Saturday, June 16, 2018

Small Business Saturday

The grass is so tall that Boon is having dreams about it. In the wee hours of the morning, he's standing in the grass, arguing with a gardener, can the grass be cut with scissors? The dream is so clear that he relates it to me in careful detail, the exchange, the tools, the grass that is never cut; this is too much to take in, the coffee isn't even ready yet.

There is no one stop shop in Laos. People actually drive across the border to Thailand, a two hour trek without factoring in the immigration queue, just to experience a mega mart. I'm guilty; I've spent many a Saturday at a Virginia strip mall, going from Target, to Home Goods, to that big shoe store whose name I can't remember, and wrapping it up at a grocery store. I just prefer to spend my Saturdays now reading a book in front of a fan, working on a contract job, or poolside with my kiddos. There are two larger 'nearly everything' stores in town, but between the fourth-quality Chinese export stock and the unabashed sale of endangered bear oil, we generally avoid both stores. Ergo, the simple task of trying to get a weed wacker for our yard is enough to give Boon stress dreams (not quite nightmares; it's not like he's trying to shop for underwear).

And so begins a small business Saturday, enough to make the hipster crowd proud. One early morning corner store run for milk; another stop at a shop that sells ground coffee and instant noodles. One afternoon stop for the ATM that will accept cash deposits. Another stop for an ATM that will actually dispense cash. One more stop for a third ATM, as the first two were out of cash (it is, after all, too close to pay day- ATMs were already bum rushed). Four open storefront stalls selling identical stock, to negotiate the price of a Vietnamese-made weed wacker, expected to last maybe one year, possibly nine months. 600,000 kip is the final asking price; approximately $71 USD. Is this necessary? A gardener is $100 USD per month, and that's a bit steep on our four-person budget. Can't we just use scissors? Maybe a horse will wander into the gate if we leave it open... unfortunately, we're just shy of a kilometer away from the abandoned equestrian center, whose neglected horses do escape from time to time and nibble the neighbor's grasses. We're too close to town for a wandering cow or goat either, although that would be convenient.

We're going out to dinner to sort this out. I've got noodles, Indonesian Mii Goreng spice mix, and one shallot. I just don't have the energy to go to the fresh market for the stir-fry veggies and tofu, so Hangout restaurant it is. The fresh market is the closest thing to one-stop shopping; one stall for veg, one for fruit, one for pirated Thai DVDs, one for diapers, one for soap and deodorant. Just not toothpaste. You don't want to get a counterfeit toothpaste and end up with burning mouth sores (not even kidding, it's a thing, fake body products; and where do you think those products go, after they've been rejected from the EU, USA, and Canada? They go to Laos.) So that's another trip to Miniso, for somewhat trustworthy electronics and body products.

This is how we can manage to go two days without toilet paper in the house. Get to know and love your bidet, my friends.

Some days, it simply can't be avoided. Our work permits and visas need renewing, and we've got less than 10 days to get it done. We pile into the car, drive down Dong Palang Avenue, scanning the store fronts for the Fuji Film banner or an enlarged photo of a woman in a ubiquitous black suit, the computer generated standard for all passport style photos. We're slowing down the already slow local traffic, but somehow, can't seem to find a photo shop the one time we really need one. Head pressed against the passenger seat window, my fingers are crossed that the shop is next to a coffee shop, hopefully one with food too. We find a shop and I immediately kick myself: I've left the stick drive with the photos I meant to print and frame at home. The walls of the house are bare; between the effort it takes to find frames, then print the photos, then find nails that will go through concrete, it's just not worth it. And it's still a separate shop for more modern looking curtains. The blue is kind of lovely on it's own, and I don't really mind the bronze curtains. The fringe is endearing, really.

Planning our weekend over a second pot of french press coffee, we consider the things we'd like to do or eat, then consider how long and which shop we'll have to find to get the things. If it's more than two stops, we trim down our hopes and consider our needs. Can we just cut the boys' hair at home? Is there just a little more toothpaste in that tube, can I go to Miniso next week? Who wants to be bothered driving circuits across the city, when there's milk in the fridge, the coffee is strong, and the boys are finally occupied with a rubber chicken and paper airplanes?

