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Not So Laid-Back Vientiane

Many guide books describe Vientiane as being “laid-back.” They are either out-dated or misinformed, because the capital is far from relaxing. Compared to Bangkok or Beijing, I suppose it is, but it’s nothing like it was a short ten years ago, the first time I was here.

As an example that Vientiane is changing for the worse in some ways, a few weeks ago the Vientiane Times had a second page headline that read “Businessman, driver survive hail of gunfire.” The businessman wasn’t wounded, but his driver was hit three times in the right arm. The businessman, a Mr. Tong, is a “successful entrepreneur who has been involved in charitable works,” according to the newspaper. It goes on to report

“According to his account, Mr. Tong told friends that it was the truth that there was somebody who would like to kill him but he still did not understand the reason why they wanted to do so. He noted on his status that his was a flourishing business but in a competitive sector where it was not always simple to be successful. There had been so many rumours, but on Friday he learnt firsthand the extent of the danger lurking in society. Mr. Tong added at the end of the message that he wanted a peaceful resolution and forgiveness to the person or people behind the attack.”

Yikes, perhaps one more thing to worry about while I’m riding my motorbike to the village at night after work: stray bullets.

Another concern is missing manhole covers, as was reported a week ago. Thieves have been stealing them to sell for the metal. I think they’ve been taking them from sidewalks, not main thoroughfares, because the report stated that a car had been damaged while trying to park on a sidewalk. I’d hate to come up at night on a gaping hole in the street on my motorbike. I’m pretty sure I’d be a goner.

So, Vientiane, while somewhat relaxed, is not the sleepy capital it once was. Progress or not, it’s definitely changed.

Freakish Storm

Downed trees that dragged and snapped power lines, collapsed buildings and homes, crushed billboards and damaged transmission towers were the results of a freak storm that passed through a small section of the Vientiane area this past Wednesday morning. The Vientiane Times reported that

The rain and wind blew down trees and felled utility lines creating traffic difficulties in the morning commute.

Roofs of houses and buildings and advertising signboards along the roads were blown over.

The cost of damage bill is estimated over 10 billion kip, Mr Bountham said.

[Note: $1 US = 8,000 Laos kip]

The storm just missed our small village, but the power was out from about 5 a.m. until 6 that evening. We only had a small amount of rain and moderate winds that morning, so, as I rode my motorbike to work on Thursday morning, I didn’t realize what had happened until I was a couple of kilometers outside the village. Then I started to see large trees snapped off near their bases and power lines down. Once out on Thadeua Road, the main road that runs from the border into Vientiane, I noticed more debris on the road, a few buildings that had been knocked to the ground, many trees swept over, and a main transmission tower that had been damaged by a large billboard smacking into it (this was probably why we lost our power). Crews were working on getting the power lines back up, and they were still going at it yesterday morning (Friday).

It was a frightening and disastrous storm for many people, but, luckily, there were no reports of deaths. The storm path was about 5 miles long and it ended near the new American embassy, after which I saw no damage as I made my way into the capital. As I said, our village was spared, but it does illustrate the randomness and localized nature of these sudden storms, much like tornadoes in the U.S. Midwest. Where’s the next one going to hit?

Going Coconuts

I was working on lesson plans at my computer about eleven o’clock a few mornings ago when I heard several voices and thumping noises just outside one of the south-facing windows of the house. The windows are opaque, so I walked upstairs to the open-air window to see what the commotion was about. About 50 feet from the house, a palm tree was holding the interest of a few family members. I followed their gaze up, and at the top of the tree was a man hacking away with a machete at a bundle of coconuts. He was about 40 feet up without any safety rope and looked to be confidently experienced. Beneath the tree a few of the family were holding ropes to slow the descent of the coconut bundles as they were parted from the tree. Eventually, a couple of dozen would be harvested and distributed among the family. (There are six husks stashed away in our house right now.)

One of the advantages of living in the countryside is that you can live off the land, if necessary. There are also papaya, banana, and mango trees on the property, and green onions, cabbage, chilis, cilantro and basil are grown in the fields. These crops are sold at the Morning Market (Talat Sao) in Vientiane, but the coconuts, bananas, papaya and mangos are mostly consumed here. The coconuts are a real treat on the hot days of March, April and May, especially if you stick them in the fridge awhile before drinking the water inside the husks. Just a few whacks with a machete off the top opens up the husk to expose the sweet liquid inside.

