Thursday, August 30, 2007

Monsoon season

This is a beautiful time of the year. I can't believe that after eleven years in Lao that I can still get so excited by the beauty of rice fields - but every day, it's like waking up fresh to the world.
Unfortunately, we feel climate change here. When I first moved here in 1996, the month of August was agony - rain all the time towards the end of the monsoon. My road was ankle deep in mud and I couldn't go anywhere without getting soaking wet. And nothing ever dried.
For the past few years, the rain might start really early before stopping in northern Lao. These past two weeks, it's been hot during the day with a thunderstorm every other day which threatens to tear up the rice plants from the field.
Paddy rice was cultivated in water because it keeps the pests down and has higher yield than rice planted on the hillsides in the mountains. With the water low, the worms and other bugs can get at the roots of the plants, decreasing the yield. If it floods, the rice plants can't survive if they are submerged for more than a day.
The life of a rice farmer is difficult at best, even without the new extremes in weather.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rainy season

This past week has been the usual frenzy, drove from Salavan to Vientiane on Saturday. Yesterday, I ran around trying to do some laundry, house cleaning and exercise. Did spend an hour at the health club though did not go swimming - too many kids in the pool. Today, I spent a wild morning in the office - although I had a plan about what I would do in the few hours, my boss called a meeting. Final rush to get to the airport where I fly up to Xieng Khouang with a training team who will be doing a workshop on livelihoods development over the next few days.
Once I got home, I walked in circles. And then laid down for a nap most of the late afternoon. Good to be back up north.

It's been raining a lot in Salavan - everything is every shade of green. This picture is from the front porch of my house where I spent the few hours after work on Thursday, reading and gazing at the raindrops.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

No pitchurs today

It seemed that every time I stepped out of the house, the rain would zero in on me. I tried to go for a run in the morning - that lasted about five minutes before I ran back home. It continued thunderstorming for a few hours. Later in the afternoon, I brought my umbrella (which usually guarantees that it will not rain) and checked in all visible directions for rain before leaving the house. The sheet of rain sailed in from the direction hidden behind my neighbor's trees.

I continued walking in the rain, pretty much getting soaked. After walking 3 kms. I went back to the house as the sun was peeping out. At the end of the runway, I saw some familiar forms so stopped to talk with a German couple who are running a farm in Salavan. Meanwhile, they let their kids loose on the tarmac - they ran into every puddle and churned up mud with their bikes so that in the ten minutes I talked with the parents, the kids managed to cover themselves with mud. I felt clean in comparison.

Because it was raining so much, I didn't take any pictures. And I think I've taken even monsoon pictures for the year anyway. Or at least that's what I'm thinking today.

Anyway, it's been kind of a diddly weekend. We went into Pakse yesterday and interviewed some job applicants at a restaurant. Had lunch while waiting for the last person to show up (he left Attapeu at 6 am and finally arrived at 3 pm). I finished Harry Potter and the Whatever; pretty enjoyable. I appreciated some of the craft of writing - writing of action scenes, some nifty plot twists and filling in background for non-Potter fans (like myself) with a sentence or two rather than engaging in infodumps.

I also read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled HOsseini. I liked this book better than The Kite Runner. Well, I liked the first 2/3 of the The Kite Runner for the same reason I liked A Thousand Splendid Suns - both books make Afghani history and culture come alive against the background of the political events. What I didn't like about The Kite Runner was the the bizarre events surrounding the return to Afghanistan at the end of the book - it was too unreal. But A Thousand Splendid Suns sticks with the real situations and how the constant war affected people, bringing out the worst as well as the best. The friendship between Laila and Mariam is well written and heartbreaking. The only weak points of the book is that sometimes the insertion of what was happening was a little rough and kinda didactic.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Moving bamboo

The first time I stayed in Chang Khan, Thailand, I remember the darkness on the Lao side of the river. At night, there was only the tree line against the field of stars. I asked the friend I was staying with why there were not even the lights of cars in the town. "Very few people in Laos have cars and there aren't any roads. Most of the towns on the river use the river."

Things have changed - there are still the slow boats that go up and down the river, sunk low in the water because of the weight of whatever they're transporting. And bamboo is cut up river and floated down to Vientiane, where groups of people working together haul them up on the levee and made furniture, baskets, matting and fencing from the bamboo.

The daughter of a friend of mine missed one question on her final high school exam. The question was "What is the most important kind of wood and why?" She wrote "bamboo" and listed all the reasons why. The correct answer was "teak" because it's expensive and is exported (however, the profits from teak go to only a few). But bamboo - you can't go through a day without touching something made of bamboo, whether it's a floor mat, a sticky rice basket, the house you're living in, a fence made of bamboo where you're hanging your clothes to dry. It's an egalitarian kind of wood.

Bamboo on the shore. In both pictures, the city on the opposite bank is Sri Chiengmai in Nongkhai Province.

