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Plowing and Planting

The rains have finally arrived, and Mother Nature has been making up for them being late in coming. We’ve had more than a few downpours lately, including a 24-hour steady, soaking rain. The Mekong has risen swiftly, but is in no danger of flooding in our area, yet, but warnings have been issued for low-lying areas in other provinces. Of course, the rice farmers are happy that they can plant their crops now with the drought of June and early July broken.

Here at the New Place, the neighbors put in their rice this past Saturday, plowing the fields and doing the back-breaking labor of planting the new rice stalks in the ground. Here are a few photos I took of the process.

Plowing a rice field

Our neighbor is using a motorized, hand-pushed plow, common in Laos, to prepare the rice field. They inundated the field before plowing, and then went over it at least a dozen times with the plow. The field takes on the consistency of a thick soup before the planting begins. Quite muddy, hard labor, obviously.

Plowing a rice field

Under threatening skies, our farmer neighbor continues to plow. Later, there was a heavy rainfall while the others were planting the rice.

Planting rice

After the plowing, these women plant the first of the fields, a back-breaking task, it appears. This is real stoop labor. They were able to get this field in before the rain began.

Planting rice

Later, the ladies had more help from the entire extended family. With this many people, the work gets finished much more quickly.

Clouds and Rainbows

We’ve had some terrifying-looking clouds lately that promised to deliver more heavy rain and strong winds. Some of them brought the rain, but not much wind, and some of them fizzled out completely, merely passing overhead on their way into Thailand or elsewhere. One bright side to the storms is that there are often rainbows associated with their passing. We had a beautiful ‘bow the other day about an hour or so before sunset.

Rainbow

A beautiful rainbow visited the skies after a heavy downpour earlier. The only way I could have gotten a view of the whole thing was to walk to the left, which was a muddy quagmire.

Rainbow and clouds

This is the same rainbow, captured with a wider view. It disappeared just a few minutes later as the sun went behind a bank of clouds.

Here are a few of the storm clouds that have threatened us the past few days. Though many people might think that the rainy season is nothing but dull, grey overcast skies for days or weeks on end, it’s really not like that. We get hours, if not days, of bright sunshine, and some of the storm clouds are amazing. Beautiful sunrises, sunsets and rainbows punctuate the season. Sooner or later everyone will be looking forward to the end of the rains, but we still have a few months to go before that happens. For now, the rain is welcome.

Dark storm cloud

This looked as if it could spawn a tornado or two. I don’t know if Laos is subject to twisters, but this one didn’t lead to one. It passed to the east of us of us, heading toward Thailand.

Storm cloud

This one was coming right at us and I thought we were in for heavy rain and strong winds. Luckily, it completely fizzled out as it reached us, becoming nothing but wispy clouds.

Sunset

This was a fleeting moment in an otherwise dull sunset. The cloud looks like it could do some damage, but it wasn’t coming our way. The strange-looking objects at the bottom are supports for the roof of a house that was being built, but it looks like the construction has been abandoned for now.

Yes, the Monsoon Rains Are Here

In answer to my previous post, yes, the rains have arrived. We had another inch and a half or so on Saturday night/Sunday morning. The banana grove fields around the house, previously merely muddy, now look like a quagmire. I noticed one farmer a couple of fields over plowing with his tractor; it must have been quite a mess to finish up.

There’s more rain in the forecast for the rest of the week, through Saturday and, likely, beyond. I finally broke down and bought a rain poncho to try to stay dry on those motorbike rides through drenching downpours. I don’t remember exactly how many times I got soaked last year, but I’d estimate at least six or seven. Not much fun. I haven’t had to use the poncho yet, but I’m sure it’ll see its share of rain before the dry season returns. Bring it on!

No, wait, don’t bring it on. I hate riding in the rain. It’s quite dangerous, especially since I have to take my glasses off to see (go figure). Night riding is especially horrible. I can’t think of anything more terrifying, to me anyway, than riding at night through a heavy downpour. There are places where I can pull off the road and get under some shelter, but there are other areas where there is nothing to do but to keep going. This year, if I have to ride through any of these severe rainfalls, I think I’ll just find a cheap guesthouse and stay the night. Better safe than sorry. More later.

