Monthly Archives: September 2010

When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision

This story starts in May. In May, Mike was in Laos in the middle of his first seven weeks at his new job with World Vision. I was in LA wrapping up my own job. Mike was trying to find his feet in a new place and in a new life. I was trying to disengage from familiar people and a familiar life.

We were in very different places – not just physically – and as we spent my evenings and Mike’s early mornings talking via skype, I frequently found myself feeling torn. I did want to hear the honest truth about how things were in Laos and try to support Mike through the first shockwaves of this change. But as I was tearing myself loose from LA and preparing to step into the whirlwind I also, often, found myself longing to just hear the reassuring message: “We totally made the right decision. Everything’s great. You’re going to love it here.”

Some days I got that. Many days I didn’t.

The night that Mike first told me about Sommai, I didn’t.

The day before, Mike told me, he’d received an urgent phone call from a staff member, Edena, who was based in a field office four hours outside of Luang Prabang. There was a very sick sponsored child in her district, Edena said. Sommai was seven, and lived in a remote and inaccessible village. There was no cell phone reception or road access in this village – it was another hour north by motorbike, and then a twenty-minute walk into the hills.

Edena didn’t speak very good English. She couldn’t explain what might be wrong with Sommai, but she did manage to convey that he needed urgent medical care or he might die. She wanted Mike’s authorization to send him to the district health center, but here was the big problem with this situation (or, rather, the tenth big problem): the family was very poor. So poor that, even with the organization committing to cover most of the bills that would follow, Edena didn’t think that the family had the money to pay their quarter of the treatment costs.

So Mike was left wondering what to do. The organization has many good reasons for its policies requiring some family contribution for medical care. There are also good reasons why it’s standard practice that the family pays the initial costs that are incurred and then files for reimbursement. Mike couldn’t just ignore these policies, but could he really sanction delaying or denying assistance over what was (to us) a relatively small sum of money?

As soon as possible after Edena’s call, Mike met with child sponsorship staff in the Luang Prabang office. Together they searched for a solution.

No, the staff confirmed – Mike could not circumvent these policies just because he felt like it. Perhaps, the staff suggested, the family could borrow some money from the village development bank (a small community fund set up in many villages to help in emergencies just like this one).

Only, three hours and numerous phone calls later, it turned out that this village didn’t have one.

Then they discussed whether Mike should write to the national director and ask for an exemption from the family contribution co-pay.

Mike was torn on this, and in the end it was the national staff that tipped the scales towards a no, citing two things Mike already knew. The organization supported thousands of children and they couldn’t make exemptions for all, or even most, of them. Perhaps even more importantly, the staff said, if they sought an exemption in this case many other families in the village would also claim extreme poverty. No one would pay their share, and it would ultimately make the job of the field staff much more difficult.

“Sommai’s family will find a way to borrow the money from relatives or friends, or maybe the staff in the field will help out of their wages,” the Luang Prabang staff told Mike. “We should wait.”

To Mike – a month into the job – it seemed like a gut-wrenching gamble to take on the life of a child, but he took their advice and sent the message back to Edena. The organization would help. As per policy they’d reimburse most of the medical expenses, but the family had to come up with the initial co-pay.

“What do you think?” Mike asked me that night in May, over skype, “How do you make these sorts of decisions?”

In California, sitting alone among half-packed boxes in our quiet living room, I shrugged even though he wasn’t there to see it. How did you make that sort of decision?

“I don’t know, Mike,” I said. “I don’t know.”

Sommai lived. Over the next day or two the family did come up with the copay – they borrowed money from their relatives, and others who lived in the village. Sommai was transferred to the district health center. Soon after that, on the urgent recommendation of the district center, he was transferred to Luang Prabang where he spent six days in hospital before he was discharged.

After his return, from back in the village, Edena reported that he was still a very sick little boy, but recovering.

A month later, Mike and I were still chewing over this case. One beautiful evening in June, three nights after Mike arrived back in California, we took a break from the chaotic hard work of boxing up our lives. We sat on the porch with our good friends Matt and Hilary. We sipped sauvignon blanc. We layered triple cream brie and dates on water crackers. We talked about Sommai’s case, and others, all night.

You never stray too far from these conversations when you’re in a job like Mike’s. Physically you can be thousands of miles away, sipping wine and eating imported cheese, but the questions and the dilemmas don’t stay behind – they never stray far.

So Hilary and Matt got an earful. They plunged into the experiential waterfall of Mike’s early days in Laos with full attention and keen interest.

Three nights before we left Los Angeles, we had dinner with Matt and Hilary again. As we were leaving Hilary passed me an envelope. Inside was five hundred dollars in cash.

“Here’s some from us,” she said, “Our part. Maybe it’ll help. Maybe next time there’s a Sommai, or you see a need, maybe it’ll help knowing you have some in reserve.”

We were both awed by this generosity, and grateful, but Mike was also a bit worried.

“Money’s tricky,” he said to me later. “What if we can’t use it soon, or they don’t approve what we do with it? What if…”

“Stop it,” I told him. “Matt and Hilary love us. They gave this to ease burdens. They trust our judgment and know that we’ll be best placed to see ways this can be used. They won’t care if it takes months, or a year. You are not to worry about this, of all things.”

