Friday, November 23, 2007

Pleasures of Chinese Air Transport

After lunch in the same cold and empty dining hall that had served as our place of breakfast, lunch and dinner for the past several days, our host Professor Guo took Geoff and me to Kunming airport where we bid farewell to each other. Geoff and I had travelled around Yunnan on field visits to a project enhancing biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes that both of us were advising.

At the check-in we were informed that the China Eastern Airlines flight MU-5406 supposed to leave for Shanghai at 1:45 p.m. was delayed due to the late arrival of the aircraft. The estimated time of departure was now 2:35 p.m. This happens, but Geoff had a fairly tight connection to a Quantas flight from Shanghai to Sydney later in the day. Finally the MD-62 that was to take us to Shanghai arrived, the passengers disembarked and the plane was refueled. At 2:55 p.m. we were allowed to walk across the tarmac to the plane and be seated in the cramped-up seats. At 3:20 p.m. we were ushered out again. A tall and quite beautiful stewardess told us that one of the engines of the plane had a problem that needed fixing. So we sat down back in the waiting hall of the rather chaotic airport. When an Australian and a Finn are stranded in such a situation, there is only one possible course of action: to drink beer. After a couple of beers there was again commotion. I went to the young man in Yunnan Airlines uniform who seemed to be the only one at the airport with even a basic knowledge of English and, to my surprise, was told that we would all be moved to the airport hotel.

At the hotel great confusion reigned. The airline could only tell us that if they get the plane ready "you have to go to Shanghai tonight" but if not we would stay overnight at the hotel. I asked to be told as soon as possible which of the alternatives would be the one, so that we didn't have to be on call until late evening and could at least relax at the hotel. This to me perfectly reasonable request didn't seem to sink in. Furthermore, we tried to put through the point that we have connecting flights to catch. Mine was (fortunately or unfortunately) on China Eastern, so there should not be a problem. But Geoff's was on a different carrier and the cheapo ticket prevented him from changing it. We were met with shrugs. Then again, what could the guy do? Nevertheless, I wasn't happy when they tried to make us share a room. Both Geoff and I said no and asked for a private room. We were told that a private room would cost 30 yuan extra - no big deal, of course, but it was a matter of principle by then; it was not my choice to stay in this hotel. The airline guy was saying that there are three beds in one room and that two men must share a room. Meanwhile, in the confusion one of the reception girls had written me a slip with a room number (A309), different from Geoff's (B408). This provided us the opportunity just to leave and go upstairs to our individual rooms. Half an hour later a bellhop came in with a card with the word A408 written on it (presumably referring to bed A in Geoff's room). The diminutive fellow didn't speak a word of English so I showed him my A309 card. He tried to exchange them by grabbing hold of the card in my hand, but I stubbornly told him that this was my room and I'd stay here. He went off and never returned.

At 6 p.m. I received a call in the room. The person spoke Chinese and hung up when I said I didn't understand the language. A few minutes later there was a knock on my door and a girl stammered something about supper. So I went down. Geoff arrived soon after, looking cheerful and carrying his bags. They had knocked on his door, too, and he had thought we were on our way to the airport. Consequently, at dinner he was pretty gloomy. We shared a table with a bunch of locals who were also trying to get to Shanghai. They were eating and laughing and appeared to be enjoying this unexpected chance to stay in a hotel.

Interestingly, even in this fairly good hotel at the international airport of the capital city of southwestern China nobody seemed to understand a word of English. Geoff went down to the business center of the hotel to call his wife that he didn't know when he would be coming back. The person in charge of the center had to call help from a girl from the reception. She apparently was the only English speaker in the hotel. In the day's China Daily Business Weekly that I had read earlier Bill Gates was quoted saying that if China intends to become a leader in software technology they needed to learn good English. This will be less of a problem in the future as so many US educated and other overseas Chinese are increasingly returning to their home country. Of course, most of them will stay on the coast and it'll take a while until places inland will benefit fully.

Later I was walking around the hotel to check out the place and make the time pass. A pretty albeit heavily made up girl in the hotel uniform waved me to join her at the table where she was smoking and playing solitaire. Opening her uniform, she revealed a sexy outfit she was wearing underneath and explained to me - in Chinese and sign language - that she would take me to a back room for a massage. Of course, I had to remain waiting and ready to go in the unlikely case we'd be called to fly to Shanghai. The last thing I wanted at that stage was to be left behind by the plane. Not that I would have invited her to my room under other circumstances either. But the incident showed that private entrepreneurship is alive and well in China.

Finally, at around 10:30 p.m. when Geoff and I were sitting at the bar drinking more beer, the English-speaking receptionist came to inform us that we would be staying here for the night. By that time we had actually figured it out by ourselves. She told us that our flight would be at 6:30 in the morning. When we asked her to confirm the time by writing it down, it turned out to be 8:20. Well, I myself could easily make the same mistake in Chinese. The bar was full of girls who looked like the one that had spoken to me earlier.

The following morning I woke up at 6:30. The room was freezing cold and I could see my breath. I had slept in my full cloths under all blankets I could gather. My hands were frozen and my nose running. When I tried to produce a sound my throat didn't react. Our suitcases were never brought to the hotel (I kept my fingers crossed that I'd once more be reunited with my bag), so I had no change of clothes. Luckily, at least, I had packed my toothbrush into the hand luggage that was with me.

As requested by the staff the night before, I went down at 7 a.m. sharp. It was a sunny winter morning and the lobby was cold because the doors to the street were open. We all sat there huddling with no sight of the China Eastern crew. The guide of the Korean tour group that was stuck there with us, a friendly fellow in a baseball cap and shades, somehow found out that the airport shuttles were to pick us up at 7:30. This was later revised to 8 a.m. They finally came at 8:15. Needless to say, no breakfast was served.

We were then taken to the airport where we were dumped in the chaotic departure hall with no instructions from the ground crew. After a while and entirely by chance, we found out that it was necessary to exchange our boarding passes from yesterday to new ones to enable us to board the plane. We were told to line up at the office, which carried the sign "n-duty mana-ge". Our Chinese fellow passengers were all shouting excitedly and trying to cut into the line. When we finally made it to the counter, the girl told us that we actually needed to go to another counter. Why wasn't I surprised? I asked her politely whether she realized how annoying this all was. I received a blank stare. We walked over to the other counter and after a lengthy wait were sent to a third one where we eventually got our boarding passes. When we pointed out that we had connecting flights out of Shanghai that we'd missed, they called the supervisor. Finally someone to talk to! The lady arrived and looked at my ticket that said Shanghai-Narita and had the time 09:10 written on it. She stated the obvious - "Oh, you won't make it to that plane" - and after a bit of pondering asked whether I would like to change flight. I answered in the affirmative that, indeed, I would. She then told me that this could not be done here in Kunming and that I would need to contact the airline once we arrived in Shanghai. I pointed out that the sign above said that this was the counter for "international travelers with connections overseas." Apparently it didn't mean that they had any responsibility for the actual connections. When Geoff asked whether our bags would be on the flight we were about to board, the manager was starting to show signs of irritation. She told us curtly not to worry so much. I told her we had a lot to worry about.

Suddenly there was a terrible rush. We were told to board immediately, so we hurried down the steps to the tarmac, literally squeezed in between a set of aircraft stairs, and walked to the China Eastern MD-82 that was waiting. It was the same plane that had broken down yesterday. I found my China Daily Business Weekly in the seat pocket of seat 19C where I had left it the day before. Also the same crew was there, including the stunning tall stewardess.

The flight departed soon and was actually quite pleasant once we were airborne. The plane was only half full so we could spread out in our seats. Upon departure from Kunming the weather was clear and we were flying at a relatively low altitude. To the north, on the left side of the plane, there were snow-capped mountains. The terrain was hilly and the hills looked incredibly denuded. No forest and little topsoil were left, only subsoil and weathered rock. There were deep ravines everywhere. The tiny valley bottoms were built densely with small villages and the poor looking agricultural terraces climbed the hillsides. Elsewhere the valleys were cultivated with paddies and the houses were perched on the surrounding slopes. Every now and then, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, appeared large industrial plants spewing out thick smoke to the otherwise clear mountain air.

After about half an hour of flight the cloud cover became thick. A Shanghainese tour guide leading a group of tourists was pacing agitatedly up and down the aisle mobilizing a mass protest against China Eastern. She didn't speak English, but she approached Geoff. In the hope of passing her on to me, Geoff told her I spoke Japanese. It turned out that his scheme was successful. She was specializing in guiding Japanese groups and actually spoke the language. Her name was Yang and I recognized her as the enormously noisy middle-aged woman who had sat next to me at dinner last night ("Wouldn't want to meet her on a dark street," Geoff had commented then). I promised to help her and asked Geoff and the Koreans whether they'd like to write down their complaints to the airline. The tour guide would collect them all and deliver them to the company office in Shanghai. All stewardesses gathered around Yang apparently trying to persuade her that it was no use sending in the complaints. She would not budge. Afterwards she came back to chat with me. I'm afraid she will, as she promised, look me up one day and appear behind my door.

When we started our descent, clouds were hanging thick over Shanghai. There was some turbulence and the purser announced through the intercom that if anybody was feeling sick they should barf into the disposal bag provided for this purpose in the seat pocket. I'm sure that this straightforward reminder of the existence of the bags was warranted by previous experiences.

The landscape as the plane decreased altitude was a grim reminder of Chinese reality. There was not one square inch of unused land. There were small hamlets surrounded by fields and intersected by irrigation canals. One could see how these were being invaded by urban sprawl and highways. When all of these people would abandon agriculture and move to the nearest town in search of a fast yuan it could have serious implications on the food security of this most populous country of the world - and the impacts would have repercussions far beyond when China started massive imports of food from the world market.

Closer to the airport the paddies were replaced by endless drab looking suburbs with rows of identical houses. The individual houses all looked derelict. There were junks in the small, polluted canals. When we landed close to noon it was raining and Shanghai looked monochrome grey.

Amazingly, our bags arrived just like the lady at Kunming airport had promised - we needn't have worried. The Koreans who had by now become our friends were all waving goodbye. Geoff and I walked over to the international terminal. A very friendly and attractive young lady at the China Eastern transfer counter directed us to the airline offices in fluent English. We were back in the modern world. China Eastern was trying to entice me to take the same flight I had missed this morning tomorrow instead. When I told them that I'd love to do so, but needed to get to Tokyo today, they agreed to put me on the first Japan Airlines flight the same afternoon. Geoff was sent to the Quantas office and we separated with good wishes for our respective continuing flights.

Juha Uitto 1997 [Published also on, March 10, 2006.]

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Violin and the Drums

The passersby barely noticed the music, so smooth it was. The violinist was wearing a grey cap and a thick coat, as the subway station at the 14th street was cold in the damp autumn air. He appeared expressionless holding his instrument while a multitude of humanity passed him by in the cacophony of New York City mass transit. But the emotion was clearly there, somewhere buried deep in the Slavic soul of the elderly immigrant whose melancholy tones apparently brought him back to the Old Continent. The violin played sad tunes that were vaguely familiar. The background tracks upon which he played the longing melodies were reproduced poorly by the old-fashioned boom box that was attached to his seat. Nobody paid attention to the lone musician.

