July 2014
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The Farm’s Population Increases

We’ve had some new additions to The Farm’s extended family recently. Six new puppies have arrived to make our lives a bit more enjoyable. They’re only a few weeks old, so their mischievous phase is still ahead. Here’s one of the youngsters; the other five rascals were running around somewhere, so I’ll get their snapshots later. Nai’s dog, Lucky, is none to pleased with the imps, and he nips at them if they invade his personal space too much. Most of the pups will be given away, but I suppose that one or two might be kept around.


New puppy at The Farm with his new chew toy.


New member of the extended family at The Farm.

Sorry about the paucity of posts in the past few months. No excuses. I’ll try to get up to speed in the next few weeks.

Rainy Season Arrives

Despite the sun and heat today, the rainy season in Laos has begun. During the previous three weeks or so, swift-moving thunderstorms brought some rain showers, frequently quite heavy, but they didn’t linger. They also had some hellacious thunder and lightning. I was alone at The Farm one night when a simultaneous sizzle, blinding flash and deafening crack shattered the night. The lightning must have been extremely close, needless to say. Lucky, the family dog, was already in the house and he came whimpering over to me. I think he was whimpering. It might have been me. The past three days, however, rainy weather has settled in, bringing a steady drizzle for a large parts of the day and night.

I’d like to say that I’ve been an innocent bystander, or watcher, of these showers, but I had some direct involvement with them this past Saturday. Since I have a 9 a.m. class that day, I left for the college on my motorbike at 6:30 to make the 25 kilometer ride. I don’t usually leave that early, but it was raining, so I wanted to leave myself plenty of time to ride cautiously. At The Farm, there was only a slight sprinkle, so it didn’t seem like it would be a terrible ride, though I knew I was going to get wet. Unfortunately, just outside of Vientiane it began to pour. By the time I got to the school, I was drenched. My clothes were literally dripping wet. I keep a good set of “teacher clothes” at my desk, so the first thing I did was change out of the wet clothes. I hung them on my motorbike handlebars, down in the covered parking lot. It was a bit of fun, ridin’ in the rain (Gene Kelley comes to mind), but I don’t want to do it too often.

I’ll have to invest in some rain wear, since the worst part of rainy season is ahead of us. According to one website, June and July get about 10-11 inches of rain each month, and August and September get 12-13 inches. So, I’ve definitely got some rainy bike riding in my future.

In the near future, though, I won’t be riding the bike too much. The present Vientiane College term finishes this Saturday, and I don’t start teaching again until July 10th. (Shades of the Korean university vacation time!) In the meantime, I might take a trip up to Vang Vieng for a few days, or, preferably, down to Pakse to see the Chutes de Khone, the Khone Waterfall on the Mekong River, the widest waterfall in the world.

Another Drenching

I got nailed again today by a torrential downpour on my way to work around noon. The first shower drenched me just as I was passing by the new U.S. Embassy building construction site, about 5 kilometers outside of Vientiane. It was coming down so heavy that I had to pull over and duck under an awning until it passed. After the rain finished, I resumed my journey, only to catch up with the rain a few kilometers down the road. Again I sought shelter. This happened to me a third time when I got into the city. I just kept catching up with the slow moving storm. I finally made it to the school and changed out of my wet clothes into my teacher clothes. It’s supposed to rain again tonight around the time that I ride back to The Farm. If it’s coming down too heavily, I’ll find a cheap guesthouse to spend the night.

Hot and Busy

Yes, it’s quite hot in Vientiane today. According to Weather Underground, it’s 38 centigrade (100 F.) right now at 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon, but the other part of the current temperature, the part titled “Feels Like,” states that it feels like 46, which is 115 F. Hot. Very Hot. I’m glad that I’m at the nicely air conditioned school, working on my lesson plans and preparing to teach.

I was teaching just three days a week-Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday morning-but one of the other teachers went back to England for a 3-week vacation, and I was asked if I’d like to cover his classes until he returns. Never one to turn down some extra money, I agreed. So, I’m now also teaching on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. That’ll keep me pretty busy, so I’m not sure when I’ll get some more extensive posts (with photos) up. I want to do some posts that cover driving a motorbike in Vientiane (never a dull moment), harvesting green onions (very dull for me, but an interesting process), and a temple visit Nai and I made during the New Year celebrations last month. I’ll probably get the temple visit posted sooner than anything else, so stay tuned for more later.

In an Ideal Communist Country . . .

I read the English version of the Vientiane Times about once or twice a week. On one of the inside pages is a section devoted to what is being written in other Laos newspapers, translated into English. One of the papers is the Pathet Lao Daily, which I assume is an organ of the Communist Party here.

