Life on the Mekong and Other Rivers

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog, including strong statements in support of weinerdog-riding monkeys, are our own, and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A bit of a flashback...This is a picture taken at the Foreign Serivce Institute in Virginia way back in June 2004, moments after we found out we were headed to Laos. Damn that was a while ago. So young and impressionable.

And now, here we are.

I'm well on my way to becoming the greatest badminton player of all time (you all remember quest #3, right?) I've yet to buy my own racket, but once I do, I'll be unstoppable. Everyone knows that you can purchase superior sports ability by getting the most expensive equipment possible.

More (or less) importantly, depending on how much importance you place on my becoming the greatest badminton player of all time, I'm getting into the swing of things at work. Visa interviews continue to be a large part of my job, but I've been getting out a bit too to introduce myself around and get the lay of the land. Monday I visited a) the tourist police b) the police that accomodate visits to Americans in prison, and c) the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I made a new contact who plays golf. So I've got a golf date some weekend after our clubs arrive.

I also went out to the Buddhist Temple where we do cremations of Americans who pass away and whose families decide to cremate rather than repatriate the deceased. I met with the head Monk to thank him for his continued help, give him a new year's gift (Lao New Year being in April), talk about a bit of a strange case that may involve exhumation, and to talk about the problem of Visa fraud by fake monks. He was very thoughtful, old, and beatific. Very interesting. I'm going to visit a number of temples in the coming weeks to try to enlist them in helping us combat visa fraud by fake monks.

Anyway, tomorrow I'm off to the bridge that connects us to Thailand to introduce myself to the head immigration cop there. The bridge closes at night, but in the case of American Citizen medical emergencies, I have to get them to open the bridge so we can get people to the hospital across the river. We generally do not recommend that Americans avail themselves of the medical care in Laos if at all possible.

I'll let Katherine update you on her goings on.


I'm going to need a bigger wallet

The exchange rate is about 10,300 kip/$1. And the largest bill is 20,000 kip, which is just less than $2. As such, when one gets $200 in kip, it makes one a multi-millionaire (in kip), with a fat wad of cash in your pocket.

We felt pretty giddy about our windfall, even if it was only $200. At least Katherine didn't roll around on a bed in the cash.

Insight into Laos #426

So another emergency leave request from an employee story for you. It seems this employee's husband was following generally accepted driving norms and slowing down to stop at a red light on Friday. What a mistake that was. As he slowed down, two drunks riding a motorbike (without driver's license I might add) decided that stopping was for suckers, or maybe didn't decide anything at all, but in their altered state did not stop.

Instead, they plowed headlong into the back of said husband's car, injuring themselves and breaking their beloved motorbike. Seems a cut and dry case of stupid drunk drivers injuring themselves, their beloved motorbike, and the back of an innocent, law-abiding citizen's car, right?

Oh, the naivete...

Once the police got involved, they all had to gather for some sort of mediation or something. Hey, if there's one thing Laos has in spades it's opportunities for alternative dispute resolution. Anyway, the police listened to what happened, and this was their verdict....

1. Said husband's car insurance must pay for up to two months of medical bills and life maintenance expenses (in case the injured drunkards cannot return to work).

2. Said husband must pay to the injured drunkards 1 million kip (about $100) to pay for motorbike repairs and to pay for a Baci ceremony for the injured drunkards. A Baci is a ceremony for good luck. I guess the police figured that plowing drunkenly into a stopped car on your motorbike has less to do with the amount of Beer Lao you've consumed and more to do with bad luck.

3. Said husband's car was impounded for 4 days. He was told to return today to get his car back. When he did, he was told that he must pay 600,000 kip ($60) for leaving his car at the police station for 4 days. He expressed surprise, and mentioned that he was forced to leave his car at the police station by the same people who were now demanding payment for the right to leave it there. There's logic there somewhere. Said husband said that he would require a receipt, but of course no receipt would be forthcoming. Said husband then said he didn't have the 600,000 kip, at which point the right to be forced to leave your car at the police station for four days went on sale. At 500,000 kip, who can say no?????

So to sum up. If you are obeying traffic laws in Laos and are run into by drunken idiots on a motorbike, be prepared to pay for their hospitalization, their worker's compensation, their bike repair, and their good luck ceremony. It's really the only fair way to equitably deal with such a situation.

