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, August 31, 2006

Rest in Peace, Sophie.

We just heard that Jak's friend Sophie died about two weeks ago of an unknown illness. One of our guards reported that he saw Sophie eating/playing with a snake a while back, and she was sick for a while after that, but who knows what the ultimate cause was.

Even before Jak came into our lives and our house, Sophie was always hanging around. Looking for a playmate, maybe.

We'd come home and she'd be lounging on one of our porch chairs, or under it, but she was always too skittish to let us get too close. Fickle cat. She'd avail herself of our yard and furniture, but was too good for our affection.

So we've known Sophie for a long time, and then she became Jak's best friend. Her death has left Jak without a playmate (besides us, of course), which means that he doesn't use as much energy in a day as he used to, which means that he's turning wilder again. Jak still goes outside to look around for her, but she hasn't been around for about a month. I think he's lonely.

Anyway, R.I.P. Sophie.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mmmm.....rotisserie chicken...

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Random walk concluded...

I felt after our walk that I deserved a bit of a treat. The cornetto signs you see around town are like a siren song, always drawing me in. Here I am contemplating the tasty goodness that is a cornetto classico (vanilla).

No nasty strawberry for me, even if the advertisement was pushing that flavor. I'm not completely defenseless against the marketing geniuses.

Katherine decided that we had walked enough, and that a tuk-tuk home was in order. I guess if you sort of waddle rather than walk, you probably use more energy. Plus, she is walking for two now. So we hopped into a tuk-tuk, and I thought that the guy's rearview mirror afforded a good perspective for a self-portrait.

This afternoon we spent some time at the Aussie club with Amy and Josh Archibald, the new Public Affairs and Econ officer respectively (and their 1 year old kid). Amy is pregnant too, and will give birth to twins about 2 weeks after Katherine.

Tonight Jon and Rose are coming over for some rotisserie chicken and a bottle of wine. Posted by Picasa

A random walk down Vientiane

So by mutual consensus, sleeping in this morning became more important than a bike ride in Phou Khao Khuay. As such, Katherine and I decided that we would take a long walk today instead, walking being a generally safe activity for those in the baby way.

Down the street from our house is this place, which looks like it could have been a cafe at some point, but which now is empty. I'm not sure whether the whole building is the fuselage, or if the cockpit is from a plane left over from or crashed during the war, or what. It's kind of interesting though.

The two sides of Laos are on display throughout town. Rich vs. barely scraping by. A small shack where a family sells tam mak huang and charcoal in front of a huge, newly built house. The mansion owner owns a large development of houses that he rents to foreigners. He was an early mover, and has made some good money. At this point, there is a glut of new houses and rents are coming way down all over the city. Supply has overtaken demand for high-end housing in town.

The Thai have invaded again. But this time, instead of burning Vientiane to the ground and stealing the emerald Buddha, or Phra Kaew, they are arriving en masse in double decker buses too large for the streets of Vientiane, disgorging from the buses in matching yellow polo shirts , and visiting the previous home of the emerald Buddha and other sites of Vientiane.

There is a small neighborhood called Don Chan that, during the rainy season, is basically an island. In the dry season, the water is low enough that the flooded area is drained and used by farmers. The only access is by a small bridge, just large enough for pedestrians and motorbikes.
The island is a small, residential neighborhood, with not much in the way of interesting things to see, unless you want to walk around and stare at people as they go about their daily lives. I guess that's what alot of tourism is about in a place like Laos, though.

Oh, look, Hmong people in traditional dress. Oh, look, Akha people shopping for food. Oh, look, Luang Prabang people giving food to monks. Yes, we are guilty of this, but I always wonder what it would be like to be on the other side.

Imagine sitting in your office working, shopping at the store, hanging out with some friends at the park, or doing whatever it is that you do, and a bunch of foreigners show up and start staring and talking a language you don't understand, taking pictures of you, giggling and pointing.

Strange, no?

Anyway, this is the bridge as we were walking back towards the mainland, with the water tower with grass on it that serves as a landmark in the background, and the covered deck of the lovely Donchan restaurant to the right.

There is a small, basic restaurant with a few plastic tables and chairs on the riverfront on the island, though, that I think we will return to soon.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

The rain is not good for everyone

We just got a report from a friend in Luang Namtha that they have had enough rain for now and they would like it to stop, thank you very much!

A friend from the Boat Landing Guest House sent an update of the situation in Luang Namtha over the past few weeks.

