Thursday, November 08, 2007

Here From There

It’s been a long time since I was surrounded by English speaking people. A long time since I’ve looked over the vistas of strip malls peddling those coveted needless items. I notice the order and cleanliness of the west that seemed to be absent in the east. Most of all, I notice the hurried antics of hurried people who hurry to god knows where to hurry up and do god knows what. I let them pass me by; this Philomath is still on Laos time.

There’s a level of comfort coming back to one’s home turf, no matter how distastefully unnecessary certain aspects seem. I’m not sure how this next phase may turn out. I look to Susan Miller’s horoscopes to perhaps give a little structure, or clue, or maybe just a fun read. It tells me things, they’re interesting, helpful in some abstract way. I think about one of my favourite quotes from the Cosmic Muffin: It’s a wise person who rules the stars, it is a fool who is ruled by them. I read the horoscope a few times, feel a little more grounded, but I still am not too sure what’s next. Time to go back to gainful employment, I suppose. It’s quizzically relaxing to think about that prospect.

Where will my quest lead me and with what tone will I document those events? Will I document them at all? I don’t know. I may need to drop off of this blog for a little while in order to focus my energy on more pressing matters, but rest assured, at some time in the future I will again try to share the thoughts of my trip to Samosa.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Next End

My time in Laos comes to an end. I wonder about what I have learned. I like to think that I understand this place, this culture, this language a little bit more than when I started. I like to think that I am a little bit closer to Samosa – my Shangrila awaits me. The more real it becomes, the more I realize I know only slightly more than nothing

This morning, an important day for me, I went to the Wat to make offerings. Of course, making offerings at the Wat is always preceded with a 5 am roust from bed, a trip the market for some pre-dawn shopping and confusing phone calls… Yu sai?... Where are you?. At the Wat, the old ladies chatted while they helped us prepare the bowls of sausage and chicken and cakes and soybean snot. The monks waited patiently, silently. Somewhere in there, I was given directions, but I am oblivious to this and fumble through the giving of alms. One monk got too little rice, one monk got too many cakes. They giggled at my ineptitude but were grateful for the special meal we had brought for them. We poured water at a stupa (gravesite) and wished for blessings. I pieced together from prior trips to this Wat, that the stupa was not random as I once thought. It is the stupa that of my friend’s parents. Driving away, I added a couple more wishes and blessings to those who have passed before me.

I think about something my friend said just recently about today. She wished for someone to help her prepare the food for today. She told me she pitied the chickens. I wasn’t sure if it was a language issue, or if that is what she really meant.

“Pity? Why?”, I asked.

Her response was so kind, “It is such a happy day for me, but the chickens have to die. I wish someone else would do that for me.”

I don’t understand anything and I understand everything. The journey continues and there are dead chickens and seemingly random stupas that have great meaning and bumbled offerings of tasty sweet sausage and late nights and early mornings and Laotian contracts signed not under duress but complete oblivion. Slightly more than nothing.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Back to Buddhism

Let’s get back to Buddhism for a while. I really don’t think it’s necessary to categorize something as Buddhism or not-Buddhism; after all, there is really not much difference between the two. When I write about racism, I am writing about right mind. When I write about teaching, I am writing about right action. I don’t come right out and say it, but the truth is, I’m always writing about the dharma. The benefit, the practice, the use and abuse of the dharma. I have to write about it, not because of my vows, but because of something which has been cultivated in me over thousands of lifetimes.

There is a base set of principles which serve as the basis for Buddhist study. Actually, there are two sets, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The two are intertwined. And, for whatever reason, I think I will address them completely out of order – which may end up require a lot of back tracking or fore tracking as the case may be.

Right View also referred to as Pure Vision, is the first of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is easy to misunderstand what Right View means. Often, I have seen people latch on to Buddhist philosophy and interpret Right View as ‘this [buddhism stuff] is the only correct perspective’. Dismiss that attitude right away. That kind of thinking will only slow you down; audacity is a heavy burden to bear.

Instead, think of Right View as a litmus test of your openness to perceive and the growth that provides. Is what your are seeing the true essence, or has something else provided barrier to a lucid experience?

Let’s bring this to a more tangible example and then I will sum up with some other important stuff about Right View.

I have been living in Vientiane, Laos for some time now. I have many friends who have lived their entire life here. As the capital city of Laos, it is indeed a metropolis complete with municipal buildings, shopping and business districts, street lights (optionally obeyed), and so forth. In comparison with other cities in other countries, it is undeveloped, small and offers very little – or so many visitors may think.

I have met many tourists to Laos whose first stop is Vientiane. They get off the bus, look around, check their guidebooks and within a day or two, rush off to the north, disappointed with the limited attractions in the city. I even had one friend tell me ‘get out of there, that city is sh*t!’. What is happening is not that Vientiane is sh*t, it is simply our view is not clear.