Knowing what I know now, I'm off to get drunk and drive a motorbike. Time for me to get PAID!!!!!!

Monday, March 28, 2005

Not Laos, but not bad

Okay, not a picture of Laos, but a cool picture anyway. That's Katherine in the foreground (of course) and Josh and Masha, friends from my A-100 (FS orientation) class. We went camping in the seneca rocks/nelson rocks area in west virginia last October and did the Via Ferrata, which is basically a route that has metal rungs drilled into the more vertical rock faces to help those of us who aren't expert mountain climbers.

Check out more at If you are in the east and looking for a fun camping trip, this is it.

Tat Dam ("black stupa"). It's right outside the embassy gates on a small road. It's really cool. Legend has it that the Tat covers a cave in which dwells a dragon that at some point in time helped the lao defeat the invading....thai, burmese, khmer, chinese, vietnamese, take your pick. I don't remember which, but at some point or another in history I think all the above-mentioned peoples have invaded laos. Anyway, not real long on details as you can see, but it's a cool stupa nonetheless. And it's right outside my office.

Electric Tennis, anyone?

One of the best inventions of all time. It's a racket form.

Probably wouldn't pass code in the states, but there is nothing more satisfying than than swinging the racket and hearing the familiar ZAP that accompanies an annoying mosquito's demise. However, we are relatively safe in Vientiane, as there (reportedly) is no malaria in the Vientiane valley.

Dengue Fever is another matter, but we're told that the Dengue carrying mosquitos are only out during the day. And Dengue isn't fatal. As one American who was posted here previously noted, Dengue won't kill you, it just makes you wish it did. BUT, the upside of Dengue is that if you get it, it's an automatic trip to Bangkok for medical care. Yippee! A trip to Bangkok...I think that's a good tradeoff.

Public Speaking 101

Some of you may remember that I was volunteered to speak to a group of American tourists that requested a briefing from the embassy. Well, here they are. It was actually a really great experience, and I think they liked it too.

Afterwards, I was presented with a 10-pack of Reese's peanut butter cups, a 10-pack of little Almond Joy's, a 10-pack of little Butterfingers, and a huge thing of Italian chocolate. I shared the Italian chocolate with the Consular staff, but Katherine and I are keeping all the other candy for ourselves. We're very selfish. The tour company that led this group comes through a few times a year, so there may be more candy in our future.

At one point a woman asked "when the Ambassador is out of the country, are you in charge?" I had to break it to her that it would take pretty much everyone at post but me to leave the country before I was in charge.

This place feels like home more and more every day

Katherine visits the green grocer at Thongkhankham. The merchant drove a hard bargain, but I think Katherine got away with a bunch of stuff for less than $2.

Again, fresh greens in Laos are our friends.

visiting the green grocer at Tongkhankham

Ta Laat Tongkhankham

Katherine leading me on a trip through Tongkhankham Market, the market that Vone has taken her to a few times. We were shopping for stuff for a brunch we hosted on Sunday. We opted not to buy the fermented fish, the pig's head, or any of the other strange things we saw for sale. We did get a watermelon, 4 mangos, a pineapple and a pomelo (my new favorite fruit) for about $1.90.

Fresh fruit is our friend here. I wouldn't say the same about the pig heads.

Seat belts? We don't need no stinking seat belts!

Katherine getting in to our most common type of transport, the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. From the embassy to our house costs about 10,000 kip, or a little less than $1. However, the cost for Lao people is probably something more like 2,000 kip ($0.20). It is funny when we hail a tuk-tuk, they usually quote a pretty high price to start, until we start arguing with them in Lao, at which point they understand that we aren't tourists. There seems to be a 3-tiered pricing system. Highest price for tourists, middle price for local Falangs (white people, literally means French), and low price for Lao. We've met a young guy named Djoy who runs a tuk-tuk out of his brothers tire repair shop near our house. So now we have his cell number and call him up when we need to go somewhere. We have door to door service, just like a car service in the states.

Christmas in March

Our first shipment of stuff arrives last week. It traveled by boat from San Diego, then in this truck from Bangkok. It was stuff we hadn't seen since last June.

Our car and 2nd shipment of stuff is somewhere in the Pacific on a ship called the President Polk, due to arrive in BKK on April 11.

