pusao lao

In Laos, when you go to someone’s home or workplace, they will usually have large portraits of them selves decorating the walls.  These portraits are taken in numerous photo studios found throughout the city, and cater to people getting married who want to do wedding photos, and women who like to get dressed up and have photos taken of themselves.  Once I walked into a massage shop and on the wall in front of me was a series of 5 portraits around the 11 x 17″ size, framed, of what I assume was the owner of the shop, each portrait in a different outfit and a different pose.  This is apparently considered tasteful decorating in Laos.

After realising that the photo studios actually provide all the clothing and accessories for a portrait, and also do your hair and make-up, I decided it would be a great momento of my time in Laos to go and get a traditional Lao portrait done.

So, here are the results.  Please note that the portrait studio took it upon themselves to air-brush my face to the point where it doesn’t even look like me.

It was really quite a funny experience.  In particular, the application of my make-up and styling of my hair was incredibly bizarre.  I have no idea what products were used on me, and false eyelashes were glued to my eyelids and my hair was teased to an unbelievable height.  Then, a black cone of false hair was placed on my head, which did not look like it could have possibly been part of my actual hair.  However, when they put all the jewellery on it, it was less noticeably incongruous.  The shoes…are also possibly the funniest footwear I have ever had on my feet.  And the poses I was instructed to take… the whole experience, as I said, very funny.  Despite the humour of the situation, I tried very hard to maintain a straight face, as Lao people tend not to smile in their portraits.

So, now I am just waiting for my 11 x 17″ enlargements and gilded frames to put these babies up in my office and living room.

back in the Lao PDR

(if only the Beatles had sung about Laos instead of the USSR)

I have conducted about 5 pilot interviews, which have been getting progressively better.  I think I will be able to start collecting data full steam shortly.  In the meantime, I am seeing lots of old pals and enjoying catching up.

Being back in Laos after 2 years away, seeing familiar faces and places that have changed, but haven’t, has been quite surreal.   I think it’s also been stimulating my subconscious mind and stirring up quite a few dusty memories.  The other morning I woke up from an extremely vivid dream in which a friend of mine from Peace Corps Benin was getting married to one of my high school classmates who worked at Schaumburg Library with me from 1995-1997.  I haven’t seen the Peace Corps friend in something like 6 years, and my co-worker from STDL since… 1997.  It’s quite strange how memory works.

Anyway, I have enrolled in a traditional massage class, which I started yesterday.  It’s a week long class about 2 hours day and so far I have had 2 lessons.  It’s really quite good and I am very glad I decided to enrol.  I have been making studious notes, as well as photos of every step, and getting to practice under the teacher’s careful watch.  The teacher, known around town as “Ajarn (teacher) Sak”, is from Ubon Rachitami in Thailand and has been doing massage for over 20 years.  His English is not fantastic, but he is an excellent teacher and I am really enjoying his tutelage.

If you are planning to be in Vientiane for more than a week, I would highly recommend visiting the White Lotus Spa and taking a course from Ajarn Sak.  A 10-hour course costs $150 USD.  If you are in Vientiane for less than a week, just go to White Lotus and get a 1 or 2 hour massage from Ajarn Sak.  You have to ask for him specially, and you may have make an appointment ahead of time, but he is well known in town as being the best of the best, and the man seriously has magic fingers.

I plan to type up my class notes and post the photos I have taken when I have some time.  For now, these photos from around town will have to do!




Sabaidee Vientiane

The eagle has landed.  In Laos, that is.

Apologies in advance for lack of photos.  I will start taking more soon!

