Friday, February 29, 2008

Sky pictures from southern Laos

Seset.jpg, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Postcard type picture of the Se Set river.

sky in Vapi.jpg, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

water palms vapi.jpg, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Other pictures from earlier in the week are here and here

Posted for Sky Watch Friday

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thurday Thirteen : edition #4

Thirteen Things about The Internet

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.

Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others' comments. It’s easy, and fun! Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Snake stories

After last night's excitement with the cobra, I looked around for it while I gathered up the shoes I had thrown at the dogs last night. Silly things were grouped in a circle around the snake, taking turns diverting its attention while the dog behind it nipped at its tail. Or end part; snakes are all tail right?

I forgot to mention that we had also startled a dog that was attacking a cobra when we drove back home last night. My staff tell me that between these two things, I'll have massive good luck for having seen two cobras in the same day and actively trying to save it. That's good. I could use some good luck.

Killing snakes and eating them is bad luck. Sak told me a story about a Vietnamese man, one of the road construction people, who had killed a snake for dinner. It's one of these snakes that mates for life and its partner was mad and filled with grief. It made a landslide come down on the man's hut, killing him. The village in the pathway of the landslide, was not affected; the landslide stopped right at its edge.

I was a little skeptical, thinking that it's one of these old folk stories. "No," he said. "It's true" and reminded me of the landslides that blocked the road between Phonsavanh and Kham District in Sept 2000. I remember those landslides well - we had several activities scheduled during that time period and could not get through. The width of the landslide, which was all rocks and sand from the top of the road cut, was nearly a kilometer. Passengers on buses would get out on one side of the landslide and walk to a waiting bus on the other side to continue their journey. It was a strange landslide, cause I couldn't really see where the rocks and sand came from - maybe this story explains why.

I asked Sak whether he had seen a cobra before. He said yes - on the Discovery Channel, which had a documentary about snake charmers in India.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


palmyra palms in vapi, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Monday, February 25, 2008


waiting, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

When a patient goes to the hospital, the whole family goes. Here they are, in their vehicle - a cart behind a two wheeled tractor. While their mother or father is admitted to the hospital, the kids wait with the other parent or an older sibling or grandparent.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday Summary

I just returned from a bone rattling trip to a remote district. Although the distance is only 80 kms. (about 50 miles), it takes 4 to 5 hours to reach the town. And that's on a good day. If there's an accident or the road is otherwise blocked, the trip can be delayed even further.

Since last Sunday, my week has been like this:

Monday - worked at the office during the day. Although I kept planning to buy cat food and also goodies to bring south with me, this plan was derailed. The water pump in my car blew up and my mechanic friend spent the day taking care of it. He showed me the parts that had to be replace - reminded me of unexploded ordnance! I did get a chance to get the cat food, then drove the car home so I could get my things, take a shower and returned to the office. One of the drivers sent me to the bus station and I caught my 8 pm bus to Pakse.

While I was waiting, I bought a few roti - Lao roti are not like the Indian ones - there is an outer crust of dough which is grilled on a hot pan, an egg is cracked on it and smoothed around the circle of dough. The vendor lifts the edges to make a square and lets it cook. Finally he pours condensed sweet milk on the roti, rolls it up and wraps it in paper which immediately becomes translucent because of the fat. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me to record the process - and I enjoyed the expressions on a two little girls who were fascinated by the process.

Tuesday - after an uneventful bus ride, where I couldn't sleep that much because of the snoring of another passenger across the aisle, I arrived in Pakse. Went to our usual spot for Lao coffee and fried eggs with French bread.

We continued on to another district where the regional trainers were holding a first-aid training for sub-district health staff and village health volunteers. Everyone was very enthusiastic about the training and I overheard one older man tell his neighbor that he was sleepy because he had stayed up the night before reading the textbook that we had printed in Lao language. That endorsement really tickled me!

Wednesday - while we tried to leave early in the morning, I got a whole slew of phone calls. I got a little worried about the time - the trips to the district the month before had taken 7 hours and I hate to be on the road after dark. We finally left at noon - but then I realized that if we didn't eat before leaving town, we'd have to wait at least 3 hours for something approximating a restaurant. So we left at 12:30.

On the way, we visited a sub-district health centers. These centers are staff by mid-level nurses (what we would call Licensed Vocational Nurses in the US) who usually people who live in the area and can speak at least one of the myriad of ethnic minority languages and understand the culture of the people using the services. I just wanted to see what equipment they have now and get information on the patients that they commonly see in a day. I did see one patient, an old man with a skin problem like eczema; however, the lesion was not typical. I'll have to do some research today.

