Thursday, January 29, 2009

Fireworks Over Luang Prabang


Luang Prabang, Laos - If you were to chart a timeline of your life, what would it look like, and what would be the significant moments? ‘Well, this happened, and that happened…to me.’ Many would be relational in context, and other events, if not all, could be referred to as karmic occurrence, with predeterminant causes and conditions enabling manifestation in the material world in the form of trauma or joy.

We’re either making things happen, or things are happening to us.

The effect could be a permanent though subtle shifting of what one writer referred to as ‘the assemblage point,’ a point of collective sensory data in one’s perceptual field, a shift in perception and view of the world incorporating that new event experience. It wasn’t just coincidence that every event was designed toward survival and evolution.

What would it look like, your timeline, and exactly where would it begin? Well, for most of us, let’s assume ‘Birth.’


‘Well, in seventh grade, I got a new Schwinn. And once in high school, I had my head in a toilet.’

Birth doesn’t necessarily have to result in trauma, but it often does, depending upon what culture into which a person is born, but for many, this singular event shapes a view of the world and how we’ll respond in it.

You’re floating along in the womb, all warm and comfortable with a heartbeat pounding with the rush of fluids, then there was her urgent distress and something was required of you, and suddenly, wow!

From there, who knows?

Many of us may note the births and deaths of significant others, if not the circumstances, and the deaths of relationships, and the forming of relationships, or taking a new job, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know what your timeline would look like.

‘In eighth grade, while mowing the yard, I saw the grass being cut, and had the most profound experience.’

How about a knee blowout or major surgery? How about a chemical experience? How about your encounter with God?


They had fireworks here last night, marking ‘Soldier’s Day’ or the revolution, or day off for soldiers, police, and government workers, I was told. Everybody happy.

I sat in a break in the wall, in a space of a dozen feet where no car could park, solid parking along the wall, running right along the street there, with the populace out to see the show, which turned out to be less than spectacular, but illuminated the river in green and red and brown, with the booming echoing off the mountains. Streets were full of people, cars, motorbikes, and trucks, with streets blocked off and traffic diverted.

Two guys, both slobbery drunk, one on a bicycle, stopped directly in front of me, right in the middle of the street, this main river thoroughfare, and proceeded with a fifteen, twenty minute conversation, none of which I understood, except they were pathetically drunk.

I kept looking up and down the street, watching the hundreds of cars and bikes and people reduced to a single-lane crawl to go around those two guys. It was fantastic comedy. The guy who was walking could hardly stand up, and wouldn’t let go of the handshake of the guy on the bike.

The conversation never became antagonistic, but at a couple of points became quite loud. Most of the time, amid the traffic noise and during the quiet lulls, it sounded slobbery, pathetically drunk.

They didn’t move. From where I sat, it looked like they were six inches shy of being right in the middle of the street. At first I thought they would eventually move, but they didn’t. It went on and on.

At a couple of points I felt I should move, which I eventually did, fearing they would end their conversation and turn their attention to me, sitting just a few feet away, but they never did. It just went on and on. I finally moved when I could no longer contain my laughter. They were fantastic.


What do they mean, on that website, claiming they can help you do your ‘karmic untangling’? Send $30. You’ll get the newsletter.


Get it all straight in this lifetime. Thirty bucks.


I’ve been coming to SE Asia for over a decade, and have yet to visit Vietnam. Well, I went there once, and had a bad experience. And like prison or a bad restaurant, if you didn’t like it there, you most likely would be reluctant to return.

Good new is, I don’t have to enter the country to go down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It’s all in Laos and Cambodia, but most people would think it’s in Vietnam.*


Carrying babies

Unlike the many farang you see on the street, I’ve never seen an Asian parent push their babies in a stroller. They hold them close, upon the hip, on their backs, or between their knees on a motorcycle, driving with one hand.


Farang Like To Make Fy

‘Fy’. ‘Fire’. That’s the word for anything carrying electricity, or fire itself, as it is generally known. ‘Open fy,’ is turn to on the light. A ‘fy-check’ is a Bic. ‘Make fy’ is to turn on a propane burner, or to set fire to a pile of trash, like this one I’ve got going down here at the scenic park along the river.

I’ve had a couple of fires ‘get away from me’ before; once requiring the local rural fire department to extinguish it before it got to the barn, after I came home at noon one day, and in sport coat and tie, slacks, and serious university shoes, decided it would be a good idea to burn the trash in a stiff, thirty mile-per-hour wind out of the south, which quickly pushed our common, household trash fire into the adjacent field of dry, dead weeds.

There was such a sense of relief upon realization the barn wasn’t going to burn, like a heart-pounding sprint across a river trestle track in front of an accelerating freight train, leaping four railroad ties at a time, and just making it to the other side, giddy with relief; and the local volunteers, completely competent, efficient, and self-congratulatory, were getting the job done, a moment of excited exhausted frightened euphoric gladness, not wholly unlike moments of an acid trip. It wasn’t a peak moment in life, but rather, an unforgettable idiotic moment dealing with fire.

I was black after the ordeal, a harrowing experience requiring a shower, a change of clothes and late from lunch return to the office on a non-noon-hour-basketball day.**

The other time, I almost burned down the jungle.

Up here, there is no chance. The trees are too far apart, and although there is a lot of undergrowth, you have to hold a lighter under a leaf for a long time to reach ignition temperature, like, cardboard won’t even light, nor newspaper.


So, I made one of those timelines, like you suggested way back when. I ended up with a page full of significant particulars, but some were bunched together, like, ‘jobs,’ and, ‘degrees.’ I broke it down into geographic areas, easily recollecting what happened where. Nearly all of the items were relational, surprisingly mostly joyous.

It turned out to be a very different exercise than say, writing up a resume’, puffed up with lies, whereas this was mostly an ‘event-oriented’ task, an interesting accounting of life-changing events.


Why is it we cannot be satisfied and thankful for the things we’ve been given? Is it an insatiable desire to continually strive toward that which we lack?

At the end of class, I asked my students, “What are you guys doing this afternoon?”

“Nothing,” they replied.

Turning to Olay, I asked, “What are you doing this afternoon?”

“Nothing,” he said.

I asked Sommay.

“Nothing,” he said. They were all doing nothing.


*There is, in fact, a commercialized route inside Vietnam, but I don’t want to go into that shit just now, explaining the difference between that one and the real one, the one containing all the UXO, all over the places we said we weren’t supposed to be.

**On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, some of us fellas in the English, History and Sociology departments would close up shop about 10:30 a.m. and could be out of the locker room, laced up, and on the YMCA court by 10:45, all warmed up and ready to go for the first game.

We’d leave the court at about 1 p.m., shower, and be back in the office by 1:30, 1:45 p.m. at the latest, for any 2 p.m. mandatory office hours appointment we may have scheduled. Nothing before 2. No pressing student need before basketball. No committee meetings before 3 p.m. Class at 4 p.m., no problem. Class at 1 p.m., right after lunch? Harrrgrrrrrrrrrrr. Some days, you have to ‘wing it,’ without notes, wet hair.

‘Let’s see…where did we leave off, last time?’

Kristin, sitting in the front row, working on a 4.0, flips through her notes. She’ll have it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Distant Mysterious Land


Luang Prabang, Laos - I would like to bring you to this place, this mysterious place and people where and to whom I was drawn four decades past when I first saw their mountain jungle homes built upon stilts.

It was a ‘diplomatic mission’ deep into the mountains, delivering a mystery man in civilian clothes with a mysterious manila envelope to whom appeared to be the village chief, a tiny and mysterious man with painted face and crossbow, standing with a group of other tiny men with painted faces and crossbows.

To an awe-struck kid from Indiana, turned frightened helicopter medic, as awe stricken as the village children gaping fearfully at the mysterious helicopter and its frightening giant occupants, I thought to some day return for a longer stay and a closer look at this mysterious land.

I would like to bring you to this place, to a riverside restaurant on the Mekong, where we could sit and talk for hours, dreamily passing the time over beer Lao and your favorite meal, in this, the land of a million elephants.


No Known Liar

More than one reader expressed dismay that a previous entry, The High Wire Act, was a fabrication. Just for clarification, I previously explained the difference between an outright liar and a tale-teller, remember?

A known and outright liar, like Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Carl Rove, Dick Cheney, and many other politicians and public servants, lies to avoid punishment or a perceived threat to their ego, telling the truth only after conviction and pre-sentencing, or maybe on their deathbeds.

A tale-teller, on the other hand, with absolutely nothing to lose but the attention of their audience, embellishes the facts or makes up new facts up purely for entertainment. As Bro Tom says, “That’s what he would’ve said if he would’ve said it.” I’m a tale-teller.

None of this shit is true, including this statement. Two negatives make a positive, right? Does a compounded lie make the truth?

Well, some of it is true. The degree of difference (between the truth and a lie) is the same as being detained in study hall or sent to the principal’s office.

The emails are true. That’s me. All this other stuff is lies, written by that Other Guy……Your Honor.

Could it be that this is all made up, written from my freezing-ass trailer on the rez, creating an illusion of being somewhere on the beaches of Thailand or the jungles of northern Laos? Riverside restaurants on the Mekong? Suuure. In your dreams. Take me with you, Casper, to Fantasy Land with Peter Pan.

The Mekong is so far away, you cannot get farther from home without leaving the planet.


Pig Now Have Leg Injury

I finally learned what all the squealing was about, as a dozen hogs were off-loaded from a long boat and driven up here where there is a break in the seawall for access down the embankment to the river.

Animal rights people in another country would have a conniption fit. They tie a front and back leg of the hog together, then suspend the animal by his ankles from a scale and a long shaft of bamboo hefted between two men so the pig can be weighed, an apparent exhausting ordeal for the pig, being ‘hog-tied.’

One of them was limping severely from the stress and his struggling against the three men it took to tie him. Pigs’ legs are ill-designed for doing ‘the splits.’

From there, it is a short time before he hits the wok, and then your plate, as the famous Lao sausage.


No Fatalities in Downed Airliner

After the forced ditch-landing on the Hudson River in which all 155 passengers emerged safely, news reports quickly noted there were no fatalities. That is, of course, complete indifference to, and discounting the Canadian goose, or indeterminate flock of birds that were sucked into the aircraft’s turbine engines.


Too Soun (Too loud, too much sound)

After those two Chinese women in the lower room stayed up, loudly yackety-yacking away until way after midnight (for the Chinese New Year), with all the windows open, I thought this morning at 5:30 a.m. as I rose to feed the monks, “I wonder if they can hear me dragging this dresser across the floor.”

As a Thai friend in the south said of my neighbor’s big motorcycle, “Too soun.”


Just Walking

Now able to walk and chew gum at the same time, although I wouldn’t recommend it.

For some unknown reason, a four-inch I-Beam was left protruding three inches above the pavement in the middle of the sidewalk, neither cut off flush nor ground down even with the pavement, its edges smoothe and blackened from innumerable stumbles and curses, leaving injured pedestrian traffic to only angrily wonder why.

