Friday, November 30, 2007

Drove the long trip down from Xieng Khouang back to Vientiane. We had some meetings in the morning, so didn't leave till 11 am, and then arrived in Vientiane around 8 pm. The final stretch of highway is poorly lit and difficult to navigate after sunset. The stars were out and quite beautiful, kept me from playing backseat driver.

I'm glad that this vehicle was not on the road. We were just rounding a bend when we passed this elephant. We don't see them as much as we used to, and they're not so common in the north. I suspect that this is a working elephant, being used in logging. Anyway, it provided an interesting break from the usual animals we have to dodge on the road, such as chickens, cows, water buffaloes and goats.

Friday, November 16, 2007

People think of Laos as being exotic. Well, it is exotic but I've lived here for so long that most of the exotic things are pretty normal. Not willing to get into discussion of by whose standard one should judge normal, I'll just post this picture of a normal cat and her kittens. Well, she's my cat and her name is Alpha. She had her kittens on the 14th and they are very cute.

kittens, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

I try not to post too many cat and kitten pictures, but I can't help it. My cat does produce some very nice off-springs.

Monday, November 12, 2007

With all the problems in Burma, I was amazed to find this book of matches that made me remember more peaceful days. I stayed at the Strand Hotel in Rangoon in 1987. Don't know how I managed to hold on to the matches for so long.

it was a pretty interesting trip. I had been working at a refugee camp in Thailand for over a year at that point. All the expatriate staff lived together in traditional houses in a town near the camp; there wasn't much to do there so we all became good friends, going to Bangkok together after work on Saturdays and taking vacations together. So I went to Burma with some of these friends.

At that time, there wasn't any hint of the upheaval to come - everyone was uniformly depressed and struggling to get by. I knew a lot of Burmese who were working as medical staff in the camps and offered to bring a letter or say hello to their relatives. One woman gave me a bundle; I didn't even think to question what was inside. So I was rather surprised and weirded out to be questioned by customs as we entered the country. I opened the paper bag and all the gift wrappings on the presents - which turned out being wrinkled apples and scraps of brightly colored fabric. The guard lectured me on bringing this junk into the country. I felt ashamed that my friend was sending what seemed to be valuable to her - the love behind the sad little gifts.

Meeting her relatives was awkward. They came to the hotel - the Strand - and left as quickly as they could, maybe before anyone could report them. The Strand itself was ten dollars/ night with the three of use staying in one room. The plumbing was shot and the paint peeling from the walls. The finest hotel in the city at the time.

You were allowed a one week visa, which was barely enough time to spend a day in Rangoon, travel to Mandalay, Pagan and back. But the images just stayed with me. The people were radiant for all their troubles and very happy to see tourists, just because of the connection with the outside world.

Some of the highlights of the trip included the train ride from Rangoon to Mandalay - one of my friends and I had gotten off the train, and when we got on, we realized we were in the wrong car. There was no way to move between cars - so we had to wait until the next station. Meanwhile our other friend tried to sit still, wondering if he'd ever see us again.

Climbing up Mandalay Hill, the whole hill covered with staircases and temples until we got to the top after making offerings at many shrines along the way. We flew from Mandalay to Pagan. Pagan, an ancient city, is one of the most beautiful and haunting places in the world. We hired a horse cart to take us around the temples.

Anyway, those are just a few thoughts that came back when I found this matchbox in my desk drawer. May the Burmese find peace and happiness - and democracy very soon.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Our donor trip has started off well. Quite a bit of champaign and wine, because the restaurant was slow in preparing the meal. I think we all bonded well.

We'll all meet each other again in the morning - 5 am to be exact - when we go to the airport and get on the early morning flight and then drive two hours to the project site.

Off to bed now.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What happens after boat racing

The boat races have ended. The boats in our village were dragged up the river bank and parked in the shelter next to the temple. This is one boat, about 50 feet long, carved out of a single log. The workmanship is quite amazing.

