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.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Attention: Editor Needed

Nok Air is a wonderful discount airline in Thailand that runs, among other routes, between Udon Thani and Bangkok. About $80 round trip, up from $60 because of a recently added fuel surcharge, but still not bad at all for a trip to Bangkok and back.

As an added bonus, you get to fly in a plane that is painted to look like a friendly giant bird.

However, because it is a budget airline, there are no free drinks (even water costs money), but that's okay, as the flight is only 50 minutes.

They also have advertisements on the overhead compartments.

Now, I don't know what Zeason (Zelson?) has on offer, but I hope it's not English language training.

Poker, pregnancy, and pollo delicioso

This summer there is a large turnover in embassy staff. We're losing some people with considerable time in country. To wit: Political officer (5 years), Econ Officer (5 years), Public Affairs officer (4 years) and Consular Chief (4 years), along with the DCM and one of our Info Management officers, who have each put in 2 years in Vientiane. As such, we are also losing a number of our regular poker players. So on Thursday night, we had our penultimate poker game (penultimate because at what was supposed to be the last poker game before people start leaving, we made a plan to play next week too). We had to make it a quicker game, as the US played Ghana starting at 9:00 pm that night. In retrospect, we should have just continued playing poker.

Friday after work, we jumped in the car with our friends Jon and Rose and headed for the bridge. We dropped them at the train station (overnight train for them, very romantic) and continued on to the airport (1 hour flight for us, very efficient) to go to Bangkok. Saturday at 11:00 am we found that Katherine is still healthy, the baby is healthy, and likes to scratch his/her head. I've started to think that finding out the sex of the baby is a good thing, if only to be able to say his (or her) rather than his/her or it.

Later, we met up with Jon and Rose at their choice of Bangkok hotels, the Atlanta. A prominently displayed sign outside signals the type of hotel it is not: NO SEX TOURISTS ALLOWED. Hence, Katherine and I stayed elsewhere. We stayed a stones throw away as the crow flies, but a 25 minute walk away, at Jim's Lodge (an effort to break Katherine (okay, and me) from getting used to 5 star accomodations. Jim's lodge is on Soi Ruamrudee, just behind the US Embassy. The Atlanta is on Soi 2 (the next soi over). However, it is divided by the expressway, so you have to walk all the way up to Sukhumvit Road, go under the overpass, and back all the way down Soi 2.

We had lunch at the Atlanta, then, while trying to decide what movie to go see, I inquired rather people might be more interested in a massage. It was unanimous, and a massage it was.

Saturday night, we headed to Soi 11 to my A-100 classmate A.D. Tranchina's apartment for a cocktail before heading out for some mexican food. Our first choice, Senor Pico's, had no space until 10:00 pm, so we headed out to the Silom neighborhood to Coyote on Convent. This time, thankfully, there was no election the next day, and they happily served us Margaritas (and virgin margaritas for the pregnant among us.

Jon, clearly angry at Katherine for taking his picture (while in Laos he's reverted to the animist belief that a camera steals your soul) and me, clearly watching to see if Jon does indeed lose his soul as the photo is snapped. Diagnosis: To the extent that the bastard had a soul to begin with, it's likely still intact.

Rose and special guest star A.D. at Coyote on Convent. A.D. is in Bangkok until next spring, when he will head to Tokyo for his next tour.

Jon and Rose, good people that they are, traveled to Bangkok to meet up with some friends arriving at the airport. As such, they left after dinner to head out to the airport. Coming from New York, where you wouldn't go to the airport to meet Jesus Christ, Buddha and Allah if they were all coming in for a weekend visit, but rather give them your address and tell them to hop in a cab, we were a bit non-plussed at their dedication to their friends. The word Suckers came to mind.

They'll hop on another overnight train tonight with their friends in tow to head back to Vientiane.

We came back to rain and a visit to Tesco-Lotus, the British version of Walmart, in Udon Thani to see what kinds of baby stuff we can get here rather than have them shipped from the US. If the rain stops, I'm playing tennis this evening. If not, the couch.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Mail Call

Either Diana and Alan are going senile, and can't remember Katherine and my last name, or they are pissed that Katherine changed her name to Nervig, and are trying to stick it to us. I think it's the former.