For rent, cheap. Room and Board included.

Our spirit house, complete with water and diet coke offering

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Okay, HERE's a picture of the Don Chan. Brought to you, in part, by a site called I guess. I just used google and this was the only picture I could find. Honestly.

So here's the Don Chan Palace hotel, Laos' only 5 star hotel. Not a great picture, but the only one I could find online. And, as you know, we can't download any of our current pictures because our chord to connect our camera to our computer is somewhere in the Pacific on the President Polk, a ship carrying our stuff and our car.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Where they lay

By the way, I’m about 50 pages into a book that is very interesting. One of the main missions of the US government in Laos today is a full accounting of all the MIA from the Vietnam war. The Ho Chi Minh Trail led straight through Laos, and in our efforts to stop, or at least slow, the flow of soldiers, arms, and food from the North to South Vietnam (not to mention our support of the Royalist Lao Government against the Pathet Lao, the precursor to the current Lao Government), we lost a lot of jet and chopper pilots, and special forces sent to interdict the soldiers traveling the trail and to “paint” larger targets with laser guidance for bombers overhead.

In all there were about 500 MIAs in Laos at the end of the war. Starting in 1986, there has been a sustained program by the US military to repatriate ALL of the MIA from Laos, and they have found and identified about 130 so far. It’s really amazing, actually. Teams come in from Hawaii to research and identify dig sites based on US military records, interviews with local Lao who might remember where chopper or jet crashed (or have come across debris while farming or foraging), and even interviews with former Vietnamese soldiers who were on the trail South and might have witnessed something.

The Lao Government has been very open to the US gov’ts efforts, allowing 50 US soldiers at a time go out in the field (called a Joint Field Activity, or JFA). The soldiers are broken up into investigative teams and recovery teams. The investigative teams are the ones who try to determine where X is, that is, where a potential crash site, etc. is. Remember, this happened over 30 years ago in the jungle, and any large metal pieces were scavenged long ago. So they are looking for just about anything that might point to being the place that a crash (or firefight) took place. Once they determine where X is, a recovery team comes in and digs. Each dig is led by an anthropologist or archaeologist in terms of the technical dig, and each team consists of about 15 soldiers, usually led by a Captain. Each dig site also employs about 70-100 Lao locals, and the military also does humanitarian projects, such as building schools and clinics in the villages near the dig sites, in order to build some positive relationships and to encourage the locals to cooperate with the teams.

Anyway, I’ll hopefully get out to a dig site sometime soon, but I don’t think it’ll happen until after the heaviest of the rainy season.

But, I’ve just started a book that I’m told is a very good telling of what the JFAs entail, and why they are doing what they are doing. So far, it’s really good. Check it out if you want.

It’s called Where they lay. Click the link for more info.

"Anglo-Saxons do better in the tropics"

I know it’s only been 3 weeks, but I still often find myself sitting in wonder thinking about the fact that we now live in Laos. It mostly happens as I sit on our porch in the evening, listening to the nightly concert of bugs, birds, and lizards that combine to create a cacophony of sound for about five to fifteen minutes every night around sundown. I sit on the porch, often joined by Katherine, sometimes not, usually with Beer Lao in hand, and just wonder at the fact that our home is now in a country that most people in the US haven’t heard of, let alone know how to find on a map.

Life and work here is still quite a bit daunting, but I think I’m still in the euphoric stage of culture shock, where everything seems absolutely amazing, and while different from anything I’ve ever really experienced, the new sights, sounds, and smells of the place I now call home seem more exotic and interesting than annoying and maddening. I’m told that the annoying and maddening part comes later. But for now, it’s all good. I’ve yet to have the “what the hell am I doing here” moment, but I’m certain it will come at some point.

Katherine had a few hours of “what the hell am I doing here, and damn my husband for making me come here” feeling last week, but as she and I have learned, that’s pretty normal, and will happen to both of us (although not the ‘damn my husband’ part for me). But even though we’ve only been here three weeks, I can also see why so many FS officers seem to stay here until they are basically forced to leave.

We had dinner tonight with a co-worker and his wife. They are a really amazing couple. My co-worker speaks Lao at a level I could only dream of achieving. His wife is Lao by birth, but really came to Laos for the first time (in adulthood anyway) when he was posted here in 1989. Anyway, they’re now on their second tour in Laos. After a five year tour in Bangkok, they returned to Laos, and will have been here five years when they leave next summer (2006).

