Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Things that made me happy this afternoon:

Watching the shadows of two butterflies playing mating games in bright sun.

This tape and garbage bag basket.

Watching a group of lao men float slowly by on a really haphazard green bamboo raft.

This car, hiding in the trees.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

More than a month!

A record-breaking period of silence. I have not, of course, been keeping my mouth shut in real life, with consequences both good and bad.

In the past month, there's been, hmmm....a lot of rain. Some swimming in pools. Ooooh, a trip to a waterfall, complete with near-death experience. (I didn't have the first-degree experience, but a second-degree near death experience, so I got both direct and vicarious thrills out of it. This is probably something that requires its own paragraph as an explanation, rather than a parenthetical aside.)

Ahem. Yes, at the waterfall. The river was really, really high. We'd already had to hurl ourselves bravely across the strong center stream of it to get to the other, calmer water we could splash around in and walk through. This wasn't terribly scary, as it just meant about 10 seconds of pell-mell (pel-mel?) swimming and then safety. Fast-moving water is sneaky, however. Along one ridge overlooking a waterfall, Intern wandered into a path of really fast-moving, deep water, and was sliding on her back over the edge of the fifteen foot, scary waterfall, when 16-year-old jungle boy grabbed her by the leg and dragged her back to safety. I would have helped, but as I leapt into action, I realized that the water really was too strong for me, and I had to paddle back before I ended up crashing into both of them and taking them over. Great excitement!

So we all lived. Then we found a natural mudslide and slide down it over and over. (I'm still picking debris out of my ass.) We covered ourselves in mud (there was a minor question over whether it was, in fact, quicksand, as Intern and I both got stuck in it for an uncomfortably long time), then rinsed it off, slid along some slippery rocks, found some cool bugs, vroomed home on bikes. I'd missed driving. And the jungle. So hurray.

Other highlights of the past month:

The purchase of a new, pink, flowery cowboy hat that I now wear constantly.

A healed knee, meaning I can run again.

Bright blue kingfishers in the pond.

Feeding butter to kittens.

"Game of Thrones".

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

That was a long ride

The bus trip from Vientiane back up to Luang Prabang was almost comically bad. Every Lao person on the bus, of course, had tuberculosis. The man in front of me couldn't bear to put his cans of motor oil in the overhead containers, and instead stuffed them under his seat, taking up all the room for my feet. (He also apparently needed to push past me every time we got off or on the bus. Rude little prick. He spat on the floor of the bus at least once.)

The three German girls whose row I punctuated like a comma, not a period, had brought a feast of croissants, papaya, cookies, and other snacks for the twelve hour ride. They divided these up periodically and passed them over me to each other, never once asking if I'd like some to share. My seatmate, however, continually offered me tissues, making me paranoid about things hanging off my nose. My seat had one position: fully reclined. The air conditioner worked only off and on and when it did seemed to fill the bus with white, powdery smoke. The "toilet" on the bus was instead the action of stopping every three hours, sometimes at restaurants and shops, sometimes simply by the side of the road, where you could choose to relieve yourself in pitch blackness on a muddy slope behind the bus, or bathe your white ass in the light of the headlights in front.

I know I slept some, because I don't remember checking my phone and seeing a time between one am and three am (roadside piss break!) and then again between three and five. When I woke up at five, however, I couldn't quite accept that the incredible grayscale scene out the window was actually real. The black trees sketched against the receding gray mountains had to be--I rubbed my bleary eyes--a painting on the side of a building we were scraping? I didn't want to believe it could be a real place and the have it taken away from me. But we rounded a bend and it became the actual landscape: black peaks rising up out of silvery pools that looked like mercury lakes but were actually cloud. We skirted around the sides of mountains, barely above the low-lying clouds, and then the sun started to rise and the thick, white mist turned orange and the black mountains grew green and we plunged down into the fog and then up out of it again and I would have signed on for another night, and another, and another, just to see it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Things it is difficult to find in LP

eye drops
contact lenses
picture frames

In abundance:
the color green

Essays of the day: art deco, klezmer, kitsch, Alphonse Mucha if I have any energy left.

Question of the day: Why do I suggest topics like "Kitsch" for these bloody books of essays, knowing I'll have to try to cram a discussion of democracy, popularity, quality, Kant and the western definition of art into 350 words at a sixth grade level?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Siem Reap

The baby--she looks two or three--can already say "phone." "Phone" and "you" and "give" in English. Also "dad"--she grabs my iPod with her sticky fingers and says "dad phone!" (I don't explain that mine is not, in fact, an iPhone; that I'm much more down to earth than that.) She expertly slides through the screens and is totally unimpressed with the photo I take of her.