Better to pay attention. Better to pay attention to just walking, the length of each step, the weight upon the heels, the constriction of the Achilles tendon, the shift of spinal alignment and balance of first one foot and then the other, like a toddler learning its first tentative steps, assiduous, shaky, training the anatomy and wiring the neural system for a lifetime of pedestrian travel.

Just walking, attending to the leg extension, the hamstrings stretching, the compression upon the knees, the transit of the pelvis and rotation of the hip sockets, the degree of swing of the arms, the verticality of the neck and head, the attitude of the shoulders, the lightness of the heart.

Just walking.


Happy to Walk

Don’t know about you, but there are three things my knees cannot tolerate anymore; jumping jacks, full court basketball, and a woman in her thirties.

I took a long walk today to the big sand bar that reaches out into the river down before the bend, some three miles downstream from my sunset perch atop the wall.

They had built a long levee out to the sand bar, where an endless string of dump trucks lined up for two large front-loaders working a huge pit of clean Mekong sand. A dozen small boys swam in a chest-deep pool at the end of the levee, throwing mud balls that stuck on one another's skin, and two men dug for mussels upstream in ankle-deep water.

This was the shallow side of the river, about two miles across at this point, and all boat traffic hugged deeper water near the far shore. I walked out onto the exposed riverbed, looking for a special stone for you. You could easily come get it yourself, but since I was already here, I thought I would save you the trouble.

I found three suitable stones for gifts, threw two of them back in the river, and placed the third stone on a stupa at Wat Thatluang on the way home, thinking that place to be more appropriate than my luggage or you, later at mid-summer. A scarf or a silver lighter case from Laos would be more fun than a rock, anyway, would it not?

From the river bed, I climbed the long inclined ramp up from the river as the trucks, loaded down with twenty tons of sand, groaned and ground their way up the ramp in first gear. Just prior to sunset and after the last of the trucks, the loader came up the ramp, and as it passed behind where I sat near the top of the ramp, making the turn for the final thirty yards of hill, I had to turn and glance back out of the corner of my eye to make certain something freaky didn’t happen, like the brakes and engine compression simultaneously giving out just at that point, and having a 50-ton machine roll backward and crush me beneath its massive wheels.

You know that blind spot, directly behind you? I just had to look and check, just like at the sweat lodge fire when Jonathon walked behind me, stark naked with an axe after ingesting an ounce of mushrooms. Given his scrambled state of mind at the time, I just had to turn my head and keep my eyes on the dude, you know what I mean? Like that monstrous front-loader, it’s a goose bumps kind of a thing.

This pig-to-market must be a daily occurrence along the river. A shallow boat off-loaded four people with three pigs. As they reached the top of the ramp, I looked down at a make-believe watch and said, “I wondered when you guys were going to make it,” a comment ignored by the pig-driving party, and which I would have ignored, too, and I speak the language.

So I asked them how much for one pig. Eighty dollar. No wonder they were all smiling. That big black one should bring a hundred.


Same Same, But Different

Contrary to popular belief, after having their heads shaved and all wearing the same saffron robe outfits, my monk students do not all look alike.

After three weeks of class, I asked them their names today, having previously only gotten those of Olay and his roommate, Sino (C-No); Kamvone, Sompha, Sonetouy, Bounkhong, Sommay, and Somyod, but I still can’t tell which monk is which monk. With their heads shaved, and in those robes, they all look alike.


Between Look and Stare

They asked me what was the difference between ‘look’ and ‘stare’, which I explained as, “A ‘look’ is like a glance, but a ‘stare’ is like, ‘look too long’, like, you can look at a woman, but you cannot stare. I can, but you cannot.”

They all laughted heartily, and being monks, knew exactly what I was talking about, especially when the tall, dark haired girl from Kazakhstan, dressed entirely in white and toting a big camera, ascended the stairs and entered the temple compound. “This is a stare,” I said.

Using one of the lines we had been working on, I said to her, “Excuse me, but where are you from?”

“Kazakhstan,” she replied. “Do you know where it is?”

“Yes,” I said, telling the students to do a quick Google Earth search. “Your neighbors are Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, and Armenia.”

“Armenia is…not close,” she said. “It is near Russia. Have you ever been to Central Asia?”

“No,” I replied, urging my students to engage her in conversation, which they seemed reluctant to do, all their faces glowing red.

She took a few photos after asking permission, then I shot one of her sitting with the monks, which they were all quite happy to do, and then she left.

After again explaining the difference between a look and a stare, I left the computer with the students and told them I’d return in two hours when the battery was dead.

“Where are you going?” they asked.

“Kazakhst…er…I’m going to…I’m going to…I’m going to see you guys later.”


It’s Too Hot, Bro

At sun dance, you’ve seen those guys who make a ‘front porch’ on their sage crown, thereby affording an eyeshade, bearing small resemblance to the bill of a cap. To avoid the blistering sun, I’ve been meaning to ask our sponsor and lead dancer, Bro Tom, if it would be okay to design a kind of a baseball cap out of sage for some of us bros who are hair challenged on top of our heads.

I’m sure he would say okay, since he’s pretty creative with the eye shade, himself. Then from a sage baseball cap, it would be a small step to weave a sage Mexican sombrero. Be the only guy out there dancing in full shade.


Hey Misty. Tell Bo I’m laying here wide-ass awake at 2:30 a.m., trying to remember what he told me not to forget.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Writing On The Wall


Luang Prabang, Laos – Somebody said the water never comes up this high, way up here on the seawall, three dozen meters above the water’s edge. But then downriver just last year, Vientiane flooded for the first time in recorded history.

All up and down the Mekong, the water and its banks indicate two phases marking the high and low season, carving out a steep, sandy, semi-permanent ten or fifteen-foot embankment. Then, at least right around here, everything goes sharply uphill to the top of Mt. Phousi, and the temple.

You could also say everything proceeds down from Mt. Phousi to the Mekong. All the water, all the gutters, everything is flowing to the river. All the side streets slope upward, and the major horizontal thoroughfares carved out of the mountain in successive stages. A massive grid of narrow interconnecting brick alleyways connects all of it.

Dense jungle vegetation exists everywhere, with tall, ancient trees with huge roots, giving the distinct impression that civilization literally hacked out a tenuous, albeit three millennia existence here. I can only identify the coconut palms, but right here there are several dozen of species of trees and bushes. There is plastic everywhere. Is it up to me to pick it up?


Aqualung on the Seawall*

Seven middle schoolgirls on five bikes stop on their way home from school to gather fruit from one of the trees near the seawall, three of the girls unabashedly climb the tree in their traditional skirts, up into the upper branches to shake the tree. Their friends on the ground scurry to gather the small sour fruits like children after taffy thrown from a parade float.

They approach to ask my name, laugh, ask where I’m from, and see what I’m doing, hovering around the computer and staring as I write, leaning on me and making me feel uncomfortable to the extreme. I was forced to quit writing and sit up, just so they’d back off a little bit.

Any place in the U.S. of America, there would be a couple of police squad cars arriving shortly. Someone is going to drop that dime and make the simple cell phone call, complicating someone’s life immensely. Those things are going to happen in a predatory society.

Rip-offs, scams and predators, from park bench and internet to back street and Wall Street. Everybody is devouring someone else, a sort of weird Dracula thing going on, in a figurative sense, of course.

These girls however, shy as they generally are, are amazingly fearless of the world, inquisitive, and talkative, even though only one of them could speak fractured English, laughing and trying to spit out the only English she knew, trying to communicate, serving as interpreter for the others.

They left on their bicycles, looking back and waving as they rode down the street.


Go Head, It’s Your Call

It’s a first-person story, filled with ‘I’s. Sorry. What can you do?

I forgot to tell you about the ATM keys. While in Vientiane, upon a visit to the ATM (‘All The Money’) machine early one morning, to my amazement, someone had carelessly left a large ring of keys lying on top of the ATM, still stuck in the ATM’s padlock.

‘This is highly irregular,’ I thought, then took the keys and lock into the adjacent bank lobby, and without saying a word, held them up in the air for several workers there to look up, recognize in astonishment, then thank me effusively in embarrassment for returning them.

It was only when later, thinking, ‘You…stupid…ignorant fool. You could have cleaned out the ATM, there in that small enclosure and nobody would have known. You could have had the BMW, the boat, that dream vacation to Kyrgyzstan, and maybe even a castle in the woods painting by Gracie Tyndall.’

I thought to request a stranger…anyone…to come along and ‘please kick me squarely in the ass, wouldja?’ but before such a person should appear, thought again. Yeah, the whole robbery would be captured on video. Sure.

They would see my eyes growing wide, then wider, then a big-ass smile cross my face…then the eyes narrowing as the plot hatched, then the paranoid looking-around to make sure there was no one watching as I removed all the cash from the ATM and stuffed it into my shoulder bag. It would make a good comedy routine.

The man in the video would little resemble the passport photo during the subsequent investigation, interrogation, and imprisonment, probably involving lower echelon members of the US diplomatic staff.

I can just see the guy taking the call...“Did what? Broke into an ATM machine as a sign from God?”…and there would be a mountain of explaining to do, not to mention the paperwork. Who knows when I would see the light of day. I would probably miss the sun dance.

Better to sometimes follow your initial instincts. One of the people in the bank told me I would gain enormous merit for my deed, and told me to have a lucky day. As I left, I glanced down at the withdrawal receipt, smiled, folded it, and placed it in my wallet.

The ‘key man’, or whomever, for his negligence, would no doubt receive an ass-chewing, a loss of face in public, or a major embarrassment at the very least, leaving me only to speculate if I would receive his thanks or curses.


Lao Fowl

This morning the roosters here say, ‘Cock-a-dooder-doo.’


For A Small Child

They gave me a bicycle upon which it was meant to cruise around town. The bikes here are all the old French style from the 1920s; the thin, sit upright, basket and jingle bell on the handlebar style like you see in France, Belgium, Amsterdam, and England, with everyone upright and proper, with a proper seat, although the trekking groups have mountain bikes.

You think I could get one of those? Not a chance. They are ten dollars a day, although you could find a better deal. The other kind, they’ll give you for free. Unfortunately, they are not built for Americans or anybody over five feet tall.

“Go head.”

Even though I knew I couldn’t ride it already, I got on the thing and it felt like the handlebars were about six inches apart and way down there, with my knees up around my ears, trying to pedal the damn thing. It felt like a child’s toy, an itty bitty Christmas present toy for a pre-schooler, something you would see a clown riding around on in a circus ring.

“You got training wheels come with this?”

For some strange reason, a Frenchman with a scarf can look perfectly normal riding such a bike, but an American looks absolutely ridiculous, even with the seat all the way up.


Lao Foul

On the court, when they jump to try to block your shot, they hit you in the chest.


