Tag Archives: moving

I’ve moved!!

I moved last weekend – website and house. It was insane.

You can find the new everything (including the new book cover!!) at www.lisamckaywriting.com. Come take a look. I’d love to know what you think.

So if you’re subscribed by RSS or via your wordpress.com blog and would like to keep up with me (and I hope you will) please jump on over to the new blog and add the new address to your reader again or just follow this link to add the new blog to your reader using feedburner. Sorry for the hassle. I hate to make you move, but I promise I’ll be staying put at this new address … the new website address, anyway.

If you’re subscribed by email you should continue to receive new posts that way. Please let me know if you don’t.

Thanks for moving with me!

Lisa

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I’m moving!

All is slightly chaotic on the Laos front as we prepare to move this weekend to a house that doesn’t have a spiral staircase, an unfenced pool adjoining the property, or neighbors running a woodworking business. It also doesn’t have a full kitchen inside, which is going to be a royal pain in the rear at times, but in all other respects it is a lovely house with a beautiful guest room – so let us know if you’re going to be in town.

On top of the move we’re trying to book tickets and organize our schedules for a month away as we visit the Washington DC area between mid-April and mid-May. I’m trying to decide whether it’s feasible for me to leave Dominic in Mike’s capable hands for three days to attend a writing festival in Michigan, and we’re trying to organize to visit family in Pennsylvania, figure out some time away just as a family, and split time between Mike’s parents and my sister’s house. Oh, and we have to stop over in Bangkok on the way home to get Dominic checked out at Bumrungrad hospital. Logistics galore. And trying to organize travel always makes me feel a bit like this:

In other news, I’m on my third round of antibiotics in the last six weeks – this time for a stubborn double ear infection (what am I, like, seven? I haven’t had an ear infection since childhood).

And I’m not only moving house this week in the physical sense, I’m moving house in the e-sense! My new and much improved website and blog are coming soon. Oh, and I’ve decided upon a cover for Love At The Speed Of Email. I love it, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

So things might be a bit quiet around here in the next two weeks as I work behind the scenes to finalize all the details of transitioning to my new home(s). I’ll let you know the new subscription details as soon as I have them so that those of you who subscribe via RSS can update your settings. I hate to make you move, but I’ll be staying put at this new address indefinitely and I’m looking forward to the e-stability.

Hope everyone’s week has started off well,

Lisa

House hunting and the powers that be

It is the season of busy (it is also the season of ash falling from the sky as they have started burning the rice field in preparation for planting, but does not make me more busy, that just makes life a bit more unpleasant).

No, the busy these last six weeks has coming from a whole bunch of different things: two sets of parents in town, little boys with big casts, two unplanned trips to Thailand, one to Vientiane, and someone who’s decided that he’s ready to eat solid food so now I have to start attending to things like breakfast, lunch, and dinner for him every day. I mean, seriously, every day, can you believe it?

And we’re moving house. The cumulative weight of child safety factors (our beautiful but dangerous spiral staircase and the unfenced pool out the front) and the ongoing noise issues with our woodworking neighbors finally pushed us over the edge. We’re moving house by April 1, then less than two weeks later we’re getting on a plane for the States to spend a month there on home leave.

Oh, and I’m publishing my book. For half a second I almost forgot the endless to-do list related to the new website (stay tuned, it’s coming soon), cover design, and launch planning. Release date still to be determined but either mid-April or June 1.

So, yeah, busy, and during the next six weeks I may occasionally re-run some old posts from the blog. This one, from last time we were house hunting here in Laos, seemed like a fitting choice for today.

House hunting and the powers that be (originally posted July 2010)

This may come as news to some of you – it did to me eight months ago – but Laos is one of the world’s few remaining communist states. The full name of the country is officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and the only legal political party is the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The government publishes all newspapers, including two foreign language papers. Missionary work of any flavour is regulated. And when any staff of Mike’s organization visits the field projects they must be accompanied by a government official – an official who gets paid a per diem by the NGO for their time.

Here in Laos, I have been pondering how I may be able to periodically touch on the topics of God, the policies and practices of the organization Mike works for, or the government, without treading on any toes. I haven’t come up with anything brilliant yet. So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to try using the phrase “the powers that be” to refer to the three aforementioned entities and leave it to the reader to figure out which one I might be talking about.

I apologize in advance if this proves confusing. So, too, can life be here.

During the past two weeks we have continued the house hunting that Mike began while he was here without me in April and May. There are no classifieds we can read, or website we can search. If you need to find a house in Luang Prabang you have exactly two options. You can walk the streets looking for hand-painted “house for rent” signs attached to gates and then have a Lao-speaker call the contact phone number on the sign. Or, you can go through a local agent – someone who’s job it is to find out where all the houses for rent are hiding and to negotiate on your behalf with prospective landlords.

Phet is just such an agent, and the day after we arrived I took a deep breath, put on the helmet she had borrowed for me, and climbed onto the back of her motorcycle. We saw five houses that day, and I came back excited. Two, I thought, were good options. One of those options Mike hadn’t yet seen.