It’s really surprising how different a place can become in 2 years.  What I have noticed so far:

  • A lot more cars on the road.  Big cars, many driven by women.  A lot of traffic.  It’s impossible to cross the road on foot.  No one walks anywhere.  The footpath is overtaken by parked vehicles and vendor’s stalls.  No one actually uses it for walking.
  • A lot of massive, huge, multi-storey buildings have sprung up all over town.  Most seem to be virtually empty.  They’ve started construction on a new university library building, with 4 levels!  It won’t be done until 2013 but it’s still exciting.
  • Prices have gone up. A lot.  For everything.
  • Internet access is much more widespread.  A lot of people have internet in their homes now.  A lot of restaurants, cafes, and bars have free wi-fi.  The University library still doesn’t, but they’re working on it!
  • Crime rates have gone up.  A lot.  While I haven’t personally experienced any crime since I got here 5 days ago, I have heard a lot of stories.  There are a lot more muggings, thefts, and motor-bike jackings happening.   People have told me this may be drug related crime.  They have also told me the police don’t seem to do anything about it, and maybe even run away if they see somebody attacked.  A Lao person actually told me they hate the government and the police, which would have been unheard of 2 years ago!
  • Literally dozens of expensive clothing shops have opened up.  I don’t know who has the money to buy clothes there but they are everywhere.
  • Lao people are getting fatter!  I see a lot of young people bigger than a size a zero.  A lot bigger!  My friend told me some of her students from more wealthy families are so fat they can’t fit in their chairs.
  • Brand new road and park along the Mekong river, complete with giant statue of the last Lao king.  No more river-front restaurants!
  • International businesses like Swensen’s & The Pizza Company are now operating in Vientiane.  I’m assuming KFC & McDonalds are also on their way.
  • New developments everywhere.  My very good friend’s family home and his family’s vegetable garden that they have farmed for over 20 years is now being razed and developed into river-front condominiums.  The government is moving all the residents 30 kms out of town and giving them a pittance for their homes and land, and they can’t do anything about it.

Overall I would say Laos seems to be having an economic boom.   In many ways this might be good for Laos, however, it does seem to be having a negative impact as well.   I’ve only been here a few days so it’s a bit too early to tell, but thing have definitely changed.  A lot.

shotgun weddings a thing of the past?

I just read this article on the NZ newspaper website and thought it was pretty interesting:

Number of weddings falls to all-time low

Marriage rates have fallen so far in the past 40 years that what was once an institution is now largely a symbolic gesture.

A record low 20,900 marriages took place last year, less than one-third of the number in 1971 and one half of the 1987 rate, figures from Statistics NZ reveal.


So, only 40,000 people in new Zealand got married last year… out of 4 million population, that’s pretty low odds!  I guess the institution of marriage has become outdated.  Which is why it’s so surprising how obsessed with getting married some women are.

Admittedly, I would like to get married one day.  I think probably every girl who grew up in North American in the 80’s does.  I don’t know why this isn’t so strongly true in New Zealand. If I did get married, I hope I could do it in a ceremony like this!!!! :

At one point I had convinced myself I didn’t ever want to get married.  That I would find a baby daddy, have a kid, and remain single, doing it all on my own as my own mother did with me (And I turned out pretty good, right?).  I agree that the institution of marriage is a patriarchal remnant of oppressive religious organizations and practices meant to keep women subdued and in the home.  However, as Dervin says, society is “energized” by individuals, so if people didn’t agree with marriage, why do so many societies expect it of people?  I guess the answer is that secretly deep down inside the institution of marriage is still part of our core value system (As identified by Cutler 2001, p. 75).

Also, I think our society still looks at single women (and probably men, to a lesser degree), and thinks “What is wrong with them?”.  It’s hard to believe some one would choose to remain single.  I realise that the above article doesn’t examine our society’s perception of “spinsters”, and in fact people are still forming partnerships to the same degree as in olden tymes, they just aren’t sanctifying it with a marriage certificate quite so much anymore.

However, this raises several questions about tradition and what I would perhaps even call a paradigm shift that is happening today.  I think it’s really quite remarkable that being an unwed mother no longer carries a social stigma.  And, personally, I think that is a step in the right direction, towards equality and independence that all women should be permitted to decide what happens with their bodies.  So, I applaud New Zealand, and all it’s unmarried mums!  I think the US and Canada are following the lead to some degree, but at the same time, clinging to this idealised version of marriage.. when how many of them end in divorce? 50%?

Which brings me to another point… Monogamy.  Were humans meant to be monogamous?  Does it work?  That is something I will have to explore at another time, I’m going out for dim sum shortly!




