Friday, November 25, 2011

Reporting in....

So, what's happening with that daft woman in Laos?, you may be asking...

I am in fine fettle healthwise, except for the arthritis and such vicissitudes of age. I have heard about other people having arthritis and admired their bravery putting up with it, but I've never really understood what it feels like and now want to tell all you arthritics how much more I admire you than ever before. The knee is usually stiff, often painful and sometimes downright dangerous when it sort of gives way under me, and I cannot walk very far, especially on hard pavement without pain, although I can still dance like a madwoman. Feels dreadful the next day, of course.

Shark cartilage tablets, keeping limber with daily stretching and flexing, plus Pilates every week seems to be helping. Kneeling is still almost impossible and the graceful sideways kneel that one must adopt at ceremonies here is out. People have to help me up after a long baci ceremony.

I've also had my first bout of Dengue fever, but a very mild one. It was really going around during August, the height of the rains, so I guess it's logical. We are all learning vast amounts about dengue as friends and colleagues fall to the disease, a few every month.

The big news is that I have really had it with the noise in this neighbourhood and am planning to move. The restaurants along the road are more popular than ever and stay open until 11:30 every night with blaring music and jolly patrons loudly revelling and revving their motorbikes at all hours. Add to that my immediate neighbours who start shouting and banging and clattering and spitting at around five am as they get their all day restaurant going right under my window. They've now installed a tv outside in the restaurant so they can watch loud melodramatic soap operas and shrieking comedies after work, making my peaceful evenings on the verandah impossible. And their six dogs set up a din every time any body walks past, or even every time a passing cat investigates the rubbish outside, so sleeping through the night is becoming rare, and getting back to sleep again is difficult with the knee and all.

So I am looking for something farther out, and simpler, and with a large unpaved block of land were I can get my poor plants into the ground. Now they languish in pots and plants here are better when they can be given full rein to do what they want. I am propagating stuff and even giving them away but yearn for a proper place to really garden. Somewhere a bit west of town, preferably on an elevation with a view. I'll keep you posted.

So that's enough complaining. Otherwise, work continues to be challenging and satisfying. I am finished with my yearly stint at Amantaka for now but have moved on to a lovely textile producing operation here called Ock Pop Tock, where they design make and sell magnificent traditional textiles, plus have a beautiful riverside garden centre where you can watch the weavers and dyers working and even take classes in these arts. My job is to improve the English of the staff who translate for the classes, conduct the tours,sell the products, and work in the cafe. This means I am learning a hell of a lot about natural dyes, silk production, weaving, traditional textiles etc., etc. And loving it...

I am also spending an hour a day with a group of kids aged from 7 to 16 whose parents want them to improve their English. I just have to hang out with them, play games, answer questions and occasionally try to teach them a thing or two. It is mayhem, usually, with a lot of shrieking and laughing, fighting and teasing, but they love to sing Incey Wincey Spider, Row, Row Row your Boat and the ABC song and to play a game we invented which involves tossing a pillow at each other and calling out an English word, letter or number according to which category I nominate. This forces them to learn and remember what they learn and lets off steam at the same time. I draw on the whiteboard and improvise like mad and they are actually learning a thing or two, but it's fairly exhausting.

I am still sponsoring and mentoring young people who want an education, so anybody who wants to help with this, please let me know as there is a never-ending supply of worthy youngsters with no money and I am getting rapidly poorer keeping up with it all. I do a fair bit of job placement as well which is both fulfilling and frustrating. The need for good English speakers is endless and there are very few who qualify, so the good ones can name their price and be picky about the jobs they take.

And now I am writing for a travel website called Travelfish, which is a great way to use all my knowledge and experience of this place, get back into a bit of writing and make a bit of money. The technical chhallenges of posting the stuff have got me tearing my hair out just now but I'm sure that will sort itself out. Wish I had one or more of my kids here to help.....

Social life is as busy as ever with a recent highlight being a grand Thanksgiving dinner on a rooftop terrace withh 36 people, lots of turkey and wine and candles and fun. I did the candles and flowers and we all had a ball and an awful lot to eat.

I am getting ready for the usual influx of visitors for the high season which is on in earnest now. I actually enjoy these visits so don't be shy if you are planning to come to Luang Prabang anytime soon.

OK, that's yer lot....

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry....

SORRY!! I am really sorry. Really, really sorry. Please forgive. It's me, not you.
OK, it was actually Facebook that came into my life and offered such easy, instant gratification of my communication needs that I got swept off my feet and well, it just it does.

But trust me, not a week went by when I didn't think of you and feel guilty and toy with the idea of just logging on, but the longer it got, the more difficult it became to know what to say.

Anyway, it's now nearly a year and I have just celebrated ANOTHER Luang Prabang Boatracing Festival with my beloved little village and, as I crawl out of the massive hangover that it caused, I vow to be a better blogger.

We won AGAIN, due to sheer guts and hard work, this time by a wide margin, and I say this not simply with sentimental admiration but with real pride in their achievement because I have discovered that the number two team (representing the big bank in town here), has NO local members at all, but consists of hired, professional paddlers from Vientiane, the big smoke, with a much vaster pool of talent than my dear little hardscrabble village of blacksmiths and rice farmers.

So I was honoured to be one of their patrons and to dance the night away with this motley collection of old and young, stubby and skinny, leathery-faced, sinewy guys who have shown us all the meaning of working hard for the sheer glory of your traditions.

Oh yes, they each get a share of the prize money which amounts to ten bucks and all the beer they can drink on the night.

