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Vientiane Boat Racing Festival

Today is the annual Boat Racing Festival in Vientiane. Too bad I won’t be attending. While virtually every other institution, (schools, government offices, banks, embassies, as well as restaurants and other businesses) is shut down, our school, Vientiane College, has decided, as usual, to remain open.

I really enjoy going to boat races in Laos, but I’m not going today because I have to work later. Although my lesson plans for this evening’s classes have been made, I’m not going down to the race area to enjoy a few hours of the races. It’s sunny and warm today, so I’d just end up getting sweaty and smelly, and, then, I’d have to motorbike back to the house, take a shower and get back to school. Not worth it. I really like spending the whole day at a race, not having to worry about being somewhere else later.

The school always gives some flimsy excuse for not being shut down. There was a post on the notice board advising teachers to tell students that the school is not being culturally insensitive or unaware, but the reason for remaining open is that authorities don’t give the school enough advance notice as to when the race will be held. That’s pure hogwash! We received the 2018 school calendar a few weeks ago and it shows that the boat race next year is on October 25th, which, fortuitously, coincides with the beginning of the mid-term break next October. That’s more than a year away. Not enough advance notice? Bull crap. If any of my students who show up tonight ask why we’re open, I’ll just tell them to ask the school administration. I’m sure as hell not going to give them the school’s excuse of “not enough advance notice.”

Now, having said that, the school is still, usually, a great place to work. It just gets under my skin (and is depressing) that we’re one of the very few institutions that are open today, and that the school, since I’ve been here, has never closed for this particular holiday. Ah, well, next year, I guess.

Rainy Season Arrives in Force

The days and weeks of rain are definitely here. We had a couple inches of rain last Sunday, and there are about four inches in the forecast for today and tomorrow. It’s been raining steadily since last night, and everything is quite wet, of course.

It’s cozy and dry inside the new house, but outside it’s a different story. The house is built up from the ground by a couple of feet, so parking our motorbikes in the large kitchen area out of the rain (and away from potential thieves) is a bit of a chore. The owner first built a wooden ramp that we used to get the bikes inside, but it was too narrow. The first time I tried to ride up it, I fell off and my bike fell on top of me. Fortunately, no damage was done to either the bike or me. Nai tried to ride up it, but he had a heck of a time getting in the door.

So, we asked the owner to come up with an alternative, if he could. He piled up a truckload of dirt that is much easier to get up and get into the house. (See the picture I took in a prior post. Look to the left side of the house, in the back.) Unfortunately, when it rains the dirt turns into a quagmire of gumbo. When I came back from work last night, I parked the bike outside and went in the house through the front door. First, though, I took off my wet shoes (I forgot to take my sandals with me) that got soaked from riding to the house through the sometimes-heavy rain. Luckily, I had my poncho with me, so I didn’t get too wet, except for the shoes. I went to the back area and put on my sandals, unlocked the back door, went back out the front door, grabbed the bike and pushed it through the gumbo, giving it some gas in second gear to help it along, and up the dirt into the house.

Unfortunately, my sandals got caked with at least two inches of mud on the bottom, so I felt like I was walking in high heels. The motorbike tires were in equal straits. I cleaned the sandals this morning, but the tires will only get clean as I ride to work today.

Nai’s going to ask the owner to try to come up with another solution. The wooden ramp would work fine if only he’d make it wider. The owner, Kay, is a great guy, so I’m sure he’ll come up with something. Until then, we’ll just have to hope for some sun later in the week.

Muddy path

This doesn’t look too bad, but it’s very soft. It’s not like quicksand–it’s more like “quickmud.”

Muddy tire

This will be rough riding until the mud sloughs off on the paved road. Until then, though, going out and down the back ramp is going to increase the mud build-up. Hope I don’t get stuck!