Monk Can Watch DVD

Can you imagine renouncing the world? All my saffron-robed friends over at the temple have. Can you imagine never having that beer, that delightful weekend, that piece of ass, and getting laid ever thereafter, never having danced or played any sport, giving up everything sensual and of the flesh, including most of your favorite foods? I’ll have to ask if those guys have to renounce the appreciation of art.

That is the internal and cerebral life they live over at the temple, although Olay asked me to bring Rambo IV tomorrow, if I could. There are phrases we use in practice:

‘Can the monK haVE music?’

‘Yes, monks can haVE music.’

‘The monk can watCH DEE VEE DEEs.’

‘The monk cannoTTT watCH woman.’

At the end of class, they’re starting to say, ‘See you llrater.’

Of course, they don’t renounce art. Their temples are full of it. Can you imagine renouncing the world? Can you imagine not having lived the life you’ve lived? Maybe you can. It would probably require being born in another place and time, under different stars.


I wonder what draws people to this place, Laos in general, but to this particular spot, this wall, in particular.

There are few who come here to this small wooded area for the sunset, like Bochol with dual citizenship from Oman and somewhere else, he said, although I suspected he was from somewhere else originally, like the west, faking the Arabian Peninsula style. He stuck out here; and Fiona from Ireland, the two of them toting a couple big Beer Laos. We talked for just a little while.

Fiona was an elementary teacher from Canada who was taking a year off, and stayed quiet, Bochol, a scientist, he said, a whale-watcher, I gathered from what he said about whales, had pretty much been everywhere and done everything. And knew everything, too, for a guy in his late twenties. Even gave me an unsolicited photography lesson. Those kind of people are hard to find. You may know some, too, like, ‘Can I…hang out…with you, dude?’

I’m just poking a little fun here. He was an okay guy. You know what I mean.


The guy who owns the cow that was tethered to a tree, came and got it, and some photographers appeared down below on the river to shoot the sunset. Another group of Lao stood at the water’s edge while one of the women stepped out into the river, squatted and relieved herself, with the men, maybe family, standing around looking pretty relaxed.

I asked a Thai friend one time about the little hoses in all the toilets throughout SE Asia, and learned they are for washing one’s self afterward, which I already knew. Upon further inquiry, I learned that you then dry yourself with a little shake and dance, and leave it go at that.

“What do you use?” she asked.

“We use toilet paper.” I said.

“DRY paper???” she asked, incredulously.

Down on the right, up top here where there are bushes, and Lao men come over here to relieve themselves, facilitated by enormous washed out tree roots running laterally and forming perfect sitting areas.

Kids come here to get coconuts and those little sour apples, and motorbike riders will pull over here to pee and use their cell phones. People seem to be too busy to sit here and watch the river go by or catch the sunset.

Not everybody is ‘on holiday’, I know. Neither am I. I’m working right now. I’m working on a UXO story.

Deeper into the city, a dozen blocks from the river at the only place I thought to stop for dinner, a place down off the street with open deck seating over a green stagnant swamp, there was a woman at the far end folding napkins with her back to me, talking to herself and never noticed my arrival.

The smell and insect situation didn’t appear as appealing as the low lighting-over-the-water-dining promised from the street, so I departed abruptly and left without notice, not necessarily because I didn’t want to be discovered, which would have caused her to instantly leap from her seat, but rather because her conversation seemed so serious.


On the way home I strolled through a children’s nightly carnival in an open field with kiddie rides, huge inflated balloon slides, and games of chance, bumper cars, CD and trinket vendors, sweets, and music blaring with a loud bass boom, boom, boom, going on down toward the end. A place for kids.

Down on the end, dozens of older boys played soccer on three different fields, a huge open space. A lady passed by on a motorbike with her infant wearing a red elephant hat with the trunk turned upward.

On the cooler mornings you see mothers on motorbikes or carrying their little Lao infants wearing such headgear, cloth animal hats with little ears of pigs, bears, and rabbits, the kids as cute as buttons. I like to greet them in Lao and English, and welcome them to planet Earth.


* I keep calling it a ‘seawall’. Technically, it’s not a sea wall. It’s a floodwall, a low, stone wall with a nice concrete cap for sitting, tree-lined and full of restaurants across from guesthouses, already told you, running the full length of Luang Prabang, along both the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers.

First, people said the river never rose to the seawall, but then on another day, some guys told me it rose right up to the wall, and down on the north end of town, the Nam Khan flooded main street.


From The Foot of Phousi

The Nam Khan is quieter than here on the strip, the main street, running parallel and two blocks up from the river, but not much. You could probably check it out on Google Earth.

There is still open space over on the south end of town, whereas here, everything is already eaten up in a solid mass of temple grounds, private wooden traditional Lao style homes, French colonial private homes and government buildings, Lao traditional handicraft shops, travel agents, restaurants, hotels, guesthouses, and more shops.

That’s what makes up this place, or any tourist destination. The people..the land…the feel of the place.

Today I told the young French coffeeshop owner, the guy with the wifi, “Your friend…the guy who works here said, ‘It’s a challenge to stay in Luang Prabang.”

He laughed and replied, “It’s a challenge to leave Luang Prabang.”

I’m sitting high above the street on an elevated neglected brick-lined…whaddaycallit?..courtyard…at the base of Mt. Phousi, twenty steps above the street, right across from a temple and the national museum. There is a low concrete flower pot holding just dirt, running the length of wall here, sloping steeply to an eight- foot wall running the length of a city block.

The Phousi Temple is at the top, three hundred more steps. I think I told you five hundred, earlier. Sorry. There are monks living higher up on the…it FEELS like five hundred…monks living higher up on the grounds, and vendors selling flowers, incense, and caged birds to the relatively few tourists willing to make the climb.

The grounds here are huge. It’s a mountain. The next street to the east is way the hell over on the other side of town. It’s like that at all the temples. Back in the day, when they were built, they claimed huge land space, and being the ancient imperial capital, you’ve got the palace, now the national museum just across the street, and the whole city that grew up around their king, temples, and schools.

At night, the street below is lined on both sides with vendors, but now, there is daytime traffic, and up here, those three girls, ten years old, WOULD NOT leave until I made a purchase from all three of them.

Trinkets, key chains and bracelets. In general, you can get a better deal from the kids, who will sell at no profit, just to make the sale. If you bargain hard enough, you can discover what they paid for it, despite them telling you they’re giving you this price because you are you.

Then there’s the profit margin. Then there is the ‘going rate’. Then there’s the ‘farang rate,’ as opposed to the Lao rate. Then there’s the sucker, and the ‘I’m-taking-the-rest-of-the-day-off’ rate.

Olay, walking home from school with his buddies, stopped when I greeted him, came up the steps, and made arrangements for class time this afternoon, convincing me we need to work on ‘R’s today; and these four kids right now, two boys and two girls, little kids, asking for a cookie. They speak no English whatsoever and descend over the wall, sliding back down to the street and their two mothers, all 'street people,' all of them looking pretty poor.

Then there’s this crazy guy, and Digger and Bryan know who I’m talking about, the guy who’ll just stand in from of you with both hands open, nodding and smiling, and just refuses to leave, making a ‘C’mon…c’mon,’ motion with his hands.

He went down the street earlier, wearing a coolie hat and a dirty pakama, a man’s wrap-around skirt, and flip flops, carrying a sledge hammer and occasionally striking the street. He stopped on the corner, grabbed himself and masturbated for of a couple women tourists passing by, then went on down the street.

A short while later, he returned with a couple of short scythe blades, from the knife lady down there on the corner, making horizontal chopping motions like beetle pinchers as he went up the block, begging from anyone who would meet his gaze or inadvertently encounter him by chance during their walk.

Two days ago he was wearing brand new fatigue pants, a new green shirt, and green pith helmet. Another day, a green trench coat and a white construction hat. After seeing the same behavior over several years, it appears it’s not an act. I’m confident in saying he’s clinically mad.

There are many couples here, young and old alike, many of them carrying guide books and maps, staying a few days.

What did the guy, Bochol, say? “Yeahhh, man. I’m moving around the region. Thought I’d swing through El Pee Gee (‘LPG’, Air America, CIA, and ultracool traveler code for Luang Prabang) for a few days.”


Later To Be Known As Ham

My God! Some people, a goat and a pig off-loaded from a long houseboat, and were led down the riverbank, up the trail to the street, and down the street to the restaurants, where they will soon no doubt meet their end.

The pig, being prodded, was protesting mightily every step of the way, just scaaa-reaming, like, ‘They’re killing me! They’re killing me!’ pitching a pure bitch, and making everybody look. Not a tantrum, no. This was pure, all-out SCREAMING. I can still hear him, and they’re two blocks away. I’ll bet they cut his throat as soon as they get there.

Gleaming through a bank of scattered clouds, the sun slips behind a crest in the far mountain. A half dozen men play soccer down at the shallow shore, their bamboo goal posts stuck in the sand.

Far upriver on the opposite shore, the ferry has let off a group of people, making their way up the ramp and street to a small village, mostly hidden by jungle. The pig is still screaming. Out on the shaded river, a solitary fisherman floats with the slow shore current in his small boat.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Where We Were Not

Where We Were Not

Luang Prabang, Laos - Suppose you were born in another place, another time. Or a place like India, a culture rich with ascetic holy men, where men live beyond the confines that bind most of humanity, where the phenomenal is commonplace, and anything is possible.

Being raised in the middle of America, we didn’t hear that much about ascended masters. That was something a person had to go looking for in somebody’s manual, from another philosophy, from another time.

You are where I am not, and you’re not where I am. From your life, your shoes, your family, your genes, internal life and locality, it is amazing we can even communicate, but for a common language and consensual perception of the world we call reality.

Whose reality is it? Some people close to me say they have The Truth. One person’s refraction is another’s full spectrum.

We are so different, even within the same household, a lineage, a sibling, a twin, a clone, each living within a universal construct of their ego’s design. When we say this is this and that is that, is it, really?

So, everybody’s different. Big deal. We already knew that. Each one of us is where everybody else isn’t. No two things can occupy the same space in time. That’s simple physics. So what?

I don’t know. We’re in different worlds, is all. When I started out, it was going to be about writing tips; you know, discretely and generally speaking, so as not to offend any one person, because one of the common…things…I see in people’s writing is the lack of paragraph breaks, like this right now, not that they’re not good writers with their own expressive way, but like now, jamming it all together in a ongoing flow, which is ok, not taking a breath, writing like you talk, not to mess with your style, but they said whenever possible, look for a way to break up the paragraph, thereby avoiding undue strain on the reader’s tiring eyes and attention…period. like, right there would have been, could’ve been a good place to finally end it, but it continued. See what I mean? Back in seminary school, they said, taking in written material is like eating food. It is best consumed and digested in small bites. You see? My journalistic mentors Martin and Breen told me to go back through the graph and look for ways to break it up. Makes it easier to consume. Think of ‘poor reader,’ they said. Writing is nothing more than transmitting an idea. The easier, the better.

