Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Prompts from Daily Life

Walking around Bangkok is a prompt in itself:

Signages -
Massage parlor - "Thai Foot Aroma Oil Massage"

Restaurant - "Birds-eye View Eating-house."

Rental apartment - "Fully Furnitured."

Tailor - "The Bespoke Tailoring"

There are so many more. For fifteen years, I've been telling myself to remember to write them down, but if I have bags in my arms, it's difficult. It's like I've always wanted to get a picture of six on a motorcycle - there they go, down the soi - father driving with a kid balanced between his thighs, mother sitting sideways, baby in arm and two kids squeezed between her hip and the father's back. Never have a camera ready at those times, never.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A long time since the last time...

Haven't been posting very often here, but I'm still alive, still living in Laos. Took a trip to the US during October and spent some time in the Eastern part of the country - Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, NYC, upstate NY and then left from Boston. Although I grew up in New York, I spent most of my last years in the US on the West coast and whenever I go to visit the US, I usually land in Seattle, and head down the coast, crashing into Merced before I bounce back up to Seattle in time to catch the plane back here.

I missed the boat racing festival, not only for Vientiane but also for my village. It's fun when it happens but the build up is kinda agonizing - during the final month before the Big Event, there are many Bouns in the temples, big merit-making ceremonies. At the same time, the villages along the river have their races to select the boats for the race in Vientiane. These are accompanied by a lot of drinking and traffic accidents. That's not fun.

For those who follow the weather, it is now the dust season - a cold wind comes from the north. The mornings are cold and foggy and once the sky clears, it's an incredible shade of blue. It may seem strange that it would get cold in a tropical country but the temperatures can get below freezing in Xieng Khouang, and considering that there's no indoor heating, that can feel pretty cold.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Landmines Conference

I noticed that I haven't posted for quite a while. I've mostly been writing on my Livejournal pages where my daily journals are on public access. I also have stories and stories fragments on my friends list.

I've been in the US for a week, which has been useful. I worked at my home office for a few days in Boston but have been in Chicago since Weds. I've been attending a conference on landmines.

My next stop is Atlanta, followed by New York, then returning to Boston before returning home.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Some photos

We returned from Xieng Khouang on 31 July, a drizzly cool day in the mountains. Mists streaming through the peaks, like a river of air. We stopped at a Hmong mini-mart to buy corn and cucumbers, not only the special of the day, but the only things they were selling that day. The Hmong are mountain people, and prefer to live along the sharpest ridges which have the most spectacular views, and with the solidity of the mountain behind them. Sometimes, the view isn't so great.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Rainy Season Doldrums

At the end of the hot season we all wished for rain to break the relentless heat. Now, we're experiencing the relentless gray and rain of the monsoons. The Mekong surged during the week I was up in Xieng Khouang. When I returned, it looked like it had moved up the side of the levee by about two meters. The water looked like a brown liquid metal as it slid past, carrying trees, styrofoam, and things we don't want to know about in plastic bags.

But the rain. I feel lazy when it's time to wake up and the water is pounding on the roof. The clothes on the line are lazy to dry. I would like to ride my bicycle but I'm lazy to get wet.

This is also the season called khao phansaa, the Buddhist Lent. Monks are supposed to return to their home temples and not to travel around. In the past, monks often went on pilgramages where they set up a small mosquito net tent in the field, and talked to the villages, giving teaching and also learning about the hardships. In the monsoon season, they are supposed to stay in the temple and focus on learning and memorizing the scriptures. Another reason for the monks to do this is that they avoid stepping on the life that is re-emerging from the mud such as snakes, eels or frogs.

For Buddhists, the monsoon season is the time to attend to the crops. Also, people are supposed to be reflective and to follow the ha sinh, the Five Precepts - try to avoid drinking, telling untruths, sexual misconduct, killing or stealing. During this time, one should not have loud parties or weddings - and if someone has a wedding, everyone avoids mentioning that it is an emergency situation.

Anyway, at my office, we are being good this year - no alcohol. A group of us is trying to lose weight. Another group is supposed to organize Friday afternoon games for motivation. We're trying to get people to pledge money to motivate the people in these groups - the pledges will go towards our fund for the medical care of people injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO). And if the groups don't make their goals, at the end of the three months, the members of the group will donate money into the UXO patients fund.

Anyway, it's what we call "Fun Raising."

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Back again?