Here are a few photos of coconut harvesting time.

spectators of coconut harvesting

Here are a few of the family looking up at the tree climber hacking off bundles of coconuts. The rooster in the cage was a bit miffed by the goings-on.

Coconut harvester

Noy, the local coconut harvester, is partially hidden behind the palm leaves. He was up there for almost 30 minutes.

Waiting for coconuts

Everyone’s waiting to get a few of the coconuts. I would guess that a couple of dozen were brought down from the tree.

Kim lowers coconuts to ground.

Kim, Nai’s nephew, helps to lower a bundle to the ground.

Sun gets a coconut.

Sun, the husband of one of Nai’s nieces, gets one of the goodies, top hacked off already.

Meow and friend.

Meow, a niece, and her friend seem to enjoy the affair.

Sitting on a coconut.

Nyeow, another cousin, finds another use for a coconut.

Baby Leo

Baby Leo seems entirely disinterested in the proceedings. He’s being held by Goh, Sun’s wife.

Coconut tree climber.

Noy descends the tree the same way he went up–hand over hand, and one foot at a time.

Noy, coconut tree climber

This is the intrepid climber, Noy, who seemed to enjoy his task.

Happy Holidays

I want to wish everyone a Happy Holiday season, whatever and wherever you may be celebrating this time of year. To all my family and friends, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I’m going into Vientiane in just a little while, to see what kind of festivities might be going on in the next few days. However, the double whammy of Laos being a Buddhist country controlled by Communists probably means that there will be few celebrations of Christmas. More likely, the bigger parties will be found on New Year’s Eve and Day.

I’ll spend the New Year holiday at The Farm, since Nai’s family usually has a big get-together at that time, with plenty of food, Beer Lao and other beverages, and music.

So, again, Happy Holidays to everyone and I hope you’re doing well.

Another Year Goes By

Yes, Happy Birthday to me again, as another year passes by all too swiftly. It’s my ??th birthday, but I couldn’t really celebrate it today, since I had to go to the school for a bit this afternoon, and I have to get up around 5 a.m. tomorrow to get ready to go to classes, so it’s early to bed tonight. I’ll probably do a later party tomorrow.

We did do up a birthday cake. Here it is.

My ??th birthday cake.

My ??th birthday cake.

Now, if you really want to know how old I am, try to count the candles. I tell ya, it was horrid. Before I finished lighting all the candles, my fingers got stiff and I went through several books of matches. To top it off, wax was everywhere, which made the cake almost inedible. Though it’s been decently mild here lately, the build up of heat from the candles forced us to turn on a couple of fans to cool us down. As a matter of fact, we needed three fans set very close to the cake and turned up high to get the candles blown out. Well, at least it didn’t start a fire. (See previous birthday posts here and here.)

All in all though, I’m happy I made it through another year. It’s certainly better than the alternative! Thanks everyone for your well wishes.

Happy Thanksgiving!

I just want to wish a Happy Thanksgiving to all my family, friends and readers in the United States. I hope you all enjoy the day with friends and loved ones, wherever you might be.

It’s just a normal work day here in Laos. I’ve seen one advertisement from a restaurant/bar that is serving a special Thanksgiving meal, but it’s during my classroom hours, so I won’t be going. I probably wouldn’t go anyway, since I don’t like riding my motorbike at night unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Again, hope you all have a great day and I hope the weather hasn’t messed up your travel plans. More later.

Snake in the House!

Talk about a bad Monday. I was sitting at a table in the house reading “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, a fairly engrossing book. I happened to glance up, and I noticed something moving in the shadow of one of the dark corners of the room. I stood up and walked a step toward it. I stopped. It was a snake wriggling around. It was about a foot-and-a-half long, small in body and dark-colored. It was moving slowly and hid behind an old suitcase when it noticed me approaching.