[Next time in Part II of this story, Mike and I visit Sommai in his village]

  1. When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision
  2. When Helping is Hard (Part 2): In the village
  3. When Helping is Hard (Part 3): Score one for policy
  4. When Helping is Hard (Part 4): Money, it’s complicated

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We interrupt this week…

We interrupt this week of humanitarian work stories to bring you a public service announcement…

OK, not to bring you a public service announcement at all. To complain, basically. And also to bring you another picture of a snake, since everyone seems to love those. I am totally bewildered to find new snake related search terms bringing strangers to that post about Phoukhoun every day. Here are some of the highlights from the last week:

  • giant snake lao
  • massive snake
  • laosnake
  • giant snake in electric fence
  • giant snake bites electric fence (who comes up with these searches, and how bored are people???)
  • giant snake in amazon

No one is asking for my blogging tips, but here are two pieces of free advice – advice I bet you won’t find on the thousands of websites that do regularly offer blogging tips. If you want more traffic to your blog:

  • Write about big snakes.
  • And, toilets usually go down well, too.

Without further ado, here is what my mama emailed me this morning. Dad found him in the shed yesterday. They have named him Bruce. I think, from looking at him, that he’s the harmless kind (not the brown snake kind) so they probably just let him be in hopes he’d help keep the mice and rats under control. (Gee, Mum and Dad’s place is sounding better and better, isn’t it?)

They also sent me a picture of yesterday’s double rainbow, which made me totally homesick [sidenote: here comes the complaining] because yesterday was a 9.5 on the sucky scale. The woodworkers over the back fence have been at it for days now, from 8am to 5pm, with their electric sanders and their hammers and it’s driving me mental. I manage to hold it together OK during most days, and then I’m grumpy and exhausted when Mike comes home (because that’s rational and fair). It is illegal to do what they’re doing within city limits, so I had been holding out hope that city council would tell them to stop when we amassed enough data. But last night we got word that, “yes, there were laws, but… this is Asia, see” and “they are only trying to make a living.” This may not stop.

Now I know that some small part of me should be celebrating this as a triumph of small business, or lauding them for doing honest work instead of being out breaking into people’s houses.

But, yeah, after six days of this… not feeling it. Not feeling it at all.

And, to top it all off, just when I was trying to get to sleep last night at 10:30, karaoke started. Very loud karaoke. It went on until long after midnight. Long after I’d resorted to Ambien.

So I’d take the rats and snakes and mice at Mum and Dad’s place right now. That and their rainbows.   

But I’m going to put this up and go get some breakfast and sigh deeply and try again to find a way to block out the awful high-pitched shrieking from next door and get back to humanitarian work-week. Because I have a post today to write about a sick kiddo and a complicated situation, and then I have a bunch of work to do for a project in London.

May Your Day Be Silent.

(And if that’s not an official blessing in any faith tradition, it should be).

Humanitarian work, psychology, and staff support

Happy Monday! I hope you had a great weekend (and spent less time at the computer than Mike and I did). Never mind – this time next week we’ll be in Cambodia at Siem Reap.

Primarily because there are no good medical or dental facilities in Luang Prabang, Mike’s organization provides for one week of Rest and Relaxation (R&R) leave every six months. Thankfully, we don’t need to use this R&R to head to a doctor or a dentist, so we are going to explore one of the wonders of Asia instead. There are even rumors that Mike will not bring his work computer on our five day trip.

So this week, before we take a bit of a break from it all, I’m going to have a humanitarian-work week on the blog. I’m going to tell you the next installment in the story of little orphan girl, and talk about how difficult it can be to spend money to help others in ways that do no harm. I’m going to think a little more on blessings.

Before that, however, I’m going to flag a new page on my blog for you! While Mike was drafting reports and signing many, many, documents this weekend, I was working on a page for those interested in finding work in the humanitarian field.

I received a letter from a stranger last week that set this in motion. She is studying psychology. She said:

“I have always hoped to find a way to combine my passion for community development work and psychology. I was wondering if would be able to tell me what your pathway was getting into the work you have done, and whether you have any contacts or suggestions of ways I might be able to gain an internship next year?”

During the almost seven years that I worked as Director of Training and Education Services for the Headington Institute, I was asked something along these lines fairly frequently by students and by interviewers. So I’ve pulled up some of the interviews, brushed off my answers to the most frequently asked questions, and put it all in one place. If you’re interested in humanitarian work and staff support, wander on over and check it out.

Back on Wednesday with more stories.

Cheers,

Lisa

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The circle of your passion

It’s been a week. For me, it’s been a week of finishing the draft, enjoying a brief high, then falling (temporarily, let’s hope) into a big black woeful hole of not feeling like doing anything at all, and wondering how we can possibly have been in Laos three months already, and whether the rumours are true that we’re staying here for the next couple of years. On that front, it appears so, unless the powers that be mandate otherwise. I’ve had ample time to mull all of this over during a string of nights when sleep eludes me until late – midnight or 1am – and sometimes only arrives after the sort of help that comes in little bottles with child-proof caps on them.

For Mike, it’s been a week of waking up early – in the 3’s or the 4’s, occasionally the 2’s – with his mind jumping ahead to the day. The biggest meetings of the year took place yesterday, and coincided with a week-long delegation of all sorts of people that be all sorts of powerful, and not all of whom arrived on the scene happy. We think they be leaving happier, we think. There was a lot of smiling and nodding at the big partnership dinner last night – then again there was also lots of beerlao, which tends to help with the smiling (but not with the sleep, no, not with that).

A couple of weeks ago Mike and I had dinner with a friend, Gabrielle, who Mike first met in the Vanuatu almost three years ago. In January we had dinner with her in Melbourne. Since then she’s moved to Hanoi. Two weeks ago she swung by our new town.

So we met at Utopia and drank Saffron Robes and cheap Chilean wine and gazed upon the Khan River and talked. We talked of things that humanitarianers often seem to talk about when they cross paths for an evening and drink and look at rivers.