It is unrealistic to step foot in Vientiane and expect it to be anything like Bangkok or Rome or New York City or Montreal or Buenos Aires or any other place on the map. It is it’s own city with it’s own identity. The same way a traveler to Vancouver would be very disappointed that it is nothing like Miami, a traveler to Vientiane will never be satisfied if they seek any city other than Vientiane. That’s the first part of Right View – don’t expect Paris, France when you get off the buss in Paris, Texas.

The second part of the example is not one of negation, it is a matter of positively finding what is right in front of you.

Last weekend, I took a little day trip in Vientiane. I needed to consult with a monk on personal matter and was brought to a northern outskirt of the city, about 10km from the city center. After speaking with the monk, my companion asked me if I would like to see the poorest section of Vientiane. I was hesitant and said I would not like it much if a tourist came to look at me and my family and my house and neighborhood simply because I was rich or poor or something in between. However, I agreed to go look with the understanding that I am interested in learning more about the city and Laos culture and lifestyles.

We headed down an undeveloped road, breathing dust and getting sprayed with pebbles with each truck roaring past us in the other direction. As we drove, I could see the opulence level dropping steadily as there were fewer automobiles parked in front of houses, smaller markets with less selection and fewer and fewer brick or concrete homes. About 10km down the road, we noticed a well cared for sign, written in gold Laos letters, which was translated for me as “Wat in a Cave”.

We turned off the main road and followed a passable but degraded road a short distance to one of the most beautiful wats (temples) I have ever seen. Perched on top of a hill, on a sprawling campus of flat rock, the wat had an essence which I find dismally absent in most inner city wats in Vientiane. It was peaceful and quiet and contemplative. Around the campus were natural holes in the rock slab which collected rainwater and served the monks as washing wells or simple meditation ponds. From some spots, there was an obstructed view of the Mekong River through the trees. Dotting the campus where secluded little buildings, presumably housing for the monks. The entire time, we were followed by a very friendly set of monkeys who had no issues with taking the tamarind pods left as offerings in front of a buddha image.

After walking around the campus, we left and headed further down the main road for another 3km only to find an equally impressive wat with a giant buddha image on top of a hill overlooking the entire Vientiane area. At this wat, there were many unique buddha images, nagas, and various other icons nestled amongst rocks and ponds. Truly a wonderful place for a monk to delve deeply into their studies.

Neither of these two locations are in a guide book. My companion, a lifelong resident of Vientiane, had never heard of these two places. We found these locations by simply hopping on the motorbike and going out into the world. We both agreed that it felt like we were somewhere other than Vientiane, perhaps an island in the Gulf of Siam. Overall, even with the dusty, unkempt road leading to them, the experience was enlightening.

That is the second part of Right View. What I thought I knew about Vientiane two weeks ago is different than what I think today. That difference, that growth in my awareness, came from my (our) ability to suspend what I normally would do in Vientiane so that I might see a different dimension of what I know. It is not that these dimensions did not exist before I saw them – both wats have probably been around for at least 300 years, possibly three times that amount. Yet it took me being able to cast aside what I thought I knew about a place in order to see it and understand it just a little bit better.

Right view is a matter of removing our predefined concepts of existence so that we can further expand our capacity and the depth of our own understanding. Right View is also a matter of sustaining that awareness. It is one thing to stop, temporarily, our judgment & our prejudices. It is another thing to dismiss them permanently. Right View empowers us with the ability to live in each moment without expectation. It allows us to see the world unfolding in it’s beauty and ugliness all around us and be content. It enables us to understand better the inalienable bond we have with the world which is us.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

After that...

Yesterday morning I woke up very dissatisfied. I had been working on a piece for Blog Action Day for weeks. I had chosen the topic of public transportation in Vientiane. It’s quite a loaded subject, and there are lots of ins and outs to the subject. However, on the morning of Oct 15, I decided I did not like what I had written. I decided to step away from the topic of public transportation and write something new. Something with a bit more of a bite.

Sometimes when I am writing I use the computer. Other times, I sit down with a stack of paper and write things out long hand. Yesterday, I chose the long hand approach. During the course of the day, I scratched out mental notes, key statistics and partial paragraphs freely. All together, I think I used about 12 pieces of paper. Early in the afternoon, I started converting the paper draft to a computer format. Finishing much later than I should, I began to tidy up.

When working with a computer, a quick stroke of the delete or backspace key takes away anything that might be a bit too racy for the censors. However, working with ink and paper, it’s a different story. I stood in my living room with a dozen sheets of paper – some of the words I wrote (but of course did not publish) would put me in the clink for quite a while.

The surest way to destroy anything written on paper is by fire. So, I headed out to the yard with a lighter and the incriminating sheets. Dropping them into the burn barrel, I had to laugh. On a day I dedicate my blog to environmental awareness, I end up standing in my yard burning paper and branches in an open fire.

