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Jerk Night in Vientiane

I copied this from my page “The Daily Commute” just in case you don’t read that page. (It’s on a tab at the top of the blog.) I’ll post from there occasionally if I think it’s interesting enough to cross post.

Tuesday, June 23

The traffic seemed quite a bit heavier than normal going in this morning, but there’s really not much to say. At night, however, the jerks were out in force.

First, I stopped at a major intersection to wait for the light to change to green. The drivers coming from the right side had the right of way at the time. Somebody in a large black pickup truck or SUV (couldn’t quite tell) pulled up behind me and after about 10 seconds or so, began honking his horn at me. Right then, there was no traffic from the right, but our light was still red. He kept insistently honking, so I kind of threw my hands up in a “what the heck do you want me to do?” gesture. I knew he wanted me to run the light or to pull over so that he or she could run through it. He kept honking until I swiveled my head around to get a glance of whoever it was and I pointed to the light. “It’s red, stupid.” I turned my head back around just in time to see a car speed through the green light. If I had tried to cross the road illegally, I’d have been wiped out. When the light changed, I purposefully took off very slowly. The black vehicle (it was a shiny new pickup) passed me on the right and turned right at the next light. Jerk Number One.

Jerk Number Two was waiting for me a few blocks down. This time I was on another major one way road and there are stop signs on the left and right at the intersection I was approaching. The traffic on both sides had stopped to wait for the line of cars and motorbikes to pass. I was near the end of that line when suddenly some fool came speeding from the left. He kind of slowed down when he came to the stop sign, but he didn’t stop. He was desperately impatient to cross the road, traffic be damned. He nosed his way into the first two lanes of the road, forcing a car to stop and causing a few motorbikes ahead of me to veer sharply out of his way, and kept on coming toward my lane. I had slowed down quite a bit by this time, but I was curious to see how far he would push the situation. (Don’t worry, I was quite prepared to stop if he didn’t.) I came right up to his van as he finally stopped half way across my lane, and as I passed him by with several feet to spare, I gestured at him in a vague way (I really wanted to flip him off) and gave him (or her) a “drop dead” look.

There was only a single motorbike not too far behind me, so Jerk No. Two decided to wait. This guy would have had to wait about five seconds to cross the road legally, but that was too long for his convenience, I suppose. That’s one of the biggest problems with truck, car and motorbike operators here. They are extremely impatient. Another problem is that they seem to only think about themselves. “I’m going nowhere, but I have to get there NOW!”

Jerk Number Three didn’t involve me, but I had a front row seat to a nearly calamitous collision. I was waiting at another red light, an intersection that is notorious for vehicles disobeying the light. From the left came a motorbike full blast through his red light while a car with the green light (it’s a four-way stop) came speeding toward Vientiane. I thought for sure this was gonna be horrendous. The bike passed right in front of the car with only a few feet to spare. This jerk was lucky tonight, but how long will his luck hold out?

I made it back safely to The Farm. Another successful ride. Any ride that I survive is a success.

Rainy Season-When?

hot dry

We’re supposed to be in the rainy season now, and I should have been drenched more than once while riding my motorbike to or from Vientiane. However, we’ve had very little rain so far. Another teacher told me that the local meteorologists were calling for three more weeks of dry weather before the big rains set in. Wow, that’s a whole month wiped out.

I read an article in the Vientiane Times a few weeks back about the lack of rainfall and that the rice growers were bemoaning the fact that they can’t get their rice planted without the rain. I hope it comes soon, because everything is getting very dusty, especially the back road to my little village.

It’s about six kilometers out to the main road, and this back road is partially paved, but mostly dirt. Because it is heavily used by large (five ton?) trucks to haul sand and gravel from the Mekong to the various cement plants in the Vientiane area, the road is littered with gravel and covered over, in places, with sand. In many areas, you can’t tell that the road is paved. Heavy rain will wash a lot of this sand away, but for the moment, it’s a small Sahara. Some mornings I get stuck behind these trucks and I get covered with the dust that they kick up. I often wonder what’s the use of taking a shower!

So, as much as I dislike getting caught in a downpour, I’m hoping for the monsoon to come our way. Soon.

Another Death in the Night

Four wrecks and, after last night, three deaths in four days of commutes into and back from Vientiane. I normally only ride that route on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but I’m filling in for another teacher this week. One more night to go.

Last night’s victim was the mayor of the village where I’m staying. Apparently, a car hit the motorbike that he was driving and, perhaps, another. I rode through the scene of the accident and saw two motorbikes down, after I had seen an ambulance racing toward Vientiane earlier. I didn’t know that anyone had been killed until Nai told me this morning that the “village boss” (mayor) had been killed right where I had ridden the previous night.

Utter insanity on the roads here. You can read more details of last night by clicking the tab at the top of the page — The Daily Commute. More later (hopefully, not more accidents).

