Monthly Archives: July 2010

Breakfast at the corner stall

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

(A. A. Milne,  The House at Pooh Corner)

What’s for breakfast?

Coffee brewed on top of the pot of noodle soup and filtered through muslin bags. Served in a glass, dark and thick above a layer of condensed milk.

Baguettes – a legacy of French colonialism.

And donuts. One was enough of those.

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A time to wait

The good news is that everything is proceeding well regarding the house we found and liked a couple of weeks ago – lucky number 29. We’ve agreed on the terms of the lease, and the owners have signed the contract. Now we’re waiting for the right people at headquarters down in Vientiane to review it, sign it, and issue payment.

So the bad news is that we’re still waiting to move in.

Mike’s been living out of a suitcase now since April when he left for Laos. Or, perhaps since March, when he was in Malawi? Or January, when he was in Australia? I don’t know. But one thing is for sure, between his trips, my jaunts to London, Jakarta, and Phnom Penh, and our holiday in Alaska and Canada before coming here… there have been a lot of suitcases and a lot of living packed into the first half of this year.

You might think that in the midst of all this activity during the last six months I wouldn’t have had a lot of time to feel that I was waiting for anything. But I did. I often caught myself scouting the future for planned or hoped-for landmarks. Waiting to leave on the next plane, or to return. Waiting for Mike to leave on the next plane, or to return. Waiting.

Before we made the decision to move to Laos I often felt as if I were waiting and longing for our season of uncertainty about what to do next to just be over. Surely, I thought, once we know we’ll feel more grounded, more present.

And it’s true that in one sense, we did.

But when we decided to make the jump from California this sparked five months of preparing, of waiting, for the move. Surely, I thought, once we actually make the move we’ll feel more grounded, more present.

And it’s true that in one sense, we have.

But the thing is, this sense I have of “waiting” never seems to be completely assuaged.

Whether big or small, there always seem to be things to wait for. Now we’re here we’re waiting for Mike’s visa and the extra level of certainty and protection that it should bring. We’re waiting for our shipment – which has not even left California yet, and won’t until the visa is in hand. We often have to wait on an internet connection that’s not nearly as fast as I would like. Then there’s the daily temptation to wait to start writing until my genie shows up and gifts me inspiration.

And, of course, there’s waiting to move into a house that we will – at least temporarily – be able to call ours. There’s waiting to finally unpack some of those suitcases.

But I know that after we do, there will just be something else to wait for.

There’s a famous Bible passage in Ecclesiastes 3 that starts; “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…” It talks about times to be born and times to die, to plant and uproot, to weep and laugh. In fact, it lists twenty-eight different times.

Not one of them is a time to wait.

I’d guess that’s because, on some level, it’s always a time to wait. Right up until it’s time to die there is always going to be another coming season to anticipate, to dread, to hope and long for, to fear.

To wait for.

I don’t particularly like what this implies… That I can’t just ride out periodic seasons of waiting and enjoy perfect and peaceful times in between. That it’s less about whether I’m waiting, maybe even less about what I’m waiting for, and more about how I’m waiting. And that it is largely up to me whether I marry the word “waiting” to the word “worry” or, conversely, miss the complex beauty of the present because I am living in a haze of anticipation.

No, I don’t like waiting. I don’t like the pre-eminence I can sometimes grant it. And I resent how focusing too much on an illusion of the future can rob me of the full experience of now.

Except when I’m at the dentist. Then I’ll pretty much take the future, any version of the future, over the present.

I count myself lucky that there are no dentists in Luang Prabang.

There are, however, plenty of things I’m waiting on at the moment. But while I’m waiting I’m also enjoying the generosity of some new friends who have lent us their house while they are in Thailand for a month. I am enjoying their air conditioner, and the quiet of these back lanes. I am definitely enjoying the fact that right down the street is the Laos Red Cross.

I wandered in there yesterday. Signs inside the gate direct you to go left to give blood, and right to reach the sauna and massage rooms. Five dollars bought me an hour of massage and a receipt thanking me for supporting the work of the Lao Red Cross. Thanking me. It was, hands down, the most fun I’ve ever had supporting the work of the Red Cross. I may just go back today and support them some more.

So there are far worse places in this world to practice waiting for a house to be ready. And, as for writerly inspiration, Jack London perhaps put it best…

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

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Pepsi and pig fat

I was mentally prepared for some of the food in the villages in Viengkham to be challenging for me. I hadn’t, however, expected similar food hurdles this last weekend at the house of one of Mike’s colleagues.

Mike came home on Friday bearing the news that we had lunch plans the next day. Apparently a representative of the powers that be who has some influence over the issuance of visas for the international staff of NGOs in Laos was in town. Mike’s deputy thought it was a good idea for Mike to sit down with this guy over a beer so that this man (as Mike put it) “could smell him.” To facilitate the smelling the local staff had organized a big Saturday lunch to which they would bring the PTB ambassador. Late on Friday afternoon they got around to inviting Mike and I as well.