Monsoon Rains–Are They Finally Here?

Finally, the monsoon rains seem to have arrived. The first one blew in last night around 10 o’clock. Accompanied by heavy lightning, the storm came with a stiff wind that blew the drenching rain horizontally into the house and through the window shutters and under the front door. Water flowed into the living room, so we had to put down old rags and dirty clothes to block the flow and drip of water. Eventually, the wind diminished, the rain became more vertical and the front room returned to normal. I was relieved that there were no leaks from the ceiling. The downpour brought us about an inch-and-a-half of rain.

As I watched the storm blow in, my first thought was of what happened in my room at the Yankee baseball academy in the Dominican Republic during a hurricane, when wind-driven rain swept under the door. I was afraid it could happen in the New Place, so I was watching for it. Hopefully, this won’t occur while we’re away from the house. If the possibility arises, we’ll have to be aware of it and remove all essential items from the floor.

Despite the leak, the rain was very welcome, and I’m sure the dry-land rice growers are ecstatic. The Laos weather forecasters are saying that the rains will be quite heavy for the rest of the month and into August and beyond. Hopefully, the Mekong will stay friendly and keep within its banks, not wandering into our front room (and the rest of the house).

A Laos 4th of July

Nai’s sister, Nui, sells a little food at the Old Place, usually grilled slabs of squid, Lao meatballs and hot dogs. Now, hot dogs in Laos are not like hot dogs in the U.S. They’re smaller and not that tasty. If you go to a Laos restaurant and order breakfast, you’ll see bacon, ham and sausage on the menu. The bacon’s OK, but the “ham” is that processed crap that’s not really ham, and the “sausage” is merely a hot dog. I can’t stand the hot dogs here (or in the ‘States, for that matter), but Nui has been selling a variation of the standard ‘dog. It’s more like a sausage, and a few herbs and spices are mixed in.

So, for the 4th, we invited a few friends over for Beer Lao, squid, papaya salad and hot dogs. I’d had to work that morning, and afterwards I browsed a few of the local western markets, looking for hot dog buns, relish and, maybe, chili.

The markets had the buns, but I’d eaten these particular ones before, and they’re more like a sweet pastry, so I substituted hamburger buns. I couldn’t find any relish or chili, though I’d seen them before, so I settled for plain old mustard and ketchup.

Back at the New Place, then, for the 4th. The only fireworks that would have been set off in Vientiane were probably at the American ambassador’s residence, wherever that’s located. (There’s usually an evening of entertainment, food and fireworks at American ambassadors’ residences around the world on the 4th.) We had a good time, me eating the “All-American hot dog,” wrapped by half a hamburger bun, and everyone else eating Laos food. (I wonder if grilled squid would go over well in baseball parks in Missoula or Great Falls? Whaddya think, readers?)

The weather was very much in keeping with July 4th, very hot and clear, but a nice breeze and our shaded front porch made for a relaxing day. It was fun for all, but I do miss celebrating the holiday in the ‘States. I’ll go back, sometime, and do it again.

Laos hot dogs

A plate of Laos hot dogs, ready to go on a bun. I think I ate most of these, but a few of the kids present polished off a few also.

Laos hot dog

Laos hot dog on a hamburger bun, which I folded over to create some semblance of an American hot dog experience. Too bad I didn’t have any relish, chili or onions. The dog was actually a bit large for the bun, so on seconds, thirds (and fourths?), I cut the hot dog in half lengthwise so it fit better. They were pretty tasty, though they would have tasted even better if I’d been at a ballpark.

July 4th friends

Here are a few of our friends who came over. A total of about seven adults and three children showed up, about the right size. I told Nai beforehand that I didn’t want to have a big Independence Day party.

Stunning Disappointment . . . and Revelation

The Disappointment

On Thursday, June 25th, following an early morning workshop and lunch at one of the local Italian restaurants, I ‘biked back to The Farm, looking forward to our short mid-term break, despite an oddity of earlier in the day. As I was leaving for Vientiane that morning, a painter’s truck pulled up. I asked Nai what was going on, and he said he wanted to paint part of the house. This was news to me, and I told him I wasn’t going to pay for it. He said that it was free, but he couldn’t tell me why. Very strange, I thought.