Slaughter on the Streets

motorbike wreck

This is not my photo, nor is it a picture of what I saw last night. It was taken in Vientiane, and it is typical of an accident scene here.

Riding my motorbike back to The Farm last night, I came across two traffic accidents. The first one was horrendous–two covered bodies lay in the street down the road from Wat Si Muang, near a traffic light, though the accident occurred away from the light. There was a very large police presence and dozens of gawking onlookers. I noticed the bodies as I rode slowly through the crowd, but I didn’t see what kind of vehicles were involved. Perhaps they had already been removed or maybe the bodies were those of pedestrians. The traffic light ahead was red, so I continued to ride slowly toward it. All of a sudden, a teen-aged boy on his motorbike, who I had seen as one of the gawkers, raced past me and ran through the red light.

That’s just insanely stupid, especially after the scene he had just witnessed. But, it’s a normal occurrence here; a huge number of motorbike riders routinely ignore all traffic laws. They run through red lights and stop signs, they operate their bikes without headlights, they don’t wear helmets, they exceed the speed limit, and when they turn onto a larger road from a side street, they rarely look to see if another vehicle is approaching. They also drive drunk. Put ’em together–teen boys, booze and motorbikes–what could possibly go wrong?

Another law that people ignore is riding on the wrong side of the road. This was the most difficult abuse for me to get used to. They do this because they’re too impatient to wait for traffic to clear so that they can cross into their proper driving lane. So, they ride along the side of the road, against traffic, peering back over their shoulders to see if there is any oncoming traffic behind them, and when the proper lane is clear, they’ll cut over to that side of the road. This can be terrible at night, when a speeding biker wearing black clothing and having no headlight comes at you all of a sudden out of nowhere, forcing you to swerve out of his or her path. This has happened to me on more than one occasion.

They do this as if they had special permission to turn your lane into their own legal avenue to get to the proper side of the road. At first I used to yell at them and swear and honk my horn, to let off steam. Everybody, and I mean everybody, does it, including foreigners. I’m one of the very, very few riders who will wait until traffic clears before I cross into my proper driving lane. Because of the relatively huge number of cars that the new middle class is buying, Vientiane is totally unprepared to handle all the traffic, so there is very little legal parking. People park their cars on the road, effectively cutting one of the driving lanes in half. It’s when motorbike riders going the wrong way come around one or more of these parked cars that it gets really dangerous, especially if there is heavy traffic next to you in the other driving lane. What do you do–swerve into the other lane and hope the drivers notice you and give way, hope that the other motorbike rider will use a little common sense (usually in short supply) or do you veer off to the right side of the road toward the parked car? I’ve usually been able to (cautiously) get into the other driving lane. It’s a scary proposition, just one of the many frightening things about riding a motorbike in Laos.

I don’t mean to single out motorbike riders, because drivers of other vehicles disobey the traffic laws and drive drunk, also. They, too, drive down the wrong side of the road, speed and generally drive like idiots. I would estimate, roughly, that 80 percent of motorbike riders and at least half the drivers of other vehicles would not pass a driver’s exam. Most drivers here, I’ve heard, don’t even have a driver’s license. Not surprising.

Anyway, I rode out of Vientiane toward The Farm. Just past the new U.S. Embassy there is a final traffic light. As I approached it, two ambulances raced screaming from the other direction and turned right at the light, heading toward a hospital along that particular road. I thought that there might be another accident further along. Sure enough, as I neared my turnoff, there was another large crowd of gawkers and police surrounding a scene that included a tuk-tuk that had a severely smashed-in front end. I didn’t see another vehicle, so again I don’t know that a motorbike was involved. I kind of doubt that there was, due to the magnitude of damage to the tuk-tuk. I continued on, hyper aware and extremely cautious.

It seems like every couple of weeks there is an article or letter in the Vientiane Times deploring the carnage on the roads of Laos and demanding that something be done about it. The authorities repeatedly say that they are going to crack down on those who drive drunk, speed and flout other traffic laws. However, nobody appears to be doing anything to change the situation. And the slaughter continues.

A Drenching

As far as I’m concerned, the rainy season has officially started when I get drenched riding my motorbike to or from work. That happened yesterday as I was riding to The Farm in the afternoon. I saw a black cloud not too far ahead of me releasing some rain on the Mekong, but I hoped I would avoid it as the road made a 90 degree turn out of Vientiane heading toward my neck of the woods. Unfortunately, the rain looked even worse in that direction, and eventually I ran smack dab into it, a real downpour, soaking me to the bone and limiting my vision because of my wet glasses and the wet visor on my helmet.

To top it off, the first few heavy rains of the season flood large portions of the road, because the drainage ditches haven’t been cleared in months. As I squinted my way through the slow traffic, I came upon one of these inches-deep-with-water areas. Suddenly, a tuk-tuk came speeding by on my left and sent a wave of muddy water washing over me. I was blinded for a few seconds and afraid that I would hit another vehicle in front of me. I swore at the driver under my breath and hoped there would be no more rude drivers coming by. There weren’t, thankfully, and soon the rain ended and the hot sun returned. By the time I got to the house, my shirt was almost dry, but my jeans stayed soaked.

