Saturday, 6 August 2005

the sad face of Laos

Yesterday, I saw someone die. A teenage boy, most probably drunk, hit by a car whilst riding a motorbike. I was on the back of Shane's bike and we were heading back to town from Tim's party, (coincidently a really fun evening) when we turned a corner to see a crowd gathered in the middle of the road. The young man lying on his back, his helmet and bits of his bike strewn across the road, lay dead. Someone had respectfully placed a piece of cloth across his face. One foot no longer resembled a foot. This was the closest encounter i've ever had with a dead person and it was horrific, despite there being no obvious signs of blood. It has traumatised me quite badly.

500 yards down the road there was another accident involving two motorbikes this time. The victims had been taken to hospital.

It happens every single night, here in Vientiane. Drunken teenagers riding full pelt on motorbikes, either without helmets or, as in the case of the young man yesterday, a helmet with the straps undone. What's worse is that there is no ambulance service and minimal healthcare if you make it to the hospital. In cases where the victims survive, friends usually throw them in the back of a tuk tuk (no thought for spinal injuries e.t.c) then negotiate with the tuk tuk driver for a reasonable price to get their friend to hospital.

The only other time i've seen someone dead was after a ayoung girl jumped from a multi-storey carpark. In that instance she had been completely surrounded by people and I was spared the graphic nature of her untimely death. Yesterday's situation was different, and somehow more brutal, in the absence of paramedics and ambulance sirens. There was just silence as people tried to work out what to do next.

It also got me thinking, once more, about the military and the psychological trauma military personnel must go through when they face hundreds or thousands of deaths in warfare. It also got me thinking about the driver of the car and what he must be feeling to have killed, even if accidentally, a young life. I wondered what it must take to be able to kill someone deliberately; what it must feel like to pull a trigger or press a button, instantaneously ending the life of a fellow human being. Finally, I wondered if my brother, in his rush to apply for the RAF, had actually ever experienced seeing death in the flesh or even thought how well equiped he will be to deal with it when the situation inevitably arrives. I wonder how he will cope in warfare.

Friday, 5 August 2005

The red pen effect

I have recently discovered that retired teachers make up a substantial proportion of the readership of this blog. They include both my parents and at least one of my father’s ex-colleagues. As a result, I have become acutely aware of my mediocre grammar and imagine them sat reading, fingers twitching, in need of a red pen. Thankfully, computer screens don’t care much for biros so I can sit here happily typing away, accusing the inept computer programmers for their failure to design adequate spelling and grammar checks.

In honour of my newly discovered audience, I feel the need to share my experience out drinking with English teachers here in Laos. With so many teachers disillusioned with the state of the teaching profession in the UK, it is a shame that more don't follow the path of the guys I met on Tuesday night.

Here in Laos, an eclectic bunch of men, mostly British, meet at one of the bars / family homes most nights of the week. Beer Lao in hand, they discuss why they could never head back to the UK, they compare their motorbike / near death experiences of the day and decide which bar to meet at the following evening. They discuss their working days. Ben is unlucky; he had to work five hours that day. Most of the other English teachers teach for 2-3 hours a day. Not only that, but Ben has to be at school by 10 am the following morning. The other teachers don’t start work until mid afternoon.

According to Shane, his friends head out practically every night for a few drinks. There is no moaning about inept delinquents, no dealing with verbal or physical abuse and very little work done outside working hours. In return they earn 10 dollars an hour. Baring in mind the average civil servant here takes home 20 US a month, the teaching wages are perfectly adequate to live off.

And so, living in houses they rent for $100 a month (which includes bills, cleaning and laundry) they teach a few hours by day, sip beer by night and suffer none of the stress that teachers in the UK endure. No wonder they’ve been out here for three years; no wonder they have no intention of heading home.

Wednesday, 3 August 2005 endangered species!

Just a minor issue with Lao tradition (alongside the use of condensed milk in coffee) is the cultural allergy Laos' residents have towards knives. Every meal you order, from fried rice to steak, is presented alongside a fork and a spoon. Lao culture dictates that you eat an entire meal with a spoon because placing a fork in your mouth is considered extremely rude. That may be the case, but have you ever tried cutting meat with a fork and spoon? It is a unique experience, often resulting in flecks of meal populating your clothing in an unsightly manner. It is possible that the use of knives at meal times may be the one western tradition that should be encouraged over here -that, and an import of Jersey cows to produce half decent fresh milk for coffee!

the tale of the angry gecko

Geckos certainly don't come across as particulary agressive creatures. Lethargic maybe; viscious man eaters, most definitely not. I have, however, discovered another side to these sticky-footed fellows. Admittedly, it was my fault. I could also blame Beer Lao for the role it played in events. To cut to the chase I - only mildly intoxicated - decided, on Shane's discovery of a giant, well-fed foot-long Gecko, that it would be a great idea to get intimate with nature and grab it. In one swift move, said gecko had attached its razor sharp teeth to my knuckle. Yes it drew blood. Yes it hurt. And yes said gecko took flight as I struggled to free myself from its clutches.

