Monthly Archives: August 2010

When Laos is hard

It’s Tuesday morning at 7:20am. I’m sitting in a dark kitchen with the door wide open behind me, because there’s no electricity. There hasn’t been any since 1:15am when it went off suddenly during a storm. The departure of the electricity knocked out the air conditioner but not, unfortunately, the new drip that has started recently. Somewhere, somehow, there is a leak up there onto the ceiling of our bedroom inside the house when it rains. It’s loud, it’s irregular, and it annoys the living daylights out of me.

While we’re on the topic of sound, let me tell you about yesterday.

Much to my distress, it seems the man right over the fence from us has decided to set up a little woodworking shop at his house. Yesterday he and another fellow spent all day sanding down wooden doors. Anyone who has spent much time near power tools knows they can be incredibly loud. Try to imagine spending from 8am to 6pm listening to the sound of two electric sanders about thirty feet away from you, grinding down wood (but don’t try too hard, because if you’re anything at all like me this is a hugely upsetting experience and there’s no real need for both of us to have bad days on account of the power tools outside my window).

By 5:30 I was totally unable to concentrate, so I went to wash the dishes.

As I was standing at the sink I smelled something acrid that I’ve smelled more than once before at that sink. This time, as I filled the sink with warm water I noticed the smell getting stronger. Then I noticed grey tendrils curling up behind the tap. Smoke was leaking up from around the sink. When I opened the cupboard under the sink a whole cloud of chemical-smelling smoke poured out. No fire though, I guess that’s something to be thankful for.

When Mike came home last night to find me in A State he called one of his national colleagues and asked them to come over so we could talk to the men over the back fence and find out what is going on. Sadly it seems the power tools are going to become a regular feature of our life here – maybe not every day, but whenever the man over the back fence can get business.

Maybe we should offer to pay to send him to barber school, or something.

Mike and I went out to dinner. We talked. I ate all sorts of things that are bad for me. Then we came back home and sat at the kitchen table and smelled smoke again. Not the same as the kitchen sink smoke, but undeniably smoke. We smelled all over that kitchen – each other, the bulbs in the ceiling, the power strips on the floor, the light switches on the wall… we can’t figure out what might be causing it.

“I think I’m going to take our birth certificates and some other documents into the office tomorrow,” Mike said, stuffing our important documents folder into the backpack that doubles as his briefcase.

I did not have to ask why.

We went to bed. At 1:30 this morning when the power went off and I woke up with a start.

“Have you expanded your circle of hate to include me, yet?” Mike asked as we were both lying awake in the dark, getting hot, and listening to the drip in the ceiling.

“No,” I said. “I still just hate Laos. You can come with me when I leave. Tomorrow.”

“That’s really good,” Mike said – not actually intending to convey any praise at all, “that you’re able to go from peacefully asleep to hating an entire country in under two minutes flat.”

“Well I did a fair bit of groundwork yesterday to prime that pump,” I said. “Yesterday by ten I was still only hating the men over the back fence. By noon I was hating our house. By two I was hating the neighborhood. I didn’t get to the hating Laos stage until right before you came home. But, as we’ve just witnessed, once you do the hard work of getting to that level of hatefulness you can stay in that sphere for a while and jump right back to that particular point at the slightest provocation. Not,” I finished, “that I consider water leaking into our ceiling a slight provocation.”

The rain finally stopped, and so did the dripping. The power did not come back on. Mike eventually took his pillow and went across the hall in the hopes that this would help at least one of us get back to sleep sometime before dawn.

“You might want to take a shower now,” Mike said later this morning at 6:45 when he came back in. “Water pressure’s dropping. There may be no water in the system soon.”

“I will wait,” I said, getting up. “Until the power comes back on and we have warm water.”

Downstairs here there is no coffee because the kettle is electric.

“Bye,” Mike kissed me as I sat at the kitchen table and headed out the door to his very full day.

From the driveway I heard the sound of an office vehicle trying to start, and failing.

I went outside.

“Battery’s too weak,” Mike said, getting out, looking like he was hating Laos a little now, too.

I sighed. He sighed. He turned and walked out to the road to catch a tuk tuk. I came back inside to the sound of hammering from over the fence and a finite computer battery. It could be a long day.

