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.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Show yourself scoundrel, and I shall run you through...

So we've been posting little vidoes of Jack on youtube in order to wow you with wonderful little snippets of our life here, which at this point basically is Jack.

Anyway, our latest of Jack has been viewed 44 times according to youtube. And one of you 44 took the time to actually rate the video. I guess there is a way to rate the videos you watch there. Anyway, 1 out of 5 stars? What the fo?

I mean, if you are rating my singing, fine, but if you are rating my boy a mere 1 out of 5 stars, we're going to have to have words you anonymous internet rating bastard...

6 weeks to go. I think I made a mental changeover in my head. Not really interested in much currently. Katherine says she's started looking forward to our departure as well. I think it's natural once there is a hard and fast date (Date Certain, if you are a project finance geek or a lawyer) of departure to kind of mentally start to project into the future, especially when that future starts with a long vacation in New York and Vieques.

We've also entered the time when we need to start doing our 'last' stuff. Like one last time at the Sunset (well, bad example, I'll spend plenty of quality time there before I go) or one last round of golf (Saturday).

I'm also planning one last trip to the field to assist in the handover of the UXO portfolio to another officer. I'm really going to miss working with the men (and the few women) who work in UXO here. My inclination is to go somewhere I haven't been yet, but it makes most sense to head to either Savannakhet, Champassak or Khammouane. Still, it's hard to complain about going to any of those places. I am sure I won't get much sympathy.

Alright. It's Monday night, so that means it's time for Green Curry and a few episodes of Scrubs. Well, Monday doesn't actually mean that, but this Monday it happens to be what's going to happen.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

So our weekend was chock full of tennis, babies, and parties with co-workers. Friday was the previously mentioned embassy field dedication/party.

Saturday night we went to my boss' house for dinner. Some Lao friends taught me the lovely game of Phai Viet, which basically means Vietnamese cards. From what I learned, you deal cards, then everyone puts cards down in order except me because I never had good cards, then I had to give money to someone. Luckily we were only playing for the equivalent of $0.10 per hand.

Anyway, Phai Viet, live and in color (but very, very dark color).

Then Katherine came to tell me it was time to stop losing money and go home. I think I lost $0.70 that night. No diapers for Jack for a while.

Today we went to another co-worker's house for a barbecue. Real Wisconsin brats. Very nice.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

More Jack video

There have been requests from grandparents for video of Jack alert and interactive. So here is one. We don't have a video camera, really, but use our little Sony digital camera. Works out okay.

Jack wasn't just sitting there smiling, so I had to coax it out of him. I apologize in advance for the off-key singing. The song, however, I don't apologize for. It's a heartfelt Holiday melody courtesy of Kyle Broflovski.

Anyway, enjoy.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Goings On

Jack is a big boy. 6.5 kilos (almost 15 pounds) so far. He's also much more alert and tuned in to his surroundings. He especially likes it when Katherine or I sing off tune. Katherine sings songs we all know and love, I just make stuff up.

It's badminton tourney season at the Embassy. I'm playing with Soukanh (the man in black) and also playing in the mixed doubles as well. Our first round we came up against two embassy guards. As I have said before, the guards seem to work and play badminton, and not necessarily in that order. Suffice it to say that we were outmatched, and lost 2 games to 1. I think the guards took it easy on us to give us that one game.

At least we looked good out there.

Today we had an event to open up a new Embassy field. It was previously used as a horse pasture, but has been turned into a lighted soccer/softball field with a walking track, a barbecue area and playground. The recent additions to the embassy community all got together for a photo. We were supposed to get all the new local employees' kids together too, but it didn't work out. Anyway, 5 new FSO babies in the past year at a post with only 21 direct US hires. Not bad. We blame the rolling blackouts.

The event was also in honor of two long-serving local employees. The guy on the left has been with the embassy since 1967, the guy on the right since 1966. Both stuck around as the war went bad for the existing government in 1975 and the Pathet Lao came into town, even as many employees fled across the river. Both are retiring this year. The field was named in honor of the guy on the right.

A bit of video of Jack and Katherine. Again, it takes me a second to realize which way I'm supposed to hold our digital camera.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Raffi Fan Club

No, not the singer.

Our friend Raffi is doing very well, it seems. You all remember his contribution to the discussion on Chad and Darfur in the liberal MSM flagship the NY Times.

Now he's gone even more crazy liberal and published an article in that rag, the New Yorker. I mean, the magazine is even named after that cesspool of a city I wouldn't be caught dead in if it was the last place on earth to pick up the new issue of National Review.

