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.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Heading South, sort of

We are now in Larchmont, having made the drive from Rensselaerville yesterday.

This afternoon into Brooklyn to stay with Katherine's brother.

That is all.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Happy Jack

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Life in Rensselaerville

Some new photos of Jack (and other people) by request from a little girl in London

First afternoon in R'ville.

Jack getting some Mother Goose time with Grandpa.

All bundled up for a trip outside.

Where the hell are we? Where are our palm trees and mango tree that are supposed to be in the front yard? Where's the warmth? AAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm homesick.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Our long national over

We woke up this morning in Rensselaerville, tucked safely into our beds at Katherine's mom and stepdad's place.

Katherine woke up because Jack woke up. I, sleeping in another room to get a full night's sleep (thank you Katherine) woke up because my damn travel alarm clock was still set for 5:00 AM Chicago time from the day before, and was in the bowels of my bag.

My carry on, that is, as the rest of our bags are still in Chicago.

No problem, though, because we are not.

After a decent night at the Hilton, we were on standby for the 7:55 am flight, which was oversold by 7 seats (quite a few in an 80 passenger plane) so our odds weren't great for getting on. Our odds of getting on the 7:55 worsened significantly when the flight was cancelled. On to the 1:25 flight, now with a standby list about 2.5x the number of seats in the already sold out flight.

We found a corner and hunkered down. A while later I asked Katherine if it was 10:00 am yet. Nope, 8:45. Time marched on, just too slowly for my liking.

We meandered over to the gate for the 1:25 flight at about 12:00 pm. The gate agent who arrived about 20 minutes later announced to the assembled rabble that anyone on standby better not approach her desk as she had a gun and an itchy trigger finger, or something to that effect. Still, a steady procession of people who either can't hear or don't care approached to ask their odds of getting on the flight. Not good. The flight was full and all ticketed passengers had checked in, the woman announced.

We had a confirmed flight for 9:15 pm Sunday night, so we contemplated just leaving until then. But wait, a ticket agent informed us that there was no record of our confirmation in the system, and that flight was now sold out, so we could get out Monday at 1:25 pm. So unimpressed with United at this point. If we can't get on the 1:25 pm today (and it looked unlikely) I decided, we would just hang in a hotel for 2 days rather than spending our time waiting and hoping in the airport.

5 minutes before takeoff. The gate agent starts calling passengers' names. First 9 names! "PLEASE COME TO THE GATE IMMEDIATELY OR YOUR SEATS WILL BE RELEASED!" Please don't, we silently pleaded. Then a rush of passengers. Down to two missing passengers. They'd checked in for the flight, but hadn't made it to the gate. "TWO MINUTES AND YOUR SEATS WILL BE RELEASED!" We had been told previously by a sympathetic gate agent that there was one person ahead of us in the standby list. Okay, if we get one seat, Katherine and Jack go and I stay behind to fend for myself. "TICKETING IS CLOSING, WE WILL GIVE UP YOUR SEATS!"

"NERVIG!" That's us, Katherine says. We only have two seats available, they say. We don't care, we say in unison. Which ticket will you give up, they ask. His, Katherine says, pointing to Jack. Yes, they say with a sigh, but what is his name. Oh, Jack. Cancel J. Nervig's ticket. He's riding on laps.

So through the gate we go and the door closes behind us (Katherine later admitted that she was ready to lose it if we didn't get on the flight). Katherine up towards the front with Jack, and I in the back. Jack decided he'd finally had enough god damn travel; after takeoff I looked forward to see Katherine standing up bouncing a wailing Jack.

Would you like for me to switch seats with your wife, asks my neighbor.


No, not really, I say.

Then I think better of it and thank him for his kindness, while the rest of the passengers around us probably cursed him.

So 50+ hours after the beginning of our trip, we arrived in Rensselaerville.

And it's cold.

And it's snowing.

Are you sure you are excited about Ukraine, I ask Katherine as I try to catch my breath. Well...

It's Sunday morning, and I am wearing a winter hat and a robe. I feel like an unemployed, alcoholic writer or something. I'm guessing that this is how an unemployed, alcoholic writer would dress. At least in the winter.

And so now, Rensselaerville. Rest, recouperation, and dial up internet means that our little blog here will probably go on hiatus for a while. Check back in a week or two.

