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, July 27, 2006

NPR: A day in the life

Seems the previous post about NPR included only one in a series of the stories on FS Life.

There's more here.

Pictoral evidence of our fertile selves

We got some pictures on a disc of Katherine's recent ultrasound. Here's little Phillip/Katherine Jr. in all his/her glory (see, wouldn't it just be easier to know the sex? I would literally save seconds).

Boredom. There's no TV, no internet, no nothing in there to do.

Katherine thinks that he/she must be familiar with the works of Edvard Munch though.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

First, chew no gum*

That's the Hippocratic Oath**, right?

If not, it must be in the Singapore Constitution.

Okay, maybe not, but we will be investigating that the weekend of August 18 when we head to Singapore.

We pleaded with our friends Marty and Cyndy (and their kids) to come over to Bangkok for the weekend while they are in Asia. Finally, after much trash talk by me, Marty turned the tables and asked why we didn't just come to Singapore.

I don't know if he really meant it, or if he just wanted to shut me up. That was his first mistake. As many of you know, I never shut up.

So taking up the gauntlet that he threw down, I did a little research:

Me: 'Boss, can I get a half day off on the 18th?'

Boss: 'Take the whole day off. You don't do anything around here anyway.'

Research done, we got down to the planning (read: I got down to planning. Katherine is still unsure whether she can go, but in the end, she'll go. She LOVES not chewing gum.) and will likely be arriving in the fair city-state of Singapore on Air Asia about 15:30 on Friday the 18th. Asian discount airlines rule. We'll likely fly round trip for about $180 each.

Last time we saw Marty and Cyndy was about 4 years ago in San Francisco. She was very pregnant and he had a broken foot. We are one for two so far. Until we go to see them, I'm not walking or running anywhere. I don't want to give irony a chance to rear it's ugly head. Maybe it wouldn't be irony. Whatever it would be, I don't want any part of it.

*in fairness, I think that Singapore repealed the no chewing gum law a few years ago.
**yes, I know that 'First, Do No Harm' is not actually a part of the Hippocratic Oath.

Foreign Service Life

Ari, who I have on retainer to monitor NPR for any commie reports denigrating my beloved Foreign Service, sent me this link of a story by a FS Spouse on life in the FS.

Take a listen.

Romantic Proposal of the Day

In a letter submitted as a part of a fiance visa application:

'Hey there _____,

How have you been these past few months...I've been ok...we should get married...what do you think about that? Let me know...'

(note: elipses are as they were in the letter. I've not edited stuff out for affect.)

How do you say no to that?

Answer: You don't

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

And the Oscar goes to...

THIS GUY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That's right, like Dustin Hoffman (and other people I don't remember) before him, this guy won an Oscar.

A Hmong Oscar, that is.

Embracing their cultural uniqueness, and flouting copyright law with abandon, the Lao Community Association of Minnesota hosted the 'First Ever Hmong Academy and International Awards' in which they handed out 'Oscars' to singers, actors, dancers, and whoever else was able to obtain a visa to attend the event in St. Paul, MN.

This guy came back to the Embassy to show us that, yes, he did return to Laos as requested and yes, he has now vaulted into the rarified air of an A-list Hmong vocalist. From this day forward, he won't be known as Mouaxeng Leexayton, but as 'Oscar Winner' Mouaxeng Leexayton.

That is until he receives the Cease and Desist letter from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Their lawyers are pitbulls.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Admiral Fallon's Visit

What a ripoff. I'm not mentioned anywhere...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

10 fingers, 10 toes

Back from a quick 24 hour trip to Bangkok for Katherine's big ultrasound; the more substantial one they do at like 5.5 months or something to see that things are progressing normally.

Formed skull, in the normal range, 2 eyes, a nose, a mouth: check

palate un-cleft: check

4 chambers in the heart, normal aorta: check

2 kidneys, a bladder, a stomach: check

fully formed and normal spine: check

umbilical chord attached and working: check

sex of the baby: unknown. Katherine made us turn away for that part. The doctor and nurse
know, though, and it's killing me.

other stuff that I can't remember: check

10 fingers, 10 toes: actually don't know. The doc said that that is the one thing he doesn't tell parents, as an extra finger is somewhat common (not real common, but still) and easily fixable at birth, but that parents-to-be obsess about it if they know beforehand. But I counted the toes, and I saw 10, and I counted the fingers on one hand and saw 4 (the thumb was tucked under).

While we were watching, the baby stuck his/her fist in his/her mouth (will be a hit at parties if that ability continues into adolescence) and yawned 3 or 4 times.