Their story is not unique. Another officer here was in BKK for a tour, and then moved up to Laos and has been here four years. Another officer was in Bangkok, and is now finishing up a three year tour here. His replacement just finished up a tour in BKK. Another was in BKK, and is now starting year three in Laos. …And so on. It seems that SE Asia takes hold of people, and I can see why. The lifestyle is very appealing. It’s hot, to be sure, though we have yet to really experience the hot season. But the people are incredibly friendly, laid back, and open. The culture is about a foreign as you can expect, but once you gain a bit of insight, it is welcoming, interesting, and inviting. And the food. Well, hell, everyone likes Thai food, right? Thai, Lao, pretty much the same, although Lao seems to not have the diversity in tastes that Thai food has. But the French colonial influence has left a tradition of fine food and really great bread.

And once we get our car sometime after April 11 (our car and 2nd shipment of stuff is scheduled to arrive in Bangkok on April 11, then arrive in Laos up to a week later), we'll be able to start really exploring. Who know's how we'll feel after that, but I figure it will just expand our already expanded horizons.

Who knows, maybe we’ll get sucked into the black hole that is a love of SE Asia, and fight tooth and nail to stay in the region as much as we can throughout our FS career*

*Last statement not cleared by Katherine Nervig.

by the way, the title of the post is from a song sung by expats at a party in the movie "The Year of Living Dangerously". Maybe it's from something else too, but that's what I know it from.

I think we've figured out how to put pictures in the blog, rather than linked, that doesn't take forever. Here's a test. This is the Consular Section waiting room. It's outside, but has a roof. For those that think I never work (Wendy) this is work, sort of. It was the first Friday after we arrived at a welcome party for us.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Canned chicken broth?

So many of you may be wondering why the unemployed half of this couple never seems to add to the blog. Well, I'm not sure really, but I'm going to try to change that, although I can't promise I'll be as witty as my smart-ass husband.

On to news on the home front. Our first shipment of stuff arrived yesterday afternoon and Vone and I worked until 6pm, starting to get things unpacked and organized. She had lots of questions about my kitchen gadgets, including the apple slicer, nut cracker and pick, champagne stopper, mandolin, and the vacu-vin wine sealer. I told her my mother loved to buy me things for the kitchen.

Today we finished putting things away, and now this big house feels a little bit more like our home.

We are getting ready for our Easter lunch, scheduled for Sunday, and I'm trying to make some of our favorite American dishes. One of the recipes requires chicken broth, so I asked Vone where I could find canned chicken broth.

First of all, the word for broth is not in my Lao dictionary, so I tried to describe broth in Lao as a sort of chicken soup without vegetables or meat. She was very confused. So, like usual, I repeated my complete description again, hoping she'd get it the second time. That didn't work either.

So I finally came up with "chicken water", at which point, Vone looked at me and said "broth?" in English. That accomplished, I asked where I could buy chicken broth in a can. And again, she looked at me as if I was crazy, and before I knew it, she had frozen chicken bones and water in a pot boiling for my chicken stock. And although she didn't use any carrots or celery or onions, it might just be the best tasting chicken broth I've ever had.


Thursday, March 24, 2005

From the Annals of the Ministry of Poor Planning

Front page news I thought I'd share. From the Vientiane Times.

"Last weekend Chanthabouli district officially opened Don Chan Island so that the public could enjoy a weekend at the beach and celebrate Lao New Year, April 14-16.

A bamboo bridge across the Mekong River to the sandbank had been erected, but as soon as it was finished, the water level rose and the small bridge is now submerged, which the district authorities are dealing with..."

(ed. note: Don Chan is a large island in the mekong in Vientiane that gets much larger during the dry season, exposing large sand bars that people use to fish from, play soccer on, and generally treat as a beach)

The story reminded me of what happened in St. Petersburg, Russia when I first got there in the Fall of 1992.

The main drag, Nevsky Prospect, was painted one day. Center lines, parking spot lines, all very nice. The next week, the road was repaved, and the lines were never repainted. So my guess is that the city administration said, what the heck, we have the paint and the painters now, and the pavers aren't coming until next week. Let's put the painters to work now.