Tonight we were eating dinner at a restaurant on the river. The sun had already set and there was no light at all on the water, except for the distance lights across the river reflected on the water. I could hear the voices of the rowers on a long boat, shouting in unison to coordinate their strokes. I couldn't imagine what they were doing on the water, after dark, at the end of the boat racing season. When they floated down the river, I thought that maybe their were taking their boat home. But they returned, paddling upriver.

Maybe it was a ghost boat. And only my friends and I had seen it. Maybe they will come for me tonight, since I know their secret.

Time to go to sleep, if I can dare to sleep.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Such a day today, checking details, making charts. Not the kind of stuff that anyone would want to know about. So that's my blog entry for the day.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Traffic...just saying...

Most of my friends have one of two impressions of Laos. They think of stereotyped images of developing countries - impoverished, vultures flying overhead ready to swoop down on people if they don't keep moving. Or they'll chirp," Oh, Asia. How fun!"

Needless to say, the reality is between the two extremes. And so my illustration, and rant for the day, is Traffic. Not human or drug traffic but motor vehicle traffic.

I do have a car. And most days I drive the four miles to work. It can be a drag to arrive at work, sweaty and dusty and have to run off for a meeting with government officials. And since I'm in the medical field, I'm terrified of motorcycles.

When I first started working in Laos, most people rode 1-speed bicycles. There were a few motorcycles and the people on bicycles stared at the rare car when it went by. Now, it's the other way around, cars are common in Vientiane and the drivers don't stare, much less look, at anyone. The drive to work this morning - motorcycles passing on the right just as I was making a right turn, having to stop suddenly because a recycling technician had pushed his cart into the traffic lane, and having vehicles driving towards me on the one lane road - totally depleted my stock of swear words for the whole day.

On the other hand, I should remind myself that driving in Vientiane traffic can substitute for aerobic exercise when I haven't gotten up early enough to go running. And I also have to remind myself that traffic has started to go faster as the roads have gotten paved; I'm not about to advocate to returning to the roads with the car-sized ruts in them.

I guess I'm crabby because I prefer being out in the provinces. But it is true that motor vehicle accidents are rising all over the world - the WHO figures that trauma, of all types, will be the number two cause of mortality and morbidity by the year 2020. Is that an improvement over diarrhea and acute respiratory infections?

Well, time to rest up before the next excursion into mayhem.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Si Khai Boat racing update

The festivities around the boat races continued at a frantic pace all day. After I returned from the office, one of my neighbors came running over to my house with a bowl of Khao Phung, a spicy curry made with coconut milk over fermented rice noodles with fresh vegetables. After being refreshed with lunch I walked along the levee, going to the river side when I noticed that people were looking out over the river and jumping up and down. Last year, I had a much better idea of the villages and the rowers in the festival but since I've been upcountry so much, I've been out of touch.
One thing I was amazed to see was that there were corporate sponsorships of several boats. Last year, one of the villages around my temple had made their own boat. Although it was an amazing process of hollowing out and carving the log and making struts to support it, the boat was slightly twisted, so it took on water easily. It didn't get too far in the races last year because some of the rowers had to bail. This year I saw the bowl sporting a "Nissan" plaque instead of the name of a village. I was scandalized. Then I noticed that the EU had sponsored a boat - they all had on the blue tees with a pattern of the circle of gold stars for member countries. They also had their own tent and band by the river side.

The problem with corporate sponsorship is that they tend to draw from a wider range of people within their offices rather than people in a village. And the competition becomes less for for and more for profit and maybe exposure for the organization.

I was about halfway between the start and the finish lines when they had the last race - between the EU and a local village boat. And the village boat won!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

It's Saturday morning and the day started quietly - the neighbors calling each other as they went to the Wat, summoned by the booming of the large drum. The monks walked past my house, silently walking in bare feet and carrying their metal begging bowls filled with sticky rice and different kinds of curries.

It's now about 7:30 and the sounds are different - loud music and the whirr of air compressors inflating the bouncy castles. The Si Khai boat races are happening today and by 9 am, the temple yard of Wat Meuang Wa will be filled with people. And at noon, the traditional long boats will be racing.

