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.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

We're off today for Udon Thani, in Thailand, where we will stay tonight before boarding the early flight tomorrow for Ko Samui.

We'll be back Tuesday night.

Have a good weekend.

p and k

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Laos in the News, and in the US no less

Ambassador Pat Haslach, the US Ambassador to Laos, will be on ABC NEWS w/ Peter Jennings (well, with his substitute anyway) in a story about unexploded ordinance in Laos. It will be on Thursday or Friday.

A longer piece about it with a longer interview is supposed to be on another news program (Nightline, maybe?).

Hope some of you can see it.


And he comes crashing back down to earth....HARD!!

Okay, I AM talking, and not mouth-breathing because of the recent beating I'd taken, although I did take one hell of a beating. Who knew that badminton could be so damn demoralizing.

But hey, it was alot of fun. Tons of people hanging around waiting to play on the 4 Indoor courts. Anyway, the guy in the Carlsberg t-shirt was my partner, and we played the other guy and someone else and got our asses handed to us 15-9 and 15-10. I didn't fare much better in my first match, where the embassy guard and I lost 15-13 and 15-11. I think there is a common denominator in those two losses, but I just can't figure out what it is...

Oh, well. I'll be back. What was cool is that I was the only Falang there, although I think I was a bit more of a circus freak sideshow than anything....just something to gawk at (and maybe point and laugh a little, I don't know).

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A whole truck full'a love

The movers came back today with the rest of our stuff. God do we have alot of stuff. Anyway, now we have our bikes, golf clubs, and camping equipment. So I guess it's time to diversify away from racket sports. Katherine is thrilled that her beloved salad spinner arrived today as well. I think she might sleep with it like a teddy bear tonight.

What is still missing is our car, which should arrive on Thursday.

Of course, this truck of stuff should have arrived last Thursday, no wait, Friday....nope, Monday...Okay Tuesday morning....and it arrived today at 5 pm. But the swarm of nine guys got everything inside and unpacked in a little more than an hour.

And the most impressive thing is that not one thing was broken, and that includes our 7 cases of wine, which made it safe and sound.

A bit of a disaster area, but here's our living room/dining room. None of the furniture is ours.

The globe is, though. That way, we can check where the hell we are in the world.

Door to the TV Room, bathroom, and our grand staircase.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Dried Squid on a stiiick!!!! Who wants some dried squid on a stick??

Now, you might be saying to yourself, Laos is a landlocked country, where does the squid come from? That would be your first mistake.

What you do is you just buy it and eat it.

Like this.....

Insight into Lao culture and superstition #2....cont'd

Some of you may remember a little tidbit back on March 21 about an embassy employee who called on a Monday to say she wouldn't be in for 3 days because at some ceremony a holy man of some sort said if they didn't stay home for 3 days they'd have bad luck.....

Well do I have some news!!!!

It seems that the holy man (or whoever he was) was on to something. Turns out, staying indoors for 3 days can bring good luck. Said employee has just announced that she is pregnant, and due in late November/early December. She credits the good luck brought on by following the holy man's directions rather than the fact that 3 days inside with your husband and not much to do would often times produce a baby.

Anyway, she's ecstatic. I've suggested Phil as a name, but it seems that name doesn't fit in with Hmong culture.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Weekend Fun

So our weekend was chock full of fun and work and naps.

Friday after work we went to OASIS spa and got massages. Full body for me and a foot massage for Katherine. I had a very small Lao woman just beat the living hell out of me. It's a bit emasculating to have to ask not one, not two, but three times to lighten up on the massage strength a bit.

Later we went to the Full Moon Café (“breakfast available anytime”) with Erin and Mary (the Embassy nurse). Our timing was perfect, as we just missed the end of happy hour, but the German couple next to us had already availed themselves of the ‘buy one, get one free’ happy hour special for pitchers of beer but, (and here, what were they thinking??) they only wanted one, so they gave us the other one.

