Monthly Archives: September 2010

Photos from Phoukhoun, and a word about snakes

Today, here is a gallery of twelve photos from our trip to Phoukhoun last week.

Things that I didn’t take a photo of, but wish I had:

  1. The hot water heater in our bathroom at the guesthouse (that’s right, people, hot water heater. Hooray for hot water heaters!)
  2. The (very good, actually) piles of barbecue goat we ate for dinner.
  3. The big piece of intestine I accidentally picked up (and very stealthily fed to the dog underneath the table. Hooray for dogs!)
  4. The candles we were given to light our way when we reached the guesthouse after all that goat and discovered that the electricity was out. (Candlelight on a cool evening in the mountains makes everything feel like a story. Hooray for candlelight!).

And, finally, here’s a photo I didn’t take, but which stopped me in my tracks. It was taken up in the north of Laos. (So was a picture of what was left of the poor guy inside this snake, which I’m not going to show you.)

I have seen plenty of big snakes, but I’ve never seen one this big.

On the way back to Luang Prabang on Friday night we made a toilet stop at a small beer garden. The men, of course, could just wander into the dark by the side of the road. As Mike says, they are boys and the world is their bathroom.

I, however, had to be escorted to the sole toilet by a seven year old carrying a flashlight. Down the muddy path by a big pond we went, and up a small hill to a tin shed (where, I am a little ashamed to say, I took the torch and left the child standing alone in the dark, waiting for me to do my business).

“Khamsan’s ruined my peace of mind with that picture of the snake,” I said, a little crossly, as I climbed back into the car three minutes later. “All I could think about in the toilet was snakes.”

“It’s nice of you to blame that all on Khamsan,” Mike said, “seeing as how you stood there staring at that photo for a full minute, and then borrowed my flash drive to copy it. Besides, that snake wouldn’t have fit in that toilet, not even close.”

“It would have fit in the pond though,” I said. “It definitely could have been swimming around in that pond like a giant Lao Ness Monster.”

“I really don’t think it would choose the fishpond of a beer garden to live in,” Mike said. “Especially not one right beside the main road linking Vientiane to the north of Laos.”

“I might live in a beer garden if I were a snake,” I said.

“Well, then,” Mike said, “around here you’d be a dead snake.”

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Random funny things

There have been many things that have made me laugh in the last little while. Here are just a few of them.

When Bible stories meet the Disney channel

This came courtesy of my sister, Michelle. It is a conversation she had with my niece, Tahlia, who has just turned three.

Michelle: “I told Tahlia the story of David and Goliath in the Bible, and then I reiterated that we never throw rocks, though, OK?”

Tahlia processed this, then…

Tahlia: “So, Mommy. If the big mean man comes to my castle, and kills my prince, then I’m allowed to throw one little tiny rock at him, right Mommy? Just one little tiny one. OK?”

Michelle: “Uh, sure. If that happens then you can throw one little tiny one.”

Michelle (to me): “I went right out the next day and bought her some additional educational DVDs.”

On military metaphors

So the adventure of our house (the house that we both love, and occasionally
“love slightly less”) continues. After the chemical-smoke-from-under-the-kitchen-sink incident on Monday, the landlord organized for someone to come and remove that hot water heater to reduce the risk of an electrical fire. This was good. What was less good was that when the man removed the hot water heater he also cut the wiring to all the other hot water heaters in the house, as well as the AC in our bedroom.

I don’t much enjoy cold showers, even in the afternoon when I’m all hot. In the mornings I avoid them whenever possible. This conversation took place on Thursday morning just before Mike and I left to spend two days in Phoukhoun district.

Mike: “Have you showered already?”

Lisa: “In a manner of speaking.”

Mike: “I really don’t want to know what you mean by that.” (Pause) “Yes I do. What do you mean by that?”

Lisa: “Well, it was a highly focused operation. Very targeted. A carpet-bombing of a shower. No, that’s too broad a metaphor. It was a guided missile shower.”

Mike: “Sweetheart, do you think perhaps you might want to rethink your use of such a negative, military, metaphor?”

Lisa: “Not really, it will suffice, just like the shower I had this morning. Maybe when we get to the field there will be hot water tonight.”

Mike: “And what color is the sky in your universe today?”

On Chinese dogs

Mike’s organization is having some trouble with the company they’ve hired to guard the office at night – namely that since someone actually tried to break in last month the guards are now too scared to stay there alone and want the organization to pay for two night guards instead of one. Given we hardly live in an active war zone, Mike is of the opinion that this is excessive. He suggested that if the security company is worried about their guards they could perhaps buy two-way radios. I suggested office dogs.

So as we were driving up to the villages on Thursday we were talking about dogs. Where, Mike asked his deputy, Kampono, could we get big dogs?

Kampono: “China. Get big dogs in China. But Chinese dogs not good.”

Mike: “Why not?”

Kampono: “Very expensive to keep.” (Much sorrowful shaking of the head) “Very expensive.”

Mike: “Why is that?”

Kampono: “Chinese dogs only eat meat. Very expensive to feed. Lao dogs better. Lao dogs eat rice.”

Mike: “You cannot feed Chinese dogs rice?”

Kampono: “No, must eat meat, these Chinese dogs. Lao dogs better.”

On picturesque irony

When we reached the village, Mike and Kampono took me on a tour of the office. When we walked into the child protection office there were two big portraits in gilt frames hanging either side of a poster.

The portraits were of Lenin and Marx.

