Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Empress of Lao Libraries

Yesterday, after lunch, I went to the shelf of unread books in our house (or, more accurately, I went to the six shelves of unread books in our house).

Mike might say that my book buying patterns before we moved to Laos bordered on obsessive-compulsive. I say that my stockpiling books with all the single minded focus of a squirrel storing up nuts in the autumn was merely demonstrating that I can plan ahead when I so choose to avert disaster (in this case a book vacuum disaster, which would be a disaster indeed).

I was tired yesterday, which was partly due to having just finished the third rewrite of my own manuscript and partly to having just eaten a large plate of spaghetti at noon. I would like to retract my recent statement about not being hungrier than normal – this week I am perpetually ravenous and I think the baby has doubled in size in the last two weeks. I certainly have.

So tired, full, and feeling very pregnant, I was in the mood for something light. But perhaps I should still have known better than to pick up a book given to me by another expatriate in town who was cleaning out her own library – a book with the word “sultry” in the title and the phrases “hot as summer night, reckless as forbidden love” on the back cover.  

A word about romance novels. It is not my intention in this post to diss the entire genre. I freely admit to occasionally reading romance novels. Sometimes I come across one that is both entertaining and well written. Yesterday, however, was not my lucky day, despite the promise on the front cover that this book would “strike every chord within the female spirit.”

I gave it twenty minutes and fifty pages before I threw it down in disgust. This morning over breakfast I tried to explain to Mike just how bad this book was. Words failed me.

“What are you going to do with it then?” Mike asked.

“Give it away or throw it out,” I said, and then thought about that for a moment. “Actually, I think I’ll just throw it out.”

“You wouldn’t give it to the local library?” Mike asked.

I thought about Luang Prabang’s library and it’s two small rooms stocked with a collection that’s largely decrepit and dated.

“I have other books for that library,” I said. “I think this one just needs to go in the bin.”

“Who made you the empress of Lao libraries?” Mike asked, baiting me just a little.

“Reading this book will add zero value to anyone’s life – here or anywhere else,” I said.

“But what if some people would think it was a good book?” Mike pushed the point.

Some people,” I said firmly, “are ill-informed and ignorant and not going to become any less so by reading trash like this.”

“What qualifies you to judge that?” Mike asked.

“Decades of extensive reading and writing,” I said. “Not every book that’s published can go into a library, and I think I’m better placed than 90% of the world’s population to judge whether a book is worthy of being there.”

“I think objectively you’re right,” Mike said, “and that statement scares me. Today it starts with you styling yourself as the empress of Lao libraries, tomorrow you’re gong to want to set yourself up as the benevolent dictator of a small island nation.”

“I would be quite a good benevolent dictator,” I said, returning the baiting with interest. “Except it would be a lot of work. I think I’ll pass.”

“So when would you let someone read this book, then?” Mike wanted to know.

“If they couldn’t speak English, and they were trapped on a desert island with no other books at all, then they could have this one so that they could practice English,” I said.

Mike wasn’t at all comfortable with this stance. He argues that I’m setting myself up as a censor and that censorship has traditionally not led anyone anywhere good. I say that there’s a difference between censoring books on the basis of ideology you don’t agree with and filtering out the ones that are just really badly written and devoid of any substantial intellectual content (although, come to think of it, I wouldn’t be passing Mein Kampf along to the local library either, so maybe I do believe that there are some merits to censorship).

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I struggle to throw books out, I really do. Books are precious objects to me and it’s an almost physical pain to see one go in the trash. But I really do believe that there are some books out there that aren’t worth anyone’s time. There are enough good to amazing books in this world, with more being published every month, that no one need clutter their mind and dull their tastes with really poor prose.

What would you do? Would you donate a silly, stilted, romance novel to the local library or would you toss it? Why?

Rewriting, third drafts, feedback, and elevator pitches (in summary)

I decided to give myself the day off consulting work today and tackle the last chapter of the memoir rewrite instead.

73,276 words later I have a full third (or, uh, tenth or thereabouts) draft! I still don’t have a good title, but never mind. The marketing team came up with my hands came away red for my first novel and I loved it. Titles don’t seem to be my forte, and I’m hoping someone out there will be similarly inspired for this book.

That assumes, of course, that this book ever goes to print.

I’ve been reading a lot of writing blogs lately and one thing is for sure, everything is changing fast in the publishing industry with the rise of e-books and the rapid growth of self-publishing. I think I’d still like to go the traditional publishing route if I can get a contract that feels right, but that is by no means a given. It is perhaps even less likely now than it would have been even five years ago.

But that challenge is in the future. For now, I need to run this version past Mike, and then family and a few of the friends who populate the pages, before sending it to my agent. There’s a long way to go yet in this process of figuring out whether this book will ever find a home.