“Informal,” Kapono told Mike. “Informal only. Drink beer, make friends.”

Kapono may have meant, “If we all drink beer together, they will pretty much have to issue you a visa.” Or, maybe, “If we all drink beer together, then they’ll at least start to consider issuing you a visa.” Or, maybe, just, “Let’s get together and drink lots of beer, because it’s really fun.” It’s sort of hard to tell.

[Sidenote: A tendency to be ambiguous and last-minutish does seems to be emerging as a recognizable pattern here in Laos. Mike came home one evening recently and made me laugh with tales of a staff member who had came into his office at 4:30 and asked him if he would “perhaps like to perhaps have a meeting now?” when what this staff member really meant to communicate was:

(1) Three weeks ago we scheduled a very important meeting with six members of an international assessment team for 4pm today;

(2) We forgot to put it on your schedule;

(3) You are supposed to be chairing this meeting; and

(4) These six foreigners are waiting downstairs for this meeting to begin and have been now for half an hour.]

On Saturday, lunch started at 10am. At least, that’s what we were told. So that’s what time we showed up. That was also, therefore, the time we were handed our first full glass of beerlao.

No, I haven’t yet learned to like it. And especially not at ten in the morning.

Things got off to a somewhat slow start. It was 10:30 before anyone else got there. 10:42 before the ambassador of the powers that be showed up. 10:50 before there seemed to be any sort of critical mass, and 10:51 before someone made the first beer toast and the drinking started in earnest.

Ah, the drinking. Every time we go to one of these events I learn more about the drinking culture here.

It’s not as if the beer is terribly potent. Beerlao is not a tremendously strong brew to start with, and they put ice in it, which waters it down even more. The problem really lies in the fact that people here drink it as if it’s going out of style. As if they have just finished a twenty-mile hike in the Sahara desert. As if they are eighteen-year-old Australian mining engineering students.

The drinking is also communal – you are not left in peace to nurse your glass of beer at your own pace. At regular and frequent intervals someone will propose a toast and everyone will enthusiastically clink glasses. What is being toasted varies, but it’s usually some variant on, “here’s to good health”, or “strength”, or “good work”. On Saturday, after Kapono told us that one of his buffalos had been stolen, we all drank to the fertility of the remaining two buffalos.

So after you’ve acknowledged everyone else’s glass and paid appropriate homage to health, strength, work, and the sex life of Kapono’s buffalos, you then take a large gulp out of your own glass. Or two gulps. Or three.

It depends where you’re aiming to drain your glass to.

You see, the country of Laos is long and thinish. So is a glass of beer. And if you’re drinking beer in Laos and someone calls out the name of a city in the south of the country, the rules of engagement seem to state that you are to drain your glass all the way down to the level of that city. If you’re not sure where that might be, never fear, your neighbor will helpfully point to the spot on your glass. After the group scull there is much laughing and commenting on the speed (or lack thereof) at which everyone present can drink.

And a couple of minutes later, as soon as everyone’s glasses are refilled, it all happens again.

I made it through most of one glass of beer before I handed it off to Mike and switched to Pepsi.

This turned out to be a mistake. I was trying to hang onto some semblance of politeness – if I wasn’t going to drink beer like everyone else, I thought that at least I could honor the hospitality by drinking a glass of something higher status than mere water. But I hadn’t banked on not being allowed to stop at one glass. Indeed, the women I was sitting next to – women who spoke not a word of English – didn’t give me the option of stopping at all. Every time my glass even reached the halfway point they smiled beatifically, reached for the Pepsi, and refilled it. By the time I’d been participating in the drinking rituals with Pepsi for three hours, I’d drunk almost two litres.

This wasn’t the worst of it, however. These women – these lovely women – were doing their best to take care of me. This meant that they also kept reaching over and putting food onto my plate. Particularly the prized pieces of pig fat – big, quivering, white, chunks of pig fat. And they were very keen indeed for me to have some of the pig blood soup.

If I sound at all churlish I really don’t mean to. It was remarkably and strategically hospitable of Kapono and a dozen other staff members to organize (and pay for) this get together. It was lovely of these women to try and watch out for me, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. It was fun to laugh with them, even if I couldn’t understand much of what was being said.

At least, it was fun for the first hour or two.

By the time we were well into hour three it was not quite so much fun, and by the time we’d been there for almost five hours I was done.

I was over-caffeinated, and definitely over pig fat. In addition to pieces of barbecue pork, sticky rice, and some unidentifiable but peppery vegetables, I’d eaten a couple of pieces of the fat and several spoonfuls of soup (carefully bypassing the pieces of intestine). I’d spent the last hour slowly eating raw beans one after another so that no one could accuse me of not partaking.

