Thursday, September 30, 2010

Minor Inconveniences - September 29th, 2010

Minor Inconveniences

Let’s see now.

Some of you, I hope most of you, are thinking: “This guy is living in a paradise. He is the luckiest bugger alive!”

And you would be mostly right.

I would just like to reassure you all that our perfect exotic life does have its share of minor inconveniences.

So here they are:

No water. Water delivery to our house for washing is sporadic. It comes and goes. And comes and goes. And goes. And goes. This week so far we have not had water for 2 days. Most of the neighbours do not have water.

The way water works (or does not work) here is this: we have a cistern in the garden that fills slowly, with almost no pressure, from the city supply. Then it is pumped into the house. When the cistern is empty the pump just turns on itself, like the computer in the old Star Trek episode trying to find the square root of pie because Spock told it to do that so as to paralyze it from performing malevolent actions. I digress. Sorry. I have no water with which to wash and it’s 45 degrees in the damned shade so if I digress that’s my bloody problem, o.k.? You got a problem with that? Then you call the Vientiane municipality and you deal with it!!!

Our landlord called them, or so he says.

The good part is that down the dirt path there are people living in a hut. They spend a good part of the evening drinking with their particularly unattractive girlfriends listening to heartfelt, soul-fending synthetic music about love’s true treason and the temporary nature of satisfaction. Sometimes, when the combination of cheap whisky and Pepsi gets too much, they will sing along. But, these people – the nerve of them – have water!!! They have a well.

And so last night, after a hard evening teaching Sociology to an amphitheatre full of empty-as-moon faces I came home and took an empty bucket over.

First I had to use the bucket to beat back their dogs, but once I got through that first line of defense, I was greeted in true Lao PDR fashion: sit down, have a beer, speak no Lao, speak no English. Touch glasses: Canada Number One! Laos Number One! More beer, more soulful music, the unattractive girls not at all improved by alcohol consumption, which is a universal first.

In the end, they filled up my bucket and I was able to go home and take a rudimentary shower of shorts, pump up the AC and fall asleep.

Our immediate neighbours, the tenement house, also have no water. I am thinking, this is the poorest part of a very rich area and we are screwed here.

The next morning we still had no water and I went back to fill up my bucket. The really horrible girls were no longer there and that’s a shame because this time I brought my camera, but here are some photos of the guy’s courtyard and his wife. Then something weird happened. His wife used to be the may ban in our house and they came over and turned on the pump that I had turned off because it was turning on empty and for some strange reason the water went on.

This makes no sense, since the pump’s function is to pump from the cistern to the house and not from the….aaaaargggghhhhhh!!!!!

And still no water is arriving in the house. Now all the neighbours have gotten together to sit around and wait for the water. The neighbour’s well is now dry. No one complains, no one bitches, no one makes phone calls to scream at the water company. So un-Canadian. Canada, Number One! Laos Number One!

In desperation I have placed a bucket of water under the air-conditioner outside so the condensed water will drip into it. Maybe I’ll be able to wash a plate in a few hours.

Another minor inconvenience is the ants that invade every piece of protein or starch available to them. If you leave a bit of rice to cool down you have got to be faster than they are. I don’t want to spray the surfaces with insecticide so I am looking everywhere for ant traps. No can find. No have. Solly.

If any charitable souls hear my desperate call, our mailing address is


B.O.P. 5704

Central Post Office

Vientiane Capital


Let’s see, what else? Oh yes, our container is blocked in Bangkok because I still don’t have a working visa for Laos. My employers, the Lao American College (who thought it would be a good idea if I taught Sociology…) is taking care of that, which is a God-send. But they have no idea how long it can take. When I ask them how long it usually takes, they just laugh.

The kind of laugh that says, “you have no idea what you are dealing with”, and makes me fear the worst.