What's the story? The Flying Dutchman, where the ghost ship appears and disappears and then reappears? So I guess I should rename this blog the Flying Blogman. I don't have much to say that I haven't already written in the Mekong River Reviews, so I'll just upload some recent pictures.

Lao people are becoming more interested in health, as public health improves and the average life expectancy rises. Recently, the National Rehabilitation Center had a health fair, and a lot of folks came for the music provided by the students at the School for the Blind, the handicrafts sale, and for basic health checks and health information. It was fun as well as useful.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Visible again

OK, so things seem to be working again. The road crew blocked my road into my house because they finally put the coat of tar down. My cat already gave birth to 3 orange kittens by the time I got home, alleviating my fear that she would give birth in a neighbor's attic and then get locked out (happened with the last set of kittens). My paraplegic patient may have decided to accept vocational training. And Blogger seems to be working now.

Some of the other links that I like on Blogger, which I can now view:

No Star Where - about the life of an expatriate in Vietnam: http://nostarwhere.blogspot.com

Linksaplenty - where to go if you need to look at something new to stimulate your mind, writing, or whatever: http://linksaplenty.blogspot.com

That's enough for now. My alternative blog is:
Mekong River Review

Monday, June 06, 2005

Hot Times

I finished my first exam today. I feel better already. Health management on Wednesday, and then I can return to worrying about the other things in my life. Will my pregnant cat have her kittens in an appropriate location (not in a neighbor's attic)? Will the village ever finish the paving of the side streets (they started after the rains started so they are often working in knee deep muck)? When we will be able to start work on the new project? Oh, the list goes on.

Right now, the sky is clearing. After the test, I sat by the pool for a while, then as I was riding my bicycle home, the sky opened up. I ducked into an internet cafe for an hour until the rain stopped and the mists started to rise from the pavement. Now the sky is clearing and the sun's starting its descent to the west. The Mekong is brown and flat.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Health Systems Management

When I visited my old clinic in California, my former colleagues thought I had gone bonkers. I told them that I was working on my Master's degree in 'Health Systems Management.' I have to admit that I agree with them; when we worked together, I just hated the whole concept. I considered myself to be a clinician - willing to work overtime to see more patients, leave my day job to drive an hour to make sure the homeless clinic had a medical provider, set up health clinics at migrant farmworker camps, etc. When we had discussions about financing, quality assurance, and cost-benefit analysis, I went to sleep; it never seemed relevant to me.

Since I've been working in Laos, health systems management has grown in importance for me. I realized - quickly - that if I train medical staff in some skill, and then they can not use this skill, then it's as if they never had the training at all. However, when we have planning meetings, medical staff usually say that they need medical training, and don't address other issues.

An example: One day, in 1998, I was talking with a lab technician in a district hospital. I asked her how many Gram stains they were doing (a staining procedure so you can see bacteria to determine if they are Gram + or Gram - so you can start the decision tree about the probable causitive organism). She said that they didn't do any because she didn't have the chemicals. I remembered giving them a set of premixed chemicals and after rummaging in the cabinet, I pulled it out (unopened!). She then sheepishly admitted that although she knew how to do the procedure, and had the chemicals, the doctors were not ordering it. This led to other discussions that involved changing habits (doctors were not accustomed to ordering other tests because they didn't have the opportunities before) to advocating to patients about the need for the tests to guide treatment.

I quickly realized that upgrading medical treatment is very complex. So to pick up the skills to make the changes in behavior sustainable, I've been working my way through this program.

So next week, I'm taking the exams in Health Economics and Financing and Health Management. For the past few weeks, after studying for an hour, I've been rewarding myself with a half hour of writing. I'm trying to do the same thing this weekend.

Saturday, May 14, 2005


With all my pictures on the sending of good luck for Lao new year, I forgot yesterday's date. I guess that shows how concerned I was about it.

http://skepdic.com/paraskevidekatriaphobia.html has an interesting set of articles on Friday the 13th, starting off with the following:

"Paraskevidekatriaphobia is a morbid, irrational fear of Friday the 13th. Therapist Dr. Donald Dossey, whose specialty is treating people with irrational fears, coined the term. He claims that when you can pronounce the word you are cured."

Nothing unusual happened yesterday, other than I was able to find time to update my blogs and write some. Of course, as I write this, it's still Friday the 13th in the US!

