Archives for category: Uncategorized

Three years ago Lina and I visited her colleagues from 1996-97 in an education project in Kampong Cham, a provincial capital about 3 hours from Phnom Penh.  I wrote about that visit here:

We returned to Kampong Cham on January 15 ago and, in the company of her friend and former translator Thanit, we visited KAPE again and found Kurt at work and free to update us on how the “New Generation School” movement is doing.


Lina, Kurt and Thanit: January 15, 2018

He reports good news.  The hoped-for support from the Minister of Education has gone beyond political and moral support to a generous appropriation in the government budget to support the reform movement that KAPE is pioneering.  This funding, now in its third year, has come at a time when funding from the US is drying up, as the Agency for International Development (USAID) has chosen other priorities than education.  So the Minister’s decision to support KAPE is a huge vote of confidence and it could not be more timely.


An impressive array of organizations has sponsored KAPE over the past years. Now, most impressive, the Cambodian government is supporting their work.

The New Generation Schools have expanded to 9 sites and Kurt is very encouraged by the quality of teaching and learning that he sees happening.  There is entrenched resistance to these reforms from many teachers and bureaucrats who have been earning thousands of dollars from the fees they take from students for extra classes.  The New Generation Schools pay their teachers well and offer incentive pay but they have outlawed these private classes and any direct payments from students to teachers.  A student can no longer buy his/her grade.  So it is no wonder that these reforms have met fierce opposition in many quarters.  Corruption is deep seated.


Michelle Obama visited KAPE!

Yet the Minister supports the reform, students are learning more and paying less and there is reason to hope that the reforms will last.


Here is the hope for Cambodia’s future: its young women and men who will grow up to expect something better.




Five years ago Lina and I took a cruise on the Mekong River in Cambodia.


It lasted only 15 minutes or so.


The ferry crossing from the west side, near Phnom Penh, to the east side in Prey Veng was crowded and lively.


It was fun mixing with passengers and vendors


and inspecting their wares:  in this case, fried giant water beetles and other 6 and 2 legged delicacies!


The crossing was much different today.


Certainly faster, perhaps safer and cheaper.  Also less colorful, and not so much fun.  Progress?

Lina and I have traveled to Vietnam every year or two since 2009.  I have introduced her to my friends in Hanoi and she has introduced me to hers in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).  Among these, Mama and Papa Hong.


Mama and Papa Hong with family in 2009

They live very close to Tan Son Nhat Airport in an area that was just beginning to be settled when Lina first visited in 1997.  By now the neighborhood is crowded, the street lined with small shops doubling as homes.  Mama Hong’s business is making banh mi, sandwiches of pate and pork and vegetable layered into a small French loaf.


Mama Hong makes banh mi in early 2013.


Always a warm greeting!

It seems that whenever we arrive, Mama Hong is at her shop, even when we have not called ahead.  These photos were taken in February, 2015.


With their son. The living quarters are in back of the open space in front where business is done.


Almost two years ago, we saw Papa Hong candling eggs to see if they are fertilized.  The Vietnamese, like the Filipinos, enjoy eating duck eggs which are nearing the time to hatch.  This is one delicacy I have managed to evade!



From quail to duck egg

As always, Mama Hong was at her banh mi post.


And the smiles are as wide as ever.


We never left Mama Hong’s without a bag of food to take along.


This year, a different photo.


We learned this morning that Mama Hong died last May 28 of cancer, at the age of 75.  We had planned on visiting her, expecting to see her making banh mi as always, as if she would never go away.  When we heard she had died, we went to the house and found her son and his wife.  They have a new business, opening coconuts, draining the juice, scraping out the meat and squeezing the milk from it.


Coconuts are split with a machete, and the “water” drained out.


Then a rotating grinder cleans the meat from the shell.


The meat goes into the tray on top of this juicer ….



… and the juice or “milk” squeezed from the meat drains into the container on the low stool. It is then poured into a plastic bag and sold.

Papa Hong has gone to California to live with another child until his visitor’s visa expires.  Perhaps his child can sponsor him to stay in the the US.

We are sad tonight.  We miss Mama Hong.  But her smile has not faded in our minds.  I will tell you something of her story.

Lina first met Mama Hong in the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Bataan.  [See for the story of the camp.]  Lina worked with the refugee churches and so walked through the neighborhoods early in the morning meeting many of the mothers.  Mama Hong, Mama Chao and Mama Tho were friends.  They would invite her to eat noodle soup and drink coffee.  Lina got to know them and their families well.  She took their children to Manila on field trips and to this day remains close to the extended families.


