Saturday, September 15, 2007


Too often people think that one person’s success precludes another’s. This simply is not true. “Miss Hoyle” on MySpace published a list of 33 writer’s contests on her blog the other day. In her introduction she says, “Okay, I might be shooting myself in the kneecap here by sending "my competitors" all this information; but in truth, I think we writers need to work together.”. I could not agree with her second thought more.

One of the projects I intended to complete in Laos was a series of podcasts providing information about major tourist attractions in Laos. Just the other day, an acquaintance asked me how the project was going. I winced. The podcasting project I intended to do was shelved for one major reason: I could not find a Lao national who was willing to put forth the effort to learn about these things and visit the attraction. Despite not finding a co-narrator, I continued for a couple months writing draft scripts for the project, but eventually saw the writing on the wall and abandoned the project.

Today, on Craigslist, I found a site who is looking for exactly this type of thing. Authors/narrators are free to set their own prices (if any) and can publish at their own pace. The site is called Audio Snacks and they want people to submit recordings of guided tours of any place where they have “inside knowledge”. As a result, I am thinking about reviving my own project of podcasting in Laos.

Have you ever seen someone get bent out of shape because someone else got a job, materialized an idea they had or achieved some other form of success? Have you ever felt this yourself? It’s an outrageous reaction to someone else’s success and it is completely in the wrong direction. Success is like love – there is an infinite supply of it. All you have to do is chip in, share, and keep an open mind. There is plenty for all of us and it has a compounding effect on the world.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dig It

Some things don’t change no matter where you go in this world. Across the street from the cafĂ© where I write, there is an empty lot. It has been empty a long time. Just yesterday, or this morning, a big pile of sand was dumped. A neighborhood dog is intrigued. I know this dog. I’ve seen him around. We’ve never spoke, but I know his face and he probably knows my scent. He stands on top of the mound. He is king of the new sand pile. He barks at another dog – a blond dog who is slow & numb and doesn’t like being barked at. The other dog, the one on top of the sand pile, he sees his street from a new vantage point. He digs. He digs furiously tossing sand from the top of the pile into the lot, onto the sidewalk, out into the street. The worker with the wheelbarrow comes to take a load of sand to the storefront under renovation; the dog steps off the mound, lets the worker fill the barrow, then returns to his perch. He digs some more.

I wrestle with writers block – two months, now. It’s awful. Some say it’s a fallacy, writer’s block; it doesn’t exist; it’s just an excuse for not writing. I can think of nothing. I delete nearly everything word I type. I can only watch the dog and think how some things are the same the world over. Dogs & new piles of fresh soft sand. Dig. It makes me think of one of my favourite stories, a well known story.

Two boys, twins. One an optimist, the other a pessimist. The pessimist is put in a room piled high with toys, games and all the diversions so loved by little boys. He sits, long-faced, making no attempt to even explore any of the toys. ‘Why?’, he’s asked. ‘Because I have no one to play with.’ He is the pessimist.

The other boy, his twin brother, the optimist, is put in a different room, a room with only a giant pile of horse manure – nothing else. Equipped with no shovel or tool, the boy climbs onto the pile of manure and begins to dig. He digs furiously, excitedly, hopeful. ‘Why?’, he’s asked, “Why are you digging in this big pile of manure?’. ‘Well,’ he explains, ‘with all this manure around, there must be a pony nearby.’.

Thank you, dog. Although we have never spoken, today, you are my saving grace. Not only have you given me something to write about, you have also made me hope there is a pony in here somewhere. Keep digging, doggy, you’ll find your bone, I just know it.

Walking Meditation

There are different forms of meditation; walking meditation, standing meditation, reclining meditation, sitting meditation. The most common form is sitting meditation. Sit down. Get comfortable. Focus. Focus on the chakras. Chakras are all over the body. There are 7 big ones aligned with the spine, the crown chakra sits just above the top of the head. These are energy nexuses. Focus on them. It takes some practice, but it’s not as difficult as it first seems.

I like walking meditation. Years ago – lifetimes ago – I did a lot of sitting meditation. Things have sped up since then and I like to go places, do things, get somewhere. I still practice sitting meditation, but I also like walking meditation. Meditating while walking took some time to learn, but like sitting meditation, it is not as difficult as it first seems. And it opens the door to opportunities.