We got some good pictures too. 1 lb. 3 oz. and growing.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Karaoke 101

Now, some might remember me calling my stunningly beautiful pregnant wife a loser recently for singing karaoke.

But let's remember context. In my searing indictment of Katherine, Dana and Goht, I specifically said that they did this silly thing called karaoke without the benefit of alcohol.

I'm different. Give me some alcohol, or, more accurately, give me lots of tasty Beer Lao, and I may, in fact, succumb to the karaoke gods. Tonight, I actually picked Yesterday, by the Beatles. A fitting song, I thought, as it was the first karaoke song I ever sang, at my 21st birthday celebration (friends were soon after told to take me home, lest I be reported to the police for my loutish behavior).

BUT, before Yesterday came up, I was cajoled into singing a song by one of the 20th century's greatest talents with Ae.

That's right. George Michael.

The song; 'Careless Whisper'.

And with that, I bring you 'Careless Whisper' as sung by two people both more talented and more sober than George Michael currently is...most likely.

We started out with a bit of a John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John vibe.

Then things heated up.

We were really selling it at this point.

Remember, everything looks, and sounds, better with alcohol. Posted by Picasa

The night continues

Xeng; A part-time employee, full-time student at the Lao American College, and one of the coolest cats in Laos. The guy exudes cool, and he doesn't even know it.

Dinner included a dish that, in local parlance, is called Nak Hong Tai Din, or Underground Singer. In the US, a band or singer that is considered 'underground' would be someone working their way up, trying to break out, only the cool kids know about them, exchanging concert dates on myspace or some other online venue I am not aware of.

In Laos, it means fried crickets.

Really, really not tasty. Okay, the taste wasn't so bad. But the texture (granted, I picked a big guy to be sure) and the filling left something to be desired. I guess I'm just not cut out to be a bug-eater. I gave it my all, though.

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So Long, Farewell, Hello

Exit Greg, Enter Mike.

Tonight we went to the Mekong Breeze, the lovely restaurant on the river that is the home of the Worst. Massage. Ever. But it's got good food, and it's a lovely spot on the river.

So, in honor of Greg's departure, and Mike's arrival, the consular section headed out tonight for a little celebration.

Greg is heading to Ho Chi Minh City, via Washington, DC and Hanoi (for a 6 month stint). Here he is spending a few last moments using his Lao. It will become obsolete the day he steps foot into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. They speak another language there.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Departure

That's me, 2nd from the right (Ambassador is on far right). And yes, I'm holding flowers. As a part of Protocol, they were given to the Admiral on departure. They were handed off, and I saw an opportunity to get some roses for my beautiful wife. I'm such a romantic.

After seeing the inside of the aircraft when it arrived, I called Katherine and told her my new career goal is to become head of Pacific Command. It's a nice plane.

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Alan Wilson, Style Guru

Phil Nervig, proud of his new footwear.

Crocs rule. Posted by Picasa

He Came, He Saw, He Lamvong'd

Admiral William J. Fallon, Commander, Pacific Command just left this morning after a short visit to Laos.

Yours truly was airport officer (again) for the C-40 (military designation for a 737) and the C-12 (smaller Beechcraft) that came in.

At the 11th hour, your humble scribe was also cast into the role of overall control officer, so I wore many hats (and had to change those hats often as they became soaked in sweat).

The CINCPAC travels with many staff, and even more crew. Lots of moving parts, but in the end, I think it all worked out.

More later, but now it's time for lunch.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I've been saying this for a long time

This is going to make our next home buying experience much less costly. Banks don't like owning houses.

Keep Eyes Fixed on Your Variable-Rate Mortgage

Published: July 15, 2006
The raising of interest rates on millions of adjustable rate mortgages over the next several years has all the makings of a classic horror story.
As home prices appreciated from ridiculously high to unbelievably higher, more Americans began using mortgages that allowed them to buy more house for less of a monthly payment. Next year, a large portion of those rates move up and homeowners who opted for the exotic mortgages could find their payments doubled. Talk about bloody. They need to find a way to minimize the pain.
Many will refinance their loans. But for others, whose mortgages now exceed the value of their homes or whose debt payments exceed 40 percent of their incomes, there may be no other solution than to get out of their houses. With the housing market cooling, selling it may not be easy. Some may default on their loans.


The article notes that 40% of mortgages in the Washington area in 2005 were interest only.

Note that the only people who aren't worried are mortgage brokers.