“We didn’t do so well on our English grammar exam,” said one of the monk students as we loaded ‘Troy’ into the laptop in Olay’s room, drawing nine monks for evening English class, all their sandals just outside the door.

“Don’t feel bad,” I told him. “I didn’t, either.”

There weren’t any conditions set on viewing the movie, such as, you’ve got to perform well on your English exam, so we went ahead and watched it after re-capping some of our earlier material.

At one point, during the conjugation of a verb, Olay asked, “Is that the future perfect?”

“Yes,” I told him, my head beginning to swim. Then remembering I shouldn’t lie to a monk, I added, “I think so. I’m not chuah.”

Tonight they perfected, ‘How long have you lived in Luang Prabang?’ rolling all the ‘L’s, correctly making a ‘V’, and enunciating the ‘D’. And ‘English language,’ almost, neary impossiber. ‘Near LEE.’ They can easily say, ‘Bruce Lee.’ I don’t get it.

They can all say, ‘Go head,’ (go ahead) which is funny. Perfectly. They’re delightful, and tonight I asked if the main monk, the senior monk, the abbot?..would object to our watching a movie based on American involvement…‘inVOLVEment’…in Somalia. It would be a lot of shooting, with guns. Would it be a problem?

“The abbot sometimes watches war movies,” said Olay.

Ok, then! “What about your dreams, and your meditation? Would it bother your practice?” I asked.

“We think about good when we meditate,” he answered.

Ok, then! Tomorrow we’re going to watch Black Hawk Down. Oh boy.

English language, Thai subtitles.


Don’t Mess With My Style

It didn’t happen too frequently, but sometimes during the first day of writing classes, particularly creative writing, a student would ask, ‘You’re not going to make me change my style, are you?’

In some ways, that is among the funniest things I have ever heard in my life.

Incomplete, run-on sentence, don’t worry about it. It’s not vague in the cliff notes. Your style? Just go head and be yourself.


In ‘Tropic Thunder’:

“It’s just like in the script. You guys read the script, didn’t you?”

“What’s with the books, scripts? Spit that shit out, man!”


Your Lucky Stars

As luck, coincidence, guardian angels or fortunate birth would have it, I’m staying just around the corner from an internet café and coffee shop. They have one of two free wifi spots in all of Luang Prabang, thereby making it incredibly convenient for me to drink coffee and access the web every day. After being in the backwoods for decades, Luang Prabang is finally up to speed with tourist expectations.

The temple where we have evening English classes is just across the street, the old man Oh-ee player is just down the street from the guesthouse, and the river is a block away. How much easier can it get?

On top of it all, the no. 1 basketball player in the country lives next door, and as a basketball junkie/fiend for 52 years, sometimes I just have to go out under the stars at night, look up, and say, ‘Thank you.’ And as often as possible to the setting sun.

It seems sometimes the universe is set against you, striking against the grain, swimming against the tide, spitting into the wind, and other times, it seems like you’re right where you should be, going with the flow.

And so I was shocked to see a bewildering notice in my email box today, asking, ‘Victor, are you haunted by a past life?’

Well, honestly, I don’t know. ‘Haunt’ is a pretty scary word, already. Sometimes I think yes, and sometimes I think no. How is a person to know? Those guys across the street at the saffron institute say we’ve been around many times before.

If you want the full past life reading, you need to send these folks, these mystics…seers…Linda down in Ft. Lauderdale…thirty dollars, and she’ll give you the whole schmeer.

But if you submit just a little info, like your birthday, place and time, she’ll give you the cliff notes edition of your sample past-life reading. So I did that.

Reading come back saying some shit like, ‘THE REASON PEOPLE DON’T LIKE YOU…’ is because the moon was some kinda way with Saturn when you were born, and ‘THE REASON WHY YOU FEEL LIKE THE RUG HAS BEEN PULLED OUT FROM UNDER YOU…’ is because in a past life, you shit on people and wasted your talents, or was greedy, or never lived up to your potential, giving the reading a certain ring of familiarity to my high school teachers, and sending me into a dazed depressive funk, much like leaving the career counselor’s office after being told I wasn’t college material, and that maybe I could find happiness in a factory or the Vietnam war.

I only want good news from now on, ok? Just send me the positive astrological forecast, and let it go at that. The negative shit, the haunted past lives, they can keep to themselves. I don’t need haunted stars on my plate right now.

And you could say, he’s looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, or too high, or not seeing it in balance, or only wants the good news, or denial, or head in the sand, the clouds, or whatever. I can live with that. People can say whatever they like.

But still, it was a bit disturbing, and I couldn’t let go of it right away. What if it wasn’t just an anonymous computer-generated readout? What if it was true?

CHRIST! How do you work that shit off? It’s like Tom Cook on the rez, with guys telling him, “Hey Bro, if you can give me a couple hundred dollars today, I can give you some hours next week.”

I mean, how much merit do you need to build up to undo a karmic tangle? Jesus or the pope don’t even deal with it. Splish, splash, you’re forgiven. Sun dancers, either. You go straight to the spirit world unfettered. Ain’t said nothing about no past lives, hell, or karma. But just in case, like insurance, maybe it would be a good idea to teach English over at the temple.

“You guys know computers, right?” I asked a group of nine monks and novices piled three deep in a saffron pyramid on two bunks in their austere quarters. To my astonishment, they all shook their heads no.

Transfixed by the screen, none of them seemed bothered when I told them we were borrowing…stealing…the wifi signal from the internet café across the street from the temple for our computer class.


Turn It Down

In the coffee shop, there was this girl from Germany, on ‘Skype’ I think it was, having a delightfully wonderful excited bubbly conversation with several of her friends back home, wearing earphones and shouting into her webcam and computer, oblivious to her volume, and making her private conversation everybody’s business. You could hear her across the street.

I could hear her from upstairs, where I had removed because her loudness was such an annoyance. Should I be disturbed by such things, or just sit there annoyed and not say or do anything about it?

In almost any situation you have three options; do nothing, change the other person, or remove yourself from the situation, and/or change yourself. That’s four.

And a couple of days ago down behind the baguette sandwich vendors , where chickens rein freely, there was this guy in a red baseball cap from Philadelphia, telling me about his Vietnam experience, and working for the CIA, and how he and Gen. Alexander Haig were tight buddies. The story was interesting, but the man was shouting.

“When you’re loud in this country,” I told him softly, “you attract attention to yourself. The Lao are pretty quiet people.”

The pointed suggestion didn’t phase him. He kept on talking loud enough for people, the vendors, tourists, and others within a fifty-foot range, to look up at the loud-ass American man-in-a-bubble, spouting his impressive, self-important shit that wasn’t making a lot of sense to me, because for one, it was too much a flood of vague information coming at once, and for two, it was too loud.

“Then, how does all that fit into working for the CIA?” I asked.

“Well, I didn’t really work for the CIA. The agency offered me a job since I had all those weapons skills, but I…”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I backed away from the man as he continued his public barking. He had an elevated shoe on his left foot, telling me a round had blown away a couple inches of his femur, so part of the story must have been true. But who cares? If he had been a bit quieter, I could have been a better listener.


Slow to Know

Sometimes I’m slow to catch the drift. I know that. Sometimes I’ll be the very last person to know what the hell is going on, even when I’m an involved party. It’s just like Manny said, clueless. Like my official title designation on the rez, ‘Policy Analyst’.

What that means is, they ask me what I think after they have already made the decisions.

That can happen in life. I’ve heard, “I’ve decided,” and, “We’ve decided,” after the fact often enough to feel like a non-entity, a marginalized non-related element to anybody’s plan, an inconsideration, an afterthought at best. As we tease on the reservation, ‘You’re on this job only from the neck down.’

Some things can be foreseen, foretold in a dream, a warning from crows and owls, a premonition of a figurative unavoidable train coming down the track, an approaching comet from the Oort Belt or debris field of past lives. And then at other times, you are but an actor, playing a role in a plot beyond your control, written into the script.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Worse Than Violin


Luang Prabang, Laos - What could be worse than listening to someone trying to learn how to play the violin? You can probably think of many things worse, but for music, only the Oh-ee,* the two-stringed instrument of Laos, could sound worse, which even when it is played by an accomplished player, sounds raw and screechy.

Therefore, seeing as how the old lady next door is sick, I’ve limited my five-minute practice to around the noon hour, when she’s up from her mid-morning nap, before her mid-afternoon nap, and all the other guests are out of the house and on the street.

Last night after English class and leaving the temple grounds, just across the street at the Indochina restaurant, the old man Oh-ee player was coincidentally leaving, having wrapped up his evening performance for a German tour group, flocking after dinner in a confused cluster onto the street, blocking the entrance to the restaurant while trying to determine collectively which direction to proceed.

Upon invitation, the old man sat down for strong mud-like Lao coffee, and we sat for an hour, sharing spicy Lao salad and a pizza, while he talked the entire time, telling me…I’m not sure…something about his kids, I think, counting on his fingers and showing me four, pointing to one of the waitresses, who I took to be his daughter, his mistress, or maybe he was offering her to me, but I didn’t think so, something about his connection to the girl.

In fact, I didn’t understand a damn thing he said in an hour of conversation, not because he was talking too fast, which he was, but more so because I don’t understand Lao. I just kept nodding my head.

Upon leaving the restaurant, he motioned for me to follow him to his son’s house, where a group of six sat huddled under florescent lighting around a bottle of Johnnie Walker black which they insisted I share with them while the old man played his Oh-ee, surrounded by his three grandchildren.

Afterward, he walked his bicycle to the guesthouse, his Oh-ee in the bicycle basket, then said goodnight.

I’ve just about used up my visa here, having almost fully recovered from a month in Thailand. It is cold here in the mornings, and later in the afternoon when the sun slips behind the mountains, and many people such as me have come here without sufficient mountain weather attire. Fleece and hooded sweatshirts are a popular item at the night market, and in the mornings you see frosty and shivering Europeans sitting over coffee at the cafés.

I don’t know what I was thinking, heading north to the mountains from the tropical beaches of south Thailand. I had packed proper tennis shoes from the USA, then removed them, considering them too heavy and unnecessary. Size 12? 13? ‘No hab. Ha. Ha. No hab.’ They always laugh when they tell me that.

I mean, who would have guessed there would be a pick up basketball game in Luang Prabang? Lao don’t even play basketball, do they? They’re only…this tall. Noi says she’s too short for UConn or Tennessee or the WNBA, laughing when I suggested it. Could the best women’s player in all of Laos hang on the court with the likes of Cynthia Parker?


“What is there to do here?” asked the two girls from Norway, just arrived.

“Well, at night, there’s the night market, right here on the street,” I told them. “And in the day you can go upriver to the Buddha caves or downriver to the waterfall, and that’s about it. And the temples.”

Indeed, that IS about all there is to do here, unless you just want to kick back and just be here. The young Frenchman who owns the internet coffee shop says the best time to be here is during the off-season, when all the tourists return home and things are quiet.