Tranche 2 of soccer cleats arrived today. 5 more boxes of shoes from Dean Colvin and his soccer teammates in Huntington, NY. They will, unfortunately, stay boxed up for at least the next 4 days, as we are heading to Bangkok tomorrow right after work for Katherine's Saturday morning checkup with Dr. Sankiat at Samitivej Hospital. And, as I said before, for Mexican Food. We'll try to get them out to Hope's Promise next week, but they may have to wait until after the 4th of July and our trip to Cambodia. I just learned that Banteay Chmmar is close to Pol Pot's former headquarters and current grave, so we may have to make a bit of a detour to see that too, if it's feasible. Rainy season roads in NW Cambodia leave a lot to be desired, I'm told.

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Phil Nervig...Bridge Builder

So on Monday afternoon at about 3:30 pm, I get a call from the DCM. The Political Officer who was to represent the Ambassador at a ceremony for the 21 successful graduates of a 5-month Senior Explosive Ordnance Device Technician training program couldn't make it. I was tapped to fill in. Just one thing. I had to give remarks on behalf of the USG. No problem, I said. I've done it before, and I have spent considerable time working on UXO issues for the Embassy. Great, says the DCM, you are on. Tuesday, 2:00 pm.

5 minutes later. Another phone call. Oh, by the way, says the DCM, you have to give your speech in Lao. Seems that remarks had to be submitted 3 days in advance so they could be translated for the assembled group. Because Greg, the POL officer, speaks Lao like Lao person with a master's degree in Lao, he was just going to give his remarks in Lao, so no remarks were submitted.

Now, sure, I can hold my own in Lao, but I certainly don't speak Lao like a laureate, like Greg does. Greg is one of those annoying people who decides to teach himself Khmer on a whim and speaks proficiently within a few months. Anyway, I speak Lao to people every day, but it is usually in small groups, and they usually want something from me (e.g. a visa to the US) so they are very forgiving of my myriad tonal and word-usage mistakes. This group, not so much.

I wrote up some quick remarks and, after a few minutes of trying to translate them into Lao, handed them off to consular staff to take over. Getting them back Tuesday morning, I started to practice. Tones, short/long sounds, and strange throaty vowel sounds were now my enemy. Say Som Seuey, and you are saying Congratulations, say Som Suey, and you are saying Beauty Product (makeup and the like). Very different meanings, and probably confusing to the assembled crowd if I started my speech by saying:

"On behalf of Ambassador Haslach and the United States Embassy, I would like to say Beauty Product to the graduates of this important training program"

Anyway, I had a 40 minute drive to the event, and I used the time to repeatedly congratulate the embassy driver just to get in some last minute practice.

I was one of three foreigners speaking from the dias that day. The UNDP resrep and a representative of the Australian version of USAID (aptly named AUSAID) were there as well. And NEITHER of them spoke in Lao, nor had had their remarks translated in advance. So I was off the hook. I could retreat back to English. Sure, none of the graduates, and most of the other assembled various and sundry Lao people, wouldn't understand a thing I was saying, but at least I would say it correctly.

To hell with that, thought I, I will charge ahead with my jumbled and mumbled Lao speech. And so, here it is. 5 minutes of hell. I did, however, do a pretty damn good job. It was more reading than speaking, but I did add a few off the cuff asides so that I could gaze triumphantly at the audience, who faces registered a mixture of surprise and boredom (if such a combination is possible). Surprise at the fact that a Farang was giving a speech in Lao, and boredom because I was the 5th of 6 people to speak. I followed the course coordinator, the Vice Minister of Labor (to my left), the UNDP resrep (far left), and the director of programs for UXO Lao.

Note the glistening forehead. It was a bit nerve-wracking in the moments leading up to the launch of my speech, and I did break out into a bit of a shvitz, but once I got into the flow of it, it was actually pretty fun. I did, however, forget to tighten my tie.

After my speech, and after the ceremony finished up, the Vice Minister smiled at me, shook my hand and said "You speak Lao language good." I promptly corrected his English.

Okay, no I didn't.

A surprise addition to my duties came when the M.C. called me up to pass out certificates of appreciation to the international experts who organized and taught the training course. More surprising was that the women who handed me the certificates to give to the recipients had them in no particular order. As such, I had to explain to Nigel Mulroy, for example, that he was getting the certificate for Brian Stevens, and that he just needed to go with it.

The graduating class. These guys are the cream of the crop of UXO Lao's clearance technicians. As SEOD Techs, they will be responsible for the overall clearance operations in their respective provinces, and particularly for more difficult operations, such as big bombs, white phosphorous, or water-based UXO. Most provinces also have international UXO experts working alongside the Lao, but as time goes on, those people will move further into the background and let the Lao take the lead.

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Just another weekend in Vientiane

I finally decided to capture what has become a relatively common ritual in our happy little household. It plays out probably four times a week.

