Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

HAPPY NEW YEAR
Hats by Laureline (right)
I would like to wish all my faithful readers a Happy New Year (Alfred: 'faithful' is putting it mildly. Given your unreliability, I think the words 'long-suffering' and 'forbearing' spring to mind. So does 'masochistic' and the phrase 'get a life' but it might be considered rude to mention those). It has been an amazing year in every way, truly marvellous and filled with wonderful events, visitors, work opportunities and travel. And we have made some fantastic new friends, without which life is never complete. If 2015 is even half as good, I will be happy.

One of the problems of having a job as an online proofreader is that, having spent hours of each day sitting in front of a computer screen, my desire to spend further hours updating this blog is even less than it was previously (Alfred: Which, readers will already have noticed, wasn't great to start with!). So I suspect there are more likely to be fewer but longer entries from now on!

We had a lovely Christmas. We were joined by Martine's sister, Natalie and her husband and seven-year-old daughter and spent the actual Christmas in Luang Prabang. It was a lovely time, both there and in Vientiane, the kind of guests you hope will have their plane cancelled and end up staying an extra week. They also discovered an entire colony of scorpions living in our garden - Laureline's last act before leaving was to say 'Au revoir' to them.

NEW YEAR IN VIENTIANE 
I just got back from the market (which I wasn't even sure would be open) and there is not much going on - very little traffic and most places are closed. But about one-third of the stallholders were there, including my regular provider, so I stocked up big time (2 kg potatoes, 1 kg each of green beans, aubergines, carrots, onions, cucumbers and tomatoes, a large cabbage (2 kg), scallions, ginger and limes. No mushrooms, unfortunately). I also went to the 'Pound Shop' (everything is two for 5000 kip/50c) for thread, toothbrushes and vegetable peelers. It was absolutely packed! It looked like lots of families had brought their little children there and given them permission to spend whatever and they were flying around like house martins, darting between peoples legs and shouting excitedly.

As I queued for the checkout, I felt something suddenly grab my arm and let out a yelp! When I turned round, I saw a small monkey in a cage which was reaching out and trying to grab everyone who passed. Not a happy sight, I have to say - I suspect I will move to one of the other (identical) shops in future. But it did provide immense amusement to the other shoppers (Alfred: He seems to think he has a vocation to bring amusement into the lives of the Lao people and, so far, he is doing pretty well, though he will have to try harder if he is to top the time the mother at the kindergarten kicked him in the crotch, or the time he browsed through the bras in the market thinking they were face-masks for cyclists).

In one corner of the market there was a big awning and a monk sitting under it, accepting offerings and giving out blessings for the New Year. He was heavily scarred on both cheeks - almost identically - so I presume it is some sort of tribal marking associated with one of the ethnic groups (Alfred: This is where I feel like asking him, a trained ethnologist and historian who has been living here for a year and more, how come he doesn't even have an idea whether or not this is a common custom here, but I won't as it might embarrass him, get his New Year off to a bad start and all that). It is a bit surprising, given that the Lao New Year is in April - I am not surprised that they are joining in the celebrating (Alfred: They are party people, these Lao, and it's nothing to do with being Communist!) but the extent of the religious element is more than I expected.

On TV last night we watched the countdown to midnight being broadcast from the Landmark Mekong Riverside Hotel, an all-Lao affair with speeches, champagne that refused to pop properly (Alfred: the cork came out but the elderly gentleman holding it hadn't really shaken it, so he was reduced to pouring some out on the ground). Then there was singing and the type of formal Lao dancing which involves couples standing almost completely still and making gentle hand movements in the air without ever touching. Had there been Irish missionary priests working here in the past, they would definitely have exported this to Ireland as the safest possible form of dancing in existence. The poet Robert Frost once described dancing as 'a vertical expression of a horizontal desire'. If so, the horizontal desire here is definitely to lie down and have a quiet snooze.

The other channels weren't competing much. The six Lao channels were showing:
Channel 1: Off the air (Alfred: This is the official official channel, which normally only shows party meetings, speeches, visits by generals etc.)
Channel 2: The aforementioned 'party', followed by the diplomatic highlights of the year
Channel 3:  Four people - two men and two women - in a studio with a guitar, giggling and singing. It was quite funny, actually.
Channel 4: An elderly monk sitting in front of a gigantic Buddha statue talking about ... New Year stuff? (Alfred: Earlier, around eleven, this channel was playing Lao music videos. One was four very pretty female soldiers in the uniform of what is presumably the Army Construction Corps singing a song, accompanied by a number of giant mechanical diggers which waved their arms from side to side in time with the music. It was actually really cool. Seriously, it was. It is difficult to make a military engineering regiment look cool but they did it).
Channel 5: This channel seemed to have been taken over by the Army for the night but in a very sociable way. We had endless footage of meetings, the camera panning around from face to face, each determinedly looking interested and alert. We amused ourselves by trying to guess what the ranks were indicated by the different epaulettes, admired the profusion of extremely gaudy and dangly medals on the more senior soldiers (all men, these) and wondered just how silly the single person in civilian clothes felt. Then they all got up and voted! There was a ballot box and they formed a long line and, as each reached the ballot box, they held their ballot up to show they only had two and then put them in the box. Is this the only army in the world where the soldiers get to vote on stuff?
Channel 6: American music videos. Someone called Austin Mahone wailing 'But what about love?' as his girl walks, very determinedly, away from him (Alfred: You would have too). 


