Thursday, January 13, 2011

More travels around Vientiane and New Year's update about our family - January 13th, 2011

More travels around Vientiane and new from the family.

Yesterday was cold. Really cold with showers, a Hanoi kind of winter day. Unprepared, I was soaked through and through.

One of the differences between Vientiane and Hanoi is that in Hanoi there are saunas just about everywhere. If you get cold you can just hop in and enjoy some steam. Of course, the Hanoians need this because their winters are ridiculously cold. I just heard that it is

now -1C there!

Another difference between Hanoi and Vientiane is the way space is used. In Vietnam, neighbourhoods and villages are filled with tiny alleyways blocked off by high walls behind which rest gardens and courtyards and family lives. You can smell the cooking from behind them, hear their dogs barking and people talking. Hanoi is very much an ancient Chinese city with a strong European influence.

Space there is constricted, and if everybody honks all the time it is to avoid collisions in those blind angles. Certain motor scooter gestures are not needed here, like that Hanoi way of pivoting a scooter on its quick-stand to turn it around. Here there is enough space to drive a scooter around.

Vientiane is much smaller than Hanoi, but paradoxically it is much bigger at the same time. Streets are wide, gardens are generally open. The weather here is much better and so the skies are generous.

Yesterday was cold and wet, but the day before was another day in paradise. I had a cancelled class and so drove out from behind the Mythical College Where I Work and entered into village life. Right there, before my very eyes the city turned into the country. These pictures were taken within the city. It would be the Toronto equivalent of driving up to Yonge and Sheppard or the Paris equivalent of Vanves or Clichy.

Time stands still. Bridges span foul-smelling canals. You can stop at a roadside restaurant and have some soup. Around a blushing corner will sit a temple all of majesty, part of it falling apart and part of it being rebuilt.

I have stopped using my i-pod when motoring. It is dangerous and also cuts me off from the classic throb of the motor. The thing is ancient and deserves to be listened to, like somebody else’s grandmother. The scooter in the photo is not mine, by the way. Mine is in the shop and this one is on loan from my mechanic. If ever you are in need of a damned good English speaking mechanic and are in the area of the Singapore Embassy, give Lay a call at 369 9991

And so two days ago I just rode and rode until hunger made me stop and then I rode some more. I don’t use a compass and I had no idea where I was. The secret of a perfect day of discovery is to follow your nose, let the hum of the motor and the wink of a rice paddy tell you where to turn. Every now and then a sign that means absolutely nothing will be in English. Other than that, you are on your own, white boy.

The amazing thing about the people in this neck of the woods is that they will look at you totally stone-faced until you say ‘sabaidee’, and then their faces will open up with recognition and welcome.

To give a rough idea of where these pictures were taken, if you go up Lane Xang past Patouxay and then find some way onto Route 13 South, well, this is left of there. Streets have no names, houses have no numbers. Every now and then a dog will rush out at you. A postman’s delight.

Also, the map is an old French map of the city when it really was only two streets, care of Reb Dovid. It’s the sort of document that makes me dream of a time when Vientiane was even more of a backwater than it is now. And yet something tells me that it was more exciting then than it is now, more authentic in its loneliness and less prone to the manic-depressive loudspeaker mania the Vientianians force on themselves and their neighbours now. Yes, I look at that map and I dream of streets even dustier than they are now, of unbearable heat and the sounds of a single temple drum. I can imagine the horrible ennui of the poor French administrators who found themselves stuck here like an afterthought on the tail-end of an Empire. I feel for them and envy them at the same time – at least they were able to see a Vientiane unadulterated by machines and illusions of ‘development’.

The last two weeks in January the College (nameless to shelter me from the guilty) will be closed and if Marie-Do doesn’t give birth then I will load up my bicycle and head out exploring the countryside north of the city; up the Mekong and in-land, further east. Like the Simon and Garfunkel song I will be off to ‘look for Laos’, hoping to find her with no electricity and no running water – a Laos of huts and kitchen fires, little temples and simple people. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.

And so the day wore on, the sun inching its way down towards the uncertain horizon, that flat line I find more beautiful and undulating than any flat line in the world. As the roads became busier with people heading home, the air was filled with the fine red dust of Asia, the light cutting through it like sunlight through the slats of a Venetian blind. In three dazzling dimensions you could see the shadow image of a tree projected through the dust, every leaf hanging there, suspended in particles of earth.

I finally found an American, ex-Vietnam, who lives up in those sticks for some reason and he showed me the way back home and so slowly and reluctantly I rode toward the city, leaving the time out of time. My scooter slowly blended with all the other scooters and cars and trucks and tuk-tuks. Once again I was part of a flow like the Mighty Mekong and no longer a free particle.

And once again I was able to realize the blessings bestowed upon me, being able to live in this fabulous and wonderful land; this magical Republic. Work is easy and plentiful, my students are hard-working and kind. In my comfortable home live my beautiful adventurous wife and two affectionate and intelligent children.

Zéphyr is in CE2 at the Ecole Hoffet and Maya-Swann is in the Moyenne Section of the kindergarten. I love picking her up at school for the way she drops everything and calls out “Papa!” and comes running into my arms. Zéphyr’s report card was very good, the fruit of hard work and attentive studies. Cléa, the first Hyman in recorded history to have done well at school, is a highly respected speech therapist in Paris. She works with deaf children, and I am very proud and grateful to know that when she leaves work each day the world is a better place thanks to her efforts.

Back at home, the cook cooks, the maid cleans and the gardener gardens. Soon we will start our vegetable patch and are looking forward to welcoming the new baby into our home. We have a guest room.

We even have running water and indoor plumbing!

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