happy international women’s day!

International Women’s Day, March 8th, is a big holiday here in Laos. It’s one of my favorite holidays as well, and I don’t know why it’s barely even mentioned in the USA.

Firstly, all throughout the week women are encouraged to take time off work to see a doctor for a yearly health check-up. This year March 8th fell on a Sunday. My week at work proceeded like this: On Wednesday the library staff did some “spring cleaning” of the offices, after which we made papaya salad, and drank some BeerLao in the afternoon to celebrate Women’s day. On Thursday, the deputy director, since the director is in Japan right now, presided over a ceremony where he talked (in Lao) for a long time, I think about women? Then, one of the women (Mrs. Viengxay) gave a little speech on behalf of the women. Then, the women were present with a basket of roses, from the deputy director. We drank Green Pepsi (not very delicious) that Mr. Somephone had bought and celebrated Women’s Day. The library staff is made up of almost entirely women, out of about 30 staff we have only 7 men. Of course, the top 4 positions are all held by men. Anyway, after our party on Thursday, the library closed for the weekend and almost everybody went home.

Mrs. Bounsalong and our Women's Day Whiteboard
Mrs. Bounsalong and our Women's Day Whiteboard

On Friday there was to be a university-wide Women’s Day celebration, which included a kind of expo/fair type event, with different departments of the university preparing different types of food or crafts, and selling them at tables in one of the large meeting rooms in the rector’s building. Following the expo/fair there was another big speech or whatever by the university president, which I didn’t stick around for. After lunch, they organized a football game among some of the women university staff in the stadium. One of the ladies I work with in the library played in the game, but I actually didn’t stick around to watch it because it was about 40 C and I was already tired from all this Women’s Day stuff.

Mrs. Sypha and Mrs. Viengvongxay et al. at the library's women's day booth
Mrs. Sypha and Mrs. Viengvongxay et al. at the library's women's day booth

Saturday passed quietly, and then on Sunday at 11:30 I had Luck calling me “Come to my house!!! My mum wants to see you!! We are having Women’s Day Party!”. I made a pineapple upside-down cake and brought it over around 1pm, everyone was drunk already. We drank BeerLao and toasted Women’s Day repeatedly.

I drank too much, and when my friend Nang arrived with her 2 children, I picked them up and spun them around, almost dropping her son on his head on the concrete pavement. Then Luck told me “uhh.. Nicole I don’t think you should play with the kids anymore.”.  Being around Luck’s family makes me feel a little homesick, his mum reminds me a lot of my mum, and I have been feeling like I miss her a lot lately. His mom loves to dance and have a good time, which actually, nevermind, is nothing like my mum. My mum is totally crotchedly old woman now. When I came back home later that evening, my landlords were also having their own party, which involved drinking more BeerLao and more toasting Women. I thought it was a good occasion to light some of the fireworks I had lying around my house since the last Buddhist festival, with my neighbor, while drunkenly yelling “Sokdee Wan Mai Nging Sa Kon!” (Happy International Women’s Day!) All offices and schools were closed on Monday in honor of Women’s Day. I spent most of the day in my house trying to recover from the previous day, and when I tried to leave my house to get something to eat around 2:00, I was accosted by the woman who owns the printing shop at the end of my street – she wouldn’t let me leave without drinking more BeerLao. But they also gave me food, so I ended up spending nearly all afternoon there, eating and drinking with my neighbors. The owner of the print shop said that she had told her staff that if they could stay and drink, they would get a raise, but anyone who went home early wouldn’t get one. The staff, and the owners, were out-of-control drunk. The afternoon culminated in another neighbor of mine, clad only in a mesh singlet and bike shorts, mounting two chairs and spraying everyone with a hose until we were all soaking wet. Then he stuck the hose down his shorts and dance around. The owner of the print shop kept bringing out more and more random foods, and at one point, stuck something resembling a hot dog in my mouth and then began to eat the other end. She also either climbed on the backs of most of the people present, or picked them up and carried them around, surprising for a woman who probably weighs about 50 kgs. At one point she actually tried to pick me up, but I was afraid she might hurt herself and refused to allow this. You can see pictures here:

http://picasaweb.google.com/baberahamlincln/BeerlaoSuperMaoWomenSDay#

So, that is how International Women’s Day is celebrated here in Laos.

