Sunday, December 26, 2010

I Am Sometimes Dreaming Of A White Christmas - December 25th, 2010

I am sometimes dreaming of a White Christmas.

And I have included here some photos to remind us exactly why.

Christmas here was warm. After dinner Christmas Eve, which was also Shabes with all the blessings and singing and dancing we went downtown to the Catholic Church.

I had never seen the inside of the building before and I barely saw it then because it was packed, and mass was celebrated by most of the congregation outside on huge screens.

Mostly, the place was like a carnival with balloons and games and cops making people pay for street parking.

Mass and the readings were said in every possible language: French, English, Lao and Vietnamese. The Bishop’s main subject and obsession is the spiritual downfall of France, fille ainée de l’église.

The flock was of every race and face: Vietnamese and Lao, of course, as well as Europeans and Indians.

And so, do I miss the snow? Well, yes. Today I missed the snow and tobogganing in Bickford Park and shoveling the damned stuff while joking with my neighbours on Montrose Avenue or watching Crazy Maria shovel while sitting in front of my fireplace and the smell of oak logs burning sweetly. And yes, I miss that feeling when your cheeks are so red with cold you can barely feel them, and the nice warmness of good winter clothing. I miss the cold when there is no wind and only the brisk dryness in the air. I miss hearing the muffled sound of freshly fallen packing snow underfoot.

I don’t have to tell you what I don’t miss – you are probably in the middle of it right now!

Merry Christmas everyone and a Happy New Year. May all your dreams come true. Remember, some of them are only a jet-lag away!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Exploring the Suburbs of Vientiane - December 15, 2010

Around Vientiane

It is wintertime. The monsoon has long past and the roads have dried up. Everyone knows the extreme summer heat is on its way, the long dry scorching months when not a drop of rain falls on the country and the Mekong drops like a day with no Prozac.

But now it is the wintertime, the most beautiful months to be alive in Laos. The sun rises every morning without a hint of a cloud in the sky and the temperature only goes up to about 25 in the day. Perfect dry crystal clear days to take the motorbike and explore the outer regions of the city.

Vientiane quickly becomes the countryside. The best maps published in English are called Hobo Maps and even they surrender to the inevitable anarchy of back roads, dirt trails and nameless streets that reigns supreme just three or four kilometers outside the city core.

To quote: Rough dirt roads. Not much shade. A mountain bike is best but regular bikes work too. Most roads look alike and few landmarks. No English signs at all. Enjoy!

Riding outside the city is a challenge. The dirt roads are full of cavities and potholes and you are always looking for ways to navigate between them to spare your back and your shock absorbers.

Anywhere along the way you can stop in any little shop/restaurant/beer garden and have a coffee or a beer. Nobody speaks any English or French or even Vietnamese out here so you are really on your own, just you and your little pocket dictionary!

Rice paddies, temples and the eternal horizontality of the landscape – the ancient alluvial river bed down below and the chain of palm tree crowns up above like so many bad haircuts, their coconuts ripening silently.

Colourscapes: the earth is as red as Babylonia and the route cuts a dry gash through the succulent green that grows everywhere. The shades of it are astounding. This multi-tone is overseen by the benevolent blue of an unwavering sky, like a gentle taskmaster. The houses are wood brown or cement grey, sometimes painted blue or pink.

Smells: there is a flower now in blossom that looks like a virus under a microscope and when it rots it sends out a smell not unlike that of citrus fruit blossoms. Every now and then it hits and sends me reeling back in time and space to the coastal plain of Israel in the spring when by miracle the pioneers’ dream come true every year.

Smells: it is the dry season and the roads have turned to fine dust. Every passing vehicle throws up its own type of dust cloud. To protect their homes against this, people water the path in front of their houses. The combination smell of earth and dust and dryness and fresh water from a plastic hose is heartbreaking in its simplicity.

Smells: here in the Worker’s Paradise garbage removal is not free. Residents must pay about 0.50 cents per large plastic bag to have their garbage removed on garbage day. If you can afford it you put your garbage out the day the truck is supposed to arrive. Then you can wait for the marauding dogs to attack it so that if and when the truck does finally arrive there is nothing for them to pick up. Anyways, no one can afford it so instead they just burn their garbage. In the old days before plastic bags, this was only slightly toxic. But now, the air fills with cyanide smoke just about everywhere. And so driving here is also driving through the occasional toxic cloud. It looks really cool from a distance, though!

Sounds: nowadays I am driving the ancient 50 cc Super Cub my wife insisted on buying but cannot drive because at seven months into her pregnancy she is having trouble kick-starting the damn thing. And so I get to play with the faulty gears and non-existent hand break and unrevealing front lamp. It looks really nice, though, the sort of thing you’d imagine in an old Italian movie from the 60’s, Giovanni and Sophia spinning around some ruins in Rome to up-beat light jazz music, she is wearing big round dark glasses (her large straw hat held down by a fine silk scarf) and he is happy. The son of a bitch makes a lot of noise, though and strains the back every time I do not manage to avoid a killer pothole.

Sounds: the Lao are amazingly quiet compared to the Vietnamese, and when they put on their music they don’t put it on very loud. But what they do put is the bass right up full, so that you can’t hear the music: all you can hear is the bass and it rips through you like a dull knife. You might even like the music if you could hear it, but all you get is an annoying deep banging.

In between are the people. Their slowness is legendary. Try getting something done here! This is the only place in the world where I am considered a fast driver! Heat and hammocks.