I was the only one in the house, but Nai was next door at his sister’s house. I didn’t want to lose track of the intruder, so I didn’t dare run over there to get help. If it had gotten away while I was gone, it might still be hiding here. My phone was on the table, so I rang Nai. Luckily, he had his phone with him, and he and his sister came running over to the window. A friend of the family came in through the front door with a five-foot bamboo pole in hand. I pointed out the snake to him and with a couple of jabs, he killed it, picked it up with the pole and tossed it out the door.

Whew! Nai said that a snake bigger than this one had come in a few years back. This was fairly small, but some of the deadliest snakes are not very large. This one looked more like a common garter snake than like anything that might have been deadly, but I sure wasn’t taking any chances. And no, I didn’t need to change my shorts after the event. Overall, I think I prefer frogs in my shoes (see previous post). More later (but, not snakes!).

A Few Odds and Ends

Frogs

I’ve discovered, uncomfortably, that various large bullfrogs (perhaps it’s the same one) like to take up residence in my sneakers. A few times I’ve jammed my foot into them only to come up against an obstruction in the toe of the shoe. After a few times of inadvertently squashing the Kermits (not harmfully), I started to look into the shoes before putting them on. Several times I found frogs hiding in the inner recessess. I always go outside and shake them out and send them on their way, but they always come back. Now, I fold down the tongues and stuff the dirty socks into the heel. That’s kept them out, so now they’ve taken to hiding in Nai’s shoes. I haven’t told him yet that they’re doing that. He hasn’t worn this particular pair of shoes in quite some time, so I’m waiting for the day he puts his feet into them and makes a surprising discovery! I can be a stinker, sometimes.

This is kind of what the frogs look like.

frog2

Perhaps I should buy them their own pair of customized shoes.

frog shoes

 

LoTRO

Yessss! I’ve discovered that I CAN play Lord of The Rings Online from The Farm. The connection is very spotty and I lose it quite often while I’m playing, but at times I can play for several hours without a glitch. The slow connection means that there can be quite a time lag, with the action on the screen being very choppy, and at times unplayable. But, still, it exceeds my best hopes and better still is that there isn’t that big of a download; most of the graphics are already on the main game that I downloaded a month or so ago. Addiction, thy name is LoTRO.

Frogmorton in the Shire at night from a nearby ridge.

Frogmorton in the Shire at night from a nearby ridge.

The far northern region of Forochel with the Aurora Borealis glowing brightly.

The far northern region of Forochel with the Aurora Borealis glowing brightly.

The forbidding Barad Gularan in the Angmar region.

The forbidding Barad Gularan in the Angmar region.

Rain on Friday

This is supposed to be the dry season, but a few Fridays ago, I got severely drenched from a long downpour as I rode the motorbike into Vientiane to work. It looked like it might rain before I left The Farm, so I packed an extra pair of socks and underwear, just in case. I’m glad I did, because I couldn’t have gotten wetter if I had jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool. I always keep a set of “teacher clothes” at my desk, so, after changing, I left the wet blue jeans, shirt and sneakers in the motorbike basket. The very heavy rain continued for a couple of hours, as much of a downpour as anything we had during the wet season. It hasn’t rained since then.

LoTRO Ecstasy

I’ve written before that I’m, more or less, an addict of the Lord of the Rings Online (LoTRO) role-playing game (See the Blogroll on the right). When I worked in Korea, I played, if work didn’t interfere, up to 3 or 4 hours a day (longer in the cold winter months), and I at least logged in just about every day. I really immersed myself in the 6 characters that I created. I was living life in Middle Earth as, variously, a couple of elves, a couple of men, a hobbit and a dwarf. The graphics in the game are incredible, the best I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t in a hurry to try to get to the highest possible level because the immersion factor and the attention to the details of Tolkien’s books are superb, in my opinion. In other words, it wasn’t the destination, but the journey that was important.

Hobbiton

Looking at part of Hobbiton, The Shire.

Michel Delving

Another part of The Shire. Michel Delving, I believe.

I knew, however, that when I moved to Laos, a country with poor Internet conditions, I would probably have to give up the game. The download speeds would be slow and connection would be spotty. For the most part I was right. Recently, however, I’ve discovered that there are places where the download speeds might be fast enough to play the game. I thought that I’d give it a try.

