Monday, December 31, 2007
Sunday, December 30, 2007
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
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:
Friday, December 28, 2007
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!
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
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.
Indonesia, Thailand mark Tsunami with Prayers
Asia Marks Anniversary
World Bank Support to Sri Lanka
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
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.
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
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.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Saturday, December 22, 2007
I've worked with one of these people for seven years, the other for three years. You would think...
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
Thursday, December 20, 2007
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
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
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.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Friday, December 14, 2007
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
Monday, December 03, 2007
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
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.
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.