I could not help but laugh and chide myself for the irony of the situation.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gin nuai look

My observations in Laos over the past year and a half have been culturally and historically focused and not specifically environmental. As such, I would like to speak on the cultural side of addressing environmental concerns in Laos and other emerging nations.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a Southeast Asian nation bordered by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and China. It is currently rated as a “least developed nation”; a stigma Laos has committed to removing by the year 2020. 70% of the population in Laos lives on less than $2 per day and 20% percent live on less than $1 per day. Of the approximately 7 million residents, less than 20% live in urban areas – roughly growing at 4% to 5% each year. It is, for the most part, an undeveloped, jungle or agrarian landscape throughout the country. The largest environmental issues are deforestation with a dramatic drop of forested areas from 70% in 1940 to 47% in 1989, and the impacts of hydroelectric dams which contribute significantly to the total revenue from exports.

At a national level, the big issues are known and are getting attention, however, at the individual level, things in Laos are a bit more complex and difficult to address. At the heart of the matter, most people don’t know what they should do and more importantly they don’t have the means to do so.

Meet Bounsong

Bounsong lives in an unfinished concrete home on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. He has a wife and two small children. He supports his family doing whatever work he can find. Mostly his work is farm-related. Sometimes, his wife and children will pick mushrooms in the jungle and sell them in the market. After it rains, he and his cousin go out to collect frogs, also destined for the market. Last year, his household income was $525 US, higher than the national average.

In Bounsong’s home, there is no running water, no electricity and no gas for cooking. For light, they use kerosene lanterns, for cooking they use charcoal logs. They buy potable water in 20 liter bottles. Other water for household use is drawn from a shallow well in the back yard. Also in the yard, 10 meters from the well, is a twenty year old outhouse, still in use. There are no municipal waste collection services in Bounsong’s village. Instead, his wife burns the household refuse in a barrel out back. Whatever can’t be burned, they dump in an empty lot a few doors down.

Bounsong is fortunate. He owns a motorbike. It’s nothing fancy but the 1979 two stroke engine still runs, even though the exhaust is a thick black smoke. He doesn’t have a driver’s license (or birth certificate, identification card or passport for that matter) and he can not afford a helmet for each of his family members while they all ride together to the market.

Bounsong is a fictional character, but this depiction is no exaggeration of the average citizen in his area. The simple truth is, life in Laos is pretty tough, and for people like Bounsong, there is neither time nor financing to do anything about people call "the environment".

The Global Environment

The phrase “the environment” has, over the past century, morphed into quite a buzzword. To many people “the environment” includes all things from fossil fuel addiction to cloth diapers to photosensitive, degradable plastic bags. To others, myopic tendencies come into play; one might think only of urban green space percentages; another might feel greatest danger coming from off-shore dumping; a third might distress over their child’s relentless allergies and dedicate their life to promoting organic legume and tuber cultivation. In truth, the environment is all these things – a great multitude of things. Contemplate that thought for a moment and you may draw the conclusion that it is not just a multitude of things; it is the multitude of all things.

True, the environment is our physical surroundings. It is also the impact of outside forces (our society for example) on those physical surroundings. And the environment is also our perception – our individual, constant mind-state – of our surroundings. What we think and what we feel is at the root of all things which we do. How we feel about our life, our jobs, our neighbors, our country, our enemies, has a profound influence on what we do about our environment. The sum total of our life situation is, in fact, our environment.

Let’s put our feet back down on the ground for a moment.

Back With Bounsong

Ask Bounsong what he thinks about the environment and you are likely to get a very confused look. Ask him about deforestation, and he might grimace; his uncle in the north can no longer practice slash and burn cultivation, so now they are very poor and ask him for money. Ask about rubbish removal and most probably there will be little comprehension of how or why. Tell Bounsong to have his motorbike inspected for NO2, SO2, and PM10 emissions and, like most citizens, he will nod his head in agreement but in practice simply avoid all police checkpoints for the next couple weeks until the matter is forgotten, entirely.

For Bounsong, matters of the environment are intangibles. It’s not that Bounsong doesn’t care, it’s just not relevant. These concerns mean as much to him as what type of adhesive should be used to affix ceramic tiles to the bottom of the space shuttle. Bounsong is just as likely fix his motorbike as he is likely to go to the moon.

Bounsong cares about it, of course. He cares about the environment very much, after all, he is a farmer. He is also a sensitive man, a family man. And he wants his children to have better lives than he has. He wants to leave behind for his grandchildren a plot of land which they can farm and he wants them to be healthy. If that means that he has to spend 100% of his annual income on a used motorbike, ok, but first, Bounsong has some other concerns.