Now that I have been here in Wellington for more than 1 year… it’s starting to grow on me.  It’s actually not such a bad place.  Yes, I hate the hills, but they do keep you fit.  Yes, I do hate the traffic and the shitty public transit with privatized buses, but things change slowly.  Yes, I hate how expensive it is, and the lack of decent Mexican food.  The wind!  The rain!  They make this place miserable!  But, I am also aware of my dangerously high standards, to which most places don’t really measure up, and the fact that my utopia probably doesn’t exist.  So, for the time being, I have to make do with Wellington.  And now I can say there are actually a few things I like about it.  This is my shortlist:

  1. The greenspaces.  My house is practically in the town belt, on the Southern Walkway, a ring around Wellington’s downtown reserved for flora and fauna and free from development.  I walk out my door into the woods, yet I am merely 8 minutes by bike to downtown Wellington.

    lookin' out my back door
  2. The wildlife (read: the bird life) . This could be a sub-category of no. 1, as the greenspaces contribute to the abundance of bird life one sees on a daily basis, all over town.  I wake up to birdsong, and see several species when hanging out the washing.  There are no snakes or bears or lions or piranhas here.  Instead there are fantails and tuataras!

  3. My office’s ocean view.  Yes, that’s right, from where I sit typing right now, I have a view of the Wellington harbour, where I can watch the Bluebridge ferry pulling in and out of it’s dock several times a day.

    office view
  4. The food and drink.  Wellington has a surprisingly decent selection of restaurants, from nearly every country in the world, as well as addictive fish n’ chips shops all over the place.  And, most of the places are pretty affordable!  The wine and beer selection here is also of very high quality, ad relative to things like rent and bills, quite reasonably priced.
  5. The small-towniness.  In fact, an encounter I had last night illustrating the small-towniness of Wellington is the impetus for this post.  As I was riding home from pottery class, around quarter to 10 pm, I pulled up alongside Wellington’s Mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, who was also heading home on her cycle.  I commented that I was happy to see her out on her bicycle, and we rode along side each other for the next few kms until she turned off towards Island Bay and I continued on towards Newtown.   She chatted to me about bike lanes and the weather and I told her about how much I had been enjoying my pottery class.  As you dear readers must know, this is actually not the first time I have met the mayor.  But imagine running into Richard Daley on a bicycle?  Not in a million years.  (Ok, actually I just found this blog post and picture of Richard M Daley on a bicycle… so it is possible, though unprobable.)  At the Salvation Army, at the supermarket, buying stuff on TradeMe (NZ’s eBay), on a random downtown street corner, eating breakfast, attending a workshop on home preserving, I have run into people I know who I was not expecting to see.  And I don’t know that many people here!  That old cliche “It’s a small world” very aptly describes the world of Wellington.  After living in big cities so for so long, Wellington gives me the small-town feeling while at the same time being a pretty cosmopolitan place.  In some ways I miss the anonymity,  but I actually know who my neighbors are here.  For the moment, I am liking that about Wellington. This is a typical look for Celia Wade-Brown, Wellington’s mayor:

But seriously, the wind.  It’s enough to drive a person mad.

City of Sails

I just got back from a trip to Auckland.  This was my first opportunity to leave Wellington and see another part of New Zealand.  I have to say…. it wasn’t mind-blowing.  While Auckland did seem more like an actual city; compared to Wellington (the village with an over-inflated ego), it wasn’t particularly interesting.  Admittedly, I was only there 2 days, and didn’t see much beyond the CBD.

I really didn’t have any expectations, so I wasn’t really disappointed or excited by Auckland.  The one thing that constantly surprised me was the number of East Asians, and the Asian influence apparent throughout the city.

Several months ago, when I was spending quite a bit of time with a group of Lao ESL students studying here at Victoria, they went on a group trip to Auckland.  When they came back I asked them if they had liked their visit to Auckland.

“No.” responded one of them.

“Why not?” I asked

“There were too many Asian people.  I like to see more white people.”