Saturday morning Katherine left early to help out with a huge auction that the Embassy held to get rid of a ton of old furniture, electronics, appliances, etc. I think they had something like 260 lots. And everything got sold. They made it a silent auction, so that people didn’t have to wait in the hot sun while some cowboy hat and bolo-wearing auctioneer sold off scrap metal and finally got to the used cell-phones (or whatever). One Falang guy had bidder number 80, but for some unknown reason thought he had number 100, and bid on A LOT of stuff. As it turned out, a nice Lao woman had bidder number 100, and was surprised, and horrified, to find out that she had won about 10 times the stuff she actually bid on.

Anyway, while Katherine was slaving away in the hot sun, I was in cool, air-conditioned splendor proctoring the Foreign Service exam. I had a whopping 1 person take the test, so I REALLY kept my eye on her. I take my oath as a proctor seriously.

So we had grand plans to go out to Café Europe (best burgers in town, I’m told) then on a pub crawl to BOTH pubs in town. The first pub, Kope Jaii Due (“thank you very much,” strange name for a bar) we’ve been to, but have yet to get on the pool table. It’s a popular spot with tourists…I’m sorry, travelers, so the local Falangs tend to stay away. But it’s a good spot with nice outdoor seating, so we’ve gone a few times. The second bar, Samlo Pub, has a decidedly different clientele. It’s a bit of a seedy place, filled with scallywags, rapscallions, no-goodniks, crumb bums and ne’er-do-wells, which in Laos means illegal loggers, smugglers, black marketeers, and generally shady dudes who like the shadows of dark bars.

We hadn’t been there yet, and Saturday night was going to be our night. But, alas (and many of you will know the song I’m singing) Katherine decided she was tired, and Erin did too. I mean, god, you spend 7 hours in the sun and you think you have the right to say you don’t want to go out to seedy bars? B.S. So, instead we went over to Erin’s and hung out for a while, then came home, where Katherine promptly went to bed at 10:30 pm. Now 10:30 isn’t exceptionally early for Katherine to go to bed, and she did spend some serious time outside yesterday, but hey, what happened to my pub crawl? I guess I could have gone alone, but who would I have high-fived after downing a beer and screaming “THIS IS AWESOME!!!”?

This morning I got up and played an hour of tennis with my new friend and torturer That (like Tot, but with a softer t). Torturer because he makes me run my ass off in the hot weather, and it’s very mean of him. He is (by his account anyway, and by others too) the best tennis player in Laos, and he is also involved in a project supported by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) where he travels around the country to places that have tennis courts (there aren’t many), delivers tennis equipment to schools, and teaches Lao children how to play tennis. He invited me to go along with him sometime in the future, so that would be very cool. His trips are usually 2-3 days and he goes to places that I may not visit otherwise, so I’ll definitely try to go with him sometime soon.

Then, I played some squash at the Australian club for a while before meeting up with Katherine and taking a long swim. Now we’re home, we watched a really dumb movie on television, then Katherine took a long nap. I guess the sun really did take it out of her yesterday.

While Katherine napped, I walked down the street to a barbershop, or what I thought was a barbershop. Instead, it’s a place where you can get your hair washed and dried, and you can get a manicure/pedicure. I think the women at the place thought I was a bit odd…here’s how it went.

Me: I’d like a haircut.

Them: what?

m: I’d like a haircut, how long until I can get a haircut?

T. here?

m. yes

t. we don’t do that.

m. okay, then I just want my hair washed.

t. you do? But this is a women's salon.

m. yes I much?

t. (the Lao kip equivalent of ) $0.40

m. yes, I believe that will be fine.

Anyway, for about $0.40 I got to lay down on a type of padded table, and got a 20 minute head massage, hair wash, hair condition, face massage. Long ago my sister Sarah and I were talking about what one luxury we would give ourselves if we were multimillionaires. I said I would hire someone full time to wash my hair whenever I wanted. I think I’ve found the next best thing. I mean, you lie down on a comfortable table and get your hair washed for 20 minutes, and it’s a 7 minute walk from my house.

I’m back now and Katherine is up. We’ve got a new pope (well, I’m not Catholic so to me he’s just an old guy in a dress and a funny hat), Ecuador has a new president, and the Palestinian Authority has new senior security officials, and the world continues to spin on its axis, unless the new pope has declared the world flat again, then I don’t know what the hell to believe.