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon and I checked into the guesthouse that I like to stay in. Everyone else went to a guest house in the town, which is crowded and noisy. The place where I like to stay is also frequented by other NGO staff, and sits above the river. It's very quiet and from my little balcony, I could watch the sunset, sunrise and read in peace.

Thursday - I sat in on the nursing management and technical training that's been going on for the past two weeks. We trained one group of nurses from this district hospital at the province hospital for six months. I was very impressed by their skill and their leadership during the training. I also followed-up on some repair work and going through some recently donated materials, figuring out what instruction sheets we should prepare so the staff can use the donation.

Friday - After the closing ceremony of the training, we returned on the same bumpy road and I arrived home at 5 pm. Just in time to relax, put my feet up and watch the clouds over the mountain.

This is a little house in the forest. The villagers are so poor, living in the middle of nowhere. I'm always amazed that people would live in the woods like this - however, they do have their culture, language and a more independent life style. Some people head for the city, but without education and money, they run into problems.

Saturday - I spent a good part of the day cleaning and dusting my house while listening to audio-books. My landlady came by in the evening, looking worried that I hadn't left the house all day.

And today - I went on a long bicycle ride in the morning and now I'm here in the office.

Saturday laziness

This has been a very lazy day. Barely dragged myself awake at 9 am, feeling that the drive from Ta-Oi back to Salavan had loosened all my joints and then they re-arranged themselves in unusual ways during the night. I also couldn't quite get out of the house to run or bicycle and ended up cleaning and rearranging everything.

One of my neighbors stopped by and was impressed with my work. At least I think she was impressed.

The day was also very gray, looking like it was going to rain. Although the mists swirled around the mountains, no rain fell in town.

Friday, February 22, 2008

village and cloudy sky

village and cloudy sky, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

A tiny village in the middle of nowhere - and the sky pressing down.

The mountain by the district town in Ta-Oi District. One person remarked,"Why don't they build a hotel there?" and another person answered, "There are too many spirits and ghosts up there."

This is my contribution to Skywatch Friday

In the morning, I talked with a local contractor about some infrastructure improvements to the district hospital, followed by a meeting with the DoH to talk about what needs to be done for the water system, and then the closing ceremony for our training. However, I spent most of the day being shaken on the road back to the province capital city.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

morning on river

morning on river, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Later, we worked at the district hospital. I sat in the nursing technique and management training, which was held in the patient waiting area in the front of the hospital. Also, spent a good part of the day going through donated supplies, trying to figure out what some of the things were, and trying to explain how to use them to the staff in Lao language. Adult diapers (chux), sucrose solution which is supposed to be applied to the outside of pacifiers to sooth fussy babies in emergency rooms (had to explain what is a pacifier - not used here, where the mother's breast is not far away), water soluble lubricant.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

smoking a cig, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

moon and palms

moon and palms, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Returned to Salavan on Tuesday night. It's just before the full moon and the lunar eclipse on Weds morning here. Even though the sky looks clear, the haze blurs the moon.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Meditative Mondays

This is another feature I'll try to keep up in this journal - meditation and what I'm trying to do in my meditation practice. Unfortunately, with work stress and lack of time, I've cut out a lot of things such as taking the time to exercise, meditation, enjoy Lao ceremonies and culture. Although I attend ceremonies at my local temple, give food to the monks, and listen to the chanting of the monks, it's not the same as meditation practice.

In the past, I've taken time for longer term meditation retreats. I've gone to Wat Suan Mohk, a Buddhist temple in southern Thailand, several times during the 80's and 90's, both for ten-day meditation retreats and short stopovers of a few days. The meditation center was founded at the existing temple years ago by Bhikkhu Bodhadassa who, although a monk following the Theravadan teachings, taught Mahayanan principles about compassion for all sentient beings.

It cracks me up that the center now has a web site. When I used to go there, there was no international meditation center, just a few wooden buildings for foreign visitors and a sala (an open building with just a roof and floor) for the meditation sessions.

I've also gone to Wat Pa Nanachat, the International Forest Temple, in Ubon. The Abbot was a Canadian (might still be the same person) and had studied with the Temple's founder, Achaan Cha, for years.

