Monthly Archives: November 2010

Special places

I can think of worse places to suffer a bout of food poisoning than Bangkok airport. Then again, I can think of better, too.

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow of the whole icky story. Suffice to say it started with me feeling a bit weird shortly after I got off the plane from Laos and ended six hours later with me breaking my six and a half year “no-vomiting” streak and throwing up in the departure lounge bathroom while everyone else was busy boarding the plane. It must have been something I ate on the Bangkok Airways flight. Funny, in all these years of traveling I think this is the first time I’ve actually gotten sick because of plane food.

I was traveling alone (Mike won’t join me here for another ten days) so that sucked, but on the other hand I wasn’t toting a toddler around either. A six hour layover and a nine hour overnight flight is an awfully long to feel utterly wretched, but by some stroke of grace I also scored three seats to myself and was able to spend most of the flight flat on my back – which doubtless saved me (and everyone around me) from several lovely interludes with the airsickness bags. The whole trip took almost 24 hours, but I was very glad to see my father waiting for me at Brisbane airport so that I didn’t have to take the train for part of that last stint. As usual the whole thing was a mixed bag of things to sigh about and things to be thankful for.

And now I’m back in Ballina at my parent’s place – one of my favorite places in the world. It’s cloudy and cool here. The jacaranda trees are tossing purple in the breeze, the birds are flitting around, and there’s a lot of peace and quiet around. I woke up last night at midnight and came downstairs to get a glass of water and the moon was shining off the water in the river and way out to sea. This place soothes with a deep sort of calm. The sort that makes you remember that you’re breathing. The sort that only seems to come from being surrounded by extraordinary natural beauty.

The photo below is the view from the back porch of my parent’s place. Mike took it at dawn a year or two ago now. I have it set as the background on my computer, so I see it whenever I flip open the screen. There is so much for me to love about the image, not least is the fact that we got married right in front of that gazebo.

Mike and I sometimes joke about booting my parents off to do a year or more somewhere else (like Malawi, or Turkey – preferably somewhere we would also want to visit) while we housesit for them. Since we got married here I have also tried to explain to Mum and Dad that this place is now my sacred ground, that I therefore hold land rights, and that they should really sign it over to me and put the issue to rest. So far they haven’t bought it. Also, Dad has a bad habit of pointing out – while laughing – that I would not want to do even a fraction of the work it takes to keep this place running. In reply, I ask him why he thinks I married Mike.

As it doesn’t look like Mum and Dad will be handing over the deed to their house anytime soon, I guess I’ll just have to count myself lucky at being able to come home for the holidays now and then. And I do, believe me.

What about you? Where’s that special place? Can you still visit?

Thanksgiving in Laos

Happy thanksgiving to all of my American friends, and to anyone else who has decided to adopt the holiday – it’s one worth adopting I reckon (for the food, if nothing else). Mike’s been up in the field for the last two days, but I celebrated Thanksgiving with friends here who generously opened their backyard to all of the Americans in town, and their spouses.

The food was glorious and very Little House on the Prairie. The turkeys had been alive and flapping around the host’s bathroom until the day before the feast. Someone scoured an entirely different city for a box of sweet potatoes (rarer than gold here, for some reason) and transported them up tenderly by bus for the sweet potato casserole. The woman who made the green bean casserole was lamenting the fact that she had had to make it with real green beans instead of canned – “it just doesn’t taste the same”. And the deserts. Oh yum. There was pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and some chocolate cream thing on top of oreo cookies that is not at all a traditional Thanksgiving desert but which I dreamed about last night. I am so in love with Thanksgiving food.

It was warm and sunny and we ate under a tent in the backyard with extra shading provided by nearby palm trees a giant umbrella mounted on the back of the truck. It was a lovely break in a busy week, but at 3pm sharp I sighed, got up, walked home, and got back to work.

Poor Zulu has spent significant time this week begging me to stop typing and play with him, and a great deal more time curled up in the corner next to me, sleeping. He’s about twice as big as he was when we brought him home and he’s currently at that charming stage of puppyhood where he is gaining in strength and speed, but has not yet learned not to bite us playfully with his razor sharp teeth. He has learned the commands “come” and “sit”, but only obeys them when he feels like it. When he’s wandering somewhere he shouldn’t be wandering, sniffing something he should not be sniffing, he never feels like it. In other words he resembles nothing more than a furry four-legged toddler with the mouth of an angry shark.

