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, December 31, 2006

Next up...Vang Vieng

But not now. Too tired.
Happy New Year.

a popular boy

So Jack was a popular guy at the KM 52 Hmong New Year celebration. Crowds gathered wherever he went.

The big new year's events, such as bull fighting (two bulls fighting each other, not the man in girly costume fighting frightened and wounded bull-type bull-fight popular in the Latin American/Spanish part of the world) concerts, etc. were done, but plenty of people were still hanging around, socializing, tossing balls back and forth (for the single folk) and, it seems, just waiting for Jack to arrive so they could take a look at the white baby.

Xeng was an excellent host and guide. It seemed that whenever we pointed someone out, he or she invariably ended up being yet another relative. We had a great time, and were very happy that Xeng invited us to share in his, and his relatives' (and those few people who were not somehow related to him) new year's celebration.

Xeng and Jack. KM 52 New Year's Celebration.

After taking in the festivities, we headed to Vang Vieng.

The modern hmong woman, the modern hmong man

Traditionally, the outfits worn by Hmong women for special occassions were homemade, a way to show off the girl's sewing skill, thereby making her a more desirable potential wife.

These days, many of the girls wear shimmering, store-bought outfits in garish greens and yellows. I guess maybe sewing skills are not as desirable as the ability to pay a significant sum of money (I heard about $50) for an outfit these days.

The men have also generally eschewed the traditionally home-made black outfits fitted with silver coins for a more modern look. Jeans and t-shirts, leather jackets, whatnot.

Looks like these two maybe made a love connection. Don't know if they connected over the ball-toss or not.

Speaking of the ball toss, Xeng explained one story of how the game started. It seems a girl from a wealthy family fell for a boy of lesser means. The girl's father did not approve of their love and forbid the girl from seeing him. The girl, heartbroken, pretended to lose the ability to speak. The father, wanting to find a husband for her, decided to line up all the boys of the village. He then gave his daughter a ball, instructing her to throw it to the boy she wanted as a husband. She threw it to her not-well-to-do love and so her father finally allowed them to marry. He said this was one of many stories of how the tradition started, but was the most popular one.

We arrived at KM 52 just as Jack decided he wanted to eat. We got to Xeng's house and said our hellos to his sisters, his niece, and all the other various and sundry relatives hanging out at the house. Katherine went inside to give Jack a snack. Xeng and I headed over to his neighbor's house, which was full of people that turned out to be his relatives.

Now, to me, a relative is my parents, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc (and now, of course, Jack, Katherine, and her family). To Xeng, and others in the Hmong community, if you belong to the same clan, you are a relative. As there are only 18 Hmong clans, people have lots of relatives.
It turns out that his relatives were waiting for us to have lunch. So once Katherine was done feeding Jack, we all sat down to lunch with Xeng and some of his many relatives. That's me at the end of the table.

Katherine, Marla and Lesley sat at one end of the table, Xeng and I at the other. In between, his relatives, including these lovely single ladies who enjoyed a meal, then beat feet back to the festivities to toss the ball and, perhaps, find a young man.

At the beginning of lunch, I was holding Jack while trying to eat. A woman who was not eating approached and asked whether she could hold Jack, giving me a chance to eat in peace. Sure, I said. Soon after, Jack was passed down, then passed down again, etc. finally arriving in the arms of the matriach of the family.

I thought Katherine might be worried about Jack being passed around so much, but she was very calm. The women of the Moua Clan were very gentle, and very happy to entertain Jack while we ate, and Jack seemed to enjoy the attention.

After lunch we headed back to Xeng's house, where his little sister and some other girls were busy playing a game wherein two girls hold a large elastic band and the third takes a running jump into the loop. The goal is to hook at least one foot around the band. Two feet is better. If you are successful, the girls raise the height and you have another go. All very fun.

Hmong New Year, continued...

One of the great things about the Hmong, amonst the many cool things, is that they celebrate their new year over two weeks or so. As such, my short visit to a new year celebration in Xieng Khuang last weekend was supplemented by a trip to Kilometer 52, a town named after the distance it is on the road north from Vientiane.