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weekend of celebration!

On Saturday I went to a Bascii ceremony for the wife of one of the people I work with at the library.  She got a visa to go to America, and is moving to Rockford, IL for a year.  So, they had a big celebration at their house.  I missed the ceremony part, because I had to teach, but I invited one of my students to come with me, and we had a lovely time!  Even though there was no electricity or water, they trucked in a generator and there was a live “band” performing.  Lots of Lao Lavong dancing, and the usual Lao line dancing happened.  I drank a lot of Beerlao with some old men and then went home and fell asleep at about 7 pm.

mr. sithong and his wife singing
mr. sithong and his wife singing
Lao Lavong!
Lao Lavong!

And then on Sunday, I went over to my friend Luck’s house, where they were having a Chinese New Years celebration.  Luck had told me to come there at noon, but I had some stuff to do around the house, and my bike had a flat tire, and I accidentally left my phone turned off, and at around 12:45 some one came knocking on my door.  It was Luck, insisting that I go to his house as quickly as possible.  I assured him I just wanted to finish drinking my tea and I would be there soon.  When I finally got it together to leave Luck’s sister had already called me like 4 times to find out what I was coming.  I showed up at Luck’s house around 2:00, and everyone was SUPER MAO already.  This is how they celebrate Chinese New Years in Laos:

cimg1690

Boys getting shirtless and trying to flex their muscles! It was a lot of fun, but somehow I managed to pull myself away by 6 pm, as Monday mornings following a the typical sunday Beerlao drink-a-thon tend to be rough.

Speaking of Beerlao drink-a-thons, now would probably be a good occasion to discuss Lao and their love for the Beerlao.

In Lao culture, nearly everyone drinks.  It’s OK for women to drink, and they like to.  There are two main ways in which beer is drunk.

1.) The “sophisticated” method, and

2.) The “get-as-drunk-as-possible-as-quickly-as-possible” method. (Lao Style)

In the first method, a large bottle of Beerlao (660 ml) is placed on a table, or in the middle of a mat on the floor if no table is available.  Everyone drinking has their own glass.  Somewhere near the centre of the table is a cooler, bucket, or bowl of ice.  The beer is poured into everyone’s glasses along with a few ice cubes, and everyone drinks at their own pace and refills as necessary.  Usually it is a pretty young girl or “Pusao” who does the pouring, carefully being attentive to the drinking paces of all of the other drinkers, and refilling everytime your glass is less than 3/4th full.  When the bottle is empty, it is replaced with a full bottle, and the cycle continues, sometimes for hours and hours.  Usually some food is involved at some point.  Every 3 to 6 minutes some one will say either “Sokdee!!” or “Nuoc!”  which mean “good luck!” or “drink!” respectively, at which point everyone is expected to clink glasses, or “cheers”.  The Lao love “cheers”.  Occasionally, some one will say either ‘Moot!” or “Ha sip!”.  “Moot!” means “it’s time”, in which case you are expected to down your entire glass of beer and then pound your empty glass down on the table.  If you cannot or do not want to “Moot!”, you can say “Ha-sip!” which literally means “50”, meaning “I will drink 1/2 (50%) of my glass”, after which you must again cheers with everyone present.  If your fellow drinkers don’t think you are keeping up well enough, they will encourage you to drink more by pouring your glass entirely full and yelling “Moot!” after each refill.  If you cannot keep up, you may get some comments about not being “strong” and will probably be humorously harassed until you drink enough to satisfy your friends.

