Tag Archives: Mekong

Peace Like A River

Two weeks after Dominic was born, Mike announced that he was going out for a bike ride.

“Just a 50km loop,” he said. “I’ll be back within two hours.”

I nodded and told him to have a good ride, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to clutch him and beg him not to go. I wanted to demand that he tell me how I would survive if a car hit him – which happens to cyclists all the time, you know – while he was being so irresponsible as to be out riding for fun. Fun. What was he thinking to be indulging in something so very dangerous and call it fun?

I had expected my son’s birth to deliver love into my life. What I had not expected was that right alongside love would come something else, something that would assault me more often and more viciously than I had ever imagined.

Fear.

In the weeks following the miraculous trauma of Dominic’s arrival, I found myself battling fear at every turn. I would see myself dropping the baby, or accidentally smothering him while I was feeding him in bed. The thought of unintentionally stepping on his tiny hand while he was lying on the floor made me stop breathing. Whenever I left the house I visualized car accidents. I lay awake at night when I should have been getting desperately needed sleep thinking about the plane ticket that had my name on it – the ticket for the flight that would take all three of us back to Laos.

How, I wondered, am I ever going to be able to take this baby to Laos when I don’t even want to take him to the local grocery store? What if he catches dengue fever? What if he picks up a parasite that ravages his tiny insides? What if he gets meningitis and we can’t get him to a doctor in Bangkok fast enough? What if the worst happens?

What if?

One of my favorite hymns was written by a man who was living through one such horrific “what if”. After learning that all four of his children had drowned when the ship they were traveling on collided with another boat and sank, Spafford left immediately to join his grieving wife on the other side of the Atlantic. As his own ship passed near the waters where his daughters had died, he wrote It Is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

This hymn is one of my favorites because it puzzles me. I’m awed and confused by Spafford’s ability to write these words in the face of such loss. Because of the story behind it, the song demands my respect.

Plus, I really like that image in the first line of peace like a river.

I think of this line sometimes when I’m out walking around town, for Luang Prabang is nestled between two rivers. The Mekong is a force to be reckoned with – wide, muddy, and determined. Watching the frothy drag on the longboats as they putt between banks gives you some hint of the forces at play underneath the surface. Mike likes the Mekong, but my favorite is the other river, the Khan. The Khan is much smaller and at this time of year it runs clear and green, skipping merrily over gravelly sand banks and slipping smoothly between the poles of the bamboo bridge that fords it.

I used to think of peace primarily as a stillness – a pause, a silence, a clarity – but that sort of peace is not the peace of rivers. There is a majestic, hushed sort of calm to rivers, but they are not silent and they are certainly not still – even the most placid of rivers is going somewhere. They don’t always run clear, either. But all that silt that muddies the waters of the Mekong? It ends up nourishing vegetables growing on the riverbanks.

Dominic is five months old now and the worst of the post-natal anxiety appears to have subsided. I managed to get myself to board that plane back to Laos and it no longer terrifies me to see Mike head out the door to ride his bike to work (most days, anyway). My fear of what ifs never leaves completely, though – it’s always lurking around waiting to be nurtured by my attention and amplified by my imagination.

I used to feel like a failure that I couldn’t banish that fear altogether – that I never felt “perfectly” peaceful – but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m learning to greet that sort of fear respectfully without bowing before it. I’m learning to use it as a reminder to turn toward gratitude rather than worry. And I’ve stopped expecting peace to look like the pristine silence that follows a midnight snowfall. I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

Peace like a river.

The Khan River, Luang Prabang, Laos

(Update: In an irony of the sort you never want to live through, the day after I posted this my mother in law slipped on our stairs here in Laos and Dominic broke his femur. We are back in Laos now, but must return to Thailand for follow up in two weeks. Continued thoughts and prayers for good healing appreciated.)

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Links to laugh at and Mekong adventures

Happy Wednesday! Mike and I are spending the day flying down to Vientiane and driving into Thailand. Then we will turn around immediately, line up on the other side of the border, and come straight back into Laos.

This is long story that I don’t want to write too much about because it tempts me towards feeling frazzled and making unwise public comments about the powers that be. Instead I’ll just say that flying down to Vientiane, then crossing the Thai border, then going to to the Australian embassy to get Dominic’s four month vaccinations (on that note, happy 5 month birthday yesterday little man), and then flying back up to Luang Prabang will make tomorrow feel about as long as this sentence.