I tried to describe it to him over dinner that night.

“We went over the wooden pedestrian bridge across the Khan,” I said. “Then we turned left and went down a dirt road.”

“How far?” Mike asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Not far. It was a really pretty road – all jungly and tropical. There were temples, and plants, and another wooden bridge. It was very atmospheric,” I said.

“Atmospheric,” Mike repeated, as if that may not be the most satisfactory of descriptors for an access road.

“What was the house like?” he asked.

“Oh, it was cool,” I said. “There was a big veranda on the top, and broken pool out the back, and two cute dogs. The dogs were very friendly, but they belong to the…”

“The house,” Mike reminded me.

“It had two big rooms up the top, and another room that was locked and they couldn’t find the key. So I didn’t see that one. But the stairs were good. And there were tiles on the floor. And lots of trees. And it was quiet. And I liked it.”

“What about water tanks?” Mike asked. “Was it on city water? Was there a big water heater? Was there glass on the windows, and screens? Fans? Did all the air conditioners work? Was there a phone line into the house?”

“I dunno,” I said, realizing for the first time that I may have neglected to pay attention to a couple of key attributes. “I’m pretty sure there was a phone line. I think there was glass on the windows.”

“You think,” Mike closed his eyes and took a deep breath. I hoped he was visualizing us sitting in hammocks on a tree-shaded veranda, debriefing our days over a cold drink. But I figured it was more likely that he was lodging a quick request with the powers that be for extra patience.

“OK,” he said after he opened his eyes again. “We’ll see if we can go see it together this weekend.”

We did take a truck to go see it that weekend, and by the time we’d found the vehicle bridge over the river Khan (a good deal further away from the house than the pedestrian bridge suitable for motorcycle traffic) and bumped our way down three torturously slow, bone jarring, head-banging, kilometers, I was deflated.

“Getting in and out of here on anything other than a motorcycle would be tough, wouldn’t it,” I said.

“Yeah,” Mike said gently. “It’d be tough. Especially when it rained. And you might end up feeling very isolated.”

My beautiful vision of us on the veranda dissolved and was replaced by a picture of motorcycling along a dirt road to do the grocery shopping during a monsoonal downpour. That was the end of our quest to acquire the jungle house – which was just as well, really, because Phet informed us later that day that the landlady had changed her mind about evicting the current tenants after all – and it was back to the drawing board.

But we’ve now seen 27 houses, and it’s beginning to get seriously demoralizing. Some houses have no air conditioners, or glass in the windows. Some have no phone lines installed (and, hence, no possibility of in-house internet). Most have no external hot water heaters. Some are nestled in between construction sites, of which there are many in Luang Prabang at present. Some are beautiful, but sit right on a main road and beside local restaurants. And where there is a local restaurant there is beerlao. And where there is beerlao there will likely be karaoke.

If you don’t count my short-lived infatuation with the jungle house, or the stunningly beautiful way-out-of-our-price-range house in the hills outside of town (a house of two pools, luscious gardens, hanging plants, shinning wooden balustrades, and an in-house bar), we’ve found exactly one house we really liked. Number 18. A wooden house perched on the banks of the Mekong.

But on Sunday afternoon (after three visits to this house, four long emails, and two extended meetings with Phet and the prospective landlord) the negotiations broke down. The landlord, you see, had suddenly decided to only offer us a contract for rent that went to the end of April 2011, and the powers that be require us to rent a house for an entire year at a time.

To complicate matters further, the powers that be require us to pay the entire years worth of rent in advance. This removes any economic incentive for landlords to make ongoing improvements to the property. This means that what we move into is probably what we will be stuck with.

To complicate matters even further, the powers that be have decreed that those on tourist visas must rent rooms in guesthouses, rather than renting houses privately. Just this week, the powers that be have been visiting houses inhabited by foreigners, checking up on them, and evicting any who hold tourist visas.

And, to complicate matters even further, the powers that be have not yet issued Mike’s work visa (although it has been in progress since February). Yet other powers that be are very eager to see us in a house, and are urging us to make a decision and just get on with it.

I am not eager to get on with it, as the leading option at the moment is the house on the main road beside the restaurant. I am also not eager to stay indefinitely in the guesthouse – that bastion of slamming doors, late-night voices, and neighborly circular saws. I am, in other words, a bit stuck.

So if any of you dear readers are in a position to have a quiet and respectful word on our behalf with the powers that be regarding these matters, please… go right ahead.

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Changing weather, and voltage

People have been telling me ever since we arrived that it does cool down here for a couple of months each year. Before the last couple of days, however, I just couldn’t fathom this. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe them – I really wanted to. It was more that a clingy, dense, heat was all knew of life in Luang Prabang, and I experienced a total failure of imagination. I just could not conceive of how this place of coconut palms and sunny frangipani flowers and green mountains and dirt roads stirred to swampy puddles by warm tropical downpours could ever get cool enough that you’d want a light cotton scarf, much less a jacket.