We’ve been assured that our car and stuff arrive tomorrow, so all will be right with the world then.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

A small amount of perspective

So I was talking to a guy today whose combined family income (including his wife's income) is about $800 per month. That's pretty good for Laos, given that a large proportion of visa applicants measure their income in rice, teachers make something like $60 per month, and that the per capita income of Laos is somewhere between $300 and $1,000 (I don't really know where it is, exactly).

Anyway, with that $800 per month, they support themselves and their kid, his parents, her parents, and his grandparents, and they still manage to save $200 per month.

Sure, cost of living here is low, but damn....

Go and Tell Your Master that I Have Been CHARGED BY GOD... undertake this noble Quest. ..

The Embassy guard who was one part of the Embassy tourney championship men's doubles team has invited me to go play with him next week (or sometime soon, I guess) at his local Badminton hangout, so I guess I'm officially accepted into Lao Badminton society.

And I have a fancy new Yonex Badminton racket. I opted for racket that isn't quite the most expensive I could get. I couldn't in good conscience pay $180. Instead I went with a $20 racket that the sporting goods store guy said was a fine racket, indeed, and it's yellow, so you know it's a quality purchase.

I guarantee* I won't post again about my badminton quest until I'm nationally ranked.

*not a guarantee

Happy Hour at the Sunset Bar

Our waiter delivering yet another Beer Lao at the Sunset Bar on the Mekong River.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

"I have forgotten your names..."

For those of you who were in Vieques for the wedding, here's a little reminder of the Man, the Myth, the Legend....Father Tomas

There was a request to see what the inside of our house looks like. So here are a few pictures. Not alot on the walls yet, but you can get the gist of it. Anyway, this is the living room (and Katherine getting worked over in a Scrabble game...and I have the X). Anyway, a couple more pictures of the inside to follow. Not exhaustive in the least, and you really can't get a feel for our 12' (or so) ceilings. Our stuff arrives Monday (was supposed to be Friday, but something changed, not sure what, maybe the customs guys want an extra few days to cruise around in our car) so maybe we'll get a few pictures once the house is totally put together


We're in the market for new curtains


Undecorated TV room

I think it's somewhere near Texarkana...

In the course of a visa interview today with two very jovial hmong sisters, I learned of a magical new place in the US.

When asked where they were going in the US, they both paused, with deer in the headlights looks on their faces. So I said, "Okay, you think about that one for a few minutes while I ask you some other questions. But it's an important question, because how are you going to visit your brother if you don't know where you are going?"

At which point one of the sisters got a big smile on her face and said....


I said "where?"

big smile again..."WISCONIFORNIA, to visit my brother in Wisconifornia"

She was very proud that she remembered.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Maybe they were sick of being gawked at

More fun from the Vientiane Times...

"The long-awaited elephant observation tower in Phou Khao Khouay National Park was officially opened yesterday and is now ready for visiting tourists with an interest in wildlife...the previous tower was destroyed by elephants last year..."

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Choice of a New Generation (although I prefer Diet Coke myself)

Quest #1 DONE

If you hadn't noticed, we received our CORD (ed. note: changed to prevent Wendy, and now my mom from having to stand my atrocious spelling for ONE MORE SECOND!. 1,000 apologies for subjecting everyone to such cruel and unusual punishment. I'm thinking about approaching the UN to see if they'll change the Geneva Convention to classify misspellings as torture) to allow us to download pictures.

That leaves many quests to follow, not least of which is the whole badminton thing, and the lao fluency, and the hmong proficiency, and mastering the pan flute.

Drive by... Lao style

A typical scene during the 3 (or 4 actually) day holiday. People on the side of the street throwing water at anything the goes by them, and people in cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and yes, crammed dangerously into the back of pickups, throwing water at anything they go by. The result is quite fun, but makes for some difficult, and wet, tuk-tuk rides.

My kingdom for our damn car (it arrives Thursday, so maybe I won't give away my kingdom just yet). Anyway, our friend Erin had a water gun in her car at the ready all the time, so whenever we'd use it, people would be very surprised, then generally excited, that a car full of falangs were taking part in the water fight.

And now it's over until next year. It's not a bad idea, really. Every time you start to think 'damn it's hot out' someone would come along and douse you. Like air conditioning outside, but with buckets of water.