I have a number of topics I want to cover on a Writing Wednesday, but our little jaunt is making this week feel squeezed and I don’t want to shortchange any of them. I’ve received way too much sad news via email and facebook recently so, in the spirit of smiling, today I’m simply going to share a couple of links that have made me laugh and some photos of what we got up to on the weekend.

Without further ado, the links:

The 50 most brilliant, obnoxious, or delightfully sociopathic Facebook posts of 2011: This made me laugh until I almost cried during a recent 4AM feeding, and anything that can make me laugh that early is some seriously funny stuff. My favorite was the fourth last one about chicken casseroles.

2011 lesson #2: Don’t Carpe Diem: Loved this post over on Momastery so much I immediately subscribed to her blog: “Every time I’m out with my kids – this seems to happen: An older woman stops us, puts her hand over her heart and says something like, “Oh– Enjoy every moment. This time goes by so fast.”… But as 2011 closes, I have finally allowed myself to admit that it just doesn’t work for me. It bugs me…”

Australian Tourism: Questions Answered: This is a list of real questions asked by potential tourists and the (not so serious) answers posted on the Australian Tourism website.

Now, the photos of our Saturday rock-climbing adventure on the Mekong. I hadn’t quite banked on the steep scramble up the banks while carrying Dominic in the Ergo, but I’m so glad we went. It was a great day out.


Here we are, all ready to go boating on the Mekong. More pictures in the slideshow below.

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What about you? Read anything that made you laugh out loud recently? Leave the link below.

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Dead cats, working elephants, new schools, and other tidbits from Laos

It’s a public holiday here in Laos, so Mike and I are celebrating by working together at the kitchen table. Yeah, we really know how to do public holidays in style.

Actually, one of us does, anyway. Mike let me sleep in until nearly eight this morning and then woke me up with a tray loaded with cheesy scrambled eggs, grilled tomato, mango, dragonfruit, and half a cup of coffee (I’m just easing back into coffee after going off it overnight the minute I was afflicted with pregnancy nausea). So we had breakfast in bed together before we set up our two laptops downstairs and started typing away like disciplined little nerds.

Though if I really were a die hard nerd I’d be working on my consultancy, drafting the next chapter for this distance learning course instead of having spent the last hour perusing my email and google reader, looking at photos we’ve taken this last week, and now writing a blog post.

But this next chapter, you see, is on Wellbeing Economics (how and whether governments and managers should be paying attention to improving their citizens and employees wellbeing) and I feel clueless. So since it’s International Women’s Day I figure I should put off the hard work of getting less clueless until after lunch when I’ll be hot, and sleepy, and cranky because my back (which decided yesterday for no apparent reason that it wanted to really start hurting) is getting worse and worse throughout the day.

Yup, I’m a smart one all right.

But, today, instead of doing the smart thing I’m going to do the fun one and show you some of the things we’ve seen here in Laos this past week. I really wish I had a photo of what I saw yesterday afternoon but, alas, I was without camera when I took Zulu down the street to buy some Japanese eggplants from the woman who sells vegetables from a tarp on the sidewalk.

She had eggplants all right, and right beside the eggplants was a basket with two dead cats in it. The cats were crawling with flies, which the woman helpfully waved off with a coconut fond when she saw how interested I was in the cats. The flies rose up in a thick, dark, cloud, then promptly settled over all of the vegetables. I made sure to wash the eggplants thoroughly.

That was a first for me. I regularly see this woman selling birds (that’s what Zulu’s so interested in in the photo above), rats (sometimes dead, sometimes live), and occasionally dead bats tied in handy bunches. But I’ve never seen whole kitties for sale before.

So here are some images we did take this week of life here in Laos:

Palm tree at sunset from the deck of our house

Zulu, doing his new favourite thing (bringing a big clump of dirt into the house and chewing it to bits)

What Zulu lacks in leg length, he makes up for in ear size

Mike at a cafe on the Mekong on his birthday

Lanterns hanging above the Mekong

Checking out the construction around town on Saturday morning

Building roads and drains, the hard way

Burning rubbish around town – it’s going to get smokier and smokier throughout March as the farmers burn the rice fields after harvest

Rice fields on the way out to Phonxai

The brand new school that we went to see in progress together just two weeks ago – finished now and standing proudly beside the old school

The village surrounding the school

A working elephant alongside the road out to Phonxai

Is International Woman’s Day a holiday where you are? How have you celebrated it? And what cool things have you seen in the past week?