Definitely done, and very determined on one point, at least.

Regardless of the circumstances, I will not be eating any more pig fat for the rest of the week.

The existence of poo

On Friday night Mike and I had a hot date. As you all know by now that we live in Laos, and that Laos is often very hot indeed, it would be overkill to add the word “literally” here. I will just move right along to the many other things that made this date hot.

It was a gorgeous, velvety, night at the tail end of a long week, and we decided to go somewhere special for dinner. So we left the guesthouse and wandered up main street – through the colorful carnival of the night market, past the lady who makes great mango shakes, past the stall where we buy nutella and banana crepes, past the air-conditioned wine bar that serves warm eggplant and carrot appetizers drizzled with olive oil, past the place that offers ‘three for the price of two’ cocktails during happy hour, and past the French bakery that serves chocolate au pain dense enough to tide you over until lunch if you eat it at 7am.

And to think that my mother and my husband were so worried that I’d never be able to find my way around Luang Prabang without a GPS.

After passing that parade of gastronomic delights we wandered down a couple of side streets towards the Mekong until, opposite a gold-glazed temple, we reached Tamarind.

Tamarind is a small nook that serves traditional Lao food along with a dash of cultural orientation. The menu, written in English and Lao, tells you that it’s impolite here to put your fork into your mouth – the fork is intended only for shoveling food onto your spoon. It tells you not to buy rice from the street vendors to give to the monks in the morning – that the monks consider that rice tainted and will not eat it. And it explains one of the reasons why Lao cuisine is so different from Thai – because the staple, sticky rice, is better suited to thicker dipping sauces and pastes than the soupier Thai curries.

It was at Tamarind that I first sampled a tall glass of cold tamarind juice, and a stalk of lemongrass stuffed with minced chicken and herbs and grilled over an open flame. It was also where I first tried those ubiquitous brown triangles of dried riverweed studded with sesame seeds that you are meant to dip into tiny bowls of chili paste mixed with buffalo skin. The latter was not such a transcendent epicurean moment, but I guess you can’t win them all.

Despite the occasional appearance of buffalo skin in the dishes, I love the food at Tamarind. But, so far, the food at Tamarind has not returned my affection in equal measure. The first time we went there I was already unwell, probably sick from something I’d eaten in the market the previous day. And on Friday – although I was feeling perfectly perky when we sat down to dinner – I suddenly felt markedly less perky about halfway through our feast.

There are few things more deflating than suddenly becoming aware that you may need to make an emergency toilet run in the middle of a hot date.

Mike – a water and sanitation engineer and himself a veteran of giardia in Tajikistan – was sympathetically no-nonsense. We got the coconut sticky rice desert to go, walked down to the road along the river, and caught a tuk tuk back to the guesthouse. After we got there I made a beeline for the toilet. Then I collapsed, petulant and groaning, onto the bed.

“What?” Mike asked. “Don’t you feel better?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s just that, well, Asia is forcing me to acknowledge poo.”

“What about poo?” Mike asked.

“Its existence,” I said.

“Wait,” Mike said, genuinely baffled. “Let me get this straight. Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the existence of poo.”

“Yes,” I said.

Then Mike busted up laughing so hard I really thought that he might fall over.

“I love poo,” he taunted, when he once again had enough breath to speak. “Poo is my bread and butter.”

“Ugh,” I moaned. “I can’t believe you just said that. You’re disgusting.”

“You are unbelievably quirky,” he said. “I can’t believe that you just said that Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the operational outworkings of a normal bodily function that you have, on average, been experiencing at least once every two days since you were born.”

“Mere existence doesn’t mandate open acknowledgment,” I said. “And I am not the only one. This is a widespread woman issue.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

“What do men do when they feel the urge and they’re out somewhere – at the office, or at a friend’s house?”

Mike looked at me as if trying to figure whether I was asking a trick question.

“You use a toilet,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for – to deal with our body’s normal waste in a sanitary and efficient manner.”

“There are some exceptions to this, obviously,” I said. “But women usually find it excruciatingly embarrassing to be caught out in public and need to do the poo. It is generally understood that you do not do the poo anywhere where other people may surmise what you are up to – much less anywhere you may be heard or smelled. Ideally you do not do the poo unless you are at your own home. Alone.”

Mike did not want to believe me on this. I had to tell him about women I know who will never use a public restroom. I had to tell him about women I know who regularly go to an entirely different floor of their office building to use the toilet if they simply cannot wait any longer at work. I had to tell him about women I know who spent their entire honeymoon constipated because they refused to use the bathroom in their hotel room.

“No!” Mike said, horrified, upon hearing this last tale of poo-shame.

“Yes!” I said. “They made covert runs to the bathroom in the lobby.”