I admit I knew that the water was coming, but still, a pickle bucket of cold water is still quite an eye-opener. Katherine and I went with our friend Erin to a New Year's party on Saturday at Ae's house. Ae is an employee in my section (and one of my lifelines when I don't know what the hell I'm doing).

Anyway, I was pretty wet before the big bucket o' water, but that was pretty much the coup de grace for the weekend.

The kid's got skill

Even the little kids get into the spirit of dumping water on everyone and everything.

So the end result of Ae's party. That's Ae. Her real name is Suripupone Boonlatai, but that's a mouthful, so thank god her nickname is Ae (start singing the alphabet song and stop after the first letter...that's how you pronounce it. Very efficient name). There's also a Cee (pronounced, you guessed it, like the 3rd letter in the alphabet song) at the Embassy.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Helmets? We don't need no stinking helmets!

By the way, as Katherine and I have both mentioned, motorbikes are the family car around these parts. Saturday morning I caught this family of four out for a drive. Under the blanket is a newborn, being protected from the strong sun, but not much else.

And note this family of three on Saturday afternoon, the last day of New Year's, and thus the last year of the city-wide water fight. Not only are they running errands (note the bags of recently purchased stuff), but the daughter is on point with the water gun and the father is at the ready with a small bucket of water on his handle bars.

Vone and I at a baasii ceremony for one of her relatives. A baasii is a cheerful ceremony where offerings are made to spirits and it is usually lead by an elder blessing master. The honored guests have strings tied to their wrists in an effort to help contain the 32 spirits that live inside our bodies and guard our organs. Baasiis are given when people travel, for couples getting married, for new homes... We'll have a baassi ceremony to bless our home after the rainy season in October.

Baassi ceremony

Another baassi picture: Here Vone is tying the string bracelet around her relative's wrist who is getting married next month. (KDN)

More baasii pictures: The offerings to the spirits on the left and the blessing master making more offerings on rights.

Jennine blushes as she is serenaded by the boys

Jennine being entertained (or terrorized, we can't be sure) by the Dietrich boys at our going away party in Larchmont in February

Vientiane Traffic Jam -- moped vs. goats on the end of our street

The flowing robes, the grace, the baldness...striking!

Here's the IT guy named Vout, then named Mong during his week as a monk, and now named Vout again at work this morning. All very confusing. But he was a bit dismayed to find out that we had to get new ID pictures taken today because he doesn't currently have eyebrows.

I thought the cane and the purse was a nice touch....actually, the golden bag is for friends and relatives (and sucker foreigners) to give donations that go to the temple for building and maintenance. I think I gave more than enough, but it was so damn hot that day I basically reached in my pocket and gave all the money I had so I could run home and get into AC.

That and my love for the temple and its upkeep, of course.

By the way, I asked Vout how the week went, and he said "I was hungry," because as I think I said before, monks are not allowed to eat after noon.

The face of a (temporarily) abandoned family in Laos

Vout's ex-wife (and now wife again) and child. His wife works with me as well. The kid doesn't work yet, as far as I know.

Vout and some of the other monks paying homage to his grandfather, his father, and his sister, who all died and whose ashes are contained in the small stupa(s).

Locking up the temple after Vout's monkhood ceremony. I think this is a cool picture

It was an auspicious day (we're told) so KDN and I decided to feed the spirits again, and give them flowers. This time, instead of the Diet Coke, we gave strawberry soda and water, which we think the spirits like very much.

Horning in on my good luck

At the Embassy new year's party. I've just received a good luck bracelet (friendship bracelet?) from an employee named Soukanh. As you can see, I got a bit of luck that day. Each of the little white strings represents a wish from someone for all bad luck to leave and for good luck and spirits to stay in.

Anyway, Kalee is next to me as well, and you can see that she is touching my arm. That's because, besides liking me very much as I am such a good person, then some of the good luck that I am receiving from Soukanh will rub off on her too.

Easy Rider, but without the drugs

Katherine and Vone on a typical day going to do something fun on a machine Katherine won't let me get. She's mean.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Katherine and her baskets

Okay, this is a bit of an old picture, but we're still waiting for our damn chord to come in the mail (and batteries, too, by the way) so I can't put up any new pictures.