In my efforts to get this book as agent-ready as I could during the last four months I tried something new, hiring a professional to act as an external editor (thanks Amy Lyles Wilson!). It was a useful investment. Amy provided several key pieces of feedback, including that my opening wasn’t as strong as it could be (those all-important first few paragraphs needed to get to some action quicker). I should, she said, consider looking for a cleaner way into the story.

Most importantly, I think, she also recommended that I reconsider my use of letters between Mike and I. Given that some of this memoir tracks the development of Mike’s and my long distance relationship, I was faced with the challenge of how to write about this when we had no communication except via email before we met for the first time in Australia. In the second draft of this book I tackled this problem by crafting entire chapters composed of nothing but our emails.

These letters, Amy essentially told me, contained too many details that were mainly meaningful to Mike and I. They were too long, and it became too hard to track the thread of our story as well as the other themes through these chapters. Some of the issues we discussed in the letters were conversations worth having, but I needed to figure out how to have them in another way.

This feedback wasn’t as surprising or demoralizing as it might have been had I not previously given the manuscript to about ten good friends to read before it went to Amy. Opinion among the friends had been divided on the letters. About 40% of people loved them and 60% told me that they got bogged down or felt too much like voyeurs while reading them. Even before Amy mentioned the letters as an issue I was resigned to the fact that I’d need to re-craft those middle chapters.

It’s not fun pulling something apart  and redrafting yet again, but this is the seesaw process of editing. In the first draft I think I had too little of Mike’s voice in the story. In the second draft I inserted too much. Hopefully this third draft, like the little bear’s porridge, will be just right.

Another useful piece of advice Amy (and several others – thanks Joslyne in particular) gave me was to craft an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a summary of your story that could be delivered during the length of an elevator ride. The main benefit of this exercise, I do believe, is not to hone your pitch so that should you corner an unsuspecting editor in an elevator you can badger them. No, I found it valuable mostly because it forced me to think through how to distill the essence of the book in a way that conveys its themes and also piques interest.

So here’s what I’ve come up with so far as an elevator pitch. This, like everything else, is subject to future editing but it’s a good place to start. And, for me, starting is more than half the battle.

This is the story of an old-fashioned courtship made possible by modern technology – the tale of two people separated by the Pacific Ocean who build a long distance relationship entirely via email. Along the way the narrator – a global nomad who has spent her life as the transient resident of eight different countries – must confront troubling questions about where home really is and what it means to commit to a person, a place, or a career.

Writers, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned while rewriting your own work? Are you working on something now? If you have an elevator pitch, share it in the comments!

ANZAC Day and a mystery of rememberance at Gallipoli

It’s ANZAC Day today – the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Day of Remembrance – and it’s making me think of Turkey, and Gallipoli, and a scene I witnessed more than three years ago now.

In 2007 I spent four glorious weeks traveling around Turkey in the company of some of my dearest friends. Among other adventures we sailed the Adriatic, slept in caves, marveled (and laughed) at the phallic rock formations of Cappadocia, ate Turkish delight in Istanbul, and toured Gallipoli.

I knew very little about Gallipoli before visiting Turkey. I knew it held an important place in Australian history and national identity. I knew lots of people died there. And I knew it was in Turkey. Apart from that I knew nothing except that it was a giant military stuff-up and Australia lost. I’d always thought it a bit odd that our most important day of military remembrance was celebrated on a date associated with our greatest defeat. I mean, what country does that?

In addition to my shocking ignorance, I didn’t even want to go and visit Gallipoli. I’d already seen more than a few battlefields in places as far apart as Vietnam and Bosnia and I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to spend part of my holiday wandering around World War I trenches feeling all sober and depressed. My dear friend, Tash, however, did want to go and visit, and because she was in Turkey with me just because I’d asked, I figured spending one day at Gallipoli was the least I could do.

I don’t know what I expected to find at Gallipoli except for sadness – and that was there, all right. As we wandered over the ridges and hills of the peninsula we could see just what a debacle the whole campaign had been right from the start. An estimated 10% of the troops disembarking from the carriers drowned before they even got to shore, weighed down by their gear. Those who made it to the beach were hopelessly exposed to fire from the steep hills flanking the cove – hills they would not have had to scale foot by torturous foot during the coming year and a half if they’d landed almost anywhere else along that rocky coastline. Half a million people died at Gallipoli during that time. You couldn’t help but shake your head at the useless, senseless, waste of it all.

But that wasn’t all I found at Gallipoli.

After we’d toured many of the significant battlefields and clambered in and out of trenches, our guide took us down to Anzac cove, the site of that first fateful landing. There he urged us to pick up a stone to take with us.