Friday, May 13, 2005

"Haut nam" - for good luck. Posted by Hello

Giving good wishes to the Mor Phone for a good new year and long life. Posted by Hello

Blessing the hearth of the house, using the sticky rice cooker as the symbol. Posted by Hello

"Get off the bad luck of the last year and receive the good luck of the new year."  Posted by Hello

Rice field in Phou Kout, where we spent one day of the Lao new year holiday. It's the site of one of the scenes of my story, "The Memories of Old Men." Posted by Hello

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

4 Baci ceremonies and a funeral

The Lao new year started on 7 April and finished on the 19th. The way to celebrate the new year is to visit, go to a lot of parties, and go to Baci ceremonies. It was entirely too hot to stay in Vientiane, so I went up to Xieng Khouang. The elevation of Phonsavanh, the capital, is about 4,000 ft. so the weather is cooler, drier and breezy.

I arrived on Friday after enjoying a few baci ceremonies in Vientiane. These ceremonies are done at various times of the year for a variety of reasons. The purpose of having a Baci is to call back the minor souls of the body. Depending on who you talk to, there can be three (which includes the spirts of the body, the mind and the emotions) or as many as 32 (one for each of the sense organs and etc.; I've never been able to track down a full list). For various life events, you need to hold onto your souls (weddings, after an illness, arrival to a place, departures, moving to a new house, etc.). In addition, ceremonies for the new years (which starts in December with the international new year, continues through the new year of the Chinese, Tai Dam, Vietnamese and Mien, and then finishes with the Lao/ Thai/ Khmer new years in April) are times to "get off the bad luck and welcome in the good luck."

For most of the ceremonies the schedule is similar. The Mor Phone (wish doctor) recites Buddhist prayers, might recite a fable or a story about one of the past lives of the Buddha and recites good wishes for the person who is having the Baci as a way of enticing the souls to return. This is followed by a free-for-all while all the guests tie strings on each other, bestowing wishes on each other, both normal and outrageous. Fruits or cakes are placed in one of the hands of the recipiant while the other is held in a wei-position of giving thanks. The Lao like to use two oranges (or two eggs) and a banana (go figger).

I was finishing the review of a grant proposal at about midnight, when I started to hear weird noises outside my house. Later, I heard a car at my neighbors. My neighborhood in XK is quiet. The following morning I learned that a doctor I've worked with over the past eight years had been run over by a drunk teenager on a motorcycle. That made the rest of the holiday very sad, though it made myself and all my friends appreciate our time together.

For the rest of the holiday, we went to visit friends in Phoukout, in the western part of the province. My friends' relatives emptied their fish pound so we had a feast of grilled fish. The kids enjoyed themselves by throwing water on everyone, including people driving on the road.

The water throwing comes from the idea of washing away the bad of the past year while purifying oneself for the good of the new year. It usually starts gradually, with a young person pouring a few drops of the blessing water, used by the Mor Phone during the Baci ceremony, down the backs of the elder people or over their hands. As the heat of the afternoons wears on, everyone throws water on each other.

In the evening, my neighbors had another Baci. Since so many people return to their home towns during the new year, the Mor Phone conducts part of the ceremony in the kitchen or in the house using the sticky rice steamer as the symbol for the hearth.

The following morning, there was - you guessed it - another Baci ceremony at a friend's mother's house. That was enough, I had strings tied up to my elbows on both arms (they have to be left on for three days, then you can start picking them off, but they have to be untied, not cut).

At the end of the weekend, I went to visit my deceased friend's wife. That was very sad. I couldn't stay for the final day of the funeral and the cremation.

The following two sites tell a little bit about the ceremony and have pictures.




Friday, April 15, 2005

Lao New Year - still!

Lao New Year officially started yesterday. In the morning, people walked to the wat to offer food to the monks then wash the cheddhi housing the ashes of deceased relatives. Many people have Baci (string tying ceremonies) in the late morning. That's when the fun (?) begins - haut nam meaning throwing water, using the same word for watering plants. It usually starts with using a tree branch and flowers to dip in perfumed water and sprinkled on the guests for wishing of good luck. Later, one pours a little bit of water down the back of a guest's shirt and rubs the back of the shirt to rub in the good luck. Just a little bit later (and just a little bit more alcohol later), the container with the perfumed water gets dumped on someone's head. That's the signal to pull out water pistols, complicated Flash Gordon-style water canons and hoses for a free for all. Everyone gets drenched. The next step after that is to take the water fights to the street.

Yesterday, I drove home from the office and cut down a side street. Some kids stood in the middle of the road. I stopped and one young lady asked if she could give a small water offering. So she patted some water and perfumed talcum powder on my face. Another girl joined her and did the same. I didn't notice that a third person snuck up behind them until a whole basin-full of water entered the truck. Agghhh.