Now I understand what he meant.  A significant portion of the signage in the CBD was in English and Chinese, not to mention Japanese and Korean.  While I didn’t see any Thai, or Vietnamese, those were pretty much our only food options, alongside the Chinese restaurants, sushi places, and Korean pancakes.  Irregardless, I totally pigged out and am now on a strict no-junk-food diet.  Visiting the shopping centres downtown I had to double-take to make sure I wasn’t actually in a fancier version of Vientiane’s Talat Sao Mall, or even more similarly, the Platinum Shopping Centre in Bangkok.

Our main purpose for going to Auckland was to attend the Laneway Festival.  Overall, I have mixed feelings about the festival experience.  At $112 NZD, it was an expensive event for me.  However, the lineup included a number of bands that appealed to me, including Holy Fuck, Ariel Pink, Blonde Redhead, Deerhunter, and Beach House.  And those were just the bands I had heard of!  I discovered Warpaint, Foals, Ladyhawke, and Yeasayer thanks to the festival; all of whom I genuinely enjoy.  I appreciated the Auckland summer weather – comfortably warm.  I have awful memories of the intolerable heat of Pitchfork festival in Chicago in July, 2006.  The booze was pretty reasonably priced and the crowd was pretty friendly and enthusiastic. However, the sound was way too loud, even with ear plugs.  I came to some conclusions based on the following observations:

  • The festival had initially booked a 4 city tour (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland)
  • Sometime later shows in Wellington and Singapore shows were added
  • The artists only had 45 minute sets
  • None of the artists gave really stellar performances

My conclusions are that they were exhausted and tired of performing by the time they got to Auckland, and unfortunately for the audience, the festival experience wasn’t as great as it could have been, or would have been if we had seen these acts individually.  This is also evidenced by a comment made to me by Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, who I begged for a photo with after their uncharacteristically banter-less set.  He commented that we would have liked to hang out but was too exhausted and had bags under his eyes.  Having seen him play (as Atlas Sound) in Montreal in 2009, it was obvious he hadn’t really put much heart into his performance in Auckland.  That seemed to be the case with most of the artists, the exception being Yeasayer, who put on quite a lively show. I was really hoping for some wacky antics from Ariel Pink… but was sadly disappointed (though Ticker maintains that Ariel Pink was drunk for the duration of their set).

Anyway, it sure was fun to get to see so many good bands play all together in southern hemisphere, and get hugs from both Lockett Pundt and Bradford Cox!

Lockett sure is dreamy…

Despite being exhausted, he still gave the camera a big smile.  What a nice guy!

I have posted a number of pictures from both the festival and Auckland on Picasa.

The Turkey – not just 3 strikes in a row

One of my goals in life is to bowl a turkey.  Another goal had been to roast a deliciously succulent moist Turkey.  On my last attempt, in February 2010, I failed miserably.  However, last week, I finally managed to accomplish this long-sought triumph.

The secret?


I soaked the turkey for about 4 hours in 4 liters of water with 2 cups of salt dissolved in it.  It’s important to thoroughly wash the turkey inside and out after brining and before it goes in the oven, or you end up with a very salty bird.

The brining some how keeps the turkey moist and flavourful during roasting.  The only snag I ran into was that the gravy made from the brined-turkey drippings was waaaaay salty, even watered down with stock and some red wine, it was a bit too much.

So, that is the secret to my success.  A number of guests at my Thanksgiving dinner had never eaten turkey before- and when I asked them what their favourite dish was, they said “the turkey”.  Personally my favourite was the cranberry sauce:

and of course, the pumpkin pie!

Though, choosing one of my own favourite dishes is like choosing a favourite child… you have to love even the ones that don’t turn out great (The candied sweet potatoes… with raisins, pineapple, and coconut.  Something wasn’t right with that one.).

The full spread:

My babies include the turkey, the stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin pie.

Thanks to everybody for bringing such delicious plates – 3 different salads, garlic bread, green bean casserole, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, apple crumble (not pictured), and pecan pie (not pictured).

Whether it was a first Thanksgiving or 31st, it was a delicious and lovely evening!