The stone I selected was red. Round on one side, rough on the other, it has been split in half. White veins of quartz marble the red in a bizarre reversal of the pattern of our own human bodies. I carry this stone in my camera case now and whenever I see or touch it I don’t think first of blood and loss and needless sacrifice, or even bravery and mateship. I think of graciousness.

Turkey has carefully preserved this entire area of Gallipoli and consulted closely with Australia in the process. Reportedly, when the Turkish government recently wanted to pave access roads into the battlefields, the Australian government lodged a formal protest something along the lines of, “Hey, you can’t do that, that’s our sacred ground!”

In response, Turkey didn’t reply, “Wait just one minute! You invaded our country, you killed hundreds of thousands of our citizens, you lost, we kicked you out, and now you are trying to tell us what to do with our land? We won, and it’s our sacred ground, too.”

No, the Turkish government basically said, “Oh, good point. OK then, we won’t pave the road after all.”

The whole area has been turned it into a virtual shrine and, in the process, Turkey has not only carefully and deliberately honoured their own dead but the dead of the ANZAC troops as well. They have erected giant granite monuments – equal in size for the ANZACs and the Turks – to commemorate the bravery and the fortitude of all who fought here and the respect that troops on both sides reportedly held for one another. There are cemeteries for the Australian and New Zealand soldiers scattered over the entire area, often lying directly adjacent to the cemeteries for the Turkish troops. And down on their knees in these cemeteries were Turkish gardeners carefully tending Australian graves.

Engraved in granite and standing watch over the battlefields are these words by Mustafa Kemal (known as Ataturk), a soldier who fought at Gallipoli and later went on to become Turkey’s first president:

Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

I’d never seen anything like this extraordinary generosity of spirit before on a battlefield, and I haven’t since. Perhaps it would be a little like North Vietnam (or Northen Laos, for that matter) setting up war memorials to the US of an entirely different flavour to those you find in Ho Chi Minh City. I think about that and I wonder why they would, just as I wondered how and why Turkey has embraced those who once invaded them. I don’t come close to fully understanding it, even now, but three years down the track I continue to marvel at it.

Happy times in VangVieng

So in an effort to suck the marrow out of life (and because we’re both sort of convinced that we will never have another holiday once the baby comes) Mike and I are taking an Easter weekend road trip here in Laos.

We definitely don’t fall into the category of people who think that having a baby won’t change things much. If anything, we are too far along the other end of the spectrum. Every time we’ve been on holiday lately we’ve had moments when we’ve looked at each other with fear in our eyes.

In Thailand a couple of weeks ago I glanced across at Mike, responsibility-free and peacefully reading by the pool, and said, “This is the last holiday…”

When I let the sentence trail off Mike looked up at me with a wicked grin.

“Ever,” he said.

Of course – given that we’ve been on holiday in places ranging from Alaska to Siem Reap to Tasmania during just the last year – even if that statement were to come to pass it would be many years from now before you could really call us holiday deprived. This knowledge, however, is not preventing us from viewing the coming upheaval of our footloose and fancy free world with some trepidation.

Or maybe it’s only me that is suffering trepidation. Mike has even been known to say that he is looking forward to the baby’s arrival.

To which I usually reply, “well, I’m glad one of us is.”

Whereupon Mike will lean down to my stomach and conspiratorially reassure the baby that I don’t really mean that.

Except, sometimes, I do.

I am choosing to view this as appreciating each day of the present reality for the freedom it offers and trusting that after the baby does arrive I’ll find many things to love and appreciate in that reality too. Of course, it could also be that I am woefully lacking in maternal instincts but well-endowed in the selfishness department.

Yes, well, whatever it really means it’s part of the reason we’re in VangVieng this weekend. VangVieng is a small town surrounded by towering limestone cliffs that has turned into a backpacker’s must-visit and the adventure tourism capital of Northern Laos. You can raft, trek, bicycle and kayak here. You can rent motorbikes for $5 a day. You can also order happy pizzas (or happy shakes, cakes, or pretty much whatever else your happy little heart desires) all over town. A happy pizza does not, as one tourist was led to believe, come with extra pineapple. It comes laced with marijuana, mushrooms, opium, or methamphetamines.

For those of you who are curious about these sorts of things, if you must use opium don’t mix it with lime juice. I remain skeptical, but the locals and the Lonely Planet Guide insist that this combination can kill you.

We’ve so far stayed away from the happy pizzas, but this afternoon we’re going to brave another famous local past-time – tubing down the Song River. The water level is low and the flow fairly slow, so it should be manageable pregnant. I just hope that once we push off it won’t be too long before we’re past most of the beer bars that line the banks, waiting to refresh thirsty travelers with all sorts of happy concoctions. We went down to check out the launch point yesterday and I haven’t seen anything else like it anywhere in Laos (or the world, for that matter). There were half a dozen of these bamboo river-side bars thronged with hundreds of scantily-clad westerners drinking and gyrating to loud techno music. I don’t know which was odder, actually, the sight of pale revelers throwing themselves off the dance floor and into the river to continue their sojourn downstream, or the sight of thirty monks gleefully taking turns on the monk zipline nearby.