There are plenty of places and times in South East Asia where you can see people wearing traditional dress, doing traditional things, etc, for the benefit of the tourists who visit. Most days at KM 52, you won't see such things, because they don't do things for tourists. KM 52 is just a regular town in the Mekong Valley that is pretty much bypassed by 99.9% of tourists.

The new year celebration is for them.

What's nice is that Xeng, one of the nicest, most genuine guys I've met in Laos, is from KM 52. He moved there with his family in 1996 from the Saisomboun Special Zone, but is now living in Vientiane as a full-time student and part-time employee at the Embassy. He invited us celebrate with him and his family.

A few photos of young people in their finery.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Jack relaxed, and asleep, on his grandma's lap.

Jack sharing some Christmas cheer with his mom.

And because he was born in Thailand, during the 60th year of the king's reign and the 79th year of his life, Katherine thought Jack should show due respect. So, like the vast, VAST majority of Thai citizens, Jack will wear his yellow shirt on Mondays (but not every Monday) in honor of His Majesty King Bhumibol. If I'm not mistaken, however, the whole yellow shirt thing was to go on for a year, which ends Sunday. So maybe he won't wear it afterall.

Speaking of Lesley...

She arrived in Vientiane with her left ring finger bound to her pinky. Turns out she had hurt her pinky in a nasty fall at the lovely and tasty 3 elephants restaurant in Luang Prabang. But that wasn't the problem. As her pinky healed, Marla and Lesley decided to head out for a night on the town.

A late night on the town in Luang Prabang inevitably leads to the Vietnam Bar, the place all visitors with a yen for a late-night nightcap end up when the rest of town rolls up the sidewalks and blows out the street lamps.

Well, there was some dancing at Vietnam Bar, and as some guy who had had too much fun spun Lesley, he forgot to let go of her finger. Not her pinky, but the finger next door. Her finger was very sore, and she was suffering from edema, which is fancy doctor talk that means swelling or something. I learned that from our serious doctor friends Jon and Rose.

So this afternoon, the ladies and Jack headed to Setthathirath hospital for an x-ray to see if it was broken. $3 later, they had confirmation of a broken finger. But wait, better to go to Mitthaphap hospital to get it set. When a doctor at one hospital recommends you seek medical care at another, you don't really ask why. You just accept that the doctor recommending that his own hospital not provide care probably knows what he's talking about.

ed. note: The Embassy recommends that American citizens in need of medical care seek it in Thailand, as the level of medical care in Laos is not generally of an international standard.

Anyway, the ladies and Jack picked me up after work and we headed to Mitthaphap. Mitthaphap means friendship. As in the Lao-Russia Friendship Hospital, the Lao-Mongolia Friendship Hospital in Xieng Khuang, etc. Basically, whoever pays for the construction of the hospital is a friend.

So the emergency room at Friendship hospital. We were ushered in to see the duty doctor, who happened to be a friendly, French-trained neurosurgeon. Lesley was a bit apprehensive at first.

But the doctor's calming bedside manner soon had her feeling pretty good about the whole thing. Well, as good as you can feel about a broken finger. She now has a plaster base on the palm-side of her hand, wrapped with an ace bandage.

Total cost: $5.15. Total including x-ray and diagnosis: $8.15.

Tomorrow we're going to pile in the car and head up to KM 52 to take in some of the continuing Hmong New Year festivities. We'll have a local guide, as consular assistant and all around great guy Xeng is going to be there hanging out with relatives. Then, snap decision, we will continue on to Vang Vieng for an afternoon of watching the Nam Song river flow by.

Jack's first road trip...

Updates and progress

Wednesday night we went to check on the progress of our carpet. It is off the loom and being cleaned up and getting some finishing touches added. Should be ready next week. Likely just in time to get it home and have Jack pee on it. Marilyn and Luther were drawn in by Ismed, the crazy Turkmen proprietor (okay, he's not crazy. He and his Lao wife of 20+ years have actually built themselves a wonderful business, but 'crazy Turkmen' is a cool description), and his detailed explanation and demonstration of the carpet making process and left with a small purchase themselves.