My First UFO

It’s been very hot this week with high temperatures around 100F (38C) and the humidity has been high. Some mornings I wake up and I’m already sweating. Until last night there had been no sign of thunderstorms and rain, which would cool things off a bit, for a while. But, we had a very violent storm come through from the north yesterday evening around 7 o’clock. There was little rain, but lots of high wind and lightning. I thought the roof of the house was going to get torn off, and, though there were no nearby strikes, the lightning was flickering all around us, enough so that I probably could have read a book by the light.

I sat on the front porch, which faces south and was somewhat sheltered, enjoying the relative coolness that the storm brought. As I watched the clouds zipping along, I noticed a pale, silver wedge, shaped like a boomerang and somewhat blurred, going in the opposite direction, toward the north, against the strong wind. It couldn’t have been at a great altitude because it reflected the lighting from the street lamps. It raced past almost directly overhead and became obscured by the house. I thought about running to the back of the house to see if I could catch a glimpse of it, but I remembered the back door was locked and it would have taken some time to get my keys and unlock the door, by which time the object would have been long gone.

What was it? It came out of the south from the general direction of Thailand. Is the Thai or Lao military testing a flying wing? Just kidding, as neither of them has the resources, the technology or the know-how to even begin to think about doing something like that. I don’t have a clue about what the object was, so I’m going to chalk it up as my very first glimpse of a UFO.

Calling it a UFO doesn’t mean it was some kind of extra-terrestrial space craft; it just means that it was something flying that I couldn’t identify. A flock of birds, maybe? A rogue cloud? Some kind of weird lightning? I give it a shoulder shrug. UFO.

Drawing

This is something I drew in Photoshop earlier. It kind of resembles the object that I saw. Same brightness,
blurry look.

New House, New Location

The school has been closed since April 8th, but we go back to work this week, with a teachers’ workshop on Thursday and regular classes on Friday and Saturday. I’ll be quite happy to be starting up again. The break has seemed interminable with several “disasters” punctuating the time off.

First, my computer crashed and I had to get Windows reinstalled. Unfortunately, I lost some data and applications that I hadn’t backed up, but, thankfully, most of the important data (photos, documents, etc.) were saved. Then I had trouble with my debit card at the ATM and had to straighten that out. A few nights ago, Nai had an altercation with a couple of guys who tried to rob him and he got knocked around pretty badly, but seems to be OK. He told me he gave as good as he got. The cops arrested the thugs. A few other nuisance situations also occurred to make this a less than enjoyable break.

On a more positive note, though, I’ve moved into a, literally, new house in a new location. I’m the first one to live here and the owner is still upgrading the surrounding “yard.” (Not so much a yard as a weed patch; he hauled in a bunch of dirt to cover a lot of it, and I hope he plans to add some real grass.)

Here’s why I made the move. The old place, which I used to think was paradisaical, had gradually been degraded over the last year. The owner took out the entirety of the banana grove that had surrounded the house, erected fences that encompass the land, and started raising goats. Goats, goats and more goats. There were 13 of them on the tract that the house is on, and they had free run of the place, meaning that they crapped and urinated everywhere when I couldn’t chase them off–on the front porch and the concrete walkway surrounding the house and anywhere else they could find. The smell was atrocious and the noise they made destroyed the tranquility of the place. Not to mention that the neighbors had some parties at which they used huge concert-appropriate speakers and amps and cranked up the music until it was pulsing through your body; you couldn’t escape the noise and it was impossible to sleep or to even carry on a conversation. It was like a torture chamber. A few times I just gave up and rented a guesthouse room in Vientiane for the night. Then the owner said he wanted me out by May 1st because he wanted to move back into the house. Absolutely. No. Problem.