More from Vientiane next week. I hope you are all having a very happy Easter weekend (in the non-drug-induced sense). May it be a time of fellowship, celebration, and gratitude for the good things in the present reality.

Tubing in VangVieng

Tubing in VangVieng

Monk zipline

“Don’t worry, be Happy” in VangVieng

Ten things that have surprised me about pregnancy (#5-10)

Here is the second installment of the post I started yesterday – things that have surprised me about pregnancy. After I started writing these posts on Sunday, Mike and I talked about this topic over dinner. We agreed that, overall, I’d had a pretty good second trimester and been lucky enough to stay fairly healthy.

“Huh,” I said, looking at the food on my plate as we were saying this, “I don’t feel so good all of a sudden. I don’t think I can eat that.”

To cut a long and yucky story short, that was the start of a night when I broke my own personal record for the number of times I can throw up in twelve hours. I dropped five pounds overnight and yesterday I couldn’t make it out of bed until 5pm. We suspect food poisoning – though we have no idea what could have caused it – and today I’m feeling much better. I am at least showered, sitting up, drinking water, and eating toast.

Ah, surprises. Some of them are great. Some, not so much.

So here are six more things that have so far surprised me about pregnancy.

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5. I expected that morning sickness would strike immediately if it were going to strike at all.

It took me quite some time to really grasp the fact that I was indeed pregnant, and it seems that my body is not the quickest off the mark, either. If I were going to suffer from it, I thought morning sickness would hit me much earlier than eight weeks and I thought it would go away earlier than eighteen weeks. Alas, wrong on both counts.

6. I expected that I’d continue to enjoy a cup of coffee a day all through pregnancy.

I know traditional wisdom is that you should avoid all caffeine when pregnant, but most doctors and research now suggests that you can safely ingest the caffeine equivalent of one or two cups of coffee a day all during pregnancy. I love coffee and had already decided that I wasn’t giving up my morning cup… except that my body had other ideas. The day I got morning sick, right on week eight, I went off it overnight. All of a sudden it tasted revolting. It still doesn’t taste the way it used to.

7. I expected that I’d be hungry all of my 2nd trimester.

Food was such a weird experience for most of the first trimester as I veered between the two extremes of not being at all hungry and being completely ravenous (often within the span of five minutes), that I expected I’d be a lot hungrier than normal in my second trimester. I haven’t been. Sometimes I even forget to eat a small snack mid-morning or mid-afternoon. This is not to say, however, that I did not disgrace myself when I was consistently put in front of all you can eat buffets in Bangkok last week. On more than one occasion the only thing that stopped me from returning to the buffet for three more scoops of ice cream after I’d polished off my first dessert sundae at lunch was shame. Who says that peer pressure can’t be good for you?

8. I expected that disrupted sleep was something that would begin only after the baby was born.

I expected that the whole waking up numerous times a night to pee would start in approximately month seven of pregnancy instead of week seven. I still have problems understanding how a baby the size of a lima bean can really put that much pressure on a bladder. I mean, come on! I have now been waking up between three and six times a night now practically since I found out I was pregnant. Not cool. Not cool at all.

9. I expected that my sex drive would surge in the second trimester.

Most of the books I’ve read paint a picture of the first and third trimesters of pregnancy as virtual sexual wastelands but hold out this oasis-like vision of the second trimester as a time of unparalleled sexual desire and enjoyment. I don’t know how many accounts I’ve read of women’s transformations into total sex kittens the minute they hit week thirteen of pregnancy, so perhaps it’s understandable that I feel particularly ripped off to have so far had this expectation disappointed. For not only did my sex drive vanish so completely the minute I got pregnant that it became difficult to remember I ever had one, it hasn’t really returned to pre-pregnancy levels yet much less been catapulted into “sex kitten” territory. I will be especially peeved if this, like morning sickness, is merely my biology lagging behind the curve and sex-kitten-energy kicks in four weeks from now, right when I head to Australia and Mike and I say goodbye for three months.

10. I expected that the quickening would be unmistakable.

The quickening, for those of you who haven’t read 5000 pregnancy books, is the name given to the first time you feel your baby move inside you. The books do warn that it can be hard to tell whether those early flutters are the baby or something else, so I don’t know why I expected to feel the baby move in one, singular, weirdandwonderful moment. Maybe because “the quickening” sounds like such a singular “moment”ous event. Nope. I spent about a week trying to decide whether it was the baby I was feeling or gas. Now the baby moves all the time – particularly at 10pm when I’m trying to go to sleep and at 6a.m. when I’m trying to stay asleep.