Friday, June 15, 2018

Spa Life

In Laos, massages are about as necessary as an American's daily cup of joe. And like coffee, services are offered in the most basic, street-level service to luxury spa with golden fountains. In Chao Anouvong park, masseuses gather in a circle under a shady tree, their heads covered with straw hats to shield them from the sun, bodies fully covered from nose to ankle in mismatched prints, the tools of their trade neatly toted in colorful plastic baskets. They operate mere meters away from vine covered spas, their goddess and flower fountains flanked by uniformed masseuses ushering tired legs into the oasis. Make no mistake, this isn't sex work. I'm not clear how much the wandering masseuses cost, since I've never been quite that desperate for a kneading, but I've seen tired men and women from all walks of life, tuk tuk drivers to doctors, airline ticket sellers to noodle shop ladies, reclined on a folding chair getting street side massage. 

As a general rule, I prefer to go to the places where the masseuses have matching uniforms, usually baggy pants and a wrap-style shirt. I made an exception one time, when I'd invited my sister-in-law Sant out for a 'girls night.' Thinking that my sober sister-in-law might want to bond over foot massages and pedicures (not a bad plan for a medical school resident who works 24 hour shifts), I planned a whole evening of spa time. Unfortunately, both Boon and his brother invited themselves, so we ended up not at a nail salon, but a crowded foot spa, with recliners crammed in so tightly they double-parked two more when we arrived. A bit leery, but open to trying new things, I agreed to the place, and tried to hide my concern when a man with ripped jeans and a Guns-n-Roses tee shirt came out to wash my feet. The guy scrunched and punched my legs for thirty minutes before jamming a hand out for his 50,000 kip. Boon, Sant, and his brother were all reclined and dozing at the time, so I reluctantly handed over the cash and watched the guy sprint out the back room. I sat there waiting for my customary post-massage cup of herbal tea for a few minutes before I realized he wasn't coming back. I have to wonder if he'd already scored meth by the time Boon and Sant came to, but either way, it solidified my resolve: uniforms or nothing. Don't pity me; I later made up for this failed girls night with another girls night, and that spa let us bring in our box of wine while five of us got leg massages. We weren't stingy though- we shared with the annoyed back packer customer as a peace offering for our incessant chatter.  

Lao massage isn't Swedish massage. The two have about as much in common as Lao vs. Swedish meatballs, which is to say, same subject matter, completely different preparation.  When you walk into a Lao massage spa, you leave your shoes at the door and are offered communal slippers. Your feet, grungy after the dusty dirt roads of Vientiane, are washed by hand, and you're presented with a neatly folded pair of drawstring pants and a tunic top. Depending on the popularity or size of the spa, you'll get a room or be taken to a large hall with long cushions on the floor, sometimes with long curtains to cordon off a few mats. In the early 2000's, while studying the subject of human trafficking in Southeast Asia, this was pretty much the basic set up of every brothel described in every human rights report. I'm pleased to report that, to date, I have not been offered a happy ending. However, I'm probably on the wrong side of town for that kind of thing, so don't take my blog post as definitive proof that trafficking is resolved (it's not). 

The Lao style of massage involves a fair amount of stretching and stabbing, so it's hard to tell at times if your masseuse is doing a good job or causing permanent damage. At some point when she's standing on your buttocks and pulling both of your arms backwards, right before you feel her foot press into the middle of your spine, you do wonder if this is a good idea. I've found my self spending equal parts of my massage grimacing as grinning, as tendons stretch beyond what my lazy day yoga is used to.  Regardless of how much pain the actual massage induces, you do roll off the mat and out into the world feeling a like butter, which explains why people keep coming back. Since injuring my shoulder, I've learned to say "khoi jep can," before the massage starts, which I think means "I've hurt my shoulder," although it could also mean "I hurt the pan-flute," depending on the pronunciation. Rather than risk additional damage to my shoulder, I've opted for the less authentic, but also less painful, oil massage. You don't get the cute jump suit, but you don't risk nerve damage either. 