Then we switched to the Thai channels. It was pretty much the same but, again, quite a lot of religious material. There was an elderly monk in front of a large temple, with a red robe tied in an unfamiliar pattern (Alfred: Note how subtly Ruairi drops into the conversation how attuned he is becoming to Buddhist culture). Another elderly monk, this time sitting in front of a very dilapidated wooden hut (Alfred: Presumably the Franciscan wing of the Buddhist monks). And a huge prayer meeting in a city park - thousands of people sitting on the ground in front of a stage with about twenty monks on it, all chanting together - we stayed with this until they stopped chanting and started talking, it was lovely. All the rest was music and, by this time, the New Year element had worn off, so we polished off what was left of our gin and tonic and whiskey respectively and went to bed.

NEW JOB
In November, I applied to a number of online proofreading agencies and was accepted by a company based in Mumbai. I am now part of their History, Politics and Philosophy Department and receive stuff to edit and proofread - almost all of it academic and almost all of it from Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan. The material ranges from short abstracts of less than 300 words to chapters of books and papers for journals (10,000 + words). It can be tough going (seriously, I suspect some of them were just run through Google Translate) but always varied. I have corrected material so far on Sumerian cunieform tablets, Syrian refugee studies, the best techniques for converting Islamic women to Christianity, the metaphysics of Neo-Confucianism, Wittgenstein's contextualism, Kazakh involvement in the Russo-Chinese trade in the eighteenth century, setting up a neighbourhood watch for the elderly in Tokyo, a holistic approach to serving in volleyball (Alfred: What? What ...), ancient Tibetan manuscripts,  1920s feminist icons in Korea, the prospects for developing nonhuman consciousness, Mamaluks in the Ottman Empire, Sufism in nineteenth-century Egypt, Plato's Meno (Alfred: How can a serve in volleyball be holistic?), Ligi of Nature and Ligi of Mind-heart (I still have no idea what that was about), inherence in Hindu philosophy (ditto) and my favourite incomprehensible title so far, the Hermeneutics of Philosophical Anthropology (Alfred: You just serve. Throw up the ball and serve. 'Holistic' means, I believe IMHUO (humble ursine opinion) "characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole". But there are no parts to a serve. And, furthermore...) Enough already - usually it is me wittering on and Alfred who has to tell me to shut up. 

The one bugbear (apart from them forgetting what timezone I live in and sending stuff at 3.00 am with a 9.00 am deadline) is having to edit to American English standards rather than UK English. That means using unspaced em dashes instead of spaced en dashes (Alfred: NO! REALLY? What a barbarous people they must be! Em, what's an em dash anyway?) and putting the punctuation at the end of quotations INSIDE the quotation marks EVEN IF THEY WERE NOT PART OF THE ORIGINAL QUOTATION!!!  (Alfred: Oh dear, all capitals and three exclamation marks. Down, boy, down. Sit. Sit, I say. Good boy).




ANIMAL WORLD
Obelix continues to thrive as do the various other forms of wildlife around. Cuthbert has not reappeared in the bathroom but his cousins down the garden may soon start moving around, we we are keeping the plug in the plughole for now! The butterflies continue to amaze!
Maurizio's ducks/geese - we're still not sure.
I think ducks.

Cuthbert in my bath


Cuthbert's cousins
















TV TRIBULATIONS
I am - for some reason - a big fan of American Football, which the Thai channel True Visions 3 broadcasts regularly. The only problem is that, at regular intervals (usually during the last quarter of a match) all Thai channels get interrupted for news broadcasts from the Thai military government. I didn't mind so much earlier in the season but it is getting near Superbowl time and these are important matches!


VIENTIANE REHABILITATION CENTRE FOR THE CHRONICALLY CONSTIPATED

UNFORTUNATE ADVERTISEMENT PLACEMENT

CHRISTMAS, LAO-STYLE
I couldn't bear to part with this card (Alfred: Plus it takes months for post to get anywhere).

GETTING OLD
I have had this happen a few times, but this time I actually left the house, locked up, went into town and had a beer before returning home. Martine was in Australia at the time, I asked her to bring me back a kitchen timer. (Alfred: And does he remember to use the timer? Rhetorical question, as I am sure you figured out for yourselves).

Friday, October 10, 2014

PARTY TIME!!

DRAGON BOAT RACES AND THE END OF BUDDHIST LENT

It's not that Lao people need much of an excuse to party but this week it was official: Lent was over and it was the signal for - in theory - two days and one night of party time. This would have been Wednesday and Thursday of this week but, in fact, like happens for Christmas chez nous, it all got going quite a bit beforehand with stalls and music and noise and whatever.

