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, September 28, 2006

Vieques update

So our lovely house in Vieques is filling up fast.

We are there April 1-18, 2007.

Looks like we've got pretty firm confirmations for Bedroom #2 for April 1-7 and April 7-14.

We are happy to have some overlap, so 12th or so to 18th is wide open.

Of course, there are other places to stay on the island as well, so even if you want to come down when there is not room in the house, come on down.

Need some more enticement?

That, plus the knowledge that you will be sharing the house and pool with a 4 month old baby should be enough to get you rushing to e-mail us with confirmations.

From this day forth, you shall be called...

So it occurs to me that throughout history, things have changed names.

Historically, Istanbul WAS Constantinople. if you have a date...okay, never mind.

More current examples include Pope Benedict. I mean, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict, right? And noone cares. In fact, many people, mostly Catholics, because really, if you aren't Catholic, it doesn't matter quite so much, rejoiced.

Bob Dylan? Robert Zimmerman (also the name, by the way, of the metal shop teacher at my high school, although I've never heard a discussion of the poetic genius of that Robert Zimmerman; ice fishing genius, yes, poetic genius, I don't know).

Izzy Stradlin? Jeffrey Isbell.

Katherine Nervig? Katherine Dietrich.

My point is, names change sometimes, and life goes on, right?

This is all going somewhere, by the way. We are considering, just considering, a name change in our family. I wanted to give everyone a heads up, just in case. You see, for the past few months I have been thinking that, should we have a baby boy (and no, we don't know the sex of our baby, because Katherine won't let us know), the name Jack would be a pretty good name.

Jack Nervig.

Good name.

One problem, however:

Jack and Jak might be a bit confusing.

So we are contemplating some changes to Jak's name. Of course, if we have a girl, this whole discussion is moot.

But Kalee, one of the Hmong employees in the section, said today that, based on how Katherine looks, she is 100% sure we are having a boy. And this morning, Vone called to Katherine while her back was turned, and she looked over her right shoulder. This, Vone explained, means that she is having a boy. Look over your left shoulder...girl. So, you know, it's pretty much guaranteed.

Anyway, Jack is but one name in the hat. The others stay in the hat for the time being.

But, come the day of birth, we may have two announcements... IT'S A BOY! and WE HAVE CHANGED OUR CAT'S NAME!

Twice the fun.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Please accept my condolences...

One of the responsibilities of a consular officer is to be the bearer of bad, and often time devastating news.

An American citizen dies in Laos, and it is our job to find and notify the next of kin, and help to facilitate the 'disposition' of the deceased's remains. It's probably the worst part of this job, if only because you are a stranger calling someone halfway around the world to completely shatter their world.

How do you get used to telling someone, someone you’ve never met, someone you probably woke from a deep sleep because there is an anywhere from 11 to 14 hour time difference, that their son, father, husband, sister, mother, daughter has died? Especially as there are options that need to be discussed and decisions made as soon as possible. Especially in a country like Laos, which given its limited resources, necessitates quicker decisions by the family. Especially when the deceased was too young for it not to be a total shock to the family.

Of course, the difficulty I feel does not compare in the least to what the people on the other end of the phone go through, and you tell yourself that by being here and working with the family to implement their wishes regarding the deceased you are providing an invaluable service to the family at a very difficult time, but it is still emotionally, and physically, draining.

So very tired.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

End of an era

Katherine and I were driving home tonight after an early evening massage at our new favorite place in town, LV City (you get water before AND after the massage...classy).

Anyway, we were driving down a familiar road, a road we've been down many times before. The road, in fact, that leads to the restaurant I took my lovely bride to for her birthday on Friday.

It's also a famous road here in our very own Life on the Mekong.

So tonight, we're driving along and I see a weiner dog following lazily behind a man walking towards a lighted entryway. We stopped, rolled down the window, and asked whether the dog was his. No, he said, and gestured towards a woman emerging from the doorway. She came up to the car with a neighborly smile and confirmed that it was indeed her weiner dog.