The tradition of boat racing goes back a long time. During the Buddhist Lent, people are supposed to follow the "Ha Sihn" or the five basic Buddhist precepts more strictly - no alcohol or other drugs, lying, naughty activities, stealing or killing (some people are vegetarian for the three months) - and they should stay close to home and work in the rice fields. While modern life is a little different, the world is quieter during the rainy season; fewer cars on the road and there are only wedding parties if it is essential. At the end of the season, there are many Boun, merit making ceremonies at the temples, which include the above reference temple fair.

And the boat racing. The legend is that the Naga, snake spirits who live in watery areas, also lie low during the rainy season but at the full moon in the tenth month, they are ready to have a little fun. The Naga King had protected the Lord Buddha from a thunderstorm when he was in meditation under the Bodhi Tree and since then, all Naga follow Buddhism. The boat races and special offerings (floating little boats made of banana leaves, filled with flowers, candles and incense) are dedicated to the Naga spirits. And the boat races have a special function - people in villages teams practice during the last month of the rainy season and then compete up and down the river up to the big boat race in Vientiane on the day after the October full moon (that was last Saturday). Not only do villages on the Lao side go back and forth and socialize but teams from across the Mekong river, also compete. In the late 80's, while I was working in a refugee camp in Thailand, I traveled to Nong Khai for the boat races - Laos was just starting to open up after its years of self-imposed isolation so the big thing was seeing the Lao teams competing on the Thai side of the river.

For some reason, the Si Khai races are after the big race in Vientiane. The main race has gotten much more corporate - the teams are not villages but mostly companies. In the past few years, I've skipped the main races but I do like my neighborhood races - they're entirely from villages and the event is smaller and much more fun. Last year, I sat at the finish line with some Lao friends, one of whom was the main sponsor of his village team.

This year, I'm not sure. In a moment, I'll be heading to my office and hopefully will get back for the afternoon activities.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Just a bit about daily life

Friends are always asking about what I do every day. It's difficult to give an example of just one day because I work in three areas of Laos. Our main project, doing medical upgrading and assisting people injured by unexploded ordnance, is focused in the south in the provinces crossed by the old Ho Chi Minh trails. I spend at least half the month there and end up taking the overnight bus to Vientiane, the capital of the country, for meetings and report writing. And then we have work in the north - strengthening the systems of providing UXO survivor assistance which includes immediate medical treatment as well as providing vocational training and economic funds for people who have been injured by unexploded ordnance.

There's a lot of travel involved. So on Wednesday, we returned to Vientiane by truck, an eight hour drive along twisty mountain roads. This is what the road looks like just north of Vang Vieng, one of the most beautiful places in the country:

On a travel day like this, I wake up about 5 am, usually with the intent of going for a run; however, I most often end up packing the things I had forgotten the night before. We planned to leave at 7 am - however during the evening people kept calling, asking to send things with us or trying to get a lift. So starting at 7, my field assistant went around collecting people and things. Then we had too many things, so I told them to unload some bags so we could put the rain tarp on top of everything. So about 8:30, we set off.

Our first stop was at a school, to meet the father of one of the UXO survivors we helped. The child had been taking medication so I wanted to check that he was still doing all right. Problem solving done, we continued on, stopping at another village to check in with another UXO survivor. As usual, we had lunch in Kasi followed by four more hours of driving to Vientiane - where it started to rain. Got home at about 7 pm. I wanted to conk out right away - but NaNo was going to start at midnight. I stayed up and starting writing at midnight. And that was my day!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

I'm planning for a lot of writing for November. First, I've vowed to post to this blog daily, cause there are things I like about blogspot and other blogs on blogspot so why not? And I'll still be participating in NaNoWriMo as well. I live in a place where the days get cooler in November and its dusty and dry but the real thing that makes November feel like November for me is NaNoWriMo.

It's going to be a crazy month. We have a big guest coming next week, I'll have to go to the project sites both in the south and in the north, and try to write on top of all that? We'll see how it goes. Always up for a challenge.