In the region where he lives, infant mortality is second only to Cambodia, His wife is pregnant with their third child so he needs to set a little aside for that and he’s a bit nervous because maternal mortality is also pretty high, statistically speaking that is. His own life expectancy has climbed from 51 to 59 years of age, so that’s almost a full decade for him to work off any debt he may incur, unless he gets sick. In the past year, one relative has died from tuberculosis, another from malaria, a niece and a nephew were lost to dengue fever and a woman he used to know lost 3 relatives to bird flu. That was last year. Aside from that, only 12 of his 29 male cousins use methamphetamines on a daily basis – he’s not sure about the 4 in prison. What Bounsong also doesn’t know is that his son will die in a motorbike accident at the age of twelve. Two years after that, his daughter will turn to prostitution at the age of 15 to help pay for her father’s medical bills and subsequent burial costs.

I’m sorry; you were saying something about what’s coming out of Bounsong's tailpipe?

The Delicate Subject

We know that Bounsong is not a malicious or vindictive man. We know he would happily fix his only form of transportation if he could. But we also know that he’s got bigger problems. He lives in a world where for 59 years he will be struggling to get enough food to eat, fresh water to drink and a place to sleep. After that, he will catch a curable disease and die. All of this will happen, whether or not he changes that exhaust pipe.

I would like to think that some eccentric philanthropist will drop in on Southeast Asia and donate a bunch of environmentally friendly motorbikes, about 200 million would be a good start. Maybe Honda, in its dedication and commitment to solving global warming issues will exchange any competitors’ product with a new 100% electric motorbike. Maybe the government, who struggles to find financing for basic waste water treatment, will plop down a few billion dollars to convert all of its citizen’s motorbikes to consume clean burning alternative fuels. This will all happen as soon as Bounsong returns safely from the moon.

It comes down to money and priorities. For Bounsong, and for that matter, the entire the world population, immediate survival ranks highest among all else. Hunger will always win over the environment. If a human being needs to step on something in order to eat, they will do exactly that. For struggling nations trying to put themselves on the map, they too want a population who has been fed, even if the truck that carried the rice spit out black smoke to deliver it. It doesn't have to be this way, but the brutal fact of the matter, that's the way it is right now. In situations where a country or a person has the resources, of course, they need to focus some attention preserving the world for the future, after they have preserved themselves. The act of environmental preservation is not isolated in monitoring greenhouse gas emissions. It goes far deeper than that. It reaches into our daily habits, our spirituality, our feeling of freedom and our sense of being. Protecting the environment reaches it's deepest and most core essence always in the same place: the stomach of every single person on this planet.

As a person concerned about how we are impacting the environment, take a look at the numbers of people in this world failing to feed their family, the numbers of people dying from disease, war and starvation. Find out what is the source of those struggles. Take a candid look at what is imposing such insurmountable challenges for basic life and sustenance? What is behind that? There, you may find the answer for what is harming our environment the most.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Don Khone Sloth Rocket

To say that I am a slow traveler is a gross understatement.  I think the term sloth-like is more accurate.  I like to take my time, get lost, distracted, involved in my travels.  I don’t care much for ‘tomorrow’ pressing on my backside.  There are times, however, when I must suspend my preference and rocket through a place.

My tour of Sii Pan Don, Four Thousand Islands, has long been on my list of places in Laos to visit.  It is a shame that I only have 24 hours to spend here.  Located at the southernmost tip of Laos on the Cambodian border, this cluster of islands in the Mekong River is a tranquil paradise.  I skipped the two largest and most popular islands, Don Khong and Don Det, and headed straight for Don Khone – the more serene of the three islands.  As I expected, the island of Don Khone is friendly, laid back and incredibly quiet.

I chose to stay at Pan’s guest house partly because of the owner’s low pressure sales tactic (“I have a guesthouse.  Would you like to take a look?” about as blaze) and partly because I was too tired to look at anything else.  The guesthouse is a series of seven wooden bungalows running perpendicular to the river.  I chose room #7 closest to the river – an end unit offering two sets of windows for ultimate cross ventilation.  Outside, there is a sign which reads “In our rooms the fans work from 6pm to 2am”.  It’s early October, so 2am came around 9 o’clock – plenty cool enough to skip the fan and shut down the generator.  Blissful silence in perfect, cool sleeping weather.

At 3:27am, the roosters do a village check.  Someone close by started it, ‘Is everyone ok?’, he asks the starless night.  Around the village, cockerels sound off their agreement and assurance that all is well in Don Khone.  I lie awake in bed and listen to them settle.

‘Today I arrived. Tomorrow I will leave. Not enough time. Not enough at all’.

I feel like I am a sloth riding on a rocket.

I get out of bed and go outside to look at the night, the silhouettes of the palms in the waning full moon – to squeeze another twenty minutes of observation into a timeline which does my location no justice.  ‘I should have planned for a week here, maybe two,’ I think to myself, sigh, and return to bed.