Zulu, however, will get more attention this weekend because the resilience report is almost done – I think, I hope.

I’ve learned a couple of things during this process.

I don’t enjoy working to a deadline and trying to write fast. I can do it, it is probably even be good for me, but I don’t enjoy it while I’m doing it.

I get frustrated and insecure when I write first drafts that I think are merely decent, and not amazing. Then I can start to wonder if I’m actually certifiably dumb, and feel like a failure and a fraud of a human being. I realize that this is all probably rather far from rational, but sometimes I can’t snap myself out of it for ages (a whole day, maybe two… sometimes even three). This is a real problem, because my first drafts are rarely amazing.

I must talk about wanting to drown myself in the Mekong more than I realize because my patient husband, after listening to me vent about the report draft last Friday night after I’d spent five straight days working on it asked, “OK, what else are you feeling? Do you want to drown yourself in the Mekong?”

“No!” I said, shocked, then, “I hadn’t quite gotten to that stage, but now that you mention it…”

Most of these lessons are not exactly new lessons, so I don’t know why I continue to feel surprised when I am ambushed by this sort of ickiness during certain phases of working on a big project.

So, back to Thanksgiving, I am thankful that this report is almost wrapped, and that it looks as if it’s shaping up to be a piece of work to be proud of. And that’s just one thing I am thankful for. Here are some others: I’m thankful that Mike’s coming home tonight, for family and friends, for relative health, for running water, food, money, and the sense that life means something important that stretches beyond the here and now. I’m thankful for the adventure of living here, and for the view from the bamboo bridge we crossed this week to get to a restaurant over the Khan. Life is good.

A friend of mine (hi, Lynne) asked an interesting question on her facebook status today? What is something that you’ve experienced this year that you’re surprised to find yourself thankful for? Do share…

Great moments

On Monday I wrote a post about a bad day – a day when fatigue and noise came together in a perfect storm. These days happen. They would happen anywhere, but when you’re living overseas it’s particularly easy to externalize bad days and begin to dwell on all the things about your new home that grate on you.

Living in Laos (as anywhere) is a mixed bag, and I write about the bad days along with the rest because I am striving to be honest with myself and with you about my experiences – those that are fun, and those that aren’t. I do this because I think there are almost always important lessons buried somewhere in honesty – for me, if not for you. And I know I’ve said this before on the blog, but it bears repeating. The bad days are not the full story. They are one chapter in a whole book.

There are far more days – especially at the moment when the weather is deliciously cool – when I find myself awestruck by the thick, lush, beauty of this place. Or startled and delighted by a glimpse into a life lived so differently than mine. Or I wonder about something, and feel my capacity for empathy stretching in ways that are undoubtedly good for me.

Often, very often, I am moved to gratitude.

Last night Mike and I waited in front of our favorite fruit shake lady’s stall to place an order. In front of us were two men, laborers, who were also placing an order. We were intrigued to see the locals handing over the same amount of money as the tourists for their drink – five thousand kip, about 70 cents.

Mike and I both found ourselves thinking about them as we walked home. How much hard work and time did that money represent to them? How would that compare to us buying a coffee from Starbucks or a Coldstone ice cream?

There is just so much to be curious about here, to marvel at, to thrill to.

Today, here’s a look at just a few of the really good moments and scenes that have moved me in the last four months – moments I would never willingly trade even on the bad days.

Mike and I at our housewarming:

The view from our front porch:

The Mekong at sunset:

Mike buying pineapple:

Dragon boat racing:

Spices drying outside a temple:

Luang Prabang orchids:

A Saturday at Tad Sae waterfall:

Children playing in the river:

Inside an older village school:

Kids watching balloons rise into the air at the official opening ceremony of their new school:

Women washing dishes in clean running water at their new gravity-fed water system tap.

Being blessed by village elders:

Rice fields at sunset:

Sharing meals with Mike’s coworkers:

Sharing a moment together:

The vast majority of the time, Mike and I feel very lucky to spend a portion of our lives here. We are daily being granted the opportunities of experience that novelty and beauty afford. We are thankful for the chance to invest in work that we hope and pray will yield a crop of choices for the children in the villages. And we are grateful indeed for all the wonderful moments we’ve tasted during along the way.

Books, glorious books

It was a mostly quiet weekend.

I know, I know. That sentence is so boring that I should enter it into the Bulwer Lytton contest for the worst first lines of books.

This year’s overall winner was Molly Ringle from Seattle for the following:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss–a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.

Another one of my favorites was Rick Cheeseman’s entry for fantasy fiction:

The wood nymph fairies blissfully pranced in the morning light past the glistening dewdrops on the meadow thistles by the Old Mill, ignorant of the daily slaughter that occurred just behind its lichen-encrusted walls, twin 20-ton mill stones savagely ripping apart the husks of wheat seed, gleefully smearing the starchy entrails across their dour granite faces in unspeakable botanical horror and carnage – but that’s not our story; ours is about fairies!

Granted, in light of the eloquence of previous winners, “it was a mostly quiet weekend” lacks a little… spice. Or comic hyperbole. But I like to think that its bland equivocation is a supremely boring sort of elegant. If there were a “meh” category it’d definitely be a strong contender.

Sadly, there’s not yet a category for meh.

So, this weekend. First, it came after five solid days of working on my consultancy report all day, every day. Then it came after three solid days of noise. The guesthouse right next door hosted a 48-hour party complete with karaoke and periodic drumming (at first we thought it was a funeral, but apparently someone bought a house). On Friday the drumming competed valiantly with the circular saws going over the back fence.

By 5:30pm Zulu, who had been locked in the office with me for most of the day, was completely over the din, his toys, and the sheets of packing paper that (desperate, and awash with guilt about my necessary neglect) I’d let him shred. The office was covered with tiny pieces of white paper and he was lying on his back with his head under the bed, moaning sadly to himself and chewing on cardboard. I knew how he felt.

Instead of feeling relieved after I sent off the report draft I just felt exhausted and flat. Why, I wondered, can’t I write a draft of a report in a week that I feel is brilliant instead of just a draft that I feel is a good start?

Then a whole host of other thoughts started to feed into a familiar mental storm – the kind of mental storm that occasionally generates inner tornadoes.

Why were we even living in this blasted place of incessant noise – this place where people think it’s acceptable to drum for two days, this place where people run circular saws eight hours a day, this place where radios only seem to have one setting – loud.

This place of swarms of mosquitoes that invade our house so that our pre-bedtime routine now consists of lurking in the corners of the bedroom watching… waiting… and killing.

This place where we can’t get reliable vaccines for our puppy, or doctors for ourselves.

Where we have no oven. And where I can’t buy pesto in a jar.

Yeah, once these mental tornadoes start to form it’s truly remarkable how quickly I can generate a wide variety of things that I am unhappy about to pull into the maelstrom.

“What can I do to help?” Mike asked on Friday night.

“Nothing,” I said from the depths of my stormy darkness. “I just need to go to bed and get over myself. But I can’t go to bed and go to sleep because they are still drumming.

At some point this weekend, however, the drumming stopped, so did the saws, and the world went quiet. We played with the puppy. We had a new friend, Luzia – a Swiss vet – over for dinner and she gave Zulu a deworming shot for us and shared some thoughts on how to possibly track down puppy vaccines. I figured out that the toaster oven works quite well for roasting pumpkin. We opened the jar of pesto we’d bought with us from California. Mike pottered around happily, and I sorted my books and finally got them stacked onto our new bookshelves.

Novels. Memoirs. Essays and short stories. Poetry. Academic texts on trauma, and peace building, and aid work. Books on writing.

Some of these books have been around the world with me more than once by now, and more than a few were bought in a pre-move literary-spending-spree (or, uh, ten such sprees). Sitting on the tile floor in the silence and sifting through them was soothing. The dozens that I haven’t read were tangible promises of many hours of pleasure to come. The dozens that I have read served a double function. They are stories that I have loved – each a whole world in their own right – and they are also each a small piece of my own story, my own world. I can remember where I was when I read many of the books that I have most loved – what I was doing, and how I was feeling about life.

Whenever I handle The Time Travelers Wife, for example, I flash back to Heathrow airport and a six-hour layover after a brutal week of hard work and food poisoning in Kenya. That book was read in a single stint – lying on hard plastic chairs, amidst the cacophony of constant boarding announcements. It redeemed those six hours, and I loved it even more for that.

Hours of peaceful sorting this weekend have finally yielded some order in our book collection and in my mind. It’s also transformed the corner of our downstairs room. We may not have access to good medical care here, but we now have our own library tucked neatly under a spiral staircase.

Luzia was stunned when she walked into our place on Sunday.

“It’s so nice to see books,” she said, entranced. “I haven’t seen hardly any books during the last eighteen months. This is amazing that you brought so many.”

“Yes, well,” Mike joked as he gave me a hug. “She is the love of my life. And they are the love of hers.”

New moon dawn

“What are you writing about for the blog?” Mike asked.

“Um,” I said. “I started out by writing about how it’s a full moon because I found that cool photo you took of the full moon over the temple. Then I wrote about how you were doing the grocery shopping on a bicycle. Then I wrote about the dog.”

Mike looked at me blankly.

“That’s totally random,” he said.

“I know,” I said, a bit defensive. “I’m having a hard time getting my head back in blogging territory after the last week of being only in resilience report territory.”

“You should call it Lisa Gets Her Groove Back,” Mike said.

“But I haven’t gotten it back,” I pointed out. “I’m still firmly in the Lisa Is Random zone.”

“Yeah, Mike said. “Maybe you’ll get it back next week.”


In the meantime here are the Lisa Is Random offerings:

It’s a full moon here tonight, so tomorrow morning the monks will get double (or triple?) their regular offerings of sticky rice and other food. Apparently it’s particularly auspicious to offer alms to the monks when the moon is full. Vendors line the streets for a couple of days before-hand selling incense and little cones made out of leaves topped with orange flowers. I think those are for the temple offerings, the food given to the monks is made by women who rise before dawn to prepare it and then venture out to gain merit for their families. If you go out here at dawn you’ll see women (usually) kneeling alongside the road at various points in the town, waiting to make their silent offerings to the monks as they file past.

On a full moon dawns there are so many people making offerings to the monks that they are each followed by a young boy carrying another pot to store their loot – sort of the Buddhist equivalent of an altar boy, I guess.

But all of that is tomorrow, and today Mike is out doing the grocery shopping by bicycle. We are without vehicle this weekend (sometimes we can borrow an organization vehicle and pay mileage, but this weekend they’re all out in the projects). We have now not owned a vehicle of any sort since the first week of June, which bothers me not at all. We will buy a motorcycle in January, but I’m in no hurry. I have a love/hate relationships with motorcycles. They are undoubtedly good fun, but I am also scared of them. Whenever Mike makes fun of me for this I point out that in comparison to being scared of flying, or being hit by lightening, or being eaten by sharks, it is perfectly rational to be scared of having a motorcycle accident. Given Mike’s respect for logical and reason you would think this would stop him making fun of me. No.

By the way, I am a little bit scared of being eaten by sharks, but not much. Really. Except when I am swimming in the ocean I am much more scared of motorcycles than sharks.

So Mike’s ridden off on his bicycle (with a helmet on) and I am puppy sitting.

Zulu has already woken us up before seven this morning. He has ripped a newspaper to shreds, chewed the leg of his toy puppy wide open, refused to eat his breakfast until we warmed it up, and moaned piteously whenever we left the room (and anytime we entered the kitchen). He has stuck his nose in a tiled corner and licked it furiously for ten minutes. He is, as Mike pointed out this morning, “a stinky puppy,” and later today he will be getting a thorough bath with jasmine rice scented puppy shampoo, which he will loathe.

He has also wagged his tail furiously in greeting whenever we reappear from somewhere, rolled over so that we can scratch his belly, climbed into my lap and looked up at me as if he had just entered doggie heaven, and taken himself outside to the toilet. I think we’ll keep him.

That’s it from me for now. Maybe I’ll get my groove back next week, maybe not. But I’ll see you then.

PS, This is what Zulu looks like most of the time…

Deep into resilience

Apologies about being MIA on Monday, it’s a very busy week here in Luang Prabang.

I’m working hard on drafting this resiliency report I’m working on all day, every day. I’ve asked 15 fabulously interesting people all over the world questions such as, “do you think there are differences between the qualities that can make someone resilient in the short term versus the long term?” and woefully underestimated the amount of time it would take me to data crunch 25,000 words of interview notes. It’s a good thing I’m interested in the topic, or I’d be a bit dark at the way it’s consuming my life at present (and all my email, blogging, and showering time).

Just kidding. I have been showering. Most days, anyway.

Then there’s the toddle… I mean, the puppy. He’s not shy anymore, more’s the pity. Zulu has fully recovered from his brush with rabies/panic. He alternates between looking angelic and adorable (when he’s fast asleep) to racing around the tile floor in here as if all the hounds of hell are after him, yipping and screeching just for the fun of it. He also has a charming habit of biting hands. Playing with him when he’s excited (so, basically, anytime except the first 47 seconds after he wakes up from a nap) is like juggling a set of very small knives that have no handles. Any number of gentle admonitions not to bite have yet to break him of this habit. So has smacking his nose, although that does sometimes make him go and sulk under the ant pantry where I cannot reach him.

One of our friends here, Chloe, took pity on me this last couple of days and has come over twice to dog-sit while I am trying to write. Bless her.

So that is my life at the moment – report and dog. Oh, and pain in my bad foot.

Mike and I have been trying to find an English speaking physiotherapist here in Luang Prabang on and off, and on Sunday we followed up on a tip and went to a hotel on the Pennisula where, lo and behold, we met a lovely woman who did indeed speak some English.

She also looked as if she knew what she was doing with my leg – at least until she started working on it.

I think she probably is good at treating some issues, but not lymphedema, because she subjected my foot to everything that all my research thus far suggests is bad for it – deep pressure massage focusing only on the foot itself, and lots of heat. She also recommended acupuncture, which I had the good sense to turn down.

I let her go with the rest of it because I wanted to see whether it might help. Perhaps she knew something I didn’t. She studied here in Laos, I thought, and perhaps Western medicine isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

Yes, well, unless continuing pain and swelling three days after treatment is a good sign, I now doubt it. In this case, anyway.

I stared at it crossly at my foot after I got up this morning. Then I had a heart to heart with God about it that went something like this.

“Look, God. I was trying to do the right thing here and be proactive in taking care of this stupid foot. And so it didn’t exactly work out, but I think three days of pain is enough to learn my lesson about treating it gently. So you can just get your act together and sort it out now, OK? Be a pal and do your part.”

“Well my child,” Mike said from the bathroom where he was shaving (and eavesdropping). “One could say I have done my part by organizing against the odds for you to procure a very expensive piece of medical equipment called a lymphatic drainage pump before you left for Laos, and then moving your medical insurance company to reimburse you for two thirds of the cost, and then moving the pump company to ship you a new part for that pump at no extra cost all the way to Laos when it broke six weeks after you go there.* You have not used this pump in three days, so get your ass upstairs this afternoon and do your treatment.”

“Wow,” I said, amazed. “That was a really good impression of God you just did there.”

“Thank you,” Mike said modestly.

That’s it from me for now, I need to go and rescue Zulu from Mike, or vice versa. I’ll be back later this week, hopefully to report that the resilience report is fully drafted and that the foot has demonstrated resilience.

*Whether they believe their actions were divinely inspired or not, I must give a heartfelt shout out of thanks to Flexitouch for all the remote troubleshooting they’ve helped me do with the pump since I got here. They’ve gone above and beyond. I’m grateful.

Puppy lessons in parenthood

OK, I’ll say right here and now that, despite my joking on facebook this week, I do not doubt that babies are harder work than puppies. And, obviously, the stakes are just a little bit higher.

But, that said, I reckon that there’s some truth to puppies being a crash course in parenting.

I so had no idea.

A good friend, Jenn, wrote me several long emails about puppies before we bought Zulu home.

Jenn is one of those amazing friends who is interested in my life and reads all my essays, but who also doesn’t hesitate to take a keen editorial eye and a red pen to those essays and (occasionally) to my life.

Jenn’s keen editorial eye and red pen are not always entirely gentle.

Once I got back an essay with the comment “you are boring me now” planted halfway through it. Another time she told me that I was at serious risk of sounding like Paris Hilton whining about her privileged life. The fact that she was completely right in both cases didn’t make it any more fun to hear.

Jenn, who owns a dog and a cat, was both excited and a bit concerned to hear that we were getting a puppy, and in the week leading up to Zulu’s arrival I received more than one email full of good advice and seasoned with a hint of sternness.

“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE,” Jenn wrote, “be prepared to work hard on training the dog in more than just house breaking & little things like sit & stay. I highly recommend crate training, and puppy gets NO unsupervised time outside the crate. You want to avoid dress rehearsals of bad behavior as much as possible. Don’t give the puppy the chance to have an accident when you’re not paying attention.”

This gave me pause. First of all, what was crate training? Secondly, I hadn’t thought much about housebreaking, but I suddenly realized that the puppy probably wouldn’t know where the toilet was, and might take a little while to learn – a couple of days maybe? A week? Two? Surely not three?

“I must say I snickered aloud at the prospect that you might be done house breaking in three weeks,” Jenn wrote back in response to this. “Unless the breeder has been working with them (& God bless her if she has!). You really have no idea what you’re getting into, do you?”

In a word, no.

Neither Mike nor I had anticipated our routines being so thoroughly disrupted this week. Mike hadn’t expected that one tiny puppy who needed feeding, toileting, and attention in the morning would make it so much more difficult to accomplish things like making lunch, answering personal email, or eating breakfast. I hadn’t expected to have to get up to check on where the puppy is every five minutes that he is awake, and break concentration every half an hour to engage in vigorous games of “let’s run around” or “shake the towel”. Or to have to work sitting on the floor sometimes so that the puppy can lie near my legs. Or to have to learn to be cautious every time I turn around lest I step on a tiny being.

We certainly hadn’t expected that he would cry every time we left the room, or that we’d have to crate him in our bedroom at night to prevent him from whimpering for hours (though, I must say, it’s a bit heartwarming to see how much happier he is just to be in our presence, and how he’ll settle down and go right to sleep as soon as he’s installed nearby).

Zulu’s been waking up between 5 and 7, so I’ve been sleep deprived and distracted all week, and last night I got a very tiny taste of what it must be like for parents to watch their kids get sick when there’s no one there to help.

Mike’s been up in the villages for the last two nights, so I’ve been single parenting. Last night I took Zulu out the back to do his business. When he went to run back inside he started to skid as soon as he hit the tile floor – all of a sudden he couldn’t use his hind legs properly, he was just scooting himself around on his front legs and sort of rabbiting his back legs along.

Then he went a bit crazy. He started whining and crying and wouldn’t let me touch him – just scooted around, terrified, until he found his crate. Once he heaved himself in there he spun in wobbly circles, yelping and digging and pawing, until he collapsed.

Ten minutes later he cautiously got up and came out, still whining and shaky, but seemingly much better.

We may not have any vets up here, but we do have Dr Google, and Jenn’s sister, Danielle, is a vet.

“I know tele-diagnosing is frustrating at best and impossible most of the time,” I wrote to Danielle via facebook last night, “but is there anything really obvious like parvo or rabies that this is a classic symptom of?”

An immediate consultation with Dr Google – who is always open for business – suggested that I should watch out for further symptoms of a tick-borne disease, and Dr Danielle had the following to say by email this morning:

“I wanted to tell you that it sounds like early rabies, but my coworker tells me that is too mean to say ;). It sounds to me like he slipped and then panicked (we see similar-sounding panics when we put some dogs on the metal exam tables; they try to dig their toenails into the table and stand perched on their nails which does not exactly help their stability).”

“So, Zulu either has rabies or he had a panic attack last night,” I announced to Mike by phone this morning.

“Right,” Mike said. “Let me encourage you to use this as an opportunity to focus on the least catastrophic of the options presented to you.”

“He might have rabies,” I said darkly – more because I felt like being dark than because I actually think he does have rabies.

“He might,” Mike agreed cheerfully. “But he probably doesn’t. We probably just have a dog who is very good at expressing his emotions. You could learn something from him.”

“Ha ha ha. Come home tonight and I’ll express some emotion to you,” I said, still dark – this time because sleep deprivation has apparently reduced my repartee to the level of “ha ha ha”.

“Gee,” said Mike. “That’s the best offer I’ve had in three days.”

“It had better be,” I said.

Zulu’s asleep at my feet right now, cuddled up next to the one toy I’ve so far managed to find for him, and given the way he was mauling the toy this morning he’s either totally recovered from his panic attack, or he really does have rabies. I’ll keep you posted.

It’s a boy!

Two weeks ago, when Mike and I went to pick out our puppy, there was only a little boy and a little girl left in the litter that we wanted, and we picked the little girl. But yesterday when we went back to pick her up, Soumontha told us that the little girl had met with an unfortunate accident underneath the wheels of a landrover. The only one left was her little brother.

Her little brother who whimpered and moaned whenever we picked him up, and who let the other 14 puppies walk all over him. Literally. Most of the litter was smaller than our little fellow but I saw more than one of them standing on him and biting his head while he just lay there and cried.

“I think maybe he just need some love,” Soumontha said, a trifle uncertainly, as she looked at the groaning little bundle in our arms.

“What type of puppy is he?” I asked her as an afterthought.

“Oh,” she said. “Mother medium. Father large.”


As we were driving home Mike and I talked names.

We were briefly tempted to name him khao niao (sticky rice), but then I vetoed.

I liked Jabulani (which means happiness in the Zulu language), but Mike vetoed. 

“We sure didn’t end up with the alpha of the litter,” Mike said, looking sideways at the tiny, motionless, bundle of fur in my lap. The puppy had stopped groaning, presumably in the hope that if he lay still enough we might forget that he existed.

“Maybe we should name him Beta,” I said.

“Maybe we should name him Zulu,” Mike said.

“He does sort of look like a lion,” I said, laughing, “a very timid little lion. But maybe he’ll turn out to be an African prince after all.”

“Oh, I was more thinking that Z is the last letter of the alphabet and I don’t think he’s the sharpest knife in the drawer,” Mike said.

“He may have been standing last in line when they handed out brains in this litter?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Mike said.

“Are you going to defend yourself against this assertion?” I asked the puppy.

He rolled his eyes back and looked up at me without moving. No, he clearly wasn’t, and Zulu it was.

The first thing he did when we put him down inside the house was to go look for a hiding place. He started out behind the stairs, in among piles of my books (we’re still waiting for bookshelves to be made) and every time I went to check on him during the next three hours he’d somehow managed to worm his way further back into the stacks.

All he did all afternoon was sleep, squeak (he makes the most peculiar un-puppy like sounds), and scratch. I started to wonder whether he might be attachment disordered in addition to everything else. But perhaps he’s not as dumb as we thought he might be, because in light of the three scrubbings and the thorough de-ticking we subjected him to later in the evening his instincts to hide may have been serving him well.

He was so traumatized by the whole day that he stayed in his crate for the first night, downstairs alone, without a peep.

Yesterday, however, after we rolled around on the floor with him, napped with him, sat outside with him, and petted him all afternoon, he started warming up to us.

“We love you,” Mike proclaimed, nose to nose with him on the floor. “You will love us.”

“You might as well give in then,” I advised Zulu. “Once Mike decides to inflict love upon you there’s nothing that can be done.”

“That’s right,” Mike said.

By last night Zulu was wagging his tale and begging loudly not to be abandoned, despite the bottle of water we’d heated up and then wrapped up in a towel to serve as a fake sibling for him. We had to bring the crate upstairs to our bedroom, where at least he slept peacefully until 5am.

“Go back to sleep, Squeaky Z,” I said, when he woke us up this morning by sounding remarkably like a large guinea pig.

Apparently my voice does not carry as much authority as Mike’s, which is why I’m yawing as I write this.

We haven’t yet figured out whether he’ll earn his name for being a princely African warrior of a dog, or a lovable and squeaky dumbo. On the one hand we’ve seen him tumble himself backwards off a ledge and into a pile of stones, and squirm under the door of his crate rather than figure out how to go around it. On the other hand, he’s already toileting outside like a champion (though I guess it’s possible he just lacks the willpower to resist Mike’s enthusiastic exhortations to, “go poo in the grass, that’s the boy!”). Either way, it’s sure fun to have him around.

Resilience – what does it even mean?

Today I’m going to do some thinking out loud on the blog. Sorry guys, but Mike’s been in Vientiane for the last three days, so you’re it.

You see, I’m doing a consultancy project at the moment focused on resilience as it’s related to managers in humanitarian organizations.

I’m loving this project. It’s given me the perfect excuse to call up some really smart people the world over and ask them all sorts of questions that I haven’t yet decided how I would answer. This morning I talked to a friend and colleague in New Zealand. Last night I was chatting to a new acquaintance in Bali – she and her husband are starting a program to provide retreats for international aid workers (Satori Worldwide). On Friday night it was someone in the Central African Republic.

Among many other things during this last discussion, I learned that skype does have immutable limitations. To whit… it will not work for longer than one minute and sixteen seconds when you are trying to connect Laos and the Central African Republic.

(Thank you to the person I was interviewing for ringing me after the fourth time the line was dropped. I do not even want to think about how much the mobile-mobile call cost her, but she had some awesome insights to share and I’m grateful.)

Of course, at some point (like next week) I’m going to have to start weaving all of these insightful commentaries together, figure out what I think, and write a big thought/research paper. That sound suspiciously like hard work to me. But in the meantime, good times!

You might think that by this stage of the process I would have figured out exactly what I mean when I say the word resilience.

Yeah, well, you’d be wrong.

Apologies for perhaps sounding like a professor here, but the definitional waters around this concept of resilience are incredibly, frustratingly, muddy.

The Latin root of the word resilient is resilire – meaning to spring back, to recoil, to return to the original form after being bent back or stretched.

When it was first grafted into the psychology domain, resilience was used in precisely this manner – to denote someone’s ability to “bounce back” or recover quickly from traumatic events and other types of adversity.

Over time, however, resilience has also come to be used in at least two other ways.

Some researchers argue that resilience goes beyond the ability to bounce back from trauma. Rather, they claim, it is an ability to cope well with fast-paced and continuously changing environments – to cope well with high levels of pressure rather than simply being able to recover quickly when you’ve been knocked for six.

Another group of thinkers and researchers have been even more ambitious in trying to broaden the scope of the term. Steve Wolin, for example, defines resilience as, “the capacity to rise above adversity—sometimes the terrible adversity of outright violence, molestation or war—and forge lasting strengths in the struggle.” This takes the concept well beyond merely bouncing back to the status quo and burdens it with the expectation of positive post-traumatic growth.

What to do with all of this? I can’t very well write a thought paper if I don’t settle on a definition now, can I.

This is still a work in progress, so I reserve the right to change my mind – but the definition I’m kicking around at the moment is: The ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change.

I could go on and on in detail, trust me, but I’d much rather hear from you on this topic at this point.

If you’re still with me: What do you think of when you hear the word resilience? Do you consider yourself resilient? What behaviours, beliefs, or attitudes do you think are related to being resilient in life?

To close, here’s a mini-story I stumbled across recently that made me laugh out loud. I think it’s a gorgeous illustration of one facet of resilience:

Daniel Boone was asked by a reporter if he had ever been lost in the wilderness.

Boone thought for a moment and replied, “No, but I was once bewildered for about three days.”

Neighborhood tour: The bakery

It’s another gorgeous day here today. Warm sunshine, shiny green leaves, and a playful breeze. I’m finally comfortable in a tee shirt and linen pants, but most Lao are wearing socks and jackets. Our waiter at the restaurant the other night was wearing a scarf, gloves, and a hat as well. I guess all things, even our experience of the weather, are at least partly a matter of perspective.

I was out earlier today with our next door neighbor, Dwight, learning to drive a golf cart with no brakes and no turn signals. The golf cart belongs to our landlord and Dwight’s been using it for the last three months. He’s leaving town in two days so Mike and I have inherited it, and as we still haven’t managed to get our act or our cash together to go and buy a motorcycle, I guess this makes the golf cart our household vehicle.

The golf cart is a boxy cube of dented white plastic and moves at approximately the speed of a ride-on lawnmower. I don’t actually know if it’s strictly legal for me to drive this oversize toy around town or where the registration papers are kept. I better ask Dwight before he leaves.

Anyway, as Dwight was instructing me on the finer points of navigating intersections, “just take your foot off the gas, see, and watch to see what everyone’s going to do, and then just make a guess as to where you can fit in there – they’ll stop for you if they have to,” I was thinking that it would be fun to pack you all into the golf cart and take you around the neighborhood with me. But seeing as how that’s not possible, some photo tours will have to do.

We’ll start today with the bakery.

This bakery is a three minute walk from our house, down a little dirt alley. Mike discovered it while he was out prowling around one day and came back with hot bread, very excited, to tell me that loaves come out at 2pm and 8pm every day – or, at least, that’s what he thought they were trying to tell him.

We still haven’t quite figured out the bakery schedule, but they’ve gotten used to the strange farang (foreigners) from up the road dropping in periodically to pick up half a dozen baguettes.

The location of this bakery is officially one of the coolest things about our house, and one of these days we’re going to throw a hot bread party. It’ll be awesome. You’re all invited.

So, with no further ado, here is the bakery:

“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” (Robert Browning)

The men sit at long tables, rolling out the risen dough into small, thin, loaves.

Another person mans the brick oven, sliding in dough and pulling out bread using just a thin board.

The women wait for the hot bread, and then brush off some of the ashes and dirt with scrubbing brushes.

Mike and I have the easy job, picking out some to take home.

And the rest goes off in bushel baskets on the back of a motorcycle to vendors around town.

To close, here’s another great bread quote. Perhaps my favorite:

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” (Mahatma Gandi)