Her brother, maybe six, joins us. He's much more into the camera. He also tells me "my dad has this phone." Then he tells me his dad "isn't coming." He jumps from that comment to his name, spelling it for me in the air. "The one that goes like this"--making a very fast, very dramatic swoosh in the air for an artistically huffy C. He asks my name. Periodically, he reminds me that "my dad isn't coming."

My bus, however, is coming, and I have to go suddenly in the middle of our kinetic spelling. "Are you listening to me?" he calls after me, as I run for the door after several quick goodbyes.

I think I'm wearing his mother's shoes. Someone took mine in the night.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sight of the day

Two grown men walking down the street, leaning on each other, holding hands. I bet you ten bucks they were straight.

Three cheers for public displays of affection.

I have left the garden and its incredible adjacent soup stand. I've traded it for a room with a balcony and comforting street noise. The soup on this block is just ok, but the Vietnamese rice pancakes? Fantastic.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

John Donne
Devotions upon
Emergent Occasions, no. 17
1624 (published)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Everything flowers

Bad things about the rainy season:

All the rain.

Power outages.

Good things about the rainy season:

Foregrounds of super saturated greens and pinks and yellows.

Backgrounds of mountains like humps; distant, dark gray centers with frilly edges of deep blue and green.

Yellow light that makes all the edges quiver.

Big, heavy clouds frozen mid-explosion--clouds with real personality--on, over, above.

The return of the rivers.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Random things from the last few days

My computer resists egg yolk. (I've rediscovered the joys of bread and fried eggs.)

The zither/chant/xylophone extravaganza at the wat is still going strong.

It rains every other day. Everything is blooming. My head is exploding as a result, but it sure is pretty: huge, very strictly conical trees draped as with tinsel by long sprays of little flowers, yellow and purple and fuschia. (Wow. I've never tried to spell fuschia before. I'll take that as a good thing. Also, this is my excuse for, perhaps, misspelling it.)

The little white dogs here are very cute. The mama of the pair has learned to stand on her hind legs and wave her front paws when she wants to be petted. She's very affectionate and always wants to be picked up. When you do, she invariably latches her little teeth--hard--into the skin on the inside of your elbow and starts very seriously humping your hip.

Pictures: Stuff at hand in the last few days.

Friday, April 22, 2011

This is how you have a bassi

You have to wear a sin, a Lao skirt.

You have to wear a scarf or some piece of fabric over your left shoulder.

There has to be a monk or a holy man.

He prays generally, then specifically, then generally again.

You eat food and drink Beer Lao.

I wore my sin and went to P's house. P works for G and E. His mother in law or mother or aunt—relationships are difficult to specify here—had had a stroke recently and “couldn't move her knee.” The family had had some bad luck recently. A bassi would turn it around. It was small—only his extended family and people from his work.

A holy man (who happened to be the father of one of P's colleagues at the workshop), his wife, and some elders from their village came to P's house. A mat covered the floor. I was given a scarf to drape over my left shoulder, like the other women. (I may have been given the last spare scarf; P's wife was draped with a limp grey towel.) We knelt around a large wicker plate on a stand covered with a pink scarf, with a pyramid in the center draped with marigolds. Long bits of wicker wrapped with string stuck out of the sides of it, and bowls of little rice cake deserts were placed along the bottom. We knelt and touched the plate with one hand while the holy man prayed in Lao or Pali or who knows what.

After the general prayer, the tying of strings began. The holy man, the elders, and then anyone else who wanted to give a blessing tied strings around our wrists. You hold out one hand and hold the other up straight, as though you're praying with one hand. The person tying the string says a prayer for you while tying it. There are different traditions—some just pray, tie, and ask for your other hand. Some grab hold of your hand and shake it afterward. Some rub the string up and down your arm before turning and tying it. After each person ties it, you press your palms together and bow your head. You can be casual with your peers, but for the holy man or the elders you must move more slowly and bow your head more deeply.

After you've crawled around the mat on your knees and submitted to each person who wants to wish you well, you gather around the plate again. Again, you touch the plate with one hand. The holy man prays. When he finishes praying, he hands you one of the sweets underneath. You take a piece, eat it, and put the rest back on the plate. There's another quick prayer. Then everyone grabs for the treats and, munching, wanders outside to tables set with food and beer.

Then, as always in Laos, you drink, eat, and, if you're unlucky, get roped into some line dancing. What a country.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Smoke bad, fire good

The wats are strung with fairy lights and the stupas are ringed with candles because the buddhas have come outside. All the little flames stand out on the unlit main street. The monks drum at unusual times—seven thirty today, in addition to the usual four am and four pm. The buddhas will be washed with water from gold bowls--ladies have been carrying them around town on motorbikes all day, riding sidesaddle, wearing their best sins.

The moon is nearly full. With all the smoke in the sky, it looks blurry and rusted.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Get behind me, Satan

Today these things happened

I dreamed about rats and woke up with a millipede on my pillow.