Anyway, good on ya Raffi. Even if you do have a foreign-sounding name. Raffi Khatchadourian? That's pretty suspect.

By the way, the article is about Adam Gadahn, the infamous Azzam the American, and it's a long, but good, read.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Thanksgiving dinner and patonque lessons

We had a lovely Thanksgiving tonight in Vientiane. Tom and Goht, our friend Cindy from Health Frontiers and two visiting medical type guys, and Tat, Noi and their son, Donut (well, that's what it sounds like anyway).

We haven't seen Donut in a while, and he's getting to be a big kid. Noi just came back from 3 months in the US, and when she got back, Donut didn't remember her. It broke her heart. He's coming around, though.

Tat is teaching Donut about tennis young.

Reason #362 that Jack will likely marry an Asian woman. Everywhere he goes he is smothered with attention. Noi was no exception. He fell asleep in her arms in about 2 minutes.

For much of Donut's 18 months of life, he has watched his father play patongque (bocce ball) with his friends. Patonque has become enormously popular here. When we first arrived in Laos, you could see people playing here and there. Nowadays, it's everywhere.

Anyway, nothing Donut likes more than to play pretend patonque (and alliterate).

Note how he is standing behind the line. Every time he made sure his feet were behind the carpet. And he's lining up his shot.

And the throw. His aim leaves something to be desired, so we moved most breakable things out of the way.

Katherine is getting back on the tennis court for the first time since relatively early in her pregnancy tomorrow morning. She is stealing my 9:00 am tennis date with Tat.

Saturday afternoon at Kung's Cafe

This morning I played tennis with the new Australian Clinic doctor (new about 5 months ago, anyway). At the temple down the street the monks were chanting. Makes for peaceful tennis.

Afterwards, we all went to one of our favorite breakfast spots, Kung's Cafe. Kung and Daen run the place. Sticky rice pancake with bananas for me, with mangos for Katherine.

It's down the end of a small alleyway in a nice little neighborhood near the river. Very serene, and a nice way to recuperate from tennis.

Daen and Jack. Daen is a bit of an entrepreneur. She is now organizing cooking classes for small groups at the cafe. So if you want to learn how to make Laap, Tam Mak Hung, Khao Soi or Pho, Daen is the woman to talk to.

Tonight Katherine is making Thanksgiving dinner. We had a turkey in the freezer that never got used over Christmas, so we're having people over tonight to help us get rid of it. Part of our de-cluttering campaign before we pack out in early March. A turkey probaby wouldn't survive the six months our stuff will be in storage before we arrive in Kiev.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Jack's big day

First, he got his two month shots. Not a happy guy.

Then, when we came home tonight, I set his carseat down, made sure it was stable, then turned around to look at the yard (we're making some cosmetic changes to our yard). 10 seconds later, Jack is lying on his side, his carseat having fallen over on its side. He only fell about a foot or so, and he is fine, but boy did he shriek. Really not a happy guy.

Bad dad.

Drops kid.

Call child protective services.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Phonsavan and the Auberge

A little video from our trip.

When we arrived at our hotel, there was a family cutting trees below our cabin. The father was cutting out notches to make a ladder, the others cutting firewood. Lots of beautiful pine trees were cut down. I guess the hotel decided a clear view of Phonsavan was important.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Random Xieng Khuang

Onions drying in the sun in Muang Sui.

A hmong family chopping trees on the hillside below our hotel. They were all working hard. The dad patiently chopping out notches from a long log to make a ladder of sorts. The eldest son chopping branches off other logs, the mother and another son using a large-toothed two-handled saw to cut larger logs into smaller logs. And the middle son sitting on a log. Why aren't you helping, I asked the boy.

Oh, he's the lazy one, replied the father.

Outside Craters restaurant. It's a relatively new place that an Aussie UXO technician and his Lao wife opened. I've spent time with the Aussie guy in the past when traveling to XK for UXO work. Unfortunately, he has since left the organization he worked for. He's a good guy, with lots of good stories.

Plenty of UXO paraphenalia on display.

Me and m'boy visit a cave in Muang Sui. It was used as a hospital by the North Vietnamese army during the war. There were shards from used vials all over the floor of the cave.

Jack and Mali together in the van.

They were quite good during the day, lots of sleeping, looking at stuff, blowing bubbles, grunting (in Jack's case, at least), and otherwise behaving like perfect little babies.