I’ve tried to explain to Mike what it feels like. I’ve described it before as feeling like a sackful of eels squirming around in there, but as I’ve never actually had a sackful of eels tucked in my belly I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of that description. The most accurate physical description I can come up with is the completely unromantic, “it feels like giant bubbles of gas slithering around intestinal corners, but without any gas pain.”

The most accurate psychological description I can come up with, for me, is that it feels like fishing. As a kid I used to love going over to the river across from my grandparents house, baiting a hook, and fishing off the wharf. I would wait patiently for ages for that first tug on the line – that sudden, promising, tightening of the nylon under my index finger signaling that something alive was definitely out there underneath all that water. When the baby taps me from the inside I get that same feeling. Of course, given what ended up happening to the fish I caught, that metaphor has its limits, so we’ll stop right there.

OK, that’s it for this edition of “expectations that have been turned on their head by pregnancy.” Catch you later this week, perhaps from the road as Mike and I are leaving on Thursday night for a road trip down south, and do chime in below and let me know what’s surprised you about pregnancy or parenting. I love learning from others’ stories. 

Ten things that have surprised me about pregnancy (#1-4)

It’s a slow, sultry Sunday afternoon here in Laos and I’ve just finished unpacking after my week working with journalists in Bangkok discussing issues of trauma and resilience. It was an inspiring and exhausting week and there’s a post I’m mulling over about the blasphemy laws in Pakistan (among other things), but my head and my energy levels just aren’t there yet. Instead, since so many of you have been asking how I’m doing with the pregnancy, I thought I’d update you on that. In fact, while I’m at it, how about I just go ahead and tell you some of the things that have surprised me about pregnancy.

This is my first pregnancy, so I knew I was in for a couple of surprises, at least, but I didn’t venture into this territory completely unprepared. I knew I’d be trying to get pregnant in a town (indeed, a whole country) where the medical care is, shall we say, sub-ideal. Not even Lao women have their babies in Laos if they can help it, so we knew we would be at least partly on our own for most of this pregnancy. There would be no monthly doctor visits. The nearest good medical care would be (at best) one plane flight and eight hours “from need to hospital” away.

So I did my research. I brought more than a few books with us and, thanks also in part to donations from other expatriates here, I suspect I now have the most comprehensive English language library of pregnancy and childbirth books in the entire country. Not to mention that Dr. Google is ever at my fingertips. Let’s just say I was not completely uninformed about this thing called pregnancy.

And, yet… there have been numerous surprises along the way. Today and tomorrow I’ll walk you through ten of them. Today, here are the first four:

I expected that…

1. Getting pregnant wouldn’t take as long as it did

I feel ridiculous even mentioning this, as this falls squarely into the category of things I should not have been surprised by. All the research suggests that you only have about a 15-20% chance of getting pregnant each cycle, the average number of months it takes couples without any fertility issues to get pregnant is still five or six, and about 80% of these couples will be pregnant within a year.

Why, then, I was surprised when three unsuccessful months of trying ticked over I am not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, deep down, both Mike and I believe that when we set our minds to something we can accomplish it with a minimum of fuss and in less time than it takes most other people. Logically I knew it was ridiculous to think that this would be true of conceiving a child, but the illogical part of me started to wonder right around the third month mark whether everything was OK. As we got pregnant after five months of trying I didn’t have to wonder for too long, but those couple of months gave me a very tiny taste of what an emotional roller coaster an extended battle with infertility might be.

2. Finding out I was pregnant would happen in one life-changing moment

I’ve written a whole post on the experience of finding out I was pregnant, so I won’t repeat myself here except to say that this one caught me completely by surprise. I had expected to have an earth-spinning, destiny-changing, confirmation moment. What I got instead was a week’s worth of wondering and then another couple of weeks of not really believing that I actually was pregnant.

3. I’d be a lot bigger by now

I’m 24 weeks pregnant today, about five and a half months. I thought by this stage I wouldn’t be able to see my feet and that I’d be feeling decidedly bulky, clumsy, and uncomfortable. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet. I do have a baby bump, and it is a bit harder than normal to bend over or stand up again after I’ve sat down to play with the dog, but I’ve only gained ten pounds so far. In this tropical heat (and given the daily struggles my feet and legs already wage thanks to lymphedema) this slow and limited weight gain is good for all sorts of reasons. Yes, bigger is most definitely not always better.

4. I’d need a brand new wardrobe by month four

Or, if not a whole new wardrobe, at least some maternity pants, new bras, underwear, etc. Thankfully I’m still fitting into some of my regular clothes – like the four pairs of loose linen pants I bought right before we moved here. Although, I must confess that I am still fitting into these pants (most awesome purchases ever at $15 a pair) partly because they are drawstring, and partly because when I bought them I weighed, uh, two pounds more than I do right now. So I would like to personally thank Asia for stripping me of twelve pounds before pregnancy. Should any of you out there be struggling with this particular issue I can highly recommend moving to Laos – it totally works just as well as Weight Watchers.

