November 11th, or 11/11, is an odd German holiday known as St. Martin’s Day (Martinstag). St. Martin of Tours (316 – 297 CE) is a saint associated with modesty and altruism (aren’t they all?). Legend has it that St. Martin slashed his cloak in half to save a homeless person from freezing. His holiday used to be followed by a fast that lasted a long, hungry period of weeks, stretching out to Christmas. 
But St. Martin’s Day is celebrated here in southern Germany by eating a special dish of duck or goose (Martinsgans), accompanied by red cabbage cooked with apple, and homemade dumplings known as knödel.
When it gets dark, nighttime glows with candles from lantern processions (Martinsumzüge or Laternenumzüge). The streets fill with adults, accompanying children who carry hand-made lanterns. In our village the procession is led by an actor dressed up as the saint. In some areas the parade follows behind an actor dressed up as a Roman soldier on horseback. 
The tradition to eat a goose (today usually replaced by a duck) on St. Martin’s Day is believed to go back the medieval tax system. November 11th was one of the days when medieval vassals had to pay taxes, and peasants often paid with a goose.  Another popular story is that a gaggle of honking geese betrayed Martin’s hiding place: he hid in a goose pen from the people of Tours when they wanted to make him a bishop. 
All the local restaurants and beer gardens have duck and goose dishes on their menus. Reserve your table now! they cajole.
In all the years I lived in San Francisco, I never ordered or willingly ate duck. Bizarrely shiny, glistening, reddish shellacked duck carcasses hang on meat hooks in the front windows of Chinese restaurants throughout the city. And hang. And hang. And hang. Just the idea of the oldness and congealed fat covered with flies of this ‘special dish’ turned my stomach. Strongly flavored meat that’s been aging for probably as long as the restaurant’s been in business? Yuck! I’ll take a pass…
But I recall with glee the Peking duck Uwe and I ate in Beijing. The restaurant specialized in only Peking duck, along with all the pomp and circumstance such a dish demands.
Our Chinese friend Weiyu orders for us, but every single table wants the same meal. Waiters are formally dressed, complete with chefs’ toques, mouth masks and protective gloves. By the end of the evening they carve hundreds of plates of duck.
May November 11th bring you flights of fancy and a visit from the Bluebird of Happiness. By now the ducks and geese, indeed, all migrating birds have already left for warmer climates. Despite the record-breaking warm days here in Germany, winter is coming (yes, we hear you John Snow).
We’re enchanted with bodies of water. Yes, the Amazon River is definitely on our wish list…. We love them all, from the impossibly old cultures and antiquities found along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt to the remote beauty and haunting calls of loons on the back trails of lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks, to the ever changing scenery along the Mekong.
The Mekong River defines Laos in many ways. Laos is a landlocked country, but visitors forget this fact because the river runs the length of the land. When it reaches the southernmost border to Cambodia, the Mekong River divides up into a landscape of fast-running parallel streams.
It’s a quiet region, frequented mostly by nature lovers and stoners (see the first half of this post for some details on thataspect of travel).
Locals still go fishing in what looked like awkward and probably highly dangerous but effective fashion.
The Mekong River is wide and sleepy in places up north. Here, though, the river definitely rolls and tumbles. This method of fishing is surely the smartest way to work with the force of the waters and guarantee a good catch.
Here are some reasons why you should visit Southern Laos: the sweetness of a part of the world that isn’t in a hurry and has spectacular scenery.
The chance to get into areas that are still relatively untouched by mass tourism.
The natural world: biologists and botanists continue to discover new species. And the flora and fauna that Laos contains are beautiful.
Plus you never know when you’ll sail into the middle of a local festival. We literally did just that as we headed down river from Pakse to reach 4,000 Islands. A long boat race was going on, and Uwe and I didn’t need to be asked twice if we wanted to stay for a while and watch.
We booked our trip with a gentle young guide and a variety of boats. The infrastructure is simple compared to Germany or Hong Kong, but with cell phones and patience it all went smoothly. When you’re in a place as lovely as Laos is, it’s all good.
On our last trip to Laos we headed south to the quiet little city of Pakse in the Chapasak province. We wanted to see old ruins – and really spectacular waterfalls!