“Did you…?” he asked.

“No!” I said. “I wasn’t that bad. But I get it. It’s hard to suddenly acknowledge the existence of poo to someone else when you’ve spent much of your life working to hide it.”

“How can there can be that much shame around something everyone experiences?” Mike asked.

We both lay on the bed for a while, staring at the ceiling, pondering this question.

“What else is up there on your shame index?” Mike wanted to know.

“Crying,” I said. “I don’t think this one is nearly as female-universal. But I hate crying in public. I hate crying in front of you.”

“But that’s my favorite.” Mike said. “When you’re such an angry little ball of woe it’s really sexy.”

“Shut up,” I said, whacking him on the head.

“You’ve had a bad week then, haven’t you?” Mike said, still far too amused to pretend much straight-faced sympathy. “You’ve cried in front of me. Asia has forced to acknowledge the existence of poo. And poo, come to think of it, has probably forced you to acknowledge the existence of Asia.”

“It’s been great,” I said. “And tonight’s been the best date ever.”

“You’re welcome,” Mike said.

“What exactly am I supposed to be thanking you for now?” I asked.

“For helping you get over your quirky issues,” he said.

And to that, I had no good comeback.

I still don’t have a good comeback, but this week will doubtless bring more opportunities to come face to face with those quirky issues, and perhaps I will find one. For tomorrow I’m traveling with Mike four hours north, to spend a couple of days in a village in Viengkham province. Mike will be performing the final inspection of a gravity-fed water system there, and he assures me there will not be any air conditioners or internet present, but there will be a blessing ceremony, lots and lots of local food, and way too much beerlao.

I can hardly wait. I just hope they also have toilets.

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“That” dog

This morning, as he sometimes does, Mike woke up before 5am. In an effort to avoid disturbing me, he decided to go outside and sit on the balcony. At about 6 he came and crawled back into bed.

“Did you hear the dog?” he asked.

At this point I may have said something uncomplimentary about that dog. Profane, even.

I could feel Mike smiling in the darkness.

“Is it that scruffy little sod? That mangy cur?” I asked. “The one that sits in the street next door looking miserable all day long? Is that the pre-dawn howler?”

“Yeah,” Mike said. “That one. Want to hear something interesting?”

“You saw a tuk tuk run over him this morning?” I asked, hopeful.

“The gate to the guesthouse was open,” Mike said. “He could have gone out into the street and played and been a happy little dog.  But he didn’t. He was sitting, howling, in front of a wide open gate.”

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Is home a place?

Home, it seems, is the theme of the week.

First, good news. The contract isn’t signed yet, so no guarantees, but it looks as if we have found a house!

Six hours after I published my last post on house hunting I was about to pack up my computer for the afternoon when something made me pause and think again about doing a google search on houses for rent in Luang Prabang.

I didn’t hold out much hope. No one I’ve met here has ever found a house for long-term rent online. But, after half an hour of plugging in various search terms and finding exactly nothing, something popped up that I really liked the look of.

Mike and I went to see it that night. There was no one there when we drove up, but the woman at the guesthouse next door made a call for us. Forty minutes later, two women showed up on a motorcycle. Then we sat there for another fifteen minutes while they tried every key they had brought with them, in every door.

No luck.

We were, however, in luck in other ways. We were on our way out to dinner and just happened to have a student intern with us who spoke Thai fluently. He was able to talk with the women and arrange for us to return the next day at noon.

“I have a good feeling about this,” I said to Mike, later that night. “I think this is the one!”

“How can you have a good feeling about this?” Mike asked. “We haven’t even been inside yet.”

“I just do,” I said, a little disappointed that Mike was apparently not going to join me in riding my wave of unusually blithe optimism. “I think we should move in.”

“Watching you during this whole house hunting process has been a real treat,” Mike said, not looking as if that statement were entirely true. “It’s been like seeing the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action.”

When we showed up at noon yesterday, however, my good feeling was not disappointed. While the place is not without some minor drawbacks, I like the inside. I like the fact that it’s situated about halfway in between Mike’s office and town. I like the fact that it’s set off from a paved road behind another house. I like the fact that it has a fireplace with no chimney attached.

Actually, I don’t care about the fireplace, except insofar as it’s deliciously odd.

So we’ve signaled our interest. The owners have signaled that they would be open to us renting. Now it remains to be seen if the contract gets signed. Fingers crossed that all continues to go well, on all fronts, with all powers that be. And thank you to anyone who lodged any type of petition on our behalf.

On other fronts, my non-blog writing this past couple of weeks has also been entirely occupied by the issue of house and home. While Mike is at work I’ve been spending most of my time sitting either in Joma or the guesthouse, writing. I’m rethinking, revising, rewriting, reshaping, the draft of the book I wrote last year – a memoir dealing with home.

