26 Mar

March 26.

I’m at it again. Sipping my favourite drug – having long since renounced the illegals and, with more difficulty, tobacco – at a pavement cafe in downtown Buon Ma Thuot. A street photo­grapher and caffeine addict does not choose his watering holes lightly but with good coffee everywhere, selection criteria narrow to quality of view. It’s different in the villages but here in the city I favour busy streets and intersections.

This is neither. I was drawn by the caged bird retailer next door.  As elsewhere in Asia, the patrons of Vietnam’s tea shops and eateries like to hear birds chirrup as they sip and dine. Moreover, in a city grown rich on coffee the domestic pets so indicative of prosperity and Maslow’s hierarchy are much in evidence.

A young woman decants insects the size of wasps – but surely unable to fly, else why stick around for what’s to come? – from large open box to small poly bags like that deployed by Grasshopper Man in Hue. She’s meticulous, adding a few to this bag, shaking a few from that, to avoid the wrath of weights and measures officials who no doubt turn up, at times you’d least expect, to see to it that Vietnam’s bird owning population is not short-changed.

As the bird food asphyxiates I recall a sight the previous day. I’d been at an ethnic village too commercialized to detain me long. Starting up the bike, I was passed by two lumbering elephants carrying tourists: farang, chinaman and viet. The metal contraption they sat on didn’t strike me as much fun for the put-upon pachyderms, and again my Libran sense of balance kick-started a thought train. It went like this.

We are the mother of all apex predators. A trillion hand-downs of mitochondrial DNA, all honed and tweaked by random genetic mutation and natural selection, have gone into perfecting our ability to flourish at the expense of our fellow creatures. We did not get where we are by weeping over their suffering at our hands.

I have good friends who are vegetarian. What they stuff their tums with is none of my biz but if they think eschewing rather than chewing flesh confers moral superiority, and most of my v-pals are way too smart to think that, they must also believe Hitler a better man than Mandela. I’m assuming here that where concern for the animal kingdom is the key driver, then for consistency’s sake they don’t – given the inextricability of meat and milk production – eat dairy either. I’m assuming also that if the protein inefficiency of large scale meat eating is the main b of c, their stance is tempered by the mildly self deprecating irony we should all adopt when pissing in the Atlantic.

(Yes, I do realise this does not exhaust the list of reasons for being vegetarian. We need only consult relative stats on the incidence of bowel cancer in rich and poor countries to see that, even allowing for the fact causation and correlation aren’t the same thing, we in the west eat far more meat than is good for us.)

On the other hand those same evolutionary processes have also conferred, seemingly on our species alone, self awareness. God knows why. Some say it’s a by-product. Stuff any animal with the volume of reasoning power we’ve been saddled with, they say, and self awareness comes gratis. Or maybe it is needed by a species so dependent on sophisticated communications. Who knows? But whatever its purpose, self awareness brings empathy in its wake. Once we’ve reached a certain altitude on Maslow Hill, even those of us who swig milk and ride elephants tend to look askance when small boys pull the legs off spiders, and rough types in the sticks place bets on cockerel fights.

* * *

Over the road a middle aged woman in powder blue appears in a darkened doorway. She stands motionless for a good minute or two, surveying the morning activity as she looks north toward me and the insect packing plant next door. The low streaming sun lights up the right side of her face, throwing the left into deep, chiaroscuro shadow. It has all the makings of a great shot.

I carry on sipping my coffee.

Respect for her privacy? For sure, respect matters – hope I’ve made that clear – but anyone saying you must never sneak a picture is a hypocrite or just plain dim, and probably a middle class farang of the type brought up to believe bragging or showing off a heinous crime.

(Given that everybody at some level thinks they are special – and the closer that belief is to the surface the healthier things generally are – that leaves only one way of feeling superior. Since you mustn’t big yourself up you do the next best thing: Little Down The Other. That’s how we end up walking around with the look of people sucking on lemons.)

My rough and ready rule is this. If I’m tempted to sneak a shot I ask myself why. If the truth­ful answer, and another rule of mine is that I’m the one person I want never to lie to, is that I’m too frit to ask permission then I don’t take it. The pic will almost certainly be inferior, its mediocrity a permanent reminder I bottled it.

But in my book there are valid reasons too for pinching a pic. Two days ago, on my way back from snapping waterfalls south of Buon Ma Thuot, I stopped at a roadside cafe, deserted but for a small boy playing patience. He called out the back to announce my arrival, then resumed his game, concentration personified. Flagging up my intent would have ruined the shot.

With the pic in the bag, I waited. And waited. After ten minutes I got back on the bike, switched on the ignition and drove off. He didn’t even look up.

So no, it wasn’t guilt or piety that kept me sipping coffee while chiaroscuro lady stood begg­ing to be snapped. The banal truth is the shot called for the L-series telephoto in the bag beside me, while I had my wide angle fitted. Switching lenses would take fifteen seconds at most, including extraction from bag.

Not for nothing is laziness one of the seven deadlies. (And, with coward­ice, a prime cause of missed opportunities and duff shots in street and travel photo­graphy.) As the Good Book says: “go to the ant thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.”

That said, ants do seem to go in for a lot of pointless running around. And who’d want to be an ant anyway, in a country with a hundred ways of serving them up as a side dish?

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