Am I a Writer?

Time will tell. Note: Quite often, I write about people I know. If any of you object to anything I have written, let me know and I will remove it.

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Wannabe. Living in Vientiane, Laos. Has blog to avoid sending lengthy emails.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Red & Gold

Living in limbo does have its advantages. All the serious things are on hold for the moment, while I concentrate on settling in. Yes, still in that phase. It’s autumn here, the limbo season, my birthday season, half cool, half freezing. Nothing seems permanent.

Every morning I walk 5 kms around my neighbourhood - the neighbourhood I grew up in – and get my head ready for the day. I see the eye-popping red and gold trees, and think again, nothing is permanent.

Because it isn’t. This feeling of displacement won’t last, and I’ve decided to cancel out regrets for good.

I took these photos a couple of weeks ago in the stage right before the leaves started turning crispy and falling onto patchy lawns. Autumn in Canberra is pretty spectacular – it’s a shame it will be over by the time the Island arrives. The air is crisp and clear, and there are hot air balloons sailing over the city almost every morning. Can you imagine?

As you probably can imagine, moments of happiness in Canberra are quite different to those in Vientiane. I realised this the other day when driving to work in the car I bought recently off my friend’s girlfriend for $1500. The heater was starting to warm my freezing toes and I switched over to Triple J to see whether those breakfast idiots had shut up for long enough to actually play a song. The new Death Cab For Cutie single was playing, the day was new and I had no idea what was coming up. Happiness.

Despite my nightly calls and relatively frequent updates, Vientiane and the newspaper and Ban Saphanthong and Judy and the V Shop and Sunset Bar and ping pha could not be further away- they could’ve happened last century. There’s just nothing around here that triggers any spontaneous memories, and as I said last time, I’ve been carefully avoiding photos and music. I did stop for a surreal moment to marvel last week at the fact that a year ago I was walking around Luang Prabang soaked to the skin, and this year I was sitting in court with a notebook and it's chilly outside.

To counteract this apparently deliberate forgetfulness a bit, I wrote a feature last week for tomorrow’s paper about what it was like in the Vientiane newsroom – something that’s been kicking around in my head for ages, and I finally managed to get it all on the page. Much harder than I thought it would be, writing a personal account, rather than something sourced from what's happening right in front of me.

I’ve been at The Canberra Times for a month now, and most of the day is spent covering the courts’ daily menu of assault, theft, drink-driving, rape, incest, murder and negligence. It’s endlessly interesting and a bit depressing – many Canberrans would have no idea what really goes on in this town unless they spent a day in the Magistrates Court.

But I’ve also written on such varied subjects as Gallipoli, ACT club policies, the rights of security workers, pre-nuptial agreements, patent law, the need for a female governor-general (someone obviously listened), a fistula hospital in Ethiopia, petrol prices, airport security and the competitiveness of Australian grocers, among other things.

The best thing about it is that you get the work finished, and it’s over. By definition, a newspaper story can’t be left for the next day – you just have to do it, and when you go home, it’s done. Worries rarely carry over to the next day, and you can see the results of your work on the page the next morning. I’ve made mistakes, some of then bad, but they’re mostly forgotten after a day or two. Gosh how this job suits me…

My 29th birthday came and went without much comment. I got a dress, a rice cooker, flowers, a necklace, an American Apparel sweater. Posh dinner with the three of my friends who were in town at Chairman & Yip, one of the Canberra institutions that was absolutely cutting edge in, like, 1995, and hadn’t changed its menu since. It has stood the test of time, though. Pretty different from my last birthday in Vientiane, although it too involved dinner.

I’m sorry to say I haven’t been going out much at all, and not necessarily by choice. Just not that many people are around, and I’m trying so hard to save some cash. But I’m really willing to put my social life on hold for the moment if it means, like, developing my inner life and stuff. New restaurants and bars open in Canberra on an almost weekly basis, and I have friends here who define their whole existence by which ones they’ve been to. I mean really.

But staying in has meant renewing my relationship with ABC, which is great- so educational. And The Bill’s on tonight- orright sarge?

I also came across a couple of very heavy boxes under the house recently, containing about 500 CDs- my beloved music collection, begun when I was 15. The joy!

So, picture me walking along to old tunes, working late, cursing modern life and watching Australian Story on Monday nights. All is right with the world...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Thoughts about the 'Berra

This post is dedicated to Jackie Chan. Yes, that’s right, the international superstar, and I’d like to draw your attention to the front page of yesterday’s Canberra Times which had a story all about Jackie, who was back in town to bury his dad. Yes, that’s right, back in town to bury his dad. Irrefutable proof that he did in fact used to live here.

My friend Nicola, who is also in Canberra now, says that I can easily outdo her in the Bountiful Supplies of Useless Information Stakes. And yet when I know I’m right, I’m cruelly mocked. You know who you are…Cait.

This post is most certainly not dedicated to the guys at Customs in Melbourne airport, who confiscated the whacky clock someone at Vientiane Times had given me as a farewell gift. It was a clock with seeds and beans in it, and they took it away! They did, though, let me take a photo of the back of it, where Pong, the entertainment reporter, had drawn a picture of me - wearing a sinh and with my motorbike!

And I will give a special shout out to those individuals - you know who youse are - who participated in my 'classy' last Saturday night in Vientiane- the crowning glory in that fortnight of Last Times (last Khao Piak Khao at Judy, last beer at Sunset Bar, last massage etc). And when I say 'classy', what I really mean is 'absinthe'. Say no more?