About 10 days ago, the Times quoted the Pathet Lao Daily ranting about the music that was played at gatherings during the recent New Year celebrations. I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have the article, but the Daily wrote, more or less, that a large percentage of the music being played at parties was Thai, when the rule is that people must play at least 70% Lao music.

I think I might have laughed out loud when I read this. The article went on to explain that people weren’t being patriotic enough in their choice of music. I don’t think patriotism should be the issue. Perhaps Lao music sucks compared to Thai music. (It does.) The ruling class might be quivering in their boots that choice of music might spell doom for the regime. Kind of hearkens back to when Elvis Presley was reviled for his hip-shakin’ style. Do you oldsters remember? I do. More later.

Some Pi Mai Lao Videos

Here are a few video clips from the Pi Mai Lao / Noh’s Birthday Party last Monday, April 14th. If they show up as a colored test-screen, just click on the play button. If they’re not playing, please leave me a comment. Thanks and enjoy.

The first one is a general view of the kind of merriment that was taking place.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

More fun with water.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

Suwon and Noh (in the tub).

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

A few passers by get in on the action.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

And some more party goers staying out of the water for now.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

Sabaidee Pi Mai Lao

Happy Lao New Year! I’m a week late with that greeting, since the week-long celebration started around last Saturday, the 12th, and wrapped up Friday last week. The official holiday was from the 14th through the 16th, but most people managed to stretch it out. As I wrote in a previous post, it’s quite a water-fest, though I stayed dry every day but one. That was last Monday, and I was prepared.

The only other time I went through Pi Mai Lao was in 2006, when I visited while I was on vacation from working in Morocco. I was completely unprepared then. Near the end of the vacation, I departed Laos on the first day of the holiday, heading to Thailand to catch the overnight train from Nong Khai to Bangkok. I had my large backpack and a camera bag. Nai and I took a tuk-tuk to the border crossing, and we got soaked by all the people tossing water at us. We were sitting ducks for target practice. I was furious because my bags were also getting drenched. I hoped that the situation would be better in Nong Khai, but it was worse.

I continued to get soaked, and my appeals for leniency went unheeded. I was madder than a wet hen, and I was nearly in tears, fearing my camera and lenses would get damaged. We finally made it to a guesthouse I had used before and which let me stash my bags for several hours before the train left. Eventually, I caught that train, dried out, and made it to Bangkok.

My flight didn’t leave for a couple of days, so I decided to take another look at the festivities, which are called Songkran in Thailand. Armed with my camera safely sealed in a Ziploc baggie, I sat inconspicuously in a restaurant that had a good view of a major intersection. As I watched everyone firing off their super squirt guns and throwing buckets of water at anyone and everyone, I understood why it was supposed to be a fun time, and I regretted my overreaction earlier. But, I had been prepared in Bangkok.

I was prepared last week, too, my camera, wallet, phone and passport carefully sealed away from the buckets of water that came my way. Monday, Nai and I went to a couple of friends’ house several kilometers from The Farm. Nai has known Suwon and Noh all his life, and I’ve been friends with them since 2005. Monday was Noh’s birthday, so there were two reasons for living it up.

Along the road, people, mainly young adults, teens and children, were armed and ready every few hundred meters to relieve everyone of the heat and the dust. The first brigade, just past Nai’s house, politely asked if they could douse us with a hose. I was surprised they asked, and this turned out to be not unusual. Many parties let us pass the gauntlet untouched. We got moderately wet, but certainly not soaked. The heavy soaking would happen at Suwon’s house.

She and Noh live a few hundred meters off the main dirt road, just past a large, golden-yellow temple. There were about 20 people outside her single story, small cement house. There was plenty of food, including grilled squid and duck, spicy papaya salad, sticky rice, cow blood soup with peanuts and birthday cake, of course. Also, Beer Lao, as always, was plentiful. And lots and lots of water.

We arrived about 1:30 and stayed until around 6, helping Noh celebrate her 41st birthday and the start of the Lao New Year. Everyone got soaked to the bone, most of the adults were more than a bit tipsy, and we all had a great time. Running the gauntlet on the way back to The Farm was inconsequential.

The rest of the week was more boring than not. I think Nai has cornered the market on green onions. He’s been buying crops from the other farmers, so he’s been busy for most of the day, harvesting, cleaning and preparing the product for the market. I’ll do a post on that process a bit later.