But, then…

The weather changed quite suddenly this weekend. On Friday I was sitting here at the kitchen table under the air conditioner as usual, the town baking and sweating outside. On Saturday it was cool enough to go out a noon without immediately dissolving into a damp sort of sticky. This morning the kitchen door is wide open, and cool air is creeping in and winding around my ankles.

It feels like a miracle.

So that is the miracle unfolding outside the house, for which Mike and I can take absolutely no credit. But there is a miracle unfolding inside our house as well. This place is finally starting to look and feel like a home.

We hung pictures this weekend – which we set out to do weeks ago, only to discover that the walls were made of solid brick and that we would need the assistance of someone with a big drill. Our new pal, David, who is blessed with the spiritual gift of hammer drill, couldn’t come the week after we got back from Cambodia. Then we had to temporarily relocate to Thailand. But this weekend it all came together and two hours of determined drilling saw ten pictures hung.

(I would like it noted that that a pre-requisite to this feat was ten agreements reached about which pieces from our respective art collections to hang, and where to hang them.)

After our morning of picture-conquering we moved on to clearing all the boxes out of the end room. The end room was going to be our guest room. That was before our neighbors decided to moonlight as woodworkers many days. After a meeting with the village council the neighbors have agreed to only use electric power tools three days a month, but they are often out there ham-ham-hammering away and playing Lao radio loudly. Not the best creative working environment for me given that I seem to be about as good at blocking out annoying noise as a beagle is at ignoring interesting smells.

So on Saturday we broke down boxes and moved in bookshelves and desks and set up the new computer and christened it “the office”.

This process was not without completely devoid of tension.

2:32pm: The handle of the scissors I am using to break down boxes snaps in half in my hands.

Lisa: “That was not my fault.”

Mike: “Are you sure? They’re kitchen shears – they’re not meant to be used on boxes.”

Lisa: “Yes, I’m sure. And it’s tape, not concrete.”

Mike: “OK.” (Deep sigh) “I’ll go get the other pair.”

2:36pm: I drop the second pair of scissors on the floor. They break.

Mike: “That wasn’t your fault either, was it sweetheart?”

Lisa: “What sort of lame-ass pair of scissors breaks when you drop it from waist height?”

Mike: “Hmmm.”

Lisa: “OK, that pair was my fault. But the first pair wasn’t.”

Mike: “Hmmm.”

3:15pm: Mike’s perfectionist tendencies are coming through in his attempt to square the edges of the pile of boxes he is stacking.

Lisa: “Mike! Just put it there. It’s fine.”

Mike: “Have I told you lately how sexy you are when you’re commanding?”

Lisa: “No.”

Mike: “That’s because you’re not.”

3:43pm: We plug in the $230.00 printer we bought specifically because we knew we’d be able to get toner cartridges for it in Laos.

Lisa: “Are we sure that can handle the voltage here?”

Mike: (Looking in vain for any information on the back of the printer, which is refurbished, given that these printers are no longer being manufactured by HP) “I can’t see anything, but these things are usually manufactured to handle international standards. Our computers are. The scanner is.”

Lisa: “How much do toner cartridges cost here, anyway?”

Mike: “They’re expensive. More than a hundred dollars.”

Lisa: “A hundred dollars?”

Mike: “Yeah, they have to bring them in from Thailand. You can’t even get them all the time.”

3:47pm: Mike is trying to open the bottom drawer of the printer, which is jammed. Suddenly there is a wet sort of sparkly fizzing sound, a big bang, and black smoke starts pouring of every orifice of the printer. Mike leaps for the cord and pulls it out of the wall then starts waving the smoke away from our brand new computer while I sit there staring, awed by how much smoke one machine can produce, so suddenly. It is like a magic trick. A very expensive magic trick.

Lisa: “I guess that answers the voltage question.”

Mike (taking a deep breath): “Maybe we should stop for the day.”

That makes the tally of electrical equipment we’ve ruined since getting here as follows: three transformers, one fuse on my lymphedema pump, a lamp, several light bulbs, a coffee machine, a hot water heater, and a printer.

On the bright side we haven’t actually started a fire yet, so I reckon we’re still ahead.

When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision

This story starts in May. In May, Mike was in Laos in the middle of his first seven weeks at his new job with World Vision. I was in LA wrapping up my own job. Mike was trying to find his feet in a new place and in a new life. I was trying to disengage from familiar people and a familiar life.

We were in very different places – not just physically – and as we spent my evenings and Mike’s early mornings talking via skype, I frequently found myself feeling torn. I did want to hear the honest truth about how things were in Laos and try to support Mike through the first shockwaves of this change. But as I was tearing myself loose from LA and preparing to step into the whirlwind I also, often, found myself longing to just hear the reassuring message: “We totally made the right decision. Everything’s great. You’re going to love it here.”

Some days I got that. Many days I didn’t.

The night that Mike first told me about Sommai, I didn’t.