As I drove back to the office today, parties of drunk kids of all ages were throwing water all along the Luang Prabang road. My plan was to leave the truck then take a tuk-tuk, a small open sided motorized vehicle, back to the airport. I realized that the water fighting was not a good thing for my computer, so I called a friend who was making the circuit of parties and temples. So I ended up at the airport three hours early - but dry. I sat, drank a beer and wrote, even got in two hours of editing.

It's lovely up in Xieng Khouang now. The sky is clear, the stars are out and I'm happy to be in my little house. The kids are doing an amazing job with planting all sorts of flowers around the house. And I was relieved to find that Khamdee had not cut down the big trees behind the house, just trimmed back the branches a little.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Lao New Year

Although Lao New Year doesn't start - officially - until 14 April, everyone's in party mode right now. Last night there was a party. I went to a party at Friendship Hospital today, and my calender is getting marked up with all the events which will be occurring over the weekend.

Anyway, Sok Dee Phii Mai (good luck in the new year!)

I've got to spend some time rememorizing the new year song.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Start of the rice planting season, Xieng Khouang Province. Posted by Hello

Rice Posted by Hello


Strange weather here. At this time of the year, we're starting to go crazy from the constant dry heat. Any movement of the air stirs up the dust, and sometimes a cloud will fly overhead, discharging a few hard drops of rain which plop in the fine dust, making small craters. This year, a gust of cold weather from China blew in rain clouds and now it feels like the month of May, clammy and cold with drizzle.

The Mekong River has grown, and the mysterious island which appeared in February and now back in the depths. The beautiful old boat which was destroyed when it tipped over, has been dismantled. A few old boards remain where the pier used to be.

It's good to be back home, but I still feel a little disoriented. I enter my house and walk around. Is this really where I live? The strangest places are those familiar ones that we return to after an absence.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


From the frigid drizzle of Seattle, I traveled 20 hours by jet to a muggy Bangkok night. Everything suddenly seems much more alive, even on Sukhimvit at 1 a.m. Tomorrow I have to get my Lao visa at the Embassy then Vientiane the following day. Meanwhile, I'm bumping into walls as I endure jet lag for the second time in a month.

On the flight, I did feel organized and awake enough to work on my new WIP, added 5500 words, and it's starting to get good. Once I got to the hotel, I couldn't sleep and wouldn't let my characters sleep either so now over 11,000 words. Also got some time for editing "Time and Chance" but I failed at NaNoEdMo. Better luck next month, where my story lines will probably all meet and implode like matter/ anti-matter right at the time of Lao New Year!

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Rainy day in Seattle

It's a very rainy day today, but I'm happy enough. The Seattle-ites have been craving rain; it's been a dry rainy season. I've been writing - the rain helps the flow of ideas. I guess they are water-soluable. When I've been editing my science fiction refugee saga, "Time and Chance," I've also been thinking about how things got the way they did. Now, I'm working on a new book which includes the events leading up to the war, the resistance movement, ending on an uneasy peace. That will be continued in the book I'm working on for 2YN which deals with economic development - how people look at quality of life vs. economic growth and how they achieve it. The trade in scrap metal and explosive remnants of war and its consquences will be a central issue in the book. The bottom line is that people, even when they move out into the universe, will likely remain the same - same noble traits and same tragic flaws.

I'm back in Seattle, came up here earlier in the week on the train. Moua's family had a party at the house - Mee made "Lao spaghetti", khao phung. The sauce is made up of coconut milk, chicken and spices (particularly Lao chiles) over fermented rice noodles. Olga, one of the medical assistants from the clinic, joined us as well as Neng, another Hmong medical assistant. I'm not sure what Olga thought about the noodles, but she enjoyed the Corona beer, so the dinner was cross-cultural. Moua sent me to the station, then a few minutes later, Yong Pao, his younger brother studying pharmacy at Fresno State, arrived with another crowd to say "good-bye". Yong Pao is in his third year of school and is the leader in the class. He wants to minor in community health and maybe get a MPH. That would be wonderful.

The train from Merced to Sacramento was very late, but that wasn't really a problem since the Sacramento - Seattle train was late by 6 hours. A freight train had hit a car on the track in Santa Barbara, killing the person in the car. The trains behind it were delayed. So I worked on "Time and Chance," and watched the other people. There were two homeless guys who came in on bicycles to warm up; it was cold and raining outside. Many people went to sleep; they came prepared with sleeping bags and pillows. One couple took pictures of some of the sleeping people; maybe that was one reason I couldn't sleep.