Today’s border run

Get up at 6:40. Go with Mike to his office. Go to airport. Plane delayed one hour.

Receive phone call from colleague informing us that CNN says there’s a tropical storm coming into Northern Laos from Vietnam today.

Fly to Vientiane. Go straight to get visa photos taken. Stare at many pictures of beautiful women while photos are processing. Discuss what constitutes “provocative” with Mike.

No time for lunch.

Get in car. Drive to national office. Get out of car. Pick up necessary visa forms from national office and discuss case of little orphan girl with relevant staff for five minutes. Get in car. Drive to the border. Get out of car. Get in line to leave Laos. Get in car. Drive across the bridge into Thailand. Get out of car. Mistakenly get into line to leave Thailand before we have officially entered. Get in correct line to enter Thailand. Fill out forms. Get hungry. Get in line to leave Thailand again. Get in car. Drive back to Laos border. Get out of car. Get in line to enter Laos again. Fill in forms. Get hungrier. Get business visa. Get in car. Head straight to airport in the rain. Drive across double yellow lines and raised median strip because running late. Get to airport 49 minutes before flight scheduled to leave. Get out of car.

Flight delayed by one hour. Sit on small plastic seat in departure lounge and eat ice cream cone and seaweed flavored crackers. Do not feel that this hits the spot, exactly. Hope we get back to Luang Prabang before the storm does.

Think I should probably write blog post. Come up with this. Sigh. Figure it will just have to do.

What price a child’s life?

This afternoon Mike and I sat upstairs on the deck at our place, looking out towards the trees. It was pouring rain. Water was sheeting off the tin roofs of the houses behind us and running down the big green leaves of the coconut trees – arcing off and dropping towards earth in one, unbroken, stream.

We were up there because Mike had quit the kitchen table, which was burdened by our two laptops and a stack of documents eight inches thick that he’d bought home to sign over the weekend. The stack was peppered with neon tags demanding his signature.

“Mr Michael,” the tags read, one after another.

Mr Michael. Mr Michael. Mr Michael…

On this quiet Sunday afternoon Mr Michael had worked through all these documents, not pausing until near the end, when he came across three requests for reimbursement. These were all related to cases where a sponsor child had gotten sick out in their village and the district health centers hadn’t been able to address their problems and had recommended transfer to the provincial health center in Luang Prabang.

It costs money to transfer sick children to the provincial hospital, and when three children get critically ill in one district within a month, it costs more money than has been budgeted for medical emergencies. Significantly more. As in, more than half the budget for the entire year.

“It’s not three cases,” Mike reminded me, when I went to see where he’d gone and found him sitting at the table on our deck, staring out at the rain. “It’s four. We also have little orphan girl.”

Ah, yes. Little orphan girl. Little orphan girl whose story began two weeks ago now, when Mr Michael received multiple phone calls on a Saturday requesting him to authorize the medical transfer of an eleven-year-old child from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. The doctors in Luang Prabang said they couldn’t treat her here, that she had a problem in her brain and that she would probably die if not flown to Vientiane for specialized medical care immediately.

Mr Michael authorized the medivac. At first, it seems, the doctors in Vientiane thought she had Japanese encephalitis – she could not even sit up, or swallow – but after a week of testing these results came back clear. So she does not have encephalitis, but no one is any the wiser yet on what she may have.

At least, this is what we think is going on. It’s very difficult to get accurate information. Whatever the doctors in Vientiane are saying gets filtered through at least two other Lao speaking staff before it reaches the office up here. To complicate matters further, little orphan girl herself doesn’t speak Lao, much less English. Little orphan girl is an ethnic minority child who is too poor to attend school, where she would learn Lao. So she only speaks Khmu, and the doctors only speak Lao.

I was speaking about this with the local staff member on the case during our house-warming party on Friday night.

“So, no one knows what is wrong with her brain,” I said, trying to make sure we were on the same page. “But now she needs help to get her muscles working again?”

“Yes,” the Iokina replied. “But the doctors say the problem will happen again. They say she will die.”

“But they don’t know what the problem is?” I said.