Anyway, this is getting away from my main points. Meditation doesn't depend on 'taking a class' or relying on going away someplace here. Practice is based on the here and now and all the tools that one needs is the body and the breath. It's strange that taking this time, even for 15 minutes, ends up being so difficult to put aside. Sometimes it is a struggle to keep the consciousness in the here and now, and it can be very tiring. Sometimes there are itches that provide distractions and sudden thoughts enter the mind like runaway fugitives.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Summary Sunday

Just something I thought I'd try, to try to summarize what has happened over the past week and what the upcoming week looks like.

11 - 17 February:
Weeks that I spent in Vientiane are like weeks with no weather. There are constant details in the office, calling the field offices for data and reports, and writing reports. We've had a few patients in the hospital for follow-up treatment. One of my staff, and a volunteer visited them and the volunteer has been going to the hospital every few days to tutor them. While it's a bad situation, the people who work with me help to make things as good as possible.

Valentine's Day happened. It was fun. Since I'm not involved with anyone, it doesn't have quite the same excitement and romance.

Worked on Saturday for part of the day - got some trainings for the next few months organized. Today I rode my bicycle around and rested my mind.

18 - 24 February:
Going back out to the field for the next two weeks. Taking the overnight bus tomorrow night then going out to a remote district to see how the training and work out there has been going.

I might not be able to post anything till next week - though there is a possibility that if I can hook my wireless desk phone up to someone's antennae that I might be able to. That will be funny.

Wat Sibounheuang

wat si boun heuang, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Books I'm reading

Book #10 Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks - two lifelong friends work together to grapple with the mysteries of mental illness and finding a cure. It starts at the end of 1980's and continues to WWI. I like the book, though it's very intellectual with pages of two characters talking about Charcot and the 'recent' advances (in the 1890's) of defining the pathologies of the mind. I like the ideas, though I find my mind wandering through some passages. In some ways it's like a textbook in fiction form.

Book #11 Being Dead by Jim Crace - Recommended by one of my online reading groups, it's a strangely fascinating book, starting with the deaths of the two main characters. While there's some 'yuck' factor, especially dealing with decomposition, the concept of death starting with birth, and what goes on in between, has drawn me into the book.

Book #12 Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi - I found this in a used book shop in Vientiane. I have The Vision of Emma Blau which is one of my TBR challenge books for this year, but I haven't started it yet. The first chapter is very good - and strangely enough, there's a parallel with Human Traces, as the main character's mother is 'crazy' and moves in and out of reality, and there's treatment in an asylum.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bodhi Tree

Bodhi Tree, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

still life with cat

still life with cat
Originally uploaded by c_p_lew
This kitten was still enough for long enough to take a picture with the flowers

Interesting and strangely thought provoking video. I imagine we are sensory organs of the machine and teaching the machine, every time we upload, create a tag, make a link. It's strange.

Friday sunset

Very hazy sky last night as we continued our celebration of Valentine's Day at a restaurant by the Mekong River. The city on the other side of the river is Sri Chiang Mai, Nong Khai Province, Thailand. At this time of the year, it doesn't rain very often so the skies are very hazy. We can either have spectacular sunsets or, like what happened tonight, the sky just sinks into the haze and disappears. Fortunately, as I can testify this morning, it came back out the other side.

This is my contribution to Sky Watch Friday

It's not the prettiest sky - but it's an interesting one!

A couple of blog carnivals that I read

The Carnival of Space, organized by Universe Today, always has interesting links giving a cosmic view of everything, both in space and on the Earth. It's hosted by the New Frontiers blog, one I haven't read before. I learned from the Visual Astronomy blog link, that the last lunar eclipse for the next two years will take place on 20 Feb. Unfortunately, the eclipse will start at dawn in the SE Asia area so we miss out on this one. I have no plans to be in the US or Africa for it.

Another favorite blog carnival is hosted by Blogborygmi, a play on the word borborygmi which means a tremendous whoosing and sometimes embarrasings sounds which one's intestines can emit when empty (rumbling stomach we call it as well). HealthBlawg hosts the Valendtine's Day edition this week. Such as long list of wonderful looking medical links that I'll be going back there frequently this weekend.

Friday, February 15, 2008

This is a very typical kind of Thai/ Lao music video. Usually the performers are wearing very strange and skimpy clothing. But Jonny plays it up well.