I guess that’s about it. Life is pretty groovy otherwise, if only I could flush the toilets…

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ban Fifty-Two - September 27th, 2010

Ban Fifty-Two

On Sunday Marie-Do and the kids had to go to Thailand to renew their Lao visas and do some shopping.

So I took the motorbike and went to Ban Fifty-Two.

The day began in an interesting way. That night I had less than little sleep. I awoke at around 1 A.M., aroused by a nightmare of being put under a spell by some sort of tribal shaman in the hill jungles of a nameless South East Asian country. All around me were beating drums and painted faces. I was surrounded by the non-personality of primitive group movements, the identity suck most feared by us Western individualists.

Maybe a sleepless night after a dream like that was not the best basis for a motorbike trip to a tribal area, but I did it anyway.

Unlike H’mong villages in Vietnam, this one was not in the mountains. And also unlike Vietnam, none of the H’mong wore traditional H’mong dress.

But I was still able to admire a typical village and see once again what life used to look like all over planet Earth.

The road out was pretty awful, but not nearly as bad as leaving Hanoi – Lao drivers are courteous and silent, but the roads are bad and the villages have no esthetic value.

The name of the village, Ban 52, says it all. It refers to its position at 52 clicks from Vientiane. Names like this are usually give in Asia to restaurants or hotels. The entire village seems to have grown there as an afterthought or a consolation prize.

On the way I was able to stop in a Vat for a snooze and so was able to continue somewhat refreshed.

In the garden of another Vat a bomb shell from the war was used as a bell to call the monks to prayer. And then you remember: yes, they used to bomb these people.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Anatevka -

A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Coming back from Bangkok, I had the feeling that Vientiane was exactly the way Bangkok was 50 years ago. Coming home was like stepping into a time machine.

Despite the massive vehicular traffic, this is largely the case.

Vientiane is still a series of little villages within a city. Even the central core remains intimate and full of pot-holes.

Some wise acre had the bright idea to totally rebuild the cornice on the Mekong, however, so that bit of quaintness is now just a jungle of earth-moving equipment and mounds of mud.

But other than that, little Vientiane is still a collection of unpaved roads and main arteries. When you look at these pictures, try to remember that these are of the centre of a nation’s capital city, and not some provincial village.

So far I have shown you pictures of specific places. Here is an overview of the village we have come to love, the place in our hearts that we – after only one month! – have come to call home: Vientiane! This love has become a passionate affair.

Things are moving along as they should. I have found work and permanent visas seem to be just around the corner. Our container has arrived in Bangkok and we are awaiting the proper paper-work to clear it through to Laos.

More than ever I feel that we are in the right place at the right time. Those of you who should be here will be here. Of that, I have no doubt.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Yom Kippur in Bangkok - Part One - September 23rd, 2010

Yom Kippur In Bangkok Makes The Hard Man Humble

It has been an extremely strange ride.

In all fairness, I would have to make this into three post, and therefore three chapters: Getting there, Being There and Getting Out.

Getting There.

To leave Vientiane, my home sweet home, and go to Bangkok is simple and comfortable. A little too comfortable as I was able to see for myself on the way back. All I had to do was go to any one of the myriad of tourist agencies in the central core of Vientiane town (all of three streets…) and buy a ticket. That ticket included a tuk-tuk ride to the train station on the Lao side of the Friendship Bridge, a train ride across the Friendship Bridge, a short wait in Nong Khai on the Thai side of the border, and an overnight ride in an AC sleeper and when you wake up you are in Bangkok.

Already on the tuk-tuk I was befriended by an English teacher from England who, despite the fact that he had lived in some pretty exciting places, was one of the most boring people I have ever spoken with. I can understand why he has trouble getting his students’ attention.

The Thai railway system is amazing. In fact, the entire country is pretty amazing. You cannot help but wonder how a country can function with almost European standard efficiency at such a low cost. And yet it does. Service on the train is fast and quiet, meals are brought and served hot, fresh linen are placed on the sleepers which are folded out by uniformed workers. Policemen patrol the cars and distribute pamphlets warning of the dangers of accepting food or drink from strangers.