In summary: No. They don’t know what the problem is. They don’t know when “it” might happen again. They don’t know when she might die – it’s just that Iokina seems pretty certain that she will, at some point, especially if we send her back to the village with her fourteen-year-old sister and elderly grandmother.

“Do you think she should go back to the village?” I asked.

“Yes,” Iokina said, shrugging a little in that helpless way that needed no translating.

“We tried,” Iokina was saying, without words, “and there’s only so much you can do for one child.”

So Mike and I are left wondering. Is that really what the doctors have said? How do you weigh and filter this information that has come up to us across many miles and two significant language barriers? Would physiotherapy help her, or is the primary problem neurological? Are there any Khmu speaking physiotherapists in Luang Prabang that could coach her on exercises she could do at home? If so, how could we find them? How are her sister and her grandmother going to be able to help her when they need to be tending the rice fields so they can all eat? And, of course, how much is this all going to cost?

How do you put a price on the life of a child?

“The emergency medical fund is for emergencies,” Mike said today as we sat on the porch watching the rain. “This case is no longer an emergency. We don’t have the capacity to take on long-term rehabilitation cases. We cannot continue to pay for her treatment indefinitely when no one yet knows what may be wrong with her. She has to come back from Vientiane.”

“What then?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Mike said. “I have to go in to the office early tomorrow before we head out to the field. I’ll see if I can get some more information.”

We sat and stared at the rain for a little while longer, and then we came inside and went back to work.

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Surprised by beauty

On Saturday we went on an adventure.

Kuang Si waterfall has been on our radar since we arrived. Before this week, however, it was always edged out by other fantastical adventures such as buying an ant-pantry, spending hours drinking pepsi and eating pig fat, or simply collapsing in a heap on the bed on Saturday afternoon and wondering if we will ever stop feeling quite so tired during every spare minute that we have.

But last week we had our first visitors in town, and on Saturday morning we had six spare hours before we needed to get them to the airport. So it was adventure time.

The 30km road out to the waterfall wound through villages, and small valleys cradling the precious rice fields. Everything was brown bamboo, or a determined bright green. Clouds skipped around on the mountaintops. The occasional, flirty, shower kept the worst of the heat at bay.

When we reached the falls we found ourselves faced with a choice. Should we walk up the paved road to the top of the falls and start there? Or should we start from the bottom and work our way up to the falls on the muddy path that ran through the woods alongside the river?

I got to choose and, somewhat to Mike’s surprise, I think, I picked the muddy path.

I would like to be able to say that this is because I am a naturally-adventurous, stream-fording, muddy-path-loving soul, and that given a choice between a paved road and a muddy path I will pick the muddy path every time.

But that would be a lie.

The truth of the matter is that I figured we’d go up one way and come down the other. And when faced with the prospect of something that I think might be slightly less than fun (a dentist visit or a muddy path, for example), I will generally choose to get the unpleasantness over and done with as quickly as possible and save the paved road as my reward.

Except, this time, the paved road didn’t turn out to be my reward – the muddy path itself did.

Just after we set off through the trees we came across an enclosure, a very large enclosure. I was stunned to see that it was full of black bears snoozing in bamboo hammocks and playing with tires.

“Where did the bears come from?” I asked.

“Rescued from poachers,” Mike said.

“Here??” I said. “I didn’t know they had bears in Asia.”

Mike did not seize the opportunity to mock me for this ignorance – possibly because he was too busy taking photographs of himself in front of the bear mural.

 

After the unexpected treat of bears, the muddy path took us first to an Elysian pond at the bottom of the falls. Big, braided, ropes of water from different hillside channels poured into a clear pool. The encircling trees leaned in towards the water – reaching for a drink. A cool spray drifted out and touched us.

Twenty steps up the path there was another pool. Then another. And another.

We kept wandering up for ten, maybe fifteen, minutes. Past pools, and falls so small they were just a wet step down, and falls so big they would knock you over. Past dripping trees. And ferns. And picnic tables. And charmingly stilted signs warning us where not to swim.

It was only after this walk up – after this long, slow, reveal – that we reached the source. And even after everything that had preceded it, I was unprepared for the sight of all that water – white with its power, pushing and rushing, tumbling fifty meters through trees and over rocks to start it all.

