Postcard type picture of the Se Set river.
Other pictures from earlier in the week are here and here
Posted for Sky Watch Friday
I live in a developing country so it might seem strange that we can access the internet. It didn't use to be this way - when I first started working in SE Asia in 1985, telecommunications was quite different. Very few houses had telephones so if I wanted to call someone, I had to wait in line at the post office or at a house which made a business of letting people use the telephone. The lines were crackly so the volume of the conversation had to be turned up high. That meant that not only the person you were talking to, but everyone in line, knew your business. And since people were bored standing in line, they really listened with a passion.
Telephoning someone in the US was expensive. 5 USD/ one minute. One friend had an argument with a relative during one phone call - and used up most of her month's salary. Double injustice.
Instead of faxes, we had telexes - took a long time for them to make their way from Bangkok to the field. Once we got one, we had a few days to mull it over before sending a response, which took a few days to get back to the US.
Things have changed. This is what I like about the internet.
1. I can keep in touch with family and friends by e-mail. As soon as I get an e-mail, I can respond and get a response even the same day.
2. My staff use IM to chat with people around the world. Since the common language is English, it's also giving them an incentive to learn English.
3. I'm able to read and complete the CME to for my biannual PA license renewal.
4. If e-mail were not fast enough, now there's Skype and I can talk with my boss in the US about work-related issues.
5. Podcasts - I download BBC programs, Escape Pod (science fiction podcast), medical lectures, exercise music, the New Yorker fiction podcasts, NPR, just to name a few.
6. Audiobooks - since I travel so much, being able to listen to books makes the drive more comfortable. And I get to keep up with books.
7. And on top of being able to listen to audiobooks, I also belong to a few online literature groups. When I have time, I enjoy the discussions. (In fact, there aren't many people who read the kinds of things I like to read over here)
8. Online writing groups - like Forward Motion, Musemuggers and Book in a Week. These communities are great for writing motivation.
9. And don't forget Nanowrimo, the biggest month-long writing marathon, held every year in November.
10. Blogging and reading blogs shares ideas around the world with all sorts of people online.
11. Online magazines and newspapers. I have to start the day with a cup of coffee and the New York Times Online. Where I live, the local papers have very little international coverage. The major papers, and print magazines and newspapers I get by post, are usually old by the time I see them.
12. When I have a broadband connection, looking at videos and downloading movies.
13. Keeping up a blog and sharing a little bit about where I live with readers.
There certainly are down-sides to the internet. I'm constantly warning my staff not to be too free with information online. They are also constantly clicking on the links in spam messages and making our computers sick. There's sometimes too much information out there - especially on medical sites, it seems like one day something is bad and the next day there's new research saying that it's not so bad. When news comes so quick, analysis is spur of the moment - everything is dire.
There's this one section of road that reminds me so much of the area around Khampong Chham in Cambodia.Quite tired after our exciting day. At 11 pm, just as I was about to go to sleep, the landlord's four dogs started going nuts, barking like crazy. Worried that they had cornered a chicken, I ran outside and saw them surrounding something in the yard. I flashed my flashlight on it - it was a COBRA, sitting in the cobra-ready-to-strike position. The dogs were alternating jumping at it, jumping back and prancing all around it. I threw my flip-flops at them, before realizing that I hadn't hit anything and now my flip-flops are stuck in the yard. The snake slowly slithered into the wood pile and disappeared - though the dogs are on alert.
I just hope cobras can't climb into houses.
I'm not sure how much sleep I'll get tonight.
A tiny village in the middle of nowhere - and the sky pressing down.
View from the guest house in the early morning.I took a long walk in the morning air - very misty early on but as the sun rose, the air grew pink and I walked down to the river.
The 80 km. trip (about 50 miles) trip takes nearly 5 hours. The road serves as a river bed during the rainy season, so it's badly rutted with big rocks everywhere. We passed these guys taking the scenic route - riding in the back of a tok-tok, a two wheeled tractor hitched up to a cart. The guys in the back were takin' it easy, smoking cigarettes. There was another guy stretched out in the front. Although it would probably taken them two full days - with stops to cook meals, pit stops, and stops just to take stops - it's probably much more comfortable.