Thursday morning I swung by the airport on the way to work to drop Marilyn and Luther off for their return to Minnesota. Thursday night I swung by the airport after work to pick up Marla and Lesley, who were en route from Luang Prabang. 18:50 arrival; I got there at 18:30. So I headed into the little cafe in the domestic lounge and found some people interested in sharing a beer. Khonsavanh is the smiley one, and Vandee is the multi-talented one, both drinking a beer nad pouring a beer for me. Plus he's security, so, you know, safety first.

Then the plane landed and I went to wait for Marla and Lesley to emerge. When they didn't come out after a few minutes, I sweet-talked my way into the baggage area to find them.

I didn't find them.

I got the number for the LP airport and called. A passenger, last name Klinger, K-L-I-N-G-E-R. Nope, noone by that name on any flight. MARLA KLINGER! Nope. GOLDMAN, G-O-L...

Oh, wait, Klinger? Yes, she's on the flight arriving at 19:50. They didn't miss their flight, it just so happens that their flight time was pushed back an hour, while another, different flight took their time slot. Makes sense, no?

So I had time to go back to my friends who were still celebrating the end of their work day in the cafe.

Lesley and Marla safely in our home, it was time for some QT with Jack. He attacks the bottle like a champ, but he is a demanding little cuss.

A night of Lao silk, food, and music

There is a store near the embassy called The Beauty of Lao Silk. The owners have a compound in Vientiane with three amazing traditional Lao houses. The first has a textile museum, where they keep a rotating collection of old and beautiful examples of silk textiles from around Laos on display. The second house (shown below) is another showroom for their products. The third is their home.

All their silk is hand spun, hand dyed, and weaved on looms by very talented people (judging from the finished product, anyway). We were lucky enough to go there for a night of learning about the silk making process, touring the museum, and eating a delicious Lao meal in the owner's home.

We were there with some other embassy folk, including the Ambassador and her two daughters and the DCM. Katherine tried her hand at dyeing, and I played photographer. I was also cast into the role of interpreter, as our hosts spoke some English, but not much. My Lao skills as relates to the process of dyeing and weaving silk could use some work too, it turns out.

Vats full of natural indigo, made from a plant that is decidedly green in color before they crush and do other various things to the plant. Then they add a bit of mud and some Lao whiskey to the concoction and it's time to dunk your textile. Usually they dye individual threads of silk that are then woven into intricately designed shawls, hangings, and other stuff. The neophytes just took a finished textile and made it mono-color.
Once you have it the darkness you want, you hang it out to dry.

There are two methods to dyeing silk, depending on the color you are using. The hot method and the cold method. Indigo uses the cold method. Why? Well, from what I got from the explanation, because the hot method doesn't work with indigo. So there.
Other colors, such as silver, gray, red, etc. can use either hot or cold. Is one better than the other? I don't know.
I do know there were pots of steaming gunk over fires that we didn't use, as everyone opted for an indigo runner/shawl/whatever it was they were making.

After a tour of the museum, which had an amazing array of old and beautiful textiles (but, being a guy, I tired of them quickly), we headed over to the house for dinner.

Ambassador Haslach and the owners, Hansana and Bouavanh (I think). Hansana and I sampled some of his homemade, mushroom-infused Lao whiskey, which, for whisky (of which I am not generally a fan), was pretty good.

Towards the end of dinner, they called their kids away from the TV to play some music for us. It was very nice, but I could pretty much tell what was going through the kids' minds. Something about the damn foreigners coming over, making them miss their favorite Thai soap opera, I'm sure. The eldest daughter played the encore on another instrument that looks like a harpsachord but is played using two small sticks that look like chopsticks with rudders.