We went swimming after that, the four of us. We waded in, feeling our way forward over slippery rocks, yelping at the cold. We braved the currents, struck out towards the middle of the pool and found a fallen tree to perch on. We sat on rocks and talked. Or, in Mike’s case, at least, we covered every inch of that pool, exploring.

 

Expectations are tricky things, aren’t they? Mike has a saying I hear often (usually while he’s making fun of me): “Expectations minus reality equals disappointment.”

We’ve all had the experience of expecting great things from a movie, or a book, or a person, and then having the reality of our experience not quite measure up. It does hurt when reality falls short of expectations. Sometimes that hurt is nothing more than a minor, transient, disappointment. Sometimes that hurt is considerably more painful – the perfect breeding ground for misunderstanding, wounded feelings, resentment, and other ugly aspects of conflict.

The reverse can also be true. Sometimes when I have low, or no, expectations I am totally blown away by beauty that’s all the more thrilling because its sudden appearance is such a surprise. This was true of my travels in Turkey, and things that happened after I published my first book. It was true at the waterfall on Saturday.

On the other hand, there have also been numerous times when a little more forethought and a few realistic expectations would have prepared me to deal much more effectively with a challenging experience – so I don’t think that the answer to this dilemma is keying my expectations as low as I can force them to go and refusing to learn about anything new that may be coming down the track.

But, as for Saturday, I’m glad that I didn’t know what to expect. And I’m especially glad that we worked our way up to the most powerful, dramatic, manifestation of all that beauty the long way – walking through the trees, alongside the stops and starts of the pools and preamble falls. There was something about that process that felt mystical. It felt right. It felt like a preview of how we long for our very lives to play out.


Pebbles, insults, and memories

Something awesome happened today.

Chip MacGregor, literary agent extraordinaire, called my book a “cult hit” on his blog. But that wasn’t the only awesomeness in his post. He also reproduced a letter he’d received from someone who’d sent him an unsolicited proposal. He wrote her a brief note saying that he didn’t think there was a market for her book, and she sent him back a letter saying, “Destruction? Is that not your very identity? Your cruelty oozes…You should be immensely worried about who you are… Believe it or not, Chippy, you’re a pebble, like all of us.”

There was a lot in there I left out, but I think the best part of the whole letter is the pebble line. Who gets all worked up – using the words gross, ugly, hatcheting, and demolishing – and then caps it off by calling someone “Chippy” and “a pebble”?

A pebble.

So I’ve been thinking about pebbles and smiling today. And that’s made me think about Alaska and a moment when I wasn’t smiling quite as much.

That story starts with souvenir collecting – a topic I wrote about a couple of years ago in an essay called “Thanksgiving”. Here’s an excerpt from that essay (and I swear that the word pebbles was, indeed, in there when I originally published it):

“What is it about being somewhere different that breeds the need to capture something we can carry with us when we leave?

The root of “souvenir” is the verb “to remember”, and the word has come to refer to keepsakes of sentimental value that remind one of past events. Despite the fact that stores selling mostly snow globes and magnets have managed to cheapen this French contribution to the global vocabulary almost beyond use, I still can’t quite let it go. I must admit that I love souvenirs. At their best, they are so much more than things. They are pebbles picked up along the path of life. They are reminders that this path stretches far beyond my living room.

This admission should not be taken to indicate a wholehearted abandonment of all pretension or my endorsement of plastic shot glasses and cheesy tee shirts. To the contrary, I consider my tastes to be highly refined. I may not be able to consistently assemble a trendy outfit, but I am an expert on what constitutes a good souvenir.

This expertise was gained the old-fashioned way – practice, practice, practice. As a wee child I started by collecting “things” – marble boxes inlaid with lapis from India, carved rhinos from Zimbabwe, bronze windmills from Amsterdam… By the time I was ready to leave home and head for University my bedroom looked like a miniature inanimate petting zoo had wandered into a Ten Thousand Villages display. As I packed box after box I decided that two new qualities needed to guide my souvenir collecting – a consistent theme, and portability.

