Monday, December 31, 2007

My Resolution #1: Book List of Must Reads in 2007

I read about this book challenge on Names Have Been Changed
Anyway, since I'm always trying to read at least one hundred books per year, I'm giving it a shot as part of the The TBR Challenge

My list of twelve books is:
1. The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk
2. The Pakistani Bride by Bapsi Sidhwa
3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
4. Mortals by Norman Rush
5. Carnival by Elizabeth Bear
6. The Vision of Emma Blau by Ursula Hegi
7. Was by Geoff Ryman
8. The Biographer's Moustache by Kingsley Amis
9. Brasyl by Ian MacDonald
10. The War of the Nerves by Ben Sheppard
11. Baghdad Burning II by Riverbend
12. A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Alternative Books:
1. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen
2. The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
3. Shriek: an Afterword by Jeff Vandermeer
4. Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
5. The King of Torts by John Grisham
6. Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes
7. Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury
8. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
9. The Terrorist by John Updike
10. Farthing by Jo Walton
11. Wandering through Vietnamese Culture by Huu Ngoc
12. Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith

Most of these books I've had knocking around in my book cases in Xieng Khouang for a while. It's time to finally get them read.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

More books - Suspected Spoilers

I just finished reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. She gave one of the pep talks for NaNoWriMo, saying that the first draft of the book was writing for NaNo - though there's no mention in the interview in the book. Whatever - I really did enjoy the book.

The idea of Circus was intriguing but I particularly liked the way, this world floated through the landscape of the Great Depression. The story of the old man bracketed the action. I had read reviews about the book, saying that it was a pot-boiler and too catastrophic - but I didn't find this an overwhelming problem. There were realistic and sympathetic characters against a background that wanted to believe that there was something more than hype behind the glittering lights and the promise of an elephant.

The one thing I found a little strange was the triangle of characters reminded me too much of Sophie's Choice, with the charismatic alpha male, the young innocent male and the wounded young woman.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Brilliant Dave Berry quote (or at least I thought so):

"The four building blocks of the universe are fire, water, gravel and vinyl."

Now I really think I'll be able to understand quantum mechanics.

Some Books and some future plums

Today was a very quiet day - cool and sunny. I did a survey of my back yard, which my landlady had cleaned up, taking out all the dead weeds between the trees so the dusty soil is exposed. I always get a little nervous walking there because of snakes or other crawly things in the underbrush, but it's dry season now so all the creep crawlers have the good sense to go underground.

I finished "Inda" by Sherwood Smith. I liked it towards the end because the plot started to capture me but the beginning was slow going. This is one of the books I really wanted to like, even though I don't care much for fantasy - but it was worth it. The end of the book, once the sheltered MC is banished, was more interesting. Smith does some great world building and I enjoyed how gender roles and the emerging sexuality of her characters developed.

I'm trying "Water for Elephants" next, and when I go out for my morning run, I've started to listen to "Contact" by Carl Sagan.

Last week, I also finished "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry. I think this is in my list of top ten for the year. He captures a year of hope and misery, which takes place during "The Emergency," a bad time in India's modern history. The characters, their developing friendships and the tragedies, are all well written. It has the sweep of a Bollywood film too - especially when everyone comes together at the end. Some reviewers said that this book was too 'raw,' but I felt it was India - the most sublime and the most horrible.

Plum blossoms in my back yard:

plum blossoms, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Try this again

I can't believe that yesterday's blog got eaten by the phone line - thought it had gotten published but it didn't appear. So now I'm in the office, using our new high speed line; should know to avoid dial-up. So I'm dating this for Friday anyway:

Finished the second day of our meetings. Strange but true, I really enjoyed the meeting, although the title of this event: "Quarterly Project Management Meeting" sounds very dry. We've been working together long enough that the management stuff is pretty much taken care of - reporting, organizational structure, systems for doing things - are pretty much set. So we actually talked about substance - how to help certain people, how to make referrals happen more quickly, and content for next year's village chiefs meetings.

I gave a class on mental health, which started off with a discussion on 'what is mental health?' Most people assumed the term for mental health means pathology. We discussed cultural definitions of mental health and illness. People brought up their difficulties in interviewing people about mental health issues and we talked about what seemed to help, such as taking the person to a quiet place to talk, waiting for the person to answer, asking questions more than giving answers, listening rather than speaking. We've also been analyzing information on people's lives through six dimensions - health, mental health, family/ society/ environment, education/ vocational training, economic, culture/ religion - and we went through a case study that one of the people in the meeting had brought up the day before.