The new daily grind
So here I am back in Canberra. It’s all going well. The weather is great, the trees are changing colour, and work in the courtroom is a breeze, as I find I already know half the lawyers and prosecutors from law school. The Island will be here soon, and enough of my friends are still around to give me some semblance of a social life. I’ve been blessed with the glory of a weekly pay-check (weekly!), and pulling out all my old clothes that I didn’t take to Vientiane is like having a whole new wardrobe. I’m still working my way through all the great DVDs I brought back, and it’s all pretty good living rent-free at my parents’ house for the moment.

But every time I think about Vientiane I get all negative, and find I’m still having difficulties. With many things, but mainly the general inconvenience of living in a developed country. All these 'road rules' stink, and I’m really not inclined to go out if I have to pay more than $5 for a drink (ha!). Also, I just don’t get why the shops all close at 5.30pm here. When am I supposed to buy stuff? Or go to the post office? Or the bank? In my lunch break? I don’t think so. And when my external hard drive broke last week with all my photos on it, I really did half expect the guys at Harvey Norman to just shrug and take to it with a screwdriver, and return it later semi-fixed. You know, like they would have in Laos. But no, it's busted, gone, and there's 'nothing they can do'. Pathetic.

I can’t seem to listen to much music, either, because everything takes me back to Ban Saphanthong, in that overwhelming rush that only comes from music. Or look at any photos, for obvious reasons.

Plus, I’m just not interested in any food that isn’t, at the very least, Asian-inspired. Which isn’t such a problem I guess; I have recently rediscovered the delights of the Asian Noodle House, which has just opened a city branch. It’s run by a Lao family, and I certainly don’t hesitate to engage all the staff members in conversation in their native language, ignoring the fact that the restaurant is packed and they’re completely run off their feet. Because, see, it’s all about me these days.

These days…Well these days I’m spending at least half my days in the ACT Magistrates Court reporting on rapists, murderers and paedophiles (of which Canberra really does seem to have a disproportionately high number), while studiously ignoring how well dressed all the young female lawyers are. There’s some serious competition between them, I can tell. In fact, girls in offices everywhere are trying to outdo each other in the fashion stakes - it's probably all that gets them through the day, really.

Well, I shall rise above it. True Colours have done me proud with my classic work wardrobe. I don’t care if that prosecutor who’s usually on Tuesday mornings has an $800 suit from Saba. I’m too good for those kinds of insecurities...

Anyway, so I guess things have changed. I’ve changed, certainly – my whole personality has changed. I realised this the other day when I found myself screaming “Faaaaaark!” outside the court after waiting with other journalists and photographers in the freezing cold for 40 minutes only to discover the dude we were waiting to photograph (a teacher who’d been busted feeling up a student) had slipped out the side door.

Also, these words coming out of my mouth in yesterday’s exclusive interview with Paralympic world biking champion Michael Milton (appearing on Australian Story tonight): “So Michael, you’ve successfully battled cancer twice now. What is it that drives you? Is it courage,...or fear?”

I’ll leave you to ponder that, and perhaps to mourn the Sarrie you once knew…kidding! You all know I’m nothing if not a consummate professional! I’m just doing my job!

Bye for now…

Monday, February 04, 2008

Another jolly tale that I think personifies Lao culture.

Like most people living here, our house is on a dirt lane off a main road. A few weeks ago, some of our neighbours dug up part of the track to lay pipes. Then they resealed it all up, with clay. This seemed perfectly fine all the time, but now there’re snowstorms in China, the bad weather has filtered down to Laos so that it has been raining non-stop, and very unseasonably, for the past three days. And do you know what happens when clay and water meet? A huge, impassable sludgy mess that snags bike tyres and suctions your feet right into it like quicksand, that’s what. The first time I attempted to use the road, the clay effects were completely unexpected, and I got completely stuck. The guards at the barracks stood and laughed at me, like they’d been doing to every other poor unsuspecting sod that morning, and finally came out to help me. It took them about half an hour to lug my bike out of the mud, and it was so clogged up it wouldn’t start. They had to take it up to the ex-president’s house and hose it down, while I went into the barracks to clean all the mud off my clothes and feet and legs and hands and bag, crying tears of embarrassment and fury (but so much that I didn’t completely take in my surroundings – I’ve always wanted to see what that house was like inside. There are about 30 guards living there, and some have wives and kids. It was dark and dank and made completely of concrete inside. Depressing, and I know for a fact they would get paid next to nothing.)
Anyway. I’ve since accepted that until the rain stops, I can’t ride my motorbike, but instead have to pick my way through the mud and get a tuk tuk at the other end. That’s all fine – the rain is forecast to stop tomorrow or the next day. No, my boiling, almost uncontrollable rage stems from the fact that, even though several cars have been bogged and most people living along the lane can just barely get their motorbikes through the last 100 metres of road, and despite the fact that clay mud adheres to everything it touches in large wet chunks and that it’s just getting worse with every passing day, no one has done or said anything about it. I’ve made grumpy comments to several people I’ve passed on the treacherous journey to the main road, and all I’ve got is the usual smile and shrug.
This is what it’s all about. Bad or annoying or inconvenient things happen and Lao people, much like Catholics, simply accept it as their lot. They could easily fix it; the original road is still visible under the churned up layer of wet mud, and it would be relatively easy to just shovel it all off while it’s still wet, or lay down a truckload of gravel. But no - everyone will just put up with it, because that’s the Lao way.
I’ve since found out that families responsible ‘ran out’ of money once they’d laid the pipes, and that a truckload of pebbles will cost 800,000 kip (about US$80 – really not that much given that the majority of the people on our lane are comparatively wealthy, and drive SUVs).
Paying for it ourselves could be seen in two ways. The first would be as a gesture of goodwill, simple thanks for being good neighbours, keeping us safe and un-burgled and always ready, like most Lao people, with a smile, so that you never feel lonely. That would be nice, wouldn’t it, to say thanks? The other way, however, would involve perpetuating the problem I’ve just outlined. That is, that something bad happens and people here wait for someone (usually foreigners) to come and fix it for them. Dilemma or what?