I got rid of the millipede, jumped away from the big brown spider on my doorframe, and went back to bed.

Today is Pi Mai day. The big parade that marched down the main road into Wat Xien Thong, the oldest temple around here, today marched back out. Out again went all the regiments—ethnic minorities in black with silver ropes and beads and polygonal headdresses; Lao loum girls in metallic sins and gold sashes marching with parasol-bearing minders to defend their tight topknots and heavy makeup from the water chucked by the proles on both sides. Borne along were big, professional signs announcing awards given to Luang Prabang—“Environmentally Sustainable City Award 2008” was one, though there were others. 2008 seemed to be a big year for LP. The fact that it's 2011? Bo pen ngang. (I'm pretty it's neither according to the traditional Lao calendar.)

It was hot again today, hotter than yesterday; the sun heated even the cold water we poured down each other's backs so quickly that after shivering for a second we were again standing on the street soaked and steaming. It was a day to be immersed. I walked a block down to the brown Mekong with some friends from the guesthouse. We descended the long royal staircase that led from the old wat to the water—usually jammed with boats, it was wonderfully empty, the boatmen having decided to celebrate by drinking Beer Lao on dry land. My long skirt ballooned around me like a big, striped jellyfish until it sank and stuck to my legs and threatened to pull me under. I knotted it up into a loincloth. Bathing suits would be unseemly.

I came home, I read a book, I waited for the sun to go down and the water fighters to retire. I went to the night market to pick up food. As I was waiting, someone groped me. It was very delicate, very precise, and very cowardly—done by a grown man passing by at the same time as some kids. I wasn't quick enough to grab him, but I shouted—that may be too strong a word—something angry and obscene and followed the person I thought was the culprit to his motor bike. Had I been sure at the time, maybe I would have done something better/dumber, but I was still trying to work out what happened, and while I became confirmed in my suspicion by the fact that he wouldn't look at me while he put on his helmet and rode away, I didn't end up with enough time to do something spectacular like...ah, well. I don't know what. Smashing his wrist with a hammer would be satisfying. If I had a hammer.

So, seething, I walked my bike out toward the night market exit, only to find my path blocked by a wandering drum/dance troop. I was, of course, furious about this added insult. But the performance was just joyful—a group of white-clad men and women, trailing red and blue and yellow scarves, jumped and twirled in unison while keeping up complicated beats on the different drums strapped across their chests. A woman wearing a wraparound mask of four faces seemed to be a central figure. The men were tall and some had facial hair—they weren't Lao. Without my glasses I couldn't tell where they were from...maybe Chinese? The phrases I heard them use were in English. They kept at it long enough for me to calm down and decide that this little artistic eruption was an example of taking the good with the bad. I ended up sanguine enough to buy a few presents for folks back home on my way out of the market. I didn't even bargain that hard.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

But the best thing about Pi Mai...

But the best thing about Pi Mai, and Laos in general, is this.

I went out on my bike for some som tam (in Lao it's som sam and also some other longer, complicated word...tam..nak...something) at around 8. The road along the Mekong is coated with mud, broken here and there by big white splotches that mark where revelers had been throwing flour. I rode past all the proper restaurants (all were having big barbecues or special New Year meals) until I hit a place more like a shack—they have the som tam I want. There was a girl behind the wooden table stacked with sodas, assorted greens, and cigarette display cases full of fruit, that served as the service counter.

Me: Mi somtam bo? (Do you have som tam?)
Me: Mi khao neo bo? (Do you have sticky rice?)
Ow nung som tam.(I want one som tam.)

At a low table attached to the restaurant sat four men in their fifties, drinking beer.

Som-tam, pa-pa-ya salad, said one.
This from another, the oldest, who had stood up. Bo pet? Bo mak pet? (Not spicy? You don't like spicy?)
Me: Mak pet. Mak pa dek. (I like spicy, I like fish sauce.)

Much laughter. Come, come here, come here. They all waved their arms in unison. As the cement benches couldn't be dragged, I had to lift first one leg, then another, to squeeze into the little space between the low chair and the low table. I angled my knees sideways. There was lots of Lao talk about a jok, a glass. One man (who I came to believe was somewhat slow) ran off and returned with a new glass. He put ice in it and poured beer over it.

Happy Lao New Year said the one in the red shirt, the only one whose name I'd learn, Sit. We clincked glasses. In English and Lao, we got through who I was, how I spoke Lao, where I lived, did I like Lao: the standard introductory conversation.