So, Nai found this new place and it’s much nicer than what the other place had become. It’s 30 minutes closer to town and I don’t have to ride my motorbike over that completely sh**ty dirt road leading to the village. For that reason alone, I am grateful to have made the move. The house is located about 100 yards off the main road that runs between Vientiane and the border crossing between Laos and Thailand. It’s a bit noisy at times, being located near a couple of karaoke restaurants, but it’s not that bad. It’s a heavily traveled road, so the traffic noise can be disturbing. However, the karaokes are good neighbors and close when they’re legally supposed to close (11:30 pm), which not all similar places do, and the traffic settles down at night.

I was disappointed, though, when I found that the device I was using in the countryside to connect to the internet rarely works at all here. I thought I would have better reception, being closer to town, but most days I can’t connect at all. Lo and behold, there’s an internet cafe which has extremely good, fast internet right in front of the house on the main road. Not only that, since I’m near the main road, one of the local internet providers is going to run a fiber optic line to the house in a couple of weeks, so I’ll have my own connection, always on. Hooray! It costs about $37 a month and I hope it’s worth it.

Of course, since the house was unfurnished, I’ve been spending money hand over fist buying furniture and what-not for it. (Another good reason to be getting back to work, earning money again.) We hired a pick-up truck to haul our other stuff (refrigerator, stove, bed, personal items) here. There are still a few more items I have to purchase, so more money will be leaving the coffers before all is said and done. Oh, yes, the old place cost $50 a month; this one is $200. But, I guess that’s the price to pay for leaving “paradise.”

The beneficial things about living here are that it’s much closer to Vientiane, it’s on a paved road and I’ll have a nice internet connection. Being closer to the city, I’ll probably be much more inclined to go to the movie theater or to take in some cultural events on the weekends.

Not beneficial–the cost and the noise (at times). Mostly, however, the noise won’t be a problem since I’ll be at work during the day and into the early part of the night. So far, it’s not been a big problem.

We’ll see how this new place works out. I signed a six-month lease, so I’ll have lots of time to either get to like it or to hate it. More later.

House

This is a view of the front of the house. In the back there’s a very large field (see previous post), and behind me and to the right of the house there are some other houses-not too close, but not much to see. To the left of this photo are some fish ponds. See the next photo.

Pond

Here’s one view of the fish pond. There’s another larger one beyond it. Yes, it is stocked with fish, which the vendor in front of us grills and sells. I might end up stuffing my self too often.

Pond

Here’s another view of the pond.

Health Benefits of Traveling

It’s an agreeable morning in Laos. The last few days have been quite hot and humid, but there’s a gentle rain falling and a cool breeze is blowing through the open windows and front door. In the kitchen of my new house that I’m renting (more on that in a later post), I can look out at a small herd of cows grazing on chaff from the newly-harvested rice field that stretches into the distance. Very relaxing. Quite agreeable.

Rice Harvesting

A modern harvester works on a field of stick rice (glutinous rice). Many farms in Laos still use the old method of harvesting by hand with machetes or scythes.

Cows Grazing

After the harvest, the chaff is left for a few cows to enjoy.

You never know what you’ll run into while you’re traveling or after you’ve settled in somewhere. Vientiane can be hectic sometimes, but not far from the city you can find some bucolic scenes like these. It’s a bit like Frodo talking about his Uncle Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring.

“Certainly it reminds me very much of Bilbo in the last years, before he went away. He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’ ”

So, traveling can lead to some interesting, exotic, adventurous locales. Traveling’s good for you. There are a lot of advantages to be had in traveling. What are they? Head over to Positive Health Wellness to read “8 Reasons Why Traveling is Good For Your Health.” It’s an interesting and informative article, and maybe it’ll set off your wanderlust. Do some traveling and exploring, if you can. Steer a canoe down a scenic river, enjoy the grandeur of majestic mountains, or just watch the cows. The benefits are many.