Time for the Sunday New York Times...

Friday, March 16, 2007

Travels and travails

Last evening at the Sunset Bar on Tuesday night.

A stop off in Bangkok to endanger our baby by not using child restraints in the cab...because they don't exist in Bangkok cabs (and we had to get to the hospital for his checkup somehow, didn't we?)

6 bags checked, 3 bags carried on, one baby and one carseat carried on, one snap and go stroller gate checked for retrieval in Narita for our transfer to the next flight.

Five hours later arrived in Narita sans stroller. Where is it? Who knows?

Now 3 carry ons and one kid in a carseat lugged to our next gate.

About 5 hours into our 11 hour flight to Chicago and we've run out of things to entertain Jack with.


About 8 hours into the 11 hour flight to Chicago. Everyone asleep...except...

Jack was actually really good for about 90% of the flight. He didn't sleep much, but he didn't complain much either.

And here we, in an O'hare Airport Hilton. Seems someone decided to dump snow on the east coast so we are waitlisted for tomorrow morning 7:55 and onward, with confirmed seats on the first available flight, which is 9:15 pm SUNDAY.

Here's hoping that our business class tickets vault us to the front of the line and at least two people (3 would be better) miss the flight tomorrow morning.

We are now on American soil, but thus far the welcome hasn't been as good as we would have hoped. Damn snow.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

12 hours to go

We are packed.

We visited the Sunset Bar for the last time (and got parting gifts from the owner...more Beer Lao glasses) and had a lovely last L'opera lunch (well, dinner actually, but lunch was more alliterative).

We've said goodbye to most people. A few others will see us off at the airport tomorrow.

8:00 am car to the airport. 10:20 am flight to Bangkok.

Pause for Dr. appointments and various other things, such as dinner with Kate and Orestes while spending two nights in Bangkok...

6:40 am flight from Bangkok on Friday arriving late afternoon Friday in Albany.

By the way, what is the cell service that had the ads with Catherine Zeta Jones a few years back. I heard tell that their pre-paid service is pretty good. Anyone have any other suggestions for pre-paid cell service I'd be glad to hear them. 6 months in the US doesn't make for a very affordable cell service contract, and we'll be bringing home fancy tri-band phones from Bangkok.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Now everyone is getting on the bandwagon...

Click here(and wait for the ad to go play through...then you'll get to the good stuff).

I was flogging this type of feel good story long before anyone at MSNBC figured out that monkeys and dogs make for good copy.

Katherine's step-sister Marlaena was kind enough to think of us when she saw it and pass it on.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

But maybe we're leaving just in time...

Laos has reported its first two human deaths from Avian Influenza. One man from Vientiane Province and one woman from about 1 KM from our house.

As such, teams are going around town taking chickens and other birds from people's yards. Luckily, we don't have any chickens in our yard.

Another downside of the AI scare is that the 10 rotisserie chickens we ordered for our party were unavailable. No rotisserie chickens allowed. The women at our corner chicken store were apologetic, but said they had called around and the police aren't letting anyone sell rotisserie chicken. Fried chicken from Kouvieng Fried Chicken (KFC), no problem, rotisserie chicken, just no. So we had a bit less food than we had planned, but it turned out to be just about right.

This afternoon we brought a few things over to Vone's house that we are giving to her. It gave us a chance to see the progress. They've been building it slowly but surely for about the last year. When Diana and Alan were here last January it was just a foundation.

Both floors are now finished. Next

And doors.

Vone's niece is about 2 weeks older than Jack. Vone's mother suggested a future marriage was a possibility. They marry them off young here, I guess.

A good idea. Then Vone can be Jack's aunt-in-law.

Jack and I are well-protected for our journey back to the U.S. All 32 Khuan (spirit-type things) have been safely returned to our bodies and are being held hostage by the strings on our arms (or something like that). Jack actually only has one left. We took the rest off.

It became a bit emotional with Katherine and Vone. We are truly going to miss her, and not just because she makes the best damn green curry in the world. She has been wonderful to have in our lives.

And we'll miss Tat and his wife Noy, who, besides being funny and interesting and beautiful, has the uncanny ability to make Jack fall asleep almost immediately when she holds him.