I think maybe the same decision making process was employed here. In this instance, they probably had the bamboo and the construction crew, and the day they built the bridge the water was at level X. Never mind that every year the water level fluctuates between level Y and level Z, we're building today and today the water is at level X. Foresight seems to be a luxury they can't afford.

Which brings me to the Don Chan Palace Hotel, billed as "Laos' only 5-star hotel". Maybe that's true, I don't know. But what I do know is that it is a 14-story monstrosity, which doesn't really fit in with the riverfront landscape. It was built in 10 months by a chinese construction company for an unknown (to me at least) Malaysian investor. What I also know, because everyone talks about it, is that the Don Chan Palace Hotel, Laos' only 5-star hotel, is built in a location that was severely flooded just 2 years ago, and regularly floods during the rainy season. But hey, it wasn't flooded when they picked the site, so there you go. But I'll put money down that sooner or later (and probably sooner) we'll be reading on the front page of the Vientiane Times that

"...the water level rose and the bottom two floors of the Don Chan Palace, Laos' only 5-star hotel, are now flooded."

And, given that the hotel is built on what is basically a sand bar in a relatively fast moving river, we'll probably be reading that

"...The Don Chan Palace, Laos' only 5-star hotel, fell over into the Mekong River today. Quick thinking locals siezed on the opportunity to use the now horizontal 5 star hotel, complete with 3 restaurants, a nightclub, a spa, and conference center, as a bridge to the sandbank, as the new bamboo bridge that city officials built for that purpose is now submerged."

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Crazy Days in Vientiane

So lest you think our days are all filled with ant eggs, spirit houses and backrubs in the bathroom, I thought I'd share with you our rather mundane day today.

Katherine's day:

Katherine rode on the back of Vone's motorbike to the market to buy stuff.

short digression...I want a motorbike. 80-90% of the vehicles on the road in Vientiane are chinese built motorbikes. They're like vespas, but sleeker, and with cooler names like T-Max, Superbike and Magna. They're everywhere, and they are the family car in many cases. I've seen families of 5 riding one bike, I've seen a father, mother and nursing baby riding on a bike (and the father was wearing the helmet), I've seen 4 grown men sharing a motorbike. You get the picture.

Anyway, I want a motorbike, but Katherine thus far won't let me get one. She says it's too dangerous to drive a motorbike in Vientiane because (and here she's got a point. I'm not conceding totally, but she has a point) there seems to be no discernible traffic rules or patterns that are followed here. Notice Katherine's cunning use of language. She doesn't say it's dangerous to ride a motorbike, but it's dangerous to drive a motorbike. That way, she's off the hook riding all the livelong day on the back of Vone's motorbike. Okay, she's ridden 3 times, but she's got a helmet now for just such an occasion, so I figure it will continue.

So what if drivers merge, turn, pull out in traffic, stop, change lanes (lanes, as if) start, etc. with out so much as a look to see what is oncoming. It's like a symphony, but instead of different musical instruments coming in and out of the piece, you've got dozens of shoddily built chinese motorbikes, cars, refurbished Korean trucks, tuk-tuks and bicycles coming in and out of traffic lanes. So what if two of the four bodies at the morgue I had to visit last week to identify a deceased American were victims of a traffic accident. Wouldn't happen to me, I have cat-like reflexes.

So anyway, I want a motorbike. Katherine won't let me get one. She gets to ride a motorbike whenever she feels like it (and Vone is around to take her someplace) and she even has a fancy new helmet. I want a motorbike. It's not fair.

But I digress.

Then Katherine had lunch. Fried rice.

Then Katherine sent some e-mails.

Then Katherine made an inventory of what is arriving tomorrow in our first shipment of stuff (by copying a previous inventory that we had).

Then Katherine went to the Australian Club for a swim, followed by a drink by the river.

Phil's Day:

I got up at 7:00 and got to work by 7:45. Nothing exciting happened.

Then at 5:00 I went to meet Katherine at the Australian Club for a swim, followed by a drink by the river.

Now it's 10:29, and we just finished watching a god-awful American sitcom called Yes, Dear. What utter garbage. I can honestly say that I think just about any tv show would be better than that. But our books arrive tomorrow, so I don't have much to read right now. So I watched it. I feel like I need a shower to clean off the filth associated with such terrible tv.