This month, I’ve decided to give up my motorbike. After a few days of walking, I realized I had been missing too much of my surroundings. The ban, the village, where I live is a nice community. There are rich people and poor people and I like that things are mixed that way. In the center of the ban is a crossroads with two “restaurants”. One is a noodle shop which is very popular with the university students. I’ve eaten there enough times that they know not to give me any chicken feet. Across the road, the restaurant is more like a pub. It’s underneath a house and the ceilings are about six feet high. The floor is concrete but it could just as well be dirt. There are some walls, but not many. Up until the point where I gave up my motorbike, I had never stopped there, even though I wanted to.

Walking back from work one afternoon, I passed by this place. Some men my age were sitting having some beers. They said hello. I said hello. Next thing I knew, we were passing around shots of Lao Khao, rice whiskey – powerful stuff, could be used as nail polish remover as well. On my motorbike, I simply sped past this place and never got to know my neighbors. It’s hard enough being white around here. There’s no way to hide it and there is no way anyone is going to overlook the fact that I am different. Different I can handle. Aloof is something that just isn’t me. As I sped past on my motorbike, it was too easy to label me as aloof.

Meditation is not a matter of checking out – being aloof to ones surroundings. Actually, it is a matter of checking in. It is a practice of getting to the reality, the heart of the matter, the true existence of things. Walking to and from work (I use that term creatively), I get to practice my walking meditation in the very literal sense. I also have more of an opportunity to get to the heart of my existence here in Laos, in my neighborhood.

Before, I was simply speeding past my own life. Hurrying from home to there and from there to home, I was missing what I came here for. I was not fully engaging in a culture I found so appealing, so natural and in tune with my own resonance. Instead, I was just driving through it.

Now, on my way home, I stop off at the “pub” and share a few beers with the guys. There’s a lot of conversation. Sometimes I have a general idea what they are talking about. Other times, I’m completely clueless. I don’t mind it much. I know a few jokes and they laugh like crazy when I tell the guy with seven children “Condom! Condom!”. They know I like Lao whiskey, beer with ice, grilled pork intestines, mint, meatballs. They know I am not above getting down on my knees and playing with the children. The children have a blast playing with the rubber masks I carry in my backpack just for that purpose.

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to have a translator. It felt good to get some feedback. They like me. They think I am a good person. They are glad I am part of their community. They see that I am different than most falang (foreigner). They agree that I am Lao – somehow, born in the States, white with Anglo and Mediterranean parents, I am Lao. Maybe a past life. Maybe a future life. Certainly, in this life, I am Lao, inside, somehow.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Summer's End

The earmark of summer’s end, Memorial Day (or is it Labor Day? I can never remember. The one at the end, the one just before school… I think it’s Labor Day), came and went over on the other side of the world and here in Laos, I got to sneak squeeze a little more time. No one was watching. No Memorial Day. But, I have to let it end, though. I have to get back to it. Back into the flow, back on track and - ouch - nose to grindstone. Summer must come to an end. I squeeze a little more time because there’s no Memorial Day in Laos. The next weekend, or the one after, is the boat racing festival in Luang Prabang. It seems like an appropriate marker.

September 11 is the day for the Boat Racing Festival in Luang Prabang. It’s also Horkhaopadapdin, the day – the very very early morning part of the day – to honor deceased relatives with offerings to assure their spirits that they did good in this world and their memories are respected, cherished, thanked, safe journey wherever you are. Longer boats. The boats on the river are larger than what we know in Cambridge, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Exeter, the Head of the Charles. They are longer and wider and heavier and 50 not 8 men are geared with short fat paddles not long thin oars. The rhythm is still there. The coxswains use drums and some are not coxswains, they just drum and there’s one in the front as well as the back. There might be some in the middle, too. They row on the Nam Kang and not the Mekong. The Mekong is too mighty; harsh and wide and full with obstructions. The banks are closed and the riverside is lined with Lao people and very few tourists – the children dress in their best clothes and some little girls proudly wear new, clean, yellow patterned dresses holding daddy’s hand overwhelmed at the sights and the uncountable faces and knees and packages and dogs eating bones under street side vendor’s tables.