  1. How and why did you decide to make this last move/take this last job?
  2. How are you finding this massive uprooting and replanting of your life?
  3. What about the job itself – where are the rewards and the pressure points?
  4. Is it worth it – this move, this job, this whole field …

There is a lot wrapped up in that last question. I could write a whole series of posts just on the different variables that come into play when trying to calculate the opportunity-cost of this work and of this lifestyle. There are issues of meaning and purpose to be considered. And efficacy, community, motivation, finances, and safety. And, of course, passion.

Gabrielle calls this sort of conversation tumbleweeding, which I think is a delightful word. It brings to mind a tangled ball of wiry stalks all intertwined – dense enough to hang together in a round yet light enough to be moved by the wind. A tumbleweed bounces and spins at the same time as it skips along. A tumbleweed goes places. (Sometimes it just goes in circles, but that too is appropriate.)

I wonder what usually happens to tumbleweeds in the end. Do they pick up so many leaves and twigs on their journey that they eventually stop moving and settle into being just a pile of sticks? Do they get snagged on bushes, never to work themselves free? Or do they break apart – thin pieces of brush skittering and sliding in every which direction?

So, passion. That was our primary focal point that night.

“Are you passionate about writing?” Gabrielle asked me.

“Sometimes I get a great day, or hour,” I said. “Those moments are incandescent. I lose track of time. Afterwards I’m tingling with that happy sort of electricity that comes when you don’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. I’m totally buzzed.”

“But,” I continued. “At least as often, probably more often, I sit there and it’s hard, and I struggle, and I want to be almost anywhere else, and I hate it. Except I feel compelled to do it anyway.”

“That’s passion,” Mike said.

“Huh,” I said.

Why do I primarily associate vocational passion with the electric, positive, purposeful, buzz? Wishful thinking, maybe, or is it possible to have those joyous mountaintop moments without trudging through some valleys? Are mountaintop moments over-rated, anyway? Should we really be aiming for a nice picnic blanket halfway up a pretty green slope?

And, if what we were talking about really is passion, how can you live inside the circle of your passion without it consuming you?

That’s what we talked about for most of the evening, sipping our wine, staring at the river, tumbleweeding around. We didn’t come up with the right answer, because there isn’t one. But Mike and I wandered home through the dark streets feeling refreshed and ready to face the windstorms of tomorrow.

After the week we’ve just weathered, maybe that’s what we need this weekend – some tumbleweeding. Or maybe a river. Or friends. Or some wine? Looks like we have options.

What about you: Do you feel like you’re living inside the circle of your passion? How do you keep from being consumed?

P.S. I could practically see the parental eye rolling in Australia when I mentioned wine (again!!). So, my beloved mother, this picture’s for you. It’s Mike, weeks ago now, disposing of the last wine we had at home because it was simply wretched stuff. The bamboo, much to my surprise, has suffered no ill effects.

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Draft two, check, and prologues

It’s only Wednesday here and it’s already been quite a week.

For those of you who are tracking with this story, I’ve been lobbying hard for the Samoyed. Thus far I’ve been entirely unsuccessful. Last night over pizza and red wine (lest I lead you to believe that life here is all pepsi and pig fat) I tried again.

“Jesus used the most unlikely raw material to accomplish his ends,” I said, taking a different tack after having talked for several minutes about the merits of dogs that stay playful well into old age. “I could mould her into a guard dog.”

“Let me point out to you, yet again,” Mike said, “that you are not Jesus.”

But it has not been all fun and games (or pleading and pouting) over here this week. All sorts of representatives of the powers that be are in town, discussing weighty matters. We are getting a close-up look at a “strong state” on a collision course with the operational culture of a large development organization. It’s not a pretty picture, but more on that later. Maybe.

I also have an update (quite a good one) on little orphan girl that I’ll try and write up soon.

While Mike’s been out trying to pour oil on troubled waters, I’ve been having Lao language lessons, and smiling my way through long official dinners, but mostly writing. And today, despite the third power cut this week (the electricity is still off as I write this), I reached a milestone. It’s only one of many on this long journey, but it’s an important one. Today I have a full second draft of the book I’ve been working on since we arrived here. I’m sure it’s not ready to go to press, but I think it’s stronger than the first draft. And that is great progress.

I ditched my prologue in this 2nd draft. I was listening to a recorded interview with Jane Friedman from Writer’s Digest recently on red flags in memoir. She had some interesting things to say about the opening scenes of memoirs.

“You shouldn’t put any speed bumps in the way of your readers in the first five pages,” she said. She recommended that writers think very carefully about whether they need a prologue, and that they only use one to add context that the reader absolutely must know.

“Don’t,” she said, “use it as a plot device.”

I quite liked the prologue in my first draft – I certainly had fun writing it. But the longer I thought about it, the more I thought Jane might have a point. The prologue I’d drafted wasn’t essential context, I was using it as a plot device, and it was probably confusing enough to count as a speed bump to a reader unfamiliar with my story (which, let’s face it, I hope most of them are otherwise this next book will sell, at best, a couple of hundred copies).

So I ditched it.

But while I don’t want to put speed bumps in the book, I have fewer hesitations about putting them up on the blog. So here is: the prologue that got axed. May it rest in peace…

Prologue

I didn’t get really nervous until the day before.

Perhaps it should have hit me earlier.

When he sent me that first letter from Papua New Guinea saying that he wanted to get to know me better.

Or when he wrote six weeks later telling me that he’d like to come to Australia while I was there in January, if I thought that would be OK?