It’s the same in any tourist-oriented town or economy. There’s peak season, and then there’s the rest of the year, two totally different atmospheres. The same holds true in Estes Park, Colorado, and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota.

In Estes Park, the ‘Gateway to the Rockies’, people close up their souvenir shops for the winter, and on the rez, we try to keep from freezing or going suicidal, just being there.

Maybe I should just speak for myself, but hey, c’mon. Pine Ridge in January? February?

I tell people the truth. I have to leave, for my physical and mental health. The rez is good for spirit. In the summer time.

Out on the restaurant lower balcony, lower than the street, but on stilts high above the river.

People sing here all the time. Softly to themselves, but out loud. Even the men. They laugh when you catch them, especially if you mimic holding a microphone and say, ‘Sing A Song’, their phrase for karaoke. Or if you put your hand over your heart, and sing, “I love you too mush.” Then they really laugh.

All the songs are the same. She’s in love, and her boyfriend has gone off to a foreign country, and she’s lovesick. She will die a slow death until he returns, because she loves him too much.

Nevva mind she’s only fourteen years old. He loves her too much.

Nevva mind he’s in prison, a stalking pedophile predator. She lub him too muuuuch. She will wait for him…if he gives her father some chickens and an ox; then buys her a bunch of new clothes, some jewelry, a motorbike, a car, a van, a house, and sets her up in business, her dream restaurant and a travel agency, and takes care of her family. Otherwise, she will leave him for someone who will. After all that, since everything is in her name, he can go. Unless, of course, she lub him too much.

That may sound cynical. It’s not like that here. Yet. I’m talking about Thailand.

And that’s why single adult retired western males are natural targets for taxi drivers and karaoke bar girl whores. We have a neon sign blinking, “Pick on me. I’m a sucker.”

“Helloooooooooo Mistahhhhh.”

I shouldn’t say that. It’s not that bad. Well……yes it is. It’s worse than Oh-ee practice.


*picture a coconut on the end of a stick, and a couple of strings. It’s more sophisticated than that, of course, with a bridge, tuning pins, and snakeskin drumhead on a short, 3-inch diameter cylindrical wooden tube, or a coconut.

You hold it upright on your upper thigh with the mouth facing outward, holding the neck about two thirds up along your palm, between your thumb and index finger, so that you can use four fingers on the strings to change the…pitch? The sound.

You saw across the two strings with the bow, same same violin bow, but the strings are inside the two strings of the Oh-ee (they call it that because of the sound it makes…or ‘Oh-oh’), thus producing four possible notes. In and out on one string, and same same on the other, making an AWWWWWWW AWWWWWWWW kind of sound.

It’s horrible when listening to someone who doesn’t know the first thing about playing it, like any instrument, huh, but it’s beautiful when played by an accomplished musician, especially in accompaniment with other players, making up an ‘Oh-ee section’ with other Lao instruments.

I should be…can I somehow transfer audio files to?…sure. Sure you can. You can transfer anything. It occurred to me when that Dane popped up, shooting the pre-sunset-over- the-river perspective I earlier described to you, then headed out to climb Mt. Phousi for the actual sunset after quickly giving me his blog address, that maybe I should be shooting photos and posting them on this blog. I am a photographer, after all. Used to be. Coulda been. Coulda been somebody if I’d stayed with it.

A teacher would be required to run me through the procedure, the mechanics of…you know…going to the store, buying a digital…something…a phone?...a camera?...a digital SLR?...some kinda robot? And then they’d have to talk me through it, getting the pichers to you.

Same with audio.

Then I could be sort of ‘up to speed’, as they say. The note to my parents often read, ‘is not performing up to potential.’

A flower blossom just fell from this tree and landed on the keyboard. I’m sitting on the roots, those long, thin, tall jungle roots that almost make it look like this thing’s alive.

Three kids show up. One of them goes shinnying up a thirty-foot coconut tree and drops a couple coconuts, hugging the tree and taking two breaks before reaching the branches.

A boat pulls up, offloading two squealing pigs, a lady in a conical hat with two baskets balanced on a shoulder stick, and a dozen bundles of firewood that five guys make two trips to bring up the embankment to an awaiting cyclo-taxi.

These are common sights. Mia, on her first trip, cried out, pointing, “Look! Coolies!” at a half dozen people working a rice field. Lookitdat. Lookitdat. That’s why all these folks are shooting photos. I would rather bring you here with words.

-the real end, and I do mean it, this time.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mumbles And Whispers


Luang Prabang, Laos – It is clearly evident as sandy as it is, the Mekong riverbank is not the best place for a computer, but I had to get away from those pesky kids who want to come up and stand over my shoulder while I’m trying to work.

It’s too much like ‘the boss is watching,’ making concentration and production impossible. Creativity grinds to a halt, and English teacher takes over. The laptop is like a magnet to them, like moths to a candle flame, they approach and wish to speak English.

Eight boys and girls in uniform, on three motorbikes and one bicycle, all riding double, cruising down the street and laughing, the boy’s motorbikes settling in on a pace with the girls’ bicycle as they maintain their joking conversation down the street. School just let out.

Four girls roll by, the motorbike a mule for the bicycle, pulling the four in sync, the two girls on the backs delicately holding hands, just the fingers touching, as the four ride together, laughing. Turn off the sound and it could have been a ballet.

Then this other guy who made me move down here, because he just kept standing there, right over my shoulder, after introducing himself and clearly wanting to practice his English. “Ek cuse me, but wheh ahh you fwom?”

After just a bit of conversation, I selfishly returned to my work, trying to stay with the flow, with Lao classical music on the laptop that made him smile and say he liked it. Finally, I had to move off the seawall and come down here in the sun, sandy as it is.

There. I missed a golden opportunity to help perfect the pronunciation of ‘R’. These folks are craving English teachers. Any native English speaker could do it. “That’s, ‘Bee-causszzz’ ” there is such a need, even Germans and French can teach English here.

The old people speak French, which is so surprise, given Lao history, and the young people speak English, Engggg-GLISH, the lang-GWIDGE of world commerce.

They have particular difficulty with those two words, ‘English Language,’ making faces and tongue gyrations, trying to spit it out.

As a rule, Asian people don’t stick out their tongues, nor roll them, nor enunciate the last letter or sound of a word. Thus, you hear ‘abou’, ‘becau’, ‘hou’, and so on. When you correct them, they always laugh and say it right. It’s delightful. Mrs. Jones* has to be thrilled.

The old monks aren’t interested. They speak French. It is the young monks and the novices** who desire English. They will need it in their lives, whereas the old monks see no practical need to learn at their age. I stood beside one of the old men, wearing a woolen cap on his recently shaved head, listening to the young boys hit the drum.

Since we discovered we couldn’t communicate in English, French, Thai or Lao, with the old monk speaking too fast for my comprehension, there was nothing left to do but stand there, copying his stance, his posture, his folded hands, synchronizing my breathing with his, and enjoying the drum together. He departed when the farang showed up with their cameras.


Down off the seawall

The river is different here, closer, high on a sandy embankment, a dozen yards from the water. The river is about a half mile across, flowing through here. One garden plot away, a guy is gathering his fishing net, while out on the water, a man with two young boys drift with the flow, splaying out fifty feet of net.

Eight small boats are moored in pairs along the bank, backlit by the sun, still an hour from setting over the mountains…from up here, it would make one hell of a perfect shot, something you could enlarge and hang on your wall at home, and every time you looked at it, it would take you to this place. Maybe I should get a camera.

Thank you to those who have taken time to respond to some of the stuff I spit, writing thoughtful replies. And why must a statement like that require a parenthetical or italicized preface, ‘note to reader’? Isn’t everything a note to your reader?

For the first time in my life, I visited a Lao barber today, getting a close crop jarhead #2, but he said he didn’t have a #2, showing me two different sizes in a box full of those plastic…thingamajigs…that slide onto the clippers…you know what I’m talking about.

Only Digger, who also suffered at the hands of Grandpa Glover’s barbering and tales of barbering ‘on board ship’ back during the war, could appreciate the expedient ‘in and out’ delivery of service I received today, under the comb and clippers of an old man Lao barber, leaving me looking nearly like my monk students and smelling of talcum powder.

Bring up the subject of Pop's haircuts, and Digger rolls his eyes, shakes his head and laughs. The click clack of the jammed clippers, always needing an adjustment at sometime during the cut; the snip of the scissors, the flip of the ancient comb, the feel of the camel hair brush on the back of your neck when he was FINALLY finished, handing you the mirror and asking what you thought, popping the apron and folding it, returning it and all his barbering tools to their place in a worn cardboard box.

All through those horrendously grueling twice-a-month haircuts for nineteen years, make it twenty, half asleep in the chair, I thought Holjer Headstill was a friend of his in the navy. Holjer Headstill and Holjer Headup. There were times I wanted to leap out of the seat, like at the dentist, unable to stand it anymore. Pops haircuts were good training in patience and endurance, good prep for an assault on the summit of Mt. Everest or torture interrogation.


When they said, ‘10-9, That’s first game,’ I was thinking, ‘Hey, wait a minute’…but I wasn’t keeping score, and my man, Pat, only got three…or four.

That was in the re-match game with the Canadians, three on three, against Kelsey, Kelly, and Pat. I played on Team Lao/USA, with Noi at point guard, and another girl, Meredith or whoever…Miranda…the extra Canadian, who pretty much shot every time the ball hit her hands, rarely giving it up, a ‘black hole’ on the court, firing it up despite Kelly being in her face, like a ‘fix’ was in the works to throw the game for her Canadian friends, so…and we didn’t have the boards, nor the movement, and we put up some forced shots, like, two passes and the shot is going up.

Noi, who turned out to be the MVP of Laos, the entire country, I’m just finding out, or maybe I wasn’t listening 100% the first time, knocking out teams in the national tournament from Vientiane, Savannakhet, Paxse and Champassak, carried us on her back, just nailing ‘em from the outside. Every time she’d hit, I yell, “Fill it UP, Noi!” giving them just a little taste of American ‘smack talk’ on the court, but not too much.

And sure enough, if you forced her to put the ball on the ground, which is what Kelsey did, she’d drive to the bucket and throw up some circus shit that often went in. Anyway, she’s pretty good, very good, in fact, and challenged Kelsey’s determination to shut her down. We won the second game and everybody shook hands and walked off the court, satisfied with a 1-1 draw. I couldn’t believe it.

I was thinking, ‘In America, we got to settle THIS shit!’ especially on a basketball court, but didn’t express those sentiments, remembering where I was, and graciously expressed gratitude to play with those wonderful young ball players from Canada and Laos, taking pure delight in the game.

You might be thinking, life can’t be too bad over there, teaching English to monks, and playing basketball with college girls on an outdoor court – it’s GOT to be better than alone on sub-zero Pine Ridge in January. And you’d be right, except for the pain in my knees…what do they say, ‘No pain, no gain.’? I’m not chu-ah. Not sure.