I was given a small, speckled hard boiled quail egg to eat.
Me: Anee khai, bo? (This egg? Pointing at what was very obviously the bowl of quail eggs on the table.)
Yes, with patience. Egg.
My little cup of beer was refilled.
Sit (the only one whose name I learned. He had on a red shirt. ) You want Lao boyfriend?
Illegal! Police don't like.
More laughter. Conversations between the men in Lao.
Sit: But Lao man small. Is OK?
Me: Bo pen ngang (no problem).
More conversation: I lived in Thailand, I like to stay here, Are you from Luang Prabang? Yes we are, etc.

Sit: If you like, you must come visit me my house.
Me: [brightly] ...
Sit: You visit my house?
Me: Where's your house?
Conversation in Lao:
Sit: 500 meters.
Me: I have to eat my dinner!

My som tam is ready, I get up to go. Many hands flap gracefully and insistently in the air. A glass is quickly filled and raised.
Before, before.
Do I have to drink all of it?

I downed about half. Everyone said “happy new year” for the thousandth time, I pedalled off. Everyone waved.

Then, when I stopped for water and orange juice on the way home, I was given half a fish. The proprietor of the drink stand had been eating dinner with his brother. Dinner cannot be interrupted in Laos without being shared, not even when it means lifting half a fish off the plate you're still working on and insisting I take it to eat with my som tam.

“Be careful of bones,” he said, as he dropped it into my bag.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I stayed up late last night watching "The Reader" (stories about
hopelessness, isolation, and Nazis fitting my recent mood). I woke up
early, felt groggy from the little spring cold I've picked up, and
decided to doze a bit. I ended up getting out of bed close to ten.

As I was girding my loins for the three minute walk to the soup shop
and breakfast, I got a call from Leslie.

"Sabaidee! What's up?" Very cheerful.

Me, cranky. "Nothing. Going for soup. What's happening?"

"Well...there seems to be a Pi Mai party happening at my house.
There're, like, a ton of people here already. There's going to be a
bassi. Want to come?"

No, I'm thinking. But in the spirit of not being a joyless bitch for
the entire Lao New Year, I decided to suck it up and actually make
myself go to this party (where, I knew, people would be exceedingly
friendly, feed me until I was stuffed and refill my glass until I
begged them to stop. I've been so moody lately, even that was a hard
sell). Bonus--as it was still morning, I probably wouldn't get wet on
the way there.

"Yeah. But soup first."

The party was centered around a long wooden table set up in Leslie's
yard. A few feet away from the table, some pots simmered over a fire,
tended to by a few of the older members of the group. The table was
laid with duck blood soup (pinkish, with peanuts, mint, and other
green leaves floating in it), beef and tofu soup, peanut dip, bowls
full of pieces of grilled beef, and several bowls of what looked like
murky broth with scallions floating in it. Beer Lao flowed. It was
11:30 in the morning.

Leslie pointed to the unknown broth. "What's in that?" she asked Lanoy
(Lanoy is Leslie's Lao second-in-command at PoP).
"Shit, yes. But before it comes out."
"Shit still in the intestines?" I ask, remembering this from my first
time in Laos, years ago.
"Yes, yes."

It's...bitter. I don't recommend it.

The duck blood soup was better; salty, generally tasty. I had only a
little spoonful, to try it. People reached in with chopsticks to pull
floating bits out of all the bowls, or dipped pieces of cut carrots
and tomatos in some of the powders or dips on the table. Occasionally,
someone would wave his or her hands ineffectually at the growing swarm of flies. Everyone laughed. Everyone poured beer for everyone
else. All the beer was served over ice.

Unsurprisingly, something entered my system that needed to exit in
haste. (I blame the bowl of spiced feces.) I had to abort my first attempt at leaving the party--still, I
am ashamed to say, gloomy and depressed--to rush back to use the
facilities. But expelling that nasty little bug seemed to help me get
rid of my black mood as well....and this is how I ended up soaked, in
the back of a truck, drinking more beer and throwing water wildly at
anyone who passed.

Leslie: "We're going to take out the PoP truck. Lanoy's going to
drive. Wanna come?"
"Dude." (Good-mood-Michelle says 'dude' a lot.)

We got picked up at the cafe where Leslie's boyfriend works. (We soaked his work shirt for him before we left. He wasn't thrilled.) Lanoy
drove. In the back of the truck were thirteen soaked Lao folks (some
PoP workers, some members of Lanoy's basketball team, some friends of
friends), two huge drums of water, a case of beer, a bottle of soda,
and one glass, which we all shared. Leslie and I made it crew of fifteen. When
we got done throwing water on each other, we cruised through town,
slowing down and pulling up next to any roadside Pi Mai encampment to
do battle (or rather, to bless them by dumping water on them, which is
the point of the whole holiday). Shrieking, passing around the beer
one at a time in the little cups, yelling "sok dee pi mai!" we took a
slow tour of the town, pitting our buckets, bowls, and water bottles
against the roadside hoses and squirt guns. The youngest of the group,
a seventeen-year-old girl, expertly popped beer bottle tops off
against each other. We even took on a hostage at one point--a group
of young men were out rubbing cooking grease on passers by (sometimes
people throw flour or colored water or even paint, it looks like).
One of them climbed up into the truck, brandishing a sooty, greasy
wok. We all pressed back into the front corner of the truck bed, hands
out to protect our faces, yelling "Bo, bo!" Then the truck started.
The wok-bearer looked confused, then concerned, as we realized we had
him trapped and started laughing and pointing. We slowed down enough for him
to jump off a block later.