“A bead and a shoe”
Going away and coming back reminds you of what it means to be fashion victim.
One thing I forgot to talk about in my last post was how bewildered I was at the way people were dressed in Sydney and Melbourne. Actually, I felt the same way the first time I went back, in 2006, but that was more to do with the fact that everyone was dressed the same, and I realised that, being a fashion-conscious type, I must have looked the same as everyone else as well. And I felt a bit stupid, because actually I thought everyone looked pretty lame. Anyway, sorry if I sound hopelessly behind and out of touch, but I alarmed to understand that this year, it’s all about high-waisted everything – jeans, hotpants, skirts. I was appalled. (The Island, of course, was relatively sanguine about it all, but like I said, nothing much fazed him except for the birds and the obesity crisis.) But I spent a lot of time in a haze of confusion; everyone was walking around looking like their own grandfathers! I mean really.
My own rule of thumb is that I refuse to wear something that I would never have dreamt of wearing a year ago (bubble skirts, smocks, maxi-dresses, ponchos, leggings, etc), because it would usually mean that I wouldn’t end up wearing it the following year either. (Thus, I’ve embraced the currently in-vogue vaguely maternity-style top because a) I’ve always liked the way it looks and b) it’s very Bangkok.)
On New Year’s Eve in Sydney, I was almost more taken up with some of the ridiculous outfits than the bands. I saw large, tall girls in too-small vintage dresses and weird dancing shoes, and others in skirts that went to just below their boobs - looks that don’t look good on anyone. Sure, people can wear what they want, but if you’re going to so much effort in, why not choose something that at least suits you?
“When did every single boy decide that skinny jeans with baggy crotch was the way to go?” I wondered aloud. “Like, last year,” Brooke answered.
When Brooke and I used to go out on the town in our early twenties, it was all about cool sweaters and designer sneakers. In theory, I still favour that look – so low maintenance. Of course, I’d graduated to pointy shoes, skinny jeans and boots once I moved to Melbourne, but it’s definitely dropped a notch since I’ve been in Asia; jeans or shorts, some funky top from the Bangkok markets, and, if the night is special, what my housemate Cait and I call “a bead and a shoe’, meaning a nice necklace and cool shoes.
I have a feeling I’ve hit on works best.
Related is the fact that, after mining the Indian merchants at Thalat Sao for cashmere wool blend in blue and grey and black, I’ve commissioned the girls at favoured tailor True Colours to put together an entire working wardrobe before I leave – in less than two weeks! This is because I haven’t had to worry about proper work clothes, like, ever. And I can hardly go around in a sinh in Aus, now, can I?

Buddhism Canberra-style
Another thing I forgot to write about last time was that the Island and I checked out the Lao temple in Canberra just before we left. Although it was a long drive away through the drab southern suburbs, we really only intended to have a look and leave, but of course we ended up staying at least an hour, as the monks emerged one by one to have a chat- all six of them, one of whom emerged in his under-robes, wearing a blue Bonds singlet underneath.
The first one took us into the temple (a disappointing 80s-style cream brick house that happened to have a pointy roof and some sparkly bits around the outside wall), and he sat across the room while we knelt before the shrine. He was young, from Champassak, and had come over because family members had told him the temple needed monks. The conversation was slow and seemed awkward until I remembered how very Lao it was for people to sit without looking at each other, and to make comments punctuated with long silences. I’d forgotten because it seemed so out of context, and once I remembered, it was much easier to relax. The monks gave us offerings (potato chips and packaged fruit juice), as is the custom for all visitors, and took us to their orchard to pick a massive bag of organic plums.
The Lao community in Canberra, numbering about 3,000 nowadays, celebrate at least 10 Lao festivals every year. It’s nice to know it’s there.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

There and back

This post is dedicated somewhat cheesily to Heath Ledger, but I'm really upset he died last week. It so happens he was born the day before me in 1979. He also reminded me of at least two guys I know, and he really was a great actor. I still can’t believe he’s dead; I read so much celebrity gossip that when someone like him dies it can almost feel like a friend has gone. And he wasn’t even in the news that much.

Pai Sai Mar? Where have you been and come back from?
So we’re back in Laos, and people keep asking how the Island went over in Aus, and what blew him away the most. My answer is always: the birds. And not only the variety and beauty of the birds (Canberra has a lot of lorikeets and rosellas and suchlike) but also the fact that we were happy to look at them without eating them. “Why don’t you eat them?” he kept asking.

He was especially flummoxed by the pelicans when we went to the coast on Boxing Day. And again, not just by the sheer bizarreness of the birds, with their weird beaks, and not even by the sight of one swallowing a fish, which lodged sideways in its gullet, still moving. “Such a big bird with so much meat – why don’t you eat it?” Gah.