Friday is a full moon, so we're going to Wat Si Muang, the largest (in terms of # of monks) and one of the most important Buddhist Temples in the city. I'm not certain what goes on at the Wat on full moon nights, but we've been invited to go with some friends, so go we will.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Typing from home

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, we're typing from our very own palacial home this wonderful Tuesday eve.

It took only 17 days to a) get phone service (okay I lied before when I said no more posts about phone service) and b) figure out how the hell to connect to the internet. But now, we are connected at a whopping 26.4Kbps so you know we're downloading loads of porn. Anyway, we will not be deterred by the slow connection speed. That is not to say that I won't complain incessantly, but that is my right as an expat.

So I think I'm now unofficially licensed as a Microsoft tech, as it took me 4 days of playing around before I could get our modem to be recognized and connect to PlaNET online, Laos' preeminent internet service provider. But before you think that's a lucrative career, it pays about $10 an hour in Laos. That was the going rate of the two people we talked to about coming over to figure out our computer problems, but I think we probably could have talked them down to about $2 an hour, which is more in line with highly skilled labor here (seriously).

Our first load of stuff arrives tomorrow. It's the stuff that has been in storage since we moved out of the Brooklyn apartment last June, so it will be like Christmas in March. What's in this box? Oh, it's a gravy boat!!!! Fun for days!

Sunday (Easter) we're having our first party. A brunch for 11 (including 2 kids). Time to put that gravy boat to work.

Oh, and I have decided that my next great quest will be to become the greatest badminton player...OF ALL TIME!!!! There is a badminton court on the embassy grounds, and very competitive badminton (called "chicken wing" or, peak kaai phonetically, in Lao) is played there. I've played the last two days, and damn is it fun. I've also started to play squash at the Australian Club, which now counts us as members, but that game seems vaguely bourgeois (no offense Stephanie), and being in a communist country, I consider myself squarely in the camp of the proletariat (except for the maid and the gardener and the driver and the big house and diplomatic immunity of course).


Monday, March 21, 2005

Insight into Lao culture and superstition #2

An employee of the embassy called in this morning to say she was very sorry but she would not be coming in until Thursday. She was very apologetic for not providing more notice, but said she'd just found out the day before that it was impossible for her to come in to work.

It seems they had some ceremony (I'm not entirely sure what type of ceremony) at their house over the weekend, and the head ceremony guy (priest, monk, shaman, again, no clue) said that they could not leave their house for 3 full days or something (again, don't know what) bad would happen.

So, said employee will be out Monday through Wednesday. Because you don't want to mess with something like that.

We hit the big time already?

When I saw the linked headline, I thought WOW, after only two weeks the NY Times has noticed our little ol' blog. But I was confused because we haven't written extensively about dams in China. Not nearly enough for the NY Times to say they "dominate" our blog. If anything, we haven't written nearly enough about China's dams.

It's an interesting read anyway, even if it isn't about Katherine and me. Regional power politics is still exciting, although I'm sure you will all agree not nearly as exciting as stuff about phone service at our house.

In Life on the Mekong, China's Dams Dominate

I've been working a bit (okay attending meetings) on the Dam Project in Laos that is mentioned, although I can safely say I'm not the unnamed American diplomat in the article.


Sunday, March 20, 2005

Our very own Spirit House

I was very excited to discover yesterday that we have a spirit house in our front yard.

Spirit house?

About 55% of Lao people are Buddhist, with the remaining 45% Animist, meaning a belief in spirits in the trees, in the water, in the house, in the rocks, etc.. However, most Buddhists maintain some Animist beliefs. As such, most people have a spirit house in their yard to pay homage and respect to the spirits living in and around your home. If you don't have a spirit house, the spirits get angry and you will have bad luck.

Before you start judging, think crucifixes and mezzuzas (sp).

So, yesterday Vone and I cleaned our newly discovered spirit house and offered up cold water in a shot glass, Diet Coke, also in a shot glass (most lao give Pepsi, but we figured our spirits are Coke fans, mostly because that's what we had) and a plate of fresh flowers.

We presented these fine gifts to the spirit house and prayed asking for protection for our house and for Phil, Vone and myself. Then last night our house burned down. Turns out Pepsi would have been better afterall.

Just kidding. Katherine didn't want me to write that last part, but she is dictating and I am typing and sometimes the spirit (ha ha) just moves me.