Suddenly, from another part of the train platform, beyond the staircase that descended to the L train, a loud boom of drums echoed. It was first a single beat, followed by a couple of additional strikes. But within seconds the roar of the percussions filled the cavernous space. It echoed across the station and it was no longer possible to confirm the location of the perpetrator. The rhythmic beat drowned all other sound. The downhearted man with his tunes from the Old World didn’t stand a chance. Yet, he continued to bow his violin. As the train approached its own screeching and clonking drowning out the chaos on the platform, several people, I amongst them, approached the old musician to leave our change into his open violin case.

Juha Uitto 2007

Flying to Kundiawa

I had arrived at the airport in good time, or so I thought. The big and very dark Papuan woman standing behind the counter and wearing an Air Niugini uniform was telling me otherwise. She had to shout in her strongly Pidgin accented English to get the message through to me, partly because of the tropical downpour beating on the corrugated iron roof making it sound as if we were inside a huge old fashioned typewriter; partly because of the general commotion in the departure hall where hundreds of people lugging bundles of luggage and wet children were lobbying for the limited seats on the few flights off of Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea. Yet partly, I realized, it was because I really didn’t want to hear what she was saying. I had to be in Kundiawa in the central highlands by today, otherwise my contact would leave for the bush tomorrow morning as scheduled and my trip all the way to this vast tropical island in between Australia and Indonesia would have been in vain. There was no way on earth I could ever hook up with the team if they were to move onto the still uncharted inland without me. And this was the first such trip – mission, as it was called in the somewhat arcane UN language – that my employers at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) had allowed me to take alone. A more senior officer could afford to screw up occasionally, but for a newbie like me it could be fatal. But here I was standing in the overcrowded shelter claiming to be a capital city airport departure hall and the only Air Niugini flight to Kundiawa today had been overbooked and I had been bumped.

Rejected, I stepped out of the terminal building, determined to find another way to travel up-country. By now, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle. A red banner declaring “Ten Years In Dependence” above the street that led to the terminal hung soaked in the grey mist. It referred to the country’s independence from Australia achieved ten years earlier, in 1975. The misconstrued sentence unwittingly testified to the still limited indigenous capacity in the country. I walked determinedly around the perimeter of the airport and found a small wooden shed that served as the terminal building for several privately owned flight operators competing with the state-owned Air Niugini. Here too, I was out of luck. I was told that nobody was scheduled to fly to the highlands today. The downpour was picking up strength again and the air was saturated with humidity in the tropical heat.

I must have looked dejected to the young dark-skinned boy leaning against the chicken wire fence separating the street from the runway as I exited the shed. He’d seen that there was a pilot in the hangar, he informed me helpfully. Perhaps he could be of help. Thanking the boy for his advice, I entered through a gate in the wire fence and walked to the hangar across the rain-soaked tarmac and found a bony blond middle-aged man sporting a thin Clark Gable –style moustache and a white short-sleeved shirt with epaulets indicating the rank of captain. He stood there inspecting a Brazilian-made twin-engine Bandeirante. Seeing me enter, he looked up with little curiosity. I approached him and explained the quandary I was in. His first reaction was outright negative: he was going to fly today, but not to Kundiawa. His job was to fly freight to Lae on the north coast of the island and today there was a party of foreign golfers that was awaiting its supplies. The flight path would go straight up north from the southern coast where we now were, in Port Moresby, and he would drop off some mail en route in Mt. Hagen. But no Kundiawa. After a brief negotiation, however, we finally were able to agree on a slight change in the scheduled route. After all, dropping me off in Kundiawa wouldn’t make a major detour and I would gladly hand over my unused Air Niugini ticket for the service. Relenting finally, the pilot admitted that he would actually welcome some company on the long and monotonous flight. He introduced himself as Dave and we shook hands.

Soon we were seated in the small plane’s cockpit, I firmly lodged in the co-pilot’s seat. By then, the weather had improved significantly and the cockpit was bright and hot. The storm clouds still looked dramatic on the western sky, but here the tropical sun was heating up the ground. The tarmac was steaming with evaporating puddles of rainwater. Dave put on his aviator glassed, opened the cockpit window on the pilot’s side, and warned me in his broad Australian accent that we would otherwise suffocate and die. It was against the regulations to fly the Bandeirante with a single pilot only, but it was difficult to find a qualified co-pilot so Dave was normally doing this trip all by himself. It was unlikely that anybody would check and ever enforce such laws here. Besides, it was more economical for the company to pay for only one pilot. The only other person flying with us was a Papuan airhostess who stayed for the entire flight alone in the dark cargo section sitting on crates of golf equipment on their way to the exclusive club in Lae.

The twin engines of the plane were roaring as Dave revved the controls. The puny control tower and the miserable airport building where I had been refused just a couple of hours earlier stood to the left of us. Dave was solemnly going through the pre-flight checklist. When he was ready, we rolled down the runway without hesitation and took off. There was no line of aircraft waiting for their turn to depart. The rapid acceleration pushed my back into the seat and the excitement made my body tingle.

We left the coast as soon as we had departed from Port Moresby and flew directly north. Within minutes, we were flying over an impenetrable rainforest with its shades of dark green reaching as far as the eye could see. Mighty rivers in deep gorges crossed the landscape, transporting billions of cubic metres of water, brown with sediments towards the ocean. Papua New Guinea – or PNG, as it is known to people who live there – was still quite pristine, its interior mountainous and covered with dense forest. At the time, the entire country - slightly larger than California - had only 3 million people, mostly living in scattered settlements across the island. Many of the villages were so isolated that even neighbouring tribes had nothing to do with each other. The rugged topography and rapidly flowing streams had helped to preserve the nature, as much of the country is too hilly to allow for extensive logging on the steep slopes and the transportation costs of getting the wood out are relatively high. As is almost always the case, though, the natural riches of PNG have tempted foreign interests from wealthier countries like Australia, Japan and the neighbouring Indonesia that occupies the eastern half of the island as its Irian Jaya province, and the following two plus decades since my visit have seen more of the natural resources extracted with resultant damage to the environment. Also, in the intervening years the country’s own population numbers have almost doubled to close to 6 million in 2007 due to high birth rates and falling mortality. All of this places an increasing pressure on the unique environment in this biodiversity laden country.

The Bandeirante was flying steadily north at a safe altitude to avoid mountain peaks. The weather was now clear, which allowed me to observe the green vastness below us. Dave praised the Brasilian plane as being the best one to fly. When a few years earlier the company had bought two of these planes, Dave had been the one to fly one of them from the factory in Brazil all the way to its new owners in PNG. He said that the trip, which included stopovers in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia, was the best he had ever taken.

After a couple of hours of flight Dave pointed to a high plateau at a distance in front of us. A darker treeless patch which I gathered was the runway ran through the flat green of the forested hilltop. Papua New Guinea has the highest airstrip density of any country in the world owing to the legacy of the World War II. The network was built organically, step by step, as the Japanese troops expanded southward from the north, while the Allied forces raced to meet them having landed in the south from Australia. Each side built small airstrips as they advanced. As we approached the landing strip, I could see the slopes of the steep hills dropping hundreds of metres on all sides. The runway itself started at an edge of a cliff that dropped straight into a gorge. Noticing my concern, Dave consoled me: “Don’t worry, PNG pilots are the best in the world. Those who were not, are dead.” There was no margin to miss the approach, but Dave brought the plane to a perfect landing on the amazingly narrow strip in Mt. Hagen.

After the mail had been unloaded and Dave had a cigarette or two, we took off again. The next stop was the unscheduled one in Kundiawa where I would get off. The airstrip was, if possible, even smaller, jungle encroaching from all sides. I thanked Dave profusely for dropping me off here. “No worries, mate”, he intoned, already preparing to roll off to the grassy runway.
What now, then? I wondered whether I had actually been so lucky to get to this lonely place in the middle of the third largest island of the world just to be stranded without even a compass. Then I noticed a small but tough looking man approaching me from a four-wheel drive. Without any introduction, he said in an Australian accent that he’d been worried that I might not show up after all. Would I care for a beer?

Climate Change is Here to Stay - Learn to Live with It!

The only way to adapt to global climate change is with risk management strategies based on solid geographical understanding. The evidence of manmade climate change is overwhelming. Although global climate has always fluctuated dramatically and it is difficult to say what part of our current warming trend is due to natural causes, the majority of scientists believe that human activities are contributing to this change. While we need to work towards mitigating climate change in the long run, it is already too late to halt the process. We need to learn to adapt to the changing conditions.

The problem is that there is considerable uncertainty about how climate change will manifest itself in specific geographical locations. The interlinkages and feedback loops are so complex that even sophisticated computer models cannot produce firm predictions. Climate change is easy to ignore by the politicians and public alike, because of the uncertainty of its outcomes and its gradual nature. The uncertainty should not be used as an excuse for inaction. When we finally decide to react, it may be too late. We must manage its risks, especially when undertaking new large projects, be they dams, airports, or new highway systems.

The popular name for climate change – global warming – is an unfortunate misnomer. It is not that global warming will make every place warmer. The impacts will neither be uniformly negative: there will be winners and losers. Some present-day deserts may receive more rainfall thus making them green. Or the warmer climes may or may not benefit some countries at high latitudes. But in many places the impact will be increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather.

Neither will climate change affect only the developing world or small islands sinking into the rising seas. Low-lying coastal areas everywhere – from the Mississippi delta to the Netherlands, from Tokyo to the small island of Manhattan – will be equally threatened by sea level rise and coastal storms.

Coastal cities are the fastest growing places in the US, China and elsewhere. Already now, half of the world’s population lives within 150 km from the coast. It is not hard to imagine the damage and the concomitant costs that ever stronger coastal storms can cause: just witness the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But the impacts can be much more varied. Storm surges and sea level rise not only may inundate low-lying coastal areas but can cause saltwater intrusions into groundwater that render water supplies unusable.

Changes in climate may dramatically modify growing seasons or shift agricultural zones so that they no longer can produce as previously. Regional droughts may deplete aquifers. These scenarios have serious implications to our food security. In a globalized economy, local disturbances in food self-sufficiency can have widespread implications as the country or mega-city experiencing food deficits starts buying food on the international market. Prices then can swing unpredictably.

We must have solid geographic knowledge combined with hard-headed risk assessment, and not just for some places. Any new large-scale irrigation project will require an assessment of whether its water resources will still be adequate thirty or fifty years down the line. Major new infrastructure requires massive investment, takes a long time to develop, and is built to last. It is imperative to consider vulnerability when, say, deciding on the location of a new airport. Will it still be there or will it be under water in forty years time? There are numbers of active airport building projects, for example, in South Asia, a hot zone for tropical cyclones. How will they be protected?

Who will bear the costs when properties are damaged by violent natural events? The insurance industry that ends up absorbing many of the losses stemming from hurricanes and other disasters to coastal property is developing geographical expertise to allow it to set insurance premiums based on exposure and vulnerability. But can the vulnerable people afford to pay - or move if necessary - whether they are in South Florida or Sri Lanka? The more gradual the changes, the less likely the need for draconian adjustments.