Catching my breath, I hopefully inquired whether she might also own a small monkey.

She did.

And did that monkey, by chance, ride the weiner dog from time to time?

It did.


The monkey died a while ago. And so the weiner dog no longer had his passenger.

'GET ANOTHER DAMN MONKEY,' I wanted to scream at her. But behind her smile I thought I sensed a touch of sadness. Yes, I was projecting, she didn't give a fig about the monkey. In fact, maybe if she gave a fig TO the monkey, it would still be alive today, who knows?

So I didn't demand that she get another monkey and train it to ride the weiner dog for my amusement.

And so, another one of our animal kingdom friends has passed on.

Rest in peace, little guy. You are riding weiner dogs with Jesus now.

Friday, September 22, 2006


The birthday girl, in all her glory.

We went to a WIG photo exhibition then to La Silapa for dinner with our friends Dan and Dana. Now she's talking to Marla, discussing Hevesi for New York and upcoming trips to Laos.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Thaksin, bad...Legolas, good

So our cable is back on, and Thai television is back to normal programming.

I was watching CNN (int'l, don't know if domestic CNN is spending so much time on the coup) and noticed one small change in programming. News stories about what's going on in Thailand is fine, no problems there, with one exception.

Anytime footage of Thaksin is shown, there is about 3 seconds of footage, which is then replaced by photos of Scarlett Johannson, Tom Cruise, Christina Aguilera, Cameron Diaz, the guy who played Legolas in the Lord of the Rings (can't remember his name), and other celebrities.

Anyway, it seems there is someone sitting with a button watching the news and every time Thaksin comes on he has to push that button. He's just not quite fast enough, so we see a glimpse of the ousted PM before the collage of stars comes on.

Even funnier, a story on the embattled Hungarian PM was just briefly interrupted by a lovely photo of Tom Cruise, which makes me think that the guy with the button heard 'Prime Minister,' 'political crisis,' and/or 'demonstration' or something and thought 'oh crap, I'm letting it on the air' and jumped on the button. I imagine there is a seperate guy with a separate button for each of CNN, BBC, CNBC and Bloomberg. Nice work if you can get it.

But who am I to talk? My job responsibilities include watching people clean carpets.

Business as usual in Vientiane

From Katherine

We've received emails from friends and family asking if we are okay in Vientiane with all that is going on in Thailand. We are just fine -- nothing has changed with our quiet life here. We hope it remains that way.

Coup Updates

From The Nation newspaper here. Provides an up-to-the-minute timeline of events and announcements.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Tanks rolling in Bangkok

Rumored Coup Attempt or an attempt to stop a coup.

PM Thaksin in New York for UN General Assembly.

Heading back to Bangkok now.


Looks like the military and police chiefs have set up a Provisional Authority and declared loyalty to the King.

I'm going to bed.

Further update:

All news channels are now preemted with a red screen either saying 'We Apologise for the interruption' or 'Sun Outage'.

Our cable is from Thailand.

Now they are just black.

Other channels are still on. Just news blacked out.

Now really going to bed.

The many sides of KDN

The left!

And the right!

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Lousy Do-Gooders

China Competes With West in Aid to Its Neighbors

Blogging from Baghdad

Our friend Sarah, NBC Producer Extraordinaire, is breaking into the blogging racket from Baghdad.

Her first post can be found here:

as a part of a larger NBC Blog by people working in Iraq.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Seoul after dark

The previously mentioned Tuesday night out on the town, courtesy of Dawn's camera. After a large group dinner, a few of us cut out and walked to a nearby neighborhood with a bunch of bars and clubs. Todd, Walter, Dawn and I represented the 119th A-100 with the utmost class.

And then later, class went out the window and Karaoke flew in. Dawn and Todd sing a soulful duet, and it appears Carl (Tokyo) reacts to the song by suppressing vomit.

And so the night progresses. Eugene (Seoul, and our guide through the Seoul nighttime netherworld) shooting his six guns as Walter chugs a quart of milk.