We are to make offerings to the spirits on all auspicious days. We stil need to figure out what days those are, but we believe in some cases it has to do with the number 8 and full or new moons.

Saturday, March 19, 2005


So it seems that the easiest thing to do vis a vis photos from Laos is to not post them here, but rather to post a link here to, where batches of our pictures will reside. The reasons for this are as follows:

1) The internet here is very slow, and by here I mean the embassy, and by slow I mean molasses in winter. And not winter in Laos, which wouldn't really affect the molasses that much anyway because it's still hot, but winter in Wadena, MN, where when I was in high school and would leave for school with wet hair it would freeze. That kind of molasses in winter.

2) The embassy internet connection is considered FAST by Laos standards. I'm told that our home dial-up service, if we ever get connected, will be quite SLOW by Laos standards. So there you go.

3) We are currently trying to upload 28 pictures to from the office. We've been here over an hour....and we're not yet done.

So you guys better damn well appreciate the hell out of these pictures. Write songs and poems and odes about them. Come to think of it, I'm not completely sure what an ode is, so you can forget about that one. I want a short story about the picture of our street, at least 13 limericks about the picture of the other street, and a sonnet or two about the floating restaurant. Get busy people.

Today we are on a quest to find a chord to connect our digital camera to our computer. So far we've come up with nothing. We are also on a quest to buy Katherine a cell phone and get her cell phone service. She's a lady on the go...she can't be tied down by chorded phones (is that the opposite of chordless?) By the way, write an epic poem about our quests.

Then, because going on multiple quests in one day is damn tiring work, we are getting 1 hour massages at 5:30 pm (cost, 42,000 kip...$4). Then we're meeting a new friend out for dinner, because questing and getting massaged really works up an appetite.

Katherine says that is enough, and that I swear too much and that I shouldn't assign homework based on our pictures so you can forget that too.

Gotta go to the market.


(later) --- here is the fruits of our labor. Click on the link and see if you get directed to our pictures. If it doesn't work, let us know in the comments section of this post.

Good luck,


Friday, March 18, 2005

least relaxing massage ever!

I told some people this story already and thought I'd written about it, but I guess not. Anyway...

So we're out to eat 2 weeks ago (the Friday night we arrived) and I have to go to the bathroom. There's an attendant, fine, I'll pay the guy a bit to hand me a towel. How wrong I was.

I go to use the urinal, and suddenly feel a hot, wet towel being tucked under my collar...weird. Then comes the massage. So I'm standing there trying to pee while a guy gives me a neck and back massage with a hot, wet towel stuffed down the back of my shirt.

Needless to say, it was a whole new level of stagefright, and, for me, a whole new level of bathroom attendant service. I just laughed, pretended to finish up, went to wash my hands (he followed, continuing the massage) and bolted out of there so I could laugh properly and not offend. Anyway, later I went back and tipped him, but really, I've never paid someone to make it impossible for me to go to the bathroom before.

What's the going tip rate for that service?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Talk about FRESH fish

I went to the market with our housekeeper Vone (who name rhymes with phone, not lawn, as my smart husband mentioned previously) and had an interesting experience. The markets here are just as I imagined -- rows of fruit and vegetable vendors, and the rows of rows of (vegetarians beware) unfrigerated meat -- this section required a strong and empty stomach. Today we ventured to the fish section which isn't nearly as hard to take as the meat section since all the fish are happily swimming around in big tubs of water. Happy, of course, until I point to the fish I want to for dinner, at which point the fish is quickly picked up, wacked with a mallet, scaled and degutted all in a matter of 45 seconds. I must admit, I looked away when I knew the guy was done for...

But that was hours ago and now, it's time for dinner! -- KDN

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Adventures in Language, part II

So a visa applicant comes to the window yesterday and I say "hello"and she says "hello" then I say "put your left finger on the red place" because I don't know how to say electronic fingerprint machine in Lao and she doesn't do anything. Just kind of looked at me. It was then that I, because I'm so smart said "do you speak Lao?" and she just looked at me. Then, because I am doubly smart, I assumed she did not speak Lao so I said "do you speak Hmong?" and she just looked at me. That was when I felt like crying.

Okay, not really, but c'mon.