The train ride itself was beautiful, though I had kind of scratchy feeling you get, like there's sand under your skin from having been awake for two long. I shared lunch with four other people in the dining car. At first, we talked about general topics; I really didn't want to say anything about myself because that can get weird sometimes. But they asked... and after I explained what I had been doing in Lao, one of them did something I never would have expected. He said, "Thank you for doing this work." I was really touched.

In fact, on this trip, strangers that I talk to are much more knowledgeable about the world and supportive of overseas work. In the past, people voiced very negative reactions towards Asia - "Those people don't think like us; they don't value life..." etc, etc.

Monday, I'm back on the plane to Bangkok then Laos. Should be quite hot there.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Shaman at work. Posted by Hello

Good wishes for the new baby. Posted by Hello
I arrived in Merced on Friday, after a tiring trip - three hours extended into six. Bad traffic getting out of San Francisco, then then train was late and slow, all irritations further compounded by the rain. At the end of it all, Moua and his family arrived and that made everything worthwhile.

Many friends have been stopping by, mostly Hmong and Lao to find out how things are in the homecountry. On Saturday, I went to the one-month ceremony for Doua's baby. This is a picture of the shaman, one of Moua's uncles doing the soul-calling portion of the ceremony. Afterwards, everyone ties strings on the baby's wrists, and the parents' wrists to help anchor the souls in the bodies and to attach wishes of good luck and prosperity.

I've been talking a lot with everyone; they all have interesting memories of their lives. The children are amazing - the last time I was in Merced was three years ago; since then, the kids have really grown. It's always amazing - adults really don't change that much but you can measure time by how much the children change. Pao Thao's (Moua's older brother) oldest daughter is going to graduate from high school this year; she wants to study anthropology. I talked to her a lot about this; I think I surprised her by taking her so seriously. I'm not sure she realizes how special her perspective is, to understand her own culture and what has changed, what has remained the same.

Friday, March 18, 2005

San Francisco, part II

I survived the recertification exam, but I was amazed. For a poor peasant coming from the upcountry, it was real science fiction. The exam room was down a white corridor, lit by flourescent lamps, no shadows. Everyone was tuned into these computer scenes. I think next time I have to do this - in six years - they'll probably have cables that you can link into your nervous system. That will be for better interface; maybe they'll have us doing virtual reality CPR drills.

By the time I finished the exam, it started to get cloudy. I decided to see a film (one of the advantages that the US has over Bangkok) so saw 'Bride and Prejudice.' It was wonderful - Bollywood films, at baseline, are over the top, but this film really set the parameters for topness. Indian life is so much like Jane Austen - idle women, a lot of conversation and domestic intrigue - so making 'Pride and Prejudice' an Indian film was just perfect. The snobbish Mr. Darcy becomes Will Darcy, the owner of an international hotel chain, who doesn't like India to begin with an makes snobbish remarks about its backwardness. Elizabeth is Lanita, the firey second daughter of the family. James Whitcomb becomes Jimmy Whitcomb, a skuezzy backpacker. The greatest dance number was in staged in the market in Amristsar, perfect.

Today, I walked up to Golden Gate Park and found that the De Young Museum is closed for rennovations. Grrr! Nice walk though, kinda running through my memories of past San Francisco visits. Went to the Asian Art Museum, which has an exhibit of art from Ayutthya. I've seen many of the pieces before, both in the museum in Ayutthya and in Bangkok, but they were radiant in this exhibition hall. Museums in SE Asia are more like someone's closets - the pieces are crowded together, the lighting is poor, and the exhibits tend to interact more with the elements. Meaning totally natural - in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, the hall used to reverberate with the squeaking of the bats, and the air was odoriferous due to the same. So maybe the Asian Art Museum surroundings are more sterile (literally and figuratively) but it's kind like seeing the neighborhood Buddhas dressed up for a special occassion.

To top off the day, I saw another film - the "Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill." It is a quiet, understated documentary about parrots. That's all I can say about it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

San Francisco

Just when I thought I was getting over jet-lag, taking the train from Seattle to SF knocked me back into the old time zone again. It was a productive train ride though - studied a lot of medical stuff for my recertification exam which I take on Weds.