All said and done I now declare myself to be of monumental twit status, a true member of the 'dipstick' clan alongside fellow member - the Balinese sun hat wearer on the underground.

And yes I do question my natural hair colour on a regular basis!

Sunday, 31 July 2005

Road trip Laos style with a red-necked American

Apologies for the lack of blog entries over the last few days, but I've been having far too much fun to fester in front of a computer screen for any length of time. Friday night was indeed drinkies after work. Tim, Song (now correctly spelt), Shane (American friend) and myself had drinks and food on board one of the river cruises; very reasonable prices, some rather hot food, a good few Beer Laos (to stop my mouth disintegrating from the heat of the food of course) and a fabulous view of the river. We sat and watched the sunset and as it got dark, the engines began and we set off up the Mekong. The boat pootled along on a one and a half hour round trip up and down the Mekong. It was great just to sit and watch the world go by from the boat and provided a new perspective on the city.

After our nautical escapade, Tim and Song headed home and Shane and I decided to head out. I had my first experience of side saddling on the back of a motorbike as I hadn't pre-empted the need for practicality and had worn a skirt to work. I shall now pre-empt the need for practicality. I'd rather sit like a man. It is certainly not great for someone with long legs to side saddle as you have to balance both feet on one peddle or stick one foot out to prevent it dragging along the floor risking unsavoury consequences.

A quick drive round the city and we decided to head to the usual expat/ falang hangout; a rooftop bar overlooking the river. On full stomachs of Beer Lao we decided to experiment with cocktails....a pina colada, tequilla sunrise and margarita later we decided to play darts.....whether it be the alcohol or the lack of contact lenses I declare that I shall not be taking up professional darts as a chosen career.

The following day I'd arranged to meet Shane, and more importantly, his motorbike, to visit the 'spectacular' sites of Vientiane. We headed to the Morning Market, so called because it is open all day.....there is logic there somewhere! Originally Vientiane had a morning market and an evening market. The evening market closed and the morning market began staying open all day....the people in Vientiane never quite got round to changing the name.

They sell some wonderful stuff here. Really good quality antique silver, vast swathes of silk in all colours and designs and all the plastic and electronic mass produced 'quality' items you could care to dream of thanks to Laos' Chinese neighbour.

I bought some material to have a Sin made. Sins are the local traditional skirts they wear here. Fortunately, unlike many traditional costumes from around the globe, they are actually extremely smart and wearable within modern society. This will reduce the risk that I shall end up joining the 'dipstick' clan; travellers who insist on wearing their souvenirs on the streets of London in an attempt to appear 'unique' or 'well-travelled', whilst realistically attaining instant 'twit' status. My most recent experience of this phenomenon on the underground was with a white guy wearing a Balinese sun hat- worn subtly in paddy fields, yet achieving monumental 'twit' status on the Picadilly line.

So on to the road trip! Sat comfortably like a man on the back of the motorbike, Shane and I headed out of town towards the 'famous' Buddha park - the vision of a Thai artist. The journey was occasionally chaotic as we weaved around cavernous pot holes attempting to pre-empt some rather unusual driving. Thankfully everyone here drives extremely slowly- possibly due to the speed-reducing potholes- but road deaths still hit 600 year (in a population of 600,000 that is quite a few). Its not overly surprising when most motorbike riders drive one handed with an umbrella to shelter from sun/rain, families of four share a single bike and I've even seen people riding whilst holding parts of their bike together.

The Buddha Park is quite surreal with hundreds of concrete statues of Buddha in all shapes and sizes. It is also very small with a look round taking about 10mins. Our bike ride out had taken about half an hour and, despite it being overcast Shane had turned from pallid to a glorious shade of lobster red. He therefore took it upon himself to drive twice as fast on the return to get out of the sun. Thankfully, he has yet to develop Lao driving skills so we made it safe and sound to Tim and Song's.

Tim and Song have become my adoptive parents out here. They have been so generous. Song offered to cut my hair (she is a professional hairdresser) and after my hairdresser nightmares in Cricklewood, I kindly accepted her offer. She also asked her mum if she could make me a Sin. Her mum measured me up using a piece of string along which she tied strategic knots that somehow represented measurements. When Song's sister arrived from the market she then offered Shane and I three packets each of sweet dried bananas. No one can say that the Lao people are anything but generous. I did however draw the line when Song offered to do my laundry.

In the evening I met up with Shane again -yes I admit I only have one friend here- to go bowling; a favourite past time of the locals in Vientiane! We met up with Shane's best friend Sullivan and some of her friends from work. As with darts....another career crossed off the list...I didn't break 70 in any of my games!