He included a photo of the reception/restaurant area as well. As a comparison, here is a picture of the Boat Landing in February when we visited. The arrow shows the part of the building in the next picture.

The Boat Landing on August 9. The water peaked at 1.75M over the banks (about 5'9").

Apparently, the water receded after about 36 hours, and the guest house was able to clean up and re-open soon after. However, the water started rising again a few days ago, but has yet to breach the banks again. A few people were not so lucky and drowned trying to save livestock and other possessions.

One wonders if the flooding would be as bad if there wasn't so much wholesale removal of the jungle canopy in the surrounding mountains to plant rubber trees. Nature's way of absorbing water is being removed, so it runs straight into the rivers instead.

The weekend

We've had a rainy week of it in Vientiane, capped off by a huge rainstorm last night while we attended a party on the Ambassador's (thankfully covered) deck last night to welcome all the new officers to post.

Tonight I am praying for no rain, as I haven't played tennis in a week, and I've got fancy new string on both rackets.

Tomorrow, rain be damned, I'm going to Phou Khao Khuay to bike to a nice waterfall/swimming hole .

I'm kind of hoping it does rain.

Foreign Service News

Rice Orders Difficult Posts Filled First

The State Department plans to implement sweeping changes in the way foreign service officers bid for new assignments in an effort to more quickly fill vacancies in Iraq and the growing number of dangerous hardship posts in the Middle East.

The new rules were outlined in a cable sent last week by Foreign Service Director General George M. Staples to department personnel that cited "increasing international turmoil." They are intended to shake up the State Department culture so that overseas service becomes more frequent and more focused on global hot spots.

The changes come as the number of overseas positions that prohibit accompanying children -- and sometimes spouses -- has increased from 200 in 2001 to more than 800 today. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who ordered the new approach, has already begun shifting personnel from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.

More than 200 foreign service officers are required each year in Iraq, and already 1,000 of the roughly 11,000 foreign service officers have voluntarily served there. The number of foreign service officers needed in Iraq will grow as Rice pushes forward with a plan to establish
provincial reconstruction teams across the country.

Under the plan, which will take effect almost immediately, hardship posts will be filled before bidding can begin on more attractive assignments. Private side deals that lock up plum assignments will be discouraged, and the practice of allowing junior officers to take more senior slots that have gone unfilled will be minimized.

The State Department hopes that by eliminating handshake deals for posts in safer, more attractive cities, it can direct its top talent to places where their missions are more central to U.S. policy.

Moreover, employees headed for hardship posts will no longer be able to meet the requirement by bidding for the most attractive cities in the hardship category, such as Cape Town, Bangkok or Istanbul. The State Department also wants to reduce the number of consecutive years a foreign service officer serves in the United States, from six years to five.

It is "important that we emphasize the 'foreign' part of Foreign Service, and that means getting more of our employees overseas, where our highest-priority vacancies are located," wrote Staples, who oversees human resources at the department. "While domestic service will remain an essential part of career development, most foreign service personnel should expect to spend the bulk of their careers abroad."

State Department officials denied that the changes are required because they are having trouble filling slots in Iraq, noting that 97 percent of the "unaccompanied" posts are currently filled. Earlier this year, the State Department boosted the pay allowances for both hardship and danger in Iraq and Afghanistan to the highest levels ever, effectively resulting in a 70 percent bonus above base salary.

One senior State Department official acknowledged that Rice and her top aides have discussed the possibility of "directed assignments" if needs are not met. Hardship posts have become "harder to fill," and "there is a real resolve to that we do whatever is needed to fill these positions," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the topic.

The changes have stirred concern among foreign service officers. Some suggested that the pressure of Iraq -- where diplomats work under extremely difficult conditions -- is resulting in an imbalance of priorities, minimizing the value of diplomatic efforts in other parts of the world in the eyes of Rice and her top aides. Others are concerned that previous work in places such as Bosnia earlier in their careers seems to be worth little now.

Many foreign service officers tackle difficult assignments when they begin at the State Department but prefer to work in Washington later in their careers, especially if they have older children or need to care for elderly parents.

Staples was on vacation and not available for comment this week. The State Department made available two officials to discuss Staples's cable on the condition that their names not be used.
One of the officials said that "these are major changes we have implemented" that will result in important changes in the foreign service culture. "When we sign up, we have to declare we are worldwide available."