We guessed later that it must have been delivered to our private Karaoke room with tea or something.

And so the night comes to an end, of sorts. We headed back to the hotel for a nightcap, where we all realized that a nightcap was like a sweater on a dog, completely unnecessary.

Walter and his wife, Alex, are expecting a kid around November 10 or so. Since Rangoon's standard of medical care is similar to Vientiane's, they will be spending quality time in Bangkok too. We are both staying at the Emporium Suites, an extended stay place attached to a mall, grocery store, movie theater, and the Sky Train and a few minutes from Samitivej Hospital. So that should be fun.

Walter and I plan to keep each other company at the pool while we wait to hear how the ladies' respective labors go. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 16, 2006

And finally, to review...

Tae Kwon Do Ready Stance.

After reading the directions for the ready stance in the link, it strikes me that someone who is supposed to be on guard at the DMZ should probably take the last bit in Step 5 with a grain of salt.

And this, I believe, is called the Tae Kwon Do Not-So-Ready Stance. But I'd have to look that up.

The white stakes in the distance demarcate the line of control between North and South. Posted by Picasa

More from the DMZ

The one-story blue building in the middle houses the UN flag so sacrosanct that moves to touch it will result in grievous bodily harm. You can see a small concrete line running between the buildings in the middle. That is the border. The building on the other side has North Korean military. You can see that the S. Korean soldiers standing guard close to the buildings are partially hidden by the buildings. This, we were told, is to provide a smaller target for any N. Koreans who decide to take a shot at them.

We were told this, of course, as we were standing on some stairs in plain view of any N. Korean soldiers who might decide to take a shot at us. But then, we don't know the ready Tae Kwon Do stance, so maybe we were more expendable, or considered not worth the bullet by the N. Koreans.

And the N. Koreans. Note the peeping tom in the window with the binoculars. Pointing, gesturing, talking to or otherwise engaging the N. Koreans was expressly forbidden. In fact, we were told that pointing would be a violation of the armistice agreement signed in 1953.

So why did the fighting flare up again on the Korean Peninsula?

Phil pointed at a North Korean soldier.

Yeah, that jerk is always pointing at stuff.

We went up to a nearby guard tower that had quite a view of the surrounding mountains, and of a N. Korean guard tower in the foreground. Our escort said that the majority of the 1MM strong N. Korean army is likely stationed just over those mountains, along with thousands of artillery and rockets capable of hitting Seoul.

The DMZ is 4KM wide and runs the length of the Korean peninsula. It is basically a long no-man's land, and has been pretty much left empty since the end of the war. They supposedly removed all the mines from inside the DMZ as well (and put them outside the DMZ). As such, it is an eden for a diverse population of wildlife.

We also had a good view of what those on the South side call 'Propaganda Village' a mostly empty North Korean 'model city' right in the heart of the DMZ to show those in the South just how wonderful North Korea is and, in the past, pump in loud propaganda from huge speakers.

There is a similar village on the South side in the DMZ (Daeseong, or 'Freedom Village') that is actually an inhabited farming community. Because the townspeople don't actually live in S. Korea proper, they pay no taxes and do not have to do compulsory military service, thus making it an attractive place to live. As such, you can only live there if you are a decendent of other villagers, or, for women, marry a resident. There is a curfew and the village is heavily guarded, as some villagers have been kidnapped by the North in the past.

I suppose some could call that village, and it's nickname, a bit of propaganda as well, but then everyone would be confused and wouldn't know where to go if they were invited to a garden party at Propaganda Village, so Freedom Village it is.

The tower is a flagpole. A huge flagpole. When in Kuala Lumpur, a cab driver pointed out what he called the tallest flagpole in the world. I'm here to tell him that he is sorely mistaken.

Freedom Village (FV from now on) and Propaganda Village (PV) both had flagpoles to fly their respective flags. Then the folks at FV went and put a taller flagpole. Not to be outdone, PV went and erected a 160 meter flagpole.

All very silly. I guess North and South Korea are not immune from 'Keeping Up with the Joneses' syndrome. Posted by Picasa

The Highs and Lows of the FS Life

First, the low.