English class has continued over at the temple for whoever wants to attend. Usually it is about five or six, sometimes eights monks and novices, sitting on the beds, trying to perfect ‘Th’ ‘Wh’ and ‘Sh’, as well as ‘L’ and ‘R’.

Those guys are so soft-spoken, and converse to one another in mumbles and whispers.
I yelled out, “YES!” the other night when one of them finally got “WWWHHHHHY” right, after endlessly making a ‘Q’ sound for ‘Wh’, repeatedly saying, ‘Quai’, and I felt extremely self-conscious at my loudness in the quiet evening of the temple, covering up my mouth, but they all laughed at seeing the thrill of a teacher seeing a student finally get it right.

For the first time since my arrival two weeks ago, I finally dragged my ass out of bed to go down to the chilly, foggy street and feed the monks during their 6 a.m. procession. Somber as they are during this morning ritual, my students glanced up, made eye contact and flashed a quick smile, and one of the young novices turned and said, “P’ Yai,” my Thai/Lao name, to the kid behind him, and for that recognition and breaking of formality, I gave him an entire ginger cake.

Since I was already up, what the hell, I fed the dogs and chickens, too, since they too were already up and on the street, as well. Sweet cakes for the monks, chicken-on a-stick for the surprised dogs, and croissant crumbs for the chickens. The expectant look on those dogs faces, ‘Is there more?’ was priceless.

Remembering I was intruding upon his side street turf, one of them, that black one, had the nerve and audacity to half-bark at me as I departed.

Weird as it was, there were more farang on the street shooting digital photographs, than there were feeding the monks, and after the monks had ambled down the street, the tourists were all checking their photos, grinning at their results.


What day is it, anyway?

A long blue houseboat cruises downriver, in deep water close to the opposite bank. The sun is an hour from setting, casting a diagonal blinding glare across the water. A man wades out twenty feet from shore into chest-deep water with his fishing net, disappearing into the golden liquid light.

The other day, one of those students strangers who interrupted my writing pointed across the water, and upriver, saying, “That one is the woman mountain, and this is the man. I never see before.”

I looked over. By god, the shape of the mountain is a woman lying down, like Bear Butte looks like a bear lying down, except with two distant twin peaks as the breasts, at her feet, and yes, this one right across could be a man, like looking at a cloud and saying you see a unicorn, with the guy laying there with a long low-lying ridge extending south in a peninsula forming a bend in the river. But, as being representational, yes. All covered in jungle.

Behind this low ridge directly across the river to the south, there are a dozen hazy, gray, distant peaks, and another range behind that. Three miles downstream where the river curves are two huge blue-gray peaks, with a low row of jungle vegetation running along the river at their base.

The water is settling down, rippling, shimmering.


You want a good shot? How about nine monks and young novices huddled tightly around a laptop screen, totally engrossed in a movie, their intent faces lit by the screen.

I asked them tonight, “You guys want conversational English tonight, or would you like to watch a movie on the laptop?”

Had nine of them in Olay’s room. They said they can have computers, and watch movies, and listen to music (there was a box over there on a low table), and have liquids after noon, but no solids. Sometimes they have meat, even pork. They sit in meditation for one hour, or one-half hour periods.

They seem to be a fairly happy lot, although you can see struggle going on in some of the faces. They tease and joke around, especially to the novice kid, ‘Old Man Boy’, I call him, who isn’t as good a speaker as the others, but tries the hardest, master of ‘Excuse me, please.’

They don’t know how I respect their austerities and the life they’ve chosen. They live simply, having renounced all pleasures in the world in their effort to bring light to the world through their own effort and liberation. At least, I think so. I think that’s the way they say it works. Can an enlightened monk in a cave or in a temple ease suffering in the world? Can your prayer?


Many of you know exactly who I’m talking abou…know of whom I’m speaking. Mrs. Jones, now in heaven, taught successive generations of English students at Wabash High School in Wabash, Indiana, USA, and attended the class reunions of every single class she taught until she died at age 253.

The woman was RELENTLESS…in a good way…in her class, employing her soft-glove, you stand-corrected, loving methodology, making each and every one of us feel like we counted, calling us ‘Lambie Pies.’

**they told me a novice is a person who comes to the temple to check out the monk life. At twenty, they can become a monk. But I think some of them, like Xeno, who I thought was 24, are 17 or younger. So maybe you can take the vows at any age. They can leave at any time.

They point to the Rong Po Thuot amulet around my neck, and ask, ‘Are you Buddhist?’
Rather than explain what sun dancing is, I simply say, ‘Yes.’

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What Kind Of Mark


Luang Prabang – These stories were waiting here. You just need to get here to set them free. If you’d ask, I’d say they were in the river. Talking about this ancient city where last night I dined at the Indochina restaurant, situated prominently on a corner, the former residence of the personal physician to the king, with Luang Prabang already an empire capital for 800 years.

There was live music, seven musicians, all old men, youngest guy in his late sixties, four on Oh-ee, one on balaphone or xylophone, another man on a stringed instrument we’d call a Chinese dulcimer, and a drum. And off on the side, an old lady was playing little hand cymbals, going chinggggg…chink, chinnnng…chink, setting a slow, foot-tapping beat.

They were playing for a group of forty retired Thai teachers from the teacher’s union, all dressed in their finest, having dinner out on a trip to northern Laos. They were from Udon Thani, one of them told me, a short, chubby lady with too much makeup, who had just come off a solo performance to a Traditional Thai melody. She was a pro, and gave her colleagues a beautiful show, the arch of her hand evidencing her many years of practice.

Could her work, like Mozart’s, stand eternal? Would her dance be remembered by her children? Could her art form be appreciated by her grandchildren or those who followed, or was it just for the moment, for her aging colleagues, and me sitting off to the side, watching her slowly trace a precise line through the air with her arched hand, the other hand with thumb and index finger forming a circle, as if on a string, the disciplined and measured step, the bend of her knee in a curtsied dip, her studied grace and synchronized elegance, her beauty.

Those girls start training young, ten, eleven years old, and continue Traditional dance throughout their lives. Not all of them. Some of them turn out to be bar girl whores, trying to hook up with a farang* before they turn thirty, before that magical window of opportunity closes.

In the restaurant, the old ladies and men, too, later, got up and danced a most polished and graceful dance to one of their traditional songs. Their movements were so careful, sweet and beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. I drained the contents of the wine glass in its entirety.

The Indochina restaurant. That might sound fancy. Not really. Five bucks, and they provided a great table off to the side in the courtyard, where there was a direct view of the band, except for all the asshole photographers from another party of about twenty, a tour group, who kept coming up and obscuring the show, shooting what looked like the best they could do from that perspective, but inadvertently had me looking at the backsides of Europeans periodically throughout the performances.

There was no end to them and their recorders. I tried to focus on my food, which incidentally, wasn’t bad for eating alone. I shared the shrimp with a cat.

The waitress was particularly efficient, but cruel. A grimness that set her firmly within the human race. She too, was doing the best she could do. I made it a point not to provoke her, or to be too demanding. She appeared as though I and the other customers, were annoying to the extreme, and that she could snap at any moment.

Down on the corner of the roundabout that leads to the night market, in front of the tourist information building, there was a group of thirty teens in a circle taking turns throwin’ moves, break dancing on the concrete parking lot surface, throwing incredible moves of strength and balance like you see on TV, to Lao rap music on a small player you could barely hear for all the other noise going on.

‘Trippy,’ I thought, standing there, watching an eleven-year old spin upside down on his shoulders, his hands, the back of his neck, back to his hands, doing some wildass splits moves with his legs, then popped back to his feet and strutted off to the roar of circle. Another kid jumps out.

I saw another kid throwing himself around like that earlier on the smooth concrete surface of the pavilion basketball court, and wondered if that is what the young people in Luang Prabang were doing. Evidently, he wasn’t the only one.

This river is amazing.

Like anywhere, if you live there, you take your environment for granted, but maybe not all the time. Maybe that's an overstatement. People come from all over to see where you live. That’s why they say if you’re going to do photography, to do your shooting right after your arrival in a new place, before from your perspective, the unique becomes commonplace.

You don’t see that many Thai at the beach. You don’t see many Lao hanging out down here on the riverfront wall for sunset. After dark, you may see a few couples here and there, another small group, three or four near parked motorbikes, a face aglow from a cell phone display.

You don’t see that many Indians hanging out in the badlands.

One of you wrote back, quoting someone else, a zen philosopher, about eternal gratitude to the past, eternal service to the present, and eternal responsibility to the future. That’s a nice attitude to keep in mind, and a flow like this river. Thank you.


‘Standing meditation’, duh…that was the fourth. Standing, sitting, walking, and dreaming.


All the farang men here are wearing cargo pants. Almost all. Yeah. It’s the look, I guess, and the comfort, but all those pockets are useless, and it adds unneeded weight to your luggage. I’ve got a pair. The Lao guys wear slacks or blue jeans. The Lao women all wear the traditional black skirt with the big band of colored embroidery at the bottom. Young and old.

You see a few Lao women in blue jeans, but not many. The government has encouraged them to dress 'tradish', as we say on the rez, traditional. The farang women will fall out on the street any old kinda way, and you know it.

I watched one go down the street, thinking, ‘You ought to cover that up, honey.’ Like those European broads going topless down the beaches of Thailand, like they’re in Europe or something. They have no idea of how offensive to Thai culture that is. The Thai men, they love it, sure. The Lao taxi drivers stand in their clusters and stare. You catch them staring, and they just smile.

To go into the temples, you’ve got to cover it all up.


*This may have already been explained. A farang is any non-Asian, used like ‘Wasicu’ in Indian Country. The word derived from Asians trying to say, ‘France’, fuh-rahn-ceh, and so Frenchmen and thereafter, all Europeans and Americans and Australians and everybody white and round-eyed, are farang.

Africans are Aff-ree-kah.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Giving Up The Boat, Giving Up The River


Luang Prabang, Laos- Maybe you’ve heard me talk about my ‘To Do’ list of about a dozen items I carry around in my wallet, encouraging you to do the same, by actually taking the time to sit down, think, and write down the things you hope to accomplish in the next year, or three, or five, including your wildest dreams.

Ten years ago when out of desperation I made my first list, there were some reasonably obtainable immediate short-term objectives, some long-term goals, and some wild-ass dreams, including a winter home in Thailand, a trip to Laos, a motorcycle, and a boat.

From Pine Ridge Indian reservation, ha, it looked like pure fantasy.

Two years after making that list, I had forgotten about it, and removed it from my wallet one day for examination. I was stunned. With the exception of the boat, I had achieved every one of my goals, insignificant as they may be to someone else, but for me…the passport…the VA dental work…taking son to Africa…going to see Laos, the ‘other side of the mountain’ from Vietnam…establishing a winter home on the reservation. Even the motorcycle!

This isn’t a boast. Like everything in life, I had the help of others, but I was amazed that I had done them all, and their attainment required construction of a new universe, the creation of a new list, with ‘continue sun dancing’ at the top.