In the morning I sit and write and drink coffee and talk with a few other travelers.  I don’t want to leave but I arrange for a boat to take me to the mainland around 1 or 2 pm.  I have some more coffee and some rice soup with lots of roasted garlic.  The boat captain arrives.  He laughs at me.  He can take me to the mainland, but there are no buses to take me to Pakse until tomorrow. 

Plans change.  Life is a series of changes and unexpected events.  I ask the guesthouse keeper if room #7 is available.  She smiles.  I tell the boat captain to meet me the next morning around 7 am.  Agreed, I put my bag back in the room, and head off to look at the waterfalls.



"There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."

Douglas Adams
English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 - 2001)


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Alone with Fishhead on Mexican Night

Fish is very fresh and very good in Laos. With a multitude of rivers and lakes, fish is a main part of the Laos cuisine. In fact, fish is the main source of meat protein in the Lao diet. Like most places where fish is a staple food, it is usually served with the head, which is thoroughly consumed, the eyes being a delicacy. The two most frequently seen forms of fish in Laos are Laap Paa (chopped fish with herbs) and whole fish grilled over a fire.

I’ve become so used to fish heads, that a couple weeks ago, I was served fish filets and I found it strange, almost suspicious, that there was no head. It’s not like I eat the heads, I just like having them around. At meals with fish heads, I offering this delicacy to others as a gesture of generosity. Most people see through this ploy, but it gets a laugh and someone gets to enjoy a fish head more than I would. Plus, I can show off some of my limited Lao vocabulary. It’s a good experience all around – except for the fish.

I was left alone this evening with some fish to cook. It’s Mexican night; fish tacos. Fish isn’t hard to cook. Grilled, fried, baked, it’s all pretty self explanatory; just stick it with a fork and if it flakes it’s done. Tonight’s task of frying a few fish steaks should have been a no brainer, but it didn’t really turn out that way.

I finished the first batch which had been started for me. Then I went to work on frying up the remainder. Two steaks, a tail and a head, neatly sliced down the middle. I dropped the head halves in the hot oil, face side up. Then the questions started flowing.

I realized that I have only cooked a fish head when it was attached to the fish. What should I do? Should I cook it extra because there are more bones, or is it tastier to leave that tiny tad of think matter a bit more… shall we say… tartar?

The eyes looked up at me and glassed over. They offered no assistance.

I voted for the bones theory. I left the head cooking extra, bringing it to a crispy set of triangles, the eyes long ago hard to distinguish. I took the two fish head halves from the frying pan and put them on a plate. I wonder what kind of reaction they will bring. They’re cooling on a plate now, the fish head halves. I don’t think fishhead is coming to dinner dressed as a taco. Too big, too cooked, can’t even see his eyes.

Monday, October 08, 2007

*Which* Action Day?

It was not long after I made a post about Blog Action Day that events in Burma* stole a little bit of thunder. Blog Action Day, an experiment to see what kind of impact a unified, blogospheric focus on a particular subject might have – in the case of Blog Action Day, the subject is the environment. Well, it seems that regardless of happens on October 15th, it is clearly evident that the internet, and blogs in particular, can have a tremendous impact on public awareness. Whether it is a global issues such as the environment or human rights abuse or a more localized concern, we are in the early throes understanding this very powerful form of communication.

Despite a subsequent blackout on information coming out of Burma, what did arrive on the international “news” scene before the plug was pulled, was both unstoppable and historic. The distribution of news occurred at light speed and there is no way these ruthless oppressors will ever be able to squelch the evidence – no matter how hard they might try to claim shooting Kenji Nagai, a Japanese journalist, was an accident. What is historic about this event is that this was a major piece of evidence that even though it is not being reported by professional journals, the international community shares a common watchdog notification system. Connect the eyes on the ground to the internet and no violation can be hidden from the rest of the world.**

I said we are in the early throes of understanding how this medium can be used. Some might argue that we are already aware and in many respects we are – we know that we can get information out to the public very quickly and it’s replication makes it impossible to destroy. However, what we have now in it’s current manifestation can be equated to the very first few printing presses – solitary, one-way, mechanical devices for materializing printed ‘information’. However, what we have not achieved is the leap between Gutenberg’s printing press of 1450 to the desktop publisher of the 1990’s. Carrying my analogy into the science-fiction predictive model, it is not just an 12page per minute, collating laser printer on the desk of a home office, rather, it is that printer churning out pages in a place which is half Quaker meeting house, half Roman forum.

In the present case of Burma, and potentially countless violations to human rights occurring around the world, we are serving as a watchdog against bad behaviour. However, not all is doom and gloom and I predict – or at least I hope – that as we learn to harness this medium, we will begin be more proactive about situations around the world so that university students no longer need to be run down by tanks before someone steps up and says “Hey, that’s not right!”.***

In my dream, sometime and I hope not to far from now, my congressional representative will begin to expose their choices, their issues, their goals openly in their politi-blog and soliciting their constituents opinions. Eventually, maybe through this type of medium, we may actually see democracy… real democracy… occur. Or call it something else?