Monday, August 06, 2007


Weekends never last long enough. I did have a good deal of quality time with house cleaning, organizing my house, washing and ironing. Yes, even in Paradise, we have to do all that. My landlady "helps" me when I'm out in the field. She feeds the cats, washes the dishes and gets into the main part of the house, insisting that she is cleaning. I can never find things after she has helped me. So this weekend, I found the return plane ticket that had gone missing from last year (now I can't even get a refund), half-read books that she had placed in shoe boxes and expired medicines.

Sigh. There's not much I can do other than contemplate beauty. So a few beautiful pictures of my bicycle trips on the weekend are in order.

It's the monsoon season and everyone's planting rice. It seems that people are planting later this year - I think because the nonirrigated fields are not getting enough rain. I've lived in Asia for fifteen years and have seen the cycle of rice that many times. I never get tired of the miracle of the brown hard laterite earth turning green with rice plants.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Happy Friday

I've been running around toooo much with most of my weekends fractured by long train or bus trips. But this weekend, I'm not going any where except to lie on the couch and finish reading the Harry Potter book, followed by as many of the other books in stacks that I can get my hands on and my eyes around.

Today was spent in office work. I try to avoid that as much as possible but it has to be done sometimes. In the afternoon, I visited the nurse trainer who organizing a nursing management course to work out the syllabus and the schedule with her. She's one of the most organized people I know and we've put together programs together for the past ten years so it was a pretty enjoyable visit. I left the hospital feeling satisfied that these nurses will learn things that they'll be able to use.

I wanted to take a picture of the Setthirath Hospital but my secretary who accompanied me, started having some contractions (she's 8.5 months along and having Braxton-Hicks contractions) so we just returned to the office. Later, I took this picture instead of exercising - I just ate dinner and returned home.

A funny, but great, craze that's been sweeping Lao and Thailand has been aerobics. When I first arrived in Lao, I'd go running in the mornings and most folks thought I was daft. "If you want exercise, feed some pigs." Of course, I was not about to buy some pigs but that didn't stop people rolling their eyes. But as the economy has gotten better, most professional people have transferred the farm chores and rice planting to their country relatives. And they have started to get tubby as a result. So a lot of hospitals and social groups have gotten into doing aerobics several times a week.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Around Phonsavanh

I haven't posted any pictures for a while, just haven't had the time when I've been near a fast internet connection. I took this picture when I went for a bicycle ride when I was in Xieng Khouang. At the start of the rainy season, it rains heavily for a short time then the sun comes out and the air is so clear. I like the way the bamboo springs out - the branches look like the tails of frisky young animals.

This picture only about an hour away from my house. The distant hills are about 20 kms away, to the west of Phonsavanh. There's a long of "progress" in Xieng Khouang but there still are quiet places. Ban Vieng, the last village I rode through didn't have electricity and although they had to carry their water from wells, there was water to carry. I stopped and talked to folks and finally had to beg off offers of meals and drinks.

One sobering thought is that later, as I was going though the UXO statistics over the past few years, I noticed that there had been several UXO incidents in Ban Vieng. Even though the war ended over thirty years ago, people's lives are still at risk.

Shadows and Light online

There's an interesting writing contest at the Clarity of Night website. I originally saw the notice at my favorite writing group, Musemuggers and thought I'd give it a go. My submission is here

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

What happened after the previous entry

I was so eloquent about the start of the Buddhist Lent in the previous entry that I was really shaken by what happened later on in the day.

As I was driving back from the health club, two teenagers on a motorbike rear-ended me. Fortunately, I was driving really slowly. One of these things I'll never forget is hearing the thud of the motorbike hitting the back of the car and looking up in the rear view mirror and seeing the driving of the motorbike hitting the top of the trunk.

Surprisingly, of all the possibilities present, the realities were not so bad. The kids only had cut lips, the police came quickly, followed by the kids' mother. And the insurance guy came to the site and declared the boys at fault for following too closely, a common Lao practice.

I was really shook up though. Since I've lived in Asia, I've seen so many horrible accidents and have lost friends to the flow of traffic. It really could have been much worse.

When I first visited Lao in 1994, Vientiane was a city of creaky one-speed bicycles. There were a few motorcycles then, but they were old and covered with rust and not capable of much speed. As years went on, the roads filled with motorcycles bumping over the rutted dirt roads. The city started to pave the roads which allowed bigger cars to start dominating the streets. The Volgas and Moscowitches gave way to newer used cars. Now, Landcruisers and sleeker modern cars create traffic jams - and when there's no traffic, they race along like maniacs.

The kids' motorcycle was of the new generation of bikes - cheap bikes from China. It disintegrated on the road. I was surprised that my car, a ten year old Korean knock-off, survived with its plastic bumpers.

Anyway, I hope that the rainy season retreat will really mean more mindful driving and fewer accidents.