There was another party at the family compound on Thursday, with lots of people materializing out of nowhere, it seemed. Again, there was lots of food, drink and merriment for all. Things got back to normal on Saturday, and I’m quite happy to be back at work. Watching people clean green onions all day is quite boring. I can hardly wait for the chili pepper harvest.

Below are some photos from Suwon and Noh’s shindig. They’re in no particular order. I also have some videos of the day, and I’ll try to get them up soon.

Pi Mai Lao Holiday

No, I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth. I’m working at Vientiane College and living at The Farm. The Farm doesn’t have a very reliable internet connection. When I can get connected, it’s painfully slow. About all I can do is give a quick check of my email, check the weather forecast and look at the baseball scores. Doing those three things takes about 30 minutes.

The college has a better connection, but I’m usually busy getting ready for classes, attending meetings for new teachers and getting used to the new teaching environment. At least I can take a more in depth look at my email.

Right off the bat, though, we’ve got an eleven day vacation. Lao New Year, Pi Mai Lao, begins soon. It’s the same celebration as Songkran in Thailand. The main thing the visiting tourist will see is water, water everywhere in the form of water fights. Prepare to get soaked by ice water thrown from small buckets or shot from Super Squirt Guns. It’s all in fun, of course, but it can get old after awhile.

Because the majority of people start celebrating early and finish late, the administration has called off classes this Saturday, the 12th, and we won’t resume again until Monday, April 21st. After this evening’s classes, I won’t teach again until the 22nd, since I’m on a Tuesday and Thursday evening, and Saturday morning schedule.

I’m sure I won’t be posting again because I’ll be at The Farm until the 22nd, but I’ll get some more thoughts and photos of Pi Mai Lao posted shortly thereafter. Stay tuned.

Death on the Mekong Update

Here’s an update on the death I reported in my previous post.

The death was reported last Thursdy evening, and the search for the body continued for several days. Meanwhile, at the house of the deceased, dozens of mourners visited over the weekend. I went there on a few evenings to join the 20 or so people who gathered at any one time of the day. The mood was anything but somber. Folks were drinking Beer Lao, of course, talking and laughing, playing cards and generally having a good time. It must have resembled an Irish wake, but there was still no body.

Dawn came grey and pale on Monday, the sun shrouded by a thin overcast. I was up about 6:30, drinking coffee and plotting revenge against the early-crowing roosters. There was a flurry of activity as first one of Nai’s sister’s husbands and then another scrambled for their motorbikes and raced away. My first thought was that the body had been found and indeed it had.

The two husbands, one of Nai’s brothers and many of the workmen had been searching for the body the past several days, and finally, that morning they’d been successful. Nai and I hurried off on his motorbike and joined the throng of people at the work site, which is only about three kilometers from Nai’s house. The body hadn’t drifted downstream after all, but had remained where it had fallen. The Mekong is very muddy around this area because of the dredging operations, so the search had taken some time.

The only thing that makes sense to me is that the man had walked to one of the smaller dredge boats across a narrow pontoon bridge consisting of a large plastic or metal pipe. No body else saw him go out there. He must have slipped and fallen at some point, struck his head against the pipe or boat, and gotten knocked unconscious as he sank beneath the water. By the time his absence was noticed, it was too late.

The body, unnaturally white and grotesquely bloated, had been placed on the shore. As I watched, a couple of the men wrapped it in a clear plastic tarp, wrapped it again in a blanket and tied the bundle with strips of white cloth. Plastic bags filled with the dead man’s possessions were placed next to the bundle, and some of the men lined the corpse with unlit incense sticks. A few other men poured several bottles of water over the mound, I suppose as an act of purification.

Then there was a wait of about an hour, so all the relatives and friends, far from being downcast, sat around and talked and smiled and laughed. Curious people of all stripes, including a lot of school kids in their uniforms, came and left. Finally, a brown wooden box, the same color as the soil along the river, was brought to the site. The corpse was placed into it and the top was nailed shut. Then half a dozen men carried it about 100 meters to a large pyre composed of dried brown driftwood and old, dusty truck tires. The driftwood nearly perfectly matched the color of the casket. The box was placed on the ground and the top was removed. Mourners, many in tears, gathered around the body as the man’s possessions were stuffed into the casket. Some people placed money inside. Nai pointed out the dead man’s father. He was grey-haired, about 60, and his handsome, wrinkled face was covered in tears. I was about ready to burst out myself.