Risk management strategies based on a thorough geographical understanding of hazards and vulnerability are immediately needed. That means putting together the full range of conditions – things like current and changing topography, vegetation, prevailing winds, water tables, population, buildings, and transportation systems – with the uncertainties of climate change. Any investment that ignores climate change as too costly risks pay a far higher price in the long run.

Juha Uitto 2005

Ghost Lights in the Mangroves

Even from a short distance the lights appeared eerie. Or was there even any light in the darkness. Perhaps the senses were just playing games in this sensory-deprived environment.

We had left the city of Kuala Lumpur earlier in the day and had headed northwest some 75 kilometers along the shores of the Malacca Straits, the world’s busiest shipping lane. We’d seen the delightful monkeys at Kuala Selangor at the mouth of the Selangor river (kuala in the Bahasa language means river mouth; the name of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, thus, translates into muddy river mouth - hardly what the clean and modern metropolis looks like today), and had fabulous seafood right by the river where our meal had been caught. As the night started to fall, we drove to Kampung Kuantan not far from the town to experience the “miracle and mystery of firefly” promised by the tourist advisory. A miracle and mystery it was.

The occasion was amazing, as all conditions had aligned to make the night perfect. There had been a heavy thunderstorm earlier in the evening that had washed the dust off the air. But now it was clear. Most uniquely, the night was totally dark as the result of a rare lunar eclipse. This small trip could turn into a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

The tide was exceptionally high as we approached the pier. In fact, it was so high that we had to remove our shoes and roll up our jeans 30 metres from the jetty. For the rest of the way, we waded through the solid ochre of the river water until we reached the small wooden boat waiting on the dark water. The oarsman, a wiry local with looks that would not reveal his age, stood at the end of the small barge. It would float just centimetres above the river level once the three of us boarded.

On the river peacefulness reigned. The surface was still; not even a hint of a breeze. The yellowish brown of the water appearedfertile and welcoming rather than muddy and uninviting. On both sides, thick mangrove vegetation stood in the flooded landscape. The stillness was something we urbanites are not used to. The only sounds were produced by living beings other than humans. To the east, there was the deep chorus of frogs that croaked at a low, soothing frequency. At a much higher pitch, crickets and other critters provided their own constant background sound. Physiologically, it has been proven that nature sounds - even when they can be measured to be as loud as any produced by human systems - are not stressful to people; rather they provide rest to the senses.

The most amazing sound came from the direction of the youngest mangrove trees. The fireflies were dancing to the beat only known to them, producing a rhythmic whistling sound. The entire riverside was lit with pulsating lights, the bushes over the flat surface of the river appearing like Christmas-lit garden reindeer standing on the lawn of suburban homes in Virginia or Oregon. There were literally millions of the infinitesimal beetles. Lights shone like small but bright beacons guiding a wayward seafarer towards the shore. The tiny lights shining from their equally tiny butts reflected brightly from the river’s brown surface.

Fireflies are sensitive creatures dependent on a stable environment. They are thus vulnerable to any changes in the conditions under which they live. Their lifecycle from the time they emerge as eggs through the larvae stage until their mature state is completely harmonized with the natural habitat in which they spend their lives. They are an integral part of the river ecosystem that nurtures them. They are hatched further away from the river, and then they migrate closer to the water. This night’s illumination represented the culmination of the bugs’ lives: mating. For this purpose, they choose only young Berembang trees; hence their massive concentrations in these select bushes arising from the muddy bottom of the tidal river.

Gliding silently next to the mangroves, we tried to catch the tiny insects in the palms of our hands. They were small indeed, and we could see the light throbbing in their little bodies. We did not hold them long, so as not to reduce their chances of finding a desirable partner to produce the next generation. The pair we had captured eagerly flew back to the bushes.

The night on the river was amazing in its quiet - made loud by the sounds of the myriad inhabitants of the rich and still unspoiled ecosystem, lit up by the ghostly lights of the fireflies and the distant flashes of the retreating thunder. We were alone, except for our fellow species whose kingdom this was. Hopefully, the modest income to the communities generated by the small-scale ecotourism would be enough to keep the developers from encroaching on this lovely piece of real estate. Its value cannot be measured in monetary terms. The inner peace we felt as we emerged from the canoe is beyond measurement.

[Published on, July 17, 2006.]

Manila Music

Filipinos are possibly the most musically talented people on the planet. This is witnessed daily on the wide continent of Asia where Filipino bands dominate the scene - from the hotspots of Bangkok and Singapore to the hotel bars in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. What explains this is not entirely clear - and I don’t know of any serious studies on the topic - but one can speculate. The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia; it's been a colony both to Spain and the United States. Its culture seems to embody the joie de vivre of Latin and the Pacific islands. One cannot find a more cheerful people.

Recently, on a particular Thursday night, I ventured into an excellent pub restaurant called Chef & Brewer in Pasig, one of Metro Manila’s central cities. The place was packed and getting increasingly crowded as the evening proceeded. It was an adult crowd but one in a party mode. I started with a meal and some decent Chilean red wine. The cuisine was Western, of high quality but unremarkable. Although people do eat there, food is not the main attraction. It is definitely the music that people come to hear and experience.

That evening's band was called Yours Truly. It consisted of three lead singers and a four-piece backup with two guitars, bass and drums. The obvious leader and MC of the group was a tall rock star looking man dressed in a turquoise shirt; his perm hair fell on his shoulders and he wore shades throughout the night. He also shared the frontline with two other middle-aged singers, one of each gender.

The band focused on music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The three vocalists sang in complex, yet perfect, three-part harmonies, utilizing (intentionally, I hope) rather silly choreographs. Each of the singers was as good or better as anybody you’d hear on contemporary records. The female lead had the voice and style of Diana Ross, and the longhaired charmer was a top-notch rocker.

The third singer, an accountant-looking man with a receding hairline, had this deep soulful voice and an amazing register. In the middle of his interpretation of Unchained Melody, the audience broke into a spontaneous applause as he was displaying his impressive voice and skills. After a warm-up period with some beautiful Tagalog pop songs and slow Western classics, such as a superb rendition of You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling, the band moved onto rock ’n’ roll classics à la Shake, Rattle and Roll. The band operated like clockwork and in perfect period style.

Soon the music evolved into ‘80s disco, which kept increasing the number of people on the tiny dance floor in front of the bandstand. Most of this segment of the music was played in lengthy effortless potpourris during which the band changed gears and rhythm as required. One of the guitarists used a guitar synthesizer to create horn and string accents in places where they had been originally effective a couple of decades earlier. The bassist also had evolved from the staccato plucking of early pop to thumbing his strings in Louis Johnson style.

The crowd started going wild. The band picked up two women from the dance floor, possibly friends, but I couldn’t be sure. They readily grabbed microphones and started singing. One of the ladies, in a tiny miniskirt and moves fit for the legendary Tokyo disco, Juliana’s (it used to be the hottest dance spot this side of the dateline during Japan’s financial bubble), belted out I Will Survive with a power and flair that eludes most contemporary singers.

The band was superb and the audience fully acknowledged it. For a dance band, the proof of the pudding is in audience dancing and this audience did dance - and sing.

On the following day, a Friday night, I caught the last set of the band Human Race in Galleria Holiday Inn’s bar, also in Pasig City. I arrived after dinner, having visited the excellent San Mig pub in Ortiga’s El Pueblo. The Human Race focuses on the music of the ‘80s. Why, I asked myself, would anyone focus on the decade that was arguably the dullest in the history of pop music.

The first part of the set confirmed my doubts: forgettable melodies, mechanic beats, silly choreography (unintentionally, I fear). Small bright spots included Venus (the Bananarama version) in which the drummer managed to display some complicated and accurate pyrotechnics. Otherwise, the long first part of the set was only lit up by Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. This band, too, had a three singer frontline (the Philippines has the advantage over places like New York because it can afford to stack up the bands with adequate numbers of players): this time two women and a man. The natural leader was a woman with crew cut bleached hair. The band wore aerobics-inspired outfits and behaved accordingly. The male singer's effeminate voice made it hard to tell who was leading the song at any given time.

At first the drummer, a kid sporting spiked hair with blond highlights, puzzled me. He played amazingly well but still sounded like he was pounding on old suitcases. Then I realized he was playing with no amplification whatsoever, beating the heck out of his basic drum set: a 22” bass drum, two toms, a thick wooden snare and two simple cymbals.

Suddenly the Human Race improved considerably. They started playing a set of songs by the likes of Chic, Kool and the Gang, and Lionel Richie. The soul music suited Human Race on and off stage. The guitar player even managed to sound like Nile Rogers with his funky rhythms. The keyboardist brought out some excellent Hammond and Rhodes sounds from his Roland. Soon the dance floor was crowded. Although this was a bar affiliated with a hotel, the audience consisted almost exclusively of locals. A happy British looking young man with short hair and a potbelly beneath his V-necked T-shirt actively tried to encourage everyone (especially pretty girls) to join him on the dance floor. There were a few jaded Westerners, presumably patrons of the hotel, staring dully at the spectacle.

In many ways, the highlight of the evening was a spirited YMCA. The band, including the male singer, managed to sound as macho as the Village People in their heyday. At closing time, the crowd squeezed another five songs out of the band, including good Earth, Wind and Fire stuff. I was content with the night on the town. The bands in Manila hotspots may not be the most original in the world, but when you’re looking for a good time, a spirited cover version of an old hit sure beats a bad original.

[Published also on on July 10, 2006.]

Ayako Shirasaki @ The Kitano, New York, February 9, 2006

This was the first time that I’d actually hear Ayako Shirasaki play, although I’d heard about her before and visited her website ( I had two business visitors in town from Toronto and Washington, DC, and I’d decided to take them out to listen to some jazz at the Kitano, the best-kept secret on Park Avenue. We got a table by the piano and ordered some red wine. Soon the lights were dimmed and Ayako with her band entered the room. The diminutive Japanese woman sat on the piano stool right in front of us and counted the tempo to Thelonius Monk’s Four in One. From the first notes it was clear we would be hearing something special tonight. The trio started swinging with an easy beat and their leader played Monk’s square melody with a verve, following on with an impressive solo.

Ayako Shirasaki was backed by Marco Panascia, a young Italian bassist, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. The Kitano is small and intimate enough that only the acoustic bass requires any amplification. The Steinway grand can carry its own without trouble. From our vantage point, we could observe classically-trained former child prodigy handle the ivories with a rare facility, sometimes lyrically, other times powerfully, always at her will and whimsy. All seats and tables in the bar were taken. Although located within a hotel, the Kitano takes jazz seriously and people come there expressly for the music. Being a Japanese joint in Manhattan’s Midtown, there are always many Japanese in the audience.

After another Billie Strayhorn classic, it was time for a Shirasaki original. “Although my English is not good (actually it is, although she speaks with a noticeable Japanese accent), I invented a word,” she explained, “it describes my character: Simplexity.” The tune turned out to be a beautiful major key waltz with seemingly simple, yet complex melody and some unexpected rhythmic twists. Towards the end, Hutchinson turned the three-fourths rhythm into a medium straight swing.