Or as I crafted my carefully light reply – “that could be lots of fun” – and then informed my parents that I’d invited someone I’d never met, or even spoken to, to join us for two weeks of precious family holiday time.

But I didn’t get really nervous until the day before, and then it hit me all at once.

Who crosses an international border for a fourteen-day-long blind date – were we both insane? What if it was really awkward? What if it was just a big fizzle, like the last time I’d tried this? What if it turned out in the end that I had to break his heart? What if he broke mine? Would I even recognize him from the couple of photos I’d seen? And what on earth was I going to wear to the airport?

By the time I reached the arrivals lounge at Brisbane airport on Monday afternoon my palms were sweating and a whole rabble of butterflies were performing merry somersaults in my stomach.

I was anxiously early.

Customs was torturously slow.

For more than an hour I scanned the face of every male between the ages of twenty and fifty and tried to remember to breathe. Three times I moved, hesitant, towards total strangers only to stop short, ducking their puzzled gaze, a wave of heat washing up and cresting behind my eyes.

Then, suddenly.

There he was.

Friendly Companions from Siberia

Last week our neighbor’s computer was stolen. His front door is less than ten steps from ours – his house is a mirror image of ours – and when he left his door unlocked and went out for a couple of hours in the middle of the day last week someone strolled up, let themselves in, picked up his computer, and took off. I was likely sitting right next door when this happened.

Mike and I were less than thrilled when we learned about this. We really like our house. All the toilets and air conditioners and taps are working now, and it’s beautiful, really. Downstairs is just one large, tiled, space. In the middle of the room are two gothic pillars – I call it the ballroom. From one end of the ballroom a curved wooden staircase sweeps up to the second floor. It’s all very Gone With The Wind.

Even the windows – draped with gold tasseled curtains – are beautiful. But it’s a bit of a shame that we didn’t fully realize until after we’d moved in that one of the reasons they are beautiful is because they are not obscured by burglar bars. Or that the locks on these clear panes of glass are, shall we say… flimsy. Or that there’s no easy way to secure them from the inside because all the windows in the house (all nineteen of them) open from both ends.

So in light of recent events, we’ve decided that we really do need to get a dog, and this weekend we started trying to figure out how to do that.

Most people, it seems, get their nice big dogs from Thailand or China. But on Sunday we got a tip. There is one place in town that sells dogs, a friend told us. If we went right at the petrol station and down past the first roundabout we’d see a small shop selling bonsai trees. That was the place.

So on Sunday we went looking for bonsai trees, hoping they’d lead us to puppies. And sure enough, they did. In the back room of the bonsai store, in a wire cage, was a beautiful ball of white fluff that licked my fingers and batted my wrist with her paws and tried her best to climb out of the cage and into my arms.

“Awwww,” I said. “Awwwww.”

“What is that?” Mike asked.

“It looks like a husky,” I said.

The bonsai-dog seller couldn’t speak any English, but he bought out a book and pointed proudly to a picture of a very large, very furry, white dog. This adorable little bundle was a Samoyed. And she cost three hundred US dollars.

What is a Samoyed doing here?” Mike asked.

“She’s so cute,” I said.

“Yes,” Mike said. “She’s a very cute puppy that’s going to grow into a big hot muddy ball of tangled fur. What is a Samoyed, anyway?”

“I think they’re sled dogs,” I said.

“Obviously,” Mike said, nudging me out of the store. “Because it makes total sense to import a sled dog to Laos.”

I think Mike thought that was the end of that conversation. Silly Mike.

When we got home later that day I looked up Samoyeds.

“The Samoyed comes initially from Siberia,” I said, looking across the kitchen table and Mike at smiling guilelessly. “She’s a long way away from home… just like us.

“Siberia,” Mike said. “What else does it say?”

I foolishly continued reading the Wikipedia entry out loud without editing anything out. “Samoyed’s have a dense double layer coat. The undercoat consists of a dense, soft, and short fur that keeps the dog warm. The undercoat is typically shed heavily once or twice a year. This does not mean the Samoyed will only shed during that time however; fine hairs (versus the dense clumps of top coat shed during seasonal shedding) will be shed all year round, and have a tendency to stick to cloth and float in the air.”

Mike gestured to the ballroom behind us. “Are you seeing it?” he asked. “I want you to picture the whole room full of white hair floating in the air.

“That is what we have a maebaan for,” I said. “We were just saying we didn’t have enough for her to do.”

Mike looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“This is not a good idea,” he said.

“Nomadic reindeer herders bred the fluffy white dogs to help with herding and to pull sleds. She’s a working dog,” I said, starting to build my case. “She can work for us.”

“What we need is a guard dog,” Mike said.

“Well…” I said, scanning down the wikipedia entry, “it doesn’t actually seem that she’d excel in that domain.”

“What does it say?” Mike said.

“Samoyeds’ friendly disposition makes them poor guard dogs; an aggressive Samoyed is rare. But,” I rushed to keep reading as Mike started laughing. “Samoyeds are excellent companions, especially for small children, and they remain playful into old age. When Samoyeds become bored they…”

I stopped reading.

“Go on,” Mike said, still laughing.

“They may begin to dig. And herd things.” I finished lamely.

“But they are excellent, friendly, companions,” I reminded him, trying to regain some ground.

“And you live in such an affection vacuum that you’re in desperate need of friendly companions,” Mike said.

“She and I would understand each other,” I said. “We both thrive in cool climates. She could sit beside me under the air conditioner at the kitchen table. She could lie on my feet and keep me company.”