The song translates as "A little bit." I like the refrain, with the older woman. Often Asians will say they want to do something, a little bit though. You don't know if what they mean is that they don't want to sound too enthusiastic - or in fact, they don't want to do it. Anyway, he really goofs it up, with all the trophs of 'Maw lam,' traditional Thai / Lao country music.

"You can sa-speak Thai?"
"Yes, but only a little"
"You can eat fermented fish sauce?"
"Yes, but only a little."
"Can you eat papaya salad?"
"Yes, but only a little."
"You would like to have a Thai wife?"
"Yes, but only a little."

A real Khene player

Just found out about Jonny Olsen. He first went to Thailand in 2003 and fell in love with khene music, the traditional instrumental music of Lao and NE Thailand (Isaan). He has since become so great at playing the khene that he has even won contests in Thailand.

VOA has a report on Jonny, who will be kicking off his first US tour

2008-0214 - VOA - Ketsana Promotes Jonny Olsen's New Lao Music Album

Ketsana Promotes Jonny Olsen's New Lao Music Album
By Dara Baccam

Lao-American artist Ketsana Vilaylack, who was dubbed "Lao Madonna" when she first started singing in Chicago in mid-1980 and since then has released nine albums--mostly in English, took a break from her 20-year career, to manage and helped American artist Jonny Olsen in the production of his all Lao Folk Songs album, "Jonny Yak Pen Kon Lao."

21 year-old Jonny Olsen first saw and bought a replica of Laos' national musical instrument, the Khene, during a trip to Thailand in 2003. He fell in love with it and was so excited to play it. Upon returning to the U.S,. he got a real khene as a gift from some friends who saw his excitement and eagerness. Jonny went back to Thailand, found a teacher to teach him to better play the khene and sing in Lao. After a few months, he released his first album called "Fa Rang Yak Pen Moh Lum," in 2005.

Jonny wanted to make and all-Lao folksong album, so he searched the Internet and found Ketsana, who agreed to help him and became his manager. Ketsana sent Jonny to Laos, where he stayed for 3-4 months with popular Lao singer Daraphet and her family, making his album with Daraphet's son Mee of Mega Studio, who is a producer and sound engineer.

Jonny's latest album is due to come out this weekend, and Jonny will kick off his USA tour promoting it in Seattle at the Hollywood Casino on Saturday, Februay 16.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thurday Thirteen for Valentine's Day: edition #3

Thirteen Things about My Valentine's Day

1. I did not receive any Valentine's cards

2. I did receive a rose

3. I did not receive any chocolates

4. The boys in the office did treat the girls to 'Happy Hour,' where we had Korean bar-be-que and beer

5. I received this text message: Happy Valentine's Day! I wish u healthy, good luck, good night and sweet dream. i miss you so i will dram to you. see u in next 3 hrs from a friend's son. He's a medical student and I've been funding his tuition and English language training.

6. I enjoy watching Lao people celebrating Valentine's Day. They really enjoy the roses and gift-giving.

7. The first few Valentine's Days I spent in Laos, no one did anything special, especially upcountry. Everything was just too rough - no running water, electricity only at night, horrible roads so it took a long time to go anywhere. Suddenly, one Valentine's Day (I think it was in '98), the director of one of the hospitals drove up with another friend to solemnly deliver a rose. Roses were rare back in those days - I think it had to have been flown up from Vientiane. It's probably the best Valentine's gift I ever recently because it meant so much.

8. I don't miss not getting chocolate. For some reason, chocolate produced in SE Asia has the appearance, texture and taste of wax. More to be given and not eaten.

9. I'm running out of things to say. Valentine's is not that big a deal for me.

10. Oh yeah. Most of my Valentine's greetings came by text message. I didn't realize that the inbox on my phone is so limited (I have an old generation phone), so if I save any texts, I can't receive new one.

11. Regarding #10 - that meant I missed receiving the one million text messages from my admirers.

12. I posted a Valentine's picture of kids settling up a Valentine's display in front of a beauty shop. Check out my main blog for the day. They really looked like they were enjoying themselves.

13. We're extending Valentine's Day to Friday when someone convinced me (while I was tipsy)to agree to support the regular Friday Happy Hour. We're going to do it at a restaurant on the Mekong River where we can watch the sunset and talk about Valentine's Days past.

Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others comments. It’s easy, and fun! Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

Happy Valentine's Day

When I lived in the US, I thought that Valentine's Day was pretty tacky, just an advertising holiday - but over here, I enjoy the goofiness of Valentine's Day.

valentine, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I ate lunch at this cafe today. It's at the back of a tiny lane, which can be easily missed if you don't know what you're looking for. The seating area of the restaurant is actually the lane itself - but since the family lives in the house that forms the dead end, there aren't any motorcycles racing in between the tables, trying to get somewhere else. The food is simple and very inexpensive - just over a dollar for fried rice with a fried egg and a cup of hot coffee.

Since I went over there towards the end of lunch hour, I didn't expect that there would be many people in the shop, much less people I knew. The lane is right across from the Ministry of Health so I met a few people I hadn't seen for quite some time. They were happy to see me - they thought I had returned to the US. "No, I've just been in the provinces all the time."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The cats finally decided that the large laundry basket, padded with soft dirty clothing, was much better than the cramped bicycle basket. Fortunately, I don't ride my laundry anywhere and doing wash is always something I gladly put off for another day.

Monday, February 11, 2008

I wish my recertification tests were like this... - Name That Disease

Hummm, the one I got wrong could have been another disease.


waiting for a fare, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cats in control

This is why I can't exercise. I was planning to go on a bike ride today - the cats had taken over the bicycle. I couldn't bear to disturb this scene.

A social weekend

This has been a very social weekend. I spent most of the day yesterday with Hmong friends from the US, visiting their Hmong relatives whom I haven't seen for a good long time. Today, I relaxed with a Lao friend who had married a French friend last year. It's not often that I'm in Vientiane when other friends are around, so it was nice to have this opportunity.

I do realize that I've been more of a homebody over the past few years. First, I do have to spend time on the weekends studying for my MPH program. Already I've been at it for four years; it's been difficult to find the time, even when I've adapted some of the content so I can teach my staff. And I don't like going out at night any more - I get too worried about the traffic and the motorcyclists who get crazier and faster all the time. I've also become more introspective in my old age.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Sunset on the Mekong

After spending most of the day at a friend's house, I sat with other friends at a restaurant on the Mekong River. Several of these boats went by - they carry on all the commerce on the western side of the country, where the roads aren't so good. Many tourists like the idea of floating down the Mekong from Louangprabang - thought it can take two days. In any case, the boats make a beautiful silhouette against the sunset.

Book #9: The Biographer's Moustache by Kingsley Amis

After reading The House of Meetings by Martin Amis, I was interested in reading more books by him. At Dasa, my favorite used book store in Bangkok, I found several more books by him as well as books by his father, Kingsley Amis.

In the Biographer's Moustache, a journalist named Gordon Scott-Thompson hits on the idea to write an in-depth biography about a writer of several grade B novels and poems. Jimmie Fane, an upper-class type, agrees, thinking that it will raise his standing at the club and finds it amusing that it might stimulate a revival of his books. The biographer/ subject relationship becomes uncomfortable close, but Gordon finds that the wealthy seem to get amusement with toying with him and other 'commoners.'

One review I read said this was not Amis' best novel, so I'm interested in reading others. His style is snappy, and his characters are swiftly draw. He writes humor well, although a lot of the snips about classes in the UK were kinda obscure. While his original characterization of Gordon is not that favorable, Gordon does grow during the book. He finds himself in situations created by Fane, which make him weigh what he is doing (even when he considers what the right thing to do would be, and then goes ahead and does the wrong thing). In some of the text, the omniscient narrator knows what Gordon is up to, and describes Gordon's actions as a unwinding mystery to the reader.

From Fantastic Fiction I found this short biography:
Sir Kingsley Amis, who died in October 1995, was born in London in 1922. In 1954 his first novel, 'Lucky Jim', burst onto the literary scene with extraordinary force, gaining him instant fame and notoriety as one of the most prominent of the so-called 'angry young men'. He went on to write over twenty novels (winning the Booker Prize in 1986 for 'The Old Devils'), and many volumes of poetry and non-fiction. He was knighted in 1991. His last novel, 'The Biographer's Moustache', was published in September 1995.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A glow in the morning

orange flowers.jpg, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

In spite of tradition, I decided to duck out of the party early last night. The party itself was overwhelming - the tables were practically creaking under the weight of the food and bottles of beer on each. The main courses were roasted pork, deep fried spring rolls, salad made with thousand year old eggs and covered with mayonnaise (I think that was supposed to be a concession to health), spicy internal organ salad, beef stew and khao tom

Khao tom requires special mention since it's a special holiday food. It's made by pouring sticky rice, a mixture of ground beans and pork into a banana leaf tube. The tube is tied up with thin bamboo strips and the whole thing is steam under the rice expands, the pork is cooked and the whole thing has the weight of a brick. It's really dense food and the sticky rice is very sticky. In spite of the weight, you could press it to the wall and it would stick there...forever.