The market in PRPC. This photo and the next come from a slide show made from photos that our friend Gaylord Barr took in 1988.


Gaylord snapped a photo of Mama Hong in the market! To see the whole slide show:

In 1995, those Vietnamese refugees who hadn’t been allowed to continue to the US or another country were sent back to Palawan, a first asylum camp now turned into a holding camp.  Mamas Hong, Chao and Tho were among them.  [Read for more about this chapter.]

Lina followed her friends to Palawan.  The 3 Mamas spent a lot of time with Lina in the camp and also visiting her at her home outside the camp. Mama Hong had a market stall in the camp, sold food and fed Lina often.   “Lina no good!” was a common refrain from Mama Hong when Lina didn’t want to speak Vietnamese or perhaps didn’t choose to eat her food.  “Lina, I want chicken girl!” meant “Lina, please buy me a hen at the market.”  They teased each other and laughed a lot.

Some refugees found homes in other countries, while others, like Mama Hong, returned to Vietnam with a cash settlement from the US.  As people were not (supposed to be) forced to return, the cash payment was an inducement to go back.  If a family held out, the offer was increased.  Lina counseled her friends to wait until the pot was sweetened, and when the price was right, they returned with the capital to buy a small house and start a business.  Mama Hong returned to her husband, who had never left Vietnam, and to her house near the airport.  They opened their business.

In 1997, Lina came to Saigon to find some of these friends to deliver letters from their families in the US.   With the help of her friend Paul, she located Mama Hong.  This was the first of many visits.  The love I have seen between them, the smiles and laughter, have roots that started growing 30 years ago.  They were nurtured by much time spent together, through good times and hard times shared, in friendship that allowed no obstacles and in persistent faith.

We love you, Mama Hong!



Blue green patches on the slopes of upland Cavite, south of Manila, reveal at close range the spiky geometry of pineapple fields.

The pineapple is widely cultivated here.  It is consumed locally, bought by the many thousands of tourists to these cool highlands and sent to markets in Manila and probably beyond.

These delicious small pineapples are abundant now.  Like banana and papaya, and unlike mango, they do not have a limited season.  We can enjoy them year round.

This landscape is fairly recent.  My brother-in-law Nani says that starting in the late 1980s, groves of coffee trees were cut down to make way for the pineapple.  The gnarled trunks of the coffee trees went to furniture factories, the branches were burned for fuel in homes and restaurant ovens, and the land turned over to other crops.

Coffee has a long history in the Philippines.  Wikipedia tells me that the first coffee was introduced around 1740 in the neighboring province of Batangas.  By the early 1800s the Philippines became the 4th largest exporter of coffee in the world.  After the Civil War the US took much of the export as it was cheaper to bring coffee from the Philippines than from Brazil.  From 1887 to 1889 the Philippines became the only coffee exporter, as a disease called coffee rust struck plantations in other producing countries.  Then the rust reached the Philippines and production plunged.  Farmers began to switch to other crops and now the country ranks 110 in the world in coffee production.

While I’d seen coffee trees growing scattered among other crops on most farms here, it was only last weekend that I found an area where coffee grows as it once did, in dense stands.  Would this be a coffee grove or a coffee orchard?


While coffee is no longer an important export crop, it is prized here, and the locally produced coffee, called “barako”, is a special favorite in Cavite, the province where Lina has her home.  Barako is Coffea liberica, one of four commercially produced varieties in the world: the others are arabica, robusta and excelsa.  Arabica is grown here in the higher mountains of northern Luzon; robusta makes up 90% of Philippine production; and barako is a specialty of Cavite and Batangas.

”Varraco” means wild boar in Spanish.  The boar feeds on the leaves and berries of coffee (again according to Wikipedia!).  Nani suggests that the variety is named barako because the taste is strong, like the boar.  However the name came about, liberica is common in Southeast Asia and especially in the Philippines.  It has larger beans and leaves than other varieties; the beans are asymmetric, with a point or hook at one end; and the crease or furrow down the middle of the bean is jagged, not smooth.  I’m quite sure that the coffee shown here is robusta, not liberica; but it may still count as “barako” as coffee from this region, whatever variety, is often called barako.


When coffee is in flower, the sweetness in the air is intoxicating – like thousands of jasmine in flower at the same moment.  The berry goes from green to red and is then ready to harvest.