For the latter we booked a guide to reach the Bolaven Plateau. Hiking in to some of the waterfalls was a gloriously steep, wet walk.
Later, with the same guide (and boats) we were carried to 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don). I was beyond amused to notice the signs on some of the guesthouses in 4,000 Islands, announcing that special, magical pancakes were available for breakfast…. My German husband missed the inference and asked why I was laughing. “Guests can get their pancakes laced with the noble herb,” I informed him.  Sure enough, plenty of tourists in the 4,000 Islands region spent all their time literally hanging out in hammocks. They were all way too relaxed – or something – to be ambitious. They were in no hurry to explore.
The Mekong River splits into branches at this end of Laos and tumbles over boulders and channels cut through rock.
When the French colonized Laos they came up with a bold (and ultimately quixotic) plan to build a railway through the region. They wanted to go around the waterfalls and create a faster, easier way to travel and ship goods either to the north, or to the southern Vietnam port of Saigon. The result is what a CNN article wryly refered to as “Laos’ first railway: 14 km of rust” .
The Mekong defeated the engineers, and 4,000 Islands is a beautiful sleepy area.
But the waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau. We hiked in to as many as our young guide was willing to take us to.
Somewhere my father is grinning with approval at my never-ending blog thread for him! I present installment #26 describing what to call groups of animals … See how many you can guess. Answers listed at the bottom of the page.
NOTE: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz first appeared in print on 17 May, 1900; the film premiered on 12 August, 1939. Here is one of my very first posts, about author L. Frank Baum, bats, and monkeys…. — Jadi
Both sides of my family hail from the Northeast. We lived for a while in Cazenovia, one of the most beautiful small towns in upstate NY. Caz is just a few miles from Chittenango Falls, and that town was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz.
My sisters and I first saw The Wizard of Oz film on an old black and white television set we called Lucille. Lucille was temperamental (“Dad! Lucille’s on the fritz again!”), but her screen was big.
It was years before I finally saw The Wizard of Oz on a color television. How I gasped when Dorothy opened that door and stepped out into Munchkin Land! But in color or black and white, to this day I don’t much like monkeys.
Some years ago my husband and I traveled to Bali. The Balinese fill their temples with statues of the strange half-bird, half-god creature known as Garuda, a lion-like Barong, lots of sinuous snakes, and Hanuman the monkey god. The cultural heart of Bali is Ubud, home to the Monkey Forest which contains the Monkey Temple. I wrapped a sarong around my waist before we entered to show respect, and I know I was curious as to what we’d find.
The temple grounds were filled – no, overrun – with crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) monkeys. Dozens of them rested on the platforms to the Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal temple. Many more watched us from up in the canopy of thick jungle trees and vines. But worst of all, a horde of monkeys scampered our way as we drew near. They were used to people and accustomed to visitors who bring them food. We walked slowly, not making any sudden movements, keeping our arms stretched out with our hands opened. I hoped my empty palms signaled: no food here!
I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we left the grounds. But I wonder about the sanity (to say nothing of the later health) of tourists who bring bananas and fruit to hand to the macaques. Those critters are feral!
Bali has another disturbing indigenous species: bats.
A huge colony of the largest fruit eating bats I have ever seen, all with wingspans of an easy three feet, hung upside down in a very tall tree. I was horrified by their size.
Then they began flying. In the middle of the day. Bright tropical sun highlighted the reddish membranes of their webbed skins. They flew in loops, more and more gigantic bats, circling lower. I began to feel dizzy as a scratchy voice in my head murmured, “I’ll get you, my little pretty …”
Macaques and bats had morphed together into L. Frank Baum’s flying monkeys. Never underestimate the power of imagination in children…or adults. That movie scene still haunts me. Like I said, to this day I don’t much like monkeys.
This is the third and final installment of my posts on the Bun Bang Fai, the Rocket Fest that takes place to usher in the rainy season all over Laos and parts of Thailand. We literally stumbled into the Bun Bang Fai on our first visit to Laos…
This 3-day festival celebrates the start of the rainy season by shooting rockets off into the heavens.  Teams compete for awards with home made rockets. HOME MADE.
Take a moment to contemplate that fact.