Boon has taken to this aspect of Lao culture more than any other. Two two-hour massages per week is his norm, although I don't put it past him to fit in a third on a slow week. I average one every two months, but that's more personal choice than any other reason. And to be clear, at my meanest, he's been known to shove 150,000 kip* in my hand, drop me off at a spa, and refuse to pick me up for two hours. Massage is an essential part of our monthly budget at this point, although at $7.00-$12.00 per massage, it's not exactly breaking the bank. Considering he's got chronic back pain after being hit by a garbage truck in 2002 (the settlement payment from said car accident bought my engagement ring, so....), I consider his bi-weekly habit a small price to pay in the age of opioid abuse. If there's any one reason that he's so deeply in love with Laos, it's probably the tiny man who walks on his back twice a week. 

I've been contemplating this particular blog post for months now, not quite sure how to describe affordable luxury. For one thing, I wanted to take a tour of different kinds of spa-shops, and after 10 months, I can say I've been to the dingy, the modern, then touristy, and the luxurious (all ranging from $6.00 USD to my most outrageous at $26.00). My frugal American senses can't quite accept how affordable a massage is- something previously reserved for Groupons, or a Massage Envy membership I only accepted when my stress level was on the brink of clinical seriousness. It doesn't seem fair. And since I don't speak Lao, I'm always aware that I have no idea what kind of labor practices are going on. Boon, on the other hand, speaks Lao, and his accent seems to always pique the curiosity of his masseuses, who don't quite understand why he's here. After several months here, and between my experiences and Boon's, we've learned a little bit about the industry. Masseuses only seem to be paid salary wages at the nicest of spas; otherwise, it's a percentage of the jobs taken. Hours run late, in part because of tour groups, and in part because of the after-work crowd. Many masseuses travel over an hour by motor bike to their spas, coming from the outskirts of town, where land is cheaper. Judging by the amount of laundry hung to dry at some spas, people must live there, though they probably wouldn't tell Boon if he asked. There are probably over a hundred spas in Vientiane, with a population of about 800,000 people, so we don't presume to know what kind of working conditions exist at each spa. The best we can do is, stick to the places where the staff looks contentedly bored, not anxious, where prices seem fair, and make sure to always leave a tip. In a least-economically-developed country, it's an industry that seems to employ people with dignity and stability. There's something to be said for that. 

*150,000 kip is roughly $18 USD; enough for an hour massage and a nice solo brunch, or two hour massage and a cappuccino. Either way, it's enough to put me in a better mood. 

Comings and Goings

The Lao diaspora is approximately 800,000 people, according to Wikipedia. (I know, Wikipedia is not a proper source. And this is not a proper history lesson. It's my blog for my family. My data is not 100% accurate, by my experiences are 100% authentic.) The population of Laos is approximately 6,920,918 people. That puts 11.56% of the Lao people outside of Laos. Some of those people aren't coming back, for political, ethnic, or emotional reasons. And yet, some of them are coming back. It's their comings and goings that I've been thinking about lately.

Only a short time ago, Boon was one of those 11.56%, a Lao-Falong. I know, I'm still conflicted about Falong, and I don't use it often. But it is what it is, and Lao people who move abroad for several years, acculturate abroad, and return to Laos are just called Lao-Falong. They pay slightly less on the Falong-tax, but they still pay it. Let's just say, when we shop for something expensive, Boon doesn't do the talking, his momma does.

The winter and summer holidays are the obvious time for the comings and goings of the diaspora, since most people don't have a ton of vacation. Twice during the holidays, we were the haggard travelers in the visa line, stretching our necks to find the crowd of family on the other side of the wall. This December, we were on the other side of the wall, necks bent sideways, staring at the newly installed light fixtures, waiting for the doors to open, and our family to cross the visa line. And when he did cross the line, I was the one holding the iPhone to capture the moment of reunification, eyes watering just a little at wonder of someone hugging his mom after ten years of separation.