This week I’m grappling with a chapter that looks at the issue of home as a place. This is probably a complicated issue for many people, for many reasons. But when you grow up moving frequently I think the issue of home as a place can become particularly problematic. What do you think about this issue of home and place?

That’s all from me for today. I’ll be back next week. In the meantime, whether you’re at home or not, I hope you have a great weekend!

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House hunting and the powers that be

This may come as news to some of you – it did to me eight months ago – but Laos is one of the world’s few remaining communist states. The full name of the country is officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and the only legal political party is the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The government publishes all newspapers, including two foreign language papers. Missionary work of any flavour is regulated. And when any staff of Mike’s organization visits the field projects they must be accompanied by a government official – an official who gets paid a per diem by the NGO for their time.

Here in Laos, I have been pondering how I may be able to periodically touch on the topics of God, the policies and practices of the organization Mike works for, or the government, without treading on any toes. I haven’t come up with anything brilliant yet. So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to try using the phrase “the powers that be” to refer to the three aforementioned entities and leave it to the reader to figure out which one I might be talking about.

I apologize in advance if this proves confusing. So, too, can life be here.

During the past two weeks we have continued the house hunting that Mike began while he was here without me in April and May. There are no classifieds we can read, or website we can search. If you need to find a house in Luang Prabang you have exactly two options. You can walk the streets looking for hand-painted “house for rent” signs attached to gates and then have a Lao-speaker call the contact phone number on the sign. Or, you can go through a local agent – someone who’s job it is to find out where all the houses for rent are hiding and to negotiate on your behalf with prospective landlords.

Phet is just such an agent, and the day after we arrived I took a deep breath, put on the helmet she had borrowed for me, and climbed onto the back of her motorcycle. We saw five houses that day, and I came back excited. Two, I thought, were good options. One of those options Mike hadn’t yet seen.

I tried to describe it to him over dinner that night.

“We went over the wooden pedestrian bridge across the Khan,” I said. “Then we turned left and went down a dirt road.”

“How far?” Mike asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Not far. It was a really pretty road – all jungly and tropical. There were temples, and plants, and another wooden bridge. It was very atmospheric,” I said.

“Atmospheric,” Mike repeated, as if that may not be the most satisfactory of descriptors for an access road.

“What was the house like?” he asked.

“Oh, it was cool,” I said. “There was a big veranda on the top, and broken pool out the back, and two cute dogs. The dogs were very friendly, but they belong to the…”

“The house,” Mike reminded me.

“It had two big rooms up the top, and another room that was locked and they couldn’t find the key. So I didn’t see that one. But the stairs were good. And there were tiles on the floor. And lots of trees. And it was quiet. And I liked it.”

“What about water tanks?” Mike asked. “Was it on city water? Was there a big water heater? Was there glass on the windows, and screens? Fans? Did all the air conditioners work? Was there a phone line into the house?”

“I dunno,” I said, realizing for the first time that I may have neglected to pay attention to a couple of key attributes. “I’m pretty sure there was a phone line. I think there was glass on the windows.”

“You think,” Mike closed his eyes and took a deep breath. I hoped he was visualizing us sitting in hammocks on a tree-shaded veranda, debriefing our days over a cold drink. But I figured it was more likely that he was lodging a quick request with the powers that be for extra patience.

“OK,” he said after he opened his eyes again. “We’ll see if we can go see it together this weekend.”

We did take a truck to go see it that weekend, and by the time we’d found the vehicle bridge over the river Khan (a good deal further away from the house than the pedestrian bridge suitable for motorcycle traffic) and bumped our way down three torturously slow, bone jarring, head-banging, kilometers, I was deflated.

“Getting in and out of here on anything other than a motorcycle would be tough, wouldn’t it,” I said.

“Yeah,” Mike said gently. “It’d be tough. Especially when it rained. And you might end up feeling very isolated.”

My beautiful vision of us on the veranda dissolved and was replaced by a picture of motorcycling along a dirt road to do the grocery shopping during a monsoonal downpour. That was the end of our quest to acquire the jungle house – which was just as well, really, because Phet informed us later that day that the landlady had changed her mind about evicting the current tenants after all – and it was back to the drawing board.

But we’ve now seen 27 houses, and it’s beginning to get seriously demoralizing. Some houses have no air conditioners, or glass in the windows. Some have no phone lines installed (and, hence, no possibility of in-house internet). Most have no external hot water heaters. Some are nestled in between construction sites, of which there are many in Luang Prabang at present. Some are beautiful, but sit right on a main road and beside local restaurants. And where there is a local restaurant there is beerlao. And where there is beerlao there will likely be karaoke.