So, in what I now see as my delayed “girl scout” phase, I started collecting patches. As a little girl I would have loved to belong to a club like Girl Scouts that awarded patches for doing things like setting fires, memorizing Bible verses, and reading 5,000 books (especially if that club had awarded patches by mail so that I didn’t actually have to interact with any other children to participate). Instead of a club, however, I got the occasional family-cockroach-massacre in Bangladesh where we competed to see who could amass the biggest pile of carcasses, and spent many hours on my belly in the dirt with my siblings trying to sneak around the entire perimeter of our five acre garden in Zimbabwe without the family dogs discovering what we were up to.

Perhaps if some caring soul had awarded a younger me patches to recognize outstanding achievements in cockroach hunting and canine evasion, I would not have had to spend time working through this phase as an adult. But no one did. So in a spectacular demonstration of resilience, I decided to start awarding patches to myself as souvenirs of my travels..”

After my delayed girl-scout phase I moved on to collecting Christmas ornaments. And, recently I’ve taken to picking up a pebble here or there.

The first pebble I picked up was in Turkey in 2007, at Gallipoli – that site of Australia’s most celebrated military defeat. Before we went, I hadn’t particularly wanted to visit Gallipoli, but my day there impacted me deeply. Just before we left I picked a pebble in Anzac cove. The stone I selected was red. Round on one side and rough on the other, it has been split in half. White veins of quartz run through it in a mirror image of the human body. I carry that pebble in my camera case now, and whenever I look at it I don’t think first of blood and loss and needless sacrifice, or even bravery and “mateship”. I think of graciousness.

But that is another story – the story of the Gallipoli pebble – and perhaps I will tell it someday.

Today’s story is about a pebble I found in my makeup drawer a couple of months ago while I was packing up to move to Laos. This pebble was a smooth, flat, oval. It was grey. It had three white lines of quartz encircling it. And I could not, for the life of me, remember where I had picked it up. Or why.

I kept this pebble on the bench for days, puzzling over it.

After a week, I threw it out.

Not even I could justify shipping a rock all the way from LA to Asia when I could remember exactly nothing about why it may be significant.

About a month after this, Mike and I were in Alaska. We drove from Anchorage to Talkeetna one day to gaze upon the majesty that is Mt McKinley, and when we were done gazing upon majesty we wandered down to the river. Like every river in Alaska, it seems, it was flowing cold and clear over thousands and thousands of smooth, grey, stones.

The pebble I had puzzled over and then discarded had probably come from a river, I realized. And, with that, I remembered…

I had picked up the grey pebble in New Zealand, on our honeymoon, the day we went white water rafting. I remembered reaching down for it – all wet and silvery and cold, so cold – just as the river had been that day. I remembered thinking (unusually sentimentally, for me) that the three parallel lines of quartz that marked the stone could represent Mike, me, and God.

“You threw away our honeymoon rock?” Mike asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face as I relayed all of this to him. “You threw me, you, and God, in the trash?”

“I couldn’t remember,” I said, sulking. “It gets really hard to keep track of where you, me, and God have been, where we’re going, and what it might mean. I was throwing away all my memories, trying to be an efficient packer, because someone wants me to move to Laos.”

“The memories you couldn’t actually remember?” Mike asked, not even trying not to laugh anymore. “Those ones? And that was really talented, by the way, you managed to blame both me and Laos.”

“Thank you,” I said.

So that is my pebble story for the day. What about you? What souvenirs do you favor?

Close encounters with the powers that be (take one)

Last night, on our way out to dinner on the motorcycle we’ve borrowed from the missionaries, we got pulled over by the police. We knew immediately what we’d done wrong – we only had one helmet, and I was wearing it. And while it’s apparently fine for the passenger on the motorbike not to be helmeted, the driver is supposed to be (“supposed to be” in the sense of “most aren’t”).

So when a uniformed officer blew a whistle and pointed commandingly to a group of six police standing on the side of the road, Mike pulled the bike over and we prepared to be scolded/fined/arrested/deported/sent to a prison camp in the north…

Take one:

Police: Talk very fast, in Lao.

Mike: Hands over his drivers license and pretends he speaks no Lao.

Lisa: Stands quietly holding pink helmet.

Take two:

Police: “How long you in Luang Prabang?”

Mike: (knowing a tourist visa is one month long) “Oh, about one month.”

Police: (Say something that starts with the letter “p” and sounds like petrol)

Mike: (Lifts up the seat of the bike and opens the petrol tank)

Police: (Look at Mike like he might just be the dumbest tourist in Luang Prabang).