The day before, Mike told me, he’d received an urgent phone call from a staff member, Edena, who was based in a field office four hours outside of Luang Prabang. There was a very sick sponsored child in her district, Edena said. Sommai was seven, and lived in a remote and inaccessible village. There was no cell phone reception or road access in this village – it was another hour north by motorbike, and then a twenty-minute walk into the hills.

Edena didn’t speak very good English. She couldn’t explain what might be wrong with Sommai, but she did manage to convey that he needed urgent medical care or he might die. She wanted Mike’s authorization to send him to the district health center, but here was the big problem with this situation (or, rather, the tenth big problem): the family was very poor. So poor that, even with the organization committing to cover most of the bills that would follow, Edena didn’t think that the family had the money to pay their quarter of the treatment costs.

So Mike was left wondering what to do. The organization has many good reasons for its policies requiring some family contribution for medical care. There are also good reasons why it’s standard practice that the family pays the initial costs that are incurred and then files for reimbursement. Mike couldn’t just ignore these policies, but could he really sanction delaying or denying assistance over what was (to us) a relatively small sum of money?

As soon as possible after Edena’s call, Mike met with child sponsorship staff in the Luang Prabang office. Together they searched for a solution.

No, the staff confirmed – Mike could not circumvent these policies just because he felt like it. Perhaps, the staff suggested, the family could borrow some money from the village development bank (a small community fund set up in many villages to help in emergencies just like this one).

Only, three hours and numerous phone calls later, it turned out that this village didn’t have one.

Then they discussed whether Mike should write to the national director and ask for an exemption from the family contribution co-pay.

Mike was torn on this, and in the end it was the national staff that tipped the scales towards a no, citing two things Mike already knew. The organization supported thousands of children and they couldn’t make exemptions for all, or even most, of them. Perhaps even more importantly, the staff said, if they sought an exemption in this case many other families in the village would also claim extreme poverty. No one would pay their share, and it would ultimately make the job of the field staff much more difficult.

“Sommai’s family will find a way to borrow the money from relatives or friends, or maybe the staff in the field will help out of their wages,” the Luang Prabang staff told Mike. “We should wait.”

To Mike – a month into the job – it seemed like a gut-wrenching gamble to take on the life of a child, but he took their advice and sent the message back to Edena. The organization would help. As per policy they’d reimburse most of the medical expenses, but the family had to come up with the initial co-pay.

“What do you think?” Mike asked me that night in May, over skype, “How do you make these sorts of decisions?”

In California, sitting alone among half-packed boxes in our quiet living room, I shrugged even though he wasn’t there to see it. How did you make that sort of decision?

“I don’t know, Mike,” I said. “I don’t know.”

Sommai lived. Over the next day or two the family did come up with the copay – they borrowed money from their relatives, and others who lived in the village. Sommai was transferred to the district health center. Soon after that, on the urgent recommendation of the district center, he was transferred to Luang Prabang where he spent six days in hospital before he was discharged.

After his return, from back in the village, Edena reported that he was still a very sick little boy, but recovering.

A month later, Mike and I were still chewing over this case. One beautiful evening in June, three nights after Mike arrived back in California, we took a break from the chaotic hard work of boxing up our lives. We sat on the porch with our good friends Matt and Hilary. We sipped sauvignon blanc. We layered triple cream brie and dates on water crackers. We talked about Sommai’s case, and others, all night.

You never stray too far from these conversations when you’re in a job like Mike’s. Physically you can be thousands of miles away, sipping wine and eating imported cheese, but the questions and the dilemmas don’t stay behind – they never stray far.

So Hilary and Matt got an earful. They plunged into the experiential waterfall of Mike’s early days in Laos with full attention and keen interest.

Three nights before we left Los Angeles, we had dinner with Matt and Hilary again. As we were leaving Hilary passed me an envelope. Inside was five hundred dollars in cash.

“Here’s some from us,” she said, “Our part. Maybe it’ll help. Maybe next time there’s a Sommai, or you see a need, maybe it’ll help knowing you have some in reserve.”

We were both awed by this generosity, and grateful, but Mike was also a bit worried.

“Money’s tricky,” he said to me later. “What if we can’t use it soon, or they don’t approve what we do with it? What if…”

“Stop it,” I told him. “Matt and Hilary love us. They gave this to ease burdens. They trust our judgment and know that we’ll be best placed to see ways this can be used. They won’t care if it takes months, or a year. You are not to worry about this, of all things.”

[Next time in Part II of this story, Mike and I visit Sommai in his village]

  1. When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision
  2. When Helping is Hard (Part 2): In the village
  3. When Helping is Hard (Part 3): Score one for policy
  4. When Helping is Hard (Part 4): Money, it’s complicated

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Pebbles, insults, and memories

Something awesome happened today.

Chip MacGregor, literary agent extraordinaire, called my book a “cult hit” on his blog. But that wasn’t the only awesomeness in his post. He also reproduced a letter he’d received from someone who’d sent him an unsolicited proposal. He wrote her a brief note saying that he didn’t think there was a market for her book, and she sent him back a letter saying, “Destruction? Is that not your very identity? Your cruelty oozes…You should be immensely worried about who you are… Believe it or not, Chippy, you’re a pebble, like all of us.”

