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.

current events

A close friend of mine was involved in a serious motorbike accident and was taken by ambulance to Udon Thani for medical treatment late Friday night.  I went with him and have been going back and forth between Vientiane and Udon for the past few days so I haven’t had much free time.

sokdee boun bang fie!

Happy Rocket Festival!

So, this is my basic understanding of the Lao Rocket Festival.

At the end of the dry season (May), Lao people build rockets from PVC pipe and bamboo and laundry detegrent and god-knows-what-else to shoots into the sky in order to, essentially, piss off the skies and make them send down rain.

Here are some pictures.

men holding some rockets they have built
men holding some rockets they have built
here you can see the trajectory of a rocket by it's smoky trail
here you can see the trajectory of a rocket by it's smoky trail
a banana and some oranges
a banana and some oranges

This also has something to do with fertility and the whole relationship between the rockets penetrating the skies, the rain penetrating the earth, rain making the rice grow, etc etc.  So there’s a lot of cross dressing and strange phallic symbols happening at the same time.

This Sunday me, my friends Valerie, Tracy, Sack, Luck, Sai, and Kham drove in Valerie’s car to Luck’s brother-in-law Nat’s village, about 2 hours south of Vientiane, where they were having a big rocket festival.  Everyone got drunk on Lao Khao (rice whiskey) and the entire village was celebrating.  They had set up a huge stage and a festival-area around the temple in the centre of the village, and we all danced Lao Lamvong together.  Luck and Sai, along with the village naibon (chief) polished off a litre of the stuff, specially distilled by Nat’s father himself.  When Luck get’s drunk he likes to repeat a phrase he learned somewhere that goes  “You don’t smoke the cigarette, the cigarette smokes you!”; or “You don’t drink it.  It drinks you!” and gestures to the Beerlao.  He also likes to exclaim “What’s up man!” at various intervals and things that sound like this “I know you don’t know but I know, and you know I don’t know but, it’s ok, I know.” .  At this point I usually start repeating my favorite Lao phrase: kee mao (alcoholic).

the rocket launch pad
the rocket launch pad
crickets, beetles, ants, take your pick.
crickets, beetles, ants, take your pick.
Sack and Luck, sitting in a tree...
Sack and Luck, sitting in a tree...
the launch pad at sunset
the launch pad at sunset
see above.
see above.

Another spectacular Lao sunset..

sunsetrocketsValerie let me drive her car back to Vientiane on the way home… terrifying but exciting, and I’m pretty sure totally illegal since I don’t have an international driver’s license… but who cares ?!  It’s been nearly a year since I have driven a car, and the last time I drove one it was the long-haul straight from Montreal to Chicago with a stop in Ann Arbor.  I’m always trying to convince my director to let me drive his car but for some reason he never lets me.  Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to drive a motorcycle they all think I must be completely useless with motorized vehichles.

vientiane… home sweet home!

Sorry for not having written in so long.  Since I came back from Vietnam I have been incredibly busy, not only getting ready to go back home, but also visiting libraries around Vientiane.

When I first arrived back, Dr. Aree and some other experts from Thailand were here giving a UNESCO supported workshop on Information Literacy for library staff.  My friend, Mrs. Sypha, was one of the facilitators of the workshop, so even though it was all in Lao and Thai, I observed several of the sessions and discussed with Areee and Sypha the methods they were usuing and evaluation tools.  For those who are interested, they focused on the Big6 Skills and a new model I had never heard of, the “Empowering 8.”  Speaking of which, that reminds me I would like to make my powerpoints available that I prepared for the workshops I conducted in Vietnam, which I think are actually really good.  I also relied heavily on the Big6 Model, as well as another model I found called “Reflect Learn Connect” developed by Seattle Community College libraries or something.  Dr. Aree’s workshop was longer and therefore more detailled than mine, and it seems like most of the participants “got it”, more or less.

I went to visit my friend Pachoua’s village last weekend.  She is Lao Hmong and from a town about 2 hours North of Vientiane, near Ban Keun.  We took the bus to her house on Saturday afternoon, arriving at her parents farm about 2pm.  We spent the afternoon having lunch of Ping Pa (grilled fish) over looking their pond, and then her brothers and I went to the Nam Ngun Resevoir.  This is the resevoir that was created by the construction of the Nam Ngun Dam about 20 years ago.  The dam supplies electricity for most of Laos and even enough to sell to Thailand.  When the Nam Ngun river was dammed, the entire river valley was flooded, creating a huge lake about 10km wide, full of little islands that used to be the tops of small mountains.  The river valley lies in the Phou Kwai (Buffalo Horn) Mountains protected area.  It’s stunningly beautiful.

The Nam Ngun Dam
The Nam Ngun Dam
The resevoir and Phou Kwai Mountains in the background
The resevoir and Phou Kwai Mountains in the background

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Pachoua and her brothers overlooking the resevoir.  The water is a bit low due to it being the end of the dry season.

After visiting the resevoir, we went swimming in the river below the dam, and then back to Pachuoua’s house for dinner.

CIMG2199

The following morning we woke up early, had breakfast, and then Pachoua and her mother dressed me up in Hmong Traditional clothing.

Pusao Hmong!
Pusao Hmong!

We hung around her house and farm for the rest of the morning, and then in the afternoon me and Pachoua and her 2 brothers got back on the bus and headed back to Vientiane.

On Tuesday we started the LALIC (Laos Library and Information Consortium) tour – a whirlwind visit to 12 libraries in 3 days.

1.) NUOL Faculty of Engineering Library (Sokpaluang Campus)

2.) NUOL Faculty of Political Science and Law Library (near Sokpaluang somehwere)

3.) Laos Institute of Public Administration Library (next to Wat Sisaket, downtown)

4.) National Library of Laos (downtown, next to Nam Phou)

5.) National Science and Technology Documentation Centre (near Patuxay)

6.) University of Health Sciences Library (near Patuxay)

7.) NUOL Faculty of Agriculture Library (Nangbong campus… about 30 km from downtown)

8.) NUOL Faculty of Forestry Library (Dong Dok Campus)

9.) NUOL Lao-Japan Center Library (Dong Dok Campus)

10.) NUOL Faculty of Management and Economic Library (Dong Dok Campus)

11.) NUOL Faculty of Architecture Library (Dong Dok Campus)

I guess if you include the Central Library that makes the 12 members of LALIC.  In the past weeks I have also visited the Vientiane Internation School Library, and the Lycee Hoffet Library, the Lao-American College Library, the US Embassy Public Information Unit Library, as well as the French Language Centre Library.

I’m still planning visits to the Room to Read Library, and the Vientiane Capital Public Library.  And I will probably go back to VIS this week because the librarian there invited me to see what she is doing to celebrate “Library Week”.

Of course, I took photos and detailed notes on all of the visits and will be posting my commentary soon.

This past week I also had a few small parties in my home, including a birthday party for my friend Nang and a dinner for some other friends.  I also met up with Sack, my friend who’s about to move to Ireland and get married, and we went to the disco this past Saturday with about 10 other people.  Lots of celebrating and enjoying Laos in my final month here!!

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.

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.