Tag Archives: change

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

This year I would really like you to work on…

OK, so I know it’s January 4th and most of you are probably thinking that New Years was so last week, but this is the first time I’ve hit the keyboard in 2011 so I’m going to start at the beginning and tell you how we celebrated the turn of the year over here in Laos.

On New Year’s Eve we headed for one of our new favourite haunts, Dyen Sabai. To get there you walk down to the Khan River and then cross it on a rickety bamboo bridge that’s only in place because it’s the dry season and the river is so low – the brown torrent that pushed the boats along on Dragon Boat Racing day has fallen precipitously in the last couple of months and the newly exposed river banks of are crammed with temporary vegetable gardens. After you cross the river you climb up a row of steps hacked between the small veggie plots, and walk underneath a tunnel of vines, then turn left and there you are. Dyen Sabai is a restaurant of wooden platforms tucked into tall stands of bamboo. The tables are low, wooden, and flanked by silk lounging pillows laid on the floor. The ambiance is great and so is their smoky eggplant dip.

Mike and I settled down on the cushions and devoured eggplant dip, and fish steamed in banana leaf, and hosien chicken stir-fried with crispy mint, and big bamboo containers of warm sticky rice. There were cocktails and two sinfully rich deserts made with imported chocolate. There was laughing at the chicken that flapped up to explore then table next to us. There was reminiscing.

Sparked by the blog I wrote about returning to Laos, we talked that night about uncomplicated emotions. Mike asked me what “happy-uncomplicated” moments came to mind from 2010 and took it in turn to offer up these incandescent snippets. Some were exotic – sunrise in Death Valley for Mike, motorcycling along the Thames in London for me. Many were prosaic – tiny stitches in time that fashioned our “normal life” this past year. Grocery shopping together after church in California. Sitting on the deck of our small apartment in Alhambra enjoying brie and dates as the sun set. Reunions in airports.

We talked about these happy moments all night. Then we walked home, full and tired, through the cool darkness and went to bed at the luxuriously geriatric hour of 9pm.

The next night we settled down to the serious business of contemplating 2011. This time we chose an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Mekong and watched kids play soccer out on a sandbar in the middle of the river as we talked.

Mike had a few New Year’s Resolutions to list off but I didn’t set any this year. I already have a pretty clear idea of what I’d like to get done and none of my goals related to writing or diet or exercise seemed worthy of being slapped with the lofty title of resolution. So instead of a resolution this year I named an aspiration that is more of a theme – an attitude and an outlook that I aspire to embrace more fully this year… finding the positive in change.

So much changed for us last year and so much will change again for us this year. I do love change on some level, this I know, but even as changes bring new and wonderful things into my life I also lose old things that were also wonderful. Sometimes I can find myself mourning too much things I used to have and enjoy (wine and cheese on the deck in Alhambra, and hot showers that work) and neglecting to pay enough attention to new and wonderful things (smoky eggplant dip and sticky rice overlooking a river, and chickens that parade around on tables).

After we were done talking resolutions and aspirations we looked at each other and grinned.

“So,” I said to Mike. “What is it this year?”

Last year Mike introduced a concept that initially horrified me – that each year we might also name one thing we’d like each other to work on in the upcoming year. When he first suggested it I stared at him across the dinner table looking, I’m sure, like a wallaby in the headlights. What awful, embarrassing, character flaw was he going to spotlight and ask me to work on?

“I would like you,” he said carefully last year, “to please pay more attention to not dropping your stuff wherever you feel like it the minute you walk in the door of the house.”

This year’s request was pretty much on the same level (read: basic habits that 70% of people seem to acquire in third grade) – that I pay more attention to turning of lights and air conditioners when I leave a room. My request of Mike was similarly non-epic – focused on something small that he sometimes does that can annoy me.

It’s made me think about marriage and the years to come. Will we have years when the things we name are epic, or are these early patterns indicative of the fact that when you’re in good relationship space the things that usually bug you most over time are the little carelessnesses and habits that just happen to grate?

What do you think? And for those of you in a relationship, what would you ask of your partner if you could pick one thing you’d like to see them work on this year? What do you think they’d ask of you?

How quickly things can change

On Wednesday Mike spent the day in the field, visiting a school construction site in a village three hours outside of Luang Prabang. And, in an effort to escape the drills and tile cutters right outside our guesthouse while remaining within the therapeutic reach of an air conditioner, I spent the day working in his office.

It was blessedly quiet, and I focused properly on writing for the first time since we arrived. I focused so well, in fact, that it was 2:30 in the afternoon before I realized I was hungry, and that I had a choice to make.

I could – like the sensible and well-traveled adult I supposedly was – leave the office, go across the road to the noodle stall Mike had pointed out to me just that morning, and get myself something to eat.