There was a lot in there I left out, but I think the best part of the whole letter is the pebble line. Who gets all worked up – using the words gross, ugly, hatcheting, and demolishing – and then caps it off by calling someone “Chippy” and “a pebble”?

A pebble.

So I’ve been thinking about pebbles and smiling today. And that’s made me think about Alaska and a moment when I wasn’t smiling quite as much.

That story starts with souvenir collecting – a topic I wrote about a couple of years ago in an essay called “Thanksgiving”. Here’s an excerpt from that essay (and I swear that the word pebbles was, indeed, in there when I originally published it):

“What is it about being somewhere different that breeds the need to capture something we can carry with us when we leave?

The root of “souvenir” is the verb “to remember”, and the word has come to refer to keepsakes of sentimental value that remind one of past events. Despite the fact that stores selling mostly snow globes and magnets have managed to cheapen this French contribution to the global vocabulary almost beyond use, I still can’t quite let it go. I must admit that I love souvenirs. At their best, they are so much more than things. They are pebbles picked up along the path of life. They are reminders that this path stretches far beyond my living room.

This admission should not be taken to indicate a wholehearted abandonment of all pretension or my endorsement of plastic shot glasses and cheesy tee shirts. To the contrary, I consider my tastes to be highly refined. I may not be able to consistently assemble a trendy outfit, but I am an expert on what constitutes a good souvenir.

This expertise was gained the old-fashioned way – practice, practice, practice. As a wee child I started by collecting “things” – marble boxes inlaid with lapis from India, carved rhinos from Zimbabwe, bronze windmills from Amsterdam… By the time I was ready to leave home and head for University my bedroom looked like a miniature inanimate petting zoo had wandered into a Ten Thousand Villages display. As I packed box after box I decided that two new qualities needed to guide my souvenir collecting – a consistent theme, and portability.

So, in what I now see as my delayed “girl scout” phase, I started collecting patches. As a little girl I would have loved to belong to a club like Girl Scouts that awarded patches for doing things like setting fires, memorizing Bible verses, and reading 5,000 books (especially if that club had awarded patches by mail so that I didn’t actually have to interact with any other children to participate). Instead of a club, however, I got the occasional family-cockroach-massacre in Bangladesh where we competed to see who could amass the biggest pile of carcasses, and spent many hours on my belly in the dirt with my siblings trying to sneak around the entire perimeter of our five acre garden in Zimbabwe without the family dogs discovering what we were up to.

Perhaps if some caring soul had awarded a younger me patches to recognize outstanding achievements in cockroach hunting and canine evasion, I would not have had to spend time working through this phase as an adult. But no one did. So in a spectacular demonstration of resilience, I decided to start awarding patches to myself as souvenirs of my travels..”

After my delayed girl-scout phase I moved on to collecting Christmas ornaments. And, recently I’ve taken to picking up a pebble here or there.

The first pebble I picked up was in Turkey in 2007, at Gallipoli – that site of Australia’s most celebrated military defeat. Before we went, I hadn’t particularly wanted to visit Gallipoli, but my day there impacted me deeply. Just before we left I picked a pebble in Anzac cove. The stone I selected was red. Round on one side and rough on the other, it has been split in half. White veins of quartz run through it in a mirror image of the human body. I carry that pebble in my camera case now, and whenever I look at it I don’t think first of blood and loss and needless sacrifice, or even bravery and “mateship”. I think of graciousness.

But that is another story – the story of the Gallipoli pebble – and perhaps I will tell it someday.

Today’s story is about a pebble I found in my makeup drawer a couple of months ago while I was packing up to move to Laos. This pebble was a smooth, flat, oval. It was grey. It had three white lines of quartz encircling it. And I could not, for the life of me, remember where I had picked it up. Or why.

I kept this pebble on the bench for days, puzzling over it.

After a week, I threw it out.

Not even I could justify shipping a rock all the way from LA to Asia when I could remember exactly nothing about why it may be significant.

About a month after this, Mike and I were in Alaska. We drove from Anchorage to Talkeetna one day to gaze upon the majesty that is Mt McKinley, and when we were done gazing upon majesty we wandered down to the river. Like every river in Alaska, it seems, it was flowing cold and clear over thousands and thousands of smooth, grey, stones.

The pebble I had puzzled over and then discarded had probably come from a river, I realized. And, with that, I remembered…

I had picked up the grey pebble in New Zealand, on our honeymoon, the day we went white water rafting. I remembered reaching down for it – all wet and silvery and cold, so cold – just as the river had been that day. I remembered thinking (unusually sentimentally, for me) that the three parallel lines of quartz that marked the stone could represent Mike, me, and God.

“You threw away our honeymoon rock?” Mike asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face as I relayed all of this to him. “You threw me, you, and God, in the trash?”

“I couldn’t remember,” I said, sulking. “It gets really hard to keep track of where you, me, and God have been, where we’re going, and what it might mean. I was throwing away all my memories, trying to be an efficient packer, because someone wants me to move to Laos.”