The cover was then nailed shut again, and the box was placed on top of the wood. All the mourners picked up an orange flower from a pile that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and we tossed them onto the pyre. One of the younger guys doused the wood and tires with gasoline, someone touched a flaming piece of wood to several areas on the pyre and the whole thing burst into flames, black smoke billowing into the sky. Dredging operations several hundred yards up and down stream from us continued unabated. We watched for awhile, then hopped on the motorbike and departed the area. Back at Nai’s house, I could still see the smoke, dark against the pale sky.

Because it would have been completely tasteless of me to run around taking photos of the people and the wrapped body, I only snapped off one shot, and this only after I saw others taking pictures with their cellphones. Here’s a view of the cremation and the watchers. It was all pretty sad, but, curiously, not morbid or overly mournful. This had not been a ritual. The Buddhist rites had been carried out at a nearby temple a few days earlier while I was still in Vientiane. This was, it seemed to me, a process to dispose of the body in a respectful manner.


The body is cremated

While I was living in Korea, I talked to Nai almost daily. It seems that at least once, sometimes twice a month there was a death, either of a cousin or of an acquaintance in the neighborhood. Most of the deaths were of older folks, but occasionally one of the younger ones died. The people around here seem to live with dying on a continual basis. I think the Buddhist principle of the impermanence of everything helps see them through these trying affairs. Let’s hope that there are no more deaths in the extended family for a long while.

A Death on the Mekong

I’d been keeping in touch with Nai while I was in Vientiane, and I found out on Thursday that one of his cousin’s had died in a work-related accident. I think I met the guy last week (Nai has so many cousins that it’s impossible to keep track of them all). He lived in the family compound just a few house away from Nai. If it’s the same fellow, he was probably in his late twenties, and he left behind a wife and baby.

A lot of the adult men around here work on the Mekong, where they are dredging gravel from the river bed to use in making concrete. Scores of dump trucks full of the rock travel daily along the dirt road that runs through Nai’s village. The road used to be paved, but it’s been torn up for a few years because of the trucks. It’s now cratered with small pot holes and ruts, and it’s terrible for traveling. The heavy vehicles stir up a lot of dust early in the day, but later, when they’re hauling rocks from the river, the water seeps out and eventually drenches the road. That keeps the dust down, but it gets rather muddy.

Apparently the accident victim was working around the dredging machines when something went wrong. Nai couldn’t give me too many details with his limited English vocabulary, so I don’t know what actually happened. I’m sure there will be no government or company support for his grieving wife, but the rest of the family will take care of her and the baby.

Unlike in the United States where people will bring food to a family who’s lost a loved one, in Laos the family is expected to provide food for all the people who come to pay their respects. The past few days Nai has been to his cousin’s house cooking food for hours for all the mourners. However, the people who visit the house will also leave some money for the widow and that usually covers the cost of the food.

There will still be a lot of people today who come to pay their respects, and the funeral will probably be Sunday or Monday. I’ve never been to a Buddhist funeral, so perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to view one, albeit under tragic circumstances.

In Laos

I’m heading back out to my friend Nai’s farm, which is about 10 kilometers outside Vientiane. I’ve been in Laos for about a week now. I was at The Farm for a few days, and then I came into Vientiane to look for a job.

I became a “farmer” at Nai’s place. One day I helped to twist the stems and leaves off of red and green cherry tomatoes. Thousands and thousands of cherry tomatoes. I helped out for about three hours on a hot afternoon, sitting under the shade of a tree, twisting and pulling and culling. There were several family members and neighbors pitching in also. It was boring work, but satisfying. Nai’s sister took all the tomatoes to the morning market in Vientiane, where they were bought in quantity by restaurant owners. Nai told me that they use them in making papaya salad, a staple dish that’s generally served at every meal.

The next day was Green Onion Day. Again, uncountable numbers of green onions. Nai and other family members went into the fields early in the morning and harvested the crop, then hauled it to the house on two-wheeled pushcarts. I was alerted that they had arrived by the aromatic smell of green onions floating on the breeze throughout the family compound. It’s quite a wonderful odor. They spent the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon pulling the debris and outer skin from each onion. I was going to join in, but this chore required some expertise, so I sat this one out.

The last three days I’ve been in Vientiane, and I’m pretty sure that I got a job working at one of the local colleges. I’ll find out this coming Tuesday. The director is going to phone me and let me know what he might have open for me. I won’t say any more about the job until I officially get it.

So, I’ll be out of Internet and email contact until the middle of next week. I’m taking a bus to the Friendship Bridge around noon today, which is the border-crossing point over the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand. Then, I’m going to give Nai a call and have him pick me up on his motorbike. The Farm isn’t too far away from the bridge. I talked to Nai earlier this morning to let him know my plans. He was harvesting more green onions.