Anyway, about 3 weeks ago or so, we stopped at a basket shop and got 7 baskets. The two large ones goal-posting KND are my favorite, but of course they have termites, or something, in them. We brought them in the house for a few days and a fine dust collected underneath them. AND, if you were very quiet and put your ear up to the basket, you could hear them chewing away (and singing "Hit me baby, one more time" by Britney Spears, if I wasn't mistaken...oh, wait, that was me).

Anyway, a good tip was given to us, and that is to put wood/wicker etc. things that you buy in a refrigerator overnight and any creepy crawlies will die. Unfortunately, we don't have a freezer large enough for our lovely, termite-infested baskets, so they are currently banned from the house to the porch, like an intemperate (or incontinent, perhaps) dog. Anyway, that's about it for me.

Katherine seems to be too damn busy to update y'all on her life from her point of view, or maybe she just doesn't like any of you. Actually, she's off visiting 3 kittens that were born 6 days ago at a colleague's house. I think we may be getting a kitty sometime in the near future. I think the kittens are having the same effect as when she sees a baby or I see a beer, it makes us want one.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Ko Samui, and other goings on

So on recommendations from the Ambassador, we've made tentative reservations at the Laem Set Inn

Check it out. It is on a smaller beach, but completely uncrowded, and has a really good restaurant.

We're trying to figure out where to go scuba diving on the Saturday we're there. The hotel guy recommended going all the way to Ko Tao, another island in the island chain that Ko Samui is in. It goes Ko Samui, Ko Phangan, then Ko Tao. It's a 2 1/2 hour speedboat ride to Ko Tao, but the diving is supposed to be magnificent. Or a 1 hour ride to other dive spots that aren't quite as good. Oh, the dilemmas that Katherine and I live with.

This morning we each had 1 hour with That, a local tennis pro/instructor. Katherine went at 9 and I went at 10. It was so hot I only played about 45 minutes before I had to quit. The Ambassador's residence has a court, and she's very generous with letting other Embassy people come in to use it (and the pool). So I think we'll be quite active with the tennis. It was strange picking up a tennis racket (and a 16 year old one at that) after playing my first love...badminton...for the past few weeks. The racket felt VERY heavy. Especially after about 1/2 hour in the heat.


Tonight we're having a few people over to sit on our deck and sip cocktails like proper expats. We'll probably discuss such things as how hard it is to find good help, how NOBODY can live in such heat, how you just can't get good pate here, and bitch about how the Lao generally don't understand anything about how life really is. Should be a good time. Ah, the expat life.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Speaking of Cabin Fever

Forgot to mention that we decided that over Lao Labor Day (last weekend in April) we're going to go to Ko Samui for some scuba diving and relaxing on the beach.

So that should be good.

Wherever you go....there you are

So I think I have cabin fever. We've been in Vientiane for about five weeks now, and I'm ready to get out. It's not that I feel confined by any means...the cultural differences I face each day provide for a lifetime of new experiences. But physically, we haven't moved much.

Sure, the first weekend we were here we went about 40 minutes North of Vientiane to a restaurant for the day, but really, that's it. Since then, we've been confined to the greater Vientiane metropolitan area.

But today, I actually got to get out of the city limits (again), as I went to the bridge that connected Thailand with Laos. It's about 30 KM from Vientiane, and it was time to deliver a Pii Maii gift to the guys and gals that control the border, and introduce myself while I was at it. Something that should have been done a few weeks ago, but I didn't have time until today (not that I had time today, but whatever).

Anyway, on the drive I caught some glimpses of Lao rural life: People working in rice fields, water buffalo wallowing in ponds, the Beer Lao know, the really important cultural aspects of the Vientiane valley.

But on the drive out to the bridge, I realized that for all the time we've been in Laos (39 days...I'm not counting, I actually had to figure it out in my head; no easy task) we really haven't seen much at all. Sure, we know where to go to get a good meal, a good massage, and light bulbs, but we don't know much about what goes on outside of the capital.

Anyway, it made me think that having guests here is the best excuse for getting out of the city and going to see the rest of the country as tourists as well. So get off your asses (apologies to the parents and all for the language) and get some plans to come visit, if you haven’t already done so.