This was followed by a wonderful rendition of the beautiful ballad Estate. Ayako played it strongly, yet lyrically. Her use of thick chords played with two hands in the mid-register combined with crisp right-hand lines made an emotionally powerful statement.

The set featured a series of numbers that allowed the rhythm section shine. Marco played a couple of excellent solos with a beautiful thick sound. Gregory, cool and expressionless in his dreadlocks while playing, was plain amazing. Seldom does one hear such a sensitive drummer who listens and picks up subtle cues from the other players, reacting and building upon them. His solos were extremely imaginative and his skills using the snare drum and hi-hat remarkable. Like the gig’s leader’s, Gregory Hutchinson’s playing was distinctly contemporary, while demonstrating deep roots in the jazz of bygone years.

Ayako herself was just amazing. It should not be taken lightly when I say that her performance was amongst the best piano jazz I’ve ever heard. With strong classical technique and anchored in a thorough understanding of jazz history. One could hear influences ranging from Monk to Oscar Peterson – at times she could even produce hints of Art Tatum with a two-beat left hand accompaniment – but her style was her own, absolutely unique. Her sense of harmony (the thick mid-register chords!) and ability to create lengthy smooth improvised yarns that, even when atonal, always led one meaningfully from point A to point B. In several solos she’d play octaves with both hands (yes, she likes that, she confirmed when we chatted afterwards) – or sometimes the hands would play complex counterpoints like in a fugue. Her technical virtuosity allowed her to play whatever came to her creative mind (although she, modestly, claimed that she’d sometimes get lost) and the rhythmic patterns were varied and interesting, while never missing the beat.

One of the high points of the evening was an up-tempo version of Dizzy Gillespie’s Salt Peanuts. By this time the audience was getting quite animated repeating the silly title at the appropriate places. The rhythm section was cooking with a light, unforced touch that propelled the song onwards. The extremely fast tempo gave Ayako an opportunity demonstrate her amazing dexterity as we watched breathlessly her fingers run on the keyboard.

A calmer moment followed as Ayako asked for permission play Strayhorn’s Daydream on solo piano while Marco and Gregory retreated to the bar. This turned out to be a lovely interpretation of the classic, rich in lyricism and complex harmonies, yet played with slow beat that made the audience bodies sway.

All in all, a wonderful evening. This may have been the first time I heard Ayako Shirasaki, but it certainly won’t be the last.

Fred Ho and the Afro Asian Music Ensemble @ BAM Café, Brooklyn, NY, 12 November 2005

What a day! Only in New York City can you experience such a variety of performances in one day. This afternoon we went to the 1st Chinatown Asian Music Festival (see a separate posting); then saw two ballets, Les Noces & Petrushka composed by Igor Stravinsky, adapted in a contemporary fashion by the Italian Compagnia Aterballetto, performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and then finished off the evening at the BAM café listening to a superbly entertaining performance by Fred Ho and the Afro Asian Music Ensemble. The Ensemble, led tightly through the occasionally complex arrangements by its leader, performed a unique blend of straight blown jazz, avant garde and funk, all deeply rooted in the traditions. Fred Ho has been a highly innovative musician, composer, arranger and bandleader successfully mixing idioms for more than twenty years ( Tonight’s band lived up to its multicultural title: three of the performers were of Asian origin, three of African, and two white. The musical mix was amazing, although firmly rooted in jazz.

The set began with a suite from Fred Ho’s (then called Houn) first album in the mid-1980s. The three-saxophone lead was strongly reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s harmonies, occasionally lapsing into a free format, while vocalist Jennifer Kidwell recited poetry. Next came a rendition of Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child beautifully and powerfully sung by Kidwell. Billie Holiday classics returned with Strange Fruit Revisited, a rather ambitious arrangement of the tune with the three reed players producing exhilarating sounds with interesting combinations, such as clarinet, soprano sax and baritone sax. In between the interesting interludes in different tempos and timbres, the skillful Kidwell was allowed to swing with the original tune.

The saxophones, anchored firmly by the leader’s thick baritone, provided the main timbre of the evening. Fred Ho is as solid a baritone player as you’d ever find in a band. I’ve always admired the sound of this large horn, having played it in various bands during and after high school (I hasten to add that any comparison of my playing to Fred Ho’s would be badly insulting to the composer and band leader). There are too few players who master the big horn. Fred Ho’s sound on the baritone is big and solid, and he plays the parts firmly and tightly, but seldom ventures into extended solos. The main solo role tonight was left for Ed Jackson, the versatile alto saxist who played the ensemble leads with a beautiful sweet tone and the solos equally fluently in a post-bop as well as free modes.

One of the highlights of the evening was when the band played excerpts of Ho’s Black Panther Suite, with allusions to James Bond themes, but in 5/4. Jackson blew some amazing lines in his solo. Another extended piece was the Free Mumia Suite dedicated to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist on death row since 1982 for allegedly shooting a police officer.

The band was then augmented beyond the usual jazz setting by the Japanese stringed instrument Koto played by Yumiko Ozawa. Her slender figure appeared on the stage dressed in a long pink dress that was more reminiscent of romantic Shanghai images than Japan. Her electrified instrument provided a colorful backdrop as the ostinatos she played blended with those by the leader on his baritone and the rhythm section. Fred Ho’s composition from the martial arts-sword epic Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon again blended highly original music with innovatively treated influences, such as quotations from the Juan Tizol classic Caravan played in 10/4 against an electric bass pattern.

The set ended with Fred Ho’s tribute to the recently deceased altoist entitled Sweet Sam Fernis that again highlighted Ed Jackson’s considerable skills and sensibilities as the soloist. The tune moved between sounds and rhythms ranging from swing to waltz to Latin beat.

The evening proved that Fred Ho is still one of the most innovative composers and bandleaders on the scene. His complex and skillfully delivered music is artful and serious; yet, hearing Fred Ho will guarantee that everyone in the audience leaves with a smile on the face.

Music for Shakuhachi and Koto, Noguchi Museum, Queens, NY, 15 May 2005

It was the perfect setting: the peaceful museum dedicated to the works of the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The only problem was that there was thunder in the air on this pressingly warm spring Sunday afternoon. There was a drizzle, which forced the organizers to move the concert inside. We were sitting on the concrete floor between Noguchi’s symbolic sculptures. Behind the performers two large windows gave to the garden where the leaves in the trees were still the light green colour of spring. We were set for a performance by two premier talents of Japanese music.

Ralph Samuelson came on stage with his shakuhachi. Samuelson who has studied the ancient bamboo flute both in Japan and in the United States under such masters as Goro Yamaguchi, Kodo Araki V and Shudo Yamato, adheres to the classical tradition of the Kinko school. His playing is exquisite in its sensitivity, the voice of his flute clear and lovely. He started the concert with a traditional piece, Kumoi Jishi, which has a charming folk music like melody.

Next Masayo Ishigure appeared and sat down behind the koto, the 13-string Japanese zither of which she is a master. Ishigure-san hails from Gifu in Japan and has won numerous accolades for her skill as a koto player. Since she moved to New York in 1992, she has performed in prestigious venues, like Lincoln Center and the Carnegie Hall. She teaches Japanese music at Wesleyan University. She had chosen to start her part of the concert with a contemporary composition, Tokimeki, by Hideaki Kuribayashi. Seldom have I heard such a variety of tonalities and rhythms played on a koto. Masayo Ishigure is a very versatile musician.

Having observed the weather during his colleague’s performance, Ralph Samuelson declared that the clouds had cleared and the sun was fast drying up the garden. It was thus time to move outside where the performance area in front of the old factory gate was quickly set up. The Noguchi Museum ( is an amazing haven in the middle of a working class industrial neighbourhood in Long Island City in the Borough of Queens. The museum itself has been established in an old factory building. From the street in front of it, Manhattan skyline is clearly visible across East River.

Ralph announced that here was a perfect natural acoustic, with trucks, airplanes, children – and the distant cry of the deer. For that was what the next tune was about. Shika no Tone, a piece belonging to Honkyoku or solo shakuhachi repertoire developed by Fuke sect Zen monks in the 18th century, represents the sound of two deer calling each other in the distant mountains. This quiet, meditative piece indeed drowned the urban sounds from the surrounding barrio as we sat on the ground basking in the afternoon sun.

Masayo Ishigure returned, her spring kimono with its depictions of white and pink cherry blossoms against black silk immaculate. Her second piece also was contemporary koto music, a famous 1985 piece of Tadao Sawai’s called Tori no Yo Ni. Sawai had once been her teacher in Japan and she played the beautiful and rather complex piece with extraordinary verve, evoking images of birds flying freely in the big, open sky. This, as the previous piece she had played inside, took the traditional stringed instrument to exceptional distances, blending varied influences into the Japanese sensibility.

Finally, the two masters joined together in the last piece, Yoshizawa Kengryo II’s 19th century Chidori no Kyoko or Song of Plovers. This piece, like so much of Japan’s music and art, too, was nature inspired. The piece featured two waka poems sung by Masayo Ishigure in a sorrowful ceremonial style. Her hypnotic voice and use of micro-tones was like that of monks chanting. The poems – the first from the 10th century Kokin waka shu anthology of court poetry; the second from a 12th century anthology Kin ‘yo shu – both were about the song of the plovers. The two songs were separated by a serene instrumental interlude, or tegoto, which Ishigure and Samuelson played with exquisite grace.

The music had calmed the afternoon and, I am sure, added years to our lives. All stress and bad thoughts were gone, as we sat in the sculpture garden under the white birches with their leaves fluttering in the wind.

© Juha I. Uitto 2005

Jack DeJohnette with Foday Musa Suso @ Joe’s Pub, New York City, 13 May 2005

Jack DeJohnette is my favourite drummer. Period. Not since last Saturday but more like since three decades. I’ve admired his light but tight touch since his collaborations with Charles Lloyd, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Joe Farrell and many others since the 1970s.

Yoko and I walked into the bar area at Joe’s Pub at around 9 p.m. on the Friday night. It was already getting crowded. When I turned around, there he was, sipping a glass of Sangiovese and talking with Jane Chun, his publicist and business manager. A thin man, medium height, in good shape. “He looks like Colin Powell,” said Yoko. I managed to catch him when he turned leave, shake his hand and say how he had affected my life.

Jack DeJohnette stood on the stage and gave a lengthy introduction to the music and the crew who consisted largely of family. His daughter was there and she is also the one who designed her dad’s website: His son-in-law was there with sound and lights. Tonight’s group included two other musicians, Foday Musa Suso and Jerome Harris. Don Alias was supposed to be with the band but a sign at the door had already informed us that he was unable to make it tonight. So we were left with a trio, and although I am a great admirer of Alias’ percussions this would not be a handicap. Jack told how he had heard Suso in London and gone to introduce himself backstage and how this had led to this collaboration several years later.