Words have power, like you already know, especially if you’ve ever had to eat them, and like it says in the Good Book, Genesis, I think…‘In the beginning, there was the Word,’and God spoke the heavens and the earth into existence, if I was paying half-attention in that frightening church that everybody said could fall down on us, but I might have been sleeping.

And like they often say in Indian Country and elsewhere, ‘You have to watch what you pray for – you just might get it.’

But please allow me to encourage you to pull your goals from the ether, the abstract, and your mind, and begin the process of actualizing them by bringing them to earth, first in written form in your purse or wallet, and then by carrying them out, right here in the real 3DWorld.

The very process of writing helps to formulate and construct your goals, or perhaps to discover that you have none. Can we go through life without any?

It’s magical! It works! See for yourself. I’m working on my fourth list, with a little carry-over, like ‘UXO story’, and scratching off a couple items that were no longer applicable, or desired, like the boat, something I had dreamed about for years.

I always thought it would be nice to own a boat, a big boat, but not too big, something I could manage by myself if I had to, big enough to live on, big enough to house three or four couples, and big enough to handle the ocean, but not too big. I see…two sails…one big one…one little one.

Not so big you’d need a crew, and not so big I couldn’t afford it. Something like fifty or sixty feet, maybe a hurricane-damaged fixer-upper insurance company write-off, something short of Noah’s Ark.

That’s what I saw as a possibility in my mind…going in and out of ports around the world, taking a evening stroll on streets in Italy, south of France, Port Au Prince, the islands, dining at fine restaurants.

And then you could sit around with a whole new group of people at dinner, with the right look about yourself, a small fish when-it-comes-to-sailing crowd, and talk yourself up, do one-upmanship, about the ports you’d entered, and the oceans you’d sailed, and the scenes and seas you’d seen, your ego swelled with pride in a self-delusional satisfaction, as good as the wine. Burying your inferiority, you’d become a member of the club.

After taking a short Andaman Sea cruise with a group of tsunami volunteers and the four-man crew who operated the sailboat and had been on the Indian Ocean for five years, I relinquished my desire to become a sailor.

First of all, it costs a fortune to purchase, and another fortune to operate. “Just like a house,” said the captain of the vessel. “Constant maintenance.”

Well, there is a reason we have legs and lungs, and not fins and gills. And can you imagine being at sea with someone you couldn’t tolerate? If not your mate, then, another member of the party.

“I’m going forward.”

“Then I’ll go aft.”

You go above, I’ll stay below. Christ. Why put yourself through something like that?

‘Well, when they left the harbor, they were…’ fill in the blank…best friends, best mates, in love, married, laughing, engaged, enraged, on their honeymoon, latent homocidal.

In an intense situation like that, a person could get to know themselves pretty quickly, if self growth is what you were after, but such is often not the case. Nooo. To the contrary. They were expecting a fun-filled two-week getaway in the Canaries.

When I asked if they occasionally put into port and take a room in a hotel, the owner simply said, “No. The boat is our home.”

That brief trip on the sea taught me one thing; maybe I didn’t need a boat, after all, and two; when you go to sea, do so with an experienced crew, and three, know your traveling companions well.

‘That Captain Ahab is getting’ on my LAST nerve.’

There’s going to be at least one asshole on board, you can bet. Maybe two. Maybe the whole fucking crew. Ever see a pirate movie?

Rong Po Thuot can protect you from a fatal accident, but he cannot protect you from your own negligence or stupidity.

And besides that, why?

Well, why not? Look at what people spend on a house! And a car. Why not a boat?

I think it was somebody on the reservation in South Dakota who asked, “Where you going to sail it, bro?”

After a long pause, I finally blurted, “In the WATER!”


Well, maybe you wouldn’t have to sail it ANYWHERE. Maybe you could park it. Say it isn’t a sailboat, going to ports all over the world. Say it’s a houseboat, parked somewhere. You could be a boat people, a boat person. You’d be boat people.

Not like refugees, but you know, like, people who live on a boat, a houseboat.


The other item on my long-term list, being transferred over from one list to the next, was a trip down the Mekong River. I envisioned getting on board somewhere on the Tibetan plateau and drifting with the flow downriver through six countries to the delta in Vietnam.

Wouldn’t that be cool? I thought so, too, but after going upriver for just a couple of hours, and after hearing people talk of their two-day trip out of Thailand to here, has caused me to re-think the whole plan. After about twenty minutes, the trip becomes terribly monotonous, even going with the flow.

The guy who made the trip and wrote a book about it, I can’t remember his name…the book was tedious, and in small print, besides, and he said the trip was, too.

Even the half-hour visa run trip across the water to Myanmar is a drag after you’ve made it twice. People say, “I’ve got a visa run tomorrow,” like it was a trip to the dentist for a wisdom tooth extraction.

Down below this riverfront restaurant, boatmen are at work with saws and planers, refurbishing a houseboat, piles of lumber at the water’s edge. Sawdust all over the place, a narrow wooden plank from the mud to the ‘gunwhale’? shit, I don’t know…to the side of the boat. Can you see it, or not?

The noise they’re making with that planer are just like the guys with the power saws across the street, and more, on up the street at three different locations, and all over town, like someone is getting ready for something. Next year, and thereafter. Whatsthis? Year of the ox.

Just downriver, on the sea wall, awaiting the sunset, following a private session and tuning of my newly purchased ‘Oh-ee’ by the old man, who told me he’d be playing at the Indo-china restaurant tonight. 12 US dollars at the antique musical instruments shop.

Well, sure, they’re probably not antiques…but they are authentic hill tribes instruments, nonetheless. I had been reluctant to purchase one on two previous trips, wondering how I was going to get it home without having it destroyed in transit.

Three fishermen in a fifteen-foot flat bottom boat drifted by and vanished for a few seconds, cutting into the laser glare reflection of a late afternoon sun hovering just above the mountains, glistening brilliantly in a diagonal streak across the water. A couple seconds later, they emerged on the other side, enveloped in a glowing corona, trailing a golden wake, my pupils white hot and constricted.

The sun drops behind the mountain.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Moon Over Mekong


Luang Prabang, Laos - The full moon was lighting up the Mekong, hazy in the cool mountain air, so bright you could easily see the short fishing boats at the bank, and shapes and outlines of houseboats moored downriver, distant lights on down there, civilization carved out of mountainous jungle.

An imposing black mass silhouette of a mountain sloping down to the river is directly across the river. The distant view to the north, and downriver and to the west are misty shades of gradations of gray, with outlines of successive mountain ridges folding into one another, reminding one of the remote inaccessibility of this city and the people here.

One of the things that was drawing me to this place was the search for the ‘Oh-ee’ player, the old man playing outside the high whitewashed wall of the national gallery. As we sat on the Mt. Phousi plaza a year ago, high above the street, he played a haunting folk melody on the two-stringed Lao instrument that I wanted to hear again.

Tonight, as I was walking home, I heard someone playing short strains and a few scattered notes, and followed the sound. I stood outside his house while he practiced for a few minutes, then played a four or five minute traditional song, a private unspoken request from a one-person audience, standing quietly out on the street.

There, Bryan. I found him.

Found the silversmiths, too. It’s like a factory down there.


Noi On The Court

It was the motivation of a rematch, after the drubbing with the Canadian team at the hands of Noi and her Lao all-girl teammates, average height about, I don’t know, five foot two?..four foot eight?...they come up to about…here…on me…they’re short.

Really short. But nonetheless, they whipped us, they said, 10-9 in the first game, and more soundly in the second. 10 and they didn’t say, something like 10-6 or 10-5, maybe 10-4. It was bad, embarrassing.

A couple days ago I suggested maybe half-court, something like 3 on 3, so today we went to a concrete court inside a big pavilion, but there were a bunch of guys there who wanted to use it for soccer, or ‘football’ to them and the rest of the world, so we went to another outdoor court…of course she would know where all the courts were…

Anyway, I just learned on the court today, shooting around, Noi, the ace Luang Prabang Women’s team point guard, turns out to be the tournament MVP, she said, probably the best woman player in all of Laos, playing against ‘the guys’ all her life, she said, cashing ‘em from behind the three point line…a couple feet behind the three point line, as I fed rebounds and shot around with her and her teammate, whose name I just never got.

My shit was rusty, rreallly rusty after two years on the comedy tour, thinking, ‘Shut down her right, overplay the right. Make her use her left hand. Don’t give her the outside shot. Make her put it on the floor and throw up that circus shit down in the paint,’ and then thinking…especially after attempting a lay up, maybe on these knees I’d better forget all about one-on-one.

The girl was phenomenal, and so was her teammate, the wing guard in a 1-2-2 offense.
She said there were six teams in the tournament They won the championship in 2005, and again this year. The tournament was just last week. She was at the top of her game. I was glad they were content with just shooting around with an old man in flip flops.


Jacques, who I ran into coincidentally for the third time, said at the streetside vegetarian buffet, where we sat together, “They (the Lao) are so simple. They don’t bother with…the…with the…”

“Philosophy,” I interjected.

“Yes, yes,” he laughed. They are not complex.”

“That’s why they’re always smiling and laughing,” I added.

“Yes!” said Jacques. “They are happy.”

I had asked Olay if he knew what was happening in Gaza, with the Israelis, and he said no.

DAMN! Someone should kick my ass off this seawall. Sat here absorbed into those last couple of graphs of dialogue, eyes affixed to the keyboard, and MISSED THE SUNSET!

It is still nice, but I wanted to catch it going down over the edge of the mountain.

Sitting on the seawall.

Many people in Asia smoke. Everybody but R.J. Renolds and Phillip Morris says it’s a problem. I met a little kid, about seven, on the bamboo bridge yesterday, and HE was smoking. I gave him hell…but in a good way…even though I had a pack in my pocket. Hypocritical, right? Sure, but he’s just a kid, and I’m old man, raised when Lucky Strikes were fine tobacco.

It was New Year’s Eve and they had a party for the staff and guests in the lobby. The husband of the wife running the place was in the lobby, firing one up. She said something to him, then turned to me shaking her head, expressing, ‘He’s a hopeless case.”

He turned, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, laughing and said, “Smoking – and drinking - It’s good for your health.”

Man, it gets quiet fast here. They roll up the streets at 8 p.m., retiring with the monks, then getting up to feed them. It’s quite simple.

You don’t need eyes in the back of your head to know what is going on behind you. You can pick it up in reflections. You can see it in the eyes of others.


It wasn’t St. Peter at the gate, but a scoundrel dog. “Do you recognize me?” he asked. “Do you remember me?”

“You sat with your plate heaped full, and I approached you pitifully, ribs showing, begging warily, uncertain of you. Would you toss me a rib bone?

“Did you ever wonder why they always said I was your best friend? I was beside you during your darkest hour, in your lowest moment. I was your best listener, your only confidant. Did you ever wonder why, in your language, that dog spelled backwards, is ‘god’? Do you remember that God can work in mysterious ways?”