Contestant teams have to tie their home made rockets to shoot off…. from a bamboo tower.
Each team is required to climb the scaffolding, tie and light the rocket themselves. Take another moment and contemplate that fact. While you’re at it, please pray that the rockets head up in the sky and not down into the watching crowds….
The bringing in of the rockets is part of the entertainment. The festivities include plenty of face paint, dressing up in women’s clothing and lots of gleeful music.
Oh yeah: and plenty of alcohol. During the festival there’s lots of dancing and singing, bands perform, and the road is lined with make shift stands, set up by people to sell food and goods.
The bamboo scaffold for shooting the rockets was set up a goodly ways away from the crowds (no doubt due to past experience). You need a spot in a clearing with no ground vegetation.
But what a terrific way to mark the change of seasons: throw a village party, give out some prizes (and these were significant: our guide told us a new house and a water buffalo were among the prizes to be awarded), and shoot off some fireworks. Just make sure that they’re home made, by a team of you and your friends.
Last week I wrote about the Bun Bang Fai. This is another installment of a new feature for this blog: I’m transcribing my entries from an old travel journal. I hauled out the journal I kept then to make sure that my memories match up with the facts. I use a travel diary to record first impressions and get down the details to go over later (like now, yearslater). As I said with the last one, enjoy, and let me know if this post is something you want to read more of in the future. — Jadi
“13 March. We stumbled into a rocket festival. The guide asked us if we’d like to stop and look around – a large wooden platform had been erected in a clearing so teams from some 30 surrounding villages could shoot off home-made rockets! The three categories were for small, medium and large and a village head scored them for height and at the end of the third day would give out awards, ranging from a house to a water buffalo.
It’s all pre-Buddhist, pre-recorded time: a wish to impregnate the skies so that it begins to rain. Food stands set up all alongside the one road, a band stand with live music and people dancing before it, a big pavillion for sitting and partying with lots of tables and chairs. The village teams cross-dressed and parading around with their rockets, lots of silly play-acting and laughter.
Depending on the region the 3-day festival takes place just before the start of the rainy season. For example, our guide’s home village has their rocket ceremony later, in May. The fest goes on somewhere in Laos from March through May.
We were the only foreigners. People noticed us certainly but other than a very drunken pair of pals who semi-interviewed us in English, no one ogled or jostled or tried to sell us anything.”
This is a brand new feature for this blog: I’m transcribing selected entries from my old travel journals. Currently I’m working on a batch of new posts set in Laos. I hauled out the journal I kept on our first visit to make sure that my memories match up with the facts. My descriptions from that trip are raw. I use a travel diary to record first impressions and get down the details to go over later (like now, years later). I’ve decided to post some of them here for your amusement. — Jadi
“13 March. The heat and humidity are too huge to move quickly. Despite them we’ve kept up an ambitious sight-seeing program.
A 1,000-year-old site we visited with our guide on yesterday’s tour:
Buddhas in the Angkor Wat style carved out of boulders in the jungle. And, not twenty feet away, a spirit altar by a tall tree. 
No one’s allowed to build anything on or near the site. But the locals come there for ceremonies and celebrations. It had a rather hushed and holy air as we stood on the jungle (forest) floor in the welter of the afternoon heat at Vang Sang. An elephant graveyard was once found nearby!
90 kilometers north of Vientiane we stopped for a boat trip on Ang Nam Ngum, an artificial dammed lake.
A long boat of Laos with packages waited on the adjacent boat docked there. They were from one of the many islands and had come in on a once-a-week boat trip to do their shopping.
The buildings all high on stilts for the rainy times. We had my favorite meal so far in this trip: a soup with fresh Chinese vegetables and tofu and vermicelli noodles – it may be the freshest ingredients in a soup of this kind I can remember. And a lake fish grilled whole with garlic and ginger and lemon grass and cilantro; and it was all just too delicious for words.
… I’m quite intrigued with the very old spiritual energy this country possesses. Little spirit houses beside trees. Sticky rice offerings on tree trunks.…
Now we’re down at an open pavilion-style café on the Mekong River. It’s receded with the dry season, almost to Thailand. Weird to think Thailand is so close. The river’s so low you could practically walk there.”