I have been admonished by one reader to be briefer with my posts but can't really promise anything----sometimes I have a lot to say and I go on a bit.

But this will be brief as I have a lot to prepare for my return to work after time off visiting my family who gathered in lovely green, peaceful Vermont last month, just a week before Hurricane Irene tore through the place and left everyone feeling washed out, indeed. Love to you all, especially the washed-out ones, and there will be more soon as the mists of jet lag begin to clear.

And again, sorry!!!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

News from the infirmary....

You may notice a trend here. I only seem to blog when I am sick and incapable of anything else, but please don't take it as an indication of the priority I attach to staying in touch with the world.

Yeah, sick again, but, as in everything, you can't have ups without downs, and this is probably my penance for having had such a great time...

I know I have burbled on about the boat racing festival here before and could probably post the same pix and you wouldn't know it, but I have just had one of those quintessentially Lao days when I am reminded of how lovely and surprising and heartbreaking life is here...all over again.

We have boatracing every year to celebrate the climax of the rainy season and to placate the mythical river serpent, the Naga. As you do. Apparently, one year they failed to do it and things went horribly wrong, so it's a dead-set annual event now.

But it is close to my heart because the best team comes from Ban Had Yien, the blacksmith village, and this tough bunch of paddlers is captained by Bounlay, my Lao son Sommay's brother, and includes Sommay himself and his two nephews so it's a bit of a family gig.

I've told you about powerful little Sommay and his irrepressible energy and enthusiasm, backed by near-obsessive sporting prowess, and his brother is the same, only bigger, solider and quieter. I call him Captain Everything.

Any team he's on, he's the captain. Soccer, petanque, boat racing....because he has that steady, sure, strong character that makes you feel you're in good hands. (He's also a policeman, which is jolly handy at times.) He was there when I got really sick a few years ago and he was like a rock, carrying me to the car, lifting me into the hospital bed, taking me to the toilet, fer crying out loud, and handing me the paper, then lying on the floor all night by my bed with Sommay on just a thin staw mat. The man has character to burn...

And this year the challenge was huge. The team, sponsored by a rapacious and cynical hotel owner who makes a bundle every year by gambling on these boys but passes on very little to them, was under threat.

Other teams, trying to end "our" three year winning streak, had bought big new boats and imported paddlers from Vientiane and coaches from Thailand, so training was tough. Sommay would limp home every day, displaying his blisters and and calluses, saying, 'It's tough, Mummy...We trained so hard today...'

They had a new strategy, a faster paddling rate, which was very demanding, but basically they just threw themselves into it for the honour of their village.

They easily won a few races in other villages and their two smaller boats took first and third in their class, but the big race in Luang Prabang was tough.

The day started, as days in Laos do, very early. "Are you awake, Mummy?" came the phone call from Sommay at 5:45 AM. Somehow I got up, put on my Lao lady oufit, stumbled out the door clutching a cup of tea and got to the village in plenty of time for the special Tak Bat, the giving of alms at the temple and the launching of the boat.

The night before, I had been to an extremely soigne evening of exquisite Lao classical music seated in splendour by the Amantaka pool, and now here I was in the muddy village, surrounded by throngs of chattering village women in their best clothes, shiny synthetic 'sin', the Lao skirt, and all manner of blouses, in every colour there is, but never matching, and everything form rubber flip flops to high heeled jewelled slippers, each carrying the requisite container, supposedly a handsome silver bowl with classical scenes beaten into the surface, but usually an aluminium imitation or just a soup bowl piled with sticky rice, candies, cakes in packets, money and banana leaf-wrapped parcels of sweet sticky rice. I brought lots of garish green-dyed cakes which my little 'grandson', Ai had his eye on from the start.

Everyone squatted and chatted and waited, the paddlers appeared from time to time bearing bits of equipment, all decked out in their flouro-yellow-green outfits while we waited. A few of the village 'poor kids' scuttled about trying to grab treats from the spots around the temple where people had already left offerings, but were loudly shouted down by the good wives of the village.

Every now and again we would all raise our hands in prayer and then raise our offering bowls and then our hands again, but I have no idea how they knew when to do this as there was no audible or visible sign, but at last, everyone was down on their knees as the procession approached; the abbot, a small, spare, upright man with a permanently furrowed brow who always looks as if he has huge responsibilities weighing on him, and then the novices, all 6 of them, each one tinier than the next, with their big brass bowls into each of which we deposited a portion of our offerings---a bit of rice, a cake, and banana-leaf parcel or three, slowing only to dump the overflow rather unceremoniously into a big basket or empty feedbag carried by a person from the village for this purpose. The abbot had a neatly-dressed older man, but the novices were attended by kids from the village.

All this stuff, cakes, candies, rice, and money was simply jumbled in together and sorted later, first to feed the abbott and his lads and then given to the poor people, for whom this is obviously a banner day, as they get to pillage the offerings after the ceremony.

Finally, the boat was launched, the lads climbed aboard and churned up and down a few times uttering their synchronised war chants in harsh, urgent voices in time to their feverish paddle strokes and I went home for a nap to fortify myself for the real festivities to come...

In the early afternoon I wandered---OK, fought my way---down to the Nam Khan river bank through the impossible throngs of spectators, mainly locals and those who had teams from neighbouring villages, but many who just love a crowd, which is very Lao. Hundreds of people with no particular connection to the racing can always be counted on to make their way, usually in the back of someoné's big truck to the city with children in tow, to mill about, buy cheap clothing and toys, chuck darts at balloons, drink sweet fizzy stuff and lots of beer and simply love the whole experience despite the heat, the noise, the congestion and all that stuff that I hate.