About this time, Katherine was a seething mass of controlled hysteria, having been away from Jack for about 4 1/2 hours. Plus she was about to burst, if you know what I mean. She is productive, afterall. So after the group moved on to the showroom, we took our leave and headed home, where Marilyn and Luther had things with Jack well in hand.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

It's not Christmas if there's no roasted cow

One of my colleagues threw a big Christmas party on Monday, complete with a whole, roasted cow.

The entire embassy staff turns out for this annual event (three years running, anyway)...

So not much of the cow is wasted.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas from the Nervigs!

A song to warm your hearts

Okay, it's not a Christmas song, but they have an important message about not collecting UXO as scrap metal because you may be injured, or worse. Plus there are puppets.

I was in Xieng Khuang with a visitor from the US to look at some of the UXO programs the USG funds, including the national school mine risk education program, which is similar to what I visited in Savannakhet in November.

The puppet show was about a couple who collected scrap metal to sell to a slick dealer who rode a motorbike, but were injured when some UXO exploded. In the end, they decided it wasn't worth it, and the slick scrap metal dealer decided he would give up all his ill-gotten profits to educating the people about the dangers of UXO.

A heartwarming tale. Then the song.

Hmong New Year

This weekend was the big Hmong New Year celebration in Laos. Phonsavan, the capital of Xieng Khuang, has a large Hmong population, and hosts one of the larger New Year's celebrations, along with a few towns closer to Vientiane where Hmong were resettled after the war; the aptly named Kilometer 52, a town so-named because it is 52 KM north of Vientiane on the main highway, and Tha Din Daeng, aptly named because it is on a red dirt road (Tha Din Daeng means red dirt road).

With my bit of free time in my 26 hours in Xieng Khuang, I headed over to the celebration and had a look around. Lots of women in traditional Hmong dress. All the young, single ladies dressed in their finery looking for a beau.

The single men and women get together and play a ball toss game. Traditionally, they are supposed to sing while playing. If someone drops the ball, that person must give the other person a small token or ornament as a penalty. But then, they can sing a love song to get the token back. Girls can toss the ball to other girls or boys, but boys must never toss the ball to another boy. It is a traditional courting ritual. If two people decide they like each other, the boy can basically kidnap the girl and take her away.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The grandparents pitch in

First Alan and Diana and now Luther and Marilyn. We don't know what we're going to do come next Friday when we are grandparentless.

Jack meets his neighbor, Mali Vandenbrink. And he appears to not like girls too much yet.

The newest in Vientiane leisure wear. Jack doesn't quite know what to make of the whole baby bjorn thing yet. He was in a pretty bad mood to start, but the rough way in which we folded him into the baby bjorn probably didn't help much. We need some practice.

Vone and Jack and a hat. It's cold in Vientiane.

So I haven't quite figured out that you need to hold the digital camera a certain way, so much of this is sideways. Doesn't much matter except when our friend Katherine is on screen.

Anyway, it is an understatement to say that Jack is a bit of a grunter.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Christmas Miracle

I just found out yesterday that I have to go to Xieng Khuang for a quick trip this weekend. So I'll be getting a full night's sleep on Saturday night, returning just in time for Christmas eve dinner on Sunday.

Katherine, Luther, Marilyn and Jack will hold down the fort here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New fun. Click to play.

Now, I don't guarantee Jack is an exciting video subject every time, but that's alright.

The dulcet tones...

A little dark, but you get the idea.

Monday, December 18, 2006

"...the smartest, most qualified people representing America"

Hey, that's me!

The Foreign Service Exam
Rarely Win at Trivial Pursuit? An Embassy Door Opens

THE path to the Foreign Service has always been straight and narrow: the first step is the written test, perhaps the nation’s leading smarty-pants exam. Since 1932, hundreds of thousands of applicants have grappled with a half-day of questions on geography, English usage, history, math, economics, culture and more.