And it’s a good thing all that walking and a healthy rice-based diet undid (or at least effectively curtailed) some of my addiction to ribs and hamburgers and take out Chinese food, because I don’t know where I would have bought maternity pants that fit here. The missionary community here does have a box of maternity clothes that are passed around among pregnant expatriates, so theoretically I shouldn’t have had any problems on this front. Except… I seem to be spiritually blessed in the area of “hips and ass”. I didn’t fit into a single pair of pants in this barrel even when I was only three months pregnant! I can now attest to the fact that all the breeding missionaries in this town are sizes 0-4, just in case you were wondering.

That’s it for today. Come back tomorrow for surprises 5-10, including my thoughts on that fabled surge of sexual energy in the 2nd trimester… And for those of you who’ve traveled this road before, what surprised you about pregnancy?

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Happy New Year from Laos

Songkran Thailand (Source:

So I sort of promised more from Bangkok this week, but I’ve failed on that front. I woke up at 6am in Bangkok this morning and was back in Laos by 11:30am, only to find that the streets are as crazy here as they were in Thailand.

The last three days have marked the traditional New Year festivals in both Thailand (Songkran) and Laos (Pii Mai Lao)

I’d heard that the locals celebrated New Years in Thailand and Laos by turning their towns and cities into a big three-day water fight, but before this week I couldn’t really understood how that worked. Unless you happened to get really unlucky, I thought, surely you could venture out outside without getting that wet? Surely it’s not like half the population has nothing to do for three days straight except stand around and assault others with water? Right?

Wrong. So wrong. On several fronts. Let me count the ways.

  1. It’s not like it’s half the population staking out the roads and looking to drench others. More like 80% I’d say.
  2. They’re not just standing around staking out the roads from the pavements. Gangs of over-excited teenagers, adults, and even a few grandpas, also ride around town in the back of pickup trucks armed with garbage cans of water they use to bail and toss, and water guns that squirt a huge stream of water more than fifty feet. When they see anyone walking or riding past and looking somewhat dry, a great cry of, “get them!” arises. And then they do. Even if you’re obviously pregnant.
  3. Not all the water being tossed is just water. Some of it’s been dyed pink. Or black. That’s particularly great when you’re dumb enough to venture out in white linen pants, as I was last night in Bangkok.
  4. Water is not all that’s freely bestowed. People also run around toting bowls of thick, white rice paste. As you walk past they reach out and smear this paste on your face, leaving behind big white streaks. Or they throw a cloud of rice flour onto you right after they throw water.

All this is quite fun when you’re watching it from the safety of your front porch or even the first time you get drenched. It’s a lot less fun three days later when you’re being drenched for the tenth time and you’re on your way out to dinner wearing conference attire.

I’d thought things might be a bit quieter up here in Luang Prabang than in Bangkok, but the reverse seems to be true. Everyone is out and about. Mike says he’s never seen so many people out giving morning alms to the monks as he did this morning, and as we drove in from the airport to meet friends for lunch, the streets were thronged. Hundreds of kids were crawling all over the one fountain in town – their parents standing around grilling meats, drinking beer, and tossing the odd bucket of water whenever the mood took them. Luang Prabang is just one giant, wet party that puts our university shenanigans (seemingly so many years ago now) to shame.

As we walked out of the café after lunch two little girls ran up to me with full containers and big grins on their faces. Fresh from the airport I was still wearing my conference attire, but it was close to a hundred degrees here today so I just stood still and let them soak me. It felt wonderful. I guess the eleventh time is the charm when it comes to getting into the party spirit (or getting so hot you’re just desperate to be hosed down).

Siok dee pii mai! Happy New Year from Laos!

Crowds out on the street in Luang Prabang 2011

Songkram, Thailand (Source:

Journalism and trauma in Bangkok

I’m in steamy Bangkok this week, working with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. I’m here primarily to talk about resilience with the 14 journalists gathered from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kashmir, Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Samoa, Sri Lanka, and Thailand for the 2011 Dart Asia Fellowship.

They’re an inspiring bunch, and as psychology is my training and writing is my passion this is a neat opportunity to learn from people who write for a living. I’m having a great time hearing about their stories and how telling these stories have impacted them over time.

In addition to resilience we’ve being talking about topics such as:

  • Mechanisms and signs of trauma and vicarious trauma
  • The role of the media in kidnapping situations and other unfolding crises situations – how they can help and when they can make things worse
  • How to stay safe as journalists when in high threat environments
  • Tensions between local and “parachute” journalists (international journalists who fly in for stories)
  • Skills for interviewing traumatized sources

One story I’ve heard so far, in particular, has made me both laugh and cringe.

