Saturday, October 1, 2011

Weeks Forty-Three and Forty-Four Daily Journal

Week 43

Friday, July 22
Vientiane, Laos

We had a lot to do today.  We went to the Immigration Office to extend our visas, and then to the Russian embassy to find out about their visa application process.  It was exactly as you’d expect a Russian embassy to look –bunker-like building, faded, worn furniture, a buzzing air conditioner in the corner... but the man who helped us was very nice and friendly.  Then we went back to VFI for lunch and a few hours, then back to the Immigration Office to pick up our visa extensions.  We met up with Vala for a walk along the Mekong and then she took us to a tiny Indian/Pakastani restaurant down a narrow dirty alley.  We never would’ve found it.  It was really good.

Saturday, July 23
Luang Prabang, Laos

We had a 9:40AM flight to Luang Prabang.  The flight attendant was Vala’s friend Jimmy who we had met the night before, which was really funny.  We checked into Villa Somphong, had lunch at Saffron, and then met up with Anna, Steph and Katharine and headed out to the waterfalls.  It was a tuk tuk ride and then a short boat ride, and although at first the falls seemed like nothing special, they turned out to be pretty spectacular.  There was even a rope swing.  After a fun afternoon, fueled by True Manhood Lao Whiskey, we had dinner at Tamarind restaurant, did some internetting at Apsara Hotel, and then went to bed.

Sunday, July 24
Luang Prabang, Laos
Live music at the bar
We picked up the girls in a tuk tuk at 9 am and headed to the other waterfalls, which were about an hour away.  These were also spectacular, but in a different way.  We checked out a bear conservation center, hiked past a "danger" sign (and then fled when I was convinced worms were burrowing into me), and played in the waterfalls.  I was attacked by a leech.  I hated this day.  (See post, There Were Worms in Me). When we got back to LP Dave had a massage and then we went for dinner at the night market – grilled fish and grilled chicken, and sticky rice.  After trying unsuccessfully to call Zoe for her birthday (damn you skype and crappy internet) we went to a nearby backpacker’s bar.  Just as we were leaving a British couple asked if we wanted to go to a local disco with them.  We said sure, hopping in a tuk tuk, and told the driver to go “to the disco.”  He took us a very local disco where we were quickly befriended by a group of what appeared to be 16 year olds.  Eventually we left there and went to the bowling alley, which apparently is where everyone goes at midnight when all the bars shut down.  We bowled two games (I won the first!) before we headed home.

Monday, July 25
Luang Prabang, Laos
Look ma, no pants
I really wanted to do a cooking class today but it turned out there was no availability.  So instead we all went to the caves.  About an hour tuk tuk and then a short boat ride away are caves that house broken and damaged Buddha statues – they are moved here when they are too damaged to stay in the wats.  The idea of it was definitely cooler than the reality of it. (See post, Bruised and Battered Buddhas). When we got back to town Dave and some of the girls stayed in the tuk tuk to go to another waterfall.  I was waterfalled out so I walked around town and looked at some of the wats.  When Dave got back we headed out to climb Phuxi, the hill in the middle of town with a giant wat on top.  There were hordes of people up there to watch the sunset, including a group of british girls wearing bikinis and tank tops.  So much for the sgns all over town begging people to dress modestly.  We hiked down a different, longer way, via lots of other wats.  Then we went to the market and then got foot massages.

Tuesday, July 26
Luang Prabang, Laos and Vientiane, Laos

Wats up?
We woke up early this morning to watch the monks’ alms procession.  It was barely dawn as we watched the monks silently walking the streets of LP as devote worshippers filled their alms bowls with sticky rice.  Dave even got into the act, buying sticky rice from a vendor and making alms (we later learned that buying from these vendors is discouraged).  It was a bit of a shit show, with groups of tourists getting in the monks faces and taking pictures.  (See post, Making Merit, Taking Photos).  When we were done with the alms we went to the morning market and had a delicious breakfast – a sort of rice crepe wrapped around minced pork and mushrooms, served with a spicy sauce with chopped peanuts and crispy garlic. (See post, To Market, To Market). Yum.  Then we walked around town, tried to go to the National Museum (but it was closed) and had a coffee at Saffron.  Then we visited the oldest wat in town, located at the end of the peninsula, where the two rivers meet.  We also watched a bunch of guys playing bocce ball.  After packing up at the hotel, we walked way back into town to have lunch at a Kao Soi place Vala had recommended, and then Dave got a haircut.  By the way, all of this happened before 11:30 am, becuase soon it was time for our 1:30 flight back to Vientiane.   We hung around our apartment in the late afternoon/evening.