Pi Mai Lao 2017 Photos

The Lao New Year celebration (Pi Mai Lao) finished last week. It was a five-day observance this year due to the weekend, so that gave people more chances to party, and most Lao folks DO party! Compared to celebrations in Vientiane, where water gets thrown with abandon and parties are raucous, the countryside festivities are a bit more subdued. Here are a few photos of some of the goings-on.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Just up the road a bit at one of the small markets, children are having some light-hearted fun dousing passing motorbikes. Most of the riders didn’t seem to mind getting wet, and, unlike in some places, the water wasn’t ice-cold. I didn’t ride my ‘bike, so I was able to stay dry, if I wanted to. But, after setting my camera aside, I submitted to the water-tossing ritual.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Here water is being tossed at a couple of youngsters. Notice the red hair of the driver. The style is . . . how do I describe it? . . . mutton, I think, with the sides cut very short, but the top left alone and dyed. This is the current most popular style among Lao boys. I don’t know what the more conservative older folks think about it, but mom and dad apparently don’t care. Did the water get to these guys? See below.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Yeah, they got pretty soaked.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

The kids seemed to have tossed their water a little early at these two blondies (orangies?). Oh, well, hit a few, miss a few.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

These are two things that shouldn’t go together–beer and motorbikes. Most people who drink (and get drunk) aren’t too concerned about the danger of riding their motorbikes or driving their cars while intoxicated. It’s the number one cause of traffic accidents and deaths on the roads, most of which involve motorbikes. As an aside, I was in Vientiane this past Saturday, the 22nd, and I saw the results of four accidents, FOUR, in the span of about 30 minutes, all of them in, more or less, the same area of town, and all of them involving motorbikes. Just amazing.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

At the Pi Mai party at Nai’s sister’s house, Go, Nai’s niece, pours a bit of water down the back of Guay, one of Nai’s brothers. She got me wet (wetter, really) also, and the water WAS ice-cold. Quite a shock if you’re not expecting it!

Pi Mai Lao 2017

A few of the neighbor ladies, cousins, enjoying the party.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

And a few more celebrants. That’s Guay’s wife, Vee, on the far right. There were three different parties going on at the same time, all withing walking distance of each other, so people would go from party to party. Most of the people in this area are related–cousins, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Noy and Nui enjoy each other’s company. Nui is Nai’s sister and Noy is her husband.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Noy holds Namo, the young daughter of Lot, one of Nai’s sisters. Noy always gets along very well with the children in the area and they enjoy teasing and playing with him.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

This is Meow, Guay and Vee’s daughter. She’s quite the sweetheart and she seems to always have a nice smile ready for the camera. In this shot, I couldn’t get her to give me an open-mouth smile. Why?

Pi Mai Lao 2017

I finally got her to laugh, and, aha, her shyness is caused by the loss of a couple of baby teeth. Very cute.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

OK, so we’ve got people and beer, but what’s a party without lots of delicious food? Guay is working on that. Here, he’s stir-frying a panful of . . . what? Beetles, of course. What a treat! Uh, no thanks; I’m feeling kind of full.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Here’s the finished dish. Just dig in . . . use your hands . . . dip them in chili sauce.

Pi Mai Lao

Notice that the grilled fish is just below where I’m sitting. Guess who’s been chowing down on that.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Surely, there has to be something else to eat. How about some soup? Is there any soup? Of course there is. How about some awesome frog soup? Here’s some. Dig in. Looks like one of the little critters is trying to climb out of the bowl.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

No thanks on the frog soup. Anything else? Sure. Still hungry? Try some of this snake meat soup. Uh, I’ll pass on that, too. Thanks anyway. I’ll just finish this fish and have some rice. No problem.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Well, that finishes this year’s Pi Mai Lao celebration. One more photo to show. Here are a few friends posing for the camera. Nai’s on the left and a friend, name unknown, is on the right, but who’s the old fart in the middle? Got his face and clothes powdered, I see. He looks fairly full from eating all that fish and rice. Guess he had a good time. See ya next year, sport.