“It’s like being on a golf course,” said Justin Norton, a 26-year-old who flunked the test this year and last, but wants to take it again. “You’ve got all the sand traps, the water hazards. I remember I didn’t understand the question about economies of scale. I remember something about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. And sometimes even when I knew it, like a question about George Kennan and containment policy, I got it wrong anyway.”

It is not an easy exam to study for. The State Department suggests reading a good daily newspaper for a year. There are prep books, and at places with lots of applicants, like the Fletcher School at Tufts University, maybe even a study group. But mostly, people prepare on their own, looking through a world atlas, the Constitution or the word problems they did on the SAT.

Still, the exam gets rid of most applicants. More than three-quarters of the 17,000 to 20,000 who take the exam each year flunk. Even those who pass often remember for years the lacunae in their general knowledge exposed by the test. Where, exactly, are the pampas? What countries neighbor Tunisia?

The test is more about breadth than depth. So for a question about Etruscan vases, the applicant might need to know that the Etruscans preceded the Romans in Italy, but nothing more.

Those who pass the exam go on to an oral interview, where they are hammered with questions and situations by several Foreign Service officers, and the best performer gets the job.

But now, the State Department wants to try a new approach, a bit less quantifiable. At the suggestion of McKinsey & Company, the management consultants, it plans to revamp the process to evaluate what it calls “the Total Candidate,” The Washington Post disclosed last week.

The written exam will stay largely the same, although streamlined and given by computer, instead of bubble-sheet and bluebook. Online, the exam will be given more often, to speed the recruitment process, one of the State Department’s main goals.

As applicants register for the exam, they will submit an online “structured résumé” describing their work experience, foreign residence, leadership experience and language abilities, among other things. Then, on the basis of the test results and résumé, combined in some undisclosed metric, a screening committee will decide who goes on to the oral assessment.

Some Foreign Service officers, past and present, applaud the new approach:
“Testing people on their general knowledge, their ability to parse questions, is a poor standard for bringing people into the Foreign Service,” said Mark Van Fleet, who was posted in Thailand for five years. “You get people who are well educated, and understand the relationship of inflation and interest rates. But the test doesn’t measure more important things, like good judgment.”

But the change raises concerns. Some worry that adding more nonquantitative factors could open the door to political considerations, or applicants with family connections. (Note to State Department: to understand the possible complications, talk to the admissions officers at Harvard or Princeton.)

Anthony Holmes, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said he was not worried, because the factors to be considered are things like foreign experience and language ability.

“Whether you gave to a political party is not in the paradigm,” Mr. Holmes said. “And experience living in a different country is important. McKinsey was just astounded that we didn’t consider anything but test results.”

Others, though, are troubled by the proposed revamping, given that the Foreign Service is already so prestigious and so competitive.

“Since it’s working really quite well, why make such a major change?” said Robert Gelbard, a former ambassador to Indonesia. “I have great confidence in Condoleezza Rice, but what about the law of unintended consequences? Who knows whether, some years down the road, political factors could creep in?”

And will the Foreign Service be dumbed down, given that adding factors will mean that some candidates could qualify with lower scores?

Not to worry, said Marianne Myles, director of the State Department’s office of recruitment, examination and employment. There will still be a failing score, and the passing score won’t drop all that much.

“The population that applies is so large — and so many of them are so qualified and smart and capable and have so many skills and abilities — that we can’t take them all,” she said. “Rather than sorting by one criterion, we’re going to use more factors. But the very small percentage we take will still be the smartest, most qualified people representing America.”

Saturday night our friends Kate and Orestes were kind enough to come over for dinner. Pretty much throughout the month, any time we had plans with them we invariably called in the afternoon and sheepishly asked if they would mind just coming over and ordering food in. They always obliged.

It was great to get to spend some time reconnecting with Kate, getting to know Orestes better, and getting Katherine to be friends with them both.

It doesn't seem that long ago that Kate was calling me at 10:00 am on a random Thursday morning to give me grief for oversleeping and missing an Econ class at St. Olaf, which she did quite often.

Sunday was cleanup and packing day. We took time out to lounge a bit.