When we ran out of water, we turned an empty bucket into a drum. I
don't know the words to any of these Pi Mai songs, but as a big part
of them seems to be clapping and stamping one's feet, I was able to

Pi Mai. It's annoying, but it's a good holiday. I was looking at these
folks in the truck, thinking, this is the way to celebrate. Drink some
beer, sing some songs, get rowdy in the streets for a few days, invite
everybody to join in. There's no standing on ceremony, no exclusivity,
no airs.

Dee, dee lai.

Monday, April 11, 2011


It rained and things cooled last night but the sun and the heat have come flooding back in with the light. The dak champa are blooming in all their different colors. It's a distinctive tree. Nothing on it droops. All its branches are strong; every flower is help up, presented, on a solid base. Dak champa somehow reminds me of a honeycomb, the way its stiff gray branches create cells as they curve over each other in space, decorated with flowers like swirls of icing. Even the flowers are hard to crush. Their delicate shading doesn't match their real toughness.

I am reading a book about Europe. It's Sunday morning. The coffee and croissants at this bakery are real; the wood is rea; the stone is real. I may have accidentally pointed the sole of my foot at someone, a very rude mistake. My shorts are too short for Laos, but it's the New Year and about a block further down this road are kids and adults wanting to douse me with water, so I've relaxed my fashion standards. My armpits are damp; if I let my hair sit on the back of my neck I feel feverish.

Across the narrow street is a wat surrounded by very low, very white walls. (This is the season for cleaning the temples.) But between me at the back of the cafe and the wat is a complicated depth of greenery: first, a kind of small palm, three spindly stalks with three puffballs on top, the leaves wilted and swaying without the least resistance. Then dak champa, strong and graceful, gray stems lifting pink and white flowers upright like an offering. Something behind intrudes into the picture from the top left corner (framed by the dark beams of the cafe's open front) little spiky twigs and strands of oval leaves. The whole branch bobs constantly. Behind that is the bean tree with its long black seed pods that dangle oddly all up and down its arms. Underneath the bean tree is a shrub with broad, shiny, dark green leaves that burst out all over it in star shapes. Each group of five leaves looks like it's just exploded.

There are a dozen other green things that I've ignored.

I love every plant. Why is this? I don't even know their names. I think I might love them just because they are abundant. They seem so good at just being alive. They quietly do the thing they are supposed to do; that's it.

(Sadly, my love for plants doesn't seem to have turned me into a good gardener. I'm going to have to work on this.)

Thunder, every night. The rains are here early.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

April, continued

The sun looks like a mistake someone tried to rub out.

No, really; it's not just an easy, death-obsessed metaphor. There's so much smoke in the air that one can barely see across the Mekong. (This will be profound, I suppose, to those of you who've been here.) The mountains have all pulled back into the blur. The sun hangs like a tiny dot over the river. It looks like someone dropped a blob of salmon paint on top of white, swirly expanse and then tried to rub it in and paint over it. You can almost see the grid of the canvas coming through.

This is what we'll be living with for the next month or so. It is not, according to E and G, the result of slash and burn farming—that's just small farmers and small plots and not nearly enough smoke to fill this valley. No—according to my sources, it's industries burning rice straw for potash and teak farmers burning the undergrowth of teak forests in the mistaken assumption that it'll make their trees grow faster. Or something. The government, however, is quite happy to let the Hmong take the blame for it...

I may have to give up running and spend more time inside. No trip to the countryside for me, until this goes away. If I start to feel bad, I may have to take myself down to Southern Thailand or Cambodia to get away from the smoke-- but I'll wait and see. I may not feel it much.

I had my first Pi Mai dousing today—from Vini,of course. Totally premature, as Pi Mai is still days away. Troublemaker.

April arrived suddenly

The light is mad this afternoon. The sky is dirty white and low and thick. The greens are all saturated. Everything that isn't green seems unreal and in the way. The green things are waiting. Nothing moves—movement feels incorrect. The leaves are focused and not amused by wind or insects or fingers. Heavy green mangos hang motionless at the end of threadlike branches. The fecundity is obscene, smug.