Night was an altogether different story. Jack was a bit of a problem child, and we heard Mali was too (and heard Mali from time to time). As such, by Monday morning, we were all pretty tired.

Use #34 for the stones. Very uncomfortable pillows. Yeng Tor didn't tell us about that one.

One happy family...two jars.

And the group again. Mali has progressed to sitting forward in her baby bjorn. Jack can only dream of such a day. With a huge melon head like his, it's going to take time to build up those neck muscles.

The Dan Bischof baby hold. Sure, other people might have thought of it, even perchance used it, in the past. But it was our embassy colleague Dan, father of three, a kind of baby whisperer if you will, who introduced us to the magic of holding your kid upside down, stomach on the arm, your hand in the crotch to provide leverage.

Calms them down in a pinch, or when you are waiting around for 80 minutes in a one room airport for your flight home.

As the plane was coming in on approach, a truck left the terminal to take two airport employees out to shoo the cows away from where they were grazing, on the side of the runway. Then they stuck around to make sure they didn't wander back towards the runway before we left. God bless those men and the work they do.

Muang Sui

We stopped at a roadside restaurant next to a small lake to get something to eat. All they had on offer was duck noodle soup. Noone was interested, so we decided to head on down the road. Before we did, however, the owner showed me her still out back. They were making Lao whiskey for personal consumption and for sale. We passed.

As we were getting ready to find a new place to eat, a young ethnic Phuan boy came walking by with his parents. He was proudly carrying his bow and some practice arrows. Flat-nosed, no arrowheads.

I asked him if he shot birds with his bow and he proudly said yes! I asked if he was a good shot and he proudly said yes! Then his father laughed, and continued walking down the road.

His mom followed his dad, and he went running after. Dad carrying his young sibling, mom carrying a heavy load of firewood. Seems fair.

We finally found a good meal back in Phonsavan at the Sangaa restaurant. Jack and Mali, again, had a meal as well.

It's cold in Xieng Khuang. One of the few items of warm clothing Jack has is a sweater that I wore when I was his age. That and orange pants.

The Auberge is, as Katherine said repeatedly, kind of like a Swiss chalet. Each cabin has a fireplace, and the restaurant has two. Dinner on Saturday was nice, as there were few other guests, and Jack and Mali pretty much slept through the whole thing.

We had a great meal, then came time for dessert. Chocolate Souffle or Bananas Flambe. Plus ice cream. Goht asked for the bananas with ice cream. Vanilla and Chocolate ice cream were our choices, the nice man said. Vanilla, said Goht. Two scoops of chocolate for me. I'm sorry, we don't have chocolate said the nice man.

But you just said...oh, never mind. Any other flavors besides vanilla? Nope, said the nice man, just vanilla. Nothing for me then. Souffle for Katherine.

So Goht's bananas flambe came with a great big scoop of delicious...chocolate ice cream. Katherine's souffle came with...chocolate chip ice cream.

Wait, I asked for vanilla ice cream, said Goht. I'm sorry, we don't have vanilla, said the nice man.

I decided it was time for another glass of wine.

Jack's other warm clothing also showed some hometown pride. We decided it was time for the family to represent on Sunday during our trip about 50KM from Phonsavan to Muang Sui, an area with caves, lakes, and other various stuff. Brooklyn in the house...

Travels with Jack

So the taxi drivers at the domestic terminal in Vientiane were entertained by Jack and Mali. They, like most people, asked whether Jack and Mali were twins. Duh, they're a month apart.

My new life...extra baggage.

We stayed at the Phou Phadeng Auberge. Third time for me. When we arrived, Katherine and Goht (in the background) took in the view of the valley around Phonsavan while giving Jack and Mali a little meal.

We hired a van for the weekend. They picked us up at the airport on arrival. They, because a guide came with the van. Yeng Tor, a lovely man with passable English and plenty of stories, some believable, others more fable than fact. He mostly just spoke Lao to us, which was better. Entertaining all around.

We headed to Jar site one, near the airport, on Saturday afternoon. Yeng Tor told us that the jars were used for pretty much every thing that people have ever speculated they were used for. Goht and Katherine were captivated.

The Baby Bjorn people can call us if they want rights to this picture. Baby Bjorn, it's everywhere you want to be...or something like that.

Xieng Khuang

We figured out what the mysterious jars of the famed plain of jars in Xieng Khuang were used for...

They held babies.

Jack is saying "Hi grandpa Luther, I've been to the plain of jars and you haven't!"

Saturday, January 13, 2007


He's lifting his head.