It was a beautiful day for a train ride, could see all the giants of the cascades, first Mt. Rainier peaking its head out over the foothills, factories, subdivisions and broad fields of daffodils and tulips. The south end of Puget Sound was clear, a little choppy, a good day for the sail boats out there.

I was joined by a young man who got on at Portland. I got a little bit of a weird vibe but when he introduced himself, I retreated into my book. He just got back from doing missionary work in SE Asia for a particular better-not-named group. Because of the length of the train ride, I didn't get into it with him - Buddhism and animism are the religions in the region. Hands off! I think converting the 'ignorant masses' to the better path would be much better put to use if it were Buddhist missionaries working in the US. Enough said. I read many chapters in my medical text while he read the Bible.

I did have a pleasant dinner with two women about my age. When you sit in the dining car, you sit at the next open spot in a table until it fills up. So by luck, the two women were very interested in the work I've been doing and knew a lot about Asia already. I tend to be very quiet about my work because people usually change the subject quickly; I imagine that they are uncomfortable that what I might say would be difficult to hear. Since I usually don't say much, I was surprised and pleased that my dinner companions were so interested. The dinner restored a little bit of my faith in Americans.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

jet lag report 2

I'm almost up to week 2 in the US, starting to sleep better, thought the whole readjustment schedule will likely be blown with the train ride down to San Francisco.

In front of a grim motel style apartment building on Rainier, I saw an old lady wearing torn beige coat over a shimmering Lao sinh! I greeted her in Lao and she almost fell over. She smiled so broadly, exposing her old, worn, betal-stained teeth. She kept asking me how I came to speak Lao language, hugging me every so often as if to convince herself I was real and not some genie trying to confuse her. In between she explained she had come to the US ten years ago. Her children had since married and she lived alone, which seemed strange for me, that Lao kids would not bring their mother with them. She wanted me to come inside and stay awhile, but unfortunately this is America, home of the clock. I'm not sure if it was a good thing that I talked with her, or whether she'll have strange memories later.

Later, at the bank. The manager is VN, we talked about her home province of Quang Tri, which was heavily bombed during the war. I have been there and visited many ofthe battle sites when I was consulting on a UXO curriculum. She had returned this past year and we talked about the damage of the war to the country. Next to us, I heard another bank mployee talking with a customer in VN.

Today, bus passed SCC. Old bizzarrely dressed man immediately picked up police on his internal fuzz-buster radar. "What they doing there?" A whole line of bike police. In front of SCC, there was a demonstration. "Bush, keep your laws off our bodies."

Later in the afternoon - walked around UW. The cherry trees are blooming and people were lying on the grass, taking pictures, hanging out. A lot of Japanese families were there, taking pictures to send back to relatives, making the connection between the US and Japan in the flowering of the trees.

Much later, saw "Hotel Rwanda" Great film, will review here later.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Jetlag report

The time at the bottom of the entry is the time in Vientiane - and the time my body is running on. So since it's about 5:30 in the afternoon there, I'm wide awake here in Seattle where it's 2 am.

The big event of the day was going to an Eritrean restaurant with some old friends. The restaurant was a shed but the food was wonderful, and the ambiance was appropriate with my state of jet lag.

I haven't been writing as much as I had hoped. Just experiencing, which is strange enough for now.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

In the US

I've been in the US for home leave for the past five days. It's very weird - first of all, jet lag. The usual - can't sleep and can't stay away. I've been trying to keep myself awake during the day by walking around downtown Seattle, but I feel like I'm dragging myself from one double latte to the next. Had three today.

There's no place stranger than the familiar place that we return to. I'm see old places but they look different, subtle changes. It hasn't rained very much in Seattle this year, and it's strange to see the Cascades covered in green instead of covered with snow. Friends have changed, aged and I've aged as well.

In the next few weeks, I'll go to California where I take the recertification exam for my PA license. I'm also going to Merced where I used to work with Hmong refugees and Mexican migrant farmworkers. Will be going back to Laos at the end of the month.

In the meantime, I'm working on editing my NaNo novel, Time and Chance and cooking up new stories and poems. If I were so tired, I'd be inspired by all this. I hope I'll be able to put a few words together by next week!

Thursday, February 24, 2005


I finally finished my project report and I feel free, free, FREE! Now I can to all the other things I've been putting off because I've been staring at my computer screen trying to get this report written. It has prevented me from thinking about Bigger Things, like the stars, the universe, and how much winter clothing I have to pack for my upcoming trip to the US.