Despite which, I was there and began the event, as usual, in the very elegant confines of a cafe owned by friend Matthieu, usually a quiet retreat for a special meal but today the epicentre of the action, being at the midpoint of the race. There I got into the spirit of things gently along with a passing parade of some of my dear friends from the farang crowd here, Anthony from Honkers, Thomas from Germany via Honkers, darling Brian, Francis I (there are two) from France and Daniel, a newcomer. Fortified, I slipped into the crowd and sat on the river wall with my rapidly warming Chardonnay next to a tiny woman complete with 18 month-old baby. They were having a whale of a time watching the proceedings, the baby having a treat of a stolen packet of non-dairy creamer and mum feasting on half a grapefruit, which are plentiful just now.

She was a gas, laughing and chatting away at me in Hmong while another viewer, a small man who I think was very drunk, clung to a palm tree and watched everything as if it were a deadly serious proceeding which would determine his own fate. He was interesting because he had double earlobes.

I digress.

Soon I knew I had to get nearer to the finish line in case the lads really did win as I was entrusted with the task of taking the official photos of the winners. But I ran into a group of my former students and dear friends, staff from Amantaka and lately members of my football team so I HAD to stop and buy a few beers (OK, a case) and celebrate with them and finally the BIG race was on and they streaked past in a flash of flouro against a flash of red in a dead heat and suddenly the world---well, MY world---stood still while my friends listened to the chaotic commentary on the loudspeakers as the finish was declared first a tie, then awaiting photo confirmation, then, hurrah! We Won!!!!

I strode through the crowds to the finish line and in the gathering dusk, watched as a sinuous line of 52 flouro-yellow-green paddlers snaked up from the bank, wet and tired but grinning from ear to ear as only Lao people can. Photos and hugs and jubilation ensued and I had my proud moment of walking through the streets with my lads, wearing the snake green headscarf around my neck to show that I was the mother/auntie of the team and feeling simply great.

After a block or two, I peeled off to let them enjoy their triumph and was congratulated at the wine bar where I had dinner and drinks and then tried to go home but got waylaid briefly by another group of kids that I know for a dance and a drink and finally headed down to my car, only to discover, at my friend Toui's restaurant, (he is also a Ban Had Yien person and one of my oldest friends in Laos) the solid figure of Bounlay, at last able to smile and relax after driving his boys to victory against rising odds, and now relatively pissed, I am pleased to say.

Also present was Toui's brother and Toui's girlfriend's leprechaun father and brother so I had to tell Dad what an excellent student his daughter had been in my class---this is a SMALL town--- and we all shared a drink and revelled in the warm bonhomie of the evening, a very Lao moment.

Then I ended the day as I began it, driving out the lumpy road oast the airport to Ban Had Yien to take Captain Everything home to his tiny, quiet village, where everyone was already asleep, resting up for the reality of the next day when they would once again be just another little hardscrabble village in the back of beyond, but with very sore muscles.

But now, a few days later, even before the euphoria of victory has drifted away with the cooking fire smoke, a goodly proportion of the team has already succumbed to fever, sore throat, chills, coughs and colds, including the seemingly bullet-proof Sommay.

They'll go to work anyway, sweating and straining and banging out knives and tools at the forge, as they've already lost income by spending so much time training and competing. Their poor bodies are simply worn out, not surprising when you consider the demands of the competition versus the poverty of their diet---rice, vegetables and only occasionally, a bit of meat, eggs or fish. The kids in the village all seem to have those rich, deep coughs that signal a deep infection. Malaria and dengue are everywhere this year. No wonder people get old so quickly here.

I think that next year I will consult a nutritionist and I will supply vitamins, huge amounts of drinking water and rehydration drinks. They never think to drink enough when they're out there training in the broiling heat, combining dehydration with borderline malnutrition, so it's a bittersweet scenario of sickness and celebrations. Welcome to the Third World...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Glub glub glub

That's a picture of me emerging from a wall of scarves--45% Pashmina and 65% silk !!!for 3 bucks, they're a steal!! And the title is the sound of me emerging from the watery depths of the rainy season, at last, with another report from the land of lotus and larceny, the most maddening and endearing place I have ever lived where I discover every day just how much there is to learn about these fabulous, frustrating folks----and about myself.

WEATHER...Lovely. Lovely rain now falls almost every day, sometimes at night, sometimes a gentle drizzle, sometimes an all-out bang-bang storm but always cooling and sweet and wonderful---right up to when it dries up and the searing sun comes out to steam us all into submission and the septic tanks fill up and seep their sickly smell into the heavy air.

The good thing, of course, is how everything grows like crazy. You can almost see it, I swear. My garden of pots out front is a lush tangle of ginger, coleus, bamboo, alternanthera, maranta, orchids, ctnanthe, gomphrena, lilies, bougainvillea, hibiscus, ferns, bromeliads and lots of things I don't know the names of...Also, of course slugs and slaters and snails and scale and ants and the odd cat. My hibiscus hedges are vast walls of green, dotted with brilliant red, that need pruning pretty much every week and the Bougainvillea that almost ate Luang Prabang needs daily snipping.

I have water pots and ponds with water plants and lilies growing in them and a few fish. I really want pretty orange and black fish, but Joy keeps bringing home bloody catfish that grow alarmingly fast. He doesn't see the point of fish one can't eat so he pretends he doesn't understand what I want. One of my big hotels, however, has lots of interesting fish in their ponds and seems willing to let me have some so it will be interesting to see how they get along with the monster catfish.