At the end of the day, I hosted a small party - Lao grilled fish 'burritos' - take a piece of fish, place it on a piece of lettuce, add some fermented rice noodles and herbs, wrap it up and dip it in a sauce made from fish sauce, chile peppers, peanuts and herbs - and wash it down with Lao beer.

I would insert of picture of the food-laden table right here - but I forgot my camera to upload the pictures. Edit: OK, got everything today so here's a picture of the spread. Yes, those are rolls of toilet paper on the table, much better than napkins!

fish feast, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The day in Xieng Khouang

We finally got our high-speed internet connection in the XK field office. I'm listening to the BBC 'The World Today' program while checking e-mail. Could be any where in the world while surfing the web. However, it's nice to relax after conducting a day-long meeting in Lao.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The 2004 Tsunami

It's difficult to believe, but it's been three years since the tsunami tore apart lives all through Asia, Indian costal cities and even spread to parts of Africa. Us modern people forget that whatever we do to warp the environment, the world's climate and politics, nature can take over and wipe everything out.

While life has returned to normal in most places, there are still wounds.

And people have forgotten. Maybe that's good, it can be a sign of recovery, returning to 'normal.' When I meet tourists who have visited Phuket, the resort area in Thailand that was severely hurt by the tsunami, I ask them what it's like now. They often stare at me blankly, not realizing the scope of the devastation just a few years ago. I haven't had a chance to go down there, though I've looked at the web site of the Chamber of Commerce, which emphasizes that the beaches, and the services that support going to the beach, are all back to normal.

One of my friends used to work with an NGO in Aceh, the province in the northern tip of Sumatra, where she had trained many health care and education staff. When she was able to get in contact with her old staff members, she learned that, by luck, some people had been visiting families or had been out of town on that day. Other people were not so lucky. Along with the 300,000 estimated deaths during that time, there are also the indirect impacts of natural disasters, which last much longer. Teachers who died leave students with knowledge, doctors who died leave a health care gap. Parents who die leave orphans who will always have a hole in their beings.

What happens after that? A crisis can be devastating, or can spur communities to pull together and help everyone. In the aftermath of the tsunami, there have been spots which have one response and places with other.

In other news, the World Bank has a report about its assistance together for Sri Lanka. The amount that it provided - 150 million USD is modest but seems to have made an impact. On the web site, it mentions that there are still 15,000 people who still need homes, but this will take more funding. There are also human interest stories that show the human impact of this natural disaster.

A lot of people have not yet received assistance though, even now. Although there was a great outpouring of aid throughout the region, local people often did not see the results. There were 'bottle necks,' where the funds were available but between local capacity (limited number of construction workers to rebuild houses) and logistics (lack of vehicles to transport supplies), people have been waiting for their lives to return to normal.

Some links:

Indonesia, Thailand mark Tsunami with Prayers

Asia Marks Anniversary

World Bank Support to Sri Lanka

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Christmas was a quiet and thoughtful day. My Lao friends from all over the country called me. Christmas is not a public holiday so most of my friends were working. I could hear the children in the school behind me house as they shouted out their drills on the alphabet, and their happy shouts during recess.

I walked down to the office in the morning and rode my bicycle back home on the river road, then cutting inland for a tour of the rice fields. Farmers flooded some fields and have started the dry season rice farming.

offerings.jpg, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

This is my one Christmas photo. I'm not sure what the story is behind these offerings. Was someone killed here? Or is this a site that has traditionally be a place to make offerings to the spirits of the place? There are always offerings here - whether several bottles of Pepsi or a line of shot glasses filled with rice whiskey next to balls of sticky rice.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

I always bring my camera around with me. All locations in Lao are photogenic. I was walking back to get my bicycle from the repair shop this afternoon when I saw these monks walking towards me. All Vientiane roads used to be lined with these big trees - though many have been cut down. Many are diseased but many have to make way for the new road building projects. 

People used to wonder about why trees in Asia are painted white. Some people speculated that it's to prevent beetles from getting into the tree at their bases. But most people laugh and saw - the color prevents vehicles from crashing into them, especially during the time when there were no street lights.

After taking the overnight bus to Vientiane, I spent the day trying to stay awake at the office. There were a lot of little things to take care of, so the morning slipped away with phone calls. Organized a meeting for later in the week, got information on activities from four provinces for my quarterly reports, received an evaluation report. Etc and etc. Very productive, but I had planned to go up to Xieng Khouang for Christmas but the planes were full and I didn't want to spend Christmas Day on a ten-hour bus ride.