“I approached you without certainty, your plate overflowing. Would you toss me a bone? Your plate overflowing. Would you shoo me away?”


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Just By Coincidence


Luang Prabang, Laos - Just by coincidence, Olay, my monk friend appeared across the street just as I was leaving my dinner table last night, magically materializing just as he had the previous day, just by coincidence, as I was leaving the coffee shop, and yet again as he coincidentally had last night, standing at the top of the temple stairs with a group of fellow monks, awaiting an evening English lesson. Nobody set any times for these encounters.

“I was just thinking about you,” I said, crossing the market intersection.

Today is a Buddhist holiday, and they will all have their heads shaved. “How will I be able to recognize you?” I asked as we sat on concrete benches around a concrete table, and they all laughed. At the end of our class, I asked them if they liked life at the temple, and the said they did.

In this city, there are 48 temples, putting a distinctive imprint, the Buddha’s if you will,* upon the city and its atmosphere, and putting a lot of monks out on the street. Monks are everywhere. The place is thick with them.

Luang Prabang is a city with a rich and deep spiritual tradition, sitting here on the Mekong, nestled within the mountains carved out by the river. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and I have been here several times, and never brought a camera.

As a photographer, as everybody in the world with a cell phone these days is…as a photographer for forty years, it is wonderful to capture an image and share it with others as a visual art or memory, but sometimes you go into places such as here and the rez, and it’s best to leave the cameras at home.

Learning to capture an image through a viewfinder, reducing three dimensions to two, can foster paying attention to the world, but it can also be reductive and constrictive in a way of viewing the world.

Whereas the photo is an opportunity to seize a moment in time, it can also hamper one’s ability to fully experience that moment in its entirety, making instead the photographer the captive, seized by the image.

I stopped carrying cameras, as a daily habit, about fifteen years ago, maybe going on twenty. They can be terribly intrusive, and sometimes serve to impede, rather than aid communication and perception, seeing the world through a viewfinder.

You’ll just have to capture that sunset in your mind. Like, really pay attention to all that is there, fully engaged and absorbed by the moment in time.

At the New Year’s fireworks in Vientiane, which is a big show, given that it is the nation’s capital, and the birth of gunpowder is just up the street, dozens of people with a grand view from a second floor balcony across the street stood, arms extended with cell phone cameras, transmitting the dazzling show to families in the sticks, while I stood empty handed, engrossed with awe.


I’m sitting here on a low seawall running the length of the riverfront, overlooking the river. Except for this and a few other open stretches of one hundred yards, the parallel street is full of riverside restaurants on stilts, across from mostly guesthouses, and a few personal properties, a few vacant lots, and a few lots of rubble. There are boatmen selling tours up and down the river in small boats, longer covered boats with deck seating, and big houseboats.

On the street, dozens of vendors sell oranges on the ground in large quantities, their scales right there. A man had a truckload of goats he was trying to sell. Tuk tuks seem to have blossomed a hundred-fold in two years. Mini van shuttles to the airport work from dawn until arrivals of the last flights of the day, then return to the hotels and guesthouses.

I’m amazed at how tourism has swamped this place. UNESCO declared the entire city a heritage site, thus all the new construction everywhere, in a distinctively traditional Lao, but sadly repetitious architectural boredom. They’ve been fully booked for weeks. Solid with tourists. People are making their money while they can, because there’s a low season, as well, for sure.

A guy just made arrangements for personal tutoring tomorrow at five, and four young Lao, two guys and two girls, about, oh, sixteen, are sitting just here to my right, talking and laughing. They’ve all got bicycles.

There’s trash and plastic strewn around, leading downhill to a pole bean patch, and on down to the river and a half dozen flat bottom fishing boats, about twelve feet long. I should find out what these guys catch.

There’s six Lao men in a twenty-foot boat with a large basket puttering by, downstream, close to the shore. I should ask these kids…they don’t speak English.

A Frenchman, an old one, like the one who sat across from me at the intersection buffet, would tell a different story. “I was here twenty years ago, and it’s not the same. I don’t like the cit-tie any more,” he said. You can hear his French accent.

“Nothing is the same as it was twenty years ago,” I responded. “You’re not the same man you were twenty years ago. Want to arm wrestle?”

We all had a good laugh, him and the two from New York, just outside the city, they said, sitting just at the next table. She had to know everything, and quickly told her story, their story, while he pretty much just sat there with his arms folded across his chest, and let her do the talking. Most of it.

He did, engage the Frenchman, however. They had been to France a couple of times, and enjoyed excitedly talking about a shared familiarity and the cities he knew. Butofcourse.

Wow. Those kids, law students, they said, just left, after a very limited conversation. They used what little English they knew, and what little Thai I know to tell me the fishermen are catching little fish. And the one who approached me, stood here over my shoulder during the composition of the last two graphs, then his friends came over.

They are studying basic conversational English, no doubt from a Lao teacher, using the same Lao/English grammar book that I told Olay he should throw away. I took one look at it, and it already gave me a headache.

“Learn to communicate first,” I suggested, then add reading and writing, and then the complex rules of grammar.” Maybe that’s not right, but it seems like it, at street level.

How about you? Did you find joy in grammar class?

Like one of my last classes, at Digger’s suggestion, I employed art, and Mickey Mouse stickers for completion of a simple assignment, using conversational English. That’s what they wanted. ‘How can I communicate with the farang?’

‘Where are you from? How long will you stay? Where are you going? What is your name?’And enunciation, mostly.


Baby Balance

The reason you never see Asian people in motorbike accidents is because they’ve been riding them all their lives.

You see the mom or dad, driving one-handed with the baby in their lap in a one-armed hug, baby can’t even hold its head up yet. Trying, but cannot.

From there, they go to sitting on the seat itself, in front of the parent, between the parent’s knees, and then, learning to stand on the frame and grasp the mirrors as soon as they are old enough to stand, but still unable to walk.

As soon as they can hold on without falling off, about the time they are walking, they sit behind the parent, tightly grasping the parent’s clothing, and from there, they go to riding to school with three other bigger kids, and from there, to driving the bike itself. So, by the time they gain control of the bike, they’ve already had a lifetime in the saddle.



Just by coincidence, I ran into the Frenchman, Jacques, last night, where the 78 year-old man was in an animated conversation with one of the Lao staff there. I just wanted to sit riverside, watch a full moon come up, and for reason to be there, ordered a beer Lao I didn’t want and took a seat at one of the tables.

Jacques broke off his conversation, approached, and we both said, “I had dinner with you last night.”

For the next hour, and I finally had to break it off because I needed to go find a place to piss, I listened to Jacques pretty much berate America for over-consumption, pollution, producing worthless consumer products, pursuing a war for control of oil, torture, and general debasement of water and the environment.

I wanted to have a smoke, too, but he was against that, too.

Yeah, at one point it seemed his criticism of my country was a bit over the top, and during a pause I softly asked, “Jacques, where did they develop the internal combustion engine?” y’know, just to put the breaks on a runaway train, but I couldn’t really argue with him, for two reasons; one, because what he was saying was true; and two, I couldn’t knock him out because after all, he was a 78-year old man.

I just sat there, listening, mostly, although he was a good listener as well, and two thirds of the way through one of those Beer Lao bigs, I had to excuse myself for the evening. To his credit, he was concerned primarily about the environment, and what kind of earth we are leaving to our grandchildren.


I’m sitting in the dirt, just above a washout, ten feet above the Nam Khan River, just upriver from its intersection with the Mekong, the junction of which is the foundation for this ancient city. I’m on the far side, having paid the nickel to cross the bamboo footbridge. The two New Yorkers said it was a worthwhile trip.

Four kids came running down the embankment, terraced with private plots of corn and greens, leading right down to the water. One of them could say ‘Hello, how are you?’ grinning, shaking my hand. Today is the second day of the Buddhist holiday, of which there are four a month, following lunar cycles, so there’s no sa-kool, no school.

Sitting here along the footpath, I’m almost in their way. Two, then three fishermen came through here, each grinning a greeting, and I had to make sure my big feet weren’t in the way. Yeah…there’s a washout RIGHT HERE…but these guys in their flip-flops are as sure-footed as mountain goats.

A five-man crew, using only long bamboo poles for steering, just floated by in a rudderless 60 ft. flat bottom boat, carrying three Lao passengers, one of the men wearing a green pith helmet, going with the flow. They’re going to hit big water, right around the bend. There is a fisherman just below me, bailing water from his short boat. He said something to them as they floated by. He grins and we exchange greetings as he comes up the footpath. I’m making sure my big feet aren’t in the way.

Regular flights roar in and out of the airstrip, cascading a wave of momentarily overwhelming twin-turboprop noise. Lao Airlines. You can be from the airport and at your accommodations in ten minutes, maybe five. All kinds of Air America and Royal Lao Air Force guys crashed into these mountains back in the day, where the fog doesn’t lift until ten, sometimes noon, sometimes not at all, some days. This is peak season. The place is packed with farang. Blue skies.

You really have to resist not buying a beautiful hand-woven scarf for a sun dance sister for five bucks, especially if you’re the first customer of the day and they’d sell it for four.


Went over to the wat last night at the invitation of Olay, who said he’d be playing the drum at 4 pm, first watching the bigger boys hitting the drum at the adjacent wat, Huongxieng, which is right there on the same grounds, then over at wat That Noy where Olay and some of my English class were hitting the big booming drum, sending the sound out over the city, each novice taking a turn until their arms could no longer keep up the beat. Some of them could switch hands, hitting the drum twice on a downswing, and a light brush stroke on the upswing, accompanied by a guy standing there playing large hand cymbals, keeping the beat.

Afterward, we met for an hour of class, just talking mostly, but stopping them on their pronunciation, getting them to use what they knew, and to continue to develop their vocabulary, like two of them already were, like the quiet guy, intellectual type, who has mastered ‘R’, and showed me his incredible list of words, many of which we were using.

The young boys had only been at the wat for two or three months, the older guys, two, three, four years. I encouraged the older guys to encourage the younger guys, in their English development, and life, like big brother.

I enjoy being English teacher with monk. Those guys are amazing in their discipline, open hearts, and clarity.

“Any luck? Any luck today? Chok dee wan ni mai?”

Just now, those two fishermen came up the embankment, grinning and showing me their catch of small silver river fish, in a small woven basket with a conical lid. There you have it. Little fish.


*One of several Bhuddas footprints, atop Mt. Phousi temple, overlooking the city. More like, on the way up…or way down. I think there’s more than one, like, his relics are said to be in stupas everywhere. In any case, there’s some promotion about it…’see Bhudda’s footprint.’ I checked it out, and…gee, it’s anybody’s guess…like looking at a cloud and saying, ‘I see an eagle.’

I asked the Lao guy, a tour guide I think, with a farang customer, sitting here at the restaurant where I’m now editing the above essay, a tour guide I think, with a farang, “Buddha didn’t climb Mt. Phousi, did he?” and he just laughed.