WORK...Yah, it's been busy. This being low season for tourists, it's high season for me. I've been flat out with two big contracts at big hotels, teaching staff and overseeing teachers from our school who've been teaching the beginners.

I would love to talk endlessly about the daily lessons I am learning about teaching, but I know the teachers out there would just roll their eyes and the rest of you would tune out, but let me just say that there is a lot more to this gig than verbs and nouns and lessons and all that.

The psychology, the strategies, the cultural awareness, the extraordinary devices I need to get things into my students' minds are probably worth a Phd or two. Attitudes to learning are extremely complex here where some parts of society actually fear and mistrust learning. Many people are so overwhelmed by how different English is that they just give up and others have never actually learned their own grammar very well, if at all. Lots of people have learned both Lao and English on the fly, just by listening and picking it up, so just raising the ugly head of grammar fills them with fear. The idea of a correct way to spell things is considered quite quaint here where there are several versions of the Lao alphabet. And given that there are no forms like ours for different tenses, I have to try to introduce the idea that words can take different forms to perform different functions. This is hard.

But the biggest stumbling block is how badly they have been taught in the Lao system. The poor darlings get hit with all twelve English tenses in the first few months of most English courses, and none of them have the vaguest clue how to use any of them. Including most of the teachers.

Oh, I could go on....

Anyway, the school is good, but we are only just breaking even and are desperately searching for funding to train another batch of ten teachers. Any ideas will be gratefully received.

The demand for English speaking staff increases here exponentially and we are nowhere near able to supply the people they need. But I plod on, now preparing a new hospitality curriculum to use next year.

And I am working at the Agricultural College helping their teachers to create an English for Agriculture syllabus. Great fun, actually. It's a long drive along a harrowing road up there and back three days of the week, but I am loving it and learning a lot.

DRIVING...Probably shouldn't say too much about this as the fainthearted among my readership might find it worrying, (that's you, Pete) but my kids have driven all over the place with me while they were here and didn't actually rip my carkeeys out of my hands and hurl them into the Mekong to stop me ever driving again, so obviously I am coping.

It's very Mexican here. Roads too narrow, too many vehicles, many badly maintained and here, the road is considered part of the living space of the village. People dry chillies and park bicycles in the road even the major north-south highway. Which is pretty much the only road anyway. So massive logging trucks, Chinese semi-trailers, smoky old motorbikes, bicycles, guys pushing food vending carts, tuk-tuks carrying six families and the monthly shopping, muddy tractors, shiny vans packed with terrified tourists and pedestrians--small children, dogs, pigs and ancient crones--- all share the scant space and do so without any evidence of alarm,any idea of basic road rules or an appreciation of how much room one needs to get round them or to stop when one comes around a bend to find a guy sitting on a neatly folded blanket with his tools spread out while he tinkers with a recalcitrant engine right on the pavement.

I approach this challenge with white-knuckled concentration and a never-ending stream of invective, advice, sarcasm and occasionally, howls of sheer frustration when someone potters to a halt right in front of me with no signals or brakelights, usually a motorbike carrying several people including a tiny infant casually slung ina a carrying cloth knotted over the shoulder. Sometimes I use hand gestures to tell oncoming drivers to get back onto their own side of the road, but mostly I just shake my head theatrically and mutter.

In Luang Prabang in the evenings, in the dim, haphazard lighting, the favourite pasttime, especially of the young and silly, is to ride around town, very slowly, on squads of motorbikes or bicycles, usually several to a vehicle, in groups and pairs for socialising. There is a lot of giggling and meandering and texting and shrieking but absolutely no signalling or awareness of the REAL traffic trying to get somewhere. This evening cycle promenade goes on, all around town from dusk till nine-ish---boys pursuing girls, girls taunting boys---and somehow, no one gets knocked over, even by irate middle-aged farang ladies bent on dinner and a drink after a long hard day at the whiteboard.

Then there's the total disregard for one way streets, despite the occasional crackdowns by police, so that one has headlights beetling towards one when they shouldn't be, or unlit vehicles ditto.

And wearing motorcycle helmets, a law in force for months now is only occasionally observed, despite daily and now nightly police presence, lurking fairly obviously in the same places every day and whistling people over for document examination, a stern lecture and the exacting of a fine---no receipt, of course---and still folks drive around with no helmet, or simply carry one in the bike's basket and look so surprised when they are stopped. This is not just girls with elaborate hairdos or devil-may-care youth---this is grannies and bureaucrats and yea, verily, policemen, who, of course don't get stopped. Even when they wear helmets it's only the driver and not the passengers, babies et al, and often the helmet is not done up or it's just a construction worker's hardhat or some such flimsy item and not proper protection at all. Lao people, someone told me, are some of the stubbornest people in the world. Amen to that.

OK, that's yer lot for now as I have a dose of the rainy season fever. It's just a low grade temp plus heavy chest so I am curled up with a book and a new pet---a tiny, scrawny, mewling ginger tom who has apparently been abandoned on my doorstep. As long as he outgrows his revolting toilet habits he may stay to catch our mice. May call him Bowser....or Boris, as in Boom Boom.

I will now crawl back to my downy couch on the verandah, watch the sun burnish the Mekong and listen to the stirring, throaty chants of the boat racing teams training for the upcoming festival, wiry brown arms stabbing rhythmically at the river with fifty paddles in perfect unison.