Also, prices. I thought he’d be more shocked by how expensive everything was, but in fact, I had warned him sufficiently beforehand, so that it was really only me who spluttered with rage at having to pay $5 for a small glass of orange juice at breakfast in Fitzroy. He just shrugged. “You said it would be expensive here,” he said.

Also, sizes. Of everything – the sky, the buildings, meals, and of course the people. I myself was shocked to see so many young people – people my own age in fact – who were grossly overweight. But then I think there must be a direct correlation to the size of the meals people eat.

And why does the sky seem so big in Australia? People at home scoff at this notion, but spend some time in Asia first and you’ll see what I mean. We took the ferry around Sydney harbour on a perfect blue-and-white summer’s day, and the sky seemed to be this massive, never-ending canopy.

Beautiful city, Sydney. The Island liked it the best. I always associate it with weekends away, when I would save up to shop on Oxford St, and Brooke would always tire well before me. That was when Brooke and Cristy lived in Surrey Hills. We had breakfast there, for old times’ sake, with three partners and a baby in tow. Times change, but things still seem comfortingly familiar. We spent NYE watching bands at the Sydney Uni Bar.

Melbourne had not changed. Everything in the Fitzroy-Carlton-Collingwood-Brunswick area fairly pulsed with memories, and I heard songs in my head, songs I haven’t listened to for so long. We had lunch at Tiamo with Zia Nelly, and dinner at Trotters’ with Libby and Billy and Emily and Adam. Hung out at the Standard, met Patrick at the Napier, and Sky and Merryn in Edinburgh Gardens, just like last time. We stayed on Westgarth Street and hung out with a Lao-related crowd, all home for Christmas, on Meyers Place, had breakfast on Gertrude St, walked through the CBD and shopped on Brunswick St. Can you imagine I don’t even live there anymore?

Canberra, ironically, is the place that has changed the most. All the places that formed my little personal landscape during the uni years are there, but there’s also triple the number of shops and lots of new people, nephews all grown up, new baby niece Annabel, as well as Paul and Cristy’s Lily. I took the Island into town for a drink one night, and as we sat by the bar’s open window watching people go by, I didn’t recognise a single face. This was never the case when I was growing up, right up until when I left.

Almost everyone we met up with in Aus seemed to be in a couple, and talking about real estate. I joined in, given that I’m soon to join the dreaded Canberra rental market. Everything has just kept moving on.

Taking it all in
Anyway, we’ve come home and I’m looking at everything through a lens of melancholy now that I know I’m leaving so soon.
I went home for a holiday and came back with a job. I start as a journalist with the Canberra Times on February 25th. My dream. My dream of buckling down and getting some experience under my belt at a good city newspaper for a couple of years. You know, the way I was supposed to when I finished law school five years ago, before I was thwarted by all sorts of distractions.

The Island is coming to join me later in the year, and together we will pursue our respective dreams. He dreams of becoming an architect, me a writer. We’re now in the arduous (and expensive) process of securing a visa for him before I leave. Boring - documents, photos, testaments, photocopied certifications, etc. The type of process I’ve only heard about from other people having to prove their (usually completely legitimate relationship) to a suspicious Immigration Department. Did you know that “A spouse relationship is a relationship between a couple who have a mutual commitment to a shared life to the exclusion of any other spouse relationships”? I guess I did know that, but it sounds so odd and forbidding when written on these forms.

What it means
Back in Vientiane, riding to breakfast on my first morning home, the day was warm and clear. I got a thrill being reminded of how dirty Vientiane is. The horizon over the river is smudged, the kind of marks a slightly dirty finger would make on a white page. The buildings are mottled with peeling paint and soot. Motorbikes are strewn over the footpaths, streetside food stalls smoke and steam all day long. Tuk tuks screech with always reliable breaks, and oversized SUVs hoot as they threaten to flatten the nearest motorbike rider.

Perhaps this blog will have to go; if someone’s finally paying me to write, the answer is clear, the joke’s on me. I’ll start a new one, perhaps. I’ll do my old trick of making Canberra seem glamorous simply by saying it is.

It’s so hard to imagine just how abruptly my life is about to change. I’ll have to adjust to a new job, where I’ll be writing my own copy rather than editing someone else’s. I’ll be riding a pushbike, not a scooter, until I can afford a car. I’ll have real newspapers, instead of reading them off the screen. I’ll be eating muesli, hummus and risotto, and breakfast out, a rare occurrence, will cost me $20 or more. No khao piak khao for breakfast, or noodles for lunch. No massages, or pedicures. I never had them in Australia anyway. I’ll be able to go to the cinema. Which is great, except that the appeal of buying the latest movies on DVD for $1.50 each is very high. I’ll be able to browse in bookshops, but I won’t be able to get clothes made to order. I won’t be able to call whoever and meet up at an hour’s notice (life doesn’t work like that in Aus), or spend hours at the Sunset Bar on Friday nights. I’ll be going to the same places I went to when I was a student. That’s how long it’s been since I was there. I’ll also be on a low income. Canberra is not a cool place to be poor, at least if you’re not a student. In Melbourne, it was different – you could just blend in with the general scruffiness. Canberra is not scruffy.

My life will be different. So will the Island’s. But that will be the subject of another post. Or another blog, even.

Hey, I’m still here though! Three more weeks. I’ll write again.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Holding On

Yesterday evening, I watched the sun go down in the reflection in the window from the far wall of the gym, where I was busting my guts on the bike. It was a perfect circle, laced over with palm fronds, and I could stare right at it as it slowly dropped out of sight, as I counted down the minutes and watched the sweat break out in beads on my wrists.
I’m going home for Christmas in six days, and it’s all I can think about. Going to the gym most evenings is the only way I can keep my mind clear.