Or I could search the office for the almond-stuffed honey-coated dates that Mike’s brother, Carl, had thoughtfully posted to us in Alaska three weeks previously. Carl procured these dates in Afghanistan, we carried them from Alaska to Laos, and then Mike had taken them to the office so that he could use them (carefully rationing them out one or two at a time) as gifts for the district governors during his sojourns to the field.

Mike was supposed to be back around five, I reasoned. I didn’t want to fill up noodles now. I could wait.

So I found these well-traveled dates. I ate two of them. I told myself that they were really what I’d felt like eating all along. I worked very hard to completely ignore the fact that:

(A) They so were so not at all what I felt like eating; and

(B) I had essentially just decided that I would rather go hungry than leave Mike’s air conditioned office to venture across the street and seek to make myself understood in yet another new restaurant while ordering more unfamiliar fare; and

(C) I was pretty sure that A + B = TOTAL CROSS CULTURAL COWARD.

By 5:15 I was ravenous and Mike was still not back. When I called him he sounded tired and frazzled. They were still about an hour and a half away, he said. He’d meet me back at the guesthouse and, by the way, could I bring his work computer back with me?

How, I wondered after I had hung up the phone, did one go about catching a tuk tuk to Hoxieng from Mike’s office? I knew it could be done – Mike had done it many times – so I figured the staff downstairs might have the answer to my question.

I think the woman on the front desk would have, too, if she had spoken any English. But, round and smiley, she just jumped up hastily when I tried to ask for instructions and scuttled into the finance office.

I followed her in, smiling at familiar faces but only able to remember one name out of seven. They all knew who I was though, and they all seemed rather concerned at the thought of me catching a tuk tuk alone.

There was a hushed and hurried conference, and then the woman from the front desk left the room and went into yet another office.

“If someone could just show me how you catch a tuk tuk here?” I said again to the entire finance team, just to make sure we were all on the same page.

“No need,” said Kaileah, the young woman whose name I could remember. “She will get someone to drive you.”

“No need,” I repeated in response, increasingly perturbed by the disturbance my ignorant self was creating in an office full of busy and hard-working people.

I followed the first woman out, intent on preventing her from commandeering someone to ferry me home, but it was too late. One of the admin staff was already standing up from behind his computer and searching for car keys.

“Really,” I protested. “I am happy to catch a tuk tuk, it is just that I do not know whether to catch one from the street, or how to call one. But Mr. Michael told me it would cost ten thousand kip.” I pulled the money out of my pocket and waved it in front of them as proof that my husband, the big boss, had decreed it permissible that I make the journey from the office to the guesthouse unchaperoned and alone. That Mr. Michael had definitely not envisioned staff time and organizational resources be devoted to taking me home.

No one looked convinced.

There was another staff conference in Lao, and when it ended I could see the matter had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

“I am finish. I go to town now, on motorbike. I drop you,” Kaileah said.

The before we left LA someone had asked me whether we’d get around by motorbike out here.

“I’m conflicted,” I’d said. “I know motorbikes are practical, and they’re fun. But they’re dangerous, there’s just no getting around that. No, I don’t think I’ll be riding motorbikes.”

That was then, and this was now. And now, the polite and culturally appropriate thing to do was clearly to smile my thanks and accept – even though that meant a ten minute ride on the back of a motorbike, carrying two computers, and not wearing a helmet. So, since the need to escape causing further disruption suddenly felt much more pressing than my need to escape potential brain damage, I smiled my thanks and accepted.

How quickly things can change – and not just with regards to my stance on riding motorbikes.

In the blink of an eye I’ve gone from someone who typically goes to bed at midnight and gets up at eight to someone who goes to bed before ten and gets up about six. From someone with a job, an office, and not enough time on my hands, to someone whose husband has a job, an office, and not enough time on his hands. From French fries to rice. From cold to hot in weather, and from hot to cold in the shower.


I used to think I loved it. Now, I think I mostly want to love it.


I would never want to change you

The last day before seven weeks apart. From in front of his computer at the kitchen table, Mike has proposed a plan of attack for the morning’s life admin before they head out at noon to go see the poppyfields. Still waking up slowly, and with a cup of coffee on the couch, Lisa has proposed an alternate plan.

Mike (with slightly less than his usual measure of good grace): “Fine then.”

Lisa: “What happened to loving the fact that I’m different from you?”

Mike: “I love your differences. I love them so much that I would never want to change you. Just the things about you that are wrong.”

Lisa: “Huh. And do you have a list of those things?”

Mike: “Well, as a matter of fact, let me just pull that up.”

Lisa: “Material to keep us busy on the drive out to the poppy fields?”

Mike: “That’s a two hour drive.”

Lisa: “Well, time enough to make a good start, at least.”