Wednesday, July 27
Salavan Province, Laos

After work today we had a quick soup and then took a tuk tuk to the bus station for our overnight bus to Salavan, where VFI runs many of its programs.  The bus was a sleeping bus, meaning no seats – just a lower and upper berth on each side of the aisle.  It was about the width of a single bed and made for two people.  It was a tight squeeze and I can’t imagine having to do that with a stranger!

Thursday, July 28
Salavan Province

Little guy in the market
The bus pulled in to Paxe bright and early and we switched to a normal seater bus that dropped us off in front of a guesthouse in Salavan Province.  Viseth came and picked us up and, after a soup and Lao coffee breakfast, took us back to Green Earth.  Green Earth is the administrative center for VFI in Salavan Province, the base from which they conduct operations, do trainings, etc.  It’s also a lot of land where they’re growing all kinds of crops, they have a fish pond, etc.  The eventual goal is to make it a place where farmers can come to learn new agricultural techniques.  For instance, they are now growing mushrooms in the hope that they can give/sell the spores to farmers to grow on their own.  We spent the day walking around Green Earth and speaking to Viseth, and then we were given a performance by the Rights Link Youth Volunteers, led by Mr. La.  These are high school students who, as a group, go to villages and put on performances, and then educate the villagers about their legal land rights.  They were really sweet and asked us some questions (through La) about American culture.  Then they performed a traditional Lao dance.  In the late afternoon we headed back to the guesthouse to spend the night.  We were exhausted after our overnight bus ride.  When we got hungry we set out in search of food – walking down a dark deserted road and popping into every lit-up place we could find trying to suss out something to eat. We realized that we didn’t know the word for food, so we would make eating motions and say all the words we knew – mee (noodles), pho (noodle soup), ghai (chicken), moo (pork).  Eventually we got some beef pho from a little family stall.  (See post, Way Down South).

Week 44

Friday, July 29
Salavan Province

Viseth picked us up again and we had another soup.  Then we set out to visit some villages.  First, though, we picked up an official from the District Land Management Authority and another official from the Provincial Land Management Authority.  Our visit required VFI to obtain special permits, and it needed to be chaperoned.  The first village we visited had a school and a well supported by VFI.  Apparently it was some sort of holiday so there was no school.  We walked around and met the village chief, and everyone stared at us.  We asked a few questions of him, he asked a few questions of us, I was given a flower and some lychee nuts.  This village was apparently quite well off – there was electricity, and it was close to a road.  The next village was similar, although less muddy.  Here we were followed by a gaggle of kids and people were shouting “come see the farangs!”  (Farang means French, although it’s used to describe all white people).  Kids would run over to see us and then run away.  Eventually we won some of them over with the camera.  They took us over to where they process rice, in the same way they’ve been doing it for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  The raw rice goes into a sort of giant stone container and then is smashed with a huge wooden two-sided mallet (the whole things looks like a mortar and pestle).  This separates the husk from the rice.  Then the rice is sifted and then poured into a big, flat, round woven pan, which people crowd around and pick out the stuff they don’t want.  We both tried our hand at the rice hulling – it’s hard work.  After our village visits we took the officials out for Laos coffee, and then we set off to see two waterfalls.  They were both really pretty.  The first was more developed and we hiked up a walkway.  On the way down a group of Laos men from Vientiane invited Dave and I to join their picnic.  I politely sipped a beer (Dave crushed his) and then we hurried back to our waiting officials.  Then we went to another waterfall that necessitated a more rigorous hike up a narrow muddy path.  We dropped the officials off and were just heading out of town for Paxe when we saw the truck that had Rick and his family, so we turned around and joined them for lunch (more pho, of course).  Then we headed up towards Paxe.  Viseth stopped along the way to visit a tourist park.  The first part of it was a model village with representatives from different ethnic groups dressed up in traditional clothing, and doing their traditional craft, in front of a traditional house.  Then we visited a museum that showed all the different woven products they make, and lots of photos of people in even more traditional dress (think Hmong women with the giant stretched out earlobes).  The next part of it was a hike up to a waterfall.  We read a little blurb about the park.  A guy was asked to develop a tourist attraction and he found this perfect undeveloped site near the waterfall.  His hired laborers showed up for work with crude tools and took breaks to fish for their daily food.  He wrote about how he transformed the area into an attraction and provided jobs for all the people who lived around there.  And then the blurb closed with something like, “Unfortunately, because of the effects of a malaria-induced coma, I can no longer visually see the project.  But I can hear the happy laughter of all of the visitors.”  Really hoping we don’t get malaria.  Anyway, Viseth dropped us off at the bus station in Paxe with a bag of delicious custard apples.  We had a few hours to kill so we walked along the riverfront in Paxe and settled at a restaurant built out on a jetty, before getting on the overnight sleeper bus back to Vientiane.  This bus was only a single decker of beds, which was nice.  Not nice was the family across the aisle from us whose phone started ringing every 5 minutes from 6am on.  Also not nice was that although the bus ride down took 10 hours, this bus ride took closer to 14.  Every time we woke up in the night, the bus was pulled over on the side of the road, just sitting there.