“Right,” Mike said. “Because that’s exactly what you’d want – a giant furball lying on your already overheated feet.”

“Well,” I amended, “she could lie beside my feet. And occasionally she could reach out and lick my good foot. Gently.”

“Of course she would,” Mike said. “Of course. Only your good foot. And only gently. And I can see it now – this shedding ball of fluff who wants to dig and herd and who hates the heat and that we’ve said we’ll train to stay downstairs. You’ll go upstairs to work in the study and feel sorry for the hot little Samoyed downstairs and you’ll leave the air conditioner on for her.

“No I wouldn’t!” I said, shocked. Then I thought about how hot it can get downstairs and I amended. “Well, maybe, on very hot days. For she would be a friendly companion.”

No,” Mike said.

Late last night, right before we went to sleep, I rolled over to Mike and cuddled up to him lovingly.

“Friendly companion,” I whispered in his ear.

Guard dog,” Mike said. “She’d herd an intruder right to our computers and lick him along the way for good measure. Besides, who buys a three hundred dollar dog in this town?”

Then he laughed. “I know exactly who buys them. Men who are incapable of standing up to their wives, that’s who.”

“Friendly. Companion.” I said in my most alluring voice.

“Go to sleep,” Mike said.

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The Blessings of the Bai Si

When Mike and I were up in Viengkham recently so that Mike could inspect a water system, Mike and the staff (and, by extension, me), were the guests of honor in the village we were visiting. This meant enduring some long speeches and eating a lot of food I didn’t particularly want to eat. It also meant that we had the privilege of peering briefly into lives very different from our own, and that the humbling mantle of the village’s blessing was bestowed upon us. For in between breakfast and lunch, the village held a bai si.

The bai si (or su kwan) is a blessing ceremony indigenous to Southeast Asia, and it is performed on many special occasions – marriages, births, housewarmings, when someone becomes a monk, recovers from illness, or at the beginning or end of big journeys. As far as rituals go, it’s pretty versatile.

Su kwan means “calling of the soul”, and the purpose of the ceremony is to bind the personal spirits, the kwan, to the person. Many people here in Laos believe that the human being is a union of 32 organs, and that each organ has their own kwan to watch over and protect them. Collectively, these spirits are believed to constitute a person’s spiritual essence or “vital breath”.

The problem with the kwan? Well they tend to wander, you see. Sometimes they stray quite a way from your body, and this is not at all what you want. It throws things out of balance. It makes you sick. You don’t want your kwan out roaming the world, you want as many of them as possible at home where they belong, watching over you.

So, periodically, it’s a good idea to call your kwan back. This is what the bai si ceremony does – it calls your spirits to return home, secures them in place, and re-establishes equilibrium. The ceremony, a communal event, is a way of expressing goodwill, good luck, and good health to those being honored. And this was how the village was choosing to commemorate the official handover of this new water system.

We sat on the floor in a circle around a low table that was decorated with flowers and candles and laden with plates of meat and offal, packets of chips, and the Chinese version of Twinkies. Long, white, cotton, strings were draped over the stalks of flowers.

After everyone was gathered, the Mor Pone (the soul caller, the most senior elder in the community) began to chant, calling the lost souls of those gathered to come back to their bodies and asking them nicely to bring health and happiness with them while they were at it. As he finished chanting, we, the honored guests, were presented first with the plates of meat.

Under pressure I made a very, very, bad choice and picked up a piece of offal. I’m pretty sure I heard some of my kwan snicker. Just between us, I’m not sure that all of my kwan always have my best interests at heart, no matter what Laotians would have me believe.

After we’d snacked on offal and Twinkies, the soul caller approached Mike and me. Kneeling in front of us, murmuring blessings, he tied strings to our wrists to bind our spirits to our bodies. Other community members followed suit. By the time the ceremony was finished I had so many strings around my wrists that my kwan had resigned themselves to not going anywhere for quite a while.

Now, a word about the ceremonies and rituals of different faith traditions.

I feel a little as if I’m in a minefield here. I’m well aware that some of my friends and acquaintances may be troubled that I participated in what they would call an animist ritual. Others will be troubled that anyone would be troubled.

More than a decade ago, during a trip to Thailand, a younger me was a bit troubled by a similar ceremony that I participated in there. The world was more black and white to me then, and in that world a good Christian didn’t allow people to chant over them in a language they didn’t understand and tie strings to their wrists. After all, who knew what footholds that could give the devil in my life? And what on earth would Jesus say?

I’m not mocking my younger self (though it’s awfully tempting sometimes). She was sincere in her beliefs and her concerns, and she may have had some valid points. But I am not her anymore and the world looks different to me now.

Now I can come to the bai si with more peace, as a guest and as a learner. I am still not entirely comfortable with people chanting over me in a language I do not understand during a ceremony that is not of my own faith tradition, but I am far less worried about the possibility that, simply by being present, I may be delivering myself irrevocably unto the dark side.

For I looked into the eyes of those who approached me with strings in hand that day and I was profoundly humbled by the warmth and gentle goodwill I saw. I live a life more privileged than many of them could imagine, yet they were delighted at this chance to bless me. The elders of this community – those who have earned their years and their wisdom the hard way – knotted the strings with reverence and tenderness. Their sincerity in wishing us well was unmistakable.

I’m still not entirely sure what Jesus would say about this. The stories of the gospels suggest that he wasn’t too keen on things like commerce in the temple courts, meat sacrificed to idols, spirit-worship, superstition based in fear, and religious rituals undertaken for show. But they also suggest that he had a knack for discerning attitude and intention, and that these two things counted for an awful lot in his sight.