The berries are dried on cement slabs in front of the house or even on the road.


As they dry the berries go from red to black

and then, once the outer husk is removed, the bean is ready to roast.


 You know the rest!

We drove northeast from Atlanta to High Point, NC, through South Carolina.

  • The Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway, or Route 11, took us through northwestern South Carolina. Along this beautiful road we found Oconee Station State Historic Site:  a stone blockhouse built in 1792 to house troops on the frontier, and an early 19th century brick trading post.  William Bartram, the Quaker botanist, passed this way in the 1790s.  He sketched and recorded the medicinal plants of the Cherokee, including Echinacea.



The blockhouse is on the right, the trader’s house and post on the left.

  • This beautiful ruin stands in a cow pasture. A sign warns us that, according to South Carolina’s bovine law, if  you’re stupid enough to wander into the field and get trampled by a bull, it’s your own ___ fault!  A flock of starlings wheeled over the field and meadowlarks sang.



Along Route 11

  • As we left South Carolina, we passed close to Cowpens, the site of an important 1781 Revolutionary War battle which, like the battle at nearby Kings Mountain, turned the tide of that war in the South.

Lake Norman in Terrell, NC – yet another drowned valley

Our route sliced through layers of American history – geologic time, the pre-colonial times, early colonization, the French & Indian Wars, Revolutionary War, Civil War, slavery, pioneer life, plantations, coal mines, union wars, schools for African-American and Indian and white children, the struggle for civil rights that continues today.


Sunflowers grow in the median strip of I40 west of Winston-Salem, NC.

For every marker we saw or site we stopped at, there were dozens that we passed by unknowing or without the leisure to stop.  And doubtless many stories have never been remembered, perhaps never told.


From the Cumberland Gap we drove south into Tennessee and Knoxville.


Crossing the Clinch River again

  • The Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville has a fine permanent display as well as the current exhibition, “Stories in Stitches”, quilts from their beautifully curated permanent collection. One remarkable 19th century quilt shows scenes from the quilter’s life – businesses and people she knew well.  The 3 dimensional style reminds me of arpilleras from the Andes.  Three of the blocks portray her African-American neighbors.

    Crazy quilt


    The quilter tells us about her life and neighbors.



  • At age 19, Sam Houston taught school for one year in Marysville, TN before going to war. He became a war hero and a protégé of Andrew Jackson.  Before he became a teacher, he’d been a clerk in his brothers’ store but ran away to the Cherokee, where he learned their language and was adopted by the hereditary chief.  Later he had a half-Cherokee common law wife.  He disagreed with his mentor Jackson about the treatment of the Indians, yet Houston was put in charge of moving Cherokees from Tennessee to Arkansas in 1817.  Houston had a most colorful life.  I found myself wondering how he reconciled his closeness with the Cherokee with the policies that led to the Trail of Tears.  Or did he ever manage to reconcile them?




  • Another chapter in the history of the Cherokee was written at Fort Loudoun, a fort built by the British in 1756 during the French & Indian Wars. The Overhill Cherokee were the allies of the British and welcomed the fort, it is said.  Yet the British humiliated the Cherokee war chiefs by imprisoning them; the Cherokee besieged the fort and killed many in the garrison after the British surrendered and were promised safe passage.  This fort, unlike the much earlier Fort Christanna, has been rebuilt and these stories of cooperation and betrayal are told in a film at the park.

A palisade fence surrounds Fort Loudoun.  The “chevaux de frise” could block the gate, and  a thorny locust hedge grew outside the palisade.


Tellico Lake has drowned the site where the Cherokee village of Tuskegee once stood.

  • A tortoise crossed the road, we turned back to help it across (it needed no help) and discovered Overhill Gardens, a fine native plant nursery. We also learned that we’d taken a wrong turn and were heading for a gravel road in the mountains!  We turned around.OverhillGardens
  • The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, owned and operated by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee in Vonore, TN, was closed for renovation. I’d have liked to see the history as told by the Cherokee themselves.

The Cumberland Plateau:  Kentucky’s coalfields


Over Fishtrap Lake in Phyllis, KY, where Lita and Roger Rowlett live



Roger and Lita


Bitter melon and winged beans from the Philippines grow in Lita’s garden – and banana trees!


As a boy, Roger often climbed to the ridge behind his house, where these rock formations have stood for many centuries, looking out over the valleys and the rich forest.

