Friday, May 30, 2008

reflection and voices

reflection, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

We had a wild trip to get out to Ta-Oi District but after all the activity of the day, requiring that I keep up a constant stream of explanation for our guests, I got a chance to slip away and listen to my own voice. By being quiet and still for a little while, I found the voice in my heart.

Often when people come out to a remote area like this, they're at first charmed by the natural beauty and they talk about the simplicity of life. Well, it's true but spend a few days and things don't seem so perfect. People tell the same stories over and over again and the youth complain about no jobs, no action and no fun. They turn their backs on the scenery and watch satellite TV. And then a visitor might want to hate it.

Bouncing back and forth between these two extremes, one arrives at the middle. Life is changing but people are still in poverty. One of our trainers explained about the number of children he saw with malnutrition. But people persevere - they struggle to make their lives better for their children. They maintain the customs and stories that give that struggle a meaning.

I thought about that, and more as I watch the shadow in the water, and the man being tugged along behind it. There are no easy answers in the world, only the effort to make sense of the questions.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Skywatch Friday

About a month ago, people gathered on the sand bar on the Mekong to make sand stupas. These stupas represent Mt. Meru, the center of the Buddhist universe. Some people make very elaborate stupas with stairways and decorations; others were just piles of sand. For any of the stupas, people incorporate representations of themselves - usually making small mounds representing ten years of life (if you're older). People place prayer flags on the stupas and cover them with sweet smelling talcum powder.

And like the message of Buddhism - all compounded things are transient - the Mekong washes them away as the waters rise. The storm clouds over Thailand tell us that more way is on the way.

This picture is near my house in Vientiane, again on the bank of the Mekong River. On the other side is Sri Chieng Mai in Thailand.

This is my contribution to Skywatch Friday which is hosted over at Wiggers World

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Burma news

The past few days I've been very busy so haven't been writing so much. And along with writing goes blogging, which is distressing because writing short things is amusing and gives me a chance to relax my mind.

The world recently has not been relaxing. If someone hasn't heard of the tragedies in Burma and China... well, maybe too poor or too far from even a radio. Unfortunately, that might be a majority of the people in the world.

Laos is really doing its part, and I'm very proud of that. Yesterday, some of my colleagues told me about seeing some friends of mine from Mahosot and Friendship Hospitals, going off to provide emergency health care in Burma. There's a short story here, from the Vientiane Times. Some of the volunteers include the Director of Friendship Hospital, one of my best friends here, and the Director of the Anesthesia Service of Mahosot Hospital.

Some people may scoff at this 'aid,' especially since the Burmese junta has been so paranoid and uncaring towards their people by hindering outside assistance. And allowing selected Asian countries to provide aid is a political move. But on the other hand, as poor as Laos is, it still can help in some manner.

Friday, May 16, 2008

16 May Sky Watch Friday

We drove from Salavan all the way back to Vientiane today, and I was thrilled by the clear skies most of the way. The monsoon is starting and during the first month of the rainy season, the skies can be the most clear - during the dry season a lot of dust floats in the air, both from dust raised from dirt road but also from people burning and plowing the old fields in preparation for the current year's planting.

Above and below, the fields are starting to get filled up with rain water.

Along the road, there are other, more human sights. On the left, farmers are fixing a tok-tok, which is a two-wheeled tractor, used for just about everything. For plowing, metal treads are attached to the wheels but the treads can be exchanged for regular tractor wheels so the vehicle can be used for pulling a cart. When not filled up with rice or supplies, tok toks are the main form of transport for people, often seeming to carry most of a village to the market.

This is the regular bus that goes along the rougher dirt roads in the province. It's an old Russian transport truck with a new body. The seats are made of wood, and there are no windows. The shocks are awful and there is constant dust in the vehicle - however, Lao people are patient and always make the best of everything. People generally laugh and tell stories during the uncomfortable ride, knowing that you can make anything tolerable depending on your attitude.

And the final picture of the day - looking east towards the Vietnamese border and the mountains north of Tha Khaek. It's very peaceful looking now - but during the 'Vietnam' War, which spilled into Laos, bombers dropped an incredible amount of ordnance on these hills to try to cut the many roads that made up what was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Although we left at 8 am, we didn't get into Vientiane until 10 pm - we stopped at another province hospital to visit two people who were injured in UXO accidents. This took a little more time than we expected as we spent some time talking about treatment and follow-up plans for them.