The Consular Section carpet is dirty. What to do? Clean it, I guess, but when? How about a Saturday when noone else is here? Good idea. But wait, the cleaners can't just come and go willy-nilly, someone needs to be there. But who? How about Phil? Great idea!

So here I sit on Saturday morning as some of the cleaning staff scrub the carpet and use the wet/dry vac to remove a few years of accumulated dirt and other detritus.

I have, also been away for the better part of a week, and have some work I can accomplish, so I really did volunteer rather than have the greatness of 'carpet cleaner watching' thrust upon me.

This after last night's indignity of having to beg our way through the border on the Thai side after delivering Jon and Rose to the airport in Udorn. Crossing the bridge costs 30 baht (about $0.80 under the currently weak dollar exchange rate). Through immigration and approaching the bridge to pay, I asked Katherine if she, by chance, had any baht. Plenty of dollars and kip, but no, no baht.

So we pulled over and scrounged from the darkest recesses of the car. 4 baht in the ashtray. 1 baht under my seat. 10 baht (SCORE!) under Katherine's seat. Another 10 baht found in the backseat cushion. 25 baht...and no more.

So I slow-rolled up to the guy in the both, adopted my most hangdog expression, rolled down the window and started:

'excuse me sir, but we only have 25 baht. Could we possibly pass?'

He looked at me with a mix of pity and mirth at our predicament.

'or possibly, sir, might you accept kip instead?' (Kip is likely not considered more than colorful paper on the Thai side of the river)

He paused, and I held up our 25 baht for him to verify our sad situation. Finally he smiled and said, fine, give me 20 baht and 4,000 kip (about $1 total. He totally ripped us off).

Now, the high.

Getting to go to Seoul to a conference with 80 or so of my fellow Junior Officer colleagues. It was a good opportunity to reconnect with some people I have met along the way already, and to meet other people that I will certainly be seeing in the corridors of State, FSI, and various embassies around the world as we continue down the path of this Foreign Service thing of ours ('la FS cosa nostra?'). You can see a photo of the group in all its glory here, provided by the talented and vivacious Girl in the Rain, a recent arrivee in Seoul.

It was also a chance to hear from some people about EAP (East Asia Pacific) policy developments and professional development. Important things, to be sure, but what I took away from the conference, more than any thoughts about policy and career enhancement, was that there are a lot of terrific people out there around the world doing their best at jobs that are sometimes thankless, and in some cases result in outright hostile responses from 'real patriotic Americans'.

Anyway, it was fun. The photos of the debaucherous goings on in Seoul after dark will have to wait, as I wisely left the camera in my room, and will have to rely on getting pictures from Dawn.

I will say, however, that another important lesson from the conference is that, if after a dinner in Seoul with drinks and a visit to a bar after dinner for drinks you stubbornly refuse to go to a club to get a private Karaoke room, it's best to stick to your guns in the face of the harangues and protestations of Walter Parrs (who I learned really has no business singing Karaoke in the first place) and other various and sundry nogoodniks who provided the relentless peer pressure that eventually wore down my defenses.

Lesson learned...

Friday, September 15, 2006


Time for bed. Will post a few more pictures of the DMZ later this weekend.

But for now....(assuming Military Escort's syntax as he briefed us in the negotiation building that straddles North and South Korea)



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Playing dress up gives a man a mighty hunger

Luckily for us, Todd knew of a place that served Korean food.

Insadon, a neighborhood full of curio shops, art galleries, and (thankfully for me) a shop that had disposable razors. I think the sign on the left says something about the razors.

Through a gate and into America! Yongsan (the vast green area in the middle of the city) is a base in the center of Seoul that I think is basically a command center for US troops in Korea. It was a little piece of America surrounded by Korea, which is kind of a thorn in the side of Korean nationalism.

The Taco Bell was an especially welcome sign for me. Even though we had just finished a large meal of delicious Korean food, I found space for a taco.