The main attraction is the dragon boat races, which are incredibly long and narrow boats with crews of 50-60. There are also sprint races between smaller boats with crews of 12. A few years ago they introduced the novel idea of having women's teams as well!! And there is one team which is composed of about an equal mixture of Lao and falang (foreigner) women (red with yellow hats in the photos). The first races were on Wednesday and the finals on Thursday. We went down around 12 on Wednesday and found a table in a restaurant right on the startline for the sprints and what turned out to be the halfway line for the longer races.


Women's team!
 


It was great fun, the rowing was impressive and everyone seemed to be taking it reasonably seriously without getting too worked up about it all. After the races we wandered around the various stalls and displays (having been joined by our Irish friend Michael Headen by now). It was mostly pure tat (or honky tonk as Michael describes it): stalls selling the usual clothes and souvenirs, some just selling washing powder, nappies or energy drinks; promotional stands (Dao coffee, Samsung, Nissan (Alfred: Michael made the mistake of actually asking the girl on the Nissan stand about one of the cars! It soon became clear that her role and purpose on the day did not have anything to do with answering technical question - or even questions - or even answering!), ETL, computer manufacturers and so on. And food, lots and lots of food  (Alfred: And when Ruairí went back the next day, it looked like it was exactly the same food, though the lettuce was somewhat more wilted in the sandwiches). 


And it did look like the whole town was there! On the way in (and on the way home) we passed thousands upon thousands of motorbikes parked in serried ranks, tuk-tuks everywhere and (in scenes reminiscent of the area around Croke Park in the old days when there was a big match),
self-appointed parking attendants charging a small fee for guiding your car up onto the pavement where you could abandon it. Even the temples were making a few quid by charging 5000 kip (50 cent) for parking your car. And there was very, very loud music, and then fireworks. There were giant blazing model ships which were set adrift once it got dark.

And, most importantly, there were people's individual floating offerings. Everyone, whether individual or family, had a carefully-crafted flower arrangement made of banana leaves and flowers and a candle on top which they lit and set adrift in the Mekong. Most Lao people put some money on as an offering (Alfred: Much appreciated by the small boys who swim out into the Mekong further downstream and rescue the money from a watery grave). I don't know if having your candle go out is a bad sign - I hope not as most of them did!! And, as we set off home, people were lighting giant lanterns and letting them float away into the heavens - beautiful!
Offerings floating on the Mekong


Thursday we headed in again but Martine got a puncture and decided to walk back to the house. I continued on as we needed to find an ATM anyway (Alfred: Yeah, right) but I didn't stay long, it was even noisier and the sun had done a good job of baking the litter and debris from the previous night. And I couldn't help noticing that the food stands did seem to have exactly the same food as the previous day - some of the meatballs looked capable of independent locomotion. But everyone was happy and smiling, there was a wonderful selection of umbrellas, and a great feeling of cheerfulness and camaraderie. Even the presence of armed police (an unusual sight here) didn't detract from the fun.
Bamboo stuffed with sweetened rice
Fried bugs - grubs, grasshoppers and ... other things!
I compared the photos - definitely the same sandwiches!!
         

Martine and Michael with the mother and daughter who made the floating offerings we bought



Not sure if they were waiting to perform or had just done so!





Happy monks building a boat offering, Wat Mixay

Same boat that night

Washed-up offerings Thursday morning



Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nature Break

Balcony of our lodge
Every now and again it is nice to get out of the city. Our last trip was to Vang Vieng (Alfred: about which you still have to write!) but any other town/city is too far to reach other than by plane or a very, very long bus trip. So while scouring the web, I came across a mention of the Rivertime Ecolodge, only 30km or so from the city centre and reachable by public transport, so we thought 'Why not?' As it happened, our friend Michael Headen also came along with us and we availed of his car to get there and back (Alfred: Well, there anyway. You'll see....).

Massive bamboo stand beside our lodge
And we had a really nice time. As you can see from the pictures (and I will let them speak for themselves as much as possible) the lodge is set on the riverbank and in quite dense forest, plants and flowers and butterflies everywhere. It is fairly basic accommodation but perfectly fine and there is a restaurant, swimming pool (OK, they chopped a big square hole on the floating restaurant and added ladders so you can easily climb in and out), nature walks, a boat for hire, bicycles, kayak etc. A ferry brings you across the river to a lovely little village where we walked through the rice fields, admired some extraordinary breeds of hens and enjoyed being somewhere that is quite clearly not used to many tourists! There is also an excellent Thai restaurant next door which served the most fabulous grilled fish for lunch on the second day!

We came back in a taxi due to the catastrophic failure of the clutch cable in Michael's car but the Thai restaurant owner does a taxi service and brought us home! We will be going again!
Strange animal-headed beings worshipping the Buddha - reminded me of Egyptian drawings.
l


On the ferry

Banana flower


God bless mobile phones
On the river


 

They had the strangest chickens in the village




Hanging from the ceiling of the wat


Flame ginger - our favourite flower




Our lodge



Rice fields

Woman harvesting tamarind blossoms to eat

Michael and Martine and their amazing grilled fish!


This was my red Thai curry - awesome!
Cropped from the image above (and slightly photoshopped to get rid of the floating rubbish!).