A big storm would seem to be coming—but the rains here are teasing lately. I haven't seen rain for a week or more, but the mornings are often surprisingly damp and cool, when I'm up early enough to see them. (We're all sweaty after nine am.) It's early for the rainy season, anyway. Next week we all pelt each other with water—it ought to be blazingly hot and clear. Pi Mai. It'll be good to have a second new year. Any chance to slough off bad and try again seems good right now. (Maybe collecting new years would be a good way to organize a journey.)

A sign on a building I pass half a dozen times a day reads “Closed for avocation.” I'd say there's a little invisible sign like that posted above my head right now, but that would be glib. The truth is that my brain feels closed, but I have no idea why or what the outcome will be.

This morning, a lizard near my chair somehow lost his tail. About a foot away from me, lizard crouched, frozen. The tail--a bit about the length of the end of my pinky--trailed six inches behind him. As we both watched, it flopped around on the grey stone desperately, as though it were really dying, as though it could really be said to have lived.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


My new home is wonderful. My landlord is fabulous--he wears scarves and has a giant sparkly pink ring. He has two little poodles and a habit of clasping his hands under his chin. His English is very nearly terrible, but he speaks it so quickly and calmly that I always end up thinking that it's my fault I'm struggling to interpret his burbling vowels.

He also has a wife and a couple of sons and daughters, who help him run this lovely, flower-filled guesthouse. Viva la difference.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Away/at home

luang prabang is especially beautiful after having been away. If you're going to live your life within about one square mile, it might as well be this one.

Friday, March 4, 2011


There's something charming about charmless Dubai. There are hideous buildings, certainly, but there aren't so many of them that you can't focus on the nice ones. In fact, there are so few that it becomes easy enough to only look at the nice ones.

It's dead, hugely dead—there's hardly anything alive but people and their strange, humpy monuments, and perhaps Dubai is hard to hate because it's so humanly imperfect. Let's build a huge palace of consumption, for example, but to alleviate our guilt let's put an aquarium in the middle of it, so perhaps we'll learn something by osmosis, as it were. (I realize the aquarium probably wasn't put there to alleviate my particular guilt, but let's just imagine...).

The big building (the biggest, in fact), the Burj Khalifa, is spectacular. It just is. The fountains in front, which dance every 30 minutes, which I thought would be hideously tacky, are frankly delightful, and that fact that during my dinner across from them they performed to first “Thriller,” then Mozart, and then the theme from “Bonanza” only made me love the whole damn thing even more.

This kind of awful decadence is something we gush over when it's a few centuries in the rear-view. It's just disconcerting to be in it in the here and now. I'm finding it hard to reconcile my love for the relics of it with my desire to hate its current incarnation. It seems dishonest.

And there's just nothing there but man, it seems. It's so strange.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

sight of the day

Riding home from a meeting: a grown man, transporting a load of firewood and a machete on his bike. Which had pink training wheels.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Turning Asian of the day

Turning Asian of the day: This morning I had a big bowl of noodle soup, THEN coffee.

Things I've learned: The streetside lice inspections one sees are not actually that. I learned this while Lisa was cutting my hair recently. In addition to finding my first grey (no, I haven't let that go yet) she found a bunch of what Lao people call "itchy hairs." These are the coarse, kinky hairs that tend to grow out of the top of one's head. Well, Lao heads. And my head. I remember sitting in class in high school--probably in geometry or physics or something else I hated--and systematically feeling for and pulling out these strangely-textured, usually pitch-black hairs. It was a way to pass the time, and I had plenty of hair to go around, so I didn't reckon I'd miss them.

In Lao PDR, people believe these hairs 'eat' your other hairs. They'll take over your head, make your other hair fall out, and do other bad things. So when you see women squatting next to each other in the mornings, picking through each other's hair, they're not looking for lice, they're pulling out these itchy hairs. Who'd have guessed?

The public blackhead and booger extractions are still, as far as I know, what they seem.

I dropped a pair of chopsticks. I swear the sound they made as the clattered on the floor was “bo pen gnang”. Today is good.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sunrise, sunset

It's no coincidence that Brett Favre retired and I found a grey hair within the same month (ish).

Goodbye, childhood. And adolescence. I'm not quite ready to add 'youth' to that list ("You're still young!" sigh).

But clearly, it is time for some very serious fun. I'm looking forward to it. (When I'm not in the middle of it, that is.)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Monk dodging

Listen, monks. If you can't be bothered to slink slightly sideways when you see me approaching on the street, then neither can I. You're the ones with rules to follow, after all.

Monks aren't supposed to touch women. Women aren't supposed to touch monks, too, I suppose, but I think the first rendering is the more important one. It's easy to be overly charmed by the Buddhism here--the saffron robes, the chanting and drumming, the age of all the sacred manuscripts, the seeming asceticism, the living on charity. There's certainly a lot of it that's aesthetically and philosophically beautiful. But Buddhism has a lot of the same problems as any organized religion: Women are often discounted. Boys are abused in monasteries. Certain monks and certain temples enrich themselves at the expense of the poor. Wars are fought.

