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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.

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.

Rainy Season?

A couple of weeks ago, after a week of clear skies and hot days, I began to wonder how short the current rainy season might be. The Mekong, rising steadily before, began to recede, little by little. But, of course, rainy season wasn’t ending early. It proceeded to rain quite heavily for a few days, turning the dirt road of the village into a quagmire. However, it’s now been another week of clear skies and plenty of sunshine. Thankfully, the road has dried out, but that means I have to ride through a cloud of dust when I go to work. We’ve had a few nice sunsets, shown below. Nothing spectacularly beautiful, but there are usually some awesome sunsets at this time of year, when a break in the rain allows for it.

Speaking of breaks, we’ve got a long one coming up at the school. Right now we’re doing final grading, filling out reports, planning for next term, etc. This term ends on August 4th and we don’t start again until September 12th. We were originally supposed to start on the 8th, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said we wouldn’t be good to go until the 12th. Why? President Obama is visiting Laos sometime during the week beginning on September 5th, so security will be insanely heavy and many roads will be closed, I presume. I’m going to try to get into the city to see him, but most likely I’ll be unable to get anywhere near where he might be giving speeches or whatever. I might rent a cheap guesthouse room in the city that week to increase my chances. I’ll let you know what happens.

Sunset

Sunset

drainage channel

This is a small (usually) drainage channel from the rice paddies to the Mekong. During the rainy season, though, it becomes quite a torrent. As the river rises it will fill this entire ravine.

An Exciting Life-Not

Boring

What does it say about my “exotic” life in another country when the most exciting thing to happen in the last several months is that the local authorities finally decided to bring in a scraper and level off the rutted, pot-holed dirt road that runs through the village? A luxurious motorbike ride was in the offing, a ride that wouldn’t bounce me up and down and shake me up, causing my internal organs to become displaced. A ride that I wouldn’t have to make at 10 kilometers an hour in order to prevent my motorbike from shaking apart. I was looking forward to it. I was excited!

scraper

That was last Sunday. For all of one day, Monday, going to and from Vientiane, I enjoyed the level road. That all changed on Tuesday, when we had some heavy rains. When the road was horribly wash-boarded and pot-holed, the dirt was at least hard, compacted. The scraper tore up all that hard dirt and left a loose mess that the rain turned into a 6 kilometer long mud pit, from the village all the way to the main road. What a nightmare ride! I really had to watch where I was riding. In the worst area, not too far from the main road, vehicles had to stay all the way to the left, trying to avoid oncoming bikes and trucks, because the right hand side was, and still is, completely impassable due to the deep mud there. Not even the big sand- and gravel-hauling trucks will attempt passage on that side.

At this time, Thursday, the condition of the road is similar to what it was before it was scraped. It won’t be long until it’s back in the same condition. The forecast isn’t calling for much rain in the near future, so the mud should dry up soon. I’ll still have to make a few more night rides before it dries, which can be a nightmare on that back road. Even at 10 kilometers an hour. Who said my life wasn’t exciting?

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.

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.

Another Year Goes By

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

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

My ??th birthday cake.

My ??th birthday cake.

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

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

Snake in the House!

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

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

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