I took my bicycle for an overhaul. When I returned in the afternoon, I sat with the shop owner, who told me about how she and her family, although Buddhist, had gone to Christmas activities at various churches in the past. "They would have singing or skits, give out gifts and have food."
My own staff in Salavan plan to have a Christmas party with our counterparts.

Some other scenes around Vientiane:

While the Pratuxay - the victory door - is similar in structure with its French cousin, the bas relief molded around the structure are all Lao images. This view is taken in the late afternoon, looking up Lane Xang Avenue.

During lunch time, I stopped by the old Talad Sao, the morning market. Although the outside of the buildings look old, they were constructed about 13 years ago. Now, with progress, a new mall is going up next to the old market. Those vendors who can afford the rents, have been moving to the new building, which has air conditioning and fancier stores. The old market continues to function, with a section for silk and traditional handicrafts, another section for household items such as washing machines and flat-screen TVs, and food stalls. This market below sells Hmong embroidery and applique and is pretty typical of the stalls in the market.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sunday morning bicycle ride

I woke up early, while the sky was still dark. While sipping coffee, I watched the raising sun mold the shapes around Phou Ka-tae. I went out on my bicycle before the sun got up to full speed and went to survey the changes that the seasons were making near Salavan.
I left the main road at Na Khoy Sao Village. Although everyone laughs when they say the name, which means 'the rice field waiting for girls,' no one can tell me the history of the name. Did the men come first and they had to wait for their wives? Did they send for women once the fields were opened up? Was it an old military camp during the 'Vietnam' War? I could speculate on and on. 
While the dry season is easier for bicycling - didn't get stuck in mud at least - the dust can be just as bad. This fine material can be several inches thick and it's difficult for pedaling. And if a car or motorcycle goes by, it stirs up the dust so that I can't see for several minutes. I took this picture of a herd of buffalo a farmer had just released so they could forage for the day.

There are always interesting vehicles crowding the roads - two-wheeled tractors pulling trailers packed with families and neighbors going to town for the day, motorcycles pulling handcarts, with the passenger sitting on the cross-bar of the cart, or motorcycle vendors, like those below. They are mostly Vietnamese vendors who stock up and go to the most remote areas to sell their wares. Rural people rely on them for buying pots and pans, new clothes, or motorcycle batteries which they can use to power a small light bulb.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

You would think...

After all the worrying about whether the team got to Salavan, which was not relieved by calling their cell phones because they were turned off, you think that my staff would have the consideration to call me when they returned to town. Forget it! They got back at 3 and finally answered when I called them at 7 pm. The original plan was to have dinner before our guests returned to Vientiane; however, they had left just after returning from the district.

I've worked with one of these people for seven years, the other for three years. You would think...

Never mind.


Saturday at the office

In spite of the designation of "cold season," the weather in Salavan has not cooled. It must be about 30 degrees C outside; my house collects the heat so it's probably about 35 degrees C inside. The sun beats down on the roofs of the houses, already covered with dust. The world can look gray though in the distance, the mountains stand out clearly.

It's quiet at the office, except for ambient sounds from other areas of the hospital. Earlier, I heard the distinctive cry of a new born - we're right above the delivery room. A couple of people stick their heads in through the open door, looking for the place where they get get their health exams signed for their drivers licenses.

This morning, my neighbor's daughter stopped by, with two gigantic fresh coconuts, which had just fallen off the tree in front of my house. The coconut juice was so sweet and the coconut meat was the highlight of my breakfast.

Friday, December 21, 2007

It all turns out all right in the end

Yesterday, I was perturbed because we had difficulty coordinating vehicles. It meant that instead of taking two trucks, with some technicians, I got left behind and the techs will go next week. I hadn't been out to this remote district for a while, so I was looking forward to the trip, even if it meant an eight hour trip, including the lunch stop.

At the end of the afternoon, I found out that our truck got stuck behind another truck that had broken down, blocking trucks in both directions. I substituted my feelings of disappointment with worry. I hope they get out to the district town all right.

This road is horrible. And the eight hour trip is for a distance of 80 kilometers. I could bicycle faster than that!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Our Office

I spent most of the day in our little office in the province hospital. Although it's one room, it's very comfortable and when most of the staff are out, it's quiet and cool. We just got a high(er) speed internet connection so hopefully, the staff can start to access the internet more often.