With that in mind, it becomes very easy to swing to the other side: who the hell are you to suggest that there's something unclean about me? But that's not the point either, I don't think. It's not that the monks will be somehow contaminated by coming into contact with a filthy fraulein; it's that their thoughts and their actions are supposed to remain pure. If a monk was to touch me, it would be both cause and perhaps effect of his own failure to remain detached from te pleasures of the world. It's not that he'd get dirty--it's just that it might lead him astray. That, I think, is the point.

So I'm not necessarily offended by the rule, as a woman. I give the monks a wide berth. But most of these monks are farmers' kids from faraway villages who have come here because it's the only way for them to be educated and continue to eat. They're no more holy and celestial than any other 11 year old--and I've been a teacher of 11 year olds, and I like to give respect back in the same measure as it is received. So you shuffle one way, boys, and I'll shuffle another--or we will end up meeting in the middle.

And, for once, that is not the goal.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

oh yes

It's ladies' night tonight at Icon. I'm supposed to be making a playlist. So far, it includes "Chiquitita" by ABBA, "We Love Dese Hos," (Outkast) "Dirty Girl" (Atomoshere!), and "Big Mouthed Woman" (oh, Johnny). Perhaps I'm missing the point?

I have, however, added "Jessie's Girl" by the inimitable (ok, imitable) Rick Springfield. That's positive, right?

I'm really not looking forward to making condom and blowjob shots all night. Condom shot: Sambuca topped with a layer of Baileys. Push your finger down into the Baileys and it pokes into the clear Sambuca and looks a bit like a condom. Hilarious, non? Blowjob shot: something, something, something, and whipped cream on top (can you feel my enthusiasm?). You take it with no hands. You get whipped cream on your face. The entire bar, presumably, collapses in shrieks and giggles. Stern--dare we say bitchy?--bartender frowns, smashes beer can against forehead.

Oh, hell. I don't know who I think I'm kidding: by the time I start doing it, I'll think it's silly fun, as usual.

But I'm definitely going to make myself a pin that reads "I'd rather be protesting."

Monday, January 31, 2011

Running in a holiday town engenders a particular set of problems. I really need to get a shirt that says "Hey, I like to drink beer, too." Or "My exercise is not a condemnation of your cigarette." Old punks can be fit, too, right?


Oh dear.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


And then other mornings, I wake up in my guesthouse, alone, and think, "What kind of life is this?"

And then I think, "A free one?"

And then I wonder how long that can be enough. For a long time, maybe.

But these minor blues are just temporary. My birthday is coming up and scaring me slightly, and most of my favorite CITs from Camp LPB happen to be out of town at the same time. (Plan things better next time, will you?)

Leaps unbidden to mind of the day

Leaps unbidden to the mind of the day:

G could never remember the English word for pimples and always called them pimps.

“Mischa, why am I having these new pimps on my shoulder?” Add this one to the scale that says the world is a wonderful place.

I'm actually hoping to see G and his mama J when return I to Chiang Mai in February. It's been a very long time.Remembering as I type that I recently gave him the address of this blog. If you're reading this, baby, it's all out of love.

Tunisia/Egypt/Jordan/Yemen/Sudan? Not lumping them all together, but in this sense lumping them all together: fists clenched, eyes closed, thinking 'go go go go go.' Heart engaged.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Is it Sunday?

So far:

Picking up my laundry, I chatted with a Lao teacher/guesthouse receptionist with a lazy eye (detail is important!), who wants me to donate a few copies of the book I'm currently writing to the LP library. Excellent idea.

I rode toward the market behind a tuk tuk full of rocks. Ahead of me were two Lao women squatting by the side of the road in what appeared to be a very intimate embrace. As I passed them, I saw that it was just a streetside lice inspection.

At the market a glob of tubercular spit missed my flip flop by inches. I got my usual ninety-cent assortment of corn, noodles, parasites, and much-recycled cooking oil.

I've made a nice coffee for myself at the bar and opened the tall french doors to let in the light upstairs. I notice I left a big, sweet, sticky pa dek stain on the table I usually sit at. Strangely, no bugs have found it yet. Maybe they're more concerned about their health than I am mine.

The orchids from Bahrain via Bangkok are still full and fluffy in their vases downstairs. They're over a week old by now. Small miracles make the world go 'round.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Camp LPB

I loved my week in Chiang Mai, but there's something lovely about waking up in the grayish morning and walking down streets that no one else is on. Small town beauty: having a whole road mostly to myself.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thai hospitality

Chiang Mai, 9 am.