Badminton Quest Update

My quest to become the best badminton player of all time continues unabated. I feel like I’ve got my own Andy Kaufman-esque quest going on (you know, with the wrestling) as the vast majority of my opponents thus far have been women. But hey, Lao women have some serious Badminton skills. I guess I’m waiting around until my very own Jerry Lawler (look it up if you have to) comes to smack me down. But I SHALL PERSEVERE! I vow that my badminton skills will continue to impress. Case in point: I defeated the Embassy women’s championship doubles team on Thursday, ON MY OWN. And the fact that one of the women was wearing a skirt and flip flops had NOTHING to do with it. If anyone tells you different they are lying…and jealous of my skills.

I’m sorry, but when I talk about my badminton quest I tend to type in bold, capital letters, because that's the type of badminton competitor I am.


Monday, April 11, 2005

Soaked with good luck water at the Lao New Year's party at the Embassy last Friday.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

I guess when they say hot season, they mean it...

Today was 97 in the shade at 4:00 pm AND really muggy. KDN and I went out to Wat Sok Paa Luang at 1:30 to watch our friend Vout do the entering the monkhood thing and it was really, really, really, really, really, really...warm.

By the way, his name isn't Vout anymore either. For the next week, his name is Mong.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

By the way....

We're back from playing poker. It was Katherine's first time playing poker....

And she got a Royal Flush playing 7 card stud.

For those of you not in the know, it's the best possible hand in poker and a real rarity.

All in all, she made a few bucks, I lost my shirt.


Cont'd from previous post....

that has been measured around our heads. It's basically a long, narrow candle. Then, the wax that has been wrapped around my head represents me (or some such thing) and is wrapped together with the other head wax thingies from the other people in my section, then burned by the monks. I'm not sure what it represents, but was told a) good luck and b) it ensures that those that have had their wax thingies wrapped together before being burned will meet up again in some future I've got that going for me...which is good.

Anyway, in this photo, you can see Katherine in the foreground being very attentive and poised, and me in the top right side of the photo looking very serious and uncomfortable. More party pictures to come as they become available...

Tonight we're off to a friend's house to play poker, and tomorrow morning we each have an hour reserved in the morning with a tennis pro, then off to the temple in the afternoon to witness the previously mentioned IT guy join the monkhood.

So our Pii Maii (New Year) party also included a morning ceremony with a blessing from some monks. I had to leave early for a meeting off-site, but I'm sure the ending was as exciting as the part I saw. Part of the blessing included burning wax (you can see the flame in this picture) tha

Water, water everywhere...

Lao New Year is next week, but the Embassy had a new year party yesterday afternoon. Pictures soon (as soon as our chord arrives in the mail). But, a little insight into Lao New Year for you. Tradition has it that you can give good luck to someone at new year's by sprinkling them with water.

This tradition has morphed over the years to become a 3 to 5-day city-wide (and country wide actually) water fight. So the embassy party included plenty of buckets of water, hoses, water guns, etc. I think that the local staff especially likes to give good luck (read "soak with water") to the American staff. We're told that this year was tamer than years past, as the Ambassador requested that people don't get too crazy.

Crazy as in, using food coloring and water filled balloons, putting shampoo in with the water, putting peppers in with the water, throwing staff on a table and repeatedly dousing them with buckets and hoses.

Anyway, even without those types of tomfoolery, I must say I still left the party quite drenched, and, I suppose, filled with plenty of good luck for the new year. But the city does not have such impositions on craziness, so next Wednesday the city will turn into a dangerous gauntlet of water balloons, buckets of water and so forth for about 5 days. And as Falangs, we pretty much have big targets on our backs wherever we go.

We plan to stay indoors, or behind secure walls at least, much of the time. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Thursday, April 07, 2005

And the winners are...

Luther and Marilyn Nervig are the first people to go so far as to buy an airline ticket to visit this god-forsaken land, this land bereft of anything remotely redeeming, this land of not milk and honey, but dengue and malaria, this land that chews up even the most rugged of travelers and spits them out like so many sun-flower seed shells from a little league dugout, this land that has made scores of grown men cry out for their mothers, this land that, while ruggedly beautiful, hides the most hideous of creatures, just waiting to add you to their menu for the night, this land that, in the history of mankind, is unparalleled in its brutality and viciousness, this cruel land that spares no quarter for the faint of heart, the momma’s boys, the dainty ladies, or the weak-willed, this land that turns hearts black, and minds blacker.