Take three:

Police: (Try the “p” word again and it turns out to be papers. They are also saying the word “helmet” a lot and pointing to their head.)

Mike: (Finds papers and hands them over. Luckily they appear to be in order.)

Police: “You pay ticket at police station, fifty thousand kip.”

Mike: “OK. No problem.”

Police: (handing Mike back his driver’s license) “Or, you pay here, no ticket.”

Mike: (putting away his license, then making writing motions) “OK. You make me receipt, I pay here.”

Police: “You pay here, no ticket.”

Mike: (smiling broadly) “No ticket, I no pay here. I want ticket. Yes?”

Police: (Look at Mike like he might just be the dumbest tourist in Luang Prabang).

Take four:

Mike takes the papers back and puts them back in the seat. He puts the petrol cap back on. He takes the helmet from me and puts it on his head, smiling the whole while. He points to the helmet, gives the police the thumbs up sign, and nods his head.

“Helmet di li,” Mike says. “Helmet very good.”

The police look confused, and a little surly that their plan to get drinking money from us is not playing out as hoped.

Mike slowly gets back on the bike wearing the pink helmet. I get back on the bike wearing no helmet. We smile and drive away.

Missionaries and motorbikes

Whatever else can be said about missionaries, they sure are good at sharing. All the ones Mike and I have met recently are, anyway.

Many people have extended hospitality to us during the last couple of months, but several missionaries here in Luang Prabang have gone above and beyond. They have given up time to drive us around town and help us look at houses. They let us set up camp in their own house for a couple of weeks while they were away in Thailand. They’ve taken me to the market. They’ve called just for the heck of it – to see if we need anything. They’ve lent us sheets and towels. And, last week, two of them lent me a motorbike.

I ran into Marc and Raquel in town the day after we moved in.

“How was the move going?” they wanted to know. “Was I finding everything?”

I was getting there, I told them. It was a start. It would get easier after we got bikes or some form of transport that I could use during the day.

Raquel and Marc looked at each other.

“Well, you could have one of our motorbikes for a while,” Marc said, without hesitating. And without, I should point out, asking me if I’d ever driven a motorbike before.

(I had, by the way. In Vietnam, a decade ago. For one, gloriously reckless, afternoon.)

I did confess my lack of recent experience. That didn’t stop them.

“Oh,” said Raquel, with a casual wave of her hand. “I’ll take you to a side street. You can ride up and down a time or two.”

“Did it freak you out when you first got here, driving around town?” I asked Raquel as we headed off.

“Ooh yeeaah,” she said her shoulder, in that soft southern-state drawl that doubles the vowels in every word.

“Everyone drives so crazy here, you know. Not stopping at the corners, or the stop signs. See,” Raquel said of the person in front of us, “he hardly even slowed down. But I’m fine now. I just watch out for the people in front of me to do crazy things, and it’s the responsibility of people behind me to watch out for me. You don’t stop for pedestrians. You go around other bikes. You get out of the way of trucks because they do whatever they want. Those trucks… they’ll just run you right off the road.”

OK, I thought, trying hard to catch all these road rules for Laos from the back of the bike. Watch out for the people in front of you. Don’t look behind you. Stay away from anything bigger than you.

“Now, y’all call us if you need anything else,” Raquel said to me later that afternoon as I took a deep breath and prepared to drive from her house back to ours – an epic journey of less than five minutes. And so it was that I was took temporary ownership of one motorbike and one pink helmet.

When I got home that day I checked my blog and gmail, and what did I find?

A letter from Kate – a friend and missionary in an entirely different country – asking if we needed anything.

She’d read my date night post, she wrote. She knew what it was like to be far away from home. Could she send me up anything with our mutual friends, Matt and Alida (who were currently in Phnom Penh and headed up to visit Mike and I in Luang Prabang in a couple of days). Books? Cheese? Wine? Chocolate? Pirated movies?

“I’m pretty sure I could find good quality (ahem, pirated) films here if I just figure out where the pirates… I mean, dealers… I mean, cinematic entrepreneurs, hang out.” I wrote back. “But if you happen to have a good quality copy of Letters to Juliet lying around that you don’t mind sending up here on a loan, that’d be cool.”