I went out for a long bicycle ride today, passing this temple alone the Mekong River. A set of statues of the Buddha during different periods of his life. The main figure depicts his sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree, protected from the rain by the seven-headed Naga King. Under the Bodhi tree, there are several small spirits houses where people make offerings to the spirit of the tree and the spirits of the place.
Most temples in Vientiane have a main Bodhi tree, and maybe several scattered on the grounds. The word "Bodhi" means enlightenment - from the story of the Lord Buddha, he was born a prince and left his idle life of riches to seek meaning. After six years of wandering with a group of ascetics, he felt that deprivations and starvation was not bringing him closer to his goal. He sat under the Bodhi tree and declared he would not move until he learned the truth.
Just as that moment, a young girl appeared, carrying a bowl of curd. She told the Buddha that he was too skinny and he should eat (this was in India but it could have been Lao, same advice I hear all the time!). He did eat and felt stronger - well prepared for his ordeal. After various trials during his six weeks, which included a thunderstorm where the Naga King protect him from the rain and fighting with the forces of Mara, delusion, he attained enlightenment. He understood the Four Noble Truths about suffering and its conquest, and the Eight-fold Path, a middle way which leads to greater understanding.
These trees are beautiful, sometimes getting to 100 feet high, and the heart-shaped leaves are about 8 inches long. Because of the shape of the leaves and stem, when the wind blows, they shimmer as they move back and forth. In a strong wind, they actually make a lot of noise.
Huh. I wanted to explain about the picture and it suddenly became a lecture.
This is the Bodhi Tree at Wat Meaung Wa. It's amazing how big it is, spreading its branches over a quarter of the courtyard of the temple. At its base is a figure of a monk (under the umbrella) carrying a small bag and an umbrella. On the other side of the tree is a small spirit house, where people make offerings for the spirits of the place and of the Bodhi tree. Behind the tree is a long shed which protects the long boats until the time of the boat racing festival after the Buddhist Lent.
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Lao people love any kind of holiday - and have fully embraced the spirit of Valentine's Day. I even received a rose for the special day and joined a birthday party at lunchtime, where the guest of honor received a heart shaped cake.Update: After work, the boys in our office treated the girls to beer and sinh dahd, Korean (or Mongolian) bar-be-que.
Driver sitting in his tuk-tuk, waiting to pounce on anyone walking by, who looks like they need to pay a fare to go somewhere. Vientiane city says that they are going to outlaw tuk-tuks by 2010. While they are noisy and polluting, they're the major form of transportation.
This is the entrance to a neighbor's driveway. I was amazed by the quality of the light this morning, still kinda blue when the sun hadn't touched yet, and the glowing orange flowers. I was kinda hoping that an orange-robed monk would walk by right at that moment - but didn't happen. The orange of these flowers are the same color and intensity of the monks' robes.
I've been living in Laos since November 1996. When I first arrived, we didn't have running water or 24 hour electricity. The potholes in the roads swallowed cars and water buffaloes. The winters were freezing with dust instead of snow in the air, and I couldn't call or e-mail anyone about it because there were only two telephones I could use.
Things have improved. There's 24 hour electricity and I don't have to carry water from the well. I have an indoor toilet and my house is rat-proofed. Things have definitely improved.
So what kept me here in the meantime? I love where I work:
Thirteen things I like about Northern Laos
1. In Xieng Khouang, there's the Plain of Jars, mysterious archaeological sites, usually on hills. The sites are filled with massive stone jars which, over the years, have collected water, moss and soil, making each an eco-system. I often like to go to the site outside of Phonsavanh and watching the sun set.
2. Most of my closest friends live in Xieng Khouang province. I've known most of them for eleven years already, having met them when I first started to work here.
3. There are mountains surrounding Phonsavanh, the capital city. I often like to walk around the town and climb up on the hills for a view.