I had planned to get some rain gear before too long, but I wasn’t quick enough. Hopefully, the rains will hold off while I’m riding the bike until I can get at least a plastic poncho, if nothing else. The only good thing about the ride yesterday was that it was during daylight; night time riding in the rain is a total nightmare for me, something I dread doing in the upcoming rainy season. With some rain gear at least I’ll stay half-way dry, even if the conditions are driving me bonkers.

Rainbows, Heat and Work

There have been a couple of beautiful weather highlights lately. First, there was this 180 degree rainbow a few weeks back, following a brief thunderstorm and rain shower. This is at the farm, looking east toward the Mekong and Thailand.


Looking east toward Thailand. Lovely 180 degree rainbow after a brief rainstorm.

Black and White Rainbow

I fooled around in Photoshop and made this partial black and white photo of the rainbow. Fun to do and not too time-consuming.

Just a couple of days ago, this weather phenomenon, iridiscent clouds, topped a large cirro-cumulus cloud. I posted about another occurrence that we had last year. They’re unexpected, but beautiful. The large storm cloud never did get any closer to us, but sailed into the west. After twilight the horizon was aglow with lightning flashes, presumably from our cloud.

Iridescent cloud

Iridescent cloud, looking west about an hour before sunset. The black streak in the lower left corner is the eave of our neighbor’s house. Unavoidable, in this case.

I used my telephoto lens for this one to try to capture a close up shot of  the right side of the photo above.

I used my telephoto lens for this one to try to capture a close up shot of the right side of the photo above.

Our four-week vacation is over, as the second trimester of the year is about to begin. Each trimester lasts thirteen weeks, so I’ll be working through all of May and the first half of the rainy season, June and July, before getting another long break in August. The time off is nice, but it gets boring near the end. Plus, it’s unpaid time, so it’ll be good for the pocket to be back on the pay clock again. Also, being back at the school will give me better access to the Internet, so I’ll be able to post more often and check in on Facebook. Out here at the farm, the connection is spotty and slow most of the time. I’m on a metered connection, so when things are actually working well, it does get a bit expensive. Always two sides to everything, I suppose. Slow and spotty = cheap; fast and reliable = expensive. Usually, I’m fine with slow and spotty.

Another advantage of being back to work is that the school is air-conditioned. The heat has been extremely oppressive the last several weeks, with daily temperatures usually topping out over 100 degrees F. (38-40 C.) That’s too much for comfort. We have a couple of fans at the house that are almost always on, but they don’t help much during the peak heat hours. I’m looking forward to the rainy season, which brings somewhat cooler temperatures. Again, though, the other side of the coin is that there are many more thunder storms and the lightning often knocks out the power for several hours. No power = no fans. Since many of these storms hit during the night, trying to sleep without the fans cooling us off is very difficult.

Hot Times in Vientiane

The sizzling hot season is here again. From around November through the middle of March we had some very mild and enjoyable weather, with low temperatures, crystal skies and no rain. Now, the temperatures are in the upper 90s to mid 100s fahrenheit (40C), the skies are hazy with all the burn-offs of the stubble in the rice fields and the rainy season is not all that far ahead of us. The current hazy and dusty skies lead to some incredible sunrises, and I’ll try to get some photos of the crimson sun when the opportunities arise. The sun comes up around six o’clock and its color is sometimes unbelievable. It’s already hot at that time on most mornings, but the afternoon heat is much worse and leads to lethargy on everyone’s part here at The Farm. It’s as if the place is deserted, with the kids usually in school and the adults (including me on my days off) laying somewhere in front of a fan. Quite peaceful, but just too hot to enjoy. Thankfully, the college is air conditioned.

Coming up next week is the Lao New Year, Pi Mai Lao. Thailand celebrates this also and there it’s known as Songkran. I’ve written about this before, so see Sabaidee Pi Mai Lao and Bangkok. Because it’s so hot this time of year, the modern day practice of dousing people with water is quite refreshing, but over-done at times. In older days, it was a more understated, but quite important, part of the rituals of the New Year than it is now. Still, it’s a bit of fun for a few days, and I hope to get more movies and photos of the rituals and merriment than I did last year.

My opportunites should be greater because the first trimester of the school year ends next week, and then we’re off for a month. (Which, unfortunately, is unpaid.) I might spend a couple of days in Vientiane away from The Farm around Pi Mai and then, perhaps, take the train down to Bangkok, a city that I love, and goof around for a few days. Songkran in the City of Angels is absolutely chaotic, so I think I’ll go after the celebration and avoid all the insanity. Whatever happens, I’ll keep you informed. More later.

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.