I think I’ll probably be leaving Laos in the next few months for good, so this time, I’m taking home as much stuff as possible; I’ve started to feel weighed down by stuff. Although, in fact, considering I’ve been here for two years, I don’t have that much. Books, clothes and some framed pictures. And piles of papers in my room.
I’ve mentioned my lifelong habit of gathering and keeping documents. When I was a kid, the desk in my room used to be bulging with files and papers, and I would put off emptying it all for as long as possible. I remember at the age of 12, we had a Tahitian exchange student stay in my room for two weeks, and she couldn’t understand why I, a kid, had so much paper. I was more of a slob back then, but I haven’t stopped filing things away.
Sorting through piles of papers in my room, I’ve chucked three quarters of it, for practical reasons, but I’ve also uncovered some things that I remember why I kept and intend to hold onto. All my Lao language notes. The medical report from Aek Udon hospital when I fell off my motorbike last year (I had forgotten all about that!). The letter informing me that I had been accepted for the AYAD program, two years ago (changed my life!). A couple of Lao wedding invites, festooned with pink flowers and gently perfumed, addressed to ‘Miss Sally’. Some birthday cards and things torn from magazines and newspapers that I obviously felt the need to keep at the time and still do.
But all in all, it’s a pretty small pile that’s left. It’s the books that are the killer.
It’s going to be a strange trip home, not least because the Island is coming with me, huh? But I’ll also be assessing the scene – I’ll either realise how desperate I am to go home and focus on my ‘career’, or decide I never want to leave this place. Who knows?
But I think I know already.

My seat of learning
I went to a lecture a couple of weeks ago by a French man who is an ordained Zen Buddhist monk. He gave a sort of beginner’s guide to Buddhism, and this is what I learnt:
Buddha died when he was 80, or maybe 60, of dysentery. He ate something called ‘Pork’s delight’, which meat-eaters assume was some kind of pork-based dish, while vegetarians were adamant it was something containing mushrooms or something else that pigs would like.
That solves the vego / non-vego dilemma, right?
He also reiterated that Buddhism is completely tolerant, against any sort of proselytising, and is devoted, above all, to the middle ground.
This means it’s ok to be a Christian and to spend time in a Buddhist temple, or to be non-religious altogether. As long as you don’t do anything that prevents others from practising, it’s ok.
I like it, I really do. It’s such a gentle philosophy, and no one ever minds if you do it all wrong, like me at important events like the Island’s mother’s funeral, and I can’t see that people feel hemmed in by it. They’re not praying to sacrificed, bloody figure, but rather for a good life, and a good afterlife. I think I’ll always respect it.

Boys and their things
I went for lunch recently with some of the boys from my office. They always go to this dive-y old noodle shop that sells a bowl of yellow noodles for 50 cents. As I doused my noodles in chilli, fish sauce and lime, they all complimented me on my Lao-ness. My sinh, my shoes, my bag – I wore all like a ‘real Lao girl’, they said. This is the highest compliment, really. Boys here always say they want a falang girlfriend, but really they just want to please their parents.
One of the guys was already in the restaurant when we arrived, sitting with some girl. There was a solemn moment when he introduced his girlfriend to me- the boys were all respectfully silent. I asked her where she worked, realised I knew someone there, mentioned this, said she had a nice office, and then they left.
I felt obliged to ask a couple of the others whether they’d hooked up yet. They looked down, played with their food, shuffled their feet, and admitted that no, they had yet to find the perfect woman.
Most of the guys in the office (it’s mostly guys, and just one young woman left on the reporting staff) are married, gentle and quiet, the ones who keep their heads down, do their work, never ask questions, never seem to progress. And yet, the boys in question were the ones in the office I admire the most- the ones I can have almost normal conversations with, who like to argue, who respect their profession and drink hard, have phenomenally messy desks and keep thick chaotic files of contacts from throughout the city, ranging from farmers and shopkeepers to high-ranking officials. These are the boys who can’t seem to score chicks. It makes no sense to me.

Big Brother Mouse
When Mum and dad were here, we visited the Big Brother Mouse office in Luang Prabang, a local organisation that takes storybooks to Lao children in poor villages. It’s such a great idea – young artists draw the pictures and write the text, which is translated into English on the opposite page. For US$250, you can sponsor a ‘book party’ – a group goes to a village with stacks of books and snacks and spends the day playing games and eating with the kids, and gives each one of them a book. They teach them how to look after their books and swap them with their friends.
Mum, of course, didn’t hesitate to slap down the cash and demand a ‘book party’ in Ban Sop Kong, the Island’s hometown, which we had just visited that morning.
That was months and months ago, but last week, an envelope finally arrived at my office, containing a letter and a CD full of photos taken of Ban Sop Kong’s very own ‘book party’.
Now, you can probably tell that although I may be passionate, irritable and emotional, I don’t normally cry at cheer sentimentality, but these photos most certainly brought a tear to my eye.
The last thing the Island’s relatives said to us as we left the last time was ‘Please bring some books’, and here were all the boys and girls, in their matching dirty school uniforms with the red scarves around their necks, sitting enthralled as this group of young adults handed out books. These poor, poor children having a day of unexpected treats! The ‘report’ that came with the CD finished with “All students are very happy and exciting that day!