4. It gets cold here, which I find strangely comfortable, even when the temperature gets down to near zero C.
5. During the cold season, the night sky is so clear. However, with the introduction of 24 hour electricity, light pollution does interfere with star-gazing in Phonsavanh. However, the skies are still the clearest in Asia. I did find comet Holmes with binoculars.
6. Watching the change of seasons in the rice fields. In May or June, the rains start and people plant seed beds. In June- July, they transplant the seedlings to the fields; the gaps between the plants reflect the sky until in August, there are lush broad fields of green. In October-November, people harvest the rice. And December through April, with the dry season, everything is brown but glows gold in the sunrise.
7. Pine trees grow on the hills throughout Xieng Khouang. I took the picture on the right just this past week at a hill top hotel in Phonsavanh. The grasslands and pine trees remind me of Montana.
8. There is a strong sense of Buddhist culture. Most Buddhist Wats (temples) in Xieng Khouang were destroyed during the Vietnam War. After the war, people returned to their homes and built wooden buildings to form the gathering places for their communities.
9. Luang Prabang, a city with a long history and UNESCO heritage site, is in Northern Laos. It's a beautiful place, the oldest part of the city being spread out between the Mekong River and a smaller river. I go there several times each year, mostly for work but also to relax.
10. Of course, my work. It's interesting and meaningful. It deserves another whole long blog for itself.
11. There are many New Years - starting in December with the Hmong New Year, the ceremonies themselves last about a month to give people a chance to visit family members in different villages. Then there's the International New Year. This past week has been the Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai Dam and Hmien New Year, starting with the new moon of the first lunar month. The main new year during the year is the Lao New Year, which takes place in the middle of April, during the hottest time of the year.
12. People's attitudes are very down-to-earth and wise. Many people even younger than me remember the war, fleeing their homes because of warfare, losing family members, hiding from danger. I'm also amazed by their wisdom.
13. Silk production and some of the most beautiful weaving in the world.
I love the light of the cold season mornings - the combination of fog just burning off and the orange glow of the early morning sun made the air glow. This is on a road near my house, at about 7 am, when kids are walking or riding their bicycles to high school.
This is a stairway leading to the back of the Buddhist temple, where the older buildings are located.
Dry season vegetable gardens occupy people's time. Some people build banks for their gardens in their dry rice fields separated by trenches for irrigations; they plant melons or beans in these gardens. This garden is a permanent vegetable garden behind a neighbor's house.
Strange but true, I took this picture this afternoon in Phonsavan.
I walked around, taking pictures. One thing that Montana does not have are the old bomb craters on the top of the hill. The hotel used to have bombs on display but they have been removed.
When I first moved to Phonsavan, I would sometimes walk up here on cold and cloudy days. In the dark afternoons, I'd drink a glass of wine and sit next to the fireplace while watching the clouds race across the sky, or the fog make portions of the landscape appear and disappear.
Another view from the Phou Pha Daeng Hotel. I'll have to scan some old pictures I've taken from this location - the houses on the outskirts of Phonsavan have grown. The roads on the far hills are about 3 years old - they go up to a gold and copper mine.
The woman's husband is pushing the family and their rice to the market. This is a very poor family. I'm wondering if they are selling their rice to take care of some emergency, rather than saving it to the end of the harvest season.
One of the measures to assess poverty is how many months does a family have their own rice to eat. People who only have rice for nine months or less are really in trouble. If the rice is not overly ponded, it's a source of B vitamins. It spares protein by supplying the calories for energy. If families don't have enough rice, they have to borrow - some villages have rice banks to help people get through, but most villages don't. So people borrow money, often from village lenders who charge outlandish interest rates, sinking people even deeper into poverty.
Well, my mind spins a lot of stories from this picture. And pictures I take around the hospital or in the villages. Often I can stop and fill in the details. However, this time, I took the picture as we were driving past in our nice truck (the strange shape on the right is a reflection on the window). The girl is looking at us, as if we're strange creatures.
Anyway, even when I'm tired, I think about the people that we have helped through our various projects. However, some days it seems not enough and not soon enough.