The American Foreign Service Association, which represents foreign service officers, issued its own cable to employees, saying it would reluctantly accept a number of the proposals but raised questions about some details.

"There is a lot of support for the secretary's desire to align her resources with her priorities," J. Anthony Holmes, AFSA's president, said in an interview. But he said AFSA wants to minimize unintended consequences from a new policy that could penalize people who have already devoted long service to the United States under difficult conditions.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

More from Singapore

Friday night we went to Newton Circus (roundabout, not clowns and trapeze) food court for dinner. It's a large open air place with stalls full of different food. You pick a table, memorize your table number (303, thank you very much) and head off in search of sustenance. Noodles, murtabak, satay, prawns, and other delicious victuals, all washed down by a Tiger beer. You order, tell them your table number, move on to another stall, order more food, tell them your table number, and move on...etc. Then, the food magically appears at your table, and you pay. All very efficient and tasty.

I think I did okay with the kid.

And even better with the birds. Cyrus picked our entertainment for Saturday morning, so we all packed off to the Singapore bird park, which included a huge enclosure full of Lorikeets that you can feed.

Katherine took the Singapore shopping opportunity to pick up some new maternity clothes. She said she was sick of the five outfits she has, and she has taken to spilling food on her belly. I guess previously she was just dropping food on the floor, but now there is an obstacle to catch what falls.

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Back from a weekend glimpse of our future...

Mira Kagan likes spaghetti.

Katherine and I spent a great weekend in Singapore with our friends Marty, Cyndy, Cyrus (4) and Mira (11 mo.) Kagan. Marty and I studied in St. Petersburg, Russia together in 1992. They live in Paris now, where Marty works for Akamai Technologies (it makes the internet better, somehow), but were on an extended vacation/business trip that, when over, will take them from Paris to California to Australia to Singapore to Hong Kong to Paris in 6 weeks.

Resident in Singapore is Chuck Varela, another alumnus of the 1992 semester in Russia, and his family. So we all met up for a kid-friendly meal on Saturday night at SpagEddies.

Sunday afternoon before we flew home we stopped by the famed Raffles Hotel for a beer at the Long Bar, home of the Singapore Sling. We opted for beers instead of fruity drinks (although the tomato juice in Katherine's Virgin Mary counts as fruit juice I guess).

Our weekend was chock-full of frenetic kid-energy (Katherine and I needed naps Saturday afternoon). Singapore, at least the Singapore that we saw, was one big shopping opportunity. We stayed with the Kagans in their 2-BR extended stay hotel right off Orchard Road, which is shopping central in a town seemingly created for shoppers. True to its reputation, it was very orderly, very clean, very modern, and thoroughly different from any Asian city we have visited before.

Two weeks from now we are heading a bit north of Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to meet up with our FS friends Michael and Marybeth, of New Year's in Koh Chang fame. We were supposed to go to Siem Reap, but that didn't work out. So instead of running around Angkor, we will spend the weekend sitting poolside sipping drinks, eating, and lamenting our difficult lives. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Katherine and I leave bright and early tomorrow for Singapore. We need to be ready to cross the bridge at about 6:00 when it opens in order to make our flight from Udorn.

And, I've heard anectodally that Thai air domestic flights are following the lead of flights in and out of England and pretty much banning anything from your carry-on, which should make the flight decidedly uninteresting. I mean, how many times can you look at the emergency card in the seat pocket in front of you and think that it might be fun to jump down the big inflatable slide that deploys in case of a water landing?

I figure probably about 6 times. But what will I do after that?

While you ponder this and other big questions, enjoy Our Government In Action, which is pretty funny.

We're back on Sunday night.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

An opportunity to put down roots - literally

As I was refusing an applicant today he cut me off to say that f he didn't come back to Laos after his short visit to the United States, I could take his 80 cows/buffalo, tractor, and 3 hectares of land

I could get myself some property if I played my cards right. Alas, his promise of land and cattle wasn't enough to qualify him for a visa.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Now in technicolor

Like Ted Turner before me, I can now take what was once a classic black and white and present it to you in all the colors of the rainbow.

But I bet Ted Turner never got to hold a giant, ribboned plastic key from the Lao Committee for Drug Control.

I love the camera...

....and in return, am beloved by it...

As such, I am turning up in newspapers across the country at a dizzying pace.