I suppose it’s possible that Jesus might tell me, “Lis, it’s not super wise to make a habit of participating in ceremonies that you do not really understand. There are powerful spiritual forces for good and for bad out there, and you should not lightly trespass upon these realms.”

But I think it’s also possible that Jesus might smile a little and say something along the lines of, “I know and love your kwan, and they could do with a good calling now and again for they are a willful and unruly lot. And, look, try your best to eat the offal that has been presented to you today in the spirit of happy gratitude, because that is the loving thing to do.”

Someday, I hope I have the chance to ask him.

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Jesus wants you to build a toilet

Recently Alexis Grant mentioned on The Traveling Writer that someone had googled “best travel memoir’s by women” and landed on her blog. It made her day.

This piqued my curiosity. How were people (people other than my mother, that is) landing on my blog?

It took a while to figure out how to get this information, but a bit of my own googling eventually told me how to access the search terms on the blog stats page. So without further ado…

The number one search terms – lisa mckay and lisa mckay laos – made total sense to me.

The second most trafficked search terms – laos and laos writing – made less sense. I’m not quite sure how it’s possible to google an entire country and find my blog, but perhaps this is an unanticipated bonus to living in the least developed landlocked nation in Asia.

Then things started to get even weirder. The following search terms all showed up on the list:

  1. Lao snake
  2. giant snake Laos
  3. sneck in laos (no, I am not making these up)
  4. daaaaaate in asia.com
  5. pepsi from the fat of pig
  6. zozo spray India (pretty sure that one’s your fault, Jos)
  7. pebbles like girl scouts
  8. tropical waterfall
  9. honeymoon constipated
  10. poo laos existence
  11. males doing toilet on roads

If I were to take this as a guide to the sort of content my readers really want, I might conclude that my niche market is writing about toilets (or lack thereof) in Laos. That and snakes.

So for all you lovers of toilet stories, today I have a really good one for you. It was written by Mike a couple of years ago and published here by Reuters AlertNet. Enjoy.

Jesus wants you to build a toilet

by Mike Wolfe

“Jesus wants you to build a toilet for the women,” I told Pastor Barry in my best broken Tok Pisin. Normally I feel a bit annoyed when people make Jesus the poster child for their personal cause. I remember, for example, the billboard in Atlanta a few years ago that showed a picture of a cherubic Jesus and stated “Jesus was a vegetarian.” I laughed nearly every time I saw it.

But Pastor Barry wore a baseball cap that sported the phrase “Jesus is my boss”, so I figured I had his attention.

We were sitting on a bamboo bench on Petats Island in Papua New Guinea. A refreshing sea breeze rustled the coconut palms and mango trees. The bright red hibiscus flowers danced in the wind. It was a beautiful Pacific morning. A perfect day for conducting an evaluation of the water and sanitation project that World Vision is implementing in the region.

I had just inspected one of the new ventilated improved pit toilets built near the church. It’s a really well constructed toilet. And Pastor Barry keeps a lock on it. The women told me it’s only used on Sundays or special occasions. Apparently Pastor Barry doesn’t want people using it regularly. So most of the time people go in the bush or walk into the sea. But sometimes they get to use the nice new toilet.

I asked the women whether they liked it. They giggled, perhaps on account of my broken Tok Pisin, and perhaps because they were embarrassed that a white man with notebook, camera and funny GPS unit strung around his neck was asking them whether they like defecating in the lone toilet. After the initial embarrassment, the eyes of one of the women lit up. “Yes,” she told me. “We feel safe with the toilet.”

The United Nations has proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Sanitation. That may seem irrelevant for those of us who are able to flush and forget. But roughly one third of people on the planet don’t have access to improved sanitation. That more or less means 2 billion people relieve themselves in the bush.

Lack of improved sanitation has all sorts of negative effects on public health. Like dead children – diarrhea is still the leading cause of death for children under five. Like the additional burden for mothers who regularly have to take care of a sick child. Like cholera outbreaks – ever hear of cholera occurring in a place with improved sanitation? Nope.

Sanitation is a basic human need. If you look at the data from New York, London, and Paris before those cities built sewers, you’ll see their mortality rates were about the same as mortality rates today in Sub Saharan Africa.

On my first year in an overseas posting as a water and sanitation engineer, my focus was on improving access to clean water and sanitation. Women in displacement camps in northern Uganda would often wait in line for two hours to pump water, while some 1500 schoolchildren would have to share two toilets. So we drilled more wells and built more toilets.

I spent my second year in Sri Lanka where thousands of houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. In addition to rebuilding schools, health clinics, and homes, we installed hundreds of wells and built hundreds of toilets.

In Papua New Guinea I’ve begun focusing more on improving hygiene practices than building infrastructure. We can build lots of toilets, but what if people don’t actually use them? (Happens more often than you may think.) And if people don’t wash their hands after using the toilet, it’s likely there will be hardly any improvements in health.

So for the past year my focus has been on behavior change: improving hygiene practices that complement improvements in infrastructure. But while assessing this project, I’ve been particularly moved by something that isn’t directly related to safe water or improved sanitation.

Before our project, the women walked an hour or more to get water. To relieve themselves, they walked far into the bush or the mangroves. The women told us they used to get sexually assaulted by men hiding in the bush. Now that there are water taps and toilets close to their homes, they no longer get attacked on trips to fetch water or go to the loo.

Domestic and sexual violence against women is prevalent in the Pacific. I reckon that women tend to get the short end of the stick all around the world but it seems to me to be particularly bad here. In the Pacific, the women are damn lucky if they get any of the stick at all, because most of the time the men take the stick and beat them with it. Given a choice, I reckon I’d prefer to be a woman in Afghanistan than a woman in PNG.