Country folk come in from all over the province. It’s a big day. It’s easy to spot who is cosmopolitan and who is not. I’m told the children used to wear their school uniforms if that’s all they had, but now some wear dirty t-shirts and ripped pants if that’s what they want. They are becoming more worldly. It’s easy to spot who has made special effort to bring the family to see the festival and visit with cousins and aunts and uncles and maybe an eldest son lucky enough to study at Wat Sop, Wat Sene or Wat Phousi. Little boys proudly walk through the crowds with plastic carbines, with plastic AK-47’s, with plastic Luger’s. The men soak themselves in Beer Lao and the women join in as much as they can without forgetting they have children to watch but it’s not a problem because Lao men are just as likely to pick up their crying child and console them.

The races seem tertiary after the street side vendors and the face watching over big bottles of beer and grilled chicken on sticks and sweet Lao sausage. The crowds are overwhelming to me. To many balloons and umbrellas trying to poke me in the face. We retreat across the peninsula to the Mekong side – to a quiet riverside restaurant for an early afternoon sitting of Lao barbeque; it’s called ‘sindha’ or something like that but I like to call it sim card because it sounds like sim card and saying ‘I want to eat sim card’ makes me chuckle. It’s easier to make such jokes when broken English is the standard and I can’t speak the local language.

We could take a bus back to Vientiane. It’s cheaper. $11.50. But it’s not much fun and no longer interesting to me – I’ve done the trip too many times for it to stimulate anything. I don’t even get upset at the power lines blemishing across a stunning pair of limestone karsts north of Vang Vieng. Even the VIP bus – the good one where they give you little packaged sponge cakes and a bottle of water and they give you moist towelettes near the end of the trip just before the tire blows out and by the time we’re all back on the bus and the tire is changed, our hands are dirty again – it’s just not interesting anymore. The flight is six times more expensive. The flight is eight times quicker. I decide to skip the bus ride.

I’m a little torn about flying. My brother tells me not to fly because around here things are not done the way they are done in the west and it’s not quite as safe as the budget airlines who sprung up out of deregulation in the 80’s (was that the 80’s?). My embassy tells me not to take the bus because the Hmong are still ticked off and the jungles north are filled with resistance and it’s been a while but there have been incidents…

The ticket agent hands me back my passport, credit card and boarding pass. I look at the date: September 11. It’s just another day but I can’t help but make the connection. I wait for boarding to begin. For me, it’s just another dead zone strip of time between the festival and getting home. For others, it’s a different new experience.

It’s fun to watch someone fly for the first time. In the waiting area there is a collected excitement about her. Excited on boarding. Excited on take off. Excited even putting her bag through the x-ray machine and she beeps and the man waves his wand around her and that too is exciting. The second time through she doesn’t beep and they make a joke about it. The sun has set and there is only jungle below so no lights to see; only blackness and the reflection of her face in the window. Eventually she eases back into rapid fire page flipping of the inflight magazine. At the back there is a calendar of events, holidays and festivals for 2007. It says the 26th is the day for remembering and making offering to deceased relatives. I no longer find factual contradictions an annoyance. The 8 a.m. bus can leave at 1:45 p.m. if that’s when it leaves. That’s just the way it’s done. It’s a contradiction. Fact.

I’m glad she’s older. Too old to discover the child thrill of bringing her seatback tray to it’s full upright and locked position then back down and up and locked and unlocked and down and locked and unlocked and locked and unlocked… click, click, click, clickclick, clickclick, click. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. How long will this go on? Glad she’s too old for that. She leaves it in the full upright and locked position. I felt something let go in me when I showed her how to use the seat belt. An old resentment from being too many times a passenger watching the preflight safety demonstration. We roll our eyes, the seasoned travelers, at the flight attendants who have to, by law, demonstrate how to operate the seat belt. Who doesn’t know? She didn’t know. Why would she? It took her a couple tries to master it. I’m glad for the experience, glad I can let go finally. One less thing to irritate me about flying. One more thing to remind me how much child exists in all of us – wide eyed, not knowing, we don’t know everything and when we do, there is always the plane instead of the bus.