Saying goodbye (not me!)
There’s been a whole spate of goodbyes here of late, as a large proportion of my closest Vientiane friends have finished up and left. Many seem to have found it really difficult, but I’m so used to it that I find it almost impossible to shed a tear.
I suspect I’ll be the same when I actually do leave for good.
In the meantime, I’m focusing on compiling lists, lots of them, hording small change for my next trip to Bangkok, enjoying the weather, exercising and counting the days until our big holiday. Hoorah.

Monday, November 26, 2007

“Maxine McKew is being mobbed, ladies and gentlemen”

Great stuff about the election, I couldn’t be happier. And as my dad said over the phone the next day, it was such an interesting election, so much more dynamic than the last one. It really did make me feel homesick. I wanted to be there in the tally room. I wanted to be at a newspaper, covering it. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing? What am I doing over here at a time like this?
That’s what I was thinking on Saturday, anyway. But I know that one day I’ll get there. In the meantime, I’m just going to think about Christmas, when me and the Island head over to Aus. Can’t wait. A new beginning!

Wrinkles in time
It’s getting cooler, and my skin is all dry and itchy. But I do love this weather; I’ve busted out all my Light Cotton Sweaters that have been folded up in the cupboard all year. And scarves!
The End of Buddhist Lent boat racing festival has been and gone; we drank a lot, we all wore dresses, I went to bed with a headache.
Later, Mel and Gregory, who have both been here for almost three years, went through all their photos from the last three boat racing festivals. “Ha ha,” they said. “You’ve got older. All of us have. You too, Sally.”
I paid Mel back by stealing some of her Clarins Beauty Flash Balm last time I was at her house. Must remember to pick some up duty free on my next trip home. That, and some eye cream, or something.

Suburban karaoke
Of course, the End of Buddhist Lent means the start of wedding season. And I’m happy for all these happy couples and their happy families, really I am. I’m happy that taste goes right out the window during this period and people fill their backyards with pink and white plastic chairs and pink lacy archways and fluorescent ribbons. It’s great. But, you know, the speakers, the speakers! Why does the wedding need to take place in my living room when I’m not even invited? And why is it always the same music, and why are drunken guests allowed to take to the microphone at around 10pm? Cultural sensitivity? Pah! A drunk person who can’t sing is just that, and I think we should all be spared this, no matter what country we’re in.

Speaking of culture…
I had a small mystery resolved for me this weekend. Last week was this big Francophone conference in Vientiane, which was kind of a big deal, at least for the Lao government. The conference itself was pointless and nothing happened, but there were delegations from more than 60 countries here, and that meant curfews and lots of cops and new street signs suddenly informing that this or that street, for no apparent reason, is one way, so please pay this fine so we can go and buy lunch, etc - really tiresome stuff. Not to mention all the workmen chipping off the old street markings and repainting them, and the poor monks in their undergarments repainting the outer temple walls all day long…
Anyway, Le Renovateur, the French magazine that is part of my department (the Lao Press in Foreign Languages), which is a usually a weekly, did a daily edition all of last week, a task for which the staff were hopelessly unprepared. They brought in some French people to help. One was a lovely woman from Paris, who has been living and working for three years in Phnom Penh doing roughly the same thing as me. Then there were these other two guys who I’ve seen at the magazine and around town a million times and who never say hello to me, even though they know me and know that I speak French etc etc. Rude. Not that I really care, it’s not like I don’t have my own friends and all that. But I mean, really, it’s a bit naff, isn’t it? Being a French person and being rude?
I had a drink with La Parisienne after work on Sunday, and she basically confirmed that many French people working in Asia can be asses. So maybe it really is a French thing, rather than an imaginary barrier set up in our minds to explain why we don’t get along! I'm saying I agree with her, necessarily. I know many perfectly lovely French people, here and elsewhere. But they do have a reputation...and perhaps it's not that misplaced.

Lentil as anything
For the first time in years, or at least since I left Melbourne, I’ve finally started cooking, for various reasons. The main one is that the Island made us the best ork lam from Luang Prabang, one of my favourite Lao dishes ever, the other night. He said I had had to help him, so we went together to the 103 market, and I thought for the millionth time that I should just damn well start cooking while I’m here and can get all these fresh vegetables for next to nothing. Piles and piles of leafy greens and tomatoes and mushrooms - honestly, the other night I bought ingredients for a stir-fry, and it came to about 9,000 kip. That’s, like, 90c. I have to learn to appreciate this while I’m here. Now that I’ve mastered the stir-fry, the bean curry and ork lam, one of my friends, Nicola, has promised to tell me all she knows about lentils. I’m really getting into it. I love lentils.

