Friday, September 15, 2006

A walk around town

Salavan is small - even smaller than Phonsavanh. And it feels small - like today, I went for a run in the late afternoon. In some places, it's very ugly - everything is new because the entire city had been destroyed, totally leveled during the war. Other places, the central part of the city and the areas by the Xedone River are nicer. Teak houses and meeting halls that were built right after the war.

I started off from behind our staff house/ office, off the road into the bushes. A few moments later, I was on the strip of the old airport - small planes used to land here until Lao Aviation cut off the road. Now, it's a place to fly kites and to play badminton.

I ran to the end and past the house that I plan to rent. A few steps later, I ran into (almost literally) into Dr. K, who owns the house. We talked for a few moments about when they'll have the house fixed up and I can move in. I'm very happy about that, because the nightclub next to the office is not endearing itself to me.

A few more steps and my cell phone rang, so I talked, in Lao, with my friend while all the neighborhood kids gathered around to look at a foreigner talking on a cell phone.

I continued onward, deciding to stop in the market to get a phone card. While there, I meet one of the people from the Dept of Education - haven't seen him for a year at least, but he said that he's seen me running. He told me that our education staff were in town, which I hadn't known.

I left the market before someone else recognized me and stopped at a pharmacy to get some aspirin. The woman at the pharmacy asked me if I lived in Salavan and I started talking about our project; turned out she was Dr. K's wife.

Onward - I passed a house which turned out being R's new house. He's one of education staff and he and the drivers were sitting outside so I had to sit with them for a moment. By now, it was starting to get dark so I left. The last mile of my run was in the dark, which is a little scarey because there are no street lamps and I wasn't sure if someone would run me over or whether I'd end up in a ditch.

The folks who went into Pakxe today returned with Indian food. Yummy - better than frogs or deep fried crickets any day!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Nightclubs in the Wilderness

Until I rent my own house here in Salavan, I'm staying with my staff in the combination staff house/ office. So I'm living in the same play where I work, with the people I work with. Don't have to commute far - it's kinda like telecommuting without the tele. Except for television - the guys love to watch the Thai soap operas at night, which give me a headache. But after a hard day at work which involves organizing training, editing training handbooks, and cutting through red tape, they're entitled to watching stories about the fast life in Bangkok.

Our house is just a little out of town - right in a short strip of nightclubs. The one next door is a shack with woven bamboo walls - which do nothing to cut down the constant pop music, mostly Thai. While they do play some songs that I like, from Carabao and Caravan (Thai alternative rock groups), I do prefer to hear the songs only once or twice... and my real preference is to be able to chose my own music.

Fortunately, they stop around 10 pm by which time I'm usually asleep with ear plugs in place. A few weekends ago, they started up the music and really cranked it up at 6 am. The only music that starts that early and plays that loud is for funerals; my staff though that was pretty funny and told the owner of the nightclub. Since then, they decided they would not start up so loud so early.

When I mention the music, my staff go "What music?" Since they all come from large families, I guess that noise is reassuring rather than a problem.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Dark Night, Stormadly

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

--Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

A Dark Night, Stormadly

It was a dark and stormy night, filling the zombie's heart with glee, which even though, as everyone knows, zombies don't have hearts, or at least hearts which don't work in their assigned function of enriching the cells of our bodies, the space in the zombie's chest which once had housed a heart, had been an open pit of hunger and despair. Zombies are night owls and they don't beat around the bush when the sun does down.

The endless rain continued. And continued. As the moon rose, but the endless rain held back the romantic rays of the moonlight. The zombie continued with its mission, filled with glee but also thankful for the freezing temperature, the bite of the cold as sharp as a knife. It did not wish to putrefy any further until its mission was complete.

"Who's there?" Another dark form stood awkwardly by a sodden wall, The zombie floated by. In another life, it would have pounced on the human and would have done what zombies do to humans.

The zombie merged with the shadows. "If you don't come out, I'll shoot."

The zombie laughed and all the dogs in the neighborhood howled in response. "There's nothing you can do to me."

"That's good," the voice said. "I only have a banana for a gun."

Now the zombie shivered with fear, but laughed again to hide its despair. Bananas were good for humans, but were poisonous to zombies. He could just make out the form of the holder of the banana – smallish for a human, and bent-over in an odd posture.

The zombie said, "Just watch out. I'm a zombie, and you know what zombies do to humans."