1. Katherine goes to bed before me (she's sleeping for two now, you know)

2. Jak heads up to bed sometime after Katherine, but before me.

3. I follow later. When I get into the room and start moving around and making some noise, Katherine grunts or sighs and rolls over, while Jak inevitably stirs, comes out from under the covers if he has burrowed himself in, stretches, and heads over for a long drink of water from Katherine's water glass.

It's gotten so that he rarely drinks out of his water bowl at all any time of the day, preferring the more civilized water glass. And if he takes an interest in your water but the water is too low or the glass is to narrow for his head to fit in, he sits and stares at you until you pick up your water and tilt it so he can get a drink.

And so I present to you, "Saturday Night in Vientiane". I assure you that Katherine is wearing a nightgown, even if she looks totally nekkid. I'm not about to post psuedo-porn of my wife. Not here, anyway.

This morning I went to Victory Park golf course near Nong Khai, Thailand with our friend Jon, he of 3-legged race fame. It is his 36th birthday, so he celebrated by playing a terrible round of golf. He's generally a good golfer (better than me anyway), and he even won the coveted Caddy Scholarship for the state of Wisconsin (yes, the same caddy scholarship that Danny was competing for in Caddyshack. 4 years of college tuition. Pretty nice), so when he suggested that we lower the stakes we usually play for, I readily agreed. $0.10 per hole, just to make it interesting.

Of course, today is the day I played well and he played like crap. If you click on the picture, you can see my ball about 4 feet from the pin. I still missed the birdie putt, but what are you going to do? I think by the end of the day he owed me about $1.20. Awesome.

Tuk tuks waiting for fares at the Nong Khai train station, where we stopped after the round so Jon could buy tickets for an upcoming trip to BKK.
Rain finally came to Vientiane tonight. It's been about 12 days or so with no rain, and the area farmers have been getting a bit nervous, as their newly planted rice struggles in cracked, dry soil. I was at work when the rain started, with some impressive thunder, and the requisite follow-on power outage. Thankfully, the Embassy is equipped with backup power that kicks in immediately, as I had been working on a presentation for tomorrow and hadn't saved my 2 hours of work. I remedied that quickly, then finished up. It's much easier to get work done on weekends without all those pesky visa applicants and Americans with problems.

Of course, my three main job requirements in order of importance are 1) Americans with problems, 2) pesky visa applicants, and 3) everything else that does not include 1 or 2, so 'getting work done' on weekends is relative (and, by the way, the visa applicants are not pesky, I just like the word).

The rain had slowed by the time I left the embassy at 11:00 pm, but it left some substantial puddles for me to drive through, which is always fun. Post-rain Vientiane on a Sunday night at 11:00 pm is eerily quiet and dark. Driving home I thought of the movie "28 Days Later." Well, not the movie itself, but rather the trailer, as that is all I've ever seen. It basically consisted of a guy walking around a deserted downtown London.

I think in the end it had something to do with a global plague that turned people into flesh eating zombies that the guy had to wail on or something, but Vientiane wasn't like that, just the walking around a deserted London part. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The committee

The committee, including a number of very nice people from the Deseret Organization (the Mormons). You can tell them by their nametags. The guy in the middle, in the tan shirt and shorts, is Steve, a New Yorker who has been here for about a decade. His company in Lao Mountain Coffee, which some of you have tasted here, or in the US, if you were lucky enough to get some of the samples Katherine brought back with her.

Noy is the woman in red to the right of Katherine. She's been my secret crush (at least according to Katherine) ever since the Valentine's Day party we went to where she was wearing a stunning red dress and dancing up a storm. Very mesmerizing.

And of course the two pregnant chicks on the end, Katherine and Goht.

Speaking of pregnant, next Friday we're heading to Bangkok for Katherine's next checkup. And Mexican food.

But tomorrow morning I'm heading across the border to Victory Park for some golf with our friend Jon, seen below losing the 3-legged race, but giving it his all.

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Lee Greenwood on the Mekong

Today was the American Community Picnic, held at the Embassy soccer field. It is not, however, an Embassy event, but rather it is put together by a group of volunteers. Katherine was one of those volunteers, so she's been rather busy with the planning, and today, with the execution.

This guy was into the whole experience.

One small snafu. The committee hired a guy to blow up balloons for the kids. Kids love helium balloons, afterall. What kids probably don't care about, but what parents do, is when the pretty balloons are not filled with helium, but still float. What else is lighter than air? It's important for such a child-centric fun piece of stretched rubber to be filled with an inert gas.