Monday, July 17, 2006

He's got high apple pie in the sky-y-y-y hopes

We are in the middle of the changing of the guard at the embassy. Not literally the guards. They are Lao guys with good jobs and aren't going anywhere.

But we've lost the DCM, Public Affairs officer and one of our Info Management guys, the Pol Officer departs Thursday, and my boss Greg leaves on the 27th. Finally, the Econ Officer leaves in early August. All will be replaced eventually, but only Greg's replacement, my new boss Mike, has actually arrived already. It is transfer season in the State Department.

Mike's first day was today, so we all headed out to the Sunset Bar after work to introduce him to the Embassy annex on the river. We ordered some beer and peanuts, and got down to discussing important things, like what the relatively new Canadian Prime Minister's name is.

At some point, someone noticed that a wayward peanut on the table was being systematically attacked by a bunch of ants. They were swarming around the peanut, and we all started watching to see if they would be able to move it.

Now, this might not seem like the height of excitement to many of you. In fact, a colleague noted that if we were in Paris or Brussels, it was highly unlikely that we would ever, in fact, find ourselves quietly cheering on a bunch of ants trying to move a peanut (technically, 1/2 a peanut).

From the tone of his voice, I'm not certain whether he thought we were the lucky ones or not.

We lost interest after a bit and got back to more important things, like discussing the North Korean restaurant that recently opened in Vientiane.

Then, wait...did the peanut just move? Indeed it did. The ants (all female, I learned. Only a very few male ants are in each colony, and they have a very specific job...if you know what I mean.) had gotten a good grip on the nut, sorry, legume, and were making steady progress toward the edge of the table.

One very smart ant who obviously has experience with snackfoods even thought to bring along some salt.

We watched it go all the way to the edge of the table, where it hovered for about a minute before plunging to the ground. But, unfortunately for the ants, the peanut fell straight through a crack in the floor and down to the ground 20 feet below. All that work for no payoff.

Here's the peanut just before the fall. They had moved it from the middle of the table. Industrious little bastards.

We felt so sorry for the ants that we put another peanut on the table for them, although I don't know why we thought the result would be any different.

In fact, it was, as we offered up a whole peanut for them the second time. They put in a good effort, but to no avail.

Greg Chapman, the departing Political Officer, relying on his years of experience in the State Department distilling complex political issues into coherent and concise descriptions, concluded "well, I guess that's the difference between a peanut and a half a peanut."

We will sorely miss Greg's insight when he leaves. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, July 15, 2006

and lest I forget...

Side view

Front view. Four months to go.

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Why don't you come with me little girl...*

...on a Magic Carpet ride.

This morning Katherine and I returned to place our order with Ismed and his wife Lanni at Lao Magic Carpet. Ismed brought Turkmeni carpet-making knowhow to Laos and married it with the tradition of Lao silk to create lovely, 100% silk, naturally dyed, hand-made carpets.

They make traditional patterns, and have also created their own. We decided on a more contemporary design in browns, tans, purples, blues and golds. It's a larger version of the 3rd one from the top on this page.

Ismed and Lanni just got back from a London carpet show where they basically sold out their stock, so they are in the process of building it back up. As such, our order won't be started for a month or so, and will then take more than three months to complete.

We'll get to watch the progress, which should be fun. I've never commissioned anything before. I feel so high society.

Katherine negotiates a price. It was actually less a negotiation than a friendly conversation wherein the two parties agreed on what is a considerable sum of money but well worth it for the quality (I hope). I guess that is the very definition of a negotiation.

Hand-spun, naturally-dyed silk, drying in the sun.

*lyrics, not lecherousness. Posted by Picasa

Saturday in the Rain

Standing on our porch, you can just sense the rain coming. You feel it. A slight change in the temperature and the humidity, followed by gusting winds. Then the clouds open up and buckets of rain come down. It happens fast enough that many people get caught out, so they find the nearest shelter and hunker down for a bit.

We are, thankfully, comfortable in our mostly water-proof house right now, as we are in mid-downpour.

I love the rainy season.

Other ways to cope with the rain when you absolutely, positively have to go out:

1. Share a poncho with your buddy. Warning, this may impede ability to see;
2. Drive your motorbike one-handed, second hand firmly gripping Beer Lao umbrella.

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Dorks with Mics

What do you get when you put together 3 women, none of whom are drinking (because two are pregnant and one is a loser) and a birthday?

That's right, home karaoke concert!