And then it was off to the airport. With Katherine in Bangkok 2 months, me there a month, the acquired baby stuff, and Marilyn and Luther's things, we had 8 checked bags, 5 carry-ons, a stroller and car seat. It was sick.

We arrived to find the line to check in extending out to the airport entrance. It moved relatively fast though. When we made it to the check-in counter, our stuff was over the total weight allowance for 5 passengers (Jack had a ticket). The lady at the counter waived it off with a smile, which was nice.

Next to us, however, was a guy who wasn't having nearly as much luck. He was yelling about how he had been waiting for 2 hours to fix a problem that was not his fault, and now someone had disappeared with his credit card and he was going to miss his flight. I kind of felt sorry for the guy, but he was going to get nowhere yelling at the staff like he was. In Thailand, losing your temper gets you nowhere, as the people you are yelling at basically shut down and you lose face. When we left he was still huffing and puffing. My guess is he missed his flight.

And then home. Our stuff is still piled about here and there, but at least we've got Jack's bed and changing table all set up. He's even got his very own mosquito net.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

And now we are home

And the happier for it, although Katherine was a bit sad to return to a Jak-less home with Jack.

Anyway, we are home

Friday, December 15, 2006

A day of victories

Victory #1.

This morning Jack had his 1 month checkup at Samitivej and was declared healthy. He's gained about 2.3 pounds from his birth weight, and is just about average height and weight, but has a larger than average melon head. Katherine was declared healthy as well, so this afternoon we headed to the Embassy medical center and they were cleared to return to Laos.

Because Katherine was on what is called a 'medical evacuation' from Laos, she has to get official department clearance to return.

So we are now set to go home on Sunday. Very nice, although we will miss the luxury of being able to spend so much time together, as I am heading back to work on Monday and will be very busy over the next two weeks.

Victory #2

Jack sleeping. This is actually a small victory that we repeat multiple times daily, but it always feels like a victory when he falls asleep and STAYS ASLEEP once we put him down. The dude likes to be held.

Victory #3

Jack and his pacifier. Very soothing, for his temperament and our sanity. He's actually a pretty even-tempered kid, but can let loose sometimes. So the pacifier is yet another weapon to use in our Global War on Crying. We've got the criers on the run.

Luther and Marilyn in Residence

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Life on the Mekong Book Club

The first pick in the LOTM Book Club has been made. I'm looking for Oprah-like influence on the reading choices of America's middle-aged suburban women, and everyone else while I'm at it.

And why not? If the title is anything to go on, this is going to be a book for the ages.

The Brief & Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.

Welcome to Inner Horner, a nation so small it can only accommodate one citizen at a time. The other six citizens must wait their turns in the Short-Term Residency Zone of the surrounding country of Outer Horner. It's a long-standing arrangement between the fantastical, not-exactly-human citizens of the two countries. But when Inner Horner suddenly shrinks, forcing three-quarters of the citizen then in residence over the border into Outer Horner territory, the Outer Hornerites declare an Invasion In Progress--having fallen under the spell of the power-hungry and demagogic Phil.

So begins The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Fueled by Saunders's unrivaled wit, outlandish imagination, and incisive political sensibility, here is a deeply strange yet strangely familiar fable of power and impotence, justice and injustice--an Animal Farm for our times.

Seeing as this blog is a one-way conversation, the book club probably won't have alot of interesting discussion. But the title of the book is enough to get everyone to at least buy it, if not actually read it.

Marty Kagan and I ordered our copies today.

Hey cable executives...too good to use the sky train like the rest of us?

Here's our boy sleeping the afternoon away. What a picture of serenity, right?

Then the jerk executive(s) at UBC (Thai cable TV) arrive in their damn helicopter...again, and wake Jack up.

Helicopter pad is on the top of the UBC building just across Sukhumvit Road from our lovely place, so the helicopter passes right by on approach. I yell at them as they pass, but they never listen.

Jack does a pretty good Gary Coleman. 'What'choo talking 'bout UBC jerks?'