And this is the winter!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

To Saleh Mukamal z'l - December 4th, 2010


Sometimes a word in one language will reach up and take you by the throat and surprise you with all kinds of associations from another language.

Saleh was the name Seth and Richard Mukamal’s father. Seth and Richard and I went to High School together back in the ice-cube (Canada). Mr. Mukamal always amazed me. He cut a larger-than-life figure in my imagination.

He was the epitome of exoticism. Born in Iraq, he traveled around the world, building empires and never giving up, no matter how hard things got.

He kept an ancient bottle of French wine in a closet and gave Seth a superb briar pipe.

But the thing that always impressed me about Mr. Mukamal was his perfect Hebrew. The first time I heard him speak it was when some Russians came from Israel and they needed kosher plates for Passover. I had never before heard the guttural kufs and ayins.

Later I learnt that Mr. Mukamal was instrumental in smuggling date palms out of Babylon back to Palestine so that Jewish pioneers there could build up an autonomous agricultural base.

The man has always cast a giant shadow for me.

Now Mr. Mukamal is right here. Sala in Lao is a garden house. All my life I have dreamt of having a gazebo and now I am finally going to get one!

You may find that the leap from Saleh Mukamal to my garden Sala is kind of like going from the sublime to the ridiculous (to quote my Uncle Lou), but every time I sit in my gazebo, sipping on a gin and tonic and watching the haze settle over the city after another hot tropical day, listening to the clicking of petanque balls down the dirt path, my thoughts will turn to Mr. Mukamal and I will toast his memory and achievements.

The pavillon itself is made of hardwood and sits on stilts to protect it during the monsoon. Our gardener, Vandi, did what he could by himself and called in reinforcements when he needed extra hands. The thatched roof came in segments.

Last week I ran electricity in from the house to power a fan and lights.

L’Haim, Ya Naïm!

PS. Today the weather here was sublime: 25C, a slight breeze off the Mekong, not a cloud in the sky. Happy Hannouka, everybody!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Buddha Park - December 2nd, 2010

Buddha Park

Yesterday was a national holiday here in Laos.

Of all my students, more than 100 of them, only one was able to correctly identify for me the significance of December 2nd.

But who cares? As long as there’s BeerLao in plenty and electricity to fire up those speakers then all is well!

We took the day and got on our motorbikes with the kids down to the Buddha Park, 25 clicks south-east of the city along the Mekong River.

The wonderful thing about the road is that at some points it actually does hug the river and you can see Thailand just across the way. The ride down is also interesting because it was the first road we took in Laos in 2001 when we arrived here in East of Eden ( In those days, the road was little more than a dirt path with a few restaurants on either side of it, chickens crossing the road to get to the other side and a few dogs sitting out the summer in the shade of a dusty tree.

Now it is a four lane highway in perfect condition. Sorry to have to say it, but the road to the Friendship Bridge, and most of the paved roads in Vientiane, are in much better shape than the Toronto road system.

Immigration at the Friendship Bridge is now in a sparkling new complex: when we first came here Immigration was in a little hut!

Of course, once you pass the bridge, the road starts to look like the Laos we love again: potholes, piles of gravel, clouds of dust thrown up by other vehicles…

The Buddha Park:

Some countries are home to crazy people who decide to do something so architecturally daring that they eventually become legends. In France, there was the Facteur Cheval, a postman who collected stones along his route for years and eventually built this:

And in India, of all places in Chandigarh, some guy had pretty much the same idea:

Well, the Buddha Park here in Laos was built by some crazy monk back in the 50’s when the country was still a monarchy. You can get the details easily enough.

The statues in the park are not only of Buddha, there are many Hindu gods and a huge pumpkin you can climb in that represents the universe. In the basement is hell.

Look, I have to be honest, the whole thing is really ugly and in bad taste. But it’s a fun day trip.

Travels in Don Khong - December 2nd, 2010

In Don Khong

When we moved here from Canada we had to get used to going everywhere by scooter again. It was a joy not to have to use a car. Of course, we are no longer protected by the metal and glass cage, no longer have climate control or music but the weather here is so damned good and an i-pod with buds took care of the other problem. Nothing really beats exploring the countryside around Vientiane, seeing water buffaloes and people in pointy hats working in rice paddies while listening to The Doors.

Our first trip in Don Khong was on a pair of rented bicycles and the difference between a motorbike and a bicycle is also pretty radical. The noise for one thing and the speed for another.

But the slowness of the trip makes you realize another thing about speed: speed eats up smells. Once you slow things down you can suddenly smell again: honeysuckle warmth and the languid smell of the wind, freshly harvested hay and the warm, warm earth. Thus our bike trip through the island was filled with the slow exhaustion and perfumed tide of perfect leisure.

At bicycle pace the light can dance for you the way it was always meant to dance. Reflections of the sunlight on the wet crop rice paddies, the undulant warmth of a buffalo’s back as he turns over in his mud bath.

Time slows down, the clock turns back. Wind in trees take on meaning, the bending boughs laden with significance, saying: this is now!

Another trip by motorcycle allowed us to go further, all the way to the ends of the island. On one tip are simple houses and women making rice paper for springrolls, and the island is a patchwork of small agricultural villages. You buy gas from a hand pump. I imagined a good friend living there, far from the problems of the world, growing his crops.

And always, as everywhere in this blessed land, the people! The Lao smiling, the Lao giving, the Lao generous and splendid!