A couple of months after a tsunami hit Samoa in 2009, a New Zealand journalist flew in to report on the recovery efforts. This journalist put together a story alleging that aid destined for recovery efforts was being mismanaged and misappropriated. As part of his story he placed himself in front of a well-constructed middle-class traditional Samoan house, pointed to it on camera and said with every appearance of outrage, “Look at this house, recently built with recovery money. It doesn’t even have any walls!!!”

I laughed at this because traditional houses in Samoa never have walls – something that this journalist should have either already have known (presuming he had working eyes) or asked about.

I cringed when the Samoan journalist presenting described the impact of this story on the local tsunami recovery effort.

“This article demoralized people,” she said. “The vast majority of aid money was not being mismanaged, and it struck a sour note in a context where people were just starting to refocus on stories of hope and rebuilding after all the stories of tragedy. It also reduced the amount of aid coming in to help the Samoan’s get back on their feet.”

I feel I should have something more to say about this right now – something deep and meaningful, or even just coherent. But I’m very tired tonight after two and a half long days of new people and new stories and images from some of the most incendiary frontlines on earth (and I’m sure the fact that it’s 9:15pm and I’ve just now finished consuming a large plate of stir fried noodles and duck – yum – isn’t helping funnel more blood towards my brain). All I’m good for at this point apart from brushing my teeth and taking my kindle to bed is sharing the simple thought that stories matter. They’re powerful. And whether we’re telling them through the vehicle of fiction or otherwise, it is both a privilege and a responsibility to be a storyteller.

More from Bangkok later this week.

Around Town in Luang Prabang: Climbing Phousi Hill

The sky here is grey at the moment – a dense, dull, iron grey. You can’t see the mountains in either direction. Black and white flakes of ash have been drifting down for the past two days, coating everything from plant leaves to laundry. Everything smells of smoke and we’re all sneezing. Even Zulu’s exuberance has been dampened. Every time I go downstairs he’s curled up in his crate or by the door and half the time he doesn’t even bother to raise his head and invite me to play. Luang Prabang is not at it’s finest at the moment.

We were warned that this was coming – March is traditionally the start of the slashing and burning as the fields are prepared for the rice planting. But as March came and went with only minimal haziness I’d thought people were exaggerating. Alas, it seems that the bizarre rain of recent weeks just delayed things a little. People were not exaggerating.

The grim gloominess of the past couple of days reminded me of a very different Luang Prabang – the town we were walking around on the first Saturday in January. On that Saturday we decided to climb Phousi Hill as a pilgrimage of sorts – an opportunity to look out over the town, reflect on the upcoming year, and burn enough calories to justify eating a heaping bowl of ice cream from Café Mekong Fish afterward.

(Well, that last was a significant motivator for me, anyway).

Phousi Hill is pretty awesome, so today I’m going to take you up there on a brief, sunny, and entirely (for you) sweat-free jaunt.

My favorite way up Phousi Hill is from the Khan side, which during the first week of January was decorated by a stack of beer crates announcing that it was now 2011, in case we’d forgotten.

About halfway down this road are a set of white stairs leading up the mountain.

On your way up the 320 plus stairs you walk past a monastery and a number of commanding Buddhas. There’s this fellow, who would seem to be forbidding entry but for the smile on his face, and a corps of them guard the steps.

Then there are the weekday Buddhas. Of these, the Tuesday Buddha looks to have the easiest gig.

Then there’s my favorite group of statues, nestled into a cleft in the rock, Buddha teaching his disciples.

There is a small temple up near the top of Phousi Hill, but the crest itself  is unadorned save for a few tall golden spires, visible all over town. People leave offerings of flowers at the base of these spires.

However, when you are up there the real grandeur isn’t those golden spires, it is the view. On a perfectly clear day (which this wasn’t, though the haze had nothing on the current grey pall) the rivers are spread out below you in crisp detail and the mountains hem the horizon with sharp stitches. If you look in one direction you see the Khan.

If you look the other way you see the Mekong.

Before we descended Mike and I bought a pair of caged birds to release from the summit. Tradition here holds that you’re supposed to say a prayer as you release the bird. As we watched the tiny birds dart away into the blue I thought of the baby within me, so little at that stage we hadn’t yet gone public, and prayed that it would fly (metaphorically speaking, of course).

After you’ve marveled at the view and looked up at golden spires and released birds there’s nothing for it but to go down again. So that’s what we did, down the Mekong side this time. At the bottom of the drop a long straight sweep of steps leads out onto one of the main roads in town. And right across from the stairs stands the National Museum. Partnered by an imposing gold-plated temple and gleaming white amidst lush tropical gardens, the museum used to house the monarchy that ruled Laos before the communist revolution in 1975 relocated the royal family to re-education camps.