Speaking about the universe, scientists have been cranking out numbers and finally have determined that they have found a galaxy made of dark matter, about 50 million LY from here. Are dark matter and the even weirder dark energy the components that hold the universe together. Are they responsible for the original primordial cloud having congealed into planets, stars and other etceteras?

The article I read was at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7017822/

Another mind-blowing article is the discovery of a quasar with a high red shift, between us and galaxy which has a low red shift, meaning that the quasar which should be further away from us is closer to us than this nearby galaxy. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/01/050111115201.htm

That's all for now, I get dizzy when I think about the vastness of space.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Vientiane Sunday

This time of the year, there are a lot of weddings and bouns. Today's festival is Boun Thawait, which actually goes on in different villages and temples through the month. I forget the story, so I'll have to look it up and post later. It's a much bigger occassion here than in Xieng Khouang. Anyway, people get together and collect money, then carry their offerings on a tree, a branch decorated by flowers and leaves of money stapled together, like a weeping willow. They bring the money to the temple.

Then they are many weddings. They start out with a parade of the groom's friends and relatives to the bride's house. The group requests permission to enter, while the group on the bride's side will give the groom more or less grief about his motives. Once he's allowed in (which always happens), there is a baci ceremony in the morning, where a village elder gives blessings and then everyone ties strings on the wrists of the young couple.

The rest of the afternoon is devoted to eating and drinking and playing loud contrasting music. Now things are quieting down.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Boat

The Boat

He sensed the men around him,
Moving in the lightening mist which was
Turning gold in the sunrise.

He sensed the men looking in different
directions, waiting for him to speak first.
He sensed them, but he couldn’t look.
He could only look at the boat.

The Mekong River flowed through the engine room,
Fish nestled in the bedroom.
Hyacinths caught on the railing of the porch.
The walls, once had the well groomed sheen of
A healthy animal,

He had dreams of traveling with his boat,
To visit the people who live along the river.
His dreams, nourished by the muddy waters,
Turning the brown of a mud road.

He called his nephew to bring some rice whiskey
And some food for breakfast.
He made the wei to his friends, the symbol of
Greeting and respect.
“Please brothers, join me. We will eat and drink
together, to have a funeral for the boat.”

He poured the first glass of alcohol and lifted it to his
Friends’ good health, and for the journey the boat will take
Without him.

Mekhong River

The river is very low this year. The tips of sandbars that we usually see during April are fully exposed. My neighbors in Wat Meuang Wa village were surprised to see a new island emerge from the river.

One consequence of the low water level was the sinking of a beautiful wooden boat which had been moored near my village. I used to admire this 40 foot long work of art when I took my morning walk. A few days ago, I saw a crowd of peopel sitting on the bank looking towards the boot. During the night, the water must have gone down just enough that the side of the boat lowered on to the sandbar, causing it to flip. It looks very sad, lying half-submerged in the water like a beached whale. They don't make boats like that any more - no one has preserved the skills, it would be too expensive, and the younger generation are either not interested in the river life or they would prefer a sleek fiberglass boat instead.

What I'm thinking about doing is making a series of Mekhong River poems based on this story and the poem I posted earlier this week. A "funeral" for the boat would tie together the poems. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Temple in Cambodia, part of the Bayon complex Posted by Hello
I decided that I haven't posted any pictures for awhile. This is a picture of Bayon, which is part of the complex of temples that makes up Angkor Wat. We had a meeting in Siem Reap and to set the tone, we went to the temples in the morning.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Mekhong River, again

It seems natural to write about the river in my back yard. In the mornings, I meet neighbors, observe the river life, see the festivals in Thailand on the other side of the river. On Sunday, I joined a ceremony for a neighbor; he was holding the 100 day feast for the death of his wife. On this occassion, everyone comes to help make merit for the deceased, to help with a better rebirth.

It has been unnaturally hot and dry. The water level in the river is very low. The Mekhong has been part of many things. I thought of this poem today about it:

Reservoir of Tears

The Mekhong flows through the layers of Asia,
From the mountains of China to the sea.

In the day, it is brown as a dirt road in a jungle,
At twilight, it merges into the sky
An artery providing life to legends,
To boys springing from a half-submerged tree,
For a man throwing a net
Which glitters in the light and is filled with fat-bellied fish

At other times, it has run red with blood
Carrying hyacinths, plastic garbage bags,
krathong filled with offerings to the water spirits,
a log with eyes that looks at the sun.