"Oh, yeah," said the form. "Well, have I got news for you. I'm an aardvark, so how do you like those pickles." The aardvark threw the banana at the zombie, who fled, screamingly away but was not nimble enough on its feet. The banana hit the zombie's back, the potassium reacting with its flesh. For a moment, the dark of the underworld was lit with a flare that make all the shadow creatures run for cover.

The aardvark walked over to the smear decorating the sidewalk. "There goes a good banana," it mused. "I hope this zombie is really dead this time." He pulled out a cell phone, disguised as an apple and pressed a few wormholes. "I suppose we'll have to get an electroencephalogram just to be sure."

Another form trotted up to the aardvark. "Hey, Boss, waddhaya think the zombie was after?"

Fluffy the cat could be so dense, thought the aardvark. "I suspect the jewelry in the castle. That's what they're always after. Not very imaginative."

"You don't think this one's a decoy." The aardvark had not idea what Fluffy was getting at and wished that he would just go back to sleep.

"Decoy." The aardvark said slowly.

"Meow. You know, maybe the real thief is at the castle right now."

"That's why we should be going there right now, you idiot. What are you waiting for?"

Fluffy sighed and lay down so the aardvark could climb on his back. Fluffy ran like lightening.

They did not glance back at the zombie. Once the dark had descended again and the sounds of silence echoed loudly in the alley, the zombies fingers started to move. They dragged themselves away from the rotting arms, looked at each other, reached out with the pinky fingers to give a hi-five then scurried off after the aardvark and Fluffy.

It would be a long and rainy night, but at the end the forces of good would prevail. And the aardvark would find a name.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Flash Fiction Contest #2


They floated above her, translucent white shapes which undulated at the edges; they floated and they moved closer to her. Seos felt that the orange spot at the bottom of their forms could sense her; they seemed curious. For a long moment, she and the creatures who inhabited this planet, regarded each other.

"I come in peace," Seos whispered, trying to fill her mind with love. She could sense that they understood her, and the colors on their surface changed. She wanted to go with them.

"Go away!" Jasot yelled, running towards her. The shapes rose, like balloons and a moment later, they had disappeared beyond the forest of purple trees.

Jasot panted as he grabbed Seos's hand. "Are you all right?" She nodded, still staring in the direction the creatures had gone. Not creatures; they seemed very spiritual. They were Priests, she decided.

Jasot swore. "I bet they're sentient. There goes our commission." He shook her arm. "Did you hear me?"

She turned to face him. "Yes. They were beautiful." She felt embarrassed that the Priests had seen Jasot. They must think that she lied to them.

He turned and kicked out at a piece of metal scrap. Seos left him alone. They had been exploring this planet for six months and it was obviously too long for their relationship.

They avoided each other for the next few weeks. Jasot only informed her of power and food usage; they had only a limited time to make their fortune. And that did not look like it was going to happen. Benda was a beautiful world, a near Earth environment which could only be exploited if it were proved that no intelligent life lived on it.

The Priests had made their lives more complicated; she wanted to find them so she could explain.


When Seos returned from her latest exploration trip, Jasot was in a good mood. That immediately made her suspicious.

"Let me show you something." He reached for her hand but she moved away. "It's OK. We'll make our money back."

"What?" She gasped, feeling afraid. She could imagine that he had trapped one of the Priests and there would be no way she could apologize to them. Jasot led her into the cargo hold of the ship. A few weeks ago, it had been nearly empty and held only a few last cases of nutrient powder.

Now, a shape filled it. It looked organic, as if it had grown into this twisted shape on its own, but as Seos looked at it longer, she realized that three terrifying forms had been carved into the surface. Though they seemed to have wings, hands and faces, the combination was made by an alien mind.

"What have you done?" She turned on Jasot, raising her hands to strike his face but he pushed her away. She fell against the shape; the surface felt smooth and warm, like skin. She got to her feet slowly, staring at Jasot.

"What's wrong now? It's only a statue." He smiled; she imagined that he was calculating his profit.

"I think it was… is an icon, of religious significance to the natives on this world."

He laughed. "I've been thinking of those creatures we saw. How could they build anything like this? They haven't tried to communicate with us; I don't think they can be that smart."

"A court will have to determine that."

"That would take up precious time, and in the meantime, we could sell this, keep us going until we have our claim here." He wrapped his arms around her. "It will be all right. I know what I'm doing."

She couldn't find the words to express herself, so she stayed silent. Maybe once they returned to their world, she would be able to speak up against him, but now. They had only each other.


