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Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Salt Shaking Trip to Southeast Asia

As I noted in the post about charities, I was invited to a three week trip to Southeast Asia, to tour the tsunami ravaged countries, learn about them, and advise them on dealing with the post-tsunami infrastructure issues. I might discuss the actual trip in more depth elsewhere, although an anonymous blog about sex and relationships wouldn't be the most leveraged place to post. So instead I'll focus on the relationship-related parts of my trip.

Our evolution has pushed a lot of interesting social behaviors into our psyche. Try reading Moral Animal and the Selfish Gene for a perspective on this. The writing is more accessible and friendly than the authors (particularly since one of them is dead). Yes, they are often too strident in making their points, but they and many books like them are good introductions into a different world of thinking of the origins of our behaviors.

In order to advise governments on dealing with infrastructure issues, it was very important to first learn about the social patterns in those countries. This was the most fascinating part of the trip.

Much of Southeast Asia are collections of small villages. Modernization means they can have running water, electricity, television, and mopeds, but many social artifacts of their past remain. Newer villages branch out from older ones. They tend to be small. The reason a new village starts is to exploit a natural resource, and therefore most villages are single economies -- they may be mining metals, stone cutters, fishing, or finishing goods. Consequently they must trade to survive.

Although my education in Southeast Asia was intense -- and sponsored by various governments and non-government organizations -- let me talk about two kinds of trade that I think relevant to the blog: salt, and women.

Desperate Housewives and The Spice of Life

Salt is a necessary chemical for survival. In Africa, the salt lick is the UN for animals, where animals of many types will temporarily peacefully coexist to obtain their salt (and then, continuing with the UN analogy, the larger animals will eat the smaller animals when nobody is looking). With today's modern high-salt diets and our continuous pressure to reduce salt, it's hard to believe that not too long ago, our ancestors actively would seek salt, and die if they had insufficient quantities.

This was still the case in parts of the developing world as recently as the last century.

In small island communities, salt is available. You are never too far from salt water, for example, so it isn't too difficult to have your own salt. But consider a large continent, like China or parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. The interiors are relatively inaccessible. It could take weeks or months to get salt from the ocean or a salt mine to villages in certain locations. How do you do it?

Enter the salt trader, a curious artifact of recent history.

The salt trader is a man who travels with loads of salt. He wanders from village to village, selling salt. Given the long travelling, and the fact that salt keeps well (so the salt trader doesn't have to visit any given village very often), the salt trader's range is usually very large. He gets around, but episodically.

So if you are a village, how do you make sure that the salt trader will come to your location? What is the incentive?

Sex, of course.

The incentive for the salt trader is that the villages would allow the salt trader access to their women. Usually any woman who was a widower would have sex with the salt trader. This was voluntary, the salt trader was generally very popular with those women. Hey, he's from out of town and probably had a lot of good stories. He was also contributing to a little genetic diversity. There was no stigma with having the child of a salt trader. This was all part of the social contract to get the salt trader to come. So to speak.

Not a bad job, if you don't mind walking. In fact, I'm surprised there wasn't a ton of competition for the job. Yep, get in line... Behind me.

Of course, the salt trader is gone now. Given that most developing nations in the world have extensive roads and available mopeds or automobiles (and fuel infrastructure), moving salt is no longer such a time-consuming lifetime endeavor.


Small villages don't have genetic diversity. A population of under one hundred, or even a few hundred, runs the risk of inbreeding. So what do you do?


There are a truly stunning number of holidays in Southeast Asian countries. Well, in fact most locales with lots of small villages. Many of these holidays are opportunities for villages to visit other villages and have celebrations.

Part of the reason for these celebrations are to introduce the young men to young women in other villages. Even if mediated by their elders, it gives a reasonable way to cement village trading relationships, continue social interactions, and, well, cross fertilize ideas, training, and genes.

The trade in women is a long tradition, reinforced by genetic necessity. Again, this is a historical case, and is no longer the norm. Again the reason is the moped and automobile; it is now easy to move between villages so mixers are not required to enhance genetic diversity.

Salt trading and trading women. This must be why I love to travel -- it's in my genes.

I almost forgot to justify the title of this posting. While I was in Sri Lanka and only a day out of Aceh, that area was hit by another high magnitude earthquake. In fact it killed one of the support staff I had met just a few days earlier. Very sobering. So that was "shaking things up." It was one of three earthquakes I have experienced in my year in Asia. About three too many, actually. But between the travel and the earthquakes, I guess I have truly qualified as "a mover and a shaker!"


Blogger SBB said...

Eh? I'm in Malaysia and as far as I know the "salt trader" thing is not something I have ever heard about. Perhaps it's because I live in the capital, but so far as I know, we do not live in trees or "walk everywhere". Almost everyone has access to some sort of motor transport. Unless you are talking about the orang asli in the rain forests?

I find this post slightly offensive for some reason. Surely the salt traders would have travelled far and wide simply for trading profits and not just because they were sex maniacs? And surely villagers would protest to having their women fucked over for goods?

8/05/2005 5:29 AM  
Blogger Sigmund said...

Oops. I should clarify (and will tomorrow), that the salt trader hasn't existed for a hundred years. It is a historical and anthropological artifact. Today the preferred means of transport is the moped, although between villages in remote Malaysia (which is where most of the earthquake damage was done) still do a lot of walking. As I'm sure you know, places like KL and Jakarta are NOT AT ALL like most of the rest of those countries.

And I missed where I wrote that people in Southeast Asia lived in trees. That's certainly not the case.

8/05/2005 5:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob Wright and Richard Dawkins are both alive and kicking. Moral Animal and the Selfish Gene, are, as you indicate, two of the most important books one can read that explain why the world is like it is. The other book that explains how the world works is Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, which says that geography is destiny. Highly recommended.

8/11/2005 8:52 PM  

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