Saturday, July 30
Vientiane, Laos

It was raining really hard.
We arrived in Vientiane bleary eyed and took a tuk tuk back to the our apartment.  After a shower we headed out but we could not agree on where to go.  So Dave went and got fried chicken and then went to Joma (where he wanted their brewed coffee and their apple muffins) and I went to Benoni, next door, where I wanted their nicer atmosphere, double latte, and amazing cheese sandwich baguette.  We spent the day at our respective coffee shops, I with the BABSEA girls.  At lunch the previous day we had asked Rick’s son Alan what his favorite restaurant in Vientiane was, so we went there, and got his recommendations – steaks.  It was really good.  During dinner it started raining really hard.  We kept waiting around for it to let up, but it never did, so we decided to brave it.  As we drove towards home it started getting deeper and deeper.  Eventually I had to get off the bike and walk – outside our apartment building the water was knee deep!   It was crazy! (And disgusting).

Sunday, July 31

Vientiane, Laos

It was still raining when we woke up but the flooding seemed to have receded. Unfortunately, the VFI soccer game that Dave was supposed to be in was canceled.  We spent part of the day in JOMA and part of it in an internet cafe, preparing our Russian visas.  It rained heavily all day so there wasn’t much we could do.  It cleared up in the evening so we walked over to a local Korean restaurant, which was ok.

Monday, August 1
Vientiane, Laos

We also celebrated Rick's birthday
We went to the Russian embassy in the morning, which is located east of the city, past VFI.  We handed in our completed application and they gave us a voucher so that we could pay the visa fee to the bank. So we drove back into town and paid the visa fee (the bank was about a block and a half from our apartment).  Then we took our receipt and drove back to the Russian Embassy.  The people who work there was all really nice though.  We had PVO for lunch.  The students we had met in Salavan were putting ona  big presentation at VFI, including some dancing, which was fun to watch  After work we went to the gym and then to Khong Khao to have dinner and watch True Blood.

Tuesday, August 2
Vientiane, Laos

After trying out the soup place on our block for breakfast we went to the Russian Embassy to pick up our visas – that’s good service.  We went into VFI for a few hours and I picked up by Laos skirt, but the internet wasn’t working so we left and went back into town, where Dave started our taxes.  I checked out the wine bar next door to the internet cafe where he was working.  We went to Yulala for dinner, Japanese food.

Wednesday, August 3
Vientiane, Laos

Beautiful silks
We didn’t go to work today so that we could have good internet and get our taxes done.  We met Steph for lunch at Aria to try out their special lunch buffet, which was delicious.  In the afternoon we worked on our taxes some more and made some phone cals, and then went to the textile store/factory down the road, Carol Cassidy Textiles.  Everything is hand woven silk, and she sells at various museum shops in NYC, as well as places like Barneys sometimes.  We had met Carol before, so she showed us around and explained what the different women working there were doing – dying, spinning, weaving.  They were making custom-made curtains.  We bought some beautiful things.  Then we scooted over to Pyongyang Restaurant, which is owned by the North Korean government.  It was a weird experience, although not as weird as I would have expected it to be.  The waitresses sang karaoke against a backdrop of a giant photo of crashing waves.  (See post, Dining With the Dear Leader).

Thursday, August 4
Vientiane, Laos

We went into work today and had lunch with everyone.  In the afternoon we went to the gym and then got massages.  We had dinner at Makphet which was really, really good – roasted eggplant dip, a curried mushroom coconut milk soup and tofu and crispy rice cake stir fry.  We ordered half sized portions but it was a ton of food!  Then we headed over to Khong Khao to meet the BABSEA interns to celebrate all of our last nights in Vientiane.  And then we went home and packed.

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