It’s Time For Pi Mai Lao 2017

The end of the first term of 2017 is near–this coming Saturday, in fact. So, I’m free from April 9th to May 5th, the start of the next term. What to do, what to do? Next week is easy–it’s Pi Mai Lao or Lao New Year, the biggest Lao holiday of all. It’s a five-day affair this year because of the weekend, so the official date of the holiday is April 13th through the 17th. I’ve posted about it before here, and here, with some videos on this post. In Thailand it’s called Songkran, the Water Festival.

In both countries, devout Buddhists visit the temples, clean their houses and honor their elders. That’s the traditional part. Then there’s the water-throwing aspect. Most of the young people and many older people toss water on their friends and on strangers, along with flour, and smear faces with soot from smoke-stained pots, all in good fun. But, it can get out of hand, with people using super-soaker squirt guns or small buckets to soak friends and passers-by alike. It’s not too bad out in the countryside, where the population seems a bit more conservative than in the larger cities. In Vientiane and Bangkok and in other metro areas, it’s like a small war. The danger is in throwing water at motorbike riders and causing them to have an accident. There’s also the usual carnage on the roads caused by drunk driving, but it’s multiplied at this time of year because of all the parties. (As if Lao people needed a reason to have a party.) Below are a few photos from a couple of years back.

Khoon and powdered face

Khoon, Seo’s husband, has been out running around the village, meeting friends, drinking beer, and getting his face coated with baby powder, another Pi Mai Lao tradition.

Nai powder face

Nai after his face has been powdered, one of the rituals of Pi Mai. Sometimes lipstick and soot from the bottom of pans is also applied.

Suwon and friend

Suwon and friend, the lady who grilled most of the food. Suwon’s quite a camera hound, so she’s in lots of the photos.

Suwon and Noh

Suwon and Noh enjoy a real soaking.

Thankfully, I won’t be riding my motorbike back and forth to work because of our time off, but I still have to be more than extra careful because the partying starts well in advance of the official holiday. But, I have only a few more days of riding until I’ll put the bike away, mostly, until after the holidays. I’ll visit some friends on a few of the days and celebrate the New Year with them. They’re within walking distance!

So, that’s next week’s plan. After that, I’m moving into a different house. It seems that the guy we’re renting from has given us until the first of May to move out because he wants to move back in. He’s going to refund May and June’s rent money to me. Fair enough. I’ve already put a down payment of 50% for six months’ rent on another place, one that’s in a much more favorable location. Nai and I are going to start moving in around April 20th or so. We’re both sick and tired of our current house, so we think the fellow is actually doing us a favor by moving back in. When the time comes, I’ll have a longer post about why my current residence, which I used to think was wonderful, is less than optimal and about why the new house is much more to my liking. More later.

Supermoon

Here are a few shots of the setting supermoon this fine Tuesday morning, as photographed from the front porch and the living room window of my house near Vientiane, Laos.

The moon was 99.7% full and moving away from earth, according to my planetarium software, Stellarium. It’s a great open-source (free) piece of software that you can find here.

The photo with the temple was taken from the porch and the other was taken about 20 feet to the left, from a window inside the house.

This is the start of my favorite time of year in Laos, the beginning of the cool season. Crisp nights, pleasant days and mostly cloudless nights, which means I can get in some good star watching with my binocs.

Supermoon on Nov. 15th.

Supermoon on Tuesday, Nov. 15, about 6:15 a.m.

Supermoon on Nov. 15

Supermoon on Tuesday, Nov. 15, about 6:15 a.m.

The End of Rainy Season

It’s my favorite time of the year in Laos. Rainy season is over, more or less (see below), the skies are mostly clear and sunny, and the temperature is becoming milder by the day. I hope to get in some star gazing soon; it’s been months since we’ve had good viewing conditions.

Now, after having said that, we’re right in the middle of a torrential rain shower, probably one of the last we’ll have in a while, I hope, though a few light showers here and there would be nice as the dry season intensifies. Rain is in the forecast for tonight and tomorrow. I just hope that I can make it home from work before any more heavy storms pop up this evening.