One of the problems we've been having is that people are curious about spam messages - and they click on the links. So I spent a good part of the morning cleaning the computer with Spybot, Ad-aware and Norton as well as updating Windows. In the afternoon, I gave a talk on how to avoid problems, and also the uses of the internet. I showed them how to use our newsgroup, especially uploading documents so they don't get lost if the computer crashes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Day in Pakse

Overnight buses are getting to be more comfortable. When I first arrived in Lao, there were only the ordinary buses, with straight backs that rattled along the highways. A twelve hour trip in one of these buses seemed to both loosen my joints, so I couldn't stand or walk properly for an hour after getting off the bus, and create muscle spasms in unusual places of my body.

Then, as the roads to the south improved, the quality of the buses improved too. There were overnight sleeper buses, first with seats that could go back a little way - just enough so that when people slept, they tended to fall over on their neighbors - and then with seats that could really lean back. Now there are buses with double decker bunk beds, and I have learned to be able to sleep in them.

I usually set my iPod to the latest audiobook I'm listening to. Several hours later, I'll wake up and find that the story has really jumped and I don't remember anything. So I rewind and start over again.

By the time I reached Pakse, this morning, I had listened to the same section of Rohinton Mistry's book, A Delicate Balance, about four times. Ate breakfast, went over to the regional hospital to sit in on part of a training, spent some time updating files on the internet, and then we returned to Salavan.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A day in Vientiane

After returning to Vientiane on Monday night, I was greeted by a temple fair in my back yard. This fair was organized by a family doing a Maha Krathin. While this ceremony is usually done by a family once every five years or so, the temple fair, with its games of knock-over-the-can and and bingo, are usually not part of the deal.

Maha Krathin is usually done in the month before or the month following the period of Buddhist Lent (though it can be done at other times of the year, outside Buddhist Lent time), and involves a day of preparation followed by feeding the monks at the house during the morning and then going to the temple with donations in time for the monks mid-day meal. The community members walk around the temple with their donation and then offer food to the monks for the mid-day meal and prayer together.

My temple is working on finishing the Boht, the building housing the Buddha images. The building looks like it's about half done now, but still needs the community to do fund-raising like this. So, in spite of not being able to get my car out of the driveway to go to the office, I didn't mind the fair.

So this morning started off roughly. I had been upcountry for three weeks, and there was no one to start up the car every day. So the battery was quite dead. At the same time, a group of guests arrived at the office - one of them had urgent business back in Vietnam, so my staff were helping them get all that arranged. I finally arrived at the office around 9 am, and spent the morning with our guests. In the afternoon, I was snowed under paper work and running to make meetings with various people in few moments I had left in Vientiane. I had planned to attend a lunch meeting - but when I tried to start my car, it was dead again. I think a belt or something in the alternator is broke - even after getting a charge and running to re-charge the battery, it still didn't work.

In the evening, after a happy hour with friends, I took the overight bus to Pakse, leaving the car behind for our office mechanics to figure out!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Yesterday, we picked up a consultant at the airport. While waiting for him to collect his bags, I met two friends whom I had not seen for a long time. These chance meetings reminded me of the old days, when the telephone system was severely limited. We had three digit phone numbers and because phones were not available, we had to either make calls at the Dept of Helath or go to the downtown post office and line up before a crowd of other people trying to call their relatives in the US. It was often easier to drive over to make appointments than to try to call to make them - and half the time you ended up meeting the person you wanted to see, so in a strange way, it did make things easier.

The most effective way of meeting up with people for a short meeting was to go to the airport. If the person was not flying or returning from Vientiane, they might be picking someone up. Sometimes I'd go to the airport three times/ week. The discussions were helped with a bottle of Beer Lao.

The picture above is the current Thong Hai Hin Airport. May not look like much - but the old air terminal was made of wood with woven bamboo matting for walls.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas image?

This is a Christmasy an image that we can get around here. It's cold season, meaning that we have flying dust all the time rather than snow flurries. But the poinsettias are out - they're not like the little potted plants that people buy for a two week period and throw out in January - but they grow into thick hedges, often standing two or three meters tall. I guess you'd say that they are poinsettias with an attitude.

This hedge is around a house in a Hmong village, about a half hour drive from Phonsavanh, the capital of Xieng Khouang Province.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Some Links

It's been an intense week - wonderful events, Hmong New Year, grief and a funeral.

Trying to take my mind off it by posting a few links.