My first big concern was downloading the game files to my laptop. My old computer, with the game already on it, had been stolen about a month after I got here, so I had to get the files to my new laptop. The game is huge, and a complete download is 13.5 gigabytes. With a slow connection that was going to take a LOT of time. Perhaps, I thought, I could go into Thailand, where speeds are faster, and download it there. Then I discovered that the school’s wi-fi connection allowed speeds of up to 1 Mb/s (megabyte per second) when there weren’t too many other teachers around that were using the connection. That would be early on Saturday mornings and during the weekdays. I tried it, and after a few weeks I got the complete download this past Tuesday!

The other concern was being able to actually play it. It’s very graphics intensive, so I still needed those quick download speeds. Now, I’m not about to sit at my desk, in full view of all the other teachers, and play LoTRO in my spare time, so I needed to find another place to play. I wondered if the various cafes and restaurants that offer free wi-fi would have good connections.

I went to a coffee shop near the school and, after getting the wi-fi password, I logged into the game. I was quite nervous–is the connection fast enough, will other stumbling blocks show up? After a few minutes, voila, I was in. All my characters were still there with all their upgrades I had earned along with the house I had purchased with in-game (not real) money. Yes, you can buy a house in the game to store all the trophies and loot you’ve found, and you can decorate the inside and outside with a variety of Middle-Earth furniture and lawn decorations.

My house in Middle Earth

My house in Middle Earth

View from house

Looking out at the view from my house.

I am in Seventh Heaven! I won’t be able to play every day, and I’ll only be able to play for a couple of hours on those days that I can play. For starters, that’s good enough for me.

Eventually, though, I know I’ll want to increase my playing time. The Internet that I’m able to get at The Farm sucks, in a word. I’m barely able to read email and check the weather. But, Nai’s brother, Pui, works for one of the providers that install the Internet into homes. I talked to him several months ago about the feasibility of installing it at The Farm. He said it could be done, but it would cost around $450. That was too expensive, in my opinion, but now that expense seems smaller in light of the fact that I can play LoTRO again. I’m going to talk to him again the next time I see him and ask about monthly fees, download speeds and download limits. If everything is even just minimally optimal, I’m going to have it installed.

At any rate, for now, I’m ecstatic! Are there any LoTRO players among my loyal readers? Let me know with a comment, please.

By the way, the game is free to play (F2P). There are options to pay real money (not that much) for some nice enhancements, but if you’re not inclined to do that, you can still get an amazing game experience without paying a dime. I’m sure that if you’re a fan of the books, you’ll be quite impressed, and even if you’re not a fan, you may still be bowled over.

Rivendell

A view of part of Rivendell

Old Cars in Vientiane

I’ve spotted quite a number of old cars in Vientiane recently. Usually I see them while I’m riding my motorbike and they’re moving along a block or so from where I’m at, so I don’t get a good look at them to see what make and model they are. However, I have seen quite a few old VW “Beetles,” the originals from what I guess would be the 1960s. Most of their exteriors looked quite aged, but they were still running.

Over the past few weeks, though, I saw these two old-timers, one parked on the side of the street and the other passing close by a few days later. I didn’t have a camera with me, so I’ve taken these photos from the Internet. While not exactly the same color, both of the old autos resembled the photos.

First was a cream-colored Studebaker Lark convertible with a black top. While not in “classic car” condition, it still looked like it was being carefully kept in good shape. Perhaps it belongs to an expat, maybe an embassy employee. My former boss in Morocco, John, the Regional English Language Officer at the American embassy, had his car shipped over, a 4-wheel drive Subaru, which he believed was the only one in Morocco. He told me that embassy personnel get a shipping allowance of 20 TONS! Small wonder that he’d brought the car with him.

John and 4-wheel drive Subaru.

Here’s John and his 4-wheel drive Subaru, the only one in Morocco, as far as he knew.

Here’s the Internet photo of the Studebaker. It’s a bit lighter colored than the one I saw, but it’s still a good resemblance.

Studebaker Lark Convertible

The other oldster that I saw was a Pontiac Tempest, sporting a faded and chipped pale blue exterior. It didn’t look nearly as well kept as the Studebaker, but it was still running. I’ll definitely keep my eyes peeled for other old timers now that I know there are at least a few on the roads in the capital. I wonder where they get the parts to keep them running? Here’s the Internet photo.

1966_pontiac_tempest_side_view