So people would be less than thrilled if such a balloon was filled with, say, hydrogen.

As such, peope were less than thrilled to find out the balloons were being filled with hydrogen.

So the beginning of the picnic went something like this...

"Hey kid, you want a balloon?"

5 minutes later....

"Hey kid, give me back that balloon."

Really quite a tease if you ask me. And hydrogen isn't THAT flammable, is it? Oh, yes it is. Anyway, there were about 20 kids running around with mini-Hindenburgs before people realized what was happening.

Katherine and the other committee losers wore red, making them look like Target employees. Volunteers...what jerks.

Editorial Comment from Katherine: The pretty lady next to me is my good friend Dana who I dragged into to volunteering so she might not call me a friend anymore.

This guy was decidedly unimpressed with the National Anthem.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Celebrating our nation's birth the right way... going to the ruins of an ancient civilization.

Katherine and I are going on a road trip.

Saturday, July 1, we are going to pile in the car and head South through Thailand to Khao Phra Wihan (in Thai), or Praeh Vihear (in Khmer), a cliffside ruin that pre-dates Angkor. The site sits on the border, and the easiest access is actually from the Thai side, as it sits on a 600 meter cliff. The temple complex was the cause of a long-running dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, finally given to Cambodia in 1963 by the World Court because, well, it's a Khmer ruin. Historical sites are still emotional touchstones for the Thais and Cambodians, as demonstrated when in 2003 a popular Thai soap star was said to have stated that Angkor Wat was 'stolen' from Thailand. In response, Cambodian protesters burned down the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh and attacked Thai-owned businesses.

From there, we will head into northwest Cambodia, former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, to visit Banteay Chhmar (Bawn-tay Ch-ma), a large, and largely unrestored temple complex in the jungle. Banteay Chhmar was a favorite of Lara Croft-like raiders, who took many of the statues and reliefs before order was restored in the area in the mid-90s. Regardless, it should be cool. A lesser temple complex than Angkor, to be sure, but still stunning, and blissfully devoid of tourist hordes, at least as compared to Angkor.

This weekend, however, we are staying close to home. Tomorrow is the American Community Picnic. Katherine is on the organizing committee, and I'm scheduled to pour sodas and beer for a few hours.

more shoe pictures

When we arrived, the guys were playing a little pickup soccer at their indoor space. Note the lack of shoes. Of course, cleats probably wouldn't help much here on the concrete, but they will at their regular soccer field down the street.

Everyone lined up calmly by relative foot size. The littlest kids were not there that day, but we had plenty of shoes to leave for them to get later. We started by going smallest feet first, but the whole enterprise soon devolved into barely-controlled chaos...but in a good way.

The scrum. Katherine held her own, though.

We had a tough time getting a good group shot, although I think this shot is probably the best of the bunch, better than the more organized one I posted earlier. It was hard to get everyone to pay attention to the group photo, as they were too busy admiring their new shoes and their neighbors' new shoes. Very cool.

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Jar site 2 sat in a copse of trees on a little hill about 20 KM down a bumpy dirt road from site 1. Site 3 was about an hour walk from site 2, but we didn't have enough time for the hike. While site 2 is much smaller than site 1, it was a much more peaceful, spiritual place, overlooking lush green valleys and rice paddies, mountains in the distance, with a breeze blowing through the surrounding trees.

It was here that we developed our theory that the jars are just a big practical joke played on humans by some alien race, who put strange things around the world, then sat back and laughed as they watched us try to figure them out. Occam's Razor, my friends, look it up.

The drive took us past beautiful terraced rice paddies that were just being planted.

Terrace patterns as seen from the window of the Yak-12 we flew home. The old bait and switch. Oh sure, the larger, radar-equipped ATR flies between Phonsavanh and Vientiane...except when it doesn't.

No matter, it was still a nice, smooth flight. And I can report that the flight is much nicer in seat 3A (window, single seat row) than in seat 6A (no window, back of the plane), but in seat 6A at least I sat next to my sexy wife. Posted by Picasa

And so the Jars

So a week later and I remember that I visited Xieng Khuang and the Plain of Jars. We had some time after our meetings, briefings and site visits with MAG to go out and take a look at these mysterious stone jars, and to formulate some pretty strong theories about why these things exist. I won't ruin it for you now, you can read all about the theories in our article in upcoming edition of The New England Journal of Strange, Cool, and Historical Stuff that Phil Has Figured Out.

MAG has cleared 3 Jar sites thus far, and are gearing up to clear a 4th site in the near future. Instructions leading up to Jar site 1. To summarize, stay on the path.