What I really need to do,” I continued – thinking in type more than anything else, “is to find TV series on DVD. They are the best “wind down from writing” distraction. I can’t wait until the entire last season of Lost comes out.”

As for the rest of the comfort items, I summarized:

“Matt and Alida are already carrying me up some books that I’d had shipped to them before they left California.

I’ve found some cheese in one of the expatriate grocery stores.

We can actually get some Chilean wine up here.

And chocolate, well… as I’ve recently picked up the dangerous habit of eating Nutella straight out of the container perhaps it would be best if no one tries too hard to share chocolate with me for the next little while.”

Matt and Alida arrived yesterday. In addition to the books they came bearing big hugs, wine they’d carried from California, and some toiletries. They also ferried up another present from Cambodia.

Kate had sent up the last season of Lost.

Sharing – it is such an elegant conjugation of the verb “to love”.

Thank you to all our old and new friends – from Los Angeles to Anchorage to Laos – who have shared with us these last few months. We feel loved.

Saffron Robe

A king asked a sage to explain the Truth. In response the sage asked the king how he would convey the taste of a mango to someone who had never eaten anything sweet. No matter how hard the king tried, he could not adequately describe the flavor of the fruit, and, in frustration, he demanded of the sage “Tell me then, how would you describe it?” The sage picked up a mango and handed it to the king saying, “This is very sweet. Try eating it!”

(A Hindu Teaching Story)

Mango. Ice. Tamarind. A little bit of cinnamon. A blender.

Try it.

Getting started on home and place

It is Monday afternoon already. Where did the morning go? We’ve been here in Laos five weeks now, and in the midst of all the different beds we’ve been sleeping in and all the suitcases we’ve been living out of, I’ve been trying very hard to keep some things constant:

(A) get up when Mike does at about 6:15; and

(B) keep mornings set aside as “working on the book” time.

Roosters and a restless husband have made the first resolution relatively easy to keep (except on the couple of mornings last week when Mike left our bed in the 3’s – last week was not a good sleep week in our household). But as for the second, I’m starting to wonder whether that one is only going to get more challenging the more we settle into a “real life” routine here.

Last Monday we were still camping out at someone else’s house. Their maid did our laundry and washed the dishes. I had a choice between writing or lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling fan. (Or, to be fair, walking down the street to the Lao Red Cross and getting a massage). But given that not even I can take an entire day of massage, staying focused every morning was easy.

But this Monday morning, at our new place with working internet, there were dishes to be washed, beds to be made, Terms of Reference for consulting projects to be drafted, parents to catch up with, friends in Australia to hear good news from, nutella to get out of the new ant-proof pantry and eat straight from the jar, and handymen to wait for.

(The handymen will, I hope, address the upstairs AC, the broken bed frame, the non-functioning hot water heater, and the toilets – we are down to only one fully functional toilet – before our first guests arrive tomorrow.)

So book time this morning has been a bit squeezed. As in “non-existent”.

And now it’s Monday afternoon and I’m trying to get myself back in book zone. The chapter I’m working on at the moment deals with the theme of home as place. In the first draft of the book this particular chapter opens and closes in Kenya after a brief detour to Tanzania. The middle scene is set primarily in Hawaii. I have not lived any of those places. And I find myself looking at the chapter now knowing it needs significant rewriting and not knowing quite sure where to start.

Mind you, that’s nothing new. When it comes to writing I often don’t know exactly where to start until long after I’ve actually started.

You’d think that knowing this about myself would make it easier to just get on with it and get started writing something. Anything.

It doesn’t.

It makes me yawn and want to write blog posts instead. It makes me want to lie down and read someone else’s book. It makes me look around our place and wonder whether the new plants need water. For, after a weekend packed full of sweaty shopping from roadside stalls we have plants now. And a bamboo bookshelf. And dishes. And a small glass teapot just the right size for me to make myself a pot of tea for when I’m working. And the cutest wood and mesh ant-proof pantry that we’ve carefully stood in plastic bowls full of baby-powder (which sort of ruins the cute look a little, but if kept ants out of the cereal I’ll take it).