But it was here that I met the champion of boredom! An American who looked kind of groovy caught me in his web and spoke non-stop about his life for almost an hour. I finally had to pretend I had to use the toilets just to escape him. An hour of my life I will never get back.

Bangkok is big. It is huge. It is Manhattan. Entering it by daybreak is crossing across thousands of drowsy lives; there are those who live by the tracks in sordid metallic huts; their morning fires lit for breakfast. In the distance are imposing glass and steel buildings, office towers and condominiums where the people you see in billboards live.

The billboards are everywhere and they sell everything you could expect in a modern industrial society, everything that will make the consumer look nice and smell good and happy and clean and well-fed with clever children smiling white smiles. How the two societies co-exist is a mystery to me and this may explain the Red Shirt movement.

The day after Yom Kippur I had to cross Bangkok by taxi to get to the computer super store and I was caught in a traffic jam caused by Red Shirts rushing off to a demonstration somewhere. They sat on the back of pickup trucks, happy and elated and being clearly cheered on by the crowd. People on the sidewalks would rush out and give them food and water. If I were whoever is in power I would listen up.

At one point I just stopped the taxi and walked. I stumbled onto a popular market with real people and real food and real garbage and real pig snouts.

On the train I also met some Israelis who had been tubing up in Vang Vieng but who were heading back to Bangkok for Yom Kippur.

The modern Hebrew traveler never ceases to amaze me. They may dress like rebels and have nose rings and tribal tattoos on their arms, but come a Jewish holiday or even a Shabbat and they rush to find a Chabad House.

I guess not everybody knows about Chabad, so here is a crash course – Chasidism for Modern Man, to plagiarize Martin Buber.

Many years ago a Jew named the Ba’al Shem Tov created a movement within Judaism called Chasidism, roughly translated as The Righteous. The emphasis in this movement was joy, dancing and ecstasy, as opposed to the more serious bent of Judaism up till that point. Those opposed to the Chasidim were the Misnagdim (also called the Litvaks), a group my family was part of.

OK, to make a long story short, over there in Russia and the Ukraine and other miserable places in Eastern Europe, over time every little village and town and shtetl had its own Chasidish Rebbi, a wonder-working charismatic figure to whom the Chasidic community would turn for spiritual guidance. These Rebbis formed courts and dynasties; their sons or sons-in-law would inherit the title of Rebbi for that community.

But over time, one Chasidic Court rose to the forefront because of their outreach to secular Jews, beginning in America, to bring them back to the fold. This Court is called Loubavitch named after the town they came from in Europe, and their super charismatic Rebbi was Menachem Mendle Shneerson. (Menachem has since become the most popular boy’s name amongst religious Jews. An old joke has one mother asking another, “So, what do you call your Menachem Mendle?”)

At any rate, if you are still with me, this thing mushroomed and sent shock waves around the world. Secular Jews started converting to Chasidism on mass, and then the thing hit Israel and Rebbi Shneerson formed a team of emissaries to found Chabad Houses all around the world wherever a Jew might need another Jew. Some Chabadniks even thought Shneerson was the Messiah at one point, but that is another, even longer, story.

The Chabad house in Bangkok is amazing. One man, Rabbi Nehamiah, has turned the city of sin into a place of high spirituality. They serve kosher meals and Nehemiah has time to discuss Torah or any kind of problem with anyone who needs him. Attention is given to every detail of how to make an Israeli traveler’s life better. There are computers in Hebrew with free Internet connections and even a direct telephone line so Israelis can call home for free. A sign in Hebrew says: “Your parents are worried. Give them a call.”

To non-Jewish friends of mine who were surprised that I’d be going to Bangkok, of all places, for Yom Kippur and that there were Jews there, here is the answer.

For more information about Chabad, you can check out

For another, less generous view of the organization: