurry fat bastard, capping homemade beer (I didn't write about that catastrophe).

That was a real “ahh” moment. What is this almost religious, anti-fasting zeal, not just from Lisa, but from all directions? I mean, do you think the human race would be here today if we couldn’t go two days without twinkies? I guess I’m just following in the footsteps of the other fools suffering from “unbridled goofiness,” such as the early great philosophers, thinkers, and healers who used fasting for health and as healing therapy. Hippocrates, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Galen all praised the benefits of fasting. Paracelsus, one of the three fathers of Western medicine, is quoted as saying, “Fasting is the greatest remedy–the physician within.” Early healing arts recognized the revitalizing and rejuvenating power fasting promoted (nicked from I’m not going to go looking for the source, but I read somewhere that one of these great philosophers would not accept a new student unless he had just fasted for a month or so, as fasting is essential for the mind, physically and mentally. And, interestingly enough, there is more than just a little something to that. Researchers at the National Institute on Ageing in Baltimore recently discovered that fasting for regular periods could help protect the brain against degenerative illnesses. Professor Mark Mattson, head of the institute’s laboratory of neurosciences, and also a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, states that they have “also worked out a specific mechanism by which the growth of neurones in the brain could be affected by reduced energy intakes. Amounts of two cellular messaging chemicals are boosted when calorie intake is sharply reduced, said Mattson. These chemical messengers play an important role in boosting the growth of neurones in the brain, a process that would counteract the impact of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. He goes on to say, “The cells of the brain are put under mild stress that is analogous to the effects of exercise on muscle cells. The overall effect is beneficial.” There are sound evolutionary reasons behind this. “When resources became scarce, our ancestors would have had to scrounge for food,” said Mattson. “Those whose brains responded best – who remembered where promising sources could be found or recalled how to avoid predators — would have been the ones who got the food. Thus a mechanism linking periods of starvation to neural growth would have evolved.” (see this article in The Guardian, 2012).

I’d wanted to state that if you do a search on Google for “fasting for weight loss” all you will get are are a bunch of amateurs out to make a buck who say you have a death wish and all you are losing is water, anyway, and, by they way, how about buying this book on low-carb diets or some of these vitamin supplements I sell? I’d long given up such searches because I’ve studied the subject in-depth off and on over probably 3 or 4 years. You see, there’s no money to be made by anyone if all a person has to do to lose weight, “detox,” and rejuvenate, is stop eating. The doctors on the internet tell you to only do it under a doctor’s supervision, and usually they mean their own, expensive supervision. So, I was a bit surprised to see that a really well-done, informative article “Why Fast? Part One– Weight Loss” was at the top of the search results. It was so good I stole the author’s Herman Hesse quote. His article starts of with the story of a 27-year old Scotsman back in 1965 who weighed 456 pounds. Long story short, he fasted for 382 days and lost 276 pounds, reaching his target weight of 180 pounds. He was observed for 5 years during which time he regained only 16 pounds. There’s convincing evidence that weight lost by fasting is more likely to stay off than if you were dieting. So, if you are interested in this, read the article. If you want to know more about fasting, read the rest of his articles about fasting which you can link to from the same page.

These are the phases of fasting. Notice how little protein is used once you've "gotten into it."

Fasting is not starving. Think of it as sleeping. When you sleep, your body goes about rebuilding itself, and when you wake up, if you’ve had a good sleep, you feel rejuvenated. The amount of repair that goes on is just exponentially greater. The first phase is called the gastrointestinal phase. Basically for about 6 hours since your last meal your body just carries on as usual. Lots of stuff that I don’t really understand happens, but it’s the same stuff involving hormones and insulin and glucose and your liver that always happens. At half a day, it’s the shortest phase. The next phase is the glycogenolysis phase. During this 2-day phase your liver does a lot of neat stuff to keep your brain satisfied. The next phase is gluconeogenesis. This is an important one, so I’m going to quote my source (just one of hundreds): “Although it begins a few hours after the last meal, in two days gluconeogenesis, the process of converting amino acids into glucose, becomes the major source of glucose for the brain. Non-essential proteins [emphasis mine] found in muscle and digestive enzymes are broken down into their individual amino acids which are then transported to the liver. The liver converts amino acids into glucose and urea. Urea is excreted by the kidneys, and the glucose is used mainly by the brain for energy.” The fourth and final phase is ketosis. “By the third day, ketosis becomes significant and increases up to the second week of fasting. Due to the low insulin levels and increase release of fatty acids from adipose tissue, the liver, under the influence of high levels of fatty acids, begins converting them to ketones to be used by muscle and brain for energy. As the concentration of ketones increases in the blood during the first two weeks of fasting, more is able to cross the blood brain barrier and supply fuel to the brain. In this way, the brain can use less glucose, and therefore, the demand for gluconeogenesis and breakdown of protein becomes less.” (

The whole thing is extremely efficient and without it we wouldn’t be here today. People who’ve not looked deeply into it say fasting ravages your muscle tissue, but in fact it uses about 75g of non-essential protein a day at the beginning then tapers down to just 20g a day by the second week. When you break the fast, everything goes in reverse. Amino acids are taken up by muscle cells to replace proteins broken down during the fast. This takes time and something called “appropriate exercise.” I think I’ve finally got it through my thick head that overindulgence, especially in the form of beer, after a fast is counter-productive.

Now, why aren’t my teeth falling out? One reason I like fasting is that it’s counter-intuitive. I don’t eat fruit and should be deficient of vitamin C already. Why don’t I get scurvy? This subject is truly fascinating. I will rely mostly on the writings of Herbert M. Shelton (1895-1985), a guy who oversaw more than 40,000 fasts in his lifetime. He was a controversial figure– his contemporaries didn’t appreciate his advocating fasting over medical treatment. When he was a kid,  he took an interest in animals, especially their habits when sick as compared to when well. He was especially intrigued by their fasting when the farm animals became sick. Of the great many books he wrote, The Science and Fine Art of Fasting, exerted an influence on Mahatma Gandhi, who consulted the book before undertaking public fasts. Chapter 18 of one of one of his books addresses the issue of deficiencies and is titled “Fasting Does Not Induce Deficiency ‘Diseases.'” What follows are a few quotes so you can get the gist. And, although I can’t be bothered to look for the source, there are numerous “modern” studies on the same subject. Researchers know it’s true, and they are trying to figure out why.

“In experiments with animals fed on mineral free diets, it was found that they became weak, dull, listless, had fits and died. They reached a point where they refused to eat. Forced feeding was resorted to. It was found that the animals that were forced to eat the mineral-free diet, after their instincts had put out a stop sign, died quicker than animals not fed at all.”

“Years ago Dr. Foster’s experiments proved that pigeons and dogs develop symptoms of auto-intoxication and die sooner when fed on foods artificially deprived of their minerals, than when given no food at all. Dogs fed on demineralized food died in twenty-six to thirty days; whereas dogs completely deprived of all food lived for forty to sixty days.” Sorry dog lovers.

“A diet of white flour and water, or white sugar and water, will result in death much sooner than a diet of water only. If no food is eaten the body feeds upon its own food reserves, but it has no provision for meeting the exigencies created by prolonged subsistence on one-sided diets.” You may wonder how they strip food of minerals. Well, they just process it the same way they do the processed foods that have become the staple of the Western diet.

“But nature has made no adequate provision for properly nourishing a body that is fed indefinitely upon half-foods. The body does not contain within itself the elements needed to compensate for the deficiency created by denatured foods. Indeed, as pointed out elsewhere, one may starve to death much quicker on some diets, than one will if totally abstaining from food. One will die quicker on a diet of white bread than from fasting, and the more bread one consumes, the more severe will be one’s suffering and the sooner will one die. Such foods draw so heavily on certain of the body’s reserve elements that these are soon exhausted and body chemistry badly unbalanced.”

Got the point? Now, let’s see what he writes about teeth.

“Without additional quotations about the effects of deficient diets (partial inanition) upon the teeth in rickets and in scurvy, let us point out that dentists who have studied the effects of inadequate and deficient diets upon the teeth and do not know that fasting does not produce the same results as such diets are likely to conclude that fasting injures the teeth. Indeed, there is a tendency in all who study the effects of dietary inadequacies and deficiencies to run away from fasting; for, they reason, ‘if a defective diet produces such undesirable results, no food at all should produce much worse results.’ They are blissfully unaware that fasting not only does not produce any of the so-called deficiency ‘diseases,’ but that it is actually beneficial in everyone of them.”

After a lengthy and somewhat gruesome discussion of the symptoms of scurvy and pyorrhea, Shelton continues, “Not only do such conditions not develop during even a prolonged fast, but they are improved and many of their symptoms completely removed by a fast. This remarkable evidence of the value of fasting is explained by the fact that there is a disproportionate loss of the various constituent elements of the body during the fast and a redistribution of some of these, which results in a near approach to normal body chemistry.”

And, in conclusion, Shelton states, “We have no means of knowing how much of a reserve store of vitamins the body possesses, nor do we know where all of these reserves are stored; still less do we know about how much of these vitamins are lost to the body during a fast. All of this is as unknown to Kellogg and to the writer as to the reader, but we may be sure of one thing:–namely, these stores are sufficient to outlast the most prolonged fast. We know that scurvy and beri-beri never develop on a fast. We know that rickets is positively benefited by fasting. Kellogg overlooks an important difference between fasting and a polished rice diet–namely, that, whereas, in both, the body is deprived of its daily supply of vitamins, fasting makes little if any demand upon its vitamin reserves, while the polished rice diet rapidly consumes these. If he could show that fasting, even the most prolonged fasting, ever produces ‘deficiency disease,’ then his objection would have some weight. As it is, the facts of experience must silence the voice of his theory.”

Cool stuff, huh? I wish I could write like that.

I’ll mention a few things about my fast, then get on to the life-extending soup I’m making. There are websites and forums out there where people fasting give each other support and log the progress of their fasts. A lot of people break out in rashes and get pimples on their faces. This is due to the toxins that are built up in the body being released. A lot of them, if not most, feel like shit at first, which is a bad combination at the beginning if you are still feeling hungry (hunger, as you know it, dissipates after a couple of days). Since they feel like shit (but more likely because they are hungry), they break their fast. But they shouldn’t, because feeling like shit is a signal that fasting is doing something good for you (no pain no gain?). A lot of people try to turn the fast into a spiritual thing, which seems to me only equates being spiritual with feeling like shit. I glided through this fast (2 more hours to the 10 full-day point) as if nothing had happened. Cavemen continued to hunt antelope. I spent less strenuous days working at the computer, and in the evenings I watched TV in bed. Sleep, however, never came easily, probably because the fast itself is carrying out the tasks that sleep usually does. No signs of built-up toxicity at all. In fact, the persistent ulcer on one of my shins healed (again) and a cracked molar that’s been giving me trouble seems to have at least partially mended. Then I started thinking about my diet. My meals usually consist of slow cooked fresh meats and vegetables with an unusually large amount of garlic. The primitive cooking process I use creates a broth, of sorts (I’ll write about this one day). I don’t eat sweets or drink soft drinks– I’m a beer drinker, after all. I just need to drink less of it (I could not possibly drink as much water in one day as I was drinking beer). That was my New Year’s Resolution, to cut my beer drinking in half, which still allows me to drink more than the average beer drinker does. This fast was intended to spur this resolution into effect. My conclusion about beer, then, is that it’s not bad for you (in the sense that there were no built up toxins in me), but too much makes you fat (duh!).

Okay, I stopped writing to focus on my cooking, so it’s now the following day. I broke my fast last night after 10 days, 1 hour, and 30 minutes (roughly) with a small bowl of mineral-rich soup, while watching “Starship Troopers.” I slept better. I now weigh 91.5kg, down from 100kg. At 191cm, my BMI (Body Mass Index) sits contently right on the edge between “normal weight” and “overweight.” I’m drinking my second cup of coffee from my farm, and feeling excellent.

I encourage you all to read the article “Broth is Beautiful.” There are all sorts of “flavor enhancers” these days that make food taste good and save a lot of time in the kitchen. They can chemically imitate the taste of a good chicken broth, but not the nutritional value of one. Simmering bones for hours and hours releases minerals and such that our bodies need and are generally severely lacking. So, here’s my broth with a never-tried twist.

Step 1: I wanted some egg shells because they are an excellent source of usable calcium (plus small amounts of something like 24 other trace minerals). There were some free-range duck eggs some relatives brought here in the fridge, so I boiled two of them. I really only wanted the shells, but there’s nothing wrong with bits of egg in a soup, so I’ll add those. If you boiled the eggs, you can crush the shells as is, but baking them for 5 or so minutes makes the crushing a bit finer. I added 2 tablets of bio magnesium, 200mg each. Magnesium, which most people lack in their diets of processed foods, aids in the absorption of calcium. So, although the optimum ratio is debated, it’s good to get some magnesium. Add fresh-squeezed lime, and watch it bubble. The calcium and magnesium dissolve, releasing CO2. I’ll have to experiment with this more, as even after 8 or so hours the egg shells hadn’t completely dissolved. Next time I’ll try red wine vinegar.

Ingredients for the calcium/magnesium supplement.

Crushed egg shells, magnesium tablets, and squeezed lime juice.

Bubbling away.

Alchemy 101: Cool, huh?

Step 2: Make the stock. Stock is easy. Don’t let the amount of time it takes worry you. It requires very little attention. In just 3 or 4 hours you’ll have a great tasting stock, but it takes longer than that to extract the minerals from the bones. I used 2 chicken carcasses, 2 chicken thighs, and 4 chicken feet (I would have used all 7 that were in the package, but Megan’s aunt wanted to eat some). Chicken feet release natural gelatin. The ideal ratio of bones and such to water is 2:3, by weight. Give them a good rinse, let them soak in water for about 10 minutes for good measure, drain and add water again. Don’t heat the water then throw the stuff into a boiling pot. You want it to get hot slowly. As it approaches a boil, a lot of foam and scum will rise to the surface. Remove it with a spoon. You’ll need to do this a few times. Just before it boils, lower the heat to a simmer.

The base ingredients.

Chicken bits and pieces. Use as many bones as possible.

In the pot and ready to go.

A precise 2:3 ratio bones/meat to water. No, I just topped it off with water.

Step 3: Remove the thighs (or whatever you use with meat on it). They want to be just done, so the pieces are full of flavor when you bite into them. Too long and the flavors will go into the stock and the chicken bits will be kind of dry. When you are doing a soup, I guess this isn’t so important, but if you’re using the chicken meat for sandwiches or something, then it’s pretty important. After I removed the meat and put it in the fridge, I rather thoroughly cracked the thigh and leg bones with a pestle, retrieved them from the 4 corners of the kitchen, and put them back in the pot.

The stock is simmering nicely.

Step 4. At about the 6-hour point, add the aromatics. A lot of people add them from the beginning, but they don’t need much time to release their flavors and nutrients. Too long and they get mushy, absorbing a lot of that delicious stock you are trying to make. I suggest you add the egg shell mixture at this point, too. I added it to the soup but a lot of the egg shell hadn’t dissolved completely, making the last few spoonfuls in the bottom of the bowl kind of gritty.

Carrots, celery, garlic, onions and black pepper-- or whatever.

Step 5: At about the 8-hour point, drain the stock. Return it to the (rinsed) pot and add the vegetable ingredients and rice. Before doing this I seasoned the soup base with salt and crushed pepper. The chicken and duck eggs are already cooked through, so add them during the last 10 minutes, adjust seasonings, and you are done.

Finished soup, next day– I never said it would be pretty.

Breathtaking, isn't it?

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2012– The Year of Swift and Relentless Lateral Drift– Part 2

Where am I? What am I doing here?

House construction left idle in Vientiane

I started building a house in Vientiane a few years ago on a plot of land I bought (well, paid for, anyway) in 2008. The plot is about 800 square meters and abuts a sizable tract of family land (about 6,500 square meters of mostly rice fields). The house project got put on hold as I focused my already limited resources on the Bolaven Plateau project. The photo to the left shows how far we’ve gotten. I wasn’t permitted to play with green building– I was told it had to be a concrete and brick convection oven, just like all the other homes in the area– and that’s part of the reason why I have so little interest in it.

In addition to the book Shimazaki-san had given me to translate, he’d handed me a brochure in Lao about SRI. The family in Vientiane hadn’t heard of it, but I could see that they were both curious and skeptical. I asked them if I could do some small trials on the first of the rice fields that abut our land. Sure, why not. Unlike the Thais, the Lao people are more willing to accept outside ideas, especially if a foreign government foots the bill. SRI is now being officially promoted by the government, although the “top down” approach is a bit dubious. Unlike Thailand, Laos cannot produce enough rice to feed its people (although they claim to have already reached self-sufficiency). Mountainous areas of Laos (i.e. most of Laos) such as around the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang can’t grow enough rice and there’s no room for more rice fields, so they are proactively promoting SRI. Anyway, at least it’s not something I came up with on my own, I could point at the Lao brochure and say, “I want to try this.”

Ducks aerating, maintaining, and fertilizing rice fields

Easier said than done– the story of my life. As usual, I wasn’t satisfied just following the SRI recipe. I can never leave good enough alone. SRI encourages innovation, so lacking any preconceptions about rice cultivation, I planned a number of different trials mixing SRI with things that I think are cool, such as “no-till agriculture,” “living mulches,” and what’s called “aigamo rice cultivation” in Japanese which is letting ducks putter around eating weeds and insects while aerating and fertilizing the soil. Altogether I had 6 test plots planned with various combinations of cutting edge if somewhat obscure techniques. I just had to wait for the rice that was already growing there to be harvested.

I was informed that people will steal my ducks. In cases like this I employ a word often used by highly intelligent people to replace a wide range of words and emotions– ahh. The only way to avoid losing my ducks would be to assign someone to night-time guard duty. That would be Dad. But it would be asking a lot just for a few ducks, so I spent a few days trying to come up with a snappy solution. Motion detecting lights and a used iPhone is what I came up with. There is a security-related app for the iPhone that can make it start taking pictures when the lights suddenly go on. As it takes them, it sends them to you by email. I imagined my email inbox filling up with clear shots of startled, mean-looking duck thieves. They’ll steal the phone, then the ducks, I was told. Yes, surely they will, but they can’t steal the photos from my inbox. I’d had the battery stolen from my truck the first day I owned it and, later, the deep-cycle battery and inverter/charge controller for my solar unit on my farm was stolen. I didn’t care about the ducks, I wanted to catch these people who have no respect for another person’s property. I was on a mission.

But, as usual, things escalated.

Having a beer at the front of the family house, Vientiane

By this time, and for reasons completely unrelated to duck security or the synthesis of groundbreaking new rice cultivation methods,  we’d moved out of our apartment and into the family abode. There was quite a bit of concern about whether I’d be able to handle it, while I was worried mostly about whether the family would be able to handle me. It’s not a bad house. Mom sold some land a few years ago and turned it into an almost bearable concrete and brick convection oven. It’s more of a shop house, really. The wife of the older of the two younger brothers runs a beauty salon in front, so there’s usually a small group of women chatting to the rhythm of blow dryers, scissors, and running water– all day long. There are two bedrooms and I get to dwell almost all day and all night in one. My room has one window but I can literally reach out and touch the building next door. The neighbors raise chickens and ducks in the arm-length gap between, so I get some real country sounds and smells– all day long. Both bedrooms open to a living room which is partially divided from the salon by a big cabinet. This living room, and much of the rest of the house, seems to be refuge for a vast number of neighborhood kids who favor it to whatever their lot in life is at their own home. I often wonder if some of them even have homes. The number of people sleeping on the floor in the living room at night varies. If there’s been a party nearby then Dad will surely be a permanent fixture for at least two days straight. Mom often sleeps there, too, as it’s cooler and less claustrophobic than her bedroom. Both the brothers were sleeping there for quite a while, even though the older one’s wife has a fairly decent house nearby (he married an older, single mother), but he’s been sick a lot and it was thought to have something to do with evil spirits inhabiting her house. They must have exorcized them because he’s looking better and sleeping there now. Recently he’s been replaced by one of the local kids, but I don’t know why. The youngest brother is almost always sleeping there because he has nowhere else to sleep. At night, if I need a pee, I have to exit the bedroom (the door only opens one-third of the way, as if conspiring to limit my access to daylight), cross through the living room full of prone, lumpy people, tread down 3 precarious steps into the kitchen, which is almost as big as the living room, to the toilet on the far side. As a beer drinker, it’s not really “if” I need to pee, but how often. In a way, the kitchen is one of my favorite places. It’s where I cook my crude yet often surprisingly tasty meals. I enjoy sitting on one of the steps leading down into the kitchen and watching them prepare and devour their meals of leaves, twigs, and assorted small-boned creatures. They eat on the floor in the middle of the kitchen around a low, round table which is normally stored in a corner. It always fascinates me how happy they are. Although I’m just sipping my beer on a step a few feet away from them, I almost feel like part of the group, which often includes people who have just stopped by at the right time. Anyone who passes by the open door at the back of the house, the kitchen door, is greeted with, “We’re eating, join us!” And then there are those “other things” that inhabit the kitchen. Creepy, crawly, slithering, sloshing things– whatever Dad has caught and they haven’t eaten yet. These creatures often remain quiet during the day, waiting, it seems, to startle me at night as I commute to and from the toilet.

The water closet

I won’t talk about the toilet. Oh, yes I will. Why not? But you’ve been warned. It’s not as bad as some toilets, but that’s not saying much in this country. It’s kept very clean. It was a squat toilet until we moved in. An attempt was made to improve flow (flushability?) which resulted in a broken squat toilet, so a sit-down one was installed in its place without the hoped-for flow improvement. It flushes by “bailing” repeatedly. Now, I lived a long time in Japan where they take their toilets seriously. The trajectory, water flow rate, and water temperature for the electronic bidets on their toilets can be programmed such that each family member has a bidet experience of their very own. The bidet experience is followed by a thorough blow drying of one’s private parts. One need not get closer to those private parts with your hands than you do pulling up your underwear. This toilet stands in stark contrast. Most of us who have lived in SE Asia long enough have grown accustomed to and come to regard almost affectionately the ubiquitous “bum gun.” These are simple, hand-held sprayers like you’d find attached to a high-end kitchen sink in the West. After blasting yourself with it you dry your bum with toilet paper, unless you don’t mind walking around in soggy knickers. In the photo above you may notice the lack of a bum gun and the lack of toilet paper in holder. Instead there is a plastic hose which is held to the spigot by a winding of rubber inner-tube. On rare occasions there is toilet paper in the holder, but it’s usually a half-disintegrated, soggy lump, because all the kids use the bathroom as a kind of water playground. I have experimented with the hose and can confirm that you can, in fact, reach your private parts with it, but if the inner-tube which holds it in place doesn’t give way, it tends to kink somewhere, providing an inferior bum-cleansing experience.  I have given up. My left hand now gets intimate knowledge of my nether regions while my right hand uses a plastic bailing ladle to pour water from behind precisely down the crack of my bum (no photos available). But I haven’t gotten to the worst bit, yet. Acoustics. The kitchen-side wall doesn’t reach the ceiling, because there is no ceiling. While sitting on the pot, I can hear people in the kitchen chewing, so you can imagine what they can hear, while they are eating, no less.

So, when I learned that they probably weren’t going to grow rice themselves anymore, rather they’d lend the land to other farmers for a percentage of the yield, two things occurred to me. First, it’s pointless to attempt to enthrall a family that has stopped growing rice with SRI. Second, with another 6,500 square meters to play with, I could do something useful with the land (including growing some rice) that would justify my finishing one room of the house and living on my land there when I’m in Vientiane, and have Dad stay there when I’m gone. The thought of the peace and quiet I’d have there started to make my living arrangements feel a good bit more irritating. In the evenings, when I’m not watching the family eat, I also like to sit outside on the steps of the salon and watch the people go by on their way to the market. Their dilapidated modes of transportation, mostly human-powered, are quite remarkable. But the well-intentioned neighbor at the beer shop across the street frequently comes over to sit with me. He talks a lot and I nod in agreement as if I understand what he’s saying. He thinks I’m lonely, I was told, and it was also suggested that he may be, too. Anyway, after spending the day in my dark, cramped bedroom/office, I enjoy sitting outside, alone, watching the world go by. I began yearning for some good, old-fashioned solitude. Elusive solitude.

To be continued. . .






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2012– The Year of Swift and Relentless Lateral Drift– Part 1

…you have to stop and drift laterally for a while until you come across something that allows you to expand the roots of what you already know.” -Robert M. Pirsig

While little physical progress was made on my Wrong Way Farm Stay project due to severe lateral drift (and insufficient funds), it was still a busy year. Progress takes many forms. Things (in my mind, anyway) were happening so quickly I’d get too absorbed in the most recent direction I was drifting to write anything about where I’d just been. So, I’ve decided to summarize some of what went on last year.

Discovering The System of Rice Intensification (SRI)

SRI fits in perfectly with my Wrong Way approach. Tell an Asian rice farmer, preferably a Thai rice farmer, because they seem to be the ones with the greatest “know-it-all” attitude, that they should transplant only one “itty-bitty” (use baby talk when possible) young rice seedling on a 30cm or so grid instead of a clump of 3 to 5 “gweat big” seedlings every 10 to 15cm apart. Assure him that that’s right, about 11 plants per square meter instead of about 100 or more. Then tell him not to flood the rice fields, just use irrigation to intermittently moisten them. Finish off by telling him that rice is not an aquatic plant, that he and his people have had it all wrong for centuries, and that his mother wears army boots. He’ll ask you what brand of Thai whiskey you’re drinking because he’ll be sure to want some, too. Every proposal is downright counterintuitive, but when managed properly, tremendously higher yields, in the range of 50 to even 100%, are achieved.

The book I'm translating about the System of Rice Intensification

So, what’s a guy who knows virtually nothing about rice cultivation, who’s working on a farming project on the Bolaven Plateau where they can’t even grow rice (the soil is supposedly too porous), doing getting all involved in this for? You would think that the book I’m translating on the subject is the reason for my interest, but I didn’t find the book, it found me.

One day in July I was thinking how wonderful it would be if I could grow rice on my farm, if only just enough for myself and guests. It seemed to me that the cooler climate would suit a Japanese variety of rice quite nicely. I’d heard that the soil there won’t hold water so normal wet-field cultivation wouldn’t be possible. But, knowing nothing about rice, I wondered why they flooded the fields, anyway. With more than 10 meters of rain a year on the Bolaven Plateau, surely the rice wouldn’t suffer from a lack of water. So, I got on the internet and did a search for “Hey, why the f##k do Asians flood rice fields?” I got a lot of porn sites with naked Asians doing naughty things. A couple of hours later I tried something like “growing rice without flooding.”

Jim Carrey promoting SRI in Haiti

One need go no further than the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development website about SRI. I’m not going to go into the details. This is supposed to be a summary, so if you’re interested, there’s plenty of information on the internet, and I’ll surely write at greater length at a later time. The clincher for me was learning that actor/comedian Jim Carrey has a foundation supporting SRI and its dissemination. It’s called the Better U Foundation.

I studied the subject in depth for at least a week before making my move. I like scientific papers and it’s even better when the subject is controversial. Controversial, you ask? How can there be anything controversial about growing rice? The controversy lies in the fact that SRI is a methodology that makes it possible to dramatically increase rice yield without genetic modification to the plant and with greatly reduced inputs such as chemical fertilizers and other agrochemicals. As such, it’s great for the millions of poor farmers practicing it in over 45 countries, but bad for rice researchers involved in GM or the agrochemical business. They are quick to call it an agronomic UFO (Unverified Field Observation). That’s right, millions of farmers are imagining higher yields. Most of this criticism was voiced nearly 10 years ago, but now that there are more than 250 articles about it published in scientific journals, most of the criticism has waned.

Thus convinced, I made my move. Nothing I’d read confirmed that I could grow Japanese rice on the Bolaven Plateau. Everything was about switching from conventional rice cultivation to SRI methodology on existing rice fields or in existing rice growing areas. So, I joined the Japan Association of the System of Rice Intensification (J-SRI) because, well, membership was free. My strategy to get answers was one of “Shock and Awe.” I may have exaggerated a little when I wrote to them, but they seemed suitably impressed, if not shocked, to have an American write to them in Japanese about growing rice on unflooded fields on a rural plateau in Laos which had been bombed mercilessly by Richard M. Nixon decades ago. Somehow I was able to add that their help may lead to the eradication of poverty in Laos, if not the entire world.

Numerous emails were exchanged with Mr. Shuichi Sato (Sato-san), who I still haven’t met but feel as if I know very well, having translated a chapter written by him and read reports and articles of his that were published in scientific journals. This is a guy who was in charge of developing irrigation systems in Indonesia for 18 years, from 1990 through 2008. He works for Nippon Koei, a company which claims to be “Japan’s No. 1 International Consulting Engineers.” It appears that the Japanese government loans money to developing countries (Official Development Assistance, or ODA) for doing helpful things that naturally involve providing a lot of work to the Japanese private sector. I would normally be skeptical of such an arrangement, especially when you consider the condition of some of the roads that were constructed in Laos with “Yen Loans,” but his story of what went on in Indonesia was quite moving. The whole idea of the irrigation project was to reduce poverty and increase food production in the areas under his supervision. It’s a long story, but when they realized that the government didn’t have the means to provide “soft” support to the farmers, it became clear that they had to do something if they were to achieve the goal of the project which was to “really, really help” people. And so it was that after getting the government’s permission they were allowed to do a “sub-project” which included the dissemination of SRI methodology. This meant working closely with farmers and such which is not usually part what they do. I mean, they survey land, oversee the digging of canals, damming up of streams, drilling of wells. . . They don’t usually get involved with convincing farmers that something as counterintuitive as SRI can actually improve their lives. The fascinating bit is how it changed the lives of these presumably geeky engineers.

Anyway, I didn’t know any of this at the time, but Sato-san eventually seemed to think it was safe to introduce me to his friend and colleague in Vientiane, Mr. Kazuyuki Shimazaki (Shimazaki-san), who’s doing roughly the same thing in Laos. I went to meet him at his surprisingly sparse and literally crumbling office at the Department of Planning, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. We chatted for a while about SRI dissemination in Laos and what I’m playing with on the Bolaven Plateau. He didn’t seem to have an answer about whether I’d be able to grow Japanese rice on the Bolaven Plateau or not (he’s an irrigation system engineer, not an agronomist), but he did hand me a thick book (351 pages), saying, “Sato-san wondered if you’d be interested in translating this.” I probably looked like I was in deep thought when I stared up at the ceiling for a few moments after that, but I was actually counting the cracks and admiring the patterns of the water stains. I was greatly relieved when he added, “for a reasonable fee, of course.”

The book is described on the Cornell website: “A new book about SRI, Rice Cultivation Revolution: SRI — Saving the World from Famine, Poverty and Water Scarcity, was published during September 2011. Edited by J-SRI, the 351-page Japanese language publication (shown at right) contains 15 chapters of experiences of practitioners and researchers from around the world.”

As an occasional though mostly unwilling freelance translator, I was delighted to get the work. Though the rate is modest, it’s made up for in sheer bulk. It’s a “for information purposes” translation, not a “for publication in book form” translation, so if I fail to dot an “i” or cross a “t” somewhere, nobody’s going to label me a crappy translator. And its not about the latest trend in women’s shoes or the finances of some obscure securities firm, it’s about something that I’m interested in. Plus I can do a chapter or two whenever I feel like it, and I’m paid immediately after I turn the work in. It’s a translator’s dream come true. And it’s probably changed my life, too, not to mention help me pay some bills.

To be continued. . .

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7th Annual Christmas Eve Dinner/Party at Wrong Way Cafe

As a kid I read every Isaac Asimov novel I could get my hands on. He always took me far away. Shortly before he died, he is rumored to have said,”The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. The Vikings, they may come and they may go.”

And so it was that I wasn’t politely “asked” to do the Christmas Eve dinner (at least the juicier bits) this year, I was actually “informed” that I’d be doing it. But, okay, I love the wood-burning oven I built. It’s no longer used for bread making, so it must be longing for a good firing.

For those of you who read my posts about last year’s Christmas Eve dinner, which I had proclaimed at the time to be the”5th Annual” one, and those of you who also read Wrong Way Ubon’s recent post on Facebook (as well as my own Facebook page), proclaiming this one to be the “8th Annual” one, well, it’s hard to count on your fingers when you’re drinking beer.

Three Stooges (less the camera man) grinding sweet Italian sausage

I believe in culinary improvisation– that’s to say, I’m never sure what I’m going to do or how it’s going to come out. This year I’ve decided not to do anything risky, like the suckling pig I experimented with last year. I’m just going to do the turkeys, the stuffing, and the gravy. I do, however, intend to bring them to highest level possible. I’ve already made a “Three Stooges” version of sweet Italian sausage which will go in the stuffing. You need three stooges to operate a Chinese model cast iron meat grinder that isn’t fastened to anything and has a faulty handle that keeps coming off.

So, join us at Wrong Way Cafe on the evening of December 24 for some fine dining, pleasant company, and a festive atmosphere. Turkeys, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, garlic bread, and an assortment of Thai dishes will be offered. You are kindly asked to look fully festive by brandishing or otherwise wearing a splash of green, white, or red, or any combination of these. The buffet begins around 6:30 p.m. and is 250 baht per person. We ask that those who intend to join us drop by the pub and pay us in advance, or if that is not possible, call or email us with your firm intentions. This will guarantee that we’ve prepared the right amount of food. Let’s make it a great Christmas Eve!

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Wrong Way Farm Stay– The Final Final Design

If you read my last post, you know that I’ve had quite a bit of time to refine my plans before carrying on with construction. Well, construction resumes next week, now that the rains have mostly stopped. I’ll certainly make refinements as I proceed, but I’ve finally settled on a concept that suits me.

The Aquaponic Component

I’ve begun to shy away from a commercial operation, at least right from the beginning. There’s plenty of land around if I’m inclined to expand in the future. I’ll still sell the produce, of course, but I’m not going to push the system to any limits to prove a point to myself. I’m going to go at it sort of the same way I cook– haphazardly.

This will provide a variety of food for the farm stay

If you look at the sketch to the left, you will see that I’ve reduced the number of hydroponic troughs growing lettuce and other leafy stuff from 3 to 1. When the “farm stay” component of my project kicks in, the system will just barely support the gastronomic needs of my guests, so I want to broaden their choices a bit. No, duckweed isn’t going to be on the menu. It’s there to discourage algae, and to become a high-protein additive to my mostly grain-based fish feed. The freshwater prawns can nibble on it, too.

I originally intended to stock only a few freshwater prawns in the hydroponic troughs. They don’t mind being in the dark, and they eat detritus (fecal matter from the fish, leftover fish feed, etc.). They also frequently eat each other. The males don’t grow at the same rate (they have 3 “morphotypes”), and the presence of the dominant BC (blue claw) males will inhibit the growth of the unfortunate, smaller fellows. That’s an easy problem to solve, though– eat ’em! It would be kind of hard to get at them for collection and eating of the larger males if they were under the rafts, though, so I’m going to raise some in the other 2 hydroponic troughs, about 20 per square meter. They will be easy to net underneath the bed of duckweed, as they won’t be able to see me coming. I’ll stock 10 per square meter in the trough with rafts just to see what happens.

Bamboo raft weighted down with 3 kg of stuff pretending to be lettuce

I also don’t want to have to make too many rafts until they are needed. I can always increase the raft area, but my rafts are, well, going to be a bit unconventional. For a long time I thought I’d go with standard Styrofoam boards with holes cut in them for the net pots. That’s what people in the West seemed to be doing, until I learned that UV light makes them disintegrate. The cheap stuff will absorb water, too, and hence cease to float. So what people are using is special, expensive foam boards (blue, I believe) used in construction, but there are issues about the fire-retardant chemicals leaching out of them. And I don’t know where to buy them, either, so following a common theme in my project, I have decided to go all natural. Bamboo is the obvious choice. It floats (sort of) and doesn’t rot (for quite a while) in water. It’s also free, if you go and get it yourself. So after some trial and error, I came up with what you see to the right. Ugly, I know, but the bacteria will love the extra surface area.It is weighted down with 3 kg of junk that was laying around, as that’s about what 10 or so fully grown lettuce heads will weigh. But, what you don’t see, are the PET bottles I had to put, one each, on both ends. It works fine without the weight– seedling roots, for instance, would just be touching the surface of the water. At some point, however, the rafts will need a boost to their buoyancy. On the bright side, by adjusting the volume of air in the PET bottles (by adding water), it will be possible to maintain the raft depth of your heart’s desire. On the other hand, what a pain in the ass. . .

Another advantage to this revised design is that I now only need to make one filter contraption. I’m not handy when it comes to fashioning things. Designing things, well, I’m okay at that, I think. The two troughs with the prawns and duckweed should not need the filters as the solids that I’d otherwise be filtering out will be their source of food. There will undoubtedly be some kind of waste coming out the other end, but I think I can deal with that. It will also be possible to drain and clean the troughs individually while keeping the rest of the system going. So, I think I’ll be able to raise the prawns without any added feed. As it is designed now, I think the system will produce the following annually given an input of 3 to 4 kg of feed per day:

  • 1 ton tilapia
  • 40 kg prawns (2,000 at 20 g each)
  • 5,200 heads of lettuce (a little over 1 ton)
  • 300 kg tomatoes (grown upside down, utilizing vertical space, not shown)
  • 230 kg bell peppers (grown upside down, utilizing vertical space, not shown)

Another essential sustainable farming item

I’ve also added a solar tunnel dryer/water heater into the design. The basic design is shown on the right. Coffee can generally be dried in the sun because it is harvested during the dry season, but I learned the hard way last year that this doesn’t always happen, especially when you’ve contracted the process out (and your contractor’s own coffee takes precedence). But the main use for the solar dryer will be to dry wheat and barley which I’ve malted, and also dry the spent grains after making beer with the malt. To obtain 3 to 4 kg of spent grain a day to feed my fish, I need to brew about 5,000 liters of beer every year, which is only about 200 liters every 2 weeks. That’s only about 22 big bottles (630 ml) a day. Hell, I can drink about half of that. Once the beer is brewed, the spent grains will deteriorate quickly if they are not rinsed and dried. It will come in handy for drying other fish feed supplements such as composting worms and duckweed, too. After scratching my head for some time about how I could use that heated air to heat my system water, I decided that I’d just lay down some black LDPE on the black surface and trickle feed ground water to the sump during the day. An aquaponics system loses about 1 to 1.5% of its system water daily, which is actually a fraction of what other aquaculture systems use, so I need to replace about 500 liters a day. That’s about 1 liter a minute over 8 hours. I’m hoping that this, plus painting the south-side of the fish tank black, will keep the water at around 25 to 26 degrees C.

There is a lot to be said for polyculture. An aquaponic system, raising fish with plants, is already a polyculture, but the addition of freshwater prawns expands the biodiversity. The prawns will make use of detritus that would otherwise be taken out of the system. Eron Martan wrote in the Aquaponics Journal:

Why even bother with polycultures in aquaponics or recirculating systems? There are many possible benefits, but one outweighs the rest and is of significant ecological importance. Polycultures are a form of agrobiodiversity that extend into ancient times and are a key to sustainable agriculture. According to a report by Lori Ann Thrupp (2000) from the Special Biodiversity Issue of the International Affairs Journal, “The homogenization of species and of farming systems increases vulnerability to insect pests and diseases. Purely monocultural systems are highly susceptible to attack, which can devastate a uniform crop, especially on large plantations.” Monocultures are an unnatural and unsustainable form of agriculture that has caused many disasters across the world, especially after the green revolution. Aquaponics is a step in the right direction, but with further integration and agrobiodiversity would be even closer to truly sustainable and eco-friendly agriculture. With more species, and more phyla, you will have a simulated ecosystem which will have more complete cycling of nutrients and more effective biological controls.

The Farm Stay Component

Sort of what the farm stay units are going to look like

In the next 3 or 4 months I hope to not only complete the aquaponics component of my project, but get one “model” farm stay unit completed (which I intend to test thoroughly by living in it myself for a while). It will be located right next to the greenhouse on the upper tier, but the others to follow will be down by the stream and waterfall, in more picturesque locations. The goal is at least 3 units suited to families, with a bedroom on the ground floor plus a loft. I’d also like to build 3 or 4 smaller units for single guests and couples. The sketch here shows sort of what I want the family size units to look like, without the roof, loft, and a few other bits and pieces (such as windows and doors). The inside diameter is 7 meters. As you can see, I’ve added a Japanese twist in the form of an outdoor bath and garden. At 1,200 meters above sea level, most evenings a hot bath would be irresistible.

A smaller unit suitable for 1 or 2 guests

The units are based on some of the designs and concepts of Owen Geiger, former director of Builders Without Borders. The unit shown to the right was built by Mr. Geiger in Thailand. Details about how it was built can be found here. For more information, check out the Natural Building Blog. These buildings can be built for a fraction of what it would cost using conventional practices. They are as green as you can get, and will last forever.

Guests are going to be encouraged to make the most of their sojourn on a sustainable farm and admire lots of neat examples of ways we can live without ruining the planet, and this includes preparing their own meals. The way I look at it, what a relief it would be for a family or couple traveling together to be able to relax and make their own dinner using the excellent ingredients I can offer, especially after a succession of crappy restaurants. While the composting toilet will doubtless be the most memorable sustainable contraption one encounters at my farm stay, guests will also have the opportunity to prepare their own Japanese style bath. They can then drain the bath through their floor to take the edge off the nighttime cold (it drops easily below 19 C at night, and those floor tiles will be cold).

A household rice husk stove which produces a clean, blue flame

You usually wouldn’t think there is anything sustainable about quickly heating 200 liters of water from 19 C to about 40 C. Sustainable or not, this can be done thanks to a more robust version of the rice husk gasifier shown here. There are a lot of gasifiers out there which burn various types of biomass, but rice husks are tricky. In my search for DIY plans in cyberspace, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Dr. Paul Olivier. Paul heads ESR (Engineering, Separation and Recycling LLC) in Vietnam. Their motto is “Making Waste our Greatest Resource.” Not only have Paul and others refined the design, he is having them manufactured locally and has offered them to me at cost. What’s so special about a stove that burns rice husks, you may ask. First of all, it doesn’t just “burn” the rice husks, it “gasifies” them. Gasification is used in industry and such but not where it’s needed, in the kitchens of the rural poor. There are tremendous health issues caused by cooking with firewood and charcoal. And what the stove produces, other than heat, is biochar. Biochar is great for the soil. Paul offers an excellent presentation about biomass gasification on his website. He also suggests that you look at this, which puts gasification into a much larger context.

In the evening, after a hard day of trekking around the other waterfalls in the area, guests will be encouraged to go into the garden, fill a more robust version of this rice husk stove with rice husks, light it, and push it back under the 200 liter steel barrel full of water in the corner. They can then consume a bottle or two of my Beer Bolaven while the stove quickly heats the water in the barrel from about 19 C to 40 C. Having accomplished this, they then turn a valve which fills the bath. Instructions for Japanese bathing will be provided. After the bath, turn the valve which drains the bathwater to the radiant floor. Go back inside and, after a couple of hours, begin to enjoy the closest thing to central heating you will find in Laos.

You won't find lodging elsewhere with central heating

Okay, so I’m not sure it will work. But it would be quite a novelty if it did. My idea for the radiant floor is shown to the right. The sand and vapor barrier are pretty straight forward, but what are those rice husks doing there? Well, rice husks make a great, free insulation. Won’t they rot, compact, or be eaten by all sorts of critters? I don’t think so. First of all, they should stay dry. They will initially compact, when the slab is poured, but they won’t compact any further. In other words, they shouldn’t compact over time, leaving voids. Rice husks can only absorb something like 7% moisture. This is not enough to become a home for mold and such, and anything that wants to eat them (and I can’t think of anything that does) will have to penetrate a 40cm thick wall. The cardboard is simply there to provide a solid base on an otherwise somewhat liquid material. The LDPE tubing goes down. It is tied in place to rebar mesh (not shown) on top of it, and then the slab is poured. The floor only supports a small amount of non-bearing wall and the people who wander about, so it doesn’t need to be thick.

And heating with bathwater? Okay, its a bit of a grey area (grey water, get it?). First of all, not a lot of heat is needed, just enough to take the edge off. At 15 cm spacing I should be able to get about 340 linear meters of 19 mm tubing in. That tubing will hold approximately 100 liters of water. Assuming that the bathwater is heated from 19 C, the same ambient temperature as the floor, to 40 C, and then cools down to, say, 35 C before it is run through the floor, that’s 16 degrees that the water has in residual heat. To heat 100 liters of water from 19 C to 35 C, about 6,400 Btu are required. That means there are that many Btu to go into my floor. But the bath will contain 200 liters, so if it is covered afterwards, and allowed to trickle through the floor, that’s some more Btu that can eke their way into the floor. So, if the total Btu were, say, 10,000, that’s the equivalent of running a 1,500 watt space heater for 2 hours.

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Lack-of-Progress Update, October, 2012

You may think I haven’t had enough to drink if I say, “No progress is good progress.” It wouldn’t be true, of course, if I actually had concrete plans to follow and schedules to maintain– instead, I have whimsical notions, vague ideas, and occasional moments of clarity. For instance, I don’t know which category this falls into, but I was thinking about fish feed one day (I don’t want to buy commercial fish feed, as who knows what’s in it, and I want to be self-sufficient, anyway) so the logical thing to do, according to my particular brand of logic, is to brew “Beer Bolaven” and feed the fish the spent grains. And while I’m at it, since the climate is suited, why not grow my own wheat, barley, and hops? More about that in a later post.

Building site minus the busling activity

But that’s not why my building site has looked like this for months. The photo was taken on August 25, and unless the whole thing eroded, it looks like this now. We went to the site in early September, fully intent to make some progress, but that wasn’t to be. Dirt was required, so we called the guy with the dump truck with the bald tires and blatantly lied about the condition of the access road. Blatant lying can be contagious– he told us that he couldn’t even get into the place where he gets his loads of dirt. We were defeated. We succumbed to the will of the rain.

That's not a beer in my hand. Really!

Meanwhile, duty called. I had to go to Europe and escort my boss, the president, and our managing director, his nephew, on some customer visits. In contrast to most trips abroad, this one involved so little work we were all feeling kind of guilty. Our customers had conspired to make it a 9-day stay in Germany with only about 12 hours of face-to-face discussions. But, as the driver, it was still fairly hard work. These customers were located such that I had to drive over 2,000 km, crossing Germany from north to south and east to west (but not in that order). There was also a day trip into Switzerland, to a customer nearby the village of Gruyere, famous for its cheese. The rental car was a spanking brand new Volvo. It was a luxurious, automatic diesel, which freaked me out when I came to my first full stop– the engine quit. “What a piece of shit,” I mumbled as felt around for a nob, dial, or button that would get it going again (these things don’t use keys as I know them anymore). But it turned out that all I had to do was take my foot off the brake and it would start itself up and get going as if nothing had happened. . . the bastard.

An annoying reminder of the difference between the rich and the poor (me)

The problem with a long business trip like this with hardly any business involved is that I, as General Coordinator of Business Trips, have to organize the whole thing, like a travel agent. Yes, I choose in advance all of our hotels and many of our restaurants. It’s hard work. A trip of such length with so little to do requires visiting at least 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I chose Potsdam and Lubeck. Between Baden-Baden and Dresden I couldn’t find a World Heritage Site, so they had to settle for a 13th century tower we could climb.

Sampling the local beer beside a lake in Chemnitz, Germany

Over a fabulous dinner with some purchasing and logistics people belonging to a customer in the Hamburg area, we mentioned this tower. “What’s the name again?” “Where is it again?” None of them had ever heard of it. “How did you find it?” I told them that, according to the Via Michelin website, it was the only point of interest on our route between Baden-Baden and Dresden– in other words, across the whole mid-section of the country. “And what did you see from the top of this tower?” Well, we could see very far, I replied. “But there is nothing in that part of Germany, no hills, no forests. . .” No, but we could see very far. Very, very far, I suggested, after a long pause, feeling sort of sorry for the tower which cost us a euro or two to climb, following in the footsteps of 7 or more centuries of fellow tower climbers. But, anyway, everywhere I went, there was beer to drink.

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Me and My Wrong Way Cafe

I’ve been very busy coming up with schemes to eradicate malnutrition and generally improve things in Laos, single-handedly, of course. Since this is a just cause and such and requires copious amounts of attention and Beer Lao, I’ve decided to retire from my position on Wrong Way Cafe’s Board of Mismanagement and sell my share of ownership to Ting. Over the years we’ve built up a great deal of goodwill. In fact, this was a major consideration when it came down to fixing a value on the pub. Factoring in the goodwill, we decided that Wrong Way Cafe was worth at least 5,000 baht ($159). The gentleman that I am, I settled for 2,000 baht ($64), leaving Ting the lion’s share. As a result, I have henceforth dispensed with my otherwise inalienable right to stand behind the counter and chat with customers while the staff struggle to maneuver around me; and, most dreadfully, I accept the fact that I have to pay my own bill from now on. However, I retain my right to love Wrong Way Cafe with all my heart. I will be using Wrong Way Cafe as the point of direct sales for my naturally grown, chemical free produce from my farm on the Bolaven Plateau, so that’s something to look forward to (but don’t hold your breath).

Besides, with regards to Wrong Way Cafe (and sung to the rhythm of Paul Simon’s “Cecilia”):

I got up to wash my face

When I come back to bed

A Norwegian’s taken my place

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