This is my contribution to Skywatch Friday which is hosted over at Wiggers World

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Voice #15 - loss of voice

Too much work this week. Some of my staff are acting clueless, and it's taking a combination on sitting on them and being supported to get any work done. The big problem today was trying to teach math to one staff member - who is a doctor.

I hated my voice when I talked to him today. I felt full of irritation and I felt my words in Lao were not beautiful, the tones too strong, rather than the soft fluid tones that make up the language. I took him through the few steps of the activity that he is supposed to follow-up on and sent him on some errands, related to the work. And made myself calm down.

My tones were much more relaxed in the evening. One of the things about Laos is that you can't stay frustrated for too long - the culture radiates peace and putting things in perspective.

This post was originally about catching up on blog posts - and now that is done for the month. So far, at the halfway point, there are a lot of things to consider about voice.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Voices #14 - Old house

Most of the houses in the district towns used to look like this - made of teak, originally roofed with thatch but then upgraded to tin sheeting. Now, the tin roofing is starting to fall apart which leads people to start to think about a new house.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of logging being done for export, so wood for use inside Laos has gotten more expensive. And anyway, many people are more interested in living in concrete houses now.

I can imagine how the old house is groaning, and probably muttering to itself with the same muffled words of my land lady (who chews betel and is difficult to understand when she has a mouthful of the stuff). "Those humans are so foolish - always abandoning traditions."

Someone might respectfully said, "But logs are scarce and ants eat your legs."

"That's when you should repair something, rather than throw it out."

Maybe another thing is that the voices of old houses are so distinctive that people would rather not hear their demands all the time. Now they are tuning into to satellite TV.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Voices #13 - The voices of nurses

Giving the voice to nurses is the way to improve health care.

International Nurses' Day was last week, but we just had a small ceremony for the nurses and a lunch today. The event was organized by the nursing administrator at the hospital and the Japanese volunteer nurse, and it was really quite a fun day. The nurses from each service put together skits or led songs that they had written on the roll of nurses.

Like most hospitals in the world, the nurses are the key to quality of care. They are the people who are closest to the patients and the families and tell the doctors when there's a dangerous change in the patient condition. They are the people who comfort a bereaved family or are the closest when something wonderful happens - the birth of a child or the results of a successful treatment.

We've been doing quite a bit of training to support nurses. During this past year, we've been supporting the province hospital level nurses to go to the districts to lead training activities. This has both improved the confidence of the province nurses to be trainers, but also it provides cost-effective training for staff in the district hospitals.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Voice #12: Conversations between the mountains and clouds

The skies after thunderstorms can be so intense. The old mountains here extend from southern Laos through northern Cambodia and NE Thailand. The stones for monuments like Wat Phou and Angkor have been dug out of these hills - red laterite stone.

It seems like the clouds and mountains are always communicating. The voice of thunder shakes the hills, drenching them with water. But the hills don't cower and shake under the forces of weather. You can tell by their body language that they are not budging.

However, this mountain couldn't talk back to one force - the forces of man. During the 'Vietnam' War, a radar tower was built on the top of the mountain. It was eventually destroyed, though there are still remains. In spite of the sheer cliffs, the site is surrounded by barbed wire, old weapons and land mines. It would be nice to go up there for the air and the views - but no road and too dangerous!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Voices #11 - children's voices

While I was making dinner, I heard children before my house. I found it funny that even without looking out, you can tell children's voices from adult's voices, and even more amazing that Lao children have a certain quality of their voices which is different from European kids.

I listened for a while, trying to determine the difference. Kid's voices can be more shrill, definitely the tones are higher. Their words sound like peeps, like little chicks. It's a wonderful music.

The picture above is of the kids playing along the old air field. They come from the houses at the edge of the field and they wander around in small groups, usually with an older kid watching over them. They look for small animals and make up games in their own universe. There's a blog post called Wonderment , about how children are so amazed by seeing the world anew and how the world would be a better place if adults could see things as fresh as children can.