Travel bugs
Here’s something that shits me to tears (what, another thing?): a woman at my work has just found out that she has been offered a place as a PhD candidate at a Swedish university.
This woman, in her 30s, has studied in Australia and Sweden already, though god knows what she actually learnt during that time, because she sure as hell can’t speak, read or write English for shit. She must have had an awful lot of ‘assistance’ while there. Either that or she has simply ‘forgotten’ everything she learnt since coming back to Laos.
She can’t even write a proper paragraph, much less a clear article! And she refuses to admit it, hence my waves of anger and frustration that it’s her, and not someone else in the office who can actually write, who gets the chance to do a PhD.
A lot of donor countries like China and Sweden think overseas training is the way to go. I think they’re wrong. It would be more efficient and cost-effective to send experts over and train them on the spot. Most of the people in my office have travelled more than me, but you’d never know it to talk to them. They’ve all been on so many press junkets, attended so many conferences and undergone so much ‘training’, in Asia, Europe, America and even Australia, and yet most of them retain nothing. They are for the most part completely unworldly, and when you ask them about their trip, usually the most you get is something about the weather, and the cost of living in relation to their per diem. One guy I worked with last year went to Japan for three weeks, and all he could say when he came home was that his per diem hadn’t been nearly enough and he hadn’t been able to save any of it. Japan! Another kid is currently at a conference in Tehran- imagine! How exciting! He didn’t seem remotely interested- you’d think he was off to a team-building exercise at a local conference centre.
Obviously it takes away from the experience if you’re just sent to a place whether you want to go or not. It’s not as though people in the office are ‘rewarded’ for their good work by being sent overseas – it’s simply a case of taking turns. And a lot of the people in my office have young families, and don’t even want to go away, so it becomes and extra burden for them, rather than a golden opportunity or the fulfilment of a dream.
It’s different if you work towards something- save money and dream about a place.
As it is, I think it’s just a waste. But that’s just curmudgeonly of me, isn’t it? I’ll shut up now.

Coffee shop
I’ll never stop discovering new places in Vientiane. My latest is an old new discovery, dating back almost a year but sorely neglected – the Roasted Coffee House on the Tamarind Road in town. This Japanese woman has a little coffee shop all painted white with cane chairs and navy blue cushions and meticulously chosen glasses and crockery. And the coffee, well! The girl goes out and handpicks the beans and dries and roasts them herself! And serves it all up in these chic, Japanese-minimalist cups. And sometimes some scones. Only, don’t go there too often- she has a thing about publicity and would really prefer the place to be empty most days. So she says…
On the other hand, last night I abandoned the cooking regime and had dinner at Vong. Vong? What is it about Vong? It's a typical Lao restaurant selling typical, cheap, MSG-laden Asian fare. Not close to anything, not too far away. Just Vong. I've yet to find anyone who's been here long enough to remember when it wasn't the most dearly beloved dinner joint in the Vientiane 'burbs. It's even in the Lonely Planet, but only because it's apparently 'loved by expats'. Anyway, it was pretty good.

Time marches on
I watched Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep last night, which I considered a constructive way to spend my Monday evening, especially when I have no other inspiration around me. I mean, Charlotte Gainsbourg's sweaters alone... On the other hand, after reading that great piece about The Wire in the New Yorker, I started watching the show, and realised pretty quick that the article was more worth my while, time-wise. Sure the show is slick and has lots of cool, creative swearing in it, but I simply can’t dedicate that kind of time. The first series is 13 episodes – each one is an hour long!
I would rather sit in front of my laptop and try in vain to write something. You know, like a real writer.
I have all these ideas, but I keep thinking there will come a time when I will be able to write about that, but not right now. But it’s silly. Not that long ago, I told myself that I just had to start being person I wanted to be, rather than waiting to become her. It worked, more or less. Athough I am a bit bored at the moment. It’s Tuesday morning, and everyone is out or away, including the Island who has this intense new job and has had to travel to Luang Prabang for two weeks, and tonight I’ll have to cook for myself like a loser, and, you know, it seems a bit lame.
But it’s times like this I always think back to Parul, my housemate in Montreal in 2000.
“Dude, romanticise what you do,” she always used to say.
Ok Parul. I’ll do that. Off to work.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Filmy or Banky

First up, this post is dedicated to Noy and Sisay's kid, who I rote about a couple of weeks back. Remember "Bobby"? Well, they've recently discovered another Bobby in the village, so they've decided to change his name after a few short weeks. Down to two choices now: "Film" or "Bank". I kid you not. Whatever the bizarre reasons for these preferences, I challenge anyone, categorically, to find a single Lao person who can pronounce the word "film". Seriously. And anyway, whatever happened to nice traditional Lao names? There are thousands to choose from!
Imagine being called "Bank".

As if to prove one of the points I made in my last post, this week I saw a cop writing a text message while directing traffic. Seriously. He even got so absorbed at one stage that he dropped his arm and his whistle altogether, leaving one side of the roundabout stranded.
But these coppers do get some things right. I think I mentioned some time ago that my friend Mel had her bag stolen at knifepoint while riding her motorbike late at night. It was about five months ago now, but last week, Mel rang me at work to tell me about the strangest thing. The police had called her that morning to tell her they had all of her stuff back. Bag, camera, wallet with the entire large sum of cash she had just taken out of the bank in Bangkok on the night she got robbed- five months later. A mystery! And the police were unable to completely explain to her, through the translator, how it all happened, except that they had come by each thing separately, and the boys who robbed her were all in custody.
Well, I don’t work at a newspaper for nothing, and I got one of the journos to use his police contacts to find out more. Here’s what I got.
The four guys who stopped her had been on something of a rampage before they got busted, snatching bags in public, flashing knives and ripping necklaces off women’s necks in the street. Just for fun, too; apparently, they weren’t even on drugs, just bored after all the nightclubs had closed. They never wore masks or anything, and in fact, the guy wielding the knife had a tattoo, which Mel got a good enough look at to be able to get him nabbed.
The guy driving one of the motorbikes bike that stopped her was 14 years old; the guy who got off the bike, held a knife to her neck and demanded that she hand over her bag was 18. Knifeboy spent all the cash she had on her (20,000 baht) pretty quick, but his parents had to pay it back.
Last year, Mel’s neighbour had to spend three months in gaol because she was unable to compensate for her son’s robberies.
But, as Mel pointed out, she would feel sorry for the kids if it wasn’t for the knife. If the boys had stopped her and demanded the bag, she would have handed it right over; the knife was an unnecessary little flourish that took the crime into Violent Little Prick territory.