And we'll miss John, who will be marrying his fiancee Katrina in December at her parents' home in Kenya. We're hoping to be there for it.

And, of course, we'll miss many other people and things in Laos. All the goodbyes started to make it feel real. Driving home from the office tonight it finally really hit me. Sunday nights the streets are pretty empty, so rather than thinking evil thoughts about all the people driving the wrong way or otherwise doing things that eventually will get them in a bad accident, I started thinking about what a wonderful two years we've had, and about the nature of a foreign service career. At the beginning, at least, your schedule is pretty rigid. Two years and out, regardless of whether we thought staying another year might be fun.

Tomorrow is a last lunch with my consular staff. Tuesday probably a last bowl of the most delicious mee muu (noodle soup with pork) at a local noodle shop. Tuesday night we'll go to the Sunset Bar for one last beer, Sticky Fingers for one, I guess, and L'Opera for one last italian dinner. It was the location of our first meal in Laos, so it is only fitting that it be our last as well.

I guess now is the time for regrets. I'm sure we will have many conversations about what we wish we had done different. But tallying up our two years here, we've been to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. In Laos I've been to 10 provinces and missed five. We've made some good friends and had some great times.

And we are heading home with one very nice souvenir.

Our long goodbye

It started out a very civil affair.

Our Baci. All told we had about 80 people or so file through our house or garden for the Baci or the afterparty. A collection of Lao friends and coworkers and various international friends. The finality of some of the goodbyes finally made our impending departure real for me.

But before that, there was the ceremony.

Jack received another hat (his first from Vone is packed away to Kiev) and was a very well-behaved, hat-wearing boy. Plenty of good luck and good wishes to him, although we took off most of the strings before he went to bed last night. We were told that babies don't need to keep the strings on 3 days for the luck to continue. Rather, you take them off and touch them 3 times to the baby's head and the effect is the same. Sadly, adults don't have the same out.

Somehow, the night devolved into schoolboy contests, led primarily by Tim and John. The things you stack chairs on became vehicles for races down our driveway. I'm happy to report no serious injuries.

Then it devolved further.

More later, once the fog clears from my head. For now, we are headed over to the embassy field for our last sunday morning kids gathering.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The things Jack does when we aren't home

He swims and poops in kiddie pools...

He walks in the grass...sort of.

Chinese New Year on Soi 7, Ban Tong Khang (where we live)

A few weeks ago was Chinese New Year. Our neighbors went the extra mile and had a whole team of people come over for an intimate celebration and invited Katherine and Jack along for the fun.

There are Jack and Katherine to the right of the scary dragon. It was kind of first thing in the morning, so Katehrine is still in her PJs. So is Jack, but even if a) he wasn't and b) you could see him, it would be hard to tell given that most of his clothes look like PJs.

The dogs in front are, of course, statues. And nice ones, at that.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Unbiased view

He's cute

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Down time

Monday afternoon we finished about 3:45 or so. We decided to go for a boat ride and walked over to the boat landing. Arriving at about 4:02, we saw the door closed and a sign saying CLOSED AT 4:00.

I asked a nearby merchant if he knew the number of the boat cooperative manager and he put in a call. I talked our way into a boat ride to Muang Ngoi and back. Well, we couldn't make it to Muang Ngoi, he said, not enough time before dark. Fine. Just a boat ride then, the boat driver would decide when we had to turn around.

We found a boat owner and he talked with the guy on the phone. $35, he said. No way, I said, $20. $30 he said.

I'll tell you what, I said, $25...BUT, $30 if we make it all the way to Muang Ngoi.


We finished our beers at the boat landing and were on our way.

With a few beers for the river.

We made it to Muang Ngoi (not surprising given the incentive) and what do you know? They have concrete steps now (in Nong Khiaw too, by the way). Very posh. Last time here we had to scramble up the dirt riverbank. These small girls, I'm sure, appreciate the stairs. They were doubled over struggling to carry probably twice their weight. Very strong, their father said as he passed by me with double the load.

The sun setting in Muang Ngoi, we traded in our empties for 6 more full beers and headed back.