The poster was about how to report incidents of child abuse in the Lao PDR.

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When criticism collides with fear

As everyone who’s read the previous post knows, we didn’t have the greatest start to the week over here. So I wrote about that in all it’s “ugly day-ness”, and I wrote about myself and my “not the finest display of coping with frustration that I’ve ever put forth”.

I received more than a few comments on that post – many of which warmed my heart and made me smile, and one that didn’t. It’s all caused me to think a lot about my reactions to compliments and criticism this last day and a half, and I’ve decided that something I am giving this much time on my mental airwaves deserves to be written about.

Let’s start with criticism, and sometime in the next couple of weeks I’ll wind my way around to talking about compliments.

So, one of the comments I received on that post was the following:

“I’m addicted to your blog. I guess I keep reading, waiting for when things will turn around (or for your perspective to change). I feel sorry for Mike. Not only does he have to contend with the low water pressure, lack of air conditioning, and all the inconveniences, but it’s compounded by a stressful job in which he can’t help everyone who needs it and by knowing that his wife is thoroughly unhappy because he wanted to move to Laos to fulfill what he feels is his purpose in life. It’s always harder to deal with negative situations when surrounded by negativity.

Reading your blog, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to be poor and living in Laos–having no air conditioning ever, running water, or people to call to fix things.

I hope you find something beautiful and meaningful in being there. Try to stay positive, Lisa.”

I’ve had a wide range of reactions to this in the last 24 hours.

Initially I was just stunned, and bewildered. (Also a little admiring that this person had managed to imply that I was an unending fountain of negativity who is making Mike’s life harder than it needs to be, subtly remind me to think of the poor, and begin and end with a clear message that I could perhaps benefit from a perspective shift… all in 151 words. I can clearly learn something about brevity here, if nothing else.)

Then I wanted to be a bitch – to hit “reply” and deliver a pithy, self-righteous, set-down in return. I won’t list the one-liners that rushed to mind, but there were several.

Then I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to point out that in the last couple of weeks I’d written about bad days and tiring border runs, yes. But I’d also written about interesting visits to museums and incandescent days spent out at beautiful waterfalls and meaningful Sunday afternoons spent pondering how to help sick kids.

Then I started to wonder why this was bothering me quite so much. There were other comments on that post that were very positive indeed. In fact, most of the comments left on my blog are positive. This was the day after I had written, in a draft chapter for my next book, “I am less imprisoned than I once was by what people think of me.” The irony of my ruffled feathers over this – a single comment written by someone who does not know me well – was not lost on me. Neither was the fact that I was doing the very thing she insinuated I do far too often – focusing on the negative. So why did this bug me so?

Then I realized she had (probably unwittingly) trespassed on something that, deep down, I sometimes greatly fear – that I’m not supporting Mike in his important work here as well as I could/should be. I also sometimes fear that I am the weak link in the chain of our marriage. I sometimes fear that I am a petty and small-minded person who chronically runs short of joy and gratitude. I sometimes fear that I am really not all that lovable, and that one day Mike will figure that out.

Once I’d dragged this tangled mess of “sometimes fears” out into the light, I sat down and tried to really think about where she was right and wrong, and what helpful take-homes I could glean from her comments.

She is absolutely right about the fact that it is always harder to deal with negative situations when surrounded by negativity, that a positive attitude is one of the most powerful forces in life, and that trying to stay positive is rarely wasted energy.

She is very wrong in her guess that I am thoroughly unhappy here in Laos. I think/I hope that she is also wrong in her supposition that I am, on balance, making life overall more challenging for Mike. Yet she came to these conclusions from reading my posts – not just the one I wrote yesterday, it seems, but all of them. Should I change something about the way I write, or what I’m writing about?

So after pondering this today, here’s what I think… I’ll continue to monitor the balance of generally “positive” and generally “negative” material that finds its way up here, but I’m not going to let fear of what you all may think of me drive me to sanitize the blog of accounts of bad days, or my own potentially less-than-admirable moments.

Because, right now, this blog is meant to chronicle life in the moment. Sometimes those moments here are waterfalls or museums or funny encounters with the police, and sometimes they are hard days where lots of little things go wrong (and they are relatively little things – but sometimes in those moments they don’t feel quite so little). Sometimes in those moments I do desperately need a shift in perspective. And, often, it’s writing about those moments that helps me find one.

It is writing more than almost anything else that helps me transform an event, a thought, or a mood into something acknowledged, clarified, and manageable. Writing is cathartic. I usually don’t show Mike my posts before I put them up, but I did the other day. I read the bad day post out loud to him that night while he was washing the dishes. We laughed a little. Writing the post played a large part in nudging me back into territory where I could laugh. And the comments that you all leave on the posts make me smile. Well, usually… But even when they don’t make me smile they often (as in this case) push me to think, and that is very valuable too.

So thank you all for tracking with me on this journey.

P.S. Hey all, feel free to comment on anything I’ve written in this post, but please do not discuss the comment that I reproduced in this post. I did not write this to set her up for any third-party criticism (or praise).

P.P.S. When Mike read the first draft of this post he laughed when he got to the line about me fearing that one day he’d figure out I was unlovable. “One day,” he teased me, “one day dumb old Mike will figure this out.” Then he grinned. “You’re safe for a good while yet, though – I’m far too busy organizing medical care for orphans to figure it out anytime soon.”

P.P.P.S. I’m going with Mike up to the villages today and will be there for the rest of the week. No internet = no blog. So I’ll see you all next week.

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