On Petats the women told me that they felt safe when they used the new toilet.

“You know the Bible and I know the Bible,” I said to Pastor Barry. “You know that Jesus loved the mamas and he loved the weak and the vulnerable. I think Jesus wants you to build a toilet for the women.”

I hope he will.

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Speaking of families…

Last week I wrote about the extended iterative dialogue that it takes to co-ordinate a McKay family holiday (or a trip to town to get bread for lunch). When Mike read the post that night he laughed.

“That’s ten conversations and four emails you put out before I emailed my parents about this,” he said.

There were at least two reasons for this. The first of those is that Mike is considerably busier than I am at present. The second is something I’ve learned since getting married…

[Drum roll, please]

Not all family systems operate the same way.

I know, it’s a total revelation, isn’t it?

Mike and I met for the first time, after three months of letter writing, in Australia. He flew over from PNG while I was home for holidays and came to stay at my parents place with me for ten days so that we could figure out whether or not we were going to date.

On his first morning there, my Dad marched out onto the porch and handed him the phone.

Mike looked at him blankly.

“You can give your parents a call and let them know you’re here safely,” Dad said.

“Uh,” Mike looked confused. “I emailed them. They know where I am.”

“But don’t you think you should give them a call?” Dad asked, while I tried not to giggle.

“If I call them from here, they’re going to think something’s wrong,” Mike said.

“But they might be worried about you,” Dad said.

At that I did giggle. Mike had spent much of the last two months on remote islands in the South Pacific, and I had been in Ghana and Kenya. Neither of us had rung home during any of these trips.

I knew what Dad was doing. He wasn’t just trying to assuage any worry Mike’s parents may have been feeling about his safety. By handing Mike the phone and inviting him to use it to make a long distance call he was less trying to send the message, you should call home, than the message, our house is your house, make yourself totally comfortable.

The problem was, Mike was only picking up on the first of those messages, and he was starting to look a little hunted.

“But if I call them they will be worried about me,” Mike said.

As I recall this ended in a stalemate. Every couple of days for the first week Mike was there Dad would wave the phone in his general direction and Mike would look confused and a bit uneasy.

Now the following is offered with the disclaimer that I still have a lot to learn about Mike’s family. I may not exactly be on target with this, but here’s one thing I think I’ve learned so far: Mike’s family tends to be more direct than mine.

If Mike’s family wants to make you feel at home they say, “make yourself at home.” When his Dad wants to make me feel part of the family he gives me a hug and says, “welcome to the family.” His Mom says, “I hope my son is treating you right and, by the way, if you have any arguments I’m on your side.”

When Mike and I decided to get married I expected (in theory, anyway) to learn things about Mike’s family – ways of doing things, styles of interacting – that were different than what I’d grown up with. What I didn’t expect was that I’d learn almost as much about my family.

They warned us in marriage counseling that, when in doubt, we should rely on the spouse whose family it is to interpret what’s actually going on and what the appropriate course of action might be.

“You should each act as mediators and translators for your own family of origin,” they said. “It can take five or ten years, maybe more, to really understand the family culture your spouse comes from.”

At the time I thought that was a little extreme. Ten years? Seriously?

But now, watching my own family through two sets of eyes, I’ve seen enough operating system collisions involving them and Mike that I’m not so sure anymore.

Don’t get me wrong – these have not exactly been “two oil tankers meeting at high speed on a freeway” moments. They are usually more “two rowboats drifting past each other in the night” moments. But one thing they have taught me is that while my family can be direct, we are also, often, very indirect.

A couple of months ago Mike and I were with my parents on a ferry in Canada. It was crowded and busy, so Mike stood in line and got us both all some food while Dad went to find a table. Mum and I wandered over when they’d gotten everything sorted.

Bacon cheeseburger, as requested, and French fries. (Yes, there were many valid reasons for finding – when I weighed myself on a baggage scale in Vancouver airport the night we left for Laos – that I was five pounds heavier than I had been one month earlier).

Anyway, back to my burger. My burger that had mayonnaise on it.

When I opened it up and saw this I said, “Oh yuck,” and proceeded to scrape off the mayonnaise.

About ten seconds later, my mother leaned across the table and said to Mike, “When Lisa says ‘yuck’ she doesn’t mean, ‘you screwed up’, she just means that she doesn’t like mayonnaise.”

“But I did screw up,” Mike said, “because I knew that, and I could have asked for no mayonnaise. But what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t take it personally when Lisa’s not happy?”

“Yes,” Mum said, not even glancing in my direction.

“Oh Mike,” I said, leaning across the table beside Mum, and grinning. “That’s one of the things Mum is saying, but it’s not even the most important one. The primary message in what she just said wasn’t for you at all, it was for me, and that message was: When Mike has stood in line for twenty minutes to get you lunch don’t you open up your burger and say “yuck” you little ingrate.

Mum laughed.

“You’re very good,” she said. “That’s exactly what I was saying.”

“No!” Mike was dumbfounded. “How could you possibly get that out of what she just said???”

“How could you not get that???” I asked.

Mike took a bite of his own burger and sighed. “I don’t understand how you – an Australian – managed to grow up mainly in Africa and the US yet turn out to be so Asian in your preferred communication style. On the bright side, I guess you’re going to fit in well in Laos.”