So even though the playground is a lot, I also heard the exclamation points of surprise and wonder as the children called to each other. "I found a flower." "Look at this stone!"

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Voice #10 - what kind of voice would flame trees have?

flame trees 10 may, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

The flame trees just get gawdier and gawdier. With the gray of the rainy season, they stand out against the background. When our gray truck is parked under them, the flowers fall on the truck, making it look like it's all decked out for a wedding.

If they could talk, they would have a voice that yells, "Gotcha! Can't get more obnoxious than me!" and it would be hoarse, and loud and full of life.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Skywatch Friday for 9 May

Last Saturday, I took this picture. I might have saved it for posting today; however, I just couldn't wait. I did do a few funny alterations using this website I found - Dumpr.

Pretend museum, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

The committee that determines the number of clouds in the sky and the lighting effects had a meeting. That's how I captured the beautiful effects of sky and rice fields last Saturday. This picture was enhanced using

On Monday, I flew from Xieng Khouang to Vientiane on the national airline. The planes are small (60 seats) propeller planes but they do stay up in the air. These are clouds covering the mountains about halfway through the half hour ride.

My last photo is of the rice fields just north of Pakse. The overnight bus left Vientiane later than usual so we were about an hour late to Pakse. It didn't bother me too much - just more light to take pictures of the dawn and rice fields.

This is my contribution to Skywatch Friday which is hosted over at Wiggers World

Voice #9 - sunset whispers

sunset from office, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

After my overnight bus ride, I arrived in Pakse feeling quite beat. I had a lot of work to do - meeting with our government counterparts and working on a training on infection control scheduled for the end of the month.

I managed to sleep during the drive from Pakse to Salavan, which was sad - the landscape is so beautiful, I don't like missing the views and the changes of weather.

Finally I did some work at our office and then spaced out, watching the sunset, until a little voice whispered to me. "Time to go home."

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Voice #8 - An innocent conversation?

trafficking poster, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

A young man chatting up some young women at the bus station.It's probably just an innocent conversation. While waiting for the bus, there's really not much else to do.

"Where are you from?" the young man whispered.

The two sisters look at each other before shyly answering. "From Ban Nawk." Noy tried not to look at his face but his eyes seemed to drew out something in her.

"Have you been traveling long? You must be hungry." And he drew out some cakes from a bag he was carrying. "My mother packed so many things for me to eat on the bus. You know how mothers are."

The sisters laughed and they both decided that he couldn't be a bad man. He was so nice.

On the wall behind them is a sign warning about the dangers of people being too friendly, offering jobs for high pay for unskilled work. When the young man casually said that he knew of some jobs, the two sisters got up and thanked him and got on their bus.

Was it a close call or not? Was he just trying to be friendly?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Voice #7 - my landlady and bananas

bananas, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

I often hear my landlady talking about me in the morning. In her voice, muffled by the betel mixture that she chews and punctuated by spitting out some of the red saliva, I often hear her talking about my cats, and how diligent I am in putting up with traveling all the time.

She usually putters around the garden under my window in the early morning, around 5:30. Around six, the drum and gongs ring for the second time at the Buddhist temple next to my house. That's when Mae Thao gets dressed and goes to the temple. In the meantime, the monks have made their morning rounds and my landlady and other people in the community make their offerings to the monks, chant and then eat together.

This morning, before I went to work, she gave me this bunch of tree-ripened bananas from a tree in my front yard. The bunch is so freshly cut that you can still see the beads of sap on the stalk.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Voices #6

Still feeling under the weather but the trend is progressing in a positive direction. I don't have a television so when I don't feel well, I listen to audiobooks. In fact I list to the spoken word on my iPod, or sometimes my computer, quite a lot. Takes the boredom out of long bus rides, and I exercise while listening to a book I've been meaning to read.

Last night, I listened to the "Adventures of Tom Sawyer." The narrator, Patrick Fraley, is a delight to listen to. Every character has a distinctive voice and manner of speaking. He's one of the few readers who can pull off a Southern accent, the voice of a drunk, the voice of a young boy - and amazing enough - sounds natural both as Becky Thatcher and Aunt Polly. Often, audiobook readers just can't do women - but Patrick Fraley can 'do' anyone!

Outside of the ease of integrating reading into other activities, I like audiobooks for other reasons. Stories were really made to be told out loud, maybe around a fire. I know a few families who read together, which becomes more difficult as children get older. But stories are made to be listened to and acted out. In lieu of having a fire and a tribe, I listen to the stories on my own.

The way that people read also give meaning to stories. On the Classic Tales podcast, B.J.Harrison has a beautiful voice which can sound very evil, setting the scene for the remoteness and mystery of the jungle in his reading of The Heart of Darkness.

So, last night, I listened to Tom's telling of the 'dream' he had of Aunt Polly when he, Joe Harper and Huckleberry Finn had hidden on the island, having gone away to play at being pirates. Or Indians. Or boys in their prime.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Voice #5 and Lao airlines plane

Lao airlines plane, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

This is a Chinese made M-60, a 60 seat prop plane, which are the planes that Lao Airlines is mostly using between Xieng Khouang and Vientiane. Although they have had a good record for staying in the air, it can get a little hairy when the plane hits turbulence. Keeping the plane up in the air is also helped along by my voice - alternating "Om mani padme om" with "Please stay up in the air."

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Preview for SWF

These rice fields are right by downtown Phonsavanh. I've taken a lot of pictures of them through the years, during growing season, start of the rainy season, harvesting and dust season. They view always takes my breath away with their beauty. I'll move this picture up to Friday for SWF - it's just too beautiful not to post right now.

Voices #4

The monthly challenge for Nablopomo is "voices," interrupted however you want. There are the voices we hear, the conversations we have with ourselves, and conversations. "To give voice" also means to empower someone, making that person's voice heard, to move them from the margin to center stage. One of the upsides of globalization - and the internet - is the ability to communicate with people, or learn about other people, through this media. Anyway, here are a few links to some blogs where this happens.

Some links related to voices:

Voices of Youth - This looks like an incredible site. UNICEF has been promoting the Millennium Development Goals and this page presents both information about the MDG but also the voices of those who are affected by poverty, conflict and disability in different regions of the world.

Global Voices Online - one of my favorite blog aggregators. There are links to many blogs across the globe. Every day, they focus on a few blogs, and it can be about anything - how different bloggers react to something that has occurred in another country, or daily things that makes us understand the other more.

Voices from the Gaps - This website features international women artists and writers of color. Looks very interesting.

Voices for American Children - Advocacy for children's health and education.

BBC page on regional dialects and accents. My dial-up connection is too slow to explore this page so I'll have to come back. Learning to listen and understand people even when the accent is different (and you're supposed to be speaking the same language) can challenge many people. Since I've been around people who speak English as a second language, I can pretty much understand anyone who speaks English in any which way. It really depends on patience, listening skills and the experience of talking and listening to many people.

Just to illustrate: when I was in school, I was in a required anatomy course taught by a brilliant German professor. She really put a lot of things together that made sense to me. My classmates focused on the thickness of her accent. "Why did they hire someone who couldn't speak English?" I think part of the problem was content of the course, and many of the students blaming her accent for their lack of study habits. But they mostly came from a mono-lingual English background, with little contact with people outside their worlds.

Books for April

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

April: Moving along my list of books to read for this challenge. I really have to take a little time to write some thoughts about each. Some of the books I've listed on my Goodreads Shelf have short reviews but some of the books I've read deserve more lengthy reviews.

In the meantime, I've also read 13 books in April:

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez
The Farthest Shore by Ursula LeGuin
Terrorist by John Updike
Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Dandicat
Pakistani Bride by Bapsi Sidhwa
A Long Way Gone by Ishmail Beah
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
The Vision of Emma Blau by Ursula Hegi
The Door by Magda Szabo
The Gathering by Anne Enright

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

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 - XK
4. Ammonite by Nicola Griffith SLV
5. The King of Torts by John Grisham XK
6. Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes Vte
7. Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury - currently reading
8. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West XK - starting to read; it's a big book about different times!
9. The Terrorist by John Updike
10. Farthing by Jo Walton - read in March
11. Wandering through Vietnamese Culture by Huu Ngoc Vte
12. Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith SLV

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Voices #3

I don't always listen to my body, but today I allowed myself to sleep late. My brain did try to give my body a nudge. "Isn't it time to get up?"

My body groaned. "Turn down your electrical activity. I'm sleeping."

Brain makes my body pick up my cell phone. "It's 7:30 am. You're late for work."

Body turns over. "You're deranged and hallucinating. It's Saturday."


I finally got up at 10 am, made coffee (which always makes Brain feel happy) and read. In the afternoon, I went downtown to the market and met up with the older sister of one of the people we've helped through our project. She sells freshly made tofu, for about 25 cents/ block. We chatted for a while and she invited me to their house. Still feeling tired, I asked for a rain check (easy enough in rainy season) and went to the office.

As I was working on the office computer, I suddenly got that feverish feeling - my body feels uncomfortable and my head felt hot. After shutting everything down, I went to a friend's store to buy juice and other staples for illness.

I dropped into bed after finding the thermometer. Body wanted to jump up and down and yell at Brain, "I told you so!" when I saw my temperature.

Brain knew enough to shut up. We'll probably hear more about it later.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Voices #2

A distant thunderstorm caused a power blackout for a few hours. It reminded me of the way things 'used to be,' as I sat on my back porch. When I first moved here in 1996, we had only a few hours of electricity in the evenings, provided by two 300 kW city generators. If one of them was out of commission, we had electricity every other night. We got 24 hour electricity in 2003.

Back before the chance, there was less reliance on TV and CD players for entertainment. We'd have dinner at each other's houses and tell stories. I think that's how I became so fluent in Lao. The stars are now obscured by the constant light pollution in the city.

As I sat in my back yard, I watched the fireflies move through the trees. A Hmong family lives behind my house. Even though they have relatives in the US, who probably send money to them, they have not left their old one-room brown house to build a concrete one. They still draw their water from the well, not being hooked up to the municipal water system.

I listened to their voices as they sat outside in the evening, speaking Hmong. I love the music of the language and could tell that they were enjoying the dark as much as I was, talking about whatever. Often, the neighbors are playing Lao music, so the softness of the tonal languages gets obscured.

The storm moved on, without leaving any rain on us. I watched the progress of the thunderheads, moving in from the west but passing more to the south of us.

By ten pm, the lights had come back on and the modern world resumed.

Friday's Skywatch

I went to do some shopping in the late afternoon. The weather looked fine, so I left my windows open and the wash on the line. The clouds to the east looked fine

After stopping in a few shops, I looked up towards the west and saw these clouds coming in. Since I didn't hear any thunder, I thought I'd could continue into the main market and get some household stuff.

This market is known as the "Chinese Market" since Chinese businessmen provided most of the funds to build this 'dry' market, which sells clothing, jewelry and household merchandise. The old market was in downtown Phonsavanh, and was really a mess. It was a collection of wood and tin stalls built on the ground. During the rainy season, the vendors would rig up plastic tarps and tubing to divert water from falling on the goods, but it would be difficult to stand up under this makeshift plumbing plus the system did nothing to divert the mud. The current market is much cleaner but it doesn't have the personality of the old one.

After shopping I looked towards the west again. The clouds were coming closer.

I headed home as quickly as possible, managing to secure everything before the rain poured down.

This is my contribution to Skywatch Friday which is hosted over at Wiggers World

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Another weird sign

Another weird cell phone advertisement, which does not clarify the mystery of what message these signs are supposed to be conveying.

Voices #1 - discussions with a spider

Today was a holiday - other than the images of young maidens dancing around a May pole, most people in the world as International Worker's Day. When I first arrived in Laos, it was a big ceremonial holiday - parades and speeches - but now it's a time for people to rest and go shopping.

Since I'm still hobbling around on my bad foot, I decided to do mental and physical rest. I read the novel, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, for most of the day. Every so often I'd hear this little voice under the bed.

"Don't you want to get up?"

"No, I'm busy." I know that there's nothing under the bed except for this gigantic spider.

"I'll get up on the bed."

"Don't you dare. We have an agreement." That means, he (or she) has soul claim to the mosquitoes in the house and their territory. To further clarify - ceilings, walls, under the bed and the bathroom. Everywhere except for my bed.

"Well, it's for your own good."

"My good is to remain supine. And remember, I have a weapon." I held out the hard cover book.

End of conversation.