So her nephew (or someone) came up and told me that she spoke Khmu, which is yet another in a long list of languages that I don't know. So I did my first Lao to Khmu visa interview with her nephew acting as translator.

And I made the mistake of not going to a country team meeting today, so I have been tasked with meeting with a tourist group on Friday evening to impart all my wisdom on the history, culture, current events, etc. of Laos. We'll see how that goes. But the lesson is, if you are not present at a meeting to NOT volunteer, you will be volunteered involuntarily.

Lest you think all we do is talk about our phone

I realize that every post since we've arrived had something to do with our phone. Well, our phone is now working, so hopefully that will be the end of it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Adventures in language (and telling people apart)

Katherine hired a cook/maid yesterday and she makes a really good curry (that's all I know thus far).

And this morning, as I was walking to my car that picks me up until our car arrives, there was a man on a bike outside our gate. So he's standing outside our gate and Katherine says "this is the guy that tried to fix our phone yesterday" and says to him "our phone isn't working again" and he says "oh" and I say "what are you going to do to fix our phone" and he doesn't say much.

Then, because I'm very smart, I say "did you know our phone was broken again?" because we hadn't put in a work order or anything, and he said "no".

Well, he looked very confused, and I was very confused, and Katherine was very confused, until thankfully my driver helpfully says that he thinks the guy is the gardener, at which point Katherine remembers that he is indeed the man she hired to be our gardener, and NOT the man who came yesterday to fix our phone.

Needless to say, our gardener probably now thinks we are insane, and that we REALLY care about our phone.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Well, that's what you get when you jump the gun

I assumed because Katherine called me from our home phone and said it was working that that meant we did indeed have phone service.

Well, maybe we do, maybe we don't. But I do know that you can't, at this point, make a call TO our phone number.

Maybe that service comes next week.


Phone is up

For all of you dying to call us, our phone is now working. We sent out our number previously in an e-mail. Just remember the 12 hour time difference (from the east coast anyway).

Remember to try out or any other call service. I don't vouch for the quality of the service, but I have tried it and it works and it's $0.10 a minute, which ain't bad.

And now that we have phone service, we should have some pictures up at some point soon.

Katherine has spent the day with Van (again, rhymes with Lawn) and so far so good. It seems we are going to have some sort of curry for dinner.

Gotta go.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Calling Laos, Part 2

Greetings from Vientiane. We've been here 9 days already, and I've got one week of work down. It's been challenging and interesting, but at the end of the day I'm tired as hell from trying to speak Lao, and, more importantly, trying to understand Lao.

Katherine has done more exploring around the city than I have. She's been to a few expat lunches and has generally kept as busy as I am.

At night we've explored the many great restaurants around the city and I'm excited to report I've found quite tasty pizza already, so I'm all set. We've also been well taken care of by the embassy community, with parties both Friday and Saturday night last week, and a trip up north about an hour to the Nam Ngum river for an afternoon on a floating restaurant. It was a great way to end our first weekend here, although I did have to (okay, I willingly) ate what Katherine now refers to as Lao Caviar....ant eggs. They actually weren't bad, and now I know that if I'm ever at a dinner in an official capacity and I am served ant eggs, I can eat them.

We have a bunch of pictures of our first week, but can't upload them yet from our home computer as we STILL DON'T HAVE HOME PHONE SERVICE. So if any of you have tried to call, sorry about that. Will get them up when we can. Hopefully some time this week. And Katherine and I will try to be more timely in updating the site with both the exciting and mundane aspects of life in Laos.

A few highlights from my week:

Visiting the morgue on Day 2 of work to identify an American citizen who passed away (of natural causes).

Spending my first day on the visa line interviewing applicants, some of whom measure their annual income in bags of rice.

Getting cable

Exploring the city at night with Katherine and some of the new friends we've made.

Telling our corner store lady that it's REALLY hot out and having her laugh at us and say basically "you ain't seen nothing yet"

Katherine's highlights:

Meeting Erin Sawyer -- our new friend & sponsor!

Not eating ant eggs

Negiotiating a tuk-tuk fare and getting where I wanted to go

Exploring the food markets

Drinking a delicious ice coffee in a French bakery

Getting locked out off the house and trying to communicate that to our landlord and guards.

Not seeing any rats!

That's it for us. We'll get some pictures up soon.

phil & katherine