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.’