He's spreading his arms and wearing giraffe shirts.

He's contemplating what to swing at next. He's a deep thinker.

And he's going to Xieng Khuang. Our car is here to take us to the airport. Time to go.

We're going to Xieng Khuang


Jack's certainly excited. It's been a dream of his for some time now to visit Xieng Khuang and see the famed Plain of Jars.

Plus, he likes plane rides. He told me.

Speaking of plane rides, we have reserved our flights home. Depart Vientiane March 14. 2 nights in Bangkok for doctor appointments and what not, then home to Albany on March 16. Rensselaerville, New York, Vieques, New York, then DC.

We'll be in Arlington, VA for training for about 6 months. Come visit.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Travels with Jackson

So we've decided it's time to break out of our 2 weeks of sedentary life (after our whirlwind trip to KM 52 and Vang Vieng).

So tomorrow we are purchasing our tickets to fly to Luang Prabang the weekend of February 9, and looking into flight and hotel availability to Xieng Khuang this weekend. Tom and Ghot and Mali will go with us to XK, and Walter, Alex and Eva are flying in from Rangoon to meet up in Luang Prabang.

Katherine has yet to go to XK. I've been twice, but am happy to go back...happy to go anywhere, actually.

I'm also looking for a weekend to go explore Khammouane a bit, and visit our Wildlife Conservation Society friends' research station in Bolikhamsay, but I'll leave Katherine and Jack home for that one.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Our current relationship with Citibank...we're the one in the snazzy red shirt...

Looking at our latest ATM and credit card transactions, it seems that our friends at Citibank have decided that a 1% international transaction fee wasn't enough. Without warning (that's what you get when you sign up for paperless statements, I guess) they have decided that they will take $3 for every $100 we take out from ATMs (or spend on our Citi Mastercard) overseas.

Seems a little steep for accessing our own money.

So we'll be looking for a new bank. After 9 years, Citibank is history. It'll just take a bit of time.

The unfortunate thing is that, in this day and age, everything is linked to our stupid bank account. Direct deposit. ING Direct. Online bill payment. TDAmeritrade brokerage account. Others I probably haven't thought of yet. They will all have to be changed.

So very sad.

Citibank had $5.5 Billion in net income in Q3 2006. All on the back of Katherine and my ATM transactions in Thailand. Damn them and their greedy ways.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

It really ties the room together...

The Dude knew what he was talking about. A nice rug really makes a difference. And so far, this one doesn't have any pee on it. Our bank account a bit lighter, we are now the proud owners of a handmade silk rug.

Being silk, it picks up light differently depending on which way the silk strands are laying and which way the light hits it. It looks lighter from one direction, darker from another. This is the light version. Without flash photography, it is actually a much darker maroon or chocolate color.

We picked up the rug last night, a part of our big night out without Jack. Vone came over and babysat while we a) picked up the rug, b) went to a lovely dinner and c) went to a Jazz concert by Trio Chicago and Friends at the National Cultural Hall.

I attended an event at the Ambassador's residence the night before where they played an acoustic set in a more intimate setting. It was very good, so I thought we could skip the planned massage for a night of Jazz. It's not often we get that opportunity here, less so now that we have our little friend Jack to contend with.

Speaking of which...someone has decided it's time to complain.

Happy Jack

This afternoon Jack was in a very good mood. He had smiles for me.

Smiles, and a surprise pee, for Katherine while on the changing table.

And napped without much trouble.

It's now 8:20 pm so I'm sure he will turn into a monster soon enough.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Saturday morning I got to see the other side of Jack. The happy Jack. The smiling Jack. The bright-eyed curious Jack.

Usually I have been spending my quality time with him at night, when the OTHER Jack comes out to play...or rather, to cry. And not sleep.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Monday, January 01, 2007

silly internet games, and the people, including me, who play them

So it seems that in blogger circles there is this thing where you write something about a particular topic or some such thing, then you 'tag' other people and they are supposed to write about a similar thing.

So I got tagged with a '5 things you don't know about me' theme: First by a colleague who goes by the handle Diplodocus, who I'm still not certain is not an evildoer, then by a colleague in Korea who goes by Girl who, I am certain, is an evildoer. They both hate me for my freedom, so have saddled me with this task.

I'm supposed to tell 5 things that noone, or almost noone, knows about me.

So, because there is nothing I like more than revealing my innermost secrets, hopes and goes:

1. at least one weekend a month I put on make up, a wig, a black cocktail dress and sexy but sensible shoes and hit the town as Rita, a divorced guidance counselor at a local high school and single parent just out looking to have a good time.