In the second method, one glass is shared among a group of people.  One person acts as the pourer, or “presenter”.  He or She puts some ice, and about 200 ml of beer into a glass, and shows it to everyone, as he or she says “Senou”, or “I present”.  The presenter then chugs the beer as quickly as possible.  He or she then refills the glass with a simmilar amount of beer, or more or less, depending on how he or she feels, and hands it to the person next to him or her.  This person then downs the glass in one go, and passes it back to the presenter.  The presenter then refills the glass, adding ice if needed, and passes to the next person in the circle, until it comes back to the presenter.  More bottles of beer are opened as needed as the glass is refilled.  When it reaches the presenter, he or she “Senou”s again.  However, it’s a bit more complicated than this.  If you have a large group, you may have several “presenters”, thus several glasses going around at once.  Often you may find yourself double-fisting two glasses of beer at the same time, and be expected to down one right after the other.  Or, if some people are slow drinkers, you may wait 10 minutes to get a glass.  Also, any of the drinkers can claim “Baw Senou!” at the beginning of a round, meaning, “I didn’t see you “present”, now you must do it again”, causing the presenter to drink a second glass. There are also some tricks to getting out of getting too drunk – if you see a glass almost on your way, discretely run to the toilet to escape!  Chances are everyone will be so drunk they won’t notice that they skipped you.

Regardless of which drinking style you find yourself engaged in, you will surely get drunk, and the beer is always served with ice.

teacher’s day celebration at the central library

Yesterday, Tuesday October 7th, was National Teacher’s Day.  This means that all the public schools and university was closed.  On Monday, right after lunch, Mrs Bounsalome came into my office and said “The director has gone to the city for the a meeting all afternoon.  We want to have a celebration for teacher’s day. We will go buy some food and some Beerlao!”

So, I have her some money, and then about an hour later she came in and said “Ok!  Everything is ready!  We are having a celebration in the bindery!”

And I went into the bindery to find this:

beerlao!
beerlao!

Hooray!  I love Beerlao, and I especially love drinking Beerlao at work!

Then we ate some food, and drank more Beerlao.

teacher's day party!
teacher's day party!

So, finally, after drinking beer for a few hours, I had to leave to go teach English.  I ran to catch the bus, a little drunkenly, and then about 30 seconds later it started pouring rain.  Just as I got to downtown, where I park my bicycle, the sun came out, and I looked behind me to see a glorious rainbow in the sky over Patuxay.

rainbow
somewhere over the rainbow... motorcycles spew smoke into the air

In the bus, I tapped the lady sitting next to me, pointed at the rainbow, and said “Nam lae!” (very beautiful), and she didn’t really respond. I just told my director about how I saw the rainbow and he said “You know, in Lao culture, if you see a rainbow, you should NEVER point to it.”  Then he told me that a rainbow is like a snake, and at one end there is a head.  So, if you see the head of the rainbow under your house, you should cover it with your clothes, and then when it goes away, you will take away the clothes and find riches in the place where the rainbow’s head was.

So, basically, I commited a huge Lao Faux-Pas when I pointed at the rainbow.

I went to school, and then asked me class “So, tomorrow is teacher’s day, right?”

“Yes”

“And on Teacher’s day you give gifts to your teachers?”

“Yes”

“And I am your teacher?”

“Yes”

“So where are my gifts !??!”

No response.

“Ok, you can bring me gifts on Wednesday!”

“Ok teacher!”

Then, I made them read some stuff for a little while, and then we had a class break.  When I came back from the break, the students were all giggling about something.  A minute later, one of them came back into the room with a huge bag of crisps – and a bottle of water, and presented me with them.  Then she said “For you, from all of the class.”  And I was very happy.

Then, another student said, “Can we have a party?”

“Ok.  You want to have a party?  We can listen to music and play some games.”

So I put on my CD of English Songs (which includes some John Bellows and Vanessa Harris), and we played hangman and Simon Says, which they had a hard time understanding.

And now, today, Friday, we just had another teacher’s day party at the library.  This time the director was here, so no Beerlao.  But the University Vice-President came and gave like a 20 minute long speech, and then we all ate pho in the lobby.