More than just a friend…
I’ve mentioned before how devastatingly simple the Lao language is – a fridge is a ‘cold box’, the tyres a motorbike are ‘motorbike feet’, your jeans pocket is ‘trouser bag’, etc – but every now and again you can come across a word for which there is no English equivalent. One such word is ‘gik’, which refers to a friend who is more than a friend but not a boyfriend or girlfriend, whom you may or may not be sleeping with. You can have a gik and a boyfriend at the same time.
There have been endless discussions over an English equivalent; all Lao people seem to have trouble in drawing the ‘gik’ boundary. But it’s a mystery to us. If it’s not a best friend, boyfriend, girlfriend or fuck-buddy, then what is it? Our Lao friends just think we’re narrow-minded, that we can't envision this type of relationship. But that's the power of the language, or lack thereof!

Sitting on a jewel
I’ve been hoarding all kinds of beauty products all year, for fear of running out of staples (as if that will happen!), and I came across a tube of moisturiser I got my parents to bring on their first visit, more than a year ago. Nivea from the supermarket, nothing special, and I’ve since moved on to other things, but I came across it this week and slathered some all over my hands and face, only to find it had acquired a nasty acrid chemical stench that drove me to chuck it out.
Related (bear with me here) is that the Boom Boom Room at Full Moon Café is up and running again, thank god, and in a fit of glee I went and bought a handful of albums last week. A mistake really; as my housemate Cait points out, it’s dangerous to buy too much music at once, because you take ages to get around to it all, and sometimes you realise you’ve been sitting on a gem for too long. I’m still absorbing some of the stuff I bought in Hanoi, and here I am stocking up with more.
Not that music would ever go off, but all this hoarding can be a dangerous addiction.
Cait and I, luckily, have similar tastes in music, and mornings are always made far more pleasant by the day’s soundtrack set running over the morning papers (on websites). Working out at the gym is also a joy, and there’s nothing like finishing work early on a Friday, pouring a gin & tonic and cranking up…something, whatever is obsessing me at the time. Elvis Costello. Regina Spektor. The Rapture. David Bowie.
But I also have a Lao boyfriend.
Are you with me here? Can you imagine the vast chasm between our tastes?
How can I explain to him the horror of Britney Spears and her ilk, when that’s what he listens to? And indeed, why do I feel the need to explain it at all? He dislikes all the stuff I listen to, despite my lengthy explanations of the evils of commercial pop confections that have no soul...

It’s a circular argument, exactly the same as when I try to explain why I, and other falungs, like to read a lot. It’s seems to be incomprehensible here that anyone would read by choice. And anyway, there’s not much to read.
I went to a talk a few months ago by an Australian academic, Grant Evans, who’s a world-class expert on Laos. He spoke a bit about this problem, saying that the government has never traditionally encouraged reading (very uncommunist, reading), but that they’re starting to realise how embarrassing it is for Lao officials to attend international forums or summits, and to be completely behind in terms of intellectual capacity. Grant Evans pointed out that there are plenty of books translated into Thai and that it would be relatively simple to have these Thai versions translated into Lao as well. The government usually requires permission to have books translated, but Grant pointed out that organisations could just have books translated and see what happens.
You know, if I could start again here, knowing what I do now, or if I had the resources, that’s where my money would be. It's one cause I would champion all the way, even if only in the main cities. Reading fiction shouldn't have to be a weird foreign fetish.

More hoarding
Talking of reading, in 2005, when I was cleaning out my desk at my old job, before leaving forever, I found dozens and dozens of articles that I’d printed out from the Internet. My desk was right next to the printer, and I would read the papers online in the morning and automatically print out anything that seemed worthy.
I don’t do this much anymore- ashamed of wasting too much paper, and anyway, the newspaper doesn’t always have paper or functioning printers.
But anyway, here’s some I downloaded and have kept on my computer:
On the weekend, I read this piece in the Guardian, and felt a rush of relief mixed with vindication- “Yes, yes, that’s right!” I said, aloud. And then I sent it to my parents.
I also read this essay in the Morning News about leaving a boring town that you’ve been trying to love, to move to New York. Jessica Francis Kane talks about taking walks and playing the Redeemable Element Game, in which she has to find something worthy in the “otherwise undistinguished suburban landscape…the café downtown where, if you sit with your back to the front door, it feels like Seattle; the wine bar downtown where, if you sit with your back to the door, it feels like Manhattan.” She could easily be talking about Canberra.
I also read one of those great 12-page long articles in the New Yorker that I love so much. I would kill to be able to write like this, about anything. And that’s the point: if the writing’s good enough, you will read about anything. The New Yorker is like that. I’ve never seen this show (although I’ll probably seek it out and watch it now) and I’ve never been to Baltimore, but it all resonates.
Also, here’s one about Jerry Seinfeld, who I was shocked to learn is 53 and has three kids!! I only point it out because Cait and I have been watching a lot of Seinfeld, lately, and finding comfort in watching about 30-somethings who sometimes have difficulty paying rent. And who are are crazy and obsessive and a bit vain...It's all a bit familiar, and not just in the sense of having seen every episode several times over the past five years or so...