The time to leave crept up on her slowly and on the final day, everything went too fast. They were sitting in their couches going through the systems check when Jasot started flipping switches.

"What's going on?" He yelled at the monitor, then slammed it. Seos moved the cover off the observation port and saw them.

The Priests swirled around the ship, moving closer and closer. Seos felt thrilled to see them, but suddenly felt a deep despair. They were grieving over something.

"Strap up again," Jasot said. "I'm going to take off through them, if they're not going to get out of the way."

"No." She surprised herself. "They are probably more intelligent than we are. Hurt them and you could get tried for murder."

Jasot leaned back. "So what are we going to do?"

"Return the icon." Jasot started to take a breath then nodded. Seos jumped up to open the hatch again, and return the icon. She thought that Jasot had probably done the calculations and realized that theft and murder were not cost-effective.

As she attached the antigrav lifters to the statue, Jasot followed her. She was about to engaged the lift mode when he shoved her out of the way. "It's not attached right," he said. "Might have fallen on you."

They returned to the edge of the forest and stood it upright as it had rested for thousands of years. As they returned to the ship, the Priests drifted around them. Seos felt they had finally done the right thing.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

gems as a second language

I've mined some Gems as a Second Language materials from a new magazine; however, I don't have it here with me. Instead, I received an e-mail from my doctor's office:

Please accept our apology, this is to inform you that Dr. S. will not able come to see all appointments on 3rd September 2006 due to the urgently thing requests.

Sounds serious. Shudder. They gave me an appointment for Monday, when - I hope - the Thing will not make any requests.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Heading back north

It's been a gorgeous day here, and we've gotten a lot accomplished. The training in Salavan is going well, just had a good meeting with the Champassak Dept of Health. Seems like the sun is shining everywhere...

Except I just talked to my boss in Vientiane. He said that it's been raining like crazy up north, and in Louang Prabang, the Mekong has risen 3 meters and looks like it might go over the levee in Vientiane. Groan. Some of the areas that the bus will have to go through tonight are low so I hope the road is not flooded.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Salavan update

It's been a good week so far. We've started our first project management workshop. My staff have been doing the workshop pretty much on their own. The Deputy Director of the Dept. of Health stopped by for a while and we ended up talking in the back of the room. He said he was pretty impressed by the content and the confidence of my staff (especially the female staff) in running the workshop.

Most of the hospital and health dept. folks are ethnic minorities. Salavan province has about 30 ethnic groups and the common language is Lao (fortunately). I've been spending time at the workshop, talking to everyone so they can get used to my strangely accented Lao. In fact, because Lao is a second language, we tend to talk more clearly and use fewer slang words so I can understand them pretty well and they can understand me.

Last thing - it's the end of the rainy season but the rains still come down heavy and for long periods of time. Tried to go for a run at the old airport this afternoon, and got soaked.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

In Ruins

In Ruins

Seeing the tombs for the first time, feeling that surprise of discovery, could never be repeated. Marlene felt changed as she walked out of the forest, the sounds of birds and insects silence by the fog cover. The ground sloped towards the ancient courtyard, partially obscured by the mist until a breeze swept it away.

Marlene breathed, filling her lungs with moisture and decay. The tombs had been asleep for centuries, hiding secrets within their vaults. She would not be able to explore them for long, but even knowing the futility of her desire, she entered.

The carefully manicured path led her through a cherry orchard and around a lake. She knew that each view had been chosen carefully to illustrate both the beauty and impermanence of nature. The fog returned, swallowing the sounds of her footsteps, leaving her alone with her thoughts. She felt alien to herself, to be in this land, without reference.

Her watched chimed, reminding her to return to the entrance. "Tee-shirt, mister?" The skinny youth stood at the gate, carrying a closet's worth of clothing on his arms. She tried to recapture the silence of her walk but the motorcycle-taxi drivers gunned their engines and she breathed in exhaust.

She found her driver and sat on the back of the motorcycle. They passed through the kaleidoscope of vendors selling soft drinks and posters along the road. Marlene left the park, and the descendants of the emperors who had built these ruins.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

I'm still kicking around Laos. Our project was renewed for two more years and we'll be working in the southern provinces of Laos - Salavan and Champassak. At the same time, we're still providing medical funding and follow-up support for people injured by unexploded ordnance in Xieng Khouang and Salavan. I'm still running back and forth between the provinces of the north and south. Yesterday, we drove from Xieng Khouang to Vientiane. Have a day to rest and write reports before continuing down to Salavan on Monday.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


I was up late last night, working on my medical anthropology paper, until my eyes blurred. The petanque crowd next door has quieted around midnight so it was nice to work in the cooling humid air. The quiet, humid air.