I just discovered Uncyclopedia. It had me ga-fawing, in spite of myself.

Article on Astronomy

My favorite lines:
Every school kid knows that you can't create something out of nothing (unless you're an accountant), but creating EVERYTHING out of nothing seems to be OK, presumably as long you don't try and fit it through the eye of a needle. But this is all actually wrong, because mass and energy are interchangeable.

Astronomers currently believe that the universe is made out of space, which itself is made out of nothing.

A few articles on cluster bombs. This past week, 140 civil society groups and countries met in Vienna to discuss the initiative to ban cluster munitions. Already 83 countries support the initiative, with the major exceptions of the US, Russia and China, who are the main producers of these weapons of mass destruction. These mini-bombs are dropped in a canister which opens in mid-air, spreading the cluster bombs over a wide area. They were dropped in Laos and Vietnam, and the explosive is still active after 30 - 40 years in the ground, ready to explode if someone picks them up or even moves them.

Unfortunately, I've seen too many examples here in Laos of kid vs. cluster bomb.

The article from uncyclopedia on Cluster bombs is black humor with a kick; the article is written as a marketing strategy. "They will not explode when dropped, only when picked up by a child or other innocent civilian" the spokesman promises. Strangely enough, it gets to the essence of the thing - children in countries destroyed by war don't have the playthings found in the US. If they see the bright yellow of a cluster bomb, they'll pick it up to play with it.

A more sobering article on cluster bombs is on Wikipedia.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

5 December 2007

Xieng Khouang in the early morning is amazing. Usually, the fog coats the hills so I can't see further than a few feet. In the early morning, the poinsettias provide just a bit of color in the gray air. However, over the past week, the weather has been backwards - clear and cold in the morning and cloudy in the afternoons.

One of the nicest meals in Lao is grilled fish wrapped in various fresh vegetables. The meal is do it yourself - tear off a piece of fish with your fingers, wrap it in lettuce with your choice of fermented rice noodles, star fruit, peanuts, tomatoes, garlic and more, and dip it in a spicy sauce before placing in mouth. The restaurants are very nice too - this is an old grilled fish restaurant, where the owners used to pull fish out of the pond. It closed a long time ago, not sure why because it was a nice place to eat dinner and drink a beer while the sun set.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Pastoral scene in Phonsavanh, Xieng Khouang Province

Today was a day off, because the Lao National Day fell on a Sunday. It was very welcome time off, which I spent writing and puttering around the house. I tried to figure out where to plant my new rose buses, finally deciding to drop them off at the front of the house.

I took a long bicycle ride today, just to see what's changed since the last time I did this, a month ago. Well, the weather always changes. It's cold season, and the clouds hover close to the ground. This picture of water buffalo grazing in the stubble of the rice fields turned out very strange - but the colors were very strange, the sunlight just leaking through to light up the foreground, while the background remained ominous looking.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Xieng Khouang Friday

We finished the second date of our project management meeting. In spite of its dry title, dry enough to suck any creative thoughts out of ones bones, it was a lot of fun. We've been working long enough together that we leave the assumptions along - the organization structure, reporting and coordination - and get right to the content. I gave a half day training on mental health concepts since all people who have had a UXO accident, including family members, have issues.

After all that, we had a party. Grilled fish wrap-ups - take a piece of grilled fish, put it on a piece of lettuce, add fermented rice noodles and herbs and dip into into a sauce made of sweetened fish sauce, chile peppers, and peanuts. When further washed down by Beer Lao, it's a great feast.

A wedding

The wedding starts off with a procession to the bride's house. Leh's sister and her best friend are on either side of him, with an uncle playing music on the tradition Lao reed instrument, called the khaen. The groom carries a collection of symbolic things needed for a marriage - such as soap for purification and a needle to mend arguments - in the red shoulder bag.

At some point the bride's family will challenge the groom. Does he really want to do this? Is he willing to pay whatever price? Here, the challenge is 12 crates of beer, 2 bottles of alcohol, and some money (all of these were waiting in the back of the bride's house, for the reception.

Then he also has to get past the bride's female relatives. The banana leaf is placed for the groom to step on, and his relatives symbolically wash his feet before he tries to enter the house. A woman's metal belt blocks the wait - and the women will only let him pass if they approve.
The actual wedding ceremony is led by a Mor Phone, an elder who has been a Buddhist monk and chants both Buddhist prayers and special wishes for the marriage.

After the party in the afternoon, there's also a reception in the evening. Everyone has a good time.