Wonder if a G&T is an antidote for this malady....Perhaps some research is in order.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Great Balls of Fire....

Spring in Laos can be brutal. The mighty Mekhong has shrunk to a turgid shadow of itself, the sand bars have stretched to vast deserts and only the best boatmen can navigate the treacherous rocks and rapids that have appeared.

Ashore, the teak trees are bare, the leaves black and fallen, crunching bleakly underfoot, rice fields are hard baked clay, weeds and grey stubble and gardens are full of the grim scarecrows of last year's marigolds.

The sun is fiery red orb and the air is thick with smoke and ash from the extensive burning off of fields in the hills. Folks here still practice slash and burn agriculture, despite the government's attempts to stop it, and this is the worst I have ever experienced here. Everybody is sniffling and sneezing and coughing and spitting. People who normally wear contact lenses can't because of the smoke and the ash and also the dust which is everywhere. The car is constantly coated in a thin beige layer and washing it is fruitless and frustrating as there is such low water pressure that it can only be done late at night or by the river. Not really a fun time of year.

Many neighbourhoods have no water, sporadic water or very low pressure. The nursing school has no water most of the time in the student quarters, but they have discovered an office building where there is a tap, so these sturdy country kids gather there every morning and evening for their usual shrieking, singing, laughing communal cold water baths together. It's right behind my house so it sounds as if this wild carry-on is in my house.

But it brings home to me how cheerful and persevering these Lao youngsters are; far from their home villages, living in big dormitories equipped with triple-decker beds, washing their clothes by hand, cooking outside on little stoves made from a metal bucket and concrete but having a whale of a time. The conditions they live in are so basic and the weather so revolting----hot, hot, hot except at night and early morning, that they'd have every right to complain, but they simply carry on, planting little gardens to supplement the big bag of rice they've brought from home,laughing and playing guitars in the evening, playing boules and eating spicy papaya salad and just living life joyously and fully.

So I can't possibly complain, which is annoying, as I'd like to sometimes. The good thing is that some rain has fallen, just enough to wash the sky clean for a day or two and everything is starting to green up a bit. My glorious bougainvillea needs daily pruning or it will swallow up the entire neighbourhood, my new ginger garden is no longer a dirt box full of scrawny, limp cuttings, but already full and green.

In February, my footie team battled on bravely to the semis, but went down in a penalty shootout to a very badly behaved side, finishing fourth in the competition, but that's not bad for a new team of young players with very little chance to practice together. We were roundly congratulated by all and sundry and I thoroughly enjoyed my personal victory march across the vast pitch of the national stadium to receive the prize money of $50. The coach snaffled the framed certificate, of course, and I spent the money and a lot more on a post game celebration which was a classic of its kind. The four playoff teams all went to the same beer bar where the winners let us all drink beer out of their huge golden trophy and we all promised to come back next year for another crack at the championship. Great night. The food arrived after most had left, of course...

Our little property outside town shares the bleak dry look of the rest of the landscape, but it still manages to look great to me as Sommay has been living there for two months, overseeing the building of our little caretaker's house and the beefing up of our fences and the building of a boules court, complete with grass roofed hut with tables and chairs made of teak stumps and much much more.

We recently discovered that the wonderful Pheng was no longer so wonderful. Things were not getting done, he was drinking heavily and entertaining dubious women on the premises and then Sommay's sister, Pheng's somewhat estranged wife, admitted that he was beating her and had done so for years. He chose this moment to insist that he wanted a TV and a phone for the house and grumbled about being asked to work, and finally, he had to go.

Sommay, being an overachiever at everything he tries, has done more in two months than Pheng did in two years, so the place is great! We have a new caretaker, who seems pretty good and when we have some money, we'll do more to make it a little peaceful retreat to get away to.

We spent International Women's Day out there having a massive fish barbecue with friends, mainly brother Bounlay's co-workers from the police department.

Sommay's foray to Thailand ended up being a fizzer, but he is now hotly pursuing a new course of action designed to get him to law school in Vientiane in September. So he is back home with me for now, being a whirlwind of accomplishment around the house.

Sadly, my other lad, Joy, is exhibiting a bit of halo slippage and we don't know what to do. He's showing a nasty, stubborn, sneaky streak that is making life very unhappy for us and he may just have to leave my employ if he doesn't shape up. He has, in fact, started a job elsewhere so I no longer pay him a salary, but he refuses to speak to Sommay or to apologise for his bad behaviour, denying that is ever happened, despite the fact that it is undeniable.

This is the last thing I need, with the culmination of preparation for my Low Season Teaching Program taking every minute and every ounce of thought and worry I can spare. Not to mention that I will be off to Florida soon to visit The World's Most Amazing Mother for two weeks before the hard work starts.

The school goes from strength to strength, but it's still a drama as to whether we will break even every month and be able to pay salaries. It's exciting, though, and we are very pleased with ourselves.

Various of my expat friends are already gone or going soon as we get closer to Lao new year in mid April. I am also decamping for two weeks in Florida. Here in Luang Prabang, there will be few students coming to class--not just for the three official days, but for the entire two week window---and a lot of mayhem about town with all the drunken parties, so it's a good time to get out.

OK, not an inspired piece of verbiage, but that's yer lot for now as work calls. The good thing about this horrid dry time of year is that it is watermelon season and we are awash in them---big round red juicy things that slake the thirst nicely as we watch the big red round sun drop into the Mekhong every evening.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

There's something happening here...