When I woke at 7 am, the crowd had started their morning games. I drank coffee under the shade of the mango tree and heard one of my cats, Alpha, meowing. She jumped up onto the fence between my house and the petanque players' house. I feel betrayed; I never knew that Alpha liked to gamble. I imagine that she lounges around, a glass of Beer Lao by one paw, and smoking a cigarette with the other, receiving leftover snacks from the participants.

After an exciting bike ride along the river, I left the my house, which is slowing transforming itself into an oven, and came here to the office where the trees keep my room cool and I can write and dream in peace.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


We're slowly moving towards hot season. In Vientiane, the wind barely moves and the new leaves of the Bodhi tree are still. They are the only sign of life in the temples, where in the afternoons, the tuk-tuk drivers lay down in their vehicles with their feet sticking out, snoozing as soundly as the dogs who sprawl out next to them in the thin strip of shade.

The only movement are the unemployed men who play petanque. It's a game, like bocce, played with metal balls. It's now night, when the village should get quiet. I almost drift off to sleep - and suddenly the hoot of the men wakes me up.

I've played petanque once. A friend had a long tailed boat, so we floated down to a sandbar on the Mekong, ate lunch and after pounding down the sand, had a level playing field. It was fun, mainly because it was a beautiful day with a cool breeze along the river, but I don't think I could play it 24 hours/ day and with the same intensity as my neighbors. To each his own, and they can take petanque.

I do wish they'd be a little quieter about it though.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Books I've read #4 and #5

Livejournal is on a security vacation, so I'm posting the review of my Book #5 and links here. Book #4 was Catcher in the Rye which I released at the Culi Pub in Hanoi last week - still no takers. I'm not ready to post that review yet. So here, I'm writing about my new favorite book, which starts like this:

When the phone rang, I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's 'The Thieving Magpie,' which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the Long Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It could have been someone with news of a job. I turned down the gas, went to the living room, and picked up the receiver.

"Ten minutes, please," said a woman on the other end.

I'm good a recognizing people's voices, but this was not one I knew.

"Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?"

you, of course. Ten minutes, pleasse. That's all we need to understand each other."

And so begins The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, by Haruki Murkami. It is a mesmorizing book written in the first person, of the strange life of Toru Okada. It all starts when the cat disappears. Was that the cause of it all or just a point of reference? Searching for the cat leads him into a well, and into himself. In the middle of all this, his wife disappears. In order to find her, find the cat, and even to find himself, he meets strangers who are drawn to him. There's another world of meaning and explanations behind this one and the question is - is a dream or is it real?

I liked the quote on the process of Murakami's writing at the bottom.

Some links to Murakami sites:

Main "official" website:

The Year of Making Spaghetti, a short story: The Year of Making Spaghetti

Another short story:

Random House website (This is cute because the web page opens on to his new book Kafka on the Beach, and has cats walking back and forth at the bottom of the page):

Interview at Salon, in which he talks about alienation, influence of the West, and how he is intrigued by writing genre fiction, particularly the form of mystery:

New York Times Book Review:

Quoted from the review:
''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'' does have its flaws, principally in its uneven design. Murakami has said that he does not plot his novels beforehand but lets the story reveal itself to him as he writes: it shows, especially in the way that neither Toru nor the novelist seems to know or care whether Toru's adventures are real or illusory. And the juxtaposition of the harrowing, all-too-real war stories with the marvelous, supernatural events in Toru's quest feels contrived. The war narratives were almost certainly composed separately and then inserted into the novel to support its grand aspirations.

Yet what Murakami lacks in finesse is more than compensated by the brilliance of his invention. As it floats to its conclusion, ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'' includes an almost Joycean range of literary forms: flashbacks, dreams, letters, newspaper stories and transcripts of Internet chats. And no matter how fantastical the events it describes may be, the straight-ahead storytelling never loses its propulsive force. By the book's midway point, the novelist-juggler has tossed so many balls into the air that he inevitably misses a few on the way down. Visionary artists aren't always neat: who reads Kafka for his tight construction? In ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'' Murakami has written a bold and generous book, and one that would have lost a great deal by being tidied up.