And what do they get for their most misguided decision in a life full of misguided decisions (like having a 3rd child perhaps)?

-- Airport Transfer, $20 per person;

-- Full use of our humble abode at $50 per night, meals not included;

-- Complimentary welcome drink on the veranda;

-- All day Vientiane city tour, led by Katherine Nervig: $20 per person, lunch included;

-- Cultural tour to the Sunset Bar overlooking the famed Mekong River; $10 per person, beer not included;

-- 2 complimentary Beer Lao t-shirts;

-- Obstructed-view seats to the annual Mekong River boat races, held October 18-19 to celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent, $100, chairs not included;

-- Unfettered access to all services available to American citizens at the US Embassy; and,

-- Exposure to Avian Flu, Malaria, Typhoid, Japanese Encephalitis, Rabies, Hepatitis, SARS, liver flukes, Dengue Fever, and Phil.

Okay, who’s next?

Monday, April 04, 2005


After all Katherine’s talk of HOT weather, the mercury has plunged to a frigid 72 degrees. We were sitting outside earlier and moved in because it was too cold. I guess after a few weeks of 90-some degree weather, with steamroom-like humidity, 70 degrees feels downright chilly.

We got an invitation today for a “divorce party” this weekend. An IT guy at the embassy lost his grandfather recently. In the Buddhist faith, when a loved one dies, the men of the family traditionally become monks for a short period of time to create good merit for the deceased. So the IT guy, his brother and his father are becoming monks for a week.

There’s just one catch…monks cannot be married.

So, the IT guy will be divorcing his wife, shaving his body, and donning the saffron monk robes that are so prevalent around Vientiane. And then 7 days later, he’s done.

Okay, there are two catches…at that point he will be divorced. And tradition dictates that it’s up to his now ex-wife to decide whether to take him back or not. In fact, if she doesn’t ask him to remarry her, he’s out of luck.

I suspect there are plenty of women waiting around for their husbands to decide it’s time to make some merit so they can cut and run.

So anyway, we’ve been invited to the temple to witness the ceremony wherein he will become a monk, then go celebrate afterwards at the divorce party. It has to end at midnight though, because he has to be back at the temple for lights out.

One other tidbit from this weekend. Our night guard’s wife was in an accident on Saturday night. Seems she was riding her motorbike home from the market where she sells “things” (all I know) and was in a pretty serious accident. Before our guard rushed off to the hospital to see her, he said to me “They told me she is half dead and half alive. But I’m not worried. I haven’t had any bad dreams lately. Bad things never happen unless I dream about them first” and then he was gone. (his wife is on the mend, by the way).

His statement made me wonder whether he considered his wife’s serious accident a “bad” thing or not.


Saturday, April 02, 2005


We've had a hot week here -- it was just below 100 most of the week and that is without humidity. Even Vone admitted that it was hot -- and when a Lao local says it is hot, than you know you have reason to complain! Luckily, last night we had a thunderstorm and today the temperature dropped to the cool 80s.

Besides the weather, this week was rather mellow for me. I took a thai cooking class with two dozen other women involved in the Women's International Group I recently joined. Very delicious. I think Vone, however, was a little puzzled as to why I was going to take a Thai cooking course when she can teach me at home. And one afternoon, despite the heat, we jumped on Vone's mo-ped and went to a flower/garden nursery to purchase a hostess gift. I found a lovely light green potted orchid for the gift and picked up another 3 orchids for us. They are currently hanging outside on our lovely veranda.

We were quite a sight driving back home on her mo-ped with 4 orchid plants blowing in the wind. But really, that is nothing for the Lao people, you seriously see entire families on mo-peds (four in all) riding along. And of course no one has a helmet. I've even seen sleeping babies riding in their mother's arms while dad is driving. Quite a sight.

For those of you interested in seeing the Lao mo-ped scene, you should note that Hoong Heem Nervig (Hotel Nervig) is booking up fast. Please make your reservations soon!

Hope everyone back home is doing well. We miss you!