  • In Letcher County we stayed with my old friend, Susie, and visited Gerry, another friend who lives on a small farm. Gerry showed us the spoon that she used to stir apple butter when a child – the spoon is 70 years old.  Her pantry is full of colorful jars of produce that she has put up, and the honey from the hives that her husband William tends.



Lina and Gerry


The apple butter spoon


  • Eula Hall is famous enough now to have a highway named after her and a book written about her. We found her still behind the desk of her office in the health clinic that she fought to establish on Mud Creek in Floyd County.  Eula is almost 90 and not able to do all she once did, but she continues to work for the welfare of the people in the coalfields and to speak out strongly on their behalf.

Eula behind her desk


  • Wheelwright, KY was a mining town. I spent many days there in the early 1970s with the families of miners, black and white.  The men worked together, the children went to school together (I have been told, though this seems remarkable during the days of segregation), yet they lived in different parts of town and are buried in different graveyards.  Albert “Shine” Lewis died in 1972, and I last saw his widow Nell in 2010.  I don’t know where she is now.  On this trip I learned about the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, an association of black miners and their families from the coalfields of Kentucky and nearby states.  I’m now reading African American Miners and Migrants:  The Eastern Kentucky Social Club.

Shine with George Tackett


Nell in 2010


Looking down from Shine and Nell’s house to the houses of their African-American neighbors

  • The towns of Benham and Lynch in Harlan County are home to a coal mining museum and to Portal 31, where we took a tour on a small railroad car into the mine itself. US Steel built Lynch in 1917 and operated the mines until the 1950s.  The mine tour features animatronic displays that tell the history of the mine.  “Bloody Harlan” was the site of bitter struggle, and much shed blood, between union organizers and the companies that fought to keep them out.

Our transportation into Portal 31, Lynch, KY


One of the animatronic displays at Portal 31

  • The visitor center at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park tells the story of the Gap’s natural and human history, from the Indian settlers to the European pioneers who flooded through the gap toward the promised Eden of Kentucky. The painful story of the theft of Indian land is told here.

Manifest destiny – one side of the story


This sign greeted us as we entered Kentucky.  Daniel Boone was one of the “long hunters”.  His explorations opened the way for the many thousands who followed. 

Lina and I have just completed a 17 day and 3,600 mile road trip through the Southeast.  I will share some of what we saw and learned.

Ours is a stunningly beautiful country.  For the past two weeks we’ve been in mountains and the valleys between them:  the Blue Ridge, the Shenandoah Valley, Kentucky’s Cumberland Plateau, the “ridge and valley” country, Alleghenies and Berkshires.  We passed large artificial lakes, drowned valleys, created by the TVA and other dam projects – but few wetlands like the swamps and marshes of New Hampshire.  The weather was warm and golden.

We chose as many back roads as we could and so felt closer to the land and its history.  Historic markers by the roadside, quickly glimpsed, yield their secrets thanks to Google.  The stories we learned are a few patches in a vast quilt of American history, complex, painful, fascinating.  Here are some of them, in the order in which we found them.  I have some of my history from Wikipedia, and it has not all been fact checked!

  • Driving through southeastern Virginia, off of I-95, we passed through the Mattaponi Valley, the soybean fields golden yellow – not in flower but in leaf. The Mattaponi Indians have a small reservation.  In the late 16th century, Powhatan was their chief.  His daughter was Pocahontas.
  • From 1714 to 1718, Fort Christanna served as a frontier trading post, a shelter for Siouan tribes from hostile tribes and a school where Indian children learned English language and culture.  We found this site down a dirt road in the midst of a sandy pine forest.  Nothing of the fort is left.  Virginia has created a “Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail”, and this is one stop along the way:  heritage–trail/


  • Moving west along Route 58 in Virginia, we passed fields of cotton, green-maroon leaves and the open bolls gleaming white.

Cotton - Gossypium sp.   Malva - Mallow

  • In Suffolk, VA, a marker remembered the Nansemond Collegiate Institute, opened in 1890 by black families to provide schooling for their children when none was available elsewhere. It continued to 1927 when a segregated public school for black children was opened.
  • Further west, Prestwould, a “gentry house” dating from the 1790s, is home to a great collection of furniture and wallpaper from that era. More interesting to me is the garden that Lady Jean Skipwith laid out.  She and Thomas Jefferson corresponded about their collections of native American plants.  A two room slave house has been “restored”: it is far more comfortable than the original would have been.  That history is acknowledged but not stressed during our tour.