2. in 2002 I was recruited into a secret organization that quietly controls the world of soup. Nothing about soup happens without our say-so. Soup of the day at your local diner? That's our decision. The Cambell’s people are our minions. Progresso is controlled by the mafia, which in turn is controlled by us. I attend meetings quarterly in an old garage off the BQE in Brooklyn near the old Navy Yards and plot the slow but steady progress in our battle with the salad people for control of the first course of meals. We also work to rid the world of soup eaters who slurp loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear. Carpe Soup!

3. when hiking in Nepal in 2000, I got lost in a blizzard and could not find my way back to base camp. Then, a yeti attacked me, knocked me out and dragged me off to his ice cave, where he hung me upside down with my boots frozen in the ice. He probably meant to eat me, but before he could I freed myself, killed the yeti, and staggered out to try to find my way back, only to pass out from exhaustion and cold. As hypothermia set in and I was nearing death, my trusted friend Han arrived and saved my life by slaughtering a yak and putting me inside its body cavity, its entrails warming me. By its death, the yak gave me life. Later, we fought over a girl that, in the end, turned out to be my sister. And my dad cut my hand off.

4. my imaginary friend, Gary, has been with me since I was about 5 or 6 years old. He’s an Irish immigrant with a scraggly, unkempt, white beard, a large beer belly, and a slight limp. Gary made his living as a longshoreman in Newark until he lost vision in his left eye in a tragic skee ball accident on the Atlantic City boardwalk. He sued the city and retired when he was awarded a tidy sum, then decided to move into my bedroom. He is prone to anti-semetic remarks and is fascinated by fire. I’ve tried to kick him out, but he’s got a gun and, as he has told me numerous times, he ain’t afraid to use it.

5. I am a liar.

And a bonus revealing of something you don't know about me. I can't believe that the geek from Can't Buy Me Love is now some heart throb doctor on Grey's Anatomy. Dr. McDreamy? Please. He was such a geek he had to pay some chick to hang out with him.

Double bonus. I can't believe I have to get up tomorrow at 4:30 am to get Marla and Lesley to the airport for their 6:15 flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

VV Continued

After a leisurely breakfast, I put Marla and Lesley into a boat to go into town via the Nam Song river while Katherine, Jack and I drove to meet them.

Then we headed across the river on the new fancy-schmancy bridge and went to the Phu Kham cave, about 6 KM away down a dirt road. Katherine and Jack stayed on flat ground while Marla, Lesley and I climbed up to the cave entrance, about two hundred meters up a pretty steep climb. The climb was made more difficult for Lesley given her club hand.

The cave is very large, and easy to explore on your own, but we grabbed a kid named Nou and asked his price anyway. He quoted a very high price (for him) and I thought, hey, it's new year's eve and why not, so to Nou's surprise, I said fine. $2 from my pocket to his. I paid him his exhorbitant fee just before exiting the cave, and when we got out, he proudly pulled his wad of cash from his pocket to show his friends. I told him it was a high price, but he was worth it.

The road to Phu Kham Cave goes through a shallow stream. There is a small bridge we could have crossed, then continued on foot the 2 KM or so to the cave, but with Jack along, I decided we'd just go ahead and drive through the river. It was pretty shallow, about knee-deep at its deepest point.

On the way back to Vang Vieng, I had Katherine get out and cross the bridge ahead of us so she could capture my manly off-roading adventure on film.

After what was to be a quick lunch at a riverside restaurant (actually took about 90 minutes), we piled back into the car for our return to Vientiane. We left at about 4:20, which gave us enough time to get out of the mountains before dark, but not all the way home. I hate driving at night in Laos. The people walking, riding bikes, or hanging out along the road don't generally wear reflective clothing. Neither do the cows.

Jack didn't like the drive home either, and we had to stop at a gas station about 30 KM outside of Vientiane for a while so he could get a snack and calm down. I took the opportunity to play a little rattan ball with two young kids and Marla took the opportunity to walk through a big spider web, coating her pretty much from head to toe in sticky silk.

By the time we got home we were all pretty tired of being in the car, although Jack was the best, and loudest, at expressing how he really felt. We decided to have a new year's eve at home rather than trying to gather the energy to go out. So I was dispatched to get pizza and red wine and we hunkered down and waited for midnight.

At 12:03, Katherine was in bed.

Happy New Year!