Naturally, there are challenges to this. Not everyone has computers. Not everyone is interested. Not everyone can form an intelligent decision when presented with the facts. However, whatever challenges may be before us, the sacrifices and silenced voices of the Burmese monks should be saluted, not only for their bravery to benefit themselves and fellow countrymen, but the remarkable step of progress for humankind.

*I call it Burma because it is BurmaMyanmar? I’ve yet to meet a Burmese person who calls themselves Myanmar-anese.

**There are plenty of cases already where internet-distributed information has either been squelched, confiscated and/or censured. However, the days are not many when people will realize this is not right – how would you feel if your government came and took all the Post-It notes off your refrigerator?

*** The situation in Burma is NOT a domestic issue. Beating monks, shooting journalists, and planting evidence of weapons in a monastary is an international issue. If the UN is too insipid to apply pressure, it is up to the people of the world to stop buying Burmese teak and heroin until the junta is ousted and the legally elected National League for Democracy Party is given their elected due.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Savan Smiles

Savannakhet, Laos.  The city is a very old woman, dusty and strong with more than few broken teeth.  She holds herself together in an undeniable charm – a gritty antiquity of French colonial times blended with dismal, soviet-bloc design and a spattering of lackadaisical makeshift shacks.  This southern city wears it’s history on it’s sleeve.  I like to walk the streets and listen to the ghost echoes; the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages one hundred years ago, silenced loudspeakers alerting comrades to the cause of 75, distant booms of bombardments from Siam, Thailand, Khmer and everyone else wanting to pluck the jewel of this ancient kingdom.

For most tourists, Savannakhet is a one night stop en-route to more documented destinations to the north and south.  For me, it is a place I like to spend a little time.  I got to know the city pretty well in 2006, making all of my explorations on foot.  I am excited to return to Savannakhet to look for evidence of change.  Unfortunately, this trip is but a brief stop on my way south, but I manage to get some time to revisit some of my favorite lanes and alleyways during an early morning walk.

Stepping past the gate of my guesthouse and heading down the road, a truck passes.  Two little boys in the back practice their English, “Good morning,” they say.

“Good morning,” I call after them and wave my hand.

I hunt for a Vietnamese noodle shop I like.  It’s somewhere near the Catholic church.  There are not many Catholics in Laos.  There are far more Vietnamese.  During the French colonial period, Vietnamese filled the majority of the civil servant positions.  They relayed the francais demands to build roads and stables and boarding houses.  I can’t find the noodle shop.  The church is hard to miss.  Down another lane, ‘Laundry Row’ I call it, at least a dozen storefronts hang their washing out on lines with bragging signs of competition: 10,000kip/kilo, 9,000kip/kilo, 8,000kip/kilo.  The dogs no longer come out to bark at me, they can smell my ease and know their testing teases have no weight on me.  Some boys spot a woman covered up as if she is a bee keeper.  She is crazy, deranged; afraid in her vulnerability.  Two of the five boys go to tease her.  My tongue wags silent in my mouth searching for some variant of ‘Hey, leave her alone! Maybe someday you, too, will be crazy’.  I find no words and leave them to their mischief.  A left towards the Mekong; this road last year was dirt, now it is paved but already potholed and cracked.  Sweet magnolias, champa, arch over the sidewalk and I am in a dream, a tuk tuk driver yanks me from my reverie.

He woos me to go for a ride.  I tell him ‘I go not far.’  He disagrees.  I tell him 100 kip (1/10th of a penny).  He laughs.  He tells me today is the boat racing festival (it’s not).  He offers me drugs.  I decline.  He offers me a girl – it’s 8:30 am, I know they are all sleeping, those still awake too wired on crystal meth to lay down on the floor without holding on.  I smile, decline and thank him for the information.  He looks confused and pulls away. 

I find a café that I know.  Like the rest of the city, very little has changed in the last year.  At the café, they still don’t like my table selection – they would have to turn on the fan which takes effort: walking over to the switch, lifting a finger, walking all the way back to sit down again.  They are still unfathomably grumpy.  The son – too old to be living at home, too lazy to find a bride – is still playing video games.  The infant is walking now.  They still make the greasiest omelets known to man.  It mops up last night’s whiskey.  The menu still offers both Lao Coffee and Nescafe, and still a request for either yields a hot cup of the instant garbage (this area grows some of the best coffee in the world, Nescafe should be criminalized).  I eat and write and plead for a second cup – she wont accept that I can order in her language and repeats everything I say in English.  Coffee is coffee everywhere in the world, even bad coffee with an accent.  I ask how much.  Incomprehensible words I speak.  I try again.  Nothing.  I rub my fingers together.  She walks away to do the math on a piece of paper and returns slapping it down on the table.  I don’t leave a tip, it’s not customary and all the money in the world would not erase my stigma.

I head back to the guesthouse and take in more of the city steam.  I walk slow to catch the subtleties.  I want to go slow.  I don’t want to go fast.  I don’t want a tuk tuk.  I don’t want to buy pens or sunglasses or a knock-off Rolex already displaying the wrong time.  I don’t want to drink instant coffee and I don’t want any ganga, girls or yaba (meth).  I just want to walk in the heart of this classic beauty of a city and immerse myself in the delicate harsh charm.  I smile back and wave to the old woman with her broken smile.



 In northern Laos, the sister city of Luang Prabang has much the same architecture of Savannakhet.  However, Savannakhet has not received UNESCO World Heritage status; it has not been gussied up with fresh plaster, brilliant painted shutters and tidy red brick walkways.  It is the exposure of the gritty and earthy unabridged history that gives Savannakhet a charm I love.  If you happen to be traveling in Laos, don’t short change the untouched reality of Savannakhet.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Boun Hor Khao Salak

Boun Hor Khao Salak. What is it? Ask an average, young Laos person and unless they have spent time as a monk, there is a small chance they can give much of an explanation. For most, the explanation is simply ‘day we give alms’. This religious holiday, also a worker holiday, comes at the last full moon during Boun Khaophansa, Buddhist Lent. It seems each full moon has a specific importance; last month’s full moon was the day to honor the spirits of the dead; this month, it is to give alms and to make offerings to deceased relatives.

The day starts early. Long before sunrise, throughout the country of Laos, households rise early to make sticky rice (well, our household rose early, failing to finish the task the day before). Sticky rice – khao neow – is possibly the single most ubiquitous item throughout Lao. No household is complete without the tools for making sticky rice. No meal is satisfactory, without at least a few of the sticky little balls. Even in a linguistic sense, the mere name of the holiday Boun Hor Khao Salak includes a reference to khao; rice. However, in this linguistic sense, I believe it refers to ‘harvest’ in general, rather than rice specifically. In the end, for this event, sticky rice and a cane of sugar seem to have an important priority in the list of items we are bringing.

A meal or two worth of sticky rice in the basket, we collect everything we need and head off to the Wat (temple). Offerings vary, depending on one’s financial ability. The very poor may only be able to spare a modest basket of rice, some water and a small taper. For Boun Hor Khao Salak, a piece of vegetation also seems to be something everyone has brought. We stop on the way to the Wat and buy some lotus buds. Something to do with harvest, I guess, or maybe flowers for the deceased.

Those who do not live in abject poverty – a noticeable amount do – will include 1000kip (10¢) notes folded lengthwise as part of their alms. Progressing up the income scale, offerings extend to individually wrapped cookies and cakes. Those who are exceptionally devoted, wanting to contribute to everyone’s greater good, or perhaps have lost an important relative and want to make a more substantial offering, may bring a pre-made care package: a basket of essentials such as coffee, sweetened condensed milk, toilet tissue, soap, incense, candles and other items of use to a novice or monk. Often, the monks will re-gift these to families in need in the village.

Most families have a shiny metal offering bowl which looks like a cross between an American punch bowl and a Russian samovar. The offerings are doled out from this bucket when it is available, otherwise a simple basket will do.

Arriving at Ban Sindha on the outskirts of Vientiane, I am quite nervous. I have never given alms before. I don’t know the process. Adding to my insecurity, I was convinced to wear a formal dress shirt tucked into slacks with a belt and proper shoes on my feet. This type of attire is extremely rare for me and only makes my foreigner-ness stand out more. Much to my relief, a quick glance around the grounds of the Wat assures me I am not overdressed.

The men wear proper long pants, clean, and buttoned shirts. Over their left shoulder, they wear a sash and tie the ends just above the right hip. The women, are even more elegant in thick silk blouses or vests, similar sashes but tied differently and long, calf-length sinhs (traditional skirts) – despite the ultra conservative design, sinhs are surprisingly flattering. Around the grounds of the Wat, mats are laid out for people to sit for the ceremony. We take off our shoes and sit just outside the main building – a dismal view of concrete nothing and a 4000 watt loudspeaker.

There is some confusion. We’ve brought a care package but are unsure how to deliver it. My companion knows to write something on a piece of paper, but is not sure what something to write. She calls her sister – her husband tells us she has already left. She is supposed to join us with brother, she should be here soon. A woman next to us tells us to write the family name on the paper and bring it to the stage where the venerable monks sit.

The ceremonies begin with a prayer broadcasted in dull tones through the PA system. I don’t understand a single word of these prayers, but I have come to enjoy them all the same. The first time I heard this type of prayer it was at a Baci ceremony where I was the guest of honor. There seems to be a certain magic in the chanting. At that Baci ceremony, I felt a distinct lightness, a euphoria, washing through, over, around and beneath me. Since then, I always try to allow the power of the chant envelop me instead of frustrating myself with my lack of vocabulary. People have a full conversation during these prayers – it seems perfectly ok.