  • Still further west, the Reynolds Homestead in Critz, VA turns out to be the ancestral home of R. J. Reynolds, the tobacco magnate. We saw the fine gravestones in the family graveyard and the mostly unmarked graves in the African graveyard, and we learned the story of “ex parte Virginia”, the first court case which, in 1878, upheld the federal government’s right to enforce civil rights legislation on the States.  I hope you can read the text in the photo.  If not, you’ll find it here:


The Reynolds Homestead


The story of Kitty Reynolds

  • Mabry Mill, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, offers a delightful brief visit to pioneer life in the mountains. We loved watching four visitors, perhaps traditional Mennonites, the women in bonnets and long dresses, the men in denim pants and vests, black hats and beards, taking photos of each other with their cell phones.  The sound of the water wheel is music.   Originally fed by an elaborate network of sluices (now in disuse), it could grind grain, power a sawmill and operate a woodworking shop.  Farmers cut sorghum and ground it in a mill to extract the sweet juice for syrup, just as Lina’s neighbors did – on a vast scale – on the sugar plantation where she grew up.



Making sorghum, from the Mabry Mill

  • The Konnarock Training School, founded by Lutheran missionaries in 1924, served the children of isolated mountain communities. A boarding school for girls, it also had day students from the surrounding hollows.  It closed in 1959.



View from near the Meadows of Dan in southwestern Virginia

  • Clinch Mountain runs 200 miles in a straight line. It is part of what is called the ridge and valley country.  Four dear friends live on the mountain or along the Clinch River that runs to its north. Clinch Mountain is on the border of coal country but not quite there.  As we left Virginia, we entered the land of King Coal.

Home on Clinch Mountain



Tomatoes from Maxine and Steve’s garden


The Bush Mill, Nickelsville, VA, built in 1831

I am on my way home now from the Philippines.  When I return, some of my friends will ask me how Filipinos feel about President Duterte’s brutal “war on drugs”.  I realize I won’t have very much to say.  A two week stay is too short to really understand a complex issue, though it is always tempting to become an instant expert.

I can say that some friends who voted for Duterte wish they had not.  The Catholic Church has come out strongly against the indiscriminate killing of suspected drug dealers and users, most of them poor people.  President Duterte has attacked the Church for this stand.  Many Filipinos feel that Duterte has made their country safer and still support him.  Much more I cannot say.

As we drove out of La Carlota on our way to the city of Kabankalan, we passed a large group of heavily armed soldiers lining the road.  A group of men in blue Tshirts were gathered in a field on one side of the road.  The fields we drove past were posted with signs that declared the land off limits to those men, members of a farmer’s group.

Our driver explained that 6,000 hectares (more than 12,000 acres) in this region belong to the Cojuangcos, the wealthy and land rich family to which former presidents Cory and Noynoy Aquino belong.  The struggle to redistribute land under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, signed by Cory Aquino on June 10, 1988, has targeted the holdings of the Cojuangco family and others in the landed oligarchy.

A Father Rodrigo Anoran of the Philippine Independent Church (also called the Aglipayan Church) has been in the forefront of this struggle for many years.  (The Aglipayan Church is an offshoot of the Catholic Church that does not recognize the authority of the Pope, allows its priests to marry and is found only in the Philippines.)

Our guide told us that Anoran is the ringleader of the protest we saw:  the soldiers were there to prevent the men in blue Tshirts from occupying the land of the Cojuangcos.  In his opinion, Father Anoran is up to no good.  The men trying to take the land do not even work on the hacienda of the Cojuangcos, he said, but have been imported from the mountains and are being taken advantage of by Father Anoran and others on the left.

Last year I wrote about the social justice movement in the Catholic Church, after we visited our relative Father Jose Cadungon:

The social justice issues that Father Jose and so many others worked and sacrificed for will not go away as long as fabulous wealth exists right next to tremendous poverty.  It was very tempting for me to jump to judgement about what was happening in the fields we drove through.  Then I realized that I really know so little.  My short stay can only raise questions.

For some background on the sugar industry on Negros,

And here is a clipping from 2003 that I found about Father Anoran:

This post is a photo gallery of dry goods (tools, baskets, etc.) from the town market in La Carlota.  The geometry of the displays, the repeating patterns, are very beautiful.

You can read related posts at:



Made from split bamboo


These baskets are cages for chickens.



What we ought to beat our swords into



One kind of bolo …


… and others


The curved sickles have a serrated edge for cutting grass.


Charcoal braziers







Hammocks for babies


Bamboo skewers