Rough translation:

American Embassy Official Phil Nervig is considered to be the best, brightest and most handsome foreigner in Vientiane, nay, in all of Laos. Because all of Laos loves him so, the Lao government and people presented to him this ceremonial key to the country and to our collective heart on Friday, August 11.

The Lao National Assembly on Friday announced that March 15, 2007, the expected final departure day of Mr. Nervig, his wife Katherine, and their soon-to-be born child (the luckiest child in the world, according to popular opinion here) will be a national day of mourning, and that all schools, businesses, and government offices will be closed so that the entire nation may see him off at the airport, then play badminton and drink Beer Lao in his honor.

Okay, maybe not, but I'm certain an article like that will be written in the near future.

It is actually an article about the handover of equipment donated by the Embassy to the Lao Committee for Drug Control to help the GOL in their anti-narcotics programs, mostly focused now on methampetamine production and trafficking. I guess the oversized novelty key is used by the LCDC to represent the equipment.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

I don't think the heavy stuff will come down for a while...

It is the rainy season afterall.

But when I woke up this morning about 6:30 to go golfing, the day looked promising; high light gray clouds over Vientiane, but brighter north of town down Dansavanh way. I picked up Jon and his father-in-law Mike at about 7:20 and we headed out. Pulled into the Dansavanh parking lot and had our pick of parking spots. There was noone on the course. By the time we got to the first tee, the sun had burned off the remaining clouds and it was HOT! Front nine was great. I shot 4 over, and took a total of $0.60 off Jon (high rollers we at $0.10 a hole).

Made the turn, and Jon was peering up behind me with a look of foreboding when we got to the 10th tee box. Huge black clouds were rolling in from the nearby mountains. Then, on 14, the skies opened up. Being the intrepid and dedicated golfers that we are, we pressed on in the downpour. We were all soaked from sweat already, so it didn't make much difference. It rained, HARD, for about 2 holes, then let up, then came back with renewed fury. By the 18th tee box, the rain had stopped and the sun returned. Back 9, 45, for an 85. Best round in Asia thus far.

I have been very lucky with golf and the rain in Laos thus far. Today was the first time in almost 18 months that I have been rained on (and I've not yet had to cancel a round because of rain).

Rain never photographs well, but I attempted to capture the downpour anyway. Our caddies were good sports, and continued in the rain with good cheer.

As is tradition, Katherine and Rose (and Rose's mom) met us at the floating restaurant for lunch, where, as is also becoming tradition, Jon and I went for a swim in the murky brown water of the Nam Ngum.

Jon and Rose leave September 15. We will definitely miss them when they are gone. But they have made a soft confirmation for meeting up in Vieques next April.

It will be fun to meet up again, and as a bonus, it never hurts to have a pediatrician (Jon) and an internal medicine practitioner (Rose) in the house. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Pregnant Wife...Spoiled Cat

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Window? I don't need no stinking window!

This dog gets fresh air without sticking his big nose out a car. These three were doing some shopping, then got on their motorbike to head home.

I asked why she brought the dog along. She said he likes to go for rides, and cries if she doesn't take him along.

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Seen from above

Mother's milk on the Mekong.

The Beer Lao factory. Behind it you can see the big curve the river takes. That green area is where we go out biking through the rice paddies, villages, etc. We scouted some new routes as we flew around that we will explore before Jon leaves next month.

The road to freedom. Okay, maybe just the road to Thailand. But many people who live here take the bridge pretty much every weekend to go shopping and whatnot in Udorn. I don't really understand it, but many people just want to get out as often as possible. I'm happy where I am.

You can see in the background the same large bend in the river from the previous picture.

Downtown Vientiane, with Tat Luang in the foreground. We were lucky with the weather. Scattered, light clouds at a high elevation. As we were returning, we saw some rain coming in from the mountains up north.

Returning from our lovely little trip. In the background is a Cessna Caravan, the same plane that I flew with my dad and brothers-in-law back from Canada in May. That one was on floats though.

I'm heading to play tennis at 2:00, then Katherine and I will meet up with Jon, Rose and Rose's parents at the Australian Club for some swimming and cocktails by the river. Tomorrow, Jon, Rose's dad and I will head to Dansavanh for a round of golf, and meet up with the ladies at the floating restaurant for lunch.

Weekends in Vientiane are fun. Posted by Picasa

All we were missing was a little Wagner

Katherine and I finally made use of our certificate for a 25 minute helicopter ride over Vientiane with Lao Westcoast Helicopters that we 'won' at the WIG Valentine's Day Party for a tidy sum.