“The memories you couldn’t actually remember?” Mike asked, not even trying not to laugh anymore. “Those ones? And that was really talented, by the way, you managed to blame both me and Laos.”

“Thank you,” I said.

So that is my pebble story for the day. What about you? What souvenirs do you favor?

Getting started on home and place

It is Monday afternoon already. Where did the morning go? We’ve been here in Laos five weeks now, and in the midst of all the different beds we’ve been sleeping in and all the suitcases we’ve been living out of, I’ve been trying very hard to keep some things constant:

(A) get up when Mike does at about 6:15; and

(B) keep mornings set aside as “working on the book” time.

Roosters and a restless husband have made the first resolution relatively easy to keep (except on the couple of mornings last week when Mike left our bed in the 3’s – last week was not a good sleep week in our household). But as for the second, I’m starting to wonder whether that one is only going to get more challenging the more we settle into a “real life” routine here.

Last Monday we were still camping out at someone else’s house. Their maid did our laundry and washed the dishes. I had a choice between writing or lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling fan. (Or, to be fair, walking down the street to the Lao Red Cross and getting a massage). But given that not even I can take an entire day of massage, staying focused every morning was easy.

But this Monday morning, at our new place with working internet, there were dishes to be washed, beds to be made, Terms of Reference for consulting projects to be drafted, parents to catch up with, friends in Australia to hear good news from, nutella to get out of the new ant-proof pantry and eat straight from the jar, and handymen to wait for.

(The handymen will, I hope, address the upstairs AC, the broken bed frame, the non-functioning hot water heater, and the toilets – we are down to only one fully functional toilet – before our first guests arrive tomorrow.)

So book time this morning has been a bit squeezed. As in “non-existent”.

And now it’s Monday afternoon and I’m trying to get myself back in book zone. The chapter I’m working on at the moment deals with the theme of home as place. In the first draft of the book this particular chapter opens and closes in Kenya after a brief detour to Tanzania. The middle scene is set primarily in Hawaii. I have not lived any of those places. And I find myself looking at the chapter now knowing it needs significant rewriting and not knowing quite sure where to start.

Mind you, that’s nothing new. When it comes to writing I often don’t know exactly where to start until long after I’ve actually started.

You’d think that knowing this about myself would make it easier to just get on with it and get started writing something. Anything.

It doesn’t.

It makes me yawn and want to write blog posts instead. It makes me want to lie down and read someone else’s book. It makes me look around our place and wonder whether the new plants need water. For, after a weekend packed full of sweaty shopping from roadside stalls we have plants now. And a bamboo bookshelf. And dishes. And a small glass teapot just the right size for me to make myself a pot of tea for when I’m working. And the cutest wood and mesh ant-proof pantry that we’ve carefully stood in plastic bowls full of baby-powder (which sort of ruins the cute look a little, but if kept ants out of the cereal I’ll take it).

But it’s Monday. And I know I’m not going to be able to figure out where to start writing until I after I’ve started writing. So I better get out that teapot, fill it, and (yawn) get started.

But, first, a quote that made me laugh last week.

“One’s home is like a delicious piece of pie you order in a restaurant on a country road one cozy evening – the best piece of pie you have ever eaten in your life – and can never find again.  After you leave home, you may find yourself feeling homesick, even if you have a new home that has nicer wallpaper and a more efficient dishwasher than the home in which you grew up.” Lemony Snicket

Do you feel homesick for your childhood home like this?

Conflict – avoid or embrace?

I had all sorts of other topics I was going to blog about this week – missionaries, motorbikes, and mangoes. But the week has been dominated by the house, so it seems fair that the blog should be too – for a little while longer, at least.

Some good things have happened. I had a really great chat on skype with our landlady, who lives in Tennessee at the moment. Mike and I figured out that if we sleep in the second bedroom the room is both darker and quieter – I can still hear roosters, but they are not nearly as strident. And the kitchen table has been a fun place to work this last couple of days. We don’t actually have anything kitchenish to clutter up that space yet, so I have commandeered the kitchen bench.

It is currently covered with small pieces of paper, each inscribed with a scene or a theme for the book I’m working on. I have the beginning of the story arc all mapped out, and the end, but the middle is just a mess of tiny pieces of paper marked with things like “cyberdating and filter theory”, “taxi driver’s treatise on love”, “interview – Vancouver”, “faith? and hope?” I’m hoping that being able to actually shift pieces of the puzzle around will help as I push forward with the narrative.

Ironically, the chapter that I am working on right now deals with a failed romance that taught me just how much of a conflict avoider I can be. And what has happened as we have moved in and tested out the house this week has shown me clearly that, although I have grown in leaps and bounds in this area, risking conflict is still not a personal strength.

We have emailed our distant landlord and the young man who has overseen our move-in three times already in the last three days with detailed descriptions of things that are happening around here that are, well, less than completely desirable.