Katherine, Goht and Dana went out to dinner, then sat in Goht's TV room belting out grrrrl power songs by Gloria Gaynor, Aretha Franklin, and Ani Difranco (or whoever).

On second thought, 3 losers. Seriously, how does this happen without copious amounts of alcohol and impaired judgement?

Dana and Goht, probably singing Islands in the Stream, or Endless Love, or some other tasty duet.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Shoes Overseas, Phase 2

So tomorrow morning we're heading back to Hope's Promise to deliver round two of the fruits of Dean Colvin's labors. There were some kids who didn't get shoes that fit last time, so we are hoping they find some this time.

We've separated out the shoes into boxes by size and made up a little shoe chart to use this time so we can get the fit right, and also to get the sizes of those kids who don't find shoes this time around. See if we can't do a few special orders.

Reporting on the first round here and herePosted by Picasa

Two glowing deities

Buddha, and my pregnant goddess. The baby has started to move around alot more. Katherine feels it all the time, but I think it's mostly on the inside. I've felt a few big kicks. Very cool, and very strange.

Buddha doesn't kick. He just kind of stands there. Notice he is standing on our mini-chair (made by our night guard as a mini-replica of our dining room chairs. I don't want to think about how long he stood staring in the window to get the details right). It's because Buddha doesn't stand on the floor. I guess that's a rule.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Ya ain't gettin' nuthin from me, mofos.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Starting to sound like a broken record...

So more than a year has passed since we have moved to this wonderful world called Laos. As such, some of our stories may become repetitive. So yesterday was Khaw Phan Saa (Beginning of Buddhist Lent.) Morning was going to the temples to give alms, as all good Buddhists do.

Then that night, we went to the candle ceremony, wherein people mill around for a long time while monks chant, then they mill around some more. Then they all light candles and walk in a circle around the temple a number of times.

How many times, I ask a young lady sitting next to us...

' depends,' she said, 'on how many times you want to go around.'

And THAT, my friends, is why I love Buddhism.

So we went around 1.3 times, as we needed to complete at least one revolution, so we wouldn't go to Buddhist hell, and then another .3 revolutions to get to our car. Ahh, Buddhism. A religion that caters to what is convenient to your car. I never remember Immanuel Lutheran Church traditions ending near our car.

Today was a lovely day at work. I ended the day feeling relatively stressed. A number of contributing factors. But I have found a wonderful stress reliever. It's a multi-step stystem, but I am in the process of patenting the procedure.

Step 1. Have a stressful day.

Many things contributed to my stress level, although one thing did make me laugh. Okay, Chinese is a hard language, right? When you speak no Chinese, and you think of what Chinese sounds like, what do you think in your head. Think of it in your head. You got it? Okay. So I interviewed a guy whose name was Chuechengchongcha today. That was his first name. No kidding. That was his first name. If I was to pretend to speak Chinese without knowing anything about the language, I might say Chuechengchongcha. Instead, it's a guy's first name. Maybe it's not THAT funny, but I was grasping for pretty much anything today. And I thought it was an interesting name.

Step 2. Yell at other drivers as you drive home.

Drivers in Laos (warning: gross generalization coming, but one that is relatively true across the board) never, EVER, look before changing lanes, turning, pulling out, or generally doing anything on any form of motorized conveyance. As such, one has ample opportunity to let off steam yelling at strange and dangerous things that people do in cars and on motorbikes while driving home after a stressful day of work. This helps to relieve some stress.

Step 3. Stop at the corner store and pick up some beer.

$0.80 per bottle, $0.70 if you promise to return the bottles to the store when empty. Much cheaper than stress/anger management therapy, and, if I'm not mistaken, from what I've read, most medical professionals recommend alcohol to deal with stress and myriad other problems.

Step 4. Drink it.

Step 5. Go for a massage.

You are already relatively relaxed before the massage starts, what with all the beer you have drunk. Now, in addition, you are getting a massage. It's like finding two prizes in your box of Lucky Charms.

You will leave feeling no stress at all.

In fact, you won't even care when the tuk-tuk drivers try to rip you off for the ride home. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The End

Phimai is a quaint but vibrant little town. We were there in the late afternoon, as they shut down a few side streets near the town square and set up a small market. We wandered through the market for a while until something caught our eyes.

Fresh corn on the cob, and a table for two with front row seats to the after school excercise program that was going on in the town square.

On our way out of town, we tracked down the Say Ngam (or Beautiful Banyan Tree), purpurtedly the largest (35,000 square feet) and oldest (350 years) banyan tree in Thailand. It was declared the oldest and largest banyan tree after the Queen visited in 1920 (or some year around there) and declared it 'beautiful'.