What it is ain't exactly clear...Remember that song?

Anyway,some things are happening here and it's high time I told you about it all....

For one thing, it's raining!! That DOES NOT happen in Luang Prabang in January. And it's raining quite heavily, in fact, after many days of very oddly warm weather, so I guess climate change has well and truly found this place, along with the greater mass of tourists from around the world.

So what else is happening? Well, some of it is weird and unprecedented, like the rain and the fact that I made my own breakfast today. I guess it's all just progress in the life here that I have come to love, but not to expect, because what I love most here is the surprises and the unexpected stuff, the daily discoveries and new possibilities as well as the unanticipated quirks and irritations and disasters, all of which are part of the deal.

Enough waffling. I can hear Peter saying ...And your point is....?!?

One change is that I have three months off from the hotel job as they go into their high season and need all hands on deck to handle a fairly full house. Staff are having their eyes opened as to what work really means. I pop back from time to time and am gratified by the warm reception and earnest entreaties for my return that I get from all the staff. Take note: If you want to feel good about yourself---be a teacher in Laos. Students are deeply respectful of teachers and have a very sweet disposition as well so you can't miss in the warm and fuzzy department.

Having time off is a pain in the finances, but is giving me time to concentrate on the usual enhanced social life of this time of year. Yesterday the Froggie segment of the expat community plus many non-Frog of us gathered for the annual 12th Night or l'Epiphanie celebrations chez our friend Francis, co-hosted by Gilles and Yannick of the famous LÉlephant restaurant empire who laid on the nosh. This means several things. One is the gorgeous gallette de Roi and other pastries they served (Yah, I had to nibble at the fillings and leave the crusts) as Yannick is a premier pastry chef. Another is the chance to be in Francis' wonderful house, an old French colonial building in soft mustardy yellow with a sweet little garden outside and many beautiful antique pieces inside. He is extremely knowledgable about Buddhist history and practice, especially Lao Buddhism, as well as being an expert on botanical matters. He's been here for years and is a charming fellow.

Shortly after this gracious gathering in the soft afternoon sun, I changed pace completely and headed out to a small grassy field in a farming area on the outskirts of town for the penultimate pre-semifinal practice of Suzy's Superstars, my premier soccer team.

This may be just about the biggest point of the competition, bar the finals, but it's only our first meeting with one of our new players from Vientiane, late of the national team, thanks very much. Another one arrives today for literally ONE training session before Friday's BIG one at the stadium. Talk about last minute...

Fingers crossed that we win this one and can then go on to the final in two weeks. When my manager isn't on hand, I can only actually communicate with one or two of the players and that in a fairly rudimentary fashion, so it's a fun time for us all making gestures and hilarious attempts at each others' languages. Crowds of small would-be Superstars hang around to gawp and giggle at the players and the farang lady.

The coach is a big lump of a fellow with not a skerrick of social graces and a voice that could skin a pig at a hundred paces, but the lads seem to like him and he's getting good results. He occasionally smiles but not usually until post game drinks are well under way. The late and casual arrivals of our star players makes us look pretty unprofessional, but I will say that we only have a big piss-up after matches and not after training, which is regarded as a mark of serious sportspeople in this town. I supply cold drinks at practice instead or take them all out for fruit shakes.

There's more that is changing and moving....The school is up and running for real now and we are half-way through our teacher training course, with three of our trainees already exceeding expecations and the other three not far behind. They will soon move from assisting in the classrooms to teaching under supervision and this means we can start several new beginners classes next month which will mean that we are finally making some money to cover our expenses, but so far only stuff like loo paper and lightbulbs and
maybe a phone.

I am preparing my roster of advanced classes in speaking and writing and will try a course in understanding what foreigners eat. Then in May, I will be flat out with Amantaka and other places as they go into low season and staff have time to study. The idea is that I will use two of our trainees as my assistants so can cover more than one hotel at a time. So lots of planning to do....

And lots to learn. It's fascinating how difficult it is to teach expressive language, idioms and nuances of meaning to people whose own language has none of these. They stare wide-eyed when I tell them about the different ways there are to say things with different sounds, references, impacts etc. I tell them that trying to learn English is like learning to juggle live fish, but even that image takes a lot of explaining and some fairly ungainly mime work to get across.

The biggest excitement is that the first of my darling children has finally made it up here and seen that Mummy is not actually running a brothel or living on rotten rice and snake meat in some hovel. It's been glorious having her and Alistair here, but much too short, of course.

They arrived on Christmas Eve in Vientiane, where I had an ex-student pick them up and whisk them to the bus station, not because they are not capable world travellers and grown up people, but because my student was so keen to help and because I wanted them out of Vientiane and on their way to ME as soon as possible!!! They came by bus to Vang Vieng,(a beautiful place currently being destroyed by yahoo tourists), where I met them, having driven down with my dear friend Mario, who had lived in Vang Vieng on an organic farm/community outreach centre there for 6 months and wanted to visit.

The drive down was lovely and the drive back was too, as it is almost all mountain roads with breathtaking views, hairy switchback turns, and roadside villages full of wandering -pigs and adorable naked children and people doing what they do despite the occasional semi-trailers or double-decker buses thundering through, inches from their front doors.

We stopped to join a Hmong New Year party of kids decked out in their beaded, pleated, multi-coloured finery playing a traditional courting game of tossing a ball back and forth----sounds simple, but is actually rather fun.