Jars in the distance. Site 1 is the largest cleared site (and maybe the largest known site, I'm not sure), but there are 60-some sites that have been found around the plain, most with just a few jars. This site goes from the hill I'm standing on, down to the valley seen below, and up another hill. It's just outside of town, so as you walk to the top of the second hill, you get a great view of the town in the distance, and the 10 MIGs that make up the Lao Air Force grounded for lack of spare parts. I've heard that they are kept in Xieng Khuang because once the Japanese built the new airport in Vientiane they required it to be civilian only. But Lao military helicopters still take off and land from Vientiane, so I'm probably wrong.

Lee, MAG translator for all of three months. And what did he do before that? Well, he was a tour guide, of course. As such, we had some great stories, insights, myths, etc.

For instance, do you know why water buffalo are beasts of burden? No? Well neither did I. But I do now.

It seems that in the distant past, Buddha needed to get a message to humans. You see, humans were eating too often. Two meals a day. Buddha told his friend the water buffalo to take an important, and time-sensitive dispatch down to earth. Humans were to eat one meal every three days. (As an aside, I'm not sure why Buddha was so insistent on the fasting, that wasn't part of the story).

The water buffalo, being a bit lazy, or tired, or both, overslept. When he woke up, he was a bit groggy, looked at his watch (or the sun, or however water buffalo tell time) and beat feet down to the humans. When he got there, though, he mixed up the message, and, much to the humans' delight, told them that Buddha decrees that, from that day forward, humans should eat three meals each day.

Well, the Buddha was none-too-pleased, and realized that the humans would need some extra help to get that extra meal every day (being humans, they surely wouldn't disobey the Buddha, and being humans, they were likely gluttonous, even if they were just eating rice). As such, because it was the water buffalo's screw-up in the first place, Buddha sent the water buffalo to earth to toil in the fields for, and, as it turns out, to be eaten for dinner by, the humans.

That's a true story.

This is the largest Jar that has been found thus far. Competing theories have it that the stones were brought from a nearby quarry, or from somewhere far away that hasn't been found yet. They are thought to be about 2000 years old, and some say they were used as burial urns or food stores. Who knows, maybe they were created by a tribe of cannibals, and so they were used for both.
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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pitching in

Katherine helped to keep the sizes sorted and to match people with shoes.

A bunch of kids had tried on their shoes and were kind of sitting there looking confused. Turns out, they don't know how to tie shoes, having worn nothing, or flip flops, for most of their lives. So I became the official shoe tie guy for a while.

It was great to see the faces light up as the kids found shoes that fit. In some cases, they were probably a little big or small, but they would say, 'no, it fits' because maybe they liked the cool silver color, or were worried that they wouldn't find another pair that was as good a fit. Either way, Dean and his high school soccer team made a lot of Lao kids VERY happy today. Posted by Picasa

Some sharp-looking cleats

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As many of you may know, a former colleague at Calyon (nee Credit Lyonnais) named Bob has a son who plays high school soccer on Long Island, and he (Dean, the son) organized a soccer shoe drive at his end of season banquet. He was a victim of his own success, as they collected about 150 pair of gently used cleats. About 70 of them arrived in the mail or were carried back from the US by me. Today, Katherine and I went over to an organization called Hope's Promise, that runs after school activities for at-risk youth that includes, among other things, a soccer program. 99% of the kids who play on the teams play barefoot, so they were very excited at the prospect of soccer shoes.

Unfortunately, there were some kids who didn't get shoes today, because their sizes had all been given out, and one kid, who wasn't too big but for some reason had GIANT feet. They were all very gracious and now look forward to our next visit when the remaining shoes arrive and they get a second crack at it.

Trying on the shoes.

Proud owner of his first pair of soccer cleats.

Some of the guys that didn't get shoes today got t-shirts and hats that Dean included in a shipment. More shirts were requested, and I think Bob said that he and Dean had included more jersey-type shirts in the final shipment, so we will be able to deliver.

The kids were all very excited and very appreciative. Even the kids who didn't get shoes today (but hope for shoes in the near future) were thankful. After we go back with the rest of the shoes, we'll have to go watch a few games at the nearby football pitch (that's a soccer field to all you Americans).

Hopefully the initial success will spur Dean's team to collect even more shoes next season. Posted by Picasa

My growing bride

Thought we would post a progress report. Belly growing*.

*Disclaimer from Katherine: This was just after she ate dinner, so she was a bit bloated. Posted by Picasa