But it is really delicious. I enjoy eating a slice or two, especially if I don't have to eat anything else.

Anyway, when I arrived at the party, I sat down with several women whom I didn't know. They barely talked to me, or to each other, but they went through a whole plate of the khao tom, drank a bottle of beer each and devoured the other dishes. And when they're mouthes were not full, they keep commanding me to eat more.

I was so stuffed that I made my excuses and went home early, well earlier than midnight. I heard the sounds of the firecrackers from my house. I guess I didn't auspisicize any houses this year - but when I explained this morning, all my friends understood. One stifled a yawn. "We were up till 3 am. The party just went...forever."

My second Thursday Thirteen

Thirteen Things about What I like about where I work

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.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The New Moon of the first Lunar Month

So Happy Vietnamese, Thai Dam, Hmien and Chinese New Year! I'm sure that there are other groups that celebrate the new year on this day, but I'm just listing the ones I know. People in Xieng Khouang are already getting together to kin khut. I'll be going downtown this evening for parties, and see where I end up at midnight. It's good luck for an honored guest to be the first one to enter your house after midnight.

Morning walk in the fog

The fog came down very thick this morning, so my morning walk felt like it was underwater - wet and mysterious.

That's the rising sun in the water, not the moon!

The highlighting of the cobwebs by the fog was amazing. I took picture after picture of bushes and dried-out plants along the road. People passing by stared at me, trying to figure out what I was taking pictures of.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A couple of pictures from this morning

I like getting up early in the morning, though at this time of the year, it's still dark until nearly six a.m. I got up and walked outside around 5 am, when the stars were the clearest and all the roosters in the neighborhood and across town were making such a racket, they were waking everyone up. I was amazed to see Venus and Jupiter - they were so close together, they looked like a double star, or a planet and moon. Very beautiful.

Since I was up, I got out for a long walk in the morning. Here are a few pictures.

morningroad, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

stairs, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

This is a stairway leading to the back of the Buddhist temple, where the older buildings are located.

garden in morning, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Book #9: The Biographer's Moustache by Kingsley Amis

After the heavy meaningfulness of the previous book, this book is delightful and light hearted. I'm now looking forward to stretching out on the bed and chuckling with it.

Monday, February 04, 2008


big pine trees, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Strange but true, I took this picture this afternoon in Phonsavan. Our guest was staying at the old French hotel, a series of cottages on the top of a hill, surrounded by pine trees. The air was so full of piney freshness and the wind was blowing through the trees; for a moment, I thought I was in Montana.

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.

mountains and flower, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Plum tree in bloom

plum blossoms, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

The tree in my yard in Xieng Khouang has suddenly taken off in blooms. Anyway, this is the time of the Vietnamese New Year and people cut branches to display in their houses, to symbolize the hope for the coming new year.

Some notes from 30 jan 08

getting a ride.jpg, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

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.

Book #8: The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

This is the first book of Pamuk's to be translated into English, which started to bring this extraordinary Turkish writer to international attention.

It's a very strange book, which I started several times before I got a handle on what was going on, and then I couldn't put it down. A Venetian scholar is captured by Turkish sailors while returning to his home. He is imprisoned, but through his knowledge of science and medicine, escapes hard labor. One day, he is summoned to treat the Pasha of a chest ailment and meets his double. The Pasha gives he as a gift to this man, and the start of a strange and intense relationship forms the remainder of the book.

Orhan Pamuk was the first Turkish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize

He sets all his books in Istanbul, during different time periods, and the city itself is as much a character is his books as the humans who act upon themselves in its landscape. He writes about impersonations and identity. Although he is not a political writer, his work touches on politics. And this has gotten him into trouble, for the comments he had made about the Armenian genocide, for which he faced a jail term. He was pardoned, possibly as much a result of Turkey's desire for EU membership.

This book is not the easiest reading - but it's thought provoking. At the end I wondered "who was who" and the phrase, "Why am I what I am?" still haunts me.