Later we stopped at another village where I have spent some time and where I had toilets installed in honour of Alice and Andy's wedding. There the headman and his family welcomed us with open arms and presented me with a stunning gift of a Khen---a traditional Hmong musical instrument about four feet long that looks a bit like a cross between an oboe and a crossbow and is played while dancing to its music, which is a somewhat doleful flutey sound. Along with that came a simpler bamboo flute and a small but beautiful mouth organ/jew's harp in it's own case. A full Hmong orchestra---I nearly wept at their generosity. Alistair being a musical wunderkind was able to play the flute and will no doubt master the Khen, given a bit of time.

Time being precious, we hustled home ---it's a six hour drive---and had Xmas dinner with my friend Ric and his Parisian houseguests and other friends, and then spent several days trying to see and do everything here, but of course not having enough time to do it all. We hit some highlights---Kuang Xi waterfall, Mount Phousi, a walk in the jungle to the temples and the seven headed Naga statue buried in the trees on the other side of the Mekhong, a visit out to our land for a goat barbecue with the family and a swim in the Nam Khan River. And dinners out, shopping, and a trip to my old school for a guest teaching session. Then we launched ourselves on another marathon drive, this time up to Luang Nam Tha in the north.

The first bit of road is pretty good, especially along the Nam Ou River. Then we did battle with the appalling stretch from Pak Mong to Oudomsai which is redeemed by the fabuous views out over miles and miles of misty green-blue mountains and more cute bamboo huts/naked babies/wandering piglet villages before we stumbled through the really bad stuff beyond.

Finally, and quite mind-bogglingly, we hit the last 37 kilometres, recently completed as part of a corridor from China to Thailand and it was utterly surreal. One minute we're crawling over jagged rocks and steep drops and massive potholes and the next it's like a modern road in any well-developed country. Like driving on whipped cream and actually quite eerie. Drove in top gear for long stretches. People living on the road were probably awed by it to begin with but now they treat it like any other road---a good place to dry chillies, stop and chat and live their lives. Flat places are at a premium up here so they use the road as part of their living space and somehow they survive.

The kids took turns not feeling well, but after a night in Luang Nam Tha, we left them in reasonable spirits planning to meander back down to Luang Prabang via various buses and boats while Sommay and I drove the 7 hours back by road, most of it in daylight. The nighttime driving here is nothing short of harrowing as people still wander along and inhabit the road as they do in the daytime, but sans lights. They seem not to realise that they are invisible until the last minute in one's headlights and they often putter along on motorbikes and bicycles with NO lights at all. The big trucks and buses just scream on through (Liberal use of the horn is necessary as a warning)and somehow no one gets killed. At least to my knowledge.

One has to juggle steering, constant gear changes, very slow traffic as well as big fast vehicles and somehow keep enough lights on to see the road and this gets hairy, I can tell you. So I drove and manned the horn and the high beams while Sommay kept his thumb on the fog lights that are the only way to see pedestrians. In most there are no proper verges to pull onto and in many the verge is literally through someone's house, so it's a tricky business, but a great test of one's reflexes and driving skills. Never boring.

Sommay is a great co-pilot. Never gets nervous, even sleeps through the most hair-raising bits, but otherwise he is useful---in rainy season driving he gets out and wades ahead through puddles so I can see the depth, and he murmurs "Hmmm, exciting..." when we hit an unexpected bump or encounter some idiot coming at us around a hairpin bend on the wrong side of the road. Once we saw a motorbike approaching and duly dimmed all our lights, whereupon the approaching driver simply turned his off completely, rendering him completely invisible in the dark. We laughed a lot. We make a good team.

So, it is definitely a new era in our lives that he is going to go to Thailand soon to check out the possibility of being apprenticed in a mechanical shop, learning all about car detailing, painting and panelbeating as we call it in Oz. He's also interested in a law career, so we'll see which one wins out.

It will be odd without him as he may end up going for the better part of a year, but I am sufficiently local now to look after myself in most things and I still have Joy---oh, dear---- and a friend of ours called Xayngeun will take over Sommay's room and some of his roles in the house while S. is gone. Xay is an ex-student of mine and his English is much better than Joy's so I will be OK. (My potted palm has better English than Joy, of course...)

Enough already, as even here in lotus land there is stuff to be done. Happy Greetings to everyone for the new year and the new decade! Remember, if you know anyone who can help me support Phone, the wunderkind medical student that I sponsor, I will be deeply grateful, as will the population of Laos when he starts to practice in five years or so.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


(This is one of Jack's pix from that wonderful visit, just so you know I can actually do this. Els and I are standing at the gate of Our Land and hope that now that I can do this that you will see more....)

I am getting complaints about my non-blogging, so I guess that means that some one does read these things. Only Anna will understand the title, but there you are....So MUCH has happened that I don't know where to begin....

It's now the last gasping, stifling, sweating month of the wet season and it's already raining less, getting dark earlier but still just as hot. The Mekhong is still high so it must be raining somewhere, but we are all hanging out for the cool crisp days of our short winter---November through January.

Work is hot and heavy as well, now that I am, in a sense, working at three different places.


This is the big event I suppose, as we now have a building, have paid our rent for five years and have had the place renovated and painted---well, we've knocked out some walls, added others and painted the inside. We all specified carefully the colours we wanted; dark blue for Marcel, peach for Claus and lime green for me. And we got light blue, pink and aqua, but we are delighted with our classrooms nonetheless. Well, Claus spent a sweltering day repainting....