When I got back to the house that afternoon, I was shocked to see that everything had been removed from the house and that a gang of painters was painting the outside a shade of lime-green and repainting the inside beige. A few carpenters were constructing something upstairs. What the hell was going on? I was quite angry, because I could see that I wouldn’t be able to sleep here tonight. The family members saw how angry I was and a few came up to me and said “Sorry.” Sorry for what? Nai was nowhere around.

One of them handed me a note written in English. It more or less stated that this was no longer Nai’s house, that it was now owned by the painter. It seems that Nai had borrowed around $6,500 from the guy when Nai’s mother was ill and dying about three years ago. He had been doing everything he could to keep her alive. Very admirable, but for reasons I won’t get into here, he hadn’t even been trying to pay back the money.

What ticked me off the most was that he didn’t tell me what was going on. If he had come to me, we could have possibly worked something out with the painter or whatever he is. I do know that he’s one of the son’s of the aging lady that Nai bought the house from, and I heard that, at the time, he was dead-set on her not selling it. Since then he’s been lusting at getting the house back, so he probably wouldn’t have come to any kind of agreement anyway. My disappointment in Nai, however, was profound.

Well, I stormed back into Vientiane, vowing to break off my friendship with Nai. I stayed at a cheap guesthouse and fumed. The next day, Nai finally worked up the courage to call me and apologize. I think he was very ashamed and embarrassed. I had calmed down somewhat and we arranged to meet at The Farm the next day. I felt sorry for him more than anything, though I was still angry.

He told me of a couple of vacated houses that belonged to some of his cousins. They were being rented out for, get this, about $37 a month. I supposed they were in terrible condition. We looked at the first one and it was little more than a concrete bunker in shabby condition and located in a rundown area of the village.

The Revelation

Before we even looked at the second house, I was preparing myself to rent a place in Vientiane, which would be rather nice for me. You can get a decent place for a couple hundred bucks a month and there would be no commuting back and forth.

We went to the second place, and, while not perfect, it’s the place I would have said earlier, on first arriving last year, “This is it!”

It’s much smaller than Nai’s old house, but it’s in much better condition. It’s only about a 10-minute walk from the other place, and it’s in a beautiful location. The old house is surrounded by other houses and buildings, which made me feel claustrophobic at times. In addition, any cooling breeze was drastically reduced by the buildings. The new place has one house next door and fields on all other sides. We’re surrounded on three sides by banana groves (now only stalks, waiting for the rain to help with their regrowth), with several cornfields and vegetable patches further out. So, I have much better views here, there always seems to be a nice breeze during the day, and it’s much, much quieter. The floors are tiled, unlike the bare concrete of the old place. It also has a nice front porch that’s shaded by a large tree in the afternoon. It’s really quite lovely.

One drawback is that it has an Asian style squat toilet, something I’ll have to get used to using, hopefully without any unseemly accidents, if you know what I mean.

All in all, I really like the place, and I’m quite happy to have found it, despite the circumstances leading up to the change. Although I’m still disappointed with Nai, our friendship endures.

New house looking south

This is a view of the front porch, looking toward the south. There’s a nice-sized living area, a bedroom, a small back storage room, a toilet and an outdoor cooking area. The small storage room could be converted to a cooking area.

Here's another view of the new house, looking toward the south-west. The front porch is in the shade cast by a large tree just outside the view. All the rooms have several shutters to allow the usually good breeze to circulate throughout the house, though it's still hot at night.

Here’s another view of the new house, looking toward the south-west. The front porch is in the shade cast by a large tree just outside the view. All the rooms have several shutters to allow the usually good breeze to circulate throughout the house, though it’s still hot at night.

This is a view from the front porch looking west toward a temple on the dirt road that runs through the village. This place is about three times as far from the road as Nai's old house, which helps to make it a much quieter location.

This is a view from the front porch looking west toward a temple on the dirt road that runs through the village. This place is about three times as far from the road as Nai’s old house, which helps to make it a much quieter location.

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.