But it’s Monday. And I know I’m not going to be able to figure out where to start writing until I after I’ve started writing. So I better get out that teapot, fill it, and (yawn) get started.

But, first, a quote that made me laugh last week.

“One’s home is like a delicious piece of pie you order in a restaurant on a country road one cozy evening – the best piece of pie you have ever eaten in your life – and can never find again.  After you leave home, you may find yourself feeling homesick, even if you have a new home that has nicer wallpaper and a more efficient dishwasher than the home in which you grew up.” Lemony Snicket

Do you feel homesick for your childhood home like this?

Conflict – avoid or embrace?

I had all sorts of other topics I was going to blog about this week – missionaries, motorbikes, and mangoes. But the week has been dominated by the house, so it seems fair that the blog should be too – for a little while longer, at least.

Some good things have happened. I had a really great chat on skype with our landlady, who lives in Tennessee at the moment. Mike and I figured out that if we sleep in the second bedroom the room is both darker and quieter – I can still hear roosters, but they are not nearly as strident. And the kitchen table has been a fun place to work this last couple of days. We don’t actually have anything kitchenish to clutter up that space yet, so I have commandeered the kitchen bench.

It is currently covered with small pieces of paper, each inscribed with a scene or a theme for the book I’m working on. I have the beginning of the story arc all mapped out, and the end, but the middle is just a mess of tiny pieces of paper marked with things like “cyberdating and filter theory”, “taxi driver’s treatise on love”, “interview – Vancouver”, “faith? and hope?” I’m hoping that being able to actually shift pieces of the puzzle around will help as I push forward with the narrative.

Ironically, the chapter that I am working on right now deals with a failed romance that taught me just how much of a conflict avoider I can be. And what has happened as we have moved in and tested out the house this week has shown me clearly that, although I have grown in leaps and bounds in this area, risking conflict is still not a personal strength.

We have emailed our distant landlord and the young man who has overseen our move-in three times already in the last three days with detailed descriptions of things that are happening around here that are, well, less than completely desirable.

So when I got up this morning to find Mike drafting up another letter about the water pressure (or lack thereof) in the upstairs bathrooms, my first instinct was to say, “Um… maybe we shouldn’t bring that up right now. There are lots of things on the ‘needs attention’ list already.”

“There is almost no water coming out of the sink in the middle bedroom,” Mike said. “The shower is only dripping this morning. The hot water heater in the other bedroom doesn’t work and the pressure’s only marginally better in there at the moment anyway. You know what that means? A cold shower for you this morning.”

“OK,” I said quickly, “Send the email.”

But now Mike has gone off to work and I’m left here to talk to the young man who is coming by with a handyman to make a start on things. I don’t think Mike and I are this young man’s favorite people in the world right now. And, much as I try to tell myself that we are really not being unreasonable, I know I’m going to have to work to keep myself from pre-empting my show and tell of the problems with a string of apologies.

“I’m really sorry we broke the bed in the master bedroom on the first night. I swear we didn’t provoke it – Mike merely sat on the bed and the (too small) nails on that entire side (that was not properly braced) just came apart.”

“I’m really sorry that the lights flicker and dance in a dim, distracting, ballet whenever we have the effrontery to have some lights and an AC on at the same time. Or, even worse, try for hot water.”

“I’m really sorry that a four year old can open some of the windows from the outside of the house because the window locks are so flimsy.”

Lest you think I am venturing into spiteful hyperbole on this last one, I’m not. This is exactly how we found out about this problem when we were showing some friends around the house last night. Their curious four-year-old put her hand up to the bedroom window from the upstairs balcony, tried to slide it open, and managed to do exactly that despite the fact that the window was, actually, locked from the inside.

I count myself very lucky that our landlord has expressed nothing but full support and a genuine desire to address these issues. I count myself very lucky that the young man tasked with being the on-site person here speaks excellent English. Yet I still feel a bit icky about it all. I hate feeling like we’re being a big hassle. I’m not particularly looking forward to the phone call telling me the handyman etc are on their way.

How did someone who is generally very accomplished and confident develop these strong instincts to avoid potential conflict? It’s been six years since the events in the chapter I am writing at the moment, and I’m still trying to figure this one out.

What about you? Conflict avoider, or conflict embracer?