I’m going to try to get up some photos from the past several months, photos that feature the rain and some that highlight other events, so stay tuned all two or three of my readers. LOL

The Most Dangerous Thing I Do

I usually ride my motorbike to and from work, 25 kilometers each way, six days a week, and five of those rides are at night, Monday through Friday. This is the most dangerous thing that I do, and it is, without a doubt, the most consistently risky thing that I’ve ever done. It’s been said that this is one South East Asia experience that you can live without. I’ll vouch for that, since I’ve had a fair number of close calls. I’ve been at times incredibly aware and careful and, to tell the truth, very, very lucky. Some other riders, though, have not been so lucky.

This is from a recent article on Yahoo! News, dated Aug. 28, 2016:

“Look at me, stay with us,” the paramedics shout as a barely conscious motorcyclist is bundled into a volunteer ambulance in the Laotian capital Vientiane, where rampant drink driving brings nightly carnage to the roads.

It is a grim scene familiar the world over.

But in Laos, an impoverished and authoritarian communist country with almost no state-funded medical services, these kind of vital lifesavers are volunteers and entirely funded by donations. . .

And they have never been more in demand.

Poorly maintained roads, dilapidated vehicles, an increase in motorcycle use and the widespread prevalence of drink driving makes Vientiane one of Asia’s most precarious capitals for road deaths.

I’ve seen two terrible accidents in the last couple of weeks on my ride back to the village, both of which occurred at night (rather than my Saturday afternoon return ride from Vientiane).

The first involved two motorbikes and a pick up truck. It looked like the two bikes had smashed into the back of the truck, putting quite a large dent in the tailgate. I came upon the accident, which happened in the lanes leading into town, and saw the pickup had pulled into the lanes leading out of town and had parked half on the road and half on the sidewalk. The two motorbikes were down on the other side of the road, looking pretty torn up. A couple of motorbike helmets lay in the road. As I drove slowly past, I noticed a large crowd of people surrounding the area, but ambulances and police hadn’t yet arrived, so this had just taken place. Then, I noticed a young lady, perhaps in her early-twenties, sprawled in the middle of the pavement. Her head was turned away from me, with her right cheek on the road, lying on her right arm with her left one behind her back. She looked pretty, from what I could tell, but, unfortunately, she looked quite dead. Usually at least a few people will be trying to help these accident victims, checking to see if they’re OK, comforting them while waiting for the ambulance, applying some makeshift first aid, or, sometimes, checking for a pulse. No one was near this victim, but many were looking at her from a respectful distance. I’ve ridden past a number of accident scenes in the last couple of years, but this is the first one that brought tears to my eyes. The victim looked so very much alone, lying in the middle of the pavement under a harsh street light. I can only imagine what her parents must have felt. With any luck, perhaps she was just knocked unconscious.

The other accident happened about a week later only a few kilometers down the road. Again, two motorbikes were involved, and it looked like they had smashed into each other. As I came upon the scene, I saw one guy, wearing a helmet, limping heavily to the side of the road with the aid of a bystander. Another man lay face down on the pavement, no helmet on, and a man was checking for his pulse on the side of his neck. The bystander stood up and walked away. I don’t know if the victim was dead or just unconscious, but I think the former. I went slowly and carefully on my way, though I don’t take time to dilly-dally and gawk, like many other people do. Again, this had just happened, probably no more than a minute before I passed through the area, which is right across the road from a karaoke bar that is usually very crowded. Of course, many motorbikes and cars are parked there, and, of course, many people get quite drunk there. I’m always extremely careful when I drive through the area because of the number of cars and motorbikes entering and leaving, and because of the number of drunks I’ve seen staggering down the middle of the road.

So, the conclusion is that I will continue to drive my bike with the utmost care and attention. It’s usually fun and a bit exhilarating, but it’s certainly no time to take risks. Wish me well.