If you don’t count my short-lived infatuation with the jungle house, or the stunningly beautiful way-out-of-our-price-range house in the hills outside of town (a house of two pools, luscious gardens, hanging plants, shinning wooden balustrades, and an in-house bar), we’ve found exactly one house we really liked. Number 18. A wooden house perched on the banks of the Mekong.

But on Sunday afternoon (after three visits to this house, four long emails, and two extended meetings with Phet and the prospective landlord) the negotiations broke down. The landlord, you see, had suddenly decided to only offer us a contract for rent that went to the end of April 2011, and the powers that be require us to rent a house for an entire year at a time.

To complicate matters further, the powers that be require us to pay the entire years worth of rent in advance. This removes any economic incentive for landlords to make ongoing improvements to the property. This means that what we move into is probably what we will be stuck with.

To complicate matters even further, the powers that be have decreed that those on tourist visas must rent rooms in guesthouses, rather than renting houses privately. Just this week, the powers that be have been visiting houses inhabited by foreigners, checking up on them, and evicting any who hold tourist visas.

And, to complicate matters even further, the powers that be have not yet issued Mike’s work visa (although it has been in progress since February). Yet other powers that be are very eager to see us in a house, and are urging us to make a decision and just get on with it.

I am not eager to get on with it, as the leading option at the moment is the house on the main road beside the restaurant. I am also not eager to stay indefinitely in the guesthouse – that bastion of slamming doors, late-night voices, and neighborly circular saws. I am, in other words, a bit stuck.

So if any of you dear readers are in a position to have a quiet and respectful word on our behalf with the powers that be regarding these matters, please… go right ahead.

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Breakfast at Joma

This is a shot in one of my favorite places in Luang Prabang so far, Joma. Joma of cinnamon buns and lattes and, even more importantly, AC and wifi.

Earlier this week, Mike and I had an early morning breakfast there as per our current routine. In the background Ella Fitzgerald was playing Let’s Fall In Love.

Mike: “Oh, honey, we have the place all to ourselves.”

Lisa: “Yup, just the two of us having a romantic breakfast. The two of us, with our two laptops in between us.”

Mike: “Just like most of the rest of our relationship so far.”

Theory to practice

I have spent much of the last decade making a living by helping people think through stress, resilience, and how to undertake humanitarian work without burning out in a spectacular (here, insert one or more of the following: angst-laden, guilt-ridden, ideals-flagellated, faith-battered, self-destructive, passion-and-energy-depleted) blaze of non-glory.

As part of this, I have occasionally run workshops on cross-cultural adjustment dynamics. I’m well versed in the relevant lingo – culture shock, the differences between surface culture and deep culture, and the cultural competency continuum. I’ve shown pretty graphs that help chart the cross-cultural adjustment process, and beautiful pictures of icebergs that illustrate the “hidden” culture of assumptions, habits, and beliefs that lie below the surface of the water and our own consciousness.

“Culture shock is a natural process,” I may have said, serenely, in a former life. “Feeling lost, confused, and out of the loop will be the new normal for a while after relocating to a new country. Feelings of competence and achievement will temporarily become distant memories.”

(No, no one has yet come up to me after a workshop and told me that I came off sounding like a tosser. No, I’m not quite sure why not, either.)

The point it, I know a lot about the theory. But theory to practice… theory to practice… Therein lies the rub.

Friday was a Bad day. (Please note the capital B in the previous sentence; it is there for a reason.) It didn’t start out that way. In fact, things didn’t start to go pear-shaped until after I had put in a good, solid, morning of writing. After six months of writing abstinence due to moving logistics and general life chaos, I’d been extraordinarily authorially productive and remarkably cheerful all week. But, after almost five days of happy buoyancy, I was starting to suspect that I was in for a bit of a dip.

I hoped that I was wrong about this.

I was not wrong.

By Friday at 2pm I’d completely run out of creative energy. The rest of the afternoon stretched out in front of me, hot, humid, and empty. I tried all the quick fixes I’d amassed during the previous two weeks. But the lemon-mint freeze up at Joma just reminded me that what I really wanted was a glass of sauvignon blanc. And the book I read reminded me that I was more than halfway through the stack of books I’d the foresight to pack, and that our shipment bringing fresh supplies had not even left California and may not arrive for another six months.

I started to slide.

I had a shower. I washed my hair. I noticed I was running out of shampoo. I shaved my legs. I lay on the bed and thought about the beauty of having time on my hands – the luxury and gift of slow. I thought that this would be an interesting blog post, but I could not be bothered to write it. I thought about inertia. I pondered, staring at the ceiling, whether what I was doing was understandable, or merely lazy and self-indulgent. I felt the first internal tickle of self-loathing.

The downward spiral accelerated.

I waited for Mike to come back from work.

5pm.

5:30pm.

6pm.

6:30pm.

6:45pm. I phone Mike. Mike says he is drinking beerlao with Kapono. He says he will be home within half an hour. He calls me sweetheart.