Another review of The White Castle

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Book #7: The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

I've read one of Pratchett's books, Going Postal, which is number 25 of his Discworld series. I haven't been able to read more of these books for some reason - the writing seem forced and the humor obscure.

But I really enjoyed The Wee Free men, about a young girl who enlists some very strange allies in the search for and rescue of her younger brother. The funny parts are funny, and the descriptions of a world that is strangely intersecting ours are quite wonderful. I have the sequel on my iPod and I'm looking forward to reading that.

Book #6: Door into Ocean

I'm moving right along with my TBR challenge.

The Door into Ocean
tells the tales of two worlds - one very materialistic, where rank and wealth are based on metal and stone, and it's moon called Shorra, which is covered by a shallow ocean and inhabited by females, supposedly the descendants of "the Primes" who populated the universe for billions of years before. The world Valedon, is one of the 100 worlds of a galactic federation, which is united by visits by Malachaite, the envoy of the Pluriarch. When there is a conflict, he provides an objective solution which maintains the 'status quo' - while his solutions reduce the sense of conflict, they are not ethical solutions.

The conflict between the two is how Valedon and Shorra can exist together when their world views are so far apart. The various dichotomies are illustrated in a study guide. The ways that the conflict is shown in its human and Sharer forms revolve around two sets of people who lived on both planets. Through assimilation, they learn how to become more whole. However, the forces of those in power are threatened by spiritual realizations.

The final sections of the book are very powerful, with the face to face discussions between a representative of the occupation and a Sharer woman. They both see each other through their culture, trying to be fair, but never quite taking the last step. The representative of the occupation, and the soldiers from Valedon, don't understand the Sharers and consider them to be devious. The Sharers see the occupiers as sick, and don't realize how sick they are, and treat them with compassion.

This is really a fine novel, in which the world building is quite amazing and the characterizations are well crafted.
I took the overnight bus from Salavan to Vientiane on a different bus company. Unfortunately, the bus clipped a motorcycle about midnight and it took a few hours to sort everything out. The rider broke his leg and had a lot of scrapes, but fortunately, we were near a city and the hospital sent a truck out to pick him up.

Traffic makes me shudder here. Especially when driving at night - motorcyclists often don't have their headlights on, feeling that it increases gas consumption. And people drive after a night of heavy drinking. I've lost several close friends because of motor vehicle accidents in Thailand and Laos and I always feel furious when I see other people taking risks that can injure not only themselves but other people.

Once I got to Vientiane, I had a breakfast of pancakes, eggs and coffee and then went home to play with the cats and sleep. A friend who just arrived from the US wanted to get together but I just had to sleep. And I've got an event that I have to go to tonight.

Later in the evening update:
COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, opened a visitor center at the National Rehabilitation Center and showed the film, Bomb Harvest. The building used to be an old store room; I remember once going over there, trying to find some donated equipment that I wondered if we could fix. The building was a mess, falling down, and generally receiving anything that could not be used and which people were afraid to throw out.

The new visitor center is really wonderful - very open and airy with many pictures and stories about people who have been helped by COPE over the years, especially UXO survivors. I'm hoping that we can have an exhibition of our work there.

The movie was interesting. There were several story lines - following one group of graduates from the UXO clearance school, following the story of a bomb that had been found near a school, the story of a group of children who find UXO, and the story of families in the community near the bomb in trying to keep their children safe. Tthough there's a lot that should have been edited out - the drinking scenes were irrelevant, and they went too technical about the different kinds of bombs they were exploding, there was a lot of good information in the film and it really showed the dilemma of developing countries in dealing with ordnance left over from wars. It's a point that's often made but worth repeating - children who come into contact with UXO are dealing with stuff that was dropped long before they were born, even before their parents were born.

Unfortunately, I couldn't stay very long at the party. I met up with the friend of another friend, who has been doing some consulting in Lao but I went off in search of my Hmong friends who just arrived.

Friday, February 01, 2008

End of the week

Quite a beautiful sunrise this morning - streaks of cloud over the shoulder of Ta-khae Mt. with ruby red sky in the background. People moving in the half-darkness of the dawn - vendors pushing awkward carts, filled with vegetables with a weight scale balanced on top, towards the market. My landlord's nephew is watering the trees in the yard.

It's Friday, which I'm happy about, except this is going to be a moving weekend. Go to Vte on the overnight bus tonight, meet a friend of a friend tonight then head to Xieng Khouang on Sunday afternoon. Sometimes I'd just like to sit still.