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Family Planning

This week Mike and I have been trying to lock down an itinerary for December. We hadn’t planned on going anywhere this December – we decided we’d had quite enough travel in the last eight months, and we’d already been in Australia and Washington DC several times during the last couple of years. No, we were going to enjoy having our feet on the ground and the coolish weather in Luang Prabang (they promise me that it is coming). This Christmas we were absolutely, definitely, staying put.

Unfortunately, though, we have good friends. Regrettably, a couple of them (yes, you, Tristan and Amber) chose this year to fall in love and get engaged in Fiji in a sunset-drenched blaze of romantic glory. And, alas, they invited us to their wedding – in December, in Australia.

So Mike and I have been talking tickets this past couple of weeks, and budgets, and leave from work. We’ve been talking weddings and family gatherings, the power of positive presence at key moments, and how much it meant to us that people came from near and far to witness our wedding vows last year. This December, we decided, we absolutely, definitely, wanted to try to make it to Australia.

I think Mike thought that once we’d decided this, it would be as simple as seeing if he could get leave, setting our dates, and booking our tickets. But he hadn’t reckoned on family planning.

No, people, not that sort of family planning. McKay family planning.

I don’t know how our particular family planning dynamic evolved. I suspect it’s the product of decades spent trying to co-ordinate five schedules across nearly as many countries. Throughout the years everyone in my family has had to learn to think ahead, and in many different directions at once, when it comes to travel.

If, for example, we can forecast that Dad will be returning from Africa around the same time that I will need to go to Australia to sit University entrance exams, we can plan for me (one week after I return from ten weeks in the Philippines) to fly over from Washington DC, meet him in Heathrow, and travel on with him to Australia.

If we can spot that I’ll be in Africa for work on a particular date far enough in advance, this allows Mum and Dad to plan work to overlap with me in Kenya, and then me to plan a three-day stop-over in Washington on the way back from Ghana to spend Thanksgiving with Michelle and Jed.

In my family it seems that we are all well-trained from years of practice to be scanning these puzzle pieces – the four other moving targets that are our immediate family members – and to be trying to fit those pieces together.

Particularly in the case of my beloved mother case, it is also not just international travel schedules that are the focus of this sort of scanning. Over the course of thirty minutes and approximately the same number of plan-iterations, my mother can (and regularly does) transform a simple plan along the lines of “someone needs to go to town to pick up bread for lunch” into:

  • Matt and Lou take one car and go to Riverside for a coffee date.
  • Michelle and I drop off Mum at the bakery to get the bread for tomorrow’s lunch (since we’ve changed the plan to have lunch at home today). Mum will then walk from there to the drycleaners.
  • Michelle and I drop off Dad at to the hardware store to buy a replacement washer for the kitchen sink tap. He will then walk from there to the Coles to buy milk and bananas.
  • Michelle and I go to the butcher to buy a kilo of sausages, run a container full of fresh cherries four streets away to my grandparents, and circle back around to my pick up first Dad, then Mum.
  • We go to Riverside to meet Matt and Lou and all have lunch together there before going from the cafe straight to the beach (“so don’t forget to pack sunscreen, and swimmers, and hats,” Mum will say, “Oh, we’re almost out of sunscreen, I better go to the pharmacy after the drycleaners and before the café, or maybe Matt and Lou can do it…”)

This sort of constant “scope-creep” of the plan can drive Michelle, Matt, and I unreasonably crazy.

Sometimes one of us will put their foot down.

“That’s it, no more. Mum, we’re sticking with this plan. No more changes. No pharmacy. This is the plan.”

“But why?” she will ask, genuinely mystified as to why we have lost patience with this endless dialogue in search of the most efficient plan ever concocted.

“Because,” we will answer, secretly enjoying this parent-child role reversal that we are now occasionally entitled to, “that’s just the way it is. And until you get your own field hospital during a civil war to manage (which you would excel at, by the way) you’re stuck with us. And we’re done with this planning process.”

So I’ve been thinking a lot about family planning this week as Mike and I have been trying to plan for this possible trip to Australia. For Mike, it’s meant several hours of chatting with me and researching tickets online. For me, it’s also meant six separate skype chats with my parents, two calls with my sister, one with my brother, one with a friend in Sydney, three all-family emails, and one children-and-spouses-only email. We are all trying to make sure everyone stays on the same page – and to feel our way forward and fit pieces together in ways that make sense for everyone. We are trying to answer these questions all at once:

Are Mike and I going to fly over together or separately? Are Michelle, Tahlia, and Jed going to come over this December from Washington DC, and/or are Matt and Lou going to go to them? Can Mike and I also link up with Matt and Lou (who are in Canberra), while the wedding is in Melbourne, and Mum and Dad are up near Brisbane? Is there any way I can co-ordinate with friends in Sydney too, or is that just too crazy/expensive? Are Mum and Dad – who had been floating the idea of a family holiday in New Zealand in February – going to be discouraged by this shifting timeline? Should we/can we shoot for a family gathering in this December between the wedding and Christmas, or try for next year instead?

Sometimes, I will admit, when I’ve just spent two hours on airline websites researching possibilities it’s enough to make me sigh deeply and wish briefly for a smaller world – not just a world where we’re all closer together, but a world with fewer variables in it.

But in many better moments I know that this is what Elizabeth Gilbert would term a “champagne problem.” It is the problem of someone rich in loved ones and in possession of enough disposable income to get on the plane in the first place. It is the problem of someone who is wealthy indeed.

As of yesterday the tickets are booked – well, those from Laos to Australia and back again, anyway. Still to sort out are the in-country movements, dates, and flights. Michelle, Matt, Mum, and Dad… I’ll be in and on skype tomorrow afternoon. Let’s chat.

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