That’s it today from this edition of “around town in Luang Prabang”. Let me know if there’s something you’re curious to see and I’ll get out there with our camera (once this smog clears) and see if I can track down some pictures for you. Happy Wednesday!

Marital Misunderstandings and Utopia

Successfully navigating that “getting started on Monday morning after a lovely weekend” speed bump is a lot easier when you have an office to go to, I’ve decided. Oh, and when coffee doesn’t taste like rat droppings. I miss my morning caffeine.

I have already pushed past the initial resistance to doing anything remotely resembling hard work once this morning. But now, an hour and a half down the track, I find myself stuck. I’ve finished editing one chapter and I’m just not sure where to take the next. So a break. Or a blog post. Same thing, really.

After a week of unusually chilly weather, the temperature in Laos is back to normal (read: 90 degrees by 10 a.m. and climbing). I loved the cold snap. I left air conditioners off and doors open and even had to wear to wear socks and long sleeves on a couple of days. I smiled at the very odd sight of cold rain falling from the sky in the middle of the dry season. I was as happy as a hippo in a muddy pond.

At least, I was happy until I learned that the freak cold weather combined with the even more freaky rain had killed thousands of cows and buffaloes in the northern villages – dramatically exacerbating the already problematic issue of food insecurity in these areas. It’s been a tragic couple of weeks for those subsisting in villages at higher elevations here.

In light of all of this it feels quite wrong to say that we had a great weekend, but we did. After the busyness of last week it was lovely to relax over dinner at Utopia by the Khan River on Friday night, sleep in on Saturday morning, then enjoy breakfast together.

Well we enjoyed breakfast together after Mike and I weathered the sort of misunderstanding that I would have thought we might be past after being married for more than two years.

During dinner on Friday night I checked out Utopia’s breakfast menu and was quite intrigued by the promise of cinnamon French toast topped with fresh mango and papaya compote with just a hint of chili in it. So I casually suggested that we should have a breakfast date at Utopia sometime.

On Saturday morning Mike woke up at 6 and went for a long bike ride. On his way back, at 9 he rang my mobile phone.

“Hey,” he said. “Do you want me to stop and pick up eggs so we can make breakfast at home, or would you like to walk down to the Khan and do breakfast at Utopia?”

“Um,” I said, still groggy from only just having woken up. “OK, sure, I can get ready and we can go to Utopia.”

Now it was Mike’s turn to hesitate.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “It’s already pretty hot out here.”

“No, no, I can do it,” I said.

“Alright,” Mike said. “I’ll be home in ten minutes and we can go.”

So I jumped in the shower, threw on some clothes, slapped on some sunscreen, grabbed my big hat, and was all ready to walk out the door when Mike arrived.

“Are you sure you want to go?” Mike asked me, again, before we set out. “It’s not too bad in the shade but it’s quite hot in the sun.”

“I think I’ll be fine,” I said bravely. “Let’s go.”

So off down the sunny street we went.

Five minutes into the walk I noticed Mike wasn’t saying much.

“You OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I just rode 50 km though and I need to eat something before I get the hangries.” (In case you don’t know this most useful term, hangry means “hungry angry”).

“Why didn’t you grab something before we left?” I asked.

“Well it was already getting late,” Mike said.

By the time we were another five minutes down the very sunny (and indeed warm) street we had figured out two things. Mike’s preference had been for making breakfast at home. And so had mine.

“What are we doing here then?” I asked.

“Well, you said last night that you wanted to go to breakfast at Utopia,” Mike said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I meant… sometime. Like next weekend, or the weekend after. Sometime when we’ve planned to get up well before nine.”

“Oh,” Mike said.

“And when you present me with two options – one of which is to stay at home and one of which is to go out and have an adventure,” I said. “I’m always going to assume that your preference is to go out and have an adventure unless you tell me otherwise. I was doing the good wife thing and having a weekend adventure with you.”

“I don’t really like eating breakfast out,” Mike said. “When it comes to breakfast my preference is almost always going to be staying in. But I know you love having breakfast out, so I was doing the good husband thing and suggesting something I thought you would like.”

“Oh,” I said.

So we laughed and turned around and came on home and cooked up Spanish scrambled eggs and had a lovely, cool, breakfast at home after all, followed by a long and unusually lazy weekend that included massages at the Lao Red Cross and taking a couple of pregnancy shots while we thought of it. I’m at 22 weeks pregnant now, a fact that is getting harder and harder to forget as the baby has taken to squirming away in there like a small sackful of eels at regular intervals. Below are some shots from this weekend.

I hope you had a great weekend too, and thanks for dropping by.

P.S. If you’re in a long term relationship, what types of miscommunications are you surprised to find yourself still having this far down the track?