Thursday, January 08, 2009

Laptop My Companion


Luang Prabang, Laos - Big moon on the Mekong tonight. Big, wide, silent water.

Thanks, Tom. Thank you again, bro, for this machine. I asked why he gave it to me, and he said, “To get the tools in the field. To keep people working.” Here, it has been my constant good friend to take along on this trip.

One of my fears, and I’ve tried to extinguish them one by one, is running out of ideas, running out of things to say, losing one’s purpose, running out of a care to communicate with loved ones, my friends and family, like Hunter Thompson, sucking on…what was it…a .45 caliber round?...making certain he’d do the job, one evening when that realization hit him. What is a writer who no longer writes, an artist who doesn’t produce, a teacher who doesn’t teach, a plumber who doesn’t plumb?

Well, you go into something else, like real estate.

Or maybe take night courses to become somebody else.

I presented a night course up at the temple tonight, being invited into the room of one of the monks, drawing his two roommates and three others for a 90 minute English lesson. They had an erasable board, which they quickly cleaned of its notes, but not before I read, ‘I don’t know why I am attracted to her’, scrawled at the bottom in English. I read it aloud and said, “OHHH?” and they laughed. Monk cannot have girlfriend, from what they say.

We focused on conversational English phrases and consonant enunciation, of ‘Ch’, ‘H’, ‘L’, ‘R’, the neary impossible, “Excuse me, please,” and ‘Th’, on which we spent an inordinate amount of time, and to which they had a peculiar resistance. They don’t want to stick their tongues out. They are however, remarkably singularly focused, as opposed to multi-tasking, for which we in the west pride ourselves in being able to perform multiple chores half-assed.

“THE…,” I said. “We use ‘THE’ all THE time. THE Chair, THE book, THE monk…this, these, those, that, them, there..thank you…fa-ther, mo-ther, bro-ther, sis…no…nevva mind…o-ther.”

Except for one young kid, the ‘old man/boy’, who was absorbed in a book he was flipping through, they were rapt and eager, sitting forward on the beds and floor in their barren, gray, and dispiriting, to me, environment, try to wrap their tongues around ‘Alive’ and ‘Around’.

There were three of them living in an elevated, wooden 12x12 ft. space. A few pictures on the walls. Not much else.

Earlier in the day, until the battery gave out, a dozen of them were huddled around this raptop under a large shade tree at the temple after their noon and last meal of the day, watching Chinese taekondo on You Tube while I stretched in the sun bouncing off the whitewashed walls of That Noy temple.

“I don’t know much about computers,” said Olay, working the touch pad.

“You just have to get on it,” I replied, walking away. “If you need help, go to, ‘help’, another word they cannot say. ‘May I hair-up you, prease.’ They needed hair-up with pronunciation.

One of his buddies coached over his shoulder, talking in Lao, instructing him on what to do. They checked their email and did some surfing, then when the battery went flat, they sat there looking at the black screen until I closed it up. It was funny.

“Why do you need locks on the doors?” I asked as I headed out tonight.

“Because sometime we have teef,” said Olay.

“You have thief in the temple?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yes,” he said.

“Thief monk?”

“No,” he replied. “Sometime Lao people come and steal from monk.”


To get anywhere, they would need repetition and multiple lessons, as everybody knows who has ever tried to grasp a second language. They were effusive in their thanks, as was I, expressing the belief of giving what you have to others, and thanked them for the opportunity to do so. What is a teacher if you have no students?


Walking in Flip-flops

You see many Asian people walking with that same taxi-driver walk, that boatman walk, that everyperson walk, and it’s because of their footwear.

Flip-flops have no heels, and so that’s lowering everything and shifting your center of gravity, and your pelvis, and your spine and your shoulders and your neck and head. In essence, you’re not who you used to be.

And just who was that? Well, that was the guy walking around in cowboy boots or heavyass work boots or enclosed leather wingtips, or the woman wearing any kind of heels.

On the beach, in flip-flops, you become somebody else.


They’ve got no smoking all over the place here at the guesthouse, because the owner is a doctor and her daughter is the ace women’s basketball player, right? Noi, the Team Lao gold medalist who kicked Canadian ass on the court the other day.

I just sneaked my first cigarette in the bathroom, only because there is a direct fan venting to the outside, and at this hour, I don’t want to disturb the other guests by going through two creaky doors.


Haven’t said much about the Lao people, though I’ve described their two major cities. The Lao are probably among the friendliest and most peaceful people on earth. If you observe their interactions, even if you don’t understand what they’re saying, you can tell it’s mostly joking and teasing around. They are always laughing with one another.

There are do doubt friendly people in other remote places as well, like Ecuador, and Bolivia, and Lukens Lake, Indiana, and Tennessee, and San Francisco, too, but the absence of stress, irritability, and anger is apparent in these folk that Digger once described, ‘they’re like little kids.’

You don’t hear raised voices, you don’t hear angry words, and you seldom hear babies crying. Tonight I heard a baby crying at the night market, and it caught my attention, the mother rocking and talking to it soothingly, glancing up, catching my eye.

Maybe it’s the temples, and Buddha, because they eat meat. Too much pork. Even the doctor agreed. Noodles and pork. This is not to say they haven’t had their fights. They fought with Siam back in the day, the 14th century, losing the emerald Buddha, and Myanmar, too, way back.

More recently, forty years ago, the Pathet Lao fought against the royal government, backed surreptitiously by the U.S. and a few aligned hill tribes, infiltrated by the CIA in a diplomatic farce that supposedly held the country neutral during our neighboring war in Vietnam. We pounded the hell out of Laos, saturating the country north to south with B52 carpet bombing and agent orange along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Hey, didn’t want to go there (bringing Vietnam into the story), but that’s what happened. They (the U.S. gov’t) just kept it from the public.

Since they, the PDR, the People’s Democratic Republic took over in 1975, it was tight and restrictive for awhile, then they (they still have the red star on a green background, and a yellow hammer and sickle on a red field hanging around) loosened up to capitalism and have been playing catch up to their Asian neighbors ever since. A sign said, ‘We can provide what you have expect.’

You know what I expect? I’d like to see an account balance on a receipt from an ATM.
Sorry. No hab.

Chinese communists to the north. Military dictatorship in Myanmar to the west. Vietnamese communists to the east, Post-Pol Pot Khmer Rouge Cambodian communists and a free Democratic Thailand underneath, although the government there is in perpetual upheaval, messing up Bryan’s and a whole lot of other people’s Christmas holiday plans by closing down the airport and toppling the Prime Minister.

So it’s more of a landlocked situation here, more than being backward. The Mekong has determined the country’s lifeline, with all the major cities situated along it. And what can you say? The river runs slowly.

At night, the people sit around and drink Lao beer, and the men play petanque…we call it ‘bocce ball’ in the west, using iron balls, throwing an underhand backspin toss toward a small target ball, or knocking the opponent’s ball away. Over at the wat at night, you can see a few young novice monks, whisking around in the shadows, moving between the living quarters.

The people are openly friendly, but shy, slowly embracing the west, more reserved than their Thai cousins. You don’t see open prostitution, although the taxi drivers here and Vientiane will offer ladies, ganja and opium. They roll up the streets at 8 p.m. with a few farang and Lao sitting around quietly drinking in coffee shops and restaurants. No karaoke that I’ve seen. It gets quiet after nine o’clock, and really quiet at this hour. As quiet as the river.