Then we had to dig even deeper and find the money for a new airconditioner as the ones there were not designed for the larger size of the rooms. We are on the edge of one of the many pools that dot the western side of town, like wetlands that have been contained and once used for settling ponds to clean the ground water. Now they are just green ponds and ours is to be stocked with fish.

We have a maid to clean and two students who live there and look after the place and Claus and Marcel are already teaching several classes a day. Mine will start in November when I get back from Oz. We are planning to rename the school to fit our expanded outreach and plans for regional branches so we are now the Mekhong International Language Centre.

The hotel is finally about to open officially with a gala party next weekend, complete with motorcade for the governor of the province and all the dignitaries. We are still deep in workers scurrying to polish off the last of the finishing touches and a list of 'rectifications'----sounds very uncomfortable--- but I have at last a classroom there, too. And that's where a spend my days frantically devising the learning materials that cannot be had any other way---no, don't send CDs--- these are all custom designed for the hotel and our staff. I have figured out that since we can't get at the students during high season because the hotel is too busy, we will hold proper classes from May t0 September and the rest of the time do a lot of passive learning by making the training room materials---flash cards, games, reference books available and having a teacher there around start of shift to answer questions. Already seeing some success with this.

PASABANDITH COLLEGE And I still have to do two nights a week at poor old Pasabandith until my visa finishes, but that will be early December, so I won't have to do that for long. Yes, the wily Ping still owes me money, but this time he PROMISES to pay. Ha! Wait till he finds out that one of his former and one of his present teachers have decided to come and work with us!!! Claus is starting a full-time teacher training course soon so we are really moving into high gear.

MY SOCIAL LIFE Social life is still lots of fun, especially now when the fly-away expats start coming back. Tonight my dear friends Chris and Anthony are back so we're toddling off to one of our favourite haunts. And I have only just had time to recover from a flying visit from Charles and Thep.

The opening party at Amantaka will kind of kick off The Season. Mind you, some grumbles are being heard as the popularity of this place grows and costs go up, mitigated only by The Downturn, and Luang Prabang is no longer the home of the extraordinary cheap life for us expats. Poor us---can't go out for a sumptuous French meal every night!!

But the life is still wonderful. Now that I really am getting to know the place it has opened up even more and become even more interesting. Traffic is a pain in the arse, petty bureaucratic procedures are irritating, the lack of good cheese is tragic, but most of us thanks our lucky stars often that we are here. A few long-timers are muttering about having reached bliss-out and threatening to move home, but that's after nine and ten years here....

The ceremonies are sometimes quite wonderful. Next weekend is Ok Phan Saa, the end of Buddhist Lent, and it is wonderful. Everyone makes beautiful paper lanterns to hang outside their houses and then converges in the evening at the end of the peninsula by Wat Xieng Thong (our oldest and loveliest temple) for the blessing and launching of hundreds of little boats made of banana leaves and flowers and stuck with candles and incense. Absolutely beautiful.......

MY FOOTIE TEAM I seem to be getting more entrenched as my garden grows and my 'family' gets bigger and now I even have a football team. As in soccer. Amantaka declined to sponsor an employee team, but I went along to watch the boys play, joined the two teams and supporters afterwards for "one quick drink" that turned into hours of wonderful, beer-fuelled fun, dancing and laughing and eating until far into the night---there were still six of us at a night club at 1 AM----and the upshot was that I took on the sponsorship of the team. While we were still fairly inebriated they said they'd be called Suzy's Boys, but once we'd sobered up we decided on Suzy's Champions.

We have spiffy blue and green shirts and blue shorts for weekend matches and are already working on putting together a super team (Suzy's Superstars) for some serious competition. So far we play most weekends and spend the following week reminiscing about it, and we've got some good players. My coach, Bounlieng, has visions of grandeur for the super team but while we still have to play on lumpy, unmown fields with mud wallows that could swallow some of our smaller players we aren't holding our breath.

I, of course, pay for all this, but insist that after game drinks are their own responsibility. We have had some glorious celebrations; like the night they first got their Suzy's Champions shirts AND we won our first game. We danced and cheered for hours at a nearby beer garden and I was the Queen of the Night. One boy still kisses the front of his shirt and falls to his knees in greeting to show his gratitude.

The girls from the hotel often come along to cheer, but it's usually just me, roaming up and down the sidelines, conferring with Bounlieng, tidying up rubbish, handing out water and encouragement and enjoying the moments when the players leave the field and have to surrender their shirts for the next guy. I suggested they play bare-topped with a tasteful tattoo with the team name across their backs....but got no agreement on that.

Some of them have no proper shoes to play in and often share them, but that's a big ask for me so right now I have promised them bright red socks if they win their next game. Bounlieng is busy trying out new players from outside the hotel and we plan to start with proper practice and skills training soon. SO much fun. (Needless to say, my son Sommay is one of the absolute stars of the team along with my darling Jack....)

And finally, today we have had a big event which is the occasional push by the World Heritage people to clear away all the riverside restaurants, some of which double as residences and some of which obscure the view of the river. Only happens every few years but it meant that I had to go and tear down the fence protecting my garden. And I have been assailed all day by the raucous clamour of my neighbours moving all their noodle restaurant bits and pieces from the other side of the road into their yard and building a new shelter etc. RIGHT outside my window..... That's a pain but I won't miss the other places with their blasting karaoke and the heavy motorcycle traffic late at night ----mainly hallooing drunken youth and shrieking, giggling girls...My neighbours are only open during the day and their noodles are wonderful.

Speaking of which; I'm that's yer lot. I' ll see the Oz lot of you soon.