Why don’t they have teacher’s day in the rest of the world?  It’s my new favorite holiday after Halloween.  Ok, maybe after Martin Luther King day, too.

bike ride to thailand

On Sunday my neighbor and I rode our bikes to Nong Khai, Thailand.  He does it every weekend, and told me it only takes about an hour.  An hour and a half after leaving my house, we finally got to the Friendship Bridge.  After crossing the Mekong and going through customs, we were finally in Thailand, but still had a ways to go to get into the town.

We rode around downtown Nong Khai for a while, stopped and got some food, and tried to find a swimming pool, but failed.  Then we went spent the rest of the day in the air conditioning at the mall.  After eating a delicious meal of american-style pizza, we got on our bikes and started to head home.  Just as I got to the middle of the bridge, it started pouring rain.  We waited out the rain on the Lao side of the bridge for about a half hour, and then it let up, and we continued on our way.  A few kilometers from home, it started pouring again, so we stopped under the nearest tree, and there happened to be a wild party happening at the bar across the street.  We ducked inside, and ordered a Beerlao, and I was suddenly mobbed by drunk bar-girls.  They caressed my hands, and arms, and one of them even kissed me on the top of my head. They kept insisting I join them for dancing, but I was so exhausted I couldn’t do it.  They served us a round “Lao style”, meaning somebody pours a glass half full of beer, and then you have to drink it in one go.  One of the girls noticed I had a box of donuts on my bike, and kept asking for one, even after I told her they were for my colleagues at work.  “Just one!!”  “I want a donut!!”  “Please give me one!!”… it went on like this for a while, and then alternately the girls pulling my arms so hard it actually hurt, saying “dance!! dance!!  dance!!!!”.

We made our escape as soon as the rain stopped.

A few kilometers later, we finally arrived back at home, wet and tired.  My neighbor’s odometer indicated we ha gone a distance of 61 kms.  Thats the most I have ever biked in a 12 hour period.  I also got a really bad sunburn.

vientiane times

Things have been pretty calm an quiet here in Vientiane.

Last weekend I went to a party at Mr. Seethong’s house, one of the people I work with at the Central Library.

I arrived around 11:30 am, and Mr. Seethong had explained to me that he had invited some monkes over to give them alms and then they would bless his house or something along those lines.  So, when I arrived, the monks were seated on the floor in the living room, eating.  Then, some kind of ceremony took place, where some old guy gave a speech, then the monks started chanting, then the took a bowl of water and flowers, and dipped some leaves in it, and then one of the monks used the wet leaves to sprinkle water all over the place.  I suppose this is not a very good description of the events, but I didn’t really know what was happening, and couldn’t understand anything being said.  They just told me to sit down with my head bent and my hands together.

During this entire ceremony, several people answered their cellphones.  At one point everyone took out small bottles of water and poured them into bowls with candles in them.

Then some people went up to the monks and had them tie string bracelets around their wrists.  Mr. Seethong told me I should go and get one, so I kneeled in front of one of the monks, who is probably about 80 years old, and he tied a white string bracelet around my wrist, and said some things in Lao I did not understand.

Then, at 11:57, all of the monks left.  For some reason also there were rice grains all over the floor.  I tried asking people about the significance of all of these events and aspects of the ceremony but the only thing I could understand was that it was for good luck.

After the monks left, my boss arrived, and some food was served, and excessive amounts of Beerlao were distributed.

While a variety of food was present, the most notable (sorry… no picture) was some kind of Tom Yum style soup with chunks of congealed blood in it.

partytime!
partytime!

Luckily, the Beerlao was also served room temperature with lots of ice, so even though they insisted upon refilling my glass every 10 minutes from noon until 3pm, I managed to not get totally schlitzed in front of all of my work colleagues on a Saturday afternoon.

Mr. Chansy Phuangsouketh, Director, Central Library, National University of Laos, and Beerlao spokesperson.
Mr. Chansy Phuangsouketh, Director, Central Library, National University of Laos, and Beerlao spokesperson.

However I did glean this important detail from the whole experience:  the little bracelet the monk gave me would bring me good luck, and according to Mr. Chansy, help me find a “Pubao Lao” (Lao young man) to marry.