It wasn't on any map we could find, so we pulled over at what looked like it might be some sort of tourist restuarant and asked directions. The lady was very excited to help, especially after she learned I could speak Lao/Thai/Isan. She drew a great map for us to follow, complete with landmarks. Problem was, she drew it on her hand, so we couldn't take it with us. But it was still helpful enough that we found the place without further assistance.

It was sort of neat, in a strange way, an immense root system with paths throughout. Not much else there, except a woman selling fish (likely caught in the nearby reservior). We declined to purchase. Seemed a strange souvenir for us.

After the Beautiful Banyan Tree, we headed to the straight, flat, smooth, wide, wonderful 4-lane highway #2 and turned right for an 80 minute drive to Khon Kaen. Back to the Sofitel without a reservation.

Do you have a room for us? Why yes we do
Do you have a German brewpub in the basement? Why yes we do
Do you mind if I have some wienerschnitzel and a lot of beer? Why no we don't

Bless you Sofitel.

So the trip was a complete success, with one minor, heart-wrenching incident. Monday morning, on the way to Phanom Rung from Surin, making good time.

Like rural Laos, rural Thailand has much to watch out for as you drive; kids, dogs, cows, motorbikes, bicycles, trucks, etc. All of which could be coming down your lane the wrong way, or dart out in front of you. You really have to stay alert. And I was.

Let me put it this way. At least I didn't hit a kid. Or a cow, as we would likely have gotten the worst of that. And, in my defense, it was the dog's fault.

A re-creation of the incident can be found here (except there was no blind guy to my knowledge).

The dog was kind of sauntering down the shoulder on the other side of the road, and for some reason, when we were about 80 feet from him, he decided to haul ass across the road. Oncoming traffic and narrow shoulders precluded any maneuver to try to avoid the dog, so I just slammed on the breaks with both feet, sat up in my seat, and yelled. Too late though, and I hit him pretty square, a sickening sound.

We pulled over and got out. I walked back to ensure the dog was dead, and not suffering, while Katherine (who was, in her defense, freaking out) in Lao started asking a few gathered people if what we had hit was a family cat or a street cat. No, it was not a family cat.

Thankfully, the dog was dead. I would have been surprised to find it otherwise, given the impact. Sadly, the dog was wearing a collar. I looked around for an owner, or for anyone who might know the owner. I had no better luck than Katherine and her cat questions.

Other dogs had gathered around and were kind of acting confused and howling. I assume they were saying something like 'Carl? Carl? Get up Carl. What did you do to Carl, you bastard?' All I could tell them was I was sorry.

Later that day, as we neared Khon Kaen, a huge rainbow appeared out the right side of the car. I'd like to think that the rainbow was Carl the dog sending me a message that he was in doggy heaven, and that everything was alright.

Katherine said that I was being stupid, and that rainbows are a natural phenomena caused by the same principle by which glass prisms cast colored light. Light from the sun enters the raindrop and is refracted and reflected off the back of the raindrop into your eye. Different wavelengths of light refract at different angles. For example, blue light is reflected back at a sharper angle (40 degrees) than red light (42 degrees). A rainbow is created by millions of raindrops, each at a different angle and each reflecting a different color into the eye of the beholder.

Well, Duh.

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So Phimai. It wasn't on our itinerary, but it was recommended as a nice stop, and hey, we didn't have anything else to do except keep driving so we could keep listening to Alan Furst's The Foreign Correspondent on tape, read by Alfred Molina. Yes, this Alfred Molina. Prasat Hin Phimai was built about a century before the main Angkor temples in Siem Reap, to which it was eventually connected by road. The ruins are in the middle of the town of Phimai, which likely is set on the same streets as were used in the 11th century.

Phimai is near Nakon Ratchasima, AKA Korat, a large city that is the gateway to NE Thailand. As such, Prasat Hin Phimai had more tourists, but still not many. We were extremely lucky in all our visits to have the places either entirely, or virtually, to ourselves.

A group of novice monks were hanging around outside the temple walls goofing around. Two young Thai girls were walking around taking closeup pictures of each other just about every two minutes, and the young novices were captivated. They would huddle together, casting furtive glances towards the girls, then one would venture off to walk toward them, only to walk right past to the other side of the temple entrance where they all regathered and discussed their daring acts (or discussed something).

The third novice successfully walks by two young Thai girls and reaches the relative safety of the temple's side door.
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