After the chanting, alms are delivered. There is a long table with 10 baskets. Each basket has a bowl for sticky rice and a bag for candy and cash. First, the elders give alms. These men appear to be like deacons in a Christian church, assisting with the other logistics of the ceremony. After the male elders give alms, the rest of the men in procession pass each of the baskets lined up on a table. I take my place as the last male. I mimic the men in front of me. First, a ball of sticky rice is placed in the basket. Then, a 1000 kip note and a cake or candy is raised to the forehead and then placed into the bag. I get confused. I forget to put rice in one of the baskets. A deacon sets me straight. There is no possibility I will go unnoticed.

The women proceed to give alms in the same way. Then children give alms. There are three of us, myself, a woman and a teenage boy; we share our offering bowl in turns. After everyone has finished with this, we return to our mats for another prayer – another moment of touching the occult dimensions of our existence whether we comprehend or not. After the second prayer – or maybe during – the elders collect the alms given and bring them to the main building.

Next, an offering to deceased relatives is made. Smaller balls of sticky rice are offered. The woman next to us is poor; she makes four small balls of sticky rice and places them on a leaf in front of her. We have a little bit more money, so instead of a leaf, we used our shiny offering bowl. It’s silver colored tin. Others have gold colored bowls, also made of tin. I see a woman with a beautiful hardwood carved offering bowl.

We make three small balls of sticky rice and place them on the edge of the bowl. Then, in unison with the other practitioners, we pour water into the bowl. The less advantaged woman to our left had a small 7oz bottle of water to offer into the leaf she had placed on the ground; we had a 750ml bottle. She has a taper; we forgot to bring one. We drain the entire bottle of water into the bowl. (I’m later told this was also an preparation oversight on our part and a small bottle would have sufficed.) After this, the group-led part of the ceremony concludes with very little fanfare – a couple of bows.

People stand up from the mats and with their offerings in hand approach one of the many stupas (ornate gravestones) on the perimeter of the grounds of the Wat. Another silent prayer is made and the water and rice are poured onto the ground or placed on the stupa. Some people have left small tapers burning there.

Then everyone leaves. They leave nonchalant, with barely any expression of relief or fortitude or any other apparent show of emotion. The whole affair seemed to be as mundane to them as washing one’s face in the morning – maybe even less exhilarating. However, wrapped inside of this seeming indifference, there is a casual solemnity, a Sunday morning feeling. Quiet. Placid.

Pulling out of the grounds of the Wat on the motorbike, I ask my companion, “So, today is a worker’s holiday?”


I check my watch; it’s just before 9 a.m., “So that means all of Laos will be drunk by 11?”

“Mmmmmm,” Mmmmm means ‘yes’ in Lao. To the westerner, it is a non-committal response, but to the Laos, it is as sure as saying yes.

I am under the weather; a nagging chest cold set on by that dastardly air conditioner. Unfortunately, I will have to skip the rest of the celebration and observations of the holiday. During the daytime, I understand, there is some Lao dancing, which no doubt goes well with Beer Lao and whiskey. At night, there is a candle ceremony, which I also regret planning to miss.

In the afternoon, as I convalesce in bed, the phone rings. Bad news. Uncle Won has passed away. I had just met him the day before. He had pneumonia – advanced stages of it. He was a man of medium build, but the months of illness had deteriorated his body to a mere 30 some-odd kilo. His bones poked through his skin like a tortured, starved prisoner. He sat away from the group, knowing his contagion. I watched his eyes, dark and glassy – watching us childlike in his not knowing yet mannish in his recognition that his time on earth is coming to an end. He smoked a cigarette and went back to bed.

When the news comes, there is a sputter of panic on cell phones. Each brother and sister and aunt and cousin and uncle and brother in law is calling the other with news of his passing. I am home alone. I am useless on the phone. Baw khow jai. I don’t understand. Oddly, I know the word die, but I don’t recognize it out of context.

To die on Boun Khao Salak is a very inauspicious event – the body will have to be brought to the crematorium on the same day. Some more sputters of cell phone calls and the matter is settled; it was a misunderstanding. Uncle Won passed away the night before. Presumably the news was delayed to avoid upsetting the alms giving of the morning. Or more likely, someone just didn’t get around to it. One cousin did not find out until a full day later.

Still under the weather, I ask if it would be a great insult to skip the funeral. As much as I would like to have gone to pay respect and to learn a bit more, it would be unwise for a sick man to attend. They will understand, but there will be plenty of questions about my absence. Even though they know I don’t talk, they seem to like having me around. I think again about Uncle Won’s eyes. It will be a full year before a ball of sticky rice is offered to his spirit – to make him feel warm in the meantime, I leave a small portion of sticky rice on my plate at dinner.