I hang up. I am furious.

[Side note: In all fairness, I must pause here and alert you to two facts. One, I had my mobile phone turned off until 6:45pm, so Mike, who had diligently been trying to call me periodically since 5pm, was unable to get through. Two, there turned out to be very good reasons that Mike was drinking beer with Kapono. In this highly relational culture it is usually during eating or drinking together that truly important information is communicated. And truly important information was being communicated.

I, however, did not know about the important information. And in the moment, I may not have cared anyway. Because, in the moment, I was in an emotional freefall. I hated the fact that I was sitting alone at almost 7pm on a Friday night. I hated highly relational cultures. And I wasn’t too fond of my highly relational husband either. End side note.]

Mike was back within half an hour. By that time I was trying to talk myself out of pissy territory by reminding myself that Mike had had a long week, and that he was doubtless very tired. It was not working.

I ventured a half-hearted smile. Mike looked a little nervous.

“How as your day?” he asked.

I shot for a positive take.

“Really crappy,” I said.

“Lot’s of things for you to write about then,” Mike said cheerfully.

That was the last straw. “Don’t you joke about that!” I said. Then, much to my angry mortification, I burst into tears.

Some people cry gracefully – with cute little hiccups and delicate swipes at the perfectly spherical tears sliding down their cheeks. Their nose doesn’t turn red, or run. They seem unconcerned by their overt and uncontrolled display of emotion. Some people, while crying, are even capable of using words to express what they’re so upset about.

I am not one of those people. I do not cry easily, or openly. By the time I reach the tears stage (once every six months or so) I am usually totally overwhelmed, ashamed and surly about my meltdown, and mostly non-verbal. I do not want Mike to ask me questions and try to understand why I’m upset. I usually want him to just go away until I stop crying. The major problem with this (apart from the fact that it goes against Mike’s natural instincts to abandon me to my misery) is that if Mike does go away, I generally end up feeling even worse. By most indices, I don’t think that I do tears well.

I tried in vain to stop crying while Mike drove down the street to the restaurant we’d planned on for dinner. After Mike parked the car, I didn’t move.

“I don’t want to go in there and sit down and eat dinner,” I said.

“What do you want to do, then?” Mike asked.

“I want to go for a walk somewhere,” I said. “But not on these roads, with motorbikes and cars everywhere.”

“OK,” Mike said, “let’s drive down to the other end of the peninsula and walk around there for a while, and eat at one of the cafes along the river.”

“OK.”

“Do you want to talk to me now?” Mike asked. “You don’t have to talk to me now, or tonight, but you do have to talk to me at some stage.”

“Not now,” I muttered.

So we walked around in darkness, along quiet streets out on the peninsula. We found a riverside café. Mike did most of the talking. I concentrated on not crying again.

In bed the next morning, Mike asked me what had gone wrong.

“I’ve just been in the guesthouse or Joma all week,” I said. “And I know it could be worse. We could have no AC, or we could…”

“Nope,” Mike interrupted. “Stick with the negative this time. No positive reframes allowed.”

“Fine,” I said. “I hate the tile cutters and drills and saws and cement mixers across the street.”

“Good,” Mike said. “What else?”

“I hate roosters, and I hate dogs that howl before dawn.”

“What else?”

“Two and a half thousand dollar plane tickets to Australia.”

“What else?”

“It’s five thousand and forty three degrees outside and I’m stuck inside all day.”

“What else?”

“A husband who works five thousand hours a week,”

“That’s sounds right,” Mike said encouragingly. “About one hour per degree.”

“And all we ever talk about is work.”

“Yes,” Mike said. “That is so true. That’s all we ever talk about.”

“And there’s a ‘Welcome to Asia’ party in my digestive tract.”

“Well,” Mike paused. “That one is actually true. Plus, there’s the uterus.”

“Yes,” I agreed fervently. “There’s the uterus. And PMS hormones. And I’m running out of books. And I just want to drown myself in the Khan river,” I finished in a rush – giggling a little by now, but leaking a few more tears, too.

“The Khan now, is it?” Mike asked. “That makes a change from the Mekong.”

So we laughed a little more, and then we got up and tackled the weekend…

I wasn’t going to write this post today. I worried that posting about Friday’s meltdown would come across as a cry for pity, or a desperate plea for friendly cheerleading along the lines of “hang in there, things will get better.” So I was going to write instead about our house hunting adventures and disappointments during the last couple of days, or the tensions inherent in trying to find a new routine while fully embracing exploration mode. I was going to write about the definition of fun in during this time, or the luxury of slow.

But I’m striving for honesty in this experience of moving to Laos, and transparency. And that means not omitting all of these low points, or putting too much varnish on them. It means acknowledging and accepting them for what they are – raw moments, hard times – even though I know even as they’re happening that things will get better and easier, for the theory says it will be so.

Of course, the theory also says it probably won’t get consistently easier for a couple of months at least, but let’s never mind that right now. Because, right now, I just need to focus on practice, today.

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How quickly things can change

On Wednesday Mike spent the day in the field, visiting a school construction site in a village three hours outside of Luang Prabang. And, in an effort to escape the drills and tile cutters right outside our guesthouse while remaining within the therapeutic reach of an air conditioner, I spent the day working in his office.

It was blessedly quiet, and I focused properly on writing for the first time since we arrived. I focused so well, in fact, that it was 2:30 in the afternoon before I realized I was hungry, and that I had a choice to make.

I could – like the sensible and well-traveled adult I supposedly was – leave the office, go across the road to the noodle stall Mike had pointed out to me just that morning, and get myself something to eat.

Or I could search the office for the almond-stuffed honey-coated dates that Mike’s brother, Carl, had thoughtfully posted to us in Alaska three weeks previously. Carl procured these dates in Afghanistan, we carried them from Alaska to Laos, and then Mike had taken them to the office so that he could use them (carefully rationing them out one or two at a time) as gifts for the district governors during his sojourns to the field.

Mike was supposed to be back around five, I reasoned. I didn’t want to fill up noodles now. I could wait.

So I found these well-traveled dates. I ate two of them. I told myself that they were really what I’d felt like eating all along. I worked very hard to completely ignore the fact that:

(A) They so were so not at all what I felt like eating; and

(B) I had essentially just decided that I would rather go hungry than leave Mike’s air conditioned office to venture across the street and seek to make myself understood in yet another new restaurant while ordering more unfamiliar fare; and

(C) I was pretty sure that A + B = TOTAL CROSS CULTURAL COWARD.

By 5:15 I was ravenous and Mike was still not back. When I called him he sounded tired and frazzled. They were still about an hour and a half away, he said. He’d meet me back at the guesthouse and, by the way, could I bring his work computer back with me?

How, I wondered after I had hung up the phone, did one go about catching a tuk tuk to Hoxieng from Mike’s office? I knew it could be done – Mike had done it many times – so I figured the staff downstairs might have the answer to my question.

I think the woman on the front desk would have, too, if she had spoken any English. But, round and smiley, she just jumped up hastily when I tried to ask for instructions and scuttled into the finance office.

I followed her in, smiling at familiar faces but only able to remember one name out of seven. They all knew who I was though, and they all seemed rather concerned at the thought of me catching a tuk tuk alone.

There was a hushed and hurried conference, and then the woman from the front desk left the room and went into yet another office.

“If someone could just show me how you catch a tuk tuk here?” I said again to the entire finance team, just to make sure we were all on the same page.

“No need,” said Kaileah, the young woman whose name I could remember. “She will get someone to drive you.”

“No need,” I repeated in response, increasingly perturbed by the disturbance my ignorant self was creating in an office full of busy and hard-working people.

I followed the first woman out, intent on preventing her from commandeering someone to ferry me home, but it was too late. One of the admin staff was already standing up from behind his computer and searching for car keys.

“Really,” I protested. “I am happy to catch a tuk tuk, it is just that I do not know whether to catch one from the street, or how to call one. But Mr. Michael told me it would cost ten thousand kip.” I pulled the money out of my pocket and waved it in front of them as proof that my husband, the big boss, had decreed it permissible that I make the journey from the office to the guesthouse unchaperoned and alone. That Mr. Michael had definitely not envisioned staff time and organizational resources be devoted to taking me home.

No one looked convinced.

There was another staff conference in Lao, and when it ended I could see the matter had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

“I am finish. I go to town now, on motorbike. I drop you,” Kaileah said.

The before we left LA someone had asked me whether we’d get around by motorbike out here.

“I’m conflicted,” I’d said. “I know motorbikes are practical, and they’re fun. But they’re dangerous, there’s just no getting around that. No, I don’t think I’ll be riding motorbikes.”

That was then, and this was now. And now, the polite and culturally appropriate thing to do was clearly to smile my thanks and accept – even though that meant a ten minute ride on the back of a motorbike, carrying two computers, and not wearing a helmet. So, since the need to escape causing further disruption suddenly felt much more pressing than my need to escape potential brain damage, I smiled my thanks and accepted.

How quickly things can change – and not just with regards to my stance on riding motorbikes.

In the blink of an eye I’ve gone from someone who typically goes to bed at midnight and gets up at eight to someone who goes to bed before ten and gets up about six. From someone with a job, an office, and not enough time on my hands, to someone whose husband has a job, an office, and not enough time on his hands. From French fries to rice. From cold to hot in weather, and from hot to cold in the shower.

Change.

I used to think I loved it. Now, I think I mostly want to love it.

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