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It's a big city. A big Asian city. But I was struck by how it had a certain lack of Asianness that I have come to expect from cities in this part of the world. There was not the general controlled chaos on the streets, with motorbikes and cars and bikes and street hawkers and sidewalks teeming with humanity. It was busy, to be sure, but it was orderly. It was nice. And it was 76 degrees.

The view from my room.

I arrived at about 7:00 am on Sunday morning and made my way to the hotel, where I met up with my A-100 friends Walter Parrs (Rangoon), Dawn Schrepel (Hong Kong) and Todd Bate-Poxon (Seoul) for a little touring around town. We headed to Gyeongbok Palace, originally built in 1395, then destroyed by the Japanese, then rebuilt in the 1800s, then destroyed again by the Japanese (Korea doesn't like Japan very much), then pretty much completely destroyed during the Korean War, then rebuilt again after the war, like much of Seoul.

We arrived just in time to watch the changing of the guard. Each of the palace guards wore a funny-looking glue on beard, which was entertaining.

But they wore cool outfits. So cool, in fact, that Walter, Dawn and I decided we wanted to be just like them. Thankfully, there were some kind Korean people who were more than happy to oblige our desire, for a small fee.

I think we look quite diplomatic and statesman- (woman-) like. I'm certain we all would have breezed through the Civil Service Examination in our finery, too.

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to keep the clothes. I can probably have some made, though.

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Baby stuff

Katherine is but one of the embassy women currently incubating. Goht and new Public Affairs Officer Amy Archibald are also pregnant, and all three will give birth within about a month of each other.

Last Saturday there was a shower for the three. It was originally to be a co-ed party, but enough guys revolted that it was made female only (which allowed me to get one last round of golf in with Jon before he and Rose departed today).

Katherine rubs her belly while Dana looks on.

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Back from Seoul (and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea...I was there, really, if only by about 12 feet or so at the DMZ).

More about the professional aspects of the conference, the networking, the hobnobbing, and the debaucherous aspects of the evenings in Seoul later.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Lao ways of boosting health for New Mothers following Childbirth

From Katherine

I thought I'd surprise our friend Phil and put my very own posting up on his blog!

The Vientiane Times article below is no joke, this is how the majority of Lao women recover after childbirth. It is from July 2006.

"A grey-haired woman chews betel nut as she puts a pot of glowing charcoal under the bed of her daughter, who lies there weakly after giving birth a few days ago.

The young mother's body is covered in sweat due to the heat of the fire, which is as hots as the coals on which she normally grills fish.

I asked Mrs. Yad, who is taking care of her daugther Van, why it was necessary for her to lie over a bed of coals.

Mrs. Yad smiled and said that there were two accepted methods of post-natal recovery, referred to as cool or hot.

The "cool" method involves only taking traditional medicine and does not require the mother to lie over a fire. The "hot" method requires the mother to lie in bed over burning charcoal for at least 15 days.

While both these methods are traditional and have been in existence for as long as anyone can remember, almost every young mother without exception follows the "hot" method as requested by her family. This method is the more effective, according to Mrs. Yad.

The fire must stay alight all the time until the mother has completed her recovery, at a date determined by her own mother. This is done because it is believed that the heat of the fire will heal the uterus and birth canal more quickly. 'If a new mother doesn't do this, she may develop backache and an aching waist,' she explained.

Mrs. Yad believes that if mothers can withstand the heat for this length of time, they will be healthier in the long run. The longer they lie over the fire, the sooner they will recover.

During this time, Van will drink several litres of hot water every day, boiled in a cooking pot and containing herbs to ensure that she will produce enough milk to breastfeed her baby. She also has to shower three of four times a day, again using warm water with traditional herbs. This is the Lao way, and it is rigorously adhered to.

The new mother is not allowed to eat normally after giving birth, and her diet is limited to prevent her becoming ill. In the first three days after delivery, she will only eat fried galangal with salt. AFter this she can eat friend meat of a black feathered chicken and of a black buffalo."