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.

Orchid

On days when I don’t post something longer I’ll try to post a photo – starting with orchids.

I took this on our first morning in Luang Prabang, walking along the road by the Mekong. The orchids were just tumbling out of the tree and hanging over the path in front of us – a moment too perfect to miss. I love the way that focusing on the flowers renders the background hazy, but you can still pick out trees, a smear of the Mekong off to the left, and an empty riverside street populated by a motorbike, a tuk tuk, and a riverside restaurant umbrella.

For now, I’ve put a slice of this image in my blog header to remind me of several things as I write here.

That I live in Laos. (Yup, still working on processing that one.)

That, after the bleak hours the night of our arrival, there was loveliness waiting for me at dawn.

And that unless I remember to stop and focus – really focus – on one thing at a time, each particular and fragile beauty will blend into the lush bustle of life.

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Upon arrival

It’s been about 72 hours now since I stepped off the plane in Laos after 38 hours en route from Vancouver, through LA, then Bangkok, and finally… our new home town, Luang Prabang.

I have to say, things didn’t start out all that well.

It was about 95 degrees when we stepped off the plane. The immigration queue was not what you might call efficient. No one was there to meet us at the airport. After we’d dumped our four suitcases in an untidy tumble of luggage at the Hoxieng guesthouse and spent a brief spell lying underneath the air conditioner and gasping like landed fish, we ventured out again in search of food.

Half an hour later we were sitting outside at a table for two on a platform overlooking the Mekong. The setting sun was gilding the brown river with golden glimmer. Laughing boys splashed in the shallows below us. Two monks in bright orange robes walked down a track and climbed into a long, narrow, boat. One of them overbalanced as he tried to start the engine and almost fell into the water. Out in the middle of the river a fisherman stood steady in his own slim boat with a fishing net streaming through his hands in one long line. On the far bank, green hills clambered atop one another.

It should have been undeniably charming. And I was not at all charmed.

After we made the decision to move here in February, every time I met someone who’d been to Laos and told them about our plans, they all basically said the same thing: “You lucky girl.” But sitting by the Mekong on Monday night with my skin prickling with sweat and my feet swelling out of my shoes, I didn’t feel lucky. I felt exhausted, famished, and miserable. I felt trapped. I felt utterly pathetic at the prospect of being the only person in the entire world who actually hated this place. And when I remembered that we were here to stay for two years, I felt like drowning myself in the Mekong.

I looked at the table. My hand lay opposite Mike’s with just our fingernails brushing. It was too hot to touch.

“I’m going to miss holding your hand,” I said mournfully.

Across from me Mike was mostly silent in the fog of his own fatigue.

“It’s going to be OK,” he said.

I highly doubted that. At that precise moment I also doubted that I was going to be able to get through dinner without degenerating into an inconsolable, bawling, mess. So I chewed on my cheek, stared at the muddy river, and concentrated on keeping the tears corked.

But then the food came. And with every bite of chicken sautéed with chili and ginger and basil, or fried river fish topped with crispy garlic, I felt a bit better. And when we paid the bill and stood up to wander as the sun dipped below the horizon and the heat eased just a little, I felt a bit better again. And when we walked down a shaded brick alleyway, past a temple standing silent in the dusk, and stopped to pat a puppy that was beside himself with excitement to be the recipient of attention and affection, I smiled. And when we ambled through the night market under a sky sprinkled with pink clouds and I saw that, contrary to my expectations, the market was full of gorgeous things besides elephant slippers, I felt the first tiny stirrings of excited. (By the way, if anyone out there knows why people here in the tropics have decided to specialize in making warm padded slippers, please email me).

Since then there’s been a mélange of other moments – congealed pigs blood, house hunting on the back of a motorcycle being driven one handed by a woman whose other hand was cushioning the head of the sleepy toddler strapped to her chest, monks receiving alms, lychee and mint daiquiris, a violent thunderstorm, and cheap baguettes. And I’ve started to learn my first Laos words.

But that all came after that first night and my first hesitant steps up the trail leading out of the deep emotional chasm I tumbled into on the banks of the Mekong. For by the time we crawled into bed that night under the blessed benediction of a working air conditioner, I no longer wanted to drown myself.

I guess we all have to start somewhere.

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