So when I got up this morning to find Mike drafting up another letter about the water pressure (or lack thereof) in the upstairs bathrooms, my first instinct was to say, “Um… maybe we shouldn’t bring that up right now. There are lots of things on the ‘needs attention’ list already.”

“There is almost no water coming out of the sink in the middle bedroom,” Mike said. “The shower is only dripping this morning. The hot water heater in the other bedroom doesn’t work and the pressure’s only marginally better in there at the moment anyway. You know what that means? A cold shower for you this morning.”

“OK,” I said quickly, “Send the email.”

But now Mike has gone off to work and I’m left here to talk to the young man who is coming by with a handyman to make a start on things. I don’t think Mike and I are this young man’s favorite people in the world right now. And, much as I try to tell myself that we are really not being unreasonable, I know I’m going to have to work to keep myself from pre-empting my show and tell of the problems with a string of apologies.

“I’m really sorry we broke the bed in the master bedroom on the first night. I swear we didn’t provoke it – Mike merely sat on the bed and the (too small) nails on that entire side (that was not properly braced) just came apart.”

“I’m really sorry that the lights flicker and dance in a dim, distracting, ballet whenever we have the effrontery to have some lights and an AC on at the same time. Or, even worse, try for hot water.”

“I’m really sorry that a four year old can open some of the windows from the outside of the house because the window locks are so flimsy.”

Lest you think I am venturing into spiteful hyperbole on this last one, I’m not. This is exactly how we found out about this problem when we were showing some friends around the house last night. Their curious four-year-old put her hand up to the bedroom window from the upstairs balcony, tried to slide it open, and managed to do exactly that despite the fact that the window was, actually, locked from the inside.

I count myself very lucky that our landlord has expressed nothing but full support and a genuine desire to address these issues. I count myself very lucky that the young man tasked with being the on-site person here speaks excellent English. Yet I still feel a bit icky about it all. I hate feeling like we’re being a big hassle. I’m not particularly looking forward to the phone call telling me the handyman etc are on their way.

How did someone who is generally very accomplished and confident develop these strong instincts to avoid potential conflict? It’s been six years since the events in the chapter I am writing at the moment, and I’m still trying to figure this one out.

What about you? Conflict avoider, or conflict embracer?

Renter’s Remorse

Last night, after Mike got home from work, we packed up our various suitcases into the office car and moved over to our new house!

We are lucky to have this house… this I know. It’s only been five weeks since we arrived in country – it could have taken us much longer to find a place. And this one has windows, with screens. It has air conditioners. It even has actual shower stalls instead of the toilet showers that are standard here and that leave the bathroom floor, toilet seat, and (frequently) toilet paper, wet for hours.

Our landlords speak excellent English, and have semi-furnished the house with a couple of beds, a fridge, a gas cooker, a microwave, a table and chairs – even a desk and small bookshelf for me. The internet is hooked up and working.

I think, I hope, I will feel safe here during nights that Mike is away in the field.

Yes, logically I know that we are very lucky indeed to have this house. So can someone perhaps explain to me why Mike and I sat at the breakfast table this morning staring glumly into our cereal bowls? (Cereal bowls, I might add, that our accommodating landlords have lent us until our shipment arrives.) And why, as Mike was walking out the door at 7am this morning, did I have to fight the urge to throw my arms around his neck and beg him not to leave me alone here to deal with…

The dead cockroach on the floor by the sink.

A hot water heater in the master bedroom shower that doesn’t work.

Missing toilet seats.

Missing keys for the front door.

Air conditioners in the bedrooms that don’t have the cooling muscle I’d hoped for.

A fridge that’s on the small side.

A posse of roosters just over the back fence that crowed us awake just after five this morning, and a loud and angry dog who apparently hates them as much as we do.

The sheer amount of work that needs to be done to make this place feel like a home.

It’s not as simple as popping out to Target to pick up a drying rack for clothes, or dishwashing detergent, or a couch. I have no transport right now, and there is no Target.

Then I look out this window – the window above the stairs – and I see this. And I remember again that we are lucky, very lucky indeed, to have this house.

Now I have a cockroach to go deal with, but what about you – ever had renter’s remorse?

House hunting and the powers that be

This may come as news to some of you – it did to me eight months ago – but Laos is one of the world’s few remaining communist states. The full name of the country is officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and the only legal political party is the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The government publishes all newspapers, including two foreign language papers. Missionary work of any flavour is regulated. And when any staff of Mike’s organization visits the field projects they must be accompanied by a government official – an official who gets paid a per diem by the NGO for their time.

Here in Laos, I have been pondering how I may be able to periodically touch on the topics of God, the policies and practices of the organization Mike works for, or the government, without treading on any toes. I haven’t come up with anything brilliant yet. So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to try using the phrase “the powers that be” to refer to the three aforementioned entities and leave it to the reader to figure out which one I might be talking about.

I apologize in advance if this proves confusing. So, too, can life be here.