This year, the water is low and muddy;
The farmers talk quietly, their eyes on the sky and on the Swirling eddies.
They talk about their fears
There will be no water for rice
And the fish will go away.
The water for crying is always easy to find,
It lurks underground, a hidden reservoir,
Ready to rush out when the surface is bruised.

A lone person stands at the edge of the shore,
I approach from behind.
As I look at the river, I know
I have never seen the back of my head before.

copyright 2005 c.p.lew

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

Those words mean "Happy New Year" in Vietnamese. Today is the first day of the New Year for Vietnamese, Chinese, Hmien, Tai Dam and probably many more people. Last night, there were many parties around Vientiane - everyone celebrates anyone's new year. People made offerings to the ancestors and piles of ghost money, paper clothing, shoes and "visas" for travel in the other world were all arranged on tables. Food offerings - fruit, specially cooked pork and whiskey - were also on the tables. The paper items for the dead are burned so they can receive the corresponding item in the spirit world. After the spirits have eaten enough of the spiritual essence of the food, the family on earth can eat the left over, physical part. People eat and drink until midnight, then light off firecrackers to drive off the bad spirits of the old year and welcome the new year.

Today, in the office, everyone was "chai loy," meaning floating spirit, spacey. We'll all be back to normal by tomorrow.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Mekhong River walk

Even though Lao is a tropical country, the winters are comparatively cold. In the mornings, I like to walk along the artery of the Mekhong River to get my blood flowing. I've gotten to know many people along the linear neighborhood that stretches 3 miles from Vat Meuang Wa to the Pakphasak intersection. The mornings have a small town atmosphere, everyone walking, puttering in their gardens and exchanging gossip. Or maybe more like a living room, with most folks wearing their night clothes, with towels wrapped around their shoulders for warmth.

As I walked, I could hear the wailing of funeral music from Sri Chiang Mai, the town on the Thai side. I believe this kind of music is designed to scare away ghosts as well as to send the spirit of the diseased to the next world. It always seems like it's coming from another universe, especially when it travels across the water.

I met the father of a friend. His wife recently died, and it seems like the whole neighborhood is caring for him. Below, he and a group of 2 other cronies would walk together in the morning. When I met them, they would be doing exercises involving swinging the arms and making deep noises in the chest. Today, he was surrounded by a group of older women, all laughing and trying to walk fast in their flipflops as they swung their arms around. My friend's father was wrapped in a jacket and a lined cap, held down by a scarf tied under his chin. It looked more like the clothes were holding him up, not that he was wearing the clothes.

He wei'd me and asked about his daughter who is up in Xieng Khouang now. He then asked me to take care of her, and let him know if she does anything wrong. I'm sure he was also affected by the music drifiting across the river.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Mekong River at Sunset Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Ricefields in Xieng Khouang after the harvest Posted by Hello


I've been doing a little research on spiders for two science ficiton stories. My experience with spiders has been from living in Xieng Khouang. When we didn't have electricity every night, even a small spider looks like a monster with long shadows in the flickering candlelight. When removed from the possibility of direct contact, I find that they are really very interesting. I had thought that the silk comes from their mouths but the silk production glands are in the abdomen. Here's what I've found:






Happy New Year

Living in SE Asia, we get hit with New Year before most of the world. It's now 10 am on 1 January. People in NYC are just getting ready to go out for the festivities - it's 10 pm on 31 December there. It's taken a while for my friends here to get this concept - they couldn't believe that the US is in the past.

For the past few years, I've had a ritual with my friends in Xieng Khouang. I have a blow-up globe of the world with the time zones drawn on it. On 1 January, we would usually have a party at someone's house or go out to Ban Sang, Amphone's village in Kham District. I would bring the globe out with me and starting at 12 noon, we'd toast the new year in NY at 1 pm, we'd lift glasses to Chicago and Minnesota (we have friends there), and etc. This year, I stayed in Vientiane, but the world is still turning. My friends went out to Ban Sang without me. I'm just worried they'll forget to do the toasting every hour.

I just received an e-mail from a friend who had gone to Thailand for new year. I was worried that she had gone to the beach. She wrote that she doesn't like the beach in the high season (good thing) but she has been doing volunteer work in Bangkok, translating for stranded tourists who have just arrived from the areas destroyed by the tsunami in Phuket. She says their stories are pretty awful.

Last thing - on one of my e-mail lists, one of the participants noted that blogging is the literary equivilant of reality TV. I haven't decided what to think about that comment. More later!