Foday Musa Suso is a Mandingo griot, or a musician-cum-story teller from West Africa where traditional culture and knowledge has for generations been passed on through music and poetry. Suso himself comes from the Gambia, a small village, although by now he has toured all the metropolises of the world and performed with western greats like Philip Glass and Bill Laswell. At the risk of talking longer than he wished to, Suso explained to the audience about history of his instrument, Kora, the 21-stringed West African lute made of a half a gourd calabash with a hardwood pole. It is latest of the three main griot instruments, and was invented by Suso’s ancestors some four or five centuries ago.

The entire concert was spent in an African mood, with Suso’s kora the only treble instrument. He was phenomenal, strumming the hypnotic ostinatos on the stringed instrument in front of him while at the same time being able to do amazing solos on the higher strings.

Jerome Harris, playing an acoustic bass guitar, provided a solid and thick bass line to the music. He didn’t solo but his work was good and the deep bass at times seemed to hold it all together while DeJohnette wandered off on his numerous toms and cymbals.

Jack DeJohnette’s drum sound is as distinguishable as any other instrument played by a master. He keeps his drums tuned emphasizing the beautiful tone of natural wood. His right foot kicks complex accents on the bass drum and there is the inimitable crisp tone of the flat ride cymbal. While on beautiful and ambiental songs like Ocean Wave, from his new CD with Suso “Music from the Hearts of the Masters,” DeJohnette beat more African rhythms on his thick snare drum, on many others he would revert to his trademark jazz rhythms.

At one point of time during the second half of the concert, Jack left his seat behind the drum kit and walked over to the grand piano. Suso explained that they were going to play his song Moon/Light, which he had recorded originally with Herbie Hancock on their duo album “Village Life” in 1985. But, he added, with no offence to Herbie, he preferred to play it with Jack on the piano. The performance was intense with Jack providing a steady background chord succession on the ivories while Musa’s virtuosity shone in his lead.

When the last song was announced the packed venue was enthusiastic for more. It was getting sweaty despite the air conditioning. Unfortunately, no encore was allowed as there’d be another concert at 11 p.m. The superb performance by Foday Musa Suso, Jack DeJohnette and Jerome Harris had lifted our spirits and transported us to another place.

© Juha I. Uitto 2005

Sharing Apples and Wives on the Top of the World

It was hard to imagine how people would eke out a living in these surroundings. The hillsides were steep and covered with rubble and boulders. The high mountaintops shone unbearably bright with pristine white snow against the cloudless blue sky. There was barely anything organic in sight. Even the houses perched on the slopes were made of stone. We were only six kilometers from the border of Tibet.

My travel companion Ratna was chatting up a group of women we had encountered upon arrival in the village of Dubling in the Indian Himalayas. We had driven in a four-wheel-drive up the gravel road on the path that wound up the hillside. Only a kilometer and a half from the Titang power station by the riverside in the valley, the trip had taken us more than half an hour to navigate. At times it had been demanding to hang onto the handles as the vehicle ambled slowly at improbable angles.

Entering the village, we saw perhaps ten to fifteen houses located on rather a steep slope. They were the same color as the rocks on the hills they were made of. Below, there were a few stony fields that were still the same monotone grey after the long winter. Wheat and beans would be amongst the few crops to grow at this altitude. A few cows and donkeys were foraging in the orchard munching on whatever little there was to eat.

The women, all dressed in traditional patterned robes and wearing colorful pillboxes on their heads, snickered as we entered the village. Their round sun-darkened faces displayed distinctly Tibetan features beneath the sweet smiles. The women were sitting on the flat roof of one of the houses attending to their chores, mostly sowing cloths, and chatting leisurely. One of them was nursing a tiny baby in her lap. The mother looked to be in her teens with a pretty, innocent face. There were several goats basking in the sun, their white pelts reflecting the rays unmitigated by the thin mountain atmosphere. This was early-March and the harsh winter was just behind. Therefore, the women had time on their hands before they would need to start to tend to their fields. It was obvious that, against all the odds produced by the harsh environment and the isolated location, the people in Dubling were not destitute. Everyone appeared cheerful and well fed. To our astonishment, there were several large parabolic antennas standing on the roofs. One of our new acquaintances actually did her knitting while sitting on the concave edge of one. Electricity thus clearly was available in the village.

My friend who has an easy way with people was joking with the ladies in a language unknown to me. Ratna Reddy was an economics professor from Hyderabad in the south of India, far from where we were, but he had conducted a lot of field research in various remote communities in the country and had knowledge of an array of languages in this vast and varied country. The purpose of our visit to this – and many other villages in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh – was to assess whether an internationally-funded project intended to promote small hydroelectricity by installing tiny environmentally sound power stations in the numerous streams that flowed down from the Himalayas was reaching its objectives and benefiting the local people. The village of Dubling was one of the intended beneficiaries of the Titang scheme run by a local not-for-profit outfit, Sai Engineering Foundation. It was the remotest scheme in the entire project.

Ratna was explaining the purpose of our trip and the project, and inquiring whether it was benefiting the village. They had electricity alright and used it mostly for lighting and watching the television. Unfortunately, they could only see one government-sponsored channel. The tall mountains made reception weak and Dubling out of reach of private broadcasters. Ratna got us invited to one of the houses – free, although the proprietess first asked playfully how much we would pay in entrance fee. Inside was small, walls and floor the dull grey of baked earth. A vertical tree trunk connected to a horizontal beam holding the habitation safe in case of an earthquake, which are quite common in the hills. The centerpiece of the room was a wood burning chula with a pipe leading to a rooftop chimney. There was a single bare light bulb providing light. No windows, presumably to keep out the extremely cold winter winds. In the corner, sat a small black and white TV set.

We asked the lady why she was still cooking with firewood when the Titang station just down the hill produced ample and clean electricity. She explained patiently that cooking with wood was the tradition and the hearth also kept the room warm in the winter. Most importantly, however, the electricity tariff was still too high and fuel wood was free for all to collect. But collecting it must be quite a hike in this barren environment, I thought. In the summertime, they’d use liquid petroleum gas for cooking, as there was no need for heating and the mountain winds had eased enough not to blow out the flame. This was a story we would hear over and over again in all the villages we’d visit. It would take time and an economic restructuring to make electricity affordable to the people.

Bidding farewell to the ladies who promptly got back to their chores, we wandered up the steep and narrow path made muddy by the melting snow to the next level of houses. We were followed by a small group of children wearing wool caps and sweaters. We encountered a group of men sitting on another rooftop chiseling wooden utensils with their tools. The scene was very leisurely in the bright noon sunshine. Some boys were hovering around, learning the craft by watching their elders. The most senior of the men sat cross-legged at the center of the small group wearing a black knitted vest over his green jacket. His mustachioed face was tan under the round cap. The hills behind him appeared totally barren. Only a few trees close to the village stood grey still without leaves in the early spring.

Arriving at the main square of the village we found the Buddhist temple. Perched on the steep hillside, somewhat larger houses surrounded the square that had the appearance of being the main place of the village. Tanned faces with squint lines observed us from doorways. The peaks behind were still white with snow. A youngish man, perhaps in his 30s, smiled confidently and emerged as a natural counterpart for us to approach. Sitting on a stone bench by the temple, he finally explained to us what constituted the economic backbone of Dubling: Kinnaur apples. Beautiful, large, juicy, dark red apples. Kinnaur apples are famous all around India and fetch a premium price on markets in Delhi and other big cities. The short but extremely sunny summer, fresh clean mountain water, and the rocky soils are ideal for apple production. The young and clearly wealthy man said that he could produce 250-300 cases of apples annually from his orchard.

But how on earth could they get the apples to the market? The solution was very cooperative and beneficial to all of the people in village. The families would get together and rent a truck in which the men would drive the apples to Delhi or to Chandighar. It wasn’t, after all, that far. You’d need a long day to drive to the Himachal capital of Shimla. Then another down the foothills and into the plains north of the national capital. In a couple of days nothing bad would happen to the fresh produce from the Himalayas. The men would receive an ample compensation for their effort selling the produce in Delhi to eager mouths waiting for the arguably best apple in the world.

The man told us that he belonged to a common family typical up here. They were several brothers sharing the same wife. This practice has a long history in Himachal. The ancient legend tells about five brothers with a blind mother. The men used to go hunting in the mountains and every time they’d return from the hunt their mother would tell them to share the catch. One day, one of the brothers had come across a beautiful young woman in the forest and carried her home. Enthusiastically, he exclaimed to his mother that today he had an extraordinary catch. The mother who could not see ordered him to share it with his brothers like everything else. This practice thus still lingered on in the mountain communities with limited land and other natural resources to share.

Life up in the hills was harsh, but not bad to those who had grown up there. Nobody starved and the houses stayed warm during the long winter. In fact, the government had made offers to relocate the people from these remote villages closer to services, but they had flatly refused. After all, this was home.

As for electricity, it was definitely welcome to the villagers who saw many benefits from it. However, there was a lot to do to make expansion of electric power affordable to people. Sai Engineering Foundation – set up under the name of the controversial frizzy haired guru Sai Baba – had originally wanted to demonstrate that it was economically feasible to use small hydropower to generate electricity to remote communities in the mountains. Even they had had to give up the idea and accept that power station operation had to be subsidized from their other operations. Yet, the people in Dubling and other villages benefited even from limited power. They had more reliable current for the TV that brought them news and educational programs, the light hanging in the ceiling allowed them to work and socialize in the dark evenings, and there were now outside lights lighting up public areas to make them safer. Life could be worse.

© Juha I. Uitto, 2004

Sakura no Yu

I woke up with a start. It was still early, just after 7 a.m., but everyone else seemed to be up. The futon was warm in the cold room and I had slept soundly. I quickly pulled on some clothes and hobbled down the narrow stairs. My mother-in-law was already busy preparing breakfast with her daughter, Yoko, helping less effectively. Warm fumes of miso and rice hung in the air of the cold kitchen. The father-in-law was not to be seen.

The breakfast consisted of red miso soup with mushrooms that were so slippery that it was impossible to get them out of the bowl and into the mouth with the chopsticks; delicious fried aji fish; a bowl of rice; the ever present pickled vegetables or tsukemono; and green tea. The food was heart warming in the rainy morning and the steam rising from the miso soup felt good on the face as I raised the cup to my lips. I found myself accepting a second bowl once I had poured the contents, including the slippery mushrooms, of the first into my stomach.

The womenfolk had already packed bags with towels, snacks and other necessities for the daytrip to a nearby hot spring spa or onsen. Yoko had even put my pullover into the bag, so the only thing that I needed to do was to add the camera and a novel for the moments of waiting I knew lay ahead. The rain was but a drizzle when we exited the house immediately after breakfast. According to the schedule Yoko’s mother had consulted, the bus to the onsen hotel would leave – with Japanese precision – from a nearby stop at 9:02 and it was important to reach the place in good time so that we wouldn’t miss it. We walked briskly through the small streets of Mizusawa towards the bus stop just blocks away. My father-in-law had joined the group in the last moment and was now walking silently behind me. The only thing he had uttered thus far was ohayoo, the good morning’s greeting. I knew his silence had nothing to do with me: my wife’s father was a quiet man.