It's already wintertime hot.
A hideously fat man in flimsy shorts and a tee shirt struggles to get from the backseat of a car up the curb to a bar. His legs are white and dimpled and spotted with red; bandaged strangely around the knees. His bumpy scalp is visible through the few curling grey hairs covering it. He leans on his cane and one Thai woman pulls him by the arm toward the bar while another supports him from behind. As he makes it over the curb, the woman supporting him reaches down and with her nails lightly kneads a small circle of the expanse of ass.

As they disappear out of the sun into the dark, I hear the man rasping “Now, two girls,” and the women echoing “Yes, two girls...”

10:15 am
I go for a bikini wax while I'm here, because they just don't exist in Luang Prabang. I've forgotten that in Thailand one generally takes everything off for the process, so this is already a more intimate encounter than I'd bargained for. Then somehow the limits I'd described were misunderstood, and the procedure becomes unexpectedly intrusive. (I'm pretty sure that just briefly, there was penetration. Full disclosure: at this point, I really don't mind.)

So I'm lying on my back, much more exposed than I'd expected to be, being tugged at in places I'd thought were well hidden, when there's a knock on the door. And the door opens. And another Thai woman wanders into the room, talking to the waxer. She walks over the the table and plops her hand down on my (unshaven) leg and begins absently stroking it. They talk in Thai; I lie on the table, defeated. After a few minutes, she asks if I want my legs waxed. No, I'll just shave them, I reply, as if they care about my hair-removal choices. Her hand stays on my leg. They continue to chat. All I can understand are numbers. She moves down toward the foot of the bed so the waxer can continue her truly unnecessary spelunking, but instead of releasing me, she slides her hand down to rest on my foot.

After two months of flip flops, I have the feet of a farmer and the one pedicure with my best girlfriend B has long faded. I'm mortified. Her hand stays, though, and she amazingly does not insist on giving me a pedicure before I leave—perhaps she thinks I'm a lost cause. I have one woman's face inches from my crotch and another one who won't stop touching me in the only other places I'd really prefer no one notice. And I'm paying for this.

The waxer at one point patted my stomach and said “No baby. Very good,” which was an improvement over the only other comments that I've gotten, both from the tailor I took a shirt to to have copied. When I came for my fitting, he commented that I have “big arms.” (I assume he meant 'long,' which is better, but not much.) Then later, he told me my friend was very pretty. Thank you so much, sir.

I suppose it's as good a time as any to go back to Luang Prabang.

Sans fards

Question of the day: should I just put on some make up? Is it time? I've been slouching around Chiang Mai sans fards for three days and I like it, I feel comfortable—but I don't need to look like shit on principle. I feel like it's nearly time to consider whether I should just accept that little bit of help, day to day.

Having not decided that yet, though, I haven't put myself through a cold-water hair wash, since it would still just be cosmetic at this point (five days, perhaps?), and I just can't be bothered making my hair look better when nobody's looking.

Chiang Mai on a budget, with a purpose, is really calm. I wake up, I walk to a market or a coffee shop, I write essays for the book because I'm still all out of fictional inspiration. I write emails, I get food, I drink late afternoon beer, I get eight hours of sleep; I do guesthouse yoga.

The two big Dalmatians in the yard I pass every day wear padded vests. It's fully hot even in shorts by ten am.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tummy rubs

It's been a while. I recall promising to get to some underbelly, and now I have. I got to kick off 2011 by getting robbed--of rather a lot of money, and very nearly every penny I had here. And I found this out the day a good friend finished his trip, leaving me doubly bereft. (Luckily, I was pretty anesthetized by the time I got home and found my big backpack dragged halfway across the room to the window with its slit screen, through which the thief had been able to stick his arm out far enough to get to the money sock. Yes, I realize there are other--some would say better--ways to store one's money.)

So back to the thrill of poverty, temporarily (I hope). I've been saying that I had the money so briefly that I hadn't had time to get attached to it. I've been saying that, hey, it's just money; it could happen anywhere; there's no use crying over something I can't change; I'll earn it back soon enough. What I'm not saying, and trying not to think, is "This is me and money."

The thing is, this really quite unpleasant event has ended up showing me how many people out here really care. The Aussie couple are falling all over themselves trying to offer me gifts (not loans) of cash. I don't know what I'd do without them, even if I'm not taking them up on their offers. B. is ever-present with beer and an ear; even G., the baby Frenchman with a knack for the accidental insult, came in to cover my drinks at the after hours bar the other night. A. refuses to allow my new penury to derail our plans to meet somewhere ex-Laos and insists on bearing most of the burden of a trip to...well. Where, exactly, is still up for discussion. But when your options are beautiful hippie mountain town or beautiful beach, straits are really not what one would call dire. A fundraiser in Turkey has been offered.

(And, of course, because I want to make myself commit to Laos for a while, suddenly Turkey and the Middle East are calling again. But no, not yet. I don't think.)