Friday, April 01, 2005

A little insight into my day at work

I realize I haven't talked much about work yet. A few vignettes, sure, but nothing that might let you know what interviewing a visa applicant (a big part of my job) is like.

So here goes..... this was as verbatim as I can remember from Thursday morning with a man who was about 55 years old.

Bear in mind I'm looking at an application that is supposed to be filled out by the applicant or by someone who has been told what to write by the applicant.

me: Where do you plan to go?

Applicant: America

m: what state?

A: uummm, to visit for 3 months.

m. what state or city? Do you know what state you are going to visit?

A: my brother's son.

m: okay, you are going to visit your brother's son?

A. yes.

m: do you have other relatives in the US?

A. No, my brother's son only.

m. Do you know where he lives?

A. in America.

m. Do you know what city or state he lives in?

A. ummmmmmm....

m: okay, what do you do here in Laos?

A. I'm a rice farmer

m: do you have income from your rice farm?

A. yes, we get about 40 bags of rice per year.

m. okay, how many bags do you eat, and how many do you sell?

A. we eat about 60, and we sell about 20. We have enough to eat.

m. That's 80 bags of rice, you said you get 40 bags of rice per year before.

A. oh, I was mistaken.

m. Okay. Are you married? And how many kids do you have?

A: yes, and I have 9 kids, 7 kids in Laos and two kids in the US. I'm going to visit my son and daughter in the US. I haven't seen them in a long time.

m: okay. Before, you said that you had your brother's son in the US and noone else.

A. Yes, my son and daughter are in the US.

m: okay. Why does your application say that you have a grandchild and a sister in the US, but doesn't mention a son, daughter, or nephew?

A. yes, my sister and nephew are in the US.

m. anyone else?

A. no.

m. Okay. Who filled out your form.

A. yes

m. No, who filled out your form for you? You didn't fill out your form, right?

A. my brother's son.

m. okay, your form says that your cousin filled out your form. Did you tell the person who filled out the form what to write?

A. my brother's son filled it out.

m. okay, have you ever traveled outside of Laos.

A. no.

m. okay, well.....

and there it ends. I won't say whether Mr. A got a visa or not, try to guess for yourselves.

And then it begins again.

It's very difficult many times to figure out if an applicant is trying to tell you what you want to hear, if they are just confused, or if they are purposely telling untruths. In the above, I don't think the man was actually purposely lying, but really, this is how it goes. So trying to get to the bottom of a story is very hard. Now, overlay jackhammers (we are undergoing reconstruction in the section) and the knowledge that there are many more people waiting to be interviewed, many times to the same end, and you get an idea of my day. Two days a week at least. We do visitor visas (as compared to immigrant visas) two days a week now, but are transitioning to three days a week as we speak, as the number of applicants is continually growing.

Technical Difficulties

So I guess there's something hinky going on with this blogging software or something because I put up the post about Aristotle Phonsavanh, the Lao democratic scholar this morning, but got an error message, so I retyped it, got an error message again, but then they are both on the site. So I deleted one, and it's deleted in our account here, but still up. So I deleted the other one, and it's disappeared from our account as well, but it's still up.


All day long the facilities management people have been jackhammering in the office next to mine to take down a wall. Makes for interesting conversations in Lao using a shotty microphone system through bulletproof glass.

(later) okay, blogger software seems to be fixed. And the FM people have stopped jackhammering....for now.

I believe it was Aristotle who once said...

I just had to respond to an inquiry regarding a visa applicant who has been refused a visa (by me).The inquiry ended with this gem regarding Democratic principles.

"Every child who wants to should be granted the chance to be at the funeral services of his or her mother and father regardless of where they live. One of the greatest principles of democracy is the the right to be at our mother and father's funeral services."

The problem is, probably 50% or more of our visa applicants are going to either a) a funeral, or b) to visit a close relative that is on their death bed. The other problem is that immigration law does not mention funerals, or death bed visits.

I have to say it's very hard to tell someone they can't go to their father/mother/brother/sister/ child's funeral. Hardest part of the job, to be honest. But, then again, I haven't had to make a phone call to next-of-kin to inform them that their son/daughter/father/mother has died yet. I imagine that is much harder.