Jon and Rose are leaving Laos soon to return to St. Paul to re-take up their careers as practicing doctors after two years abroad as teaching doctors and tsunami relief doctors, so we took them along to give them another perspective of Vientiane before they leave.

We were in a Eurocopter Squirrel, four seats in the back, two up front. One seat for the Aussie pilot, and one backseat for the Lao gov't minder that accompanies all flights. I threatened to throw a tantrum on the tarmac if I wasn't allowed the other front seat. We all wore cool headsets so we could chat.

Rose enjoying the view.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

'Let Me Touch Him'

This is funny.

More here.

Meanwhile, our lives are relatively staid currently, so there is nothing to report.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Just one of those days, redux

So now it's Tuesday.

I hitched a ride with Scott Rolston, the soon-to-be outgoing econ officer, to the sunset bar. Katherine was waiting there.

An after work beer at the sunset bar.

Followed by another.

Then, a guy named Peter, who works at the Mekong River Commission, arrived. The MRC is a multi-lateral agency formed by the countries that the Mekong flows through, sans China, to try to present a united front against China in discussions about how development along the river should be managed. The reality is that China has so far not cared what Laos, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam has to say.

So we had another beer.

Then another Peter showed up and brought a couple of bottles of wine (yes, strange at the sunset bar, but whatever) in honor of Rolston, who is leaving at the end of the month.

So a bottle of wine was opened.

Then another.

Now time for dinner, Katherine and I went to La Terrasse with Rolston, who thought that a caraffe (however you spell it) of red was in order. Katherine did her best to drink for two, which is to say didn't drink nearly enough, or more specifically, not at all.

Now we are home. It's a Tuesday night, and I'm wondering where exactly I left my brain.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Just one of those days

Was it a nice day in Vientiane?

I wouldn't know. I had one of those days of sleeping in, watching some TV, reading, playing with the cat, watching some more TV, and eating.

Guilty pleasure to be sure. And I can't help thinking that I should be out doing some uniquely Lao thing, as our time here is becoming shorter, and will be fundamentally altered once we come back from Bangkok with a little human.

That said, there is something fantastic about a lazy day that I love, and will likely have little opportunity to indulge in after said little human arrives.

Note that it was a nice day. At least it seemed so when I opened the door to let the cat out.

Tomorrow will be different, although it will not be 'uniquely' Lao. More like an average weekend day for me. Tennis in the morning with Tat, a couple hours of work, maybe a swim with my lovely bride.

A good weekend.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Cute pregnant wife.

And she's a trooper too. By the time the kid comes out, he/she will have already been with mom in England, the US, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Cambodia, and Japan (yes, I am counting the airport).

*Posting this again as the first one never showed up. As such, there might be two semi-identical posts of my sexy preggo wife, or as I like to call her, my Oompa Loompa (that's supportive, isn't it?) Posted by Picasa

I got no strings to hold me down!

I feel like Pinocchio, and Blegz is my Gepetto. A fancy wireless router and wireless card arrived in the mail the other week from Gepetto, and we finally unpacked it from the box and hooked it up this weekend. Because I am computer illiterate, Jon had to come over and help me out.

You can just make out the confused look on my face as Jon does magic things to make the router work.

And there it is, in all it's glory, next to our pretty computer. It's even got two, count 'em, two antennae. How cool is that?

Plus, I now have a picture of our blog on our blog. Blows the mind, no?

However, I have just let all the nogoodniks in Vientiane know that we've got great swag in our house and they should start casing the place. There has been a large increase in home invasions here, with laptops being the item of choice among thieves.

Jon and Rose lost two laptops last week when some punks broke into their bedroom and snatched them. They were downstairs watching TV at the time. Strangely, the stupid thieves didn't take the $250 in cash that was sitting next to the computers. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Now y'all can talk about how you knew me back when...

You know, back before I became a media sensation.

Granted, the fine folks at Khaosan Pathet Lao news service did not deem me important enough to mention, but there I am in the photo front and center (or front, and to the right, as it were).

The Vientiane Times, Laos' english-language newspaper of record, the motto of which is 'all the news the Party says is fit to print' went a different direction. No picture of me. Rather, they thought that Minister Souban was the star of the show. As if.

They did, however, get my name right. Last time I spoke in public, my rousing success was credited to Political Officer Greg Chapman. That guy was always looking for reflected glory.

Word. Posted by Picasa