When we got back we had another drink on the west side of the bridge before returning to our guesthouse on the east side (very comfortable Riverside Bungalows for $20. Much nicer than the $2 place my dad and I stayed at before.). Two German women came in to grab chairs. They were waiting for the night bus to Houaphan Province to the east. It seems the bus is scheduled to arrive in Nong Khiaw sometime between 8:00 pm and 12:00 am and doesn't stop unless flagged down, so they camped out on the road to wait.

We bought a beer for them, wished them luck and headed over the bridge for dinner.

Nam Bak

Nam Bak was the site of some pretty big battles during the war. It is at a T-junction of national highway 13 (north to south) and a highway that runs to the Vietnam border near Dien Bien Phu.

An 8 hectare site on the outskirts of Nam Bak is being cleared in advance of a village expansion. Some bombies, but lots of land service ammunition (anything fired from the ground). Mortars, rockets, grenades, etc.

Someone's front yard, home to a 105 mm mortar buried about 10 cm below the ground. Their cook fire was about 3 meters away. Fire can cause UXO to explode if it heats up too much.

Lots of UXO is deemed safe enough to move to a special detonation site. It allows them to destroy the UXO without danger to surrounding houses, etc. We visited the site where they had collected a bunch of different land ordnance for destruction. Bombies are generally deemed too unstable and thus are destroyed where they are found.

They place them in the site, set a c-4 charge, clear the area and BANG! They are gone. A few of us stayed near (but a safe distance) to blow the cache while others went to a nearby hill to watch. I didn't get to see it, but certainly heard it as we were quite close (but again, safe in a cave around the backside of a small karst). Walking back, we found hot, sharp shrapnel between us and the site.

We were led by the UXO Lao National Program Director, the LP Provincial Director, Deputy Director, and others, as well as some international Technical Assistants, including our friend John Dingley, third from right.

Nice last trip, including a bit of free time Monday late afternoon when we hired a boat and headed up to Muang Ngoi where we bought some beer and headed back to Nong Khiaw. While there, a villager noticed John's UXO Lao shirt and reported a 500 lb bomb that some kids found about 2 KM north of town.

Back from Luang Prabang

Here's a bit of what we did just outside Nong Khiaw (where I was with Luther and we were with Ari and Jennine back in the fall of 2005).

Inspecting a bombie found on a 10,000 sq. meter site being cleared by UXO Lao. They've found four so far, and will finish clearing the land on the 7th. It will be used for an orchard once cleared.

The team leader showing us around. The Nam Ou is just behind him, and the town of Nong Khiaw at the left of the big karst.

One of the deminers on the site.

2 of 4 bombies (cluster bomb units) found on the site go away.

And the other 2 here. You can still see the smoke from the first two. Note the proximity to a school. The kids were all playing in the schoolyard until just before the detonations, at which point UXO Lao team members went down and ushered them inside. They also asked the soldiers playing Patonque next door to go inside as well. Loudspeaker announcements announced to all in the area that a detonation was coming. Then the explosions, four in succession. The team goes to check that all four bombies were destroyed, then after they announced all clear and all the kids came back out to play.

Katherine made me do it

I apologize to future Jack for this. Katherine thinks it is great and we must share. Jack in the pool with Mali surrounded by Lao women and Ghot.

And I apologize to the faint of heart. There's some nudity, both male and female full frontal. And there are some scatological references towards the end, but they are in Lao so it shouldn't offend the easily offended.

Basically Jack pooped in the pool.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Happy Birthday PHIL!

Phil turns 35 today! He's off celebrating at a UXO meeting and a working lunch (on a Saturday, mind you) while Jack and I are at home playing. We're off to get the car washed!

Friday, March 02, 2007

Light blogging

Not much going on.

Our stuff is gone,

Bye stuff, see you in Kiev.

I'm sick, and I have a visitor from Washington until the 8th.

Tomorrow not a day off for me.

Sunday to Luang Prabang, Monday night in Nong Khiaw, visiting UXO Lao operations around Nong Khiaw and Nam Bak. Lots of bombing there on the road to Vietnam during the war.

Katherine shouldering the load that is our wonderful child.

A little story time featuring Ferdinand the bull that was too much of a wussy to fight, or something like that.

A couple more.

And a somewhat dark video.

Alright, that's it.

12 days to go..still so very sad, but exciting.