By 9:01 my mother-in-law was getting visibly nervous. There was no sign of the bus. She became overly worried that the schedule would be different or entirely cancelled as today was a national holiday, Sports Day to be more precise (it wasn’t quiet clear to me what exactly was celebrated, but there was nobody on the road indicating that this was, indeed, a serious holiday). It would be a major blow to the plans if the bus wouldn’t go. We could easily take a taxi as the place was not far away, but that was not how it had been planned. Luckily, with everyone holding their breath, the blue and green bus was sighted as it turned the corner at exactly 9:02. The disaster had been averted.

We entered the short bus through the backdoor and took our tickets from a machine. The uniformed driver nodded a welcome to us. The bus calmly meandered through the city of Mizusawa. Its size was designed so that it was able to navigate the small streets and corners where it was tight even for two small cars to pass. There was only one other passenger, a young female with short hair and a long sleeved t-shirt (whether she was a child or a young adult was difficult to decide). The bus left town, drove a short distance through sprawl with used car dealerships, pachinko parlors and other small shops before entering a farming area. We were still in the same wide valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains in which Mizusawa is located. Closer to town, in the transition zone to agriculture, the land was dominated by small vegetable patches. Further away, the landscape consisted of small rice fields with traditional looking farmhouses scattered in between them. In the Tohoku part of northern Japan, farming villages seldom had clear centers. Now, in the autumn the paddies had been drained and the rice harvested. In places, farmers were preparing the land for winter and their wives with heads wrapped in scarves under straw hats were bundling the rice husks. The fields were wet after last night’s downpour. Big black jungle crows were finding things to eat amongst the puddles. At one location, two white egrets shone bright white against the rain soaked grey paddy.

The bus moved at a pace that I would have found excruciatingly slow at other times. Today I felt it suited the languid mood perfectly. Anything faster would have been almost sacrilegious. The driver carefully turned onto a small road with rice fields on both sides that led to a country store. Two tiny old ladies were sitting in front of the store with a vegetable cart. They both had round faces with dark slits for eyes. They were bundled up in layers of clothes, so that their shapes were almost perfectly round with only little feet protruding from underneath the ball. They greeted the driver with nods and smiles but did not want to enter the bus. Our driver stopped, reversed, turned the bus around, and returned the same way to the bigger road. It served an important function to provide public transportation to the remoter villages, even if the routes had to be heavily subsidized by the more centrally located taxpayers.

After some time, we arrived at the hot spring onsen. The compound was located on the plain, a sprawling modern one-storey building. The young female who still was the only other passenger apart from us leaped out of the bus and ran to a side door on the left side of the edifice. She was obviously an employee of the establishment and, thus, an adult.

It was still early autumn and rather warm despite the drizzle. The trees still had their leaves although most were starting to change color. Especially, few mominoki maples were already bright red in the grey morning. The Japanese live by the season demonstrating a close affinity with nature. Kouyou is one of everyone’s favorites, the season when the leaves change their color. It makes the Japanese feel so sad and melancholy, feelings that I as a Finn can well relate to. Like the joyful and light-hearted summer has gone so fast and we must prepare for the little death. In the Japanese sensibility, things ephemeral represent the only real beauty.

There were already a few people sitting in the lobby of the establishment when we entered. Yoko’s mother communicated with the red-cheeked young woman at the reception. The girl was wearing a brown uniform with a vest and knee-length skirt. On her feet she wore thick white socks and no shoes. The reception was already considered onsen area where shoes were forbidden. All visitors had also deposited theirs in small wooden lockers at the entrance balancing precariously with one foot on the wet entrance while stepping up to the elevated floor where shoes no longer where acceptable. I had had some trouble fitting my oversized flippers into the boxes designed for much smaller shoes.
The smiling receptionist motioned us towards a group of sofas to wait until our resting room would be ready. This was the first period of waiting for which I had brought the novel. The windows from the entrance hall gave over the rainy landscape to the direction where I presumed a river was running.

There was a wall length of vending machines. Yoko and I – the urbanites – chose hot coffee with milk. Despite the inevitable paper cup, the coffee was most enjoyable and had a strong but not bitter aroma. Japan was a country underestimated for the quality of its coffee. Any small coffee shop – and even the vending machines – could beat Starbucks hands down! The older generation took warm canned green tea. In the next sofa group, a young family was also preparing themselves for a relaxing time at the spa. The youthful father had already opened a large bottle of Sapporo Black Label beer that he was sipping from a tiny glass. The Japanese have an uncomplicated relationship with alcohol: when you’re off work, cork up whenever you feel like it.

The lobby was getting crowded as buses brought more and more people in for holiday fun. Virtually everyone looked local. After all, this was not a famous onsen, so it wouldn’t attract people from the big cities of the Tohoku region – such as Morioka or Sendai – or from further away. There were other much more famous onsen further north, in places such as Hanamaki. Sakura-no-Oyu – the name translated to “cherry blossom hot water” – was just a simple local place of relaxation for the farmers and other people from the area. The water was genuinely from an underground mineral spring – Japan was a volcanic country and it wasn’t difficult to find hot springs – with all of its healing qualities and the setting was beautiful enough. But this was not such a traditionally romantic setting like some others located deeper in the mountains.

The red-cheeked girl reappeared to inform that our room was ready. She led the way across the lobby and through a corridor hurrying with small steps hardly lifting her feet so that her socks made a sweeping sound on the carpet. The four of us entered the tatami room that was small but clean and fresh looking. The window gave to a small yard.

Soon after, I entered the large bath area through sliding doors. It was so steamy there that all shapes were blurred. It was quite crowded with many men and some children. I found a free space in one of the long lines of wash places. I splashed water on the low plastic stool and sat on it. On all sides, men covered in soap foam were scrubbing themselves vigorously. Cleanliness is a central virtue in Japan. Most of the men had the appearance of farmers: weathered faces with eyes permanently squinting as if the sun was shining even here inside the baths. Their bodies were sinewy with decades of hard work on the fields. The hot mineral water that smelled like sulfur would be melting the knots in their strained muscles. Some of the men were stocky with slight potbellies, but all looked like they could definitely hold their own in a situation. Close by, a young father was soaping up a little boy. The father belonged to a new generation and probably to one of the small towns in the area. His hair was dyed reddish brown and he had a tattoo of a dragon on his right shoulder. Despite all of this, he looked very benign.

After having satisfied myself that I was clean enough – and having made a show of washing myself carefully because the Japanese always fear that the gaijin are not equally careful with their personal hygiene – I stepped into the large ofuro bath inside the bathhouse. The water was scalding hot to my feet but I knew that the best way of getting in was simply to sit down until the neck without hesitation. The little by little approach might be better for the heart, but it was too painful to expose one’s body to the slow boiling.

There were some fifteen other men in the tub, many of them with a damp washcloth folded on top of their heads to keep the brain cool. If anyone noticed the entrance of a gaijin, nobody made a fuss about it. Up in Tohoku, it’s egalitarian country. Poor farmers share what they have with any traveler and nobody has any pretensions of being higher than others.
Once I got used to the heat, the water was soothing to the weary bones. One could feel how the mineral water from deep in the volcanic land penetrated the skin and beyond. The sulfuric fumes penetrated the sinuses. It was impossible to be sick if one took these baths regularly.

A man in his 50s with old-fashioned black-framed eyeglasses, a serious comb-over and an exceptionally long member between his skinny legs entered the bath. He smiled broadly with a mouth full of crooked teeth and nodded a friendly acknowledgement when he sat next to me. I responded with a smile and a muted konnichiwa or good afternoon. No more verbal communication was needed between us, or any other bathers. In our natural nudity, we were all equal in our private relaxation.

When the heat of the water became too much, I stood up, nodded to the comb-over, and went outside to the garden where the smaller outdoors pool, known as rotemburo, was located. The rain was falling steadily now and the large drops cooled down my overheated body nonetheless startling me as they hit me with a splash. A mominoki with bright red leafs stood a few yards away, vivid against the grey sky. The river that I had expected to be there ran nearby beyond the slope behind the garden, the sound of its water flowing over the rocks clearly audible to the rotemburo. A low wooden wall separated the women’s bathing area from ours. The sounds of their chattering and laughter mingled with the trickling sounds of the river. Three men who looked like countryside yakuza gangsters with rather large beer bellies were lounging in the tub, laughing and exchanging stories from horse races in the city of Morioka.

Having let the rain cool my body to the point that I started shivering, I went back into the bathhouse and decided to enter the Finnish sauna. I took note in passing that it was actually manufactured by a company from Finland. It appeared genuine enough, with wooden walls and benches and heated rocks in the corner, except for the TV set that had been installed behind a glass for the entertainment of the bathers. A program showing the fate of a tuna from the time it was caught by a trawler, to the fish market and, partially, to the fisherman’s dinner table (the fisherman who had caught the fish chose to keep the eyes, which he considered a special treat for himself), was on, with its typical details of cooking and people exclaiming how delicious it all looked: Eeh! Oishii! One could never open the TV in Japan without seeing a food program at least on some channel.

After a dip in the cold-water pool I returned to our room. Yoko’s father was back there already. He had bought cans of Asahi Super Dry beer and offered one to me in his typically incommunicative manner, just handing one over to me. After the baths, it tasted heavenly. The TV was on in the room, too. It seemed that the TV would always be on. Yoko’s father was watching a marathon race, another of the perennial favorites on Japanese television. How many marathons do they run in Japan every year, anyway?

Soon the women arrived and food was ordered from the kitchen by telephone. I settled for hot ramen noodles with roasted pork slices and bamboo shoots. It was tough to eat at first because the broth was so hot that it burned the tongue. First the outside, now the inside was getting scalded, I thought. The bath, beer and food made everyone sleepy and soon the four of us were sprawled over the tatami mats fast asleep. Yoko’s head was touching mine and I felt a wave of warmth go through my body.

The second time around, the bath was even more enjoyable. My body was cold after sleeping on the floor without covers. But entering the rotemburo was ever so much more difficult as the temperature difference between the chilled body and steaming water was bigger. Entering slowly, I thought that my feet would be boiled. But once I was in the tub my body temperature adjusted and I could feel the heat seeping through my deepest buried organs. It couldn’t feel more relaxing.

This time there were many more children. Apparently, having done their hair and make-up, most women had decided against a second round of baths and, thus, the children followed their fathers to the baths. A little girl of about three or four entered the bath with her father. She was amazingly pretty with big dark eyes and a small nose in an expressive face. Her black hair was held up with elastic ribbons that had small red butterflies attached to them.

The rain had stopped and the air was distinctly cooler now. A wind had picked up and it brought with it the sound of the river racing down from the mountains towards the distant sea. The day was quickly fading away. Dragonflies were still cruising the air in their odd fashion, hovering in one spot, then suddenly spurting to the next, only to continue hovering there. The mountains had come into view at a distance when cracks appeared in the cloud cover and the last rays of sun lit them up in shades of grey. A string of small lights glimmered on the small pine tree in the garden.

[Published also on on March 8, 2006.]

Receiving the Year of the Bird

The Buddhists have 108 sins to clear at the end of the old year. Therefore, at the temples the gong is hit equally many times when receiving the New Year. At the Shinto shrines, there are no gongs. People just clap their hands twice and ring the bells that hang above the shrine gate by shaking the thick rope that connects to the brass bells hanging under the torii gate of the shrine. This peaceful coexistence of traditions and religions surely is one the reasons for the harmony that exists in the Japanese society, where 80 percent of the people profess to being Buddhist, while at the same time almost 90 percent of the people adhere to Shinto practices.

I had joined the long line of hundreds of people moving towards the main building of Hitaka shrine in Mizusawa, northern Japan. The Year of the Monkey was about to turn into the Year of the Bird. The temperature was well below freezing but as there was no wind the night didn’t feel too cold. The large snowflakes appeared to float in the still air reflecting the shifting lights from the fires. The thick snow cover dampened the sounds and all I could hear was the muted clattering of the bells and the soft crunch of the snow underneath our boots. There was wood smoke in the air.

Mine was the only western face amongst the crowds. Mizusawa is a small town of some 60,000 people in Iwate Prefecture about three hours north from Tokyo by the bullet train, shinkansen. It is located in the north of the main island of Honshu far from either coast between the two major northern cities of Sendai and Morioka. The only reason why the shinkansen even stops there, it is said, is that Mizusawa is the home base of one of Japan’s most powerful political figures, Ichiro Ozawa. Despite the stop, few foreigners find reason to get off here. My reason this time – and many times before – was that Mizusawa was also the hometown of my wife, Yoko, who was born and raised here before she moved to Tokyo to attend university at 18.

While the queue was snaking slowly forward, people would step out of it to take a sip of spring water from or wash their hands in the little well that we passed. Those who were hungry, could purchase mayo tako, minced octopus balls with mayonnaise, or hot cakes from makeshift stalls that had been established alongside the route. The heat and the fragrance from the cooking warmed up even those of us passing by who didn’t indulge. When we finally reached the shrine, Yoko and I bowed our heads, threw coins into the offering vessel, clapped our hands twice, rang the bells and prayed for a more peaceful future than the ending year had been. We then proceeded to do the same at a number of other altars at Hitaka.

Once the cold was getting to us, we joined the other people who had gone through the same route at an open fire that had been set up in the middle of the yard. We were served amazake, or fermented rice wine, from a stall. The fire and the sake warmed the crowd up. This was important as many of the young women arriving from parties with their boyfriends were dressed in very short skirts exposing their thighs to the cold midwinter air. The snowfall had halted and a pale half moon was seen through the hazy winter sky.

The New Year’s Eve hadn’t started quite as spiritually. Yoko, her brother Jun and I had gathered around the table at their parents’ house for a sukiyaki meal. The head of the family, Masayuki Takahashi, had started by grilling thin slices of beef on a hot plate that was placed on the table, adding various vegetables, mushrooms and tofu to the stew. He filled the pot with hot water, sake and soy sauce until all the ingredients were all well stewed. The hot pot sat in the middle of the table and we’d all pick up the pieces we wanted with our chopsticks directly from the pot and dip them into the raw egg that each one of us had beat into a cup next to our plates. There were side dishes, too: pickled cabbage and cucumber, salad with fried tofu. We were all sitting in the kotatsu: a square hole had been made in the middle of the tatami mats and the table had been fitted on top of it. Inside there was a kerosene heater and we would put our feet under the table to keep them warm. The room itself was very cold, as the buildings in Iwate were not built to resist the harsh winter weather that hit them annually (why this is the case remains a mystery; further north, in Hokkaido, where the winter is equally harsh the houses are generally better built and have proper heating).

The television was open during the dinner and we were surfing the channels while eating. Mostly, though, we watched the annual New Year’s kohaku, or prize show in which numerous singers competed. In between, we did spend time between Pride and K-1 fights in which great stars, like the …, fought each other to the enjoyment of the spectators. Both of these “sports” share the same general idea: use any means possible developed by Eastern martial arts or Western fighting to batter your opponent to submission. Back at kohaku we shared in the joys of contemporary Japanese musical performance. ..
At some point of time during the dinner the beer had been switched to sake and its stronger version shoju. Jun was most obvious victim becoming increasingly rowdy as the evening wore on. At some point of time he tired of the admittedly endless succession of big and lesser starts crowding the kohaku stage and moved to the piano in the adjacent room. This was his piano from his Mizusawa childhood before he had moved to Tokyo to eventually become a successful stage manager for opera and ballet. For the coming hour or so, my brother-in-law’s rather avant garde improvisations interspersed with primeval grunts would accompany the more sedate enkas crooned by ladies in kimonos on television. Having just arrived from New York the day before, these sounds would intermingle in my jetlagged mind drifting in and out of sleep on the tatami mat.

Finally just before midnight we would all straighten up, put on our winter coats and boots, and wander off to the snowy night to join the crowds at the shrine.

The first day of the Year of the Bird dawned cloudy. Numerous sparrows were chattering on the clothesline in the garden waiting for their turn to partake in the feast on feeding tray. They looked like soft little balls with their feathers puffed up against the cold. We had our feast behind the window, again crowding our feet into the kotatsu. My father-in-law – or Otoo-san, father, as I called him – opened a bottle of French Champagne as we descended for the late breakfast consisting of innumerable small dishes to share. There were beans and mushrooms of different kinds, pickled onions and daikon radishes, prawns, and the fantastic pork boiled in sake prepared by Otoo-san personally. It melted in the mouth. The cold bubbly champagne lifted the spirits from the effects of last night indulgence and soon we were all feeling fresh again. The final part of the lengthy brunch introduced the o-mochi, the traditional New Year’s fare in various forms. O-mochi is white sticky cake that is made of thoroughly pounded rice. It is so chewy that every year many people, mostly elderly, die suffocating in mochi that sticks to their throats. But this is a decent way to go, eating delicious, traditional food in the beginning of yet another year. To me, the best o-mochi my mother-in-law, Okaa-san, was serving that morning was in a thick brown bean soup. I washed it down with a clear broth of vegetables and pork.

We spent the New Year’s Day and the days following it visiting various shrines and temples. Yoko and I spent time at Komagata Jinja, the Shinto shrine where we had been wed less than ten years before. It had been during sakura, the cherry blossom season. Hundreds of people were lining up to make their offerings and ring the bells at the main shrine. We started from the smaller ones, making our offerings to the war veterans and for familial bliss. The different shrines all had their own target deities with their own special features. Despite the crowds, the atmosphere was enormously peaceful. People of all ages, from small children to the elderly, were taking in the blessed spirit of the New Year. Nobody was making noise, although the mood was distinctly upbeat. Mostly, people followed the direct paths to the different altars but many were also trudging through the thick snow across the courtyard. Snow hung heavily on the pine branches shadowing the shrine.

At the booths that lined the square courtyard, many teenage girls and boys dressed in white and orange robes were selling charms for the New Year. Visitors could write their hopes on strips of white paper and tie them to specifically constructed stands and leafless tree branches within the confines of the shrine. Again, amazake was served and impromptu stalls were selling hot foods to the worshippers. Particularly popular, it seemed, was okonomiyaki: a special kind of omelet with many herbs, vegetables and ginger. An old farmer lady with a shawl wrapped around her head above a coarse coat huddled by the open fire her back bent as a result of decades of hard work. A middle-aged man in wireless spectacles was warming a dachshund inside his bright purple windbreaker.

At this latitude so close to the winter equinox the sun never rose high in the sky. It shone its white light through the pine trees whose branches were weighed with thick slabs of snow. As we wondered towards to the town centre from the shrine, the last rays were already colouring the western sky. It was time to retreat back to the warmth of the kotatsu and a glass of clear rice wine.

© Juha I. Uitto, 2005

Clouds hanging low on Volcán Barú

At 2,000 meters above sea level, the air was cool. I had put on my long sleeved shirt made of thick cotton to ward off the wind and drizzle. A pleasant hint of wood smoke lingered in the damp air. The volcano above us, Barú, was covered in such thick fog that we couldn’t see the summit. The lush cloud forest on the slopes looked dark in the fading light of the day.
We were in Guadalupe on the slopes of Volcán Barú in western Panama. On the coastal plains where we had started this morning the weather had been hot and humid, as we think it should be in the tropics just 9 degrees north of the equator. The temperature had dropped constantly with elevation as we climbed up the narrow but well paved road towards the mountain range that forms the backbone of the narrow Central American country. The tiny Toyota Yaris we had rented in David, the provincial capital of Chiriquí in the western part of the country, took the curves snugly but at the steep slopes I wished for a stick shift as the automatic slowly gathered torque from the small engine. My wife, Yoko, searched for music from the radio and settled for a station that played brisk polka-influenced dance music complete with accordions.
We were heading towards the Los Quetzales Preserve, an eco-vacation location established already in 1976 inside the Volcán Barú National Park. Panama is one of the better-kept secrets when it comes to ecological conservation and ecotourism, decidedly overshadowed by its neighbor, Costa Rica, which has established a reputation as the ecologically sound nation in the tropics. Panama falls into the same geographical zone and offers similar natural sites. Both countries recognize the value of unspoiled nature in attracting tourists and their dollars. Both also have about one-fifth of their land surface under protected area status. The main difference is the number of tourists: while Costa Rica is the largest recipient of tourist flows in Central America, Panama is still quite tranquil, known mainly for its canal. As a result, it is said that in Costa Rica twenty tourists try to catch a glimpse of one quetzal, the famous long-tailed and colorful bird, while in Panama one tourist can see twenty quetzals. Panama holds the unofficial world record: 350 birds seen in one single day! We did not harbor any hopes of seeing any on this November trip, as one can observe quetzals mostly during the nesting season from January to May. Our purpose was just to familiarize ourselves with the area and to enjoy fresh mountain air – not perhaps the first thought associated with this tropical country!

A few days earlier we had been sitting in an outdoors café in Panama City’s Isla Flamenco with Petra Kollmansberger, a German woman with a long engagement with Panama’s tourist industry. There had been a damp wind from the Pacific Ocean bringing with it the sounds of powerful thunder. A flock of black birds had gathered in the trees in front of our café making a racket.
“It’s hard to get the government to make decisions and therefore they miss opportunities. Two big international travel magazines wanted to cover Panama but the government took two months to review the proposals. Needless to say, the deals fell through,” said Petra exasperated.
“The Tourism Authority is still in its beginnings and materials available for tourists and promotion are very limited,” she continued. This was about to change as the new government had appointed Ruben Blades, the renowned salsa star and Harvard educated lawyer as the new Minister of Tourism.
For two years Petra had tried to promote Panama in Germany with scant results. Yet, she had fallen in love with the country. The friendly blond German had found the relaxed lifestyle and the rich nature attractive. She was the one to recommend that we visit Los Quetzales. The privately owned 350-hectare area has been under protected status since 1968 and is one of the prime eco-vacation destinations in the country.

As the road ascended, we saw many large haciendas. Cattle rummaged the pastures and handsome horses stepped proudly with riders on their backs. Large houses stood on hillocks overlooking the meadows. The upper plateau had an unreal air. Dropped there suddenly it would be hard to guess one was in tropical Central America. The open meadows were dominated by red-hued grass and splattered with rocks and large boulders. The dominant tree was a tall standing species of pine. The grayness of the day together with the subdued greens and reds on the ground created an eerie atmosphere.
After a couple of hours of driving we entered the village of Cerro Punta in between the mountains. The small single-story houses with corrugated iron roofs betrayed the lack of wealth in the area. But the fronts of the houses were painted cheerfully green, yellow, white. All windows appeared shuttered, probably against the cold and damp. Apart from small-scale agriculture, tourism was the only growth industry bringing income to the populace.
We finally reached the community of Guadalupe, with a population of only 1,200 people. The town is located 1,975 meters above sea level on the edge of the Volcán Barú National Park. It was still only mid-afternoon but the sky was dark the sun having vanished behind the mountains. The drizzle added to the coldness of the air. Who would have thought that we would actually be freezing in the tropics?
We found Los Quetzales lodge in a remarkably beautiful spot shielded by steep mountainsides and parked behind the white stucco and wood main building. I found the reception closed; they didn’t expect many guests during the rainy season. I climbed the wooden stairs to the second floor and entered what looked like a lounge and a dining hall. After a short while my calls were answered and a sweet-looking young woman wearing jeans and a baseball cap appeared. She confirmed that this was indeed off-season and the place had plenty of space for us to stay. Feeling expansive, I selected one of the five suites located in a three-story building across a large open courtyard. The place had rustic beauty with cedar walls and, best of all, a well-designed fireplace in the corner of the living room. Live fire was indeed a great idea to warm our chilled bodies and Yoko started immediately piling in the wood.
The lodge also contained a spa intended to bring hikers and adventure tourists back to life after a day in the cloud forest. The spa was located on the far edge of the compound in a thicket of coniferous trees. The lighting was low and there was a pleasant musty odor of damp wood. There was an excellent sauna heated with fragrant firewood by a young woman from the village who also doubled as the masseuse. The stove in the corner of the sauna emitted a strong hiss when water was poured on it and produced a thick steam as the heat penetrated our bodies. While we were in the sauna, the village woman and her friend had prepared the adjacent room for massage. For the next two hours Yoko and I lay silently next to each other receiving an excellent massage as soothing music played in the background. The room was getting cold but the skillful hands applying aromatic oils to our muscles ensured that we remained warm.
Feeling totally relaxed and thoroughly warm in the cold night, we spent the rest of the evening in the second floor lounge where I had originally found our hostess. The fireplace was lit and we ordered some red wine to warm up our interiors. The girl with the baseball cap had tied an apron around her waist and offered to serve us a hot sopa de vegetales laced liberally with garlic. It tasted gorgeous, as did the homemade pizza that followed. We enjoyed the stillness of the evening in the cozy room. Needless to say, we slept soundly like quetzals in their nests that night, having first warmed ours with the fireplace.

The morning sun shone bright through our windows. It was still chilly but the rain was gone and we could see the mountains behind the village bathing in light. The fresh early morning air filled our lungs with the scents of forest and dewy meadows. A brown horse was eating its morning hay in the yard in perfect harmony with a flock of chubby ducks. We crossed the yard for a hearty breakfast in the dining room: a variety of fresh fruits – papaya, pineapple, watermelon and honeydew – with soft white cheese, toast, jam and strong café con leche that filled our senses. In the bright daylight the room looked different and we noticed the gaily-colored wooden quetzals decorating the wall.
It was a Saturday and the village of Guadalupe had come alive. Small pickup trucks were cruising the road apparently transporting people to social functions in the area. I counted as many as seven men perched precariously on the open flatbed of a small pickup. Families of Guaymi indians dressed in good clothes for the weekend – the men in slacks and western style shirts, womenfolk in long gowns of turquoise and blue decorated with red and yellow – ambled down the road. Most of them would be small farmers in the Guadalupe area.
Cultivated fields reached halfway up the steep slopes protected from erosion by the thick vegetation cover and sufficient rainfall throughout the year. The upper reaches and ridges were covered with mixed forests, reflecting different shades of green, all darker than the geometrically patterned fields where potatoes, carrots and other roots and tubers were grown. Although we were in the tropics, these were important food crops at this elevation, while maize is grown on the flat valley floors.

It was time for us to continue our trip, so we packed up and headed down the same road we had used arriving here. The previous government, famous for its corruption and beholdenness to big business interests, had promoted the construction of a road from Guadalupe to Boquete further east. This road would have considerably reduced travel time between the two towns but would have cut straight through the National Park. The ecological damage could have been devastating, as the impacts of roads go far beyond the immediate area that is deforested and leveled off when they are constructed. By removing protective vegetation and topsoil the hydrological conditions are modified, which especially in hilly areas can cause increased surface runoff and erosion. Wild animals also require adequate territorial integrity to roam, find food and mate. Perhaps most importantly, roads open up access to humans deeper into the pristine areas, which inevitably leads to increased pressures. Luckily, the elections earlier in 2004 had removed the government from office and replaced it with one led by the environmentally minded President Martín Torrijos. So, at least for now, the plans to build the road had been put on a hold.
On this clear day large tracts of agricultural land became visible in valleys once we started to descend. There were many pickups on the road loaded with potatoes, onions and plantains. The roadside was lined with stalls selling locally produced vegetables.
The growing tourist industry was also visible in the area. In Bambito next to Cerro Punta stood a huge modern spa hotel with manicured lawns. The village also boasted an aquaculture enterprise growing trout for the tourists to enjoy in the hotels and to fish in the ponds. We stopped at Nueva Suiza, or New Switzerland, a development with vaguely Alpine style chalets for rent. It appeared deserted but, then again, this was the off-season.
Passing through numerous small towns we headed towards the coast reaching the Carretera Panamericana at the town of Concepción. Here on the coastal plain the weather was sunny and the temperature much higher than in the hills. We rolled down the windows and sped east on the highway, which at this point was smooth and wide. At the David junction, we again turned north towards the highlands. This area was developing into a favorite retirement destination for many Europeans and North Americans. Beautiful houses were being erected along the roadside and there were numerous signs about properties for sale. This was understandable. Panama is a beautiful country with friendly people and a stable political and economic environment. Western Panama has one of the best living conditions in the country – perhaps anywhere – and is easily accessible by plane or by car from either Panama City or Costa Rica. One only has to hope that this boom will not lead to the development of mass tourism with its inevitable consequences on the local culture and nature. There is hope because those settling here seem to favor a quiet lifestyle in an unspoiled environment. Also, the country has a thriving urban economy based on banking, shipping and the famous canal. Tourism is icing on the cake and focusing on smaller scale ecotourism is a viable option.
Craving for lunch and a good cup of coffee, we stopped at random at a roadside restaurant that looked particularly tempting. It was named after its proprietress Doña Tere, a friendly woman of undetermined age. Smiling a broad smile with large gaps she indicated that we should select any table in the open-air patio covered with a corrugated iron roof. The chairs and tables were made of tree trunks and the eating area was separated from the outside by potted plants. I ordered pollo ahumedo, chicken that was grilled with a tangy sauce and served with rice, beans and a tasty potato-beet salad. Always a lover of soups, Yoko ventured for the traditional sancocho cooked with all and any parts of the chicken. While the soup was scrumptious, Yoko found many of the bird parts floating in it unidentifiable. This was lucky for the innocent looking white bitch that had approached us immediately upon the delivery of our dishes by Doña Tere. Apparently she knew to expect a share as she sat patiently next to us. The chicken entrails disappeared hurriedly into her stomach and what she didn’t want to devour right now she carried away and buried into the adjacent garden. What was left on the patio floor was quickly polished off by a trail of ants that carried chunks of chicken larger than themselves to their nest in one of the corner poles holding up the roof. They showed a remarkable sense of purpose and cooperation in dragging the tidbits to their home.
Ordering cups of strong local coffee whitened with condensed milk we had the opportunity to observe the other patrons. Judging from the clientele, Doña Tere had a reputation locally. There was a family with two small boys, both with shaved heads, and a remarkably fat man with his wife. A Chinese man was sitting alone looking sour. Panama has a fairly large Chinese population, mostly descendants of people brought in to build the canal a century ago. A somewhat tacky 4WD with darkened windows drove to the parking lot and a cool couple emerged from it. The middle-aged man wearing aviator shades was clearly a local playboy. He walked into the restaurant in self-confident steps, without a trace of smile on his stern face, the bulge of his stomach – a sign of indulgence and good times – drooping above his belt. He was followed by a girl in her twenties, on high heels and dressed in a tank top and so tight blue jeans that she would need grease to pull them on.
Back in the car, we drove to the township of Dolega finding western Panama’s best bookstore in its unlikely roadside location far removed from anything that resembled urbanization. We had read about the store, Bookmark, and had decided to visit it in search of rare books on Panama. Bookmark boasts a collection of over 8,000 mostly used English language books ranging from all matters local to tropical agriculture, history and the latest thrillers. After rummaging through the treasure trove and finding several books to purchase, we started to chat with Michael, the American owner. He had traveled in Panama and found it a good place to settle in. He had founded Bookmark some five years earlier and had since then lived a peaceful life amongst his books finding company from his customers. Life could be much worse, I thought.
It was time to head back to David to catch our flight to Ciudad de Panamá. Sharply at 3 p.m. there was a rumble of thunder and the skies opened with a torrential rainfall. During the rainy season you could set your watch by the afternoon showers. The rain would be over quickly but while it lasted it was best to turn on the headlights and slow down to a crawl, as the wipers couldn’t keep up with the streaming water.
By the time we reached the airport on the other side of the city of David, it was again sunny. I went to the car rental desk to return the keys and to present an official looking piece of paper that had been attached to the windshield some days ago when we had stopped at the center of David for shopping. It looked like a parking ticket but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why we would have been given one; we had parked in a clearly marked slot by one of the main streets and not stayed out for too long. The friendly young man at the counter looked at the ticket, made a call and after some minutes was able to confirm that it was indeed a fine for a parking violation. “Nobody understands the rules,” he said.
“Ah, well,” I thought, “we have to pay our dues – and it can’t be too much, can it?” Still, I could hardly believe my ears when the fellow said that he had to add the fine of $1 to my bill.
“I beg your pardon, did you really say one buck? Now, that’s reasonable.”
“Yes sir. I guess in your country you might have to pay even $5,” he said without a trace of irony in his voice.

The Aeroperlas flight was late. We had sat at the small airport for more than two hours when we finally saw the twin-engine Shorts SD approach, land and let out the twenty or so lucky passengers who were just arriving, most looking like returning home. But the wait, like virtually everything we had experienced in Chiriquí, had not been bad. Despite the increasing heat in the room, we felt absolutely no stress in the unhurried atmosphere. Like our fellow passengers, mostly Panamanians with only a handful of foreigners, we sat quietly reading and sipping savory coffee produced locally according to sustainable practices. Its aroma floated into our noses from the steaming cup. My deepest wish, as we walked across the tarmac towards the waiting plane in the darkening evening, was that the expansion of tourism that was needed for enhancing people’s livelihoods would be achieved without sacrificing the natural and cultural richness of this beautiful country.

© Juha Uitto 2004 [Published also on on May 12, 2006.]