And this, my friends and family, is why I'll be spending two months in Bangkok before and after delivery -- although the fried meat of a black feathered chicken is tempting....

Friday, September 08, 2006

While I'm gone...

I'm leaving tomorrow night for a conference in Seoul, Korea. Since Katherine feels she is too good for this lowbrow blog, it will likely be a slow week.

I'm back Thursday night.

While I'm gone, keep yourselves entertained with learning what our baby is up to at

While I'm in Korea I'll head up to the DMZ to see if I can't work out a solution to the recent hiccups in our otherwise stellar bi-lateral relationship with North Korea and its dashing Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, September 04, 2006

So we had a great time. And yes, we did get out and see the city a bit. Little India, the Lake Park area, etc. In deference to Mary Beth, we did take a pass on Chinatown, though.

KL is a nice city. Not as polished as Singapore, not as gritty as Bangkok, but good weather and friendly folks all around (well, except for the rain on Saturday afternoon, which provided a good excuse for a much-needed nap).

One thing we've found in our travels is that if we are ever homesick, and have access to cable TV, we can always find a familiar friendly face. Just turn to CNBC and wait for our friend Melissa Lee to come on and tell us about the new trends in advertising in video games or anchor a Friday market wrapup show. Okay, she probably doesn't do that exact thing every day, but that's what she was doing Friday. Whenever we see her on the TV, we always say hi, although given the limits of current television technology, it's rather unlikely she can hear us.

So: Hi from Kuala Lumpur Missy!

As we were leaving this morning for the airport, which I think is somewhere near Australia for all the driving that was necessary (70 minutes with little traffic, through miles of palm oil-producing palm trees), we were given some advice at the toll booth. And I thought I would share it with all of you, you perverts.

So that's Malaysia. They love tall buildings and malls and they hate porn, or at least want motorists to say no to it. Truly Asia.

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Friendly competition

Much time was spent in battle with one another. Our competitive spirits were in full effect as we played multiple games of everyone's favorite dice game; YAHTZEE.

Now, Mary Beth is a bit of a Yahtzee freak. But she knows how to bring her 'A' game to the table. Me, I was a miserable failure. Game one, and Mary Beth nonchalantly shrugs off her yahtzee of five 5s. She didn't even yell YAHTZEE!!! I think I even saw her stifle a yawn. All in a day's work, I guess.

Turner dominated another game, then Katherine came into her own in the poolside edition and hit a yahtzee of her own. I can't tell you how proud I was.

I had to bask in reflected glory, as I couldn't do better than a 3rd place finish all weekend. Posted by Picasa

KL is not just malls and swimming pools...

There is also eating. Which we did.

At the mall.

Well, the mall did open up onto a great park with fountains and whatnot, and it was a gathering place for lots of foreigners and Malaysians alike. Abutting the mall were a number of restaurants with nice patios, so we picked one one night and enjoyed a mediocre meal (except for MB's calzone, which was quite tasty) and a nice ambiance.

Night two, and we were feeling a little sheepish about our lack of motivation to move out of line of sight of the hotel. So we bagged the plans to eat at Pacifica, a 'trans-ethnic' (wha???) restaurant in the Mandarin that gets good reviews all around and headed out into the scary non-Mandarin Oriental part of KL to eat at the Coliseum Cafe, an old, colonial era hotel with a restaurant notable for steak, and, as we found out, a waitstaff that speaks indecipherable, unintelligible english, one of whose name was Captain Morgan, according to his nametag. Malaysia is known for piracy, you know...

The place had charm, the white linen tablecloths had stains, and the diners had bibs. I don't know if the waiter just had a hunch that we'd need them, or if everyone who orders the 'sizzling steak' gets one. I didn't look to see whether other diners were similarly attired.

I was certainly happy to have the extra layer of defense against spills. After all, I was wearing the requisite colonial uniform of white linen.

Turner was less giddy about the whole bib thing. Or maybe he was treating the pomp and ceremony of the bib tying with the serious and somber attitude that it deserved. Then again, maybe he's just naturally surly.

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