During the past two weeks we have continued the house hunting that Mike began while he was here without me in April and May. There are no classifieds we can read, or website we can search. If you need to find a house in Luang Prabang you have exactly two options. You can walk the streets looking for hand-painted “house for rent” signs attached to gates and then have a Lao-speaker call the contact phone number on the sign. Or, you can go through a local agent – someone who’s job it is to find out where all the houses for rent are hiding and to negotiate on your behalf with prospective landlords.

Phet is just such an agent, and the day after we arrived I took a deep breath, put on the helmet she had borrowed for me, and climbed onto the back of her motorcycle. We saw five houses that day, and I came back excited. Two, I thought, were good options. One of those options Mike hadn’t yet seen.

I tried to describe it to him over dinner that night.

“We went over the wooden pedestrian bridge across the Khan,” I said. “Then we turned left and went down a dirt road.”

“How far?” Mike asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Not far. It was a really pretty road – all jungly and tropical. There were temples, and plants, and another wooden bridge. It was very atmospheric,” I said.

“Atmospheric,” Mike repeated, as if that may not be the most satisfactory of descriptors for an access road.

“What was the house like?” he asked.

“Oh, it was cool,” I said. “There was a big veranda on the top, and broken pool out the back, and two cute dogs. The dogs were very friendly, but they belong to the…”

“The house,” Mike reminded me.

“It had two big rooms up the top, and another room that was locked and they couldn’t find the key. So I didn’t see that one. But the stairs were good. And there were tiles on the floor. And lots of trees. And it was quiet. And I liked it.”

“What about water tanks?” Mike asked. “Was it on city water? Was there a big water heater? Was there glass on the windows, and screens? Fans? Did all the air conditioners work? Was there a phone line into the house?”

“I dunno,” I said, realizing for the first time that I may have neglected to pay attention to a couple of key attributes. “I’m pretty sure there was a phone line. I think there was glass on the windows.”

“You think,” Mike closed his eyes and took a deep breath. I hoped he was visualizing us sitting in hammocks on a tree-shaded veranda, debriefing our days over a cold drink. But I figured it was more likely that he was lodging a quick request with the powers that be for extra patience.

“OK,” he said after he opened his eyes again. “We’ll see if we can go see it together this weekend.”

We did take a truck to go see it that weekend, and by the time we’d found the vehicle bridge over the river Khan (a good deal further away from the house than the pedestrian bridge suitable for motorcycle traffic) and bumped our way down three torturously slow, bone jarring, head-banging, kilometers, I was deflated.

“Getting in and out of here on anything other than a motorcycle would be tough, wouldn’t it,” I said.

“Yeah,” Mike said gently. “It’d be tough. Especially when it rained. And you might end up feeling very isolated.”

My beautiful vision of us on the veranda dissolved and was replaced by a picture of motorcycling along a dirt road to do the grocery shopping during a monsoonal downpour. That was the end of our quest to acquire the jungle house – which was just as well, really, because Phet informed us later that day that the landlady had changed her mind about evicting the current tenants after all – and it was back to the drawing board.

But we’ve now seen 27 houses, and it’s beginning to get seriously demoralizing. Some houses have no air conditioners, or glass in the windows. Some have no phone lines installed (and, hence, no possibility of in-house internet). Most have no external hot water heaters. Some are nestled in between construction sites, of which there are many in Luang Prabang at present. Some are beautiful, but sit right on a main road and beside local restaurants. And where there is a local restaurant there is beerlao. And where there is beerlao there will likely be karaoke.

If you don’t count my short-lived infatuation with the jungle house, or the stunningly beautiful way-out-of-our-price-range house in the hills outside of town (a house of two pools, luscious gardens, hanging plants, shinning wooden balustrades, and an in-house bar), we’ve found exactly one house we really liked. Number 18. A wooden house perched on the banks of the Mekong.

But on Sunday afternoon (after three visits to this house, four long emails, and two extended meetings with Phet and the prospective landlord) the negotiations broke down. The landlord, you see, had suddenly decided to only offer us a contract for rent that went to the end of April 2011, and the powers that be require us to rent a house for an entire year at a time.

To complicate matters further, the powers that be require us to pay the entire years worth of rent in advance. This removes any economic incentive for landlords to make ongoing improvements to the property. This means that what we move into is probably what we will be stuck with.

To complicate matters even further, the powers that be have decreed that those on tourist visas must rent rooms in guesthouses, rather than renting houses privately. Just this week, the powers that be have been visiting houses inhabited by foreigners, checking up on them, and evicting any who hold tourist visas.

And, to complicate matters even further, the powers that be have not yet issued Mike’s work visa (although it has been in progress since February). Yet other powers that be are very eager to see us in a house, and are urging us to make a decision and just get on with it.

I am not eager to get on with it, as the leading option at the moment is the house on the main road beside the restaurant. I am also not eager to stay indefinitely in the guesthouse – that bastion of slamming doors, late-night voices, and neighborly circular saws. I am, in other words, a bit stuck.

So if any of you dear readers are in a position to have a quiet and respectful word on our behalf with the powers that be regarding these matters, please… go right ahead.

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