When you immigrate, you make a life. You learn a new way to buy food, to greet people, to drive, to dress. You change. Maybe not enough for the people of your new homeland. Maybe you don't get the code quite right, you say the wrong thing to lady next to you in line, and she calls you an ugly name. You put packaged instant noodles in a pot and try to recreate the moo goaob with thick cut bacon fried too crispy.  From what I can tell, the first think returnees do is head to a mii shop, slurping up the thick khoa-piak noodles you can't find in the USA, bone broth turned blood red with oily pepper flakes. Their faces turn shades of red and purple as they realize, they've gone soft in their years abroad, and can't take the heat (especially not in the 90 degree heat of the open-air noodle shops). Later, they'll tug uncomfortably at the tailored dress jackets made of Lao silk, dyed brilliant shades of coral or turquoise, trying to remember wedding etiquette that's fallen by the wayside in their new life. Later, they'll pack the newly tailored clothes, wrapping them around the golden bowls used for basci ceremonies or alms giving to monks, items too precious to purchase in the USA, yet so common here. Will they wear these again? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe next time.

In the past ten months, we've watched a few Lao-Falong return to Vientiane from across the globe, and now, with summer's arrival, we're watching the immigrants to Lao venture back to their homelands. Despite my post a few months ago, my homesickness won out, and the boys and I will be boarding a series of planes to Boston, just a few hours short of my parent's home. Three days, four planes, two transit countries, one suitcase filled with Laodi rum and local mulberry jam, and we'll be home for the summer. Boon will join us for three weeks, possibly with another suitcase of rum if I convince my family and friends that former bombing grounds make great sugar cane.

Ice cubes clink in tall Beer Lao glasses as we immigrants watch the sun set at the "river office," calculating our trips home, comparing lay-overs, configuring lists of items to stock up on (underwear is highly in demand). Visions of favorite foods float before our eyes; we'll trade deep fried river weed in garlic for jalapeno poppers and fried cheese curds. We seethe with resentment of U.S. visa policy, which seems to be denying as a matter of unspoken policy, nearly all the visitor visa applications for the Lao citizens seeking to visit family in the States. The irony is, the people hurt by this policy aren't the Lao, who probably didn't relish the idea of awkward weeks meeting distant relatives, but rather, the hotels, shopping malls, and tourist attractions that aren't getting the tourist dollars. We refill our glasses and shake our heads at the stupidity of these kinds of policies. If you're coming from a country with pretty much nothing, you're returning with two checked bags, filled to the brim with tantalizingly foreign jeans, jewelry, and the ever-coveted Victoria's Secret body spray. Besides, our Lao friends simply re-book their flights, this time to France. President Macron won't mind their tourist euros.

Not all goings lead to homelands. Some take people the Java Sea coast, to discover eastern Indonesia by motor bike (not a bad way to spend your 40's), or to Tioman Island, Malaysia, to refill oxygen tanks by day and dive with sea turtles by night. But then again, when the world is your home, you're never really coming or going. 


moo goaob: the best bacon you'll ever eat. Deep fried pork belly to near rock-like texture as one thick slab, then chopped into chunks and tossed into boiling hot broth to soften to a still-crisp little nugget.

mii shop: general term for noodle shop, usually run out of someone's front porch or a road-side stand, and offering only 1-3 types of noodles, generally.

khoa-piak: my personal favorite of the noodle varieties, thick almost like udon noodles, but more clear-white, and just slightly chewy.

basci: a spiritual blessing that is common to Laos, and only loosely associated with Buddhism. A large gold or silver bowl is filled with a tower of marigolds wrapped in a banana leaf tower, from which a candle is burned and many white strings are strung. People sit in a circle and a blessing is made, gathering all the energy in the room to transfer to the person(s) being blessed. An essential ceremony for any major life event.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

White Roses for Our White Kitten

Boon was waiting at a red light, one of maybe two dozen (three dozen, if I'm generous) in town, when a towering construction truck side swiped his driver's side and bumper. The truck backed up just a enough to adjust his turn before barreling down the road, the off-brand Chinese emblem glinting under a storefront lamp. Another hundred dollars in car repairs, but it was just the body, not the person this time. He's waiting at a body shop outside of Vientiane when a scrawny snowball kitten works his way into his lap, then into the car, and into our home. Storm, I declare, staring into his icy blue eyes. But as the vet mentions it's probably a boy kitten, we adjust to M'Bako, the Gorilla Chief from the snowy mountains of Wakanda, and my favorite character of the movie. Later, thanks to Google, I realize that it's actually M'Baku, but by this time the name has stuck. M'Bako is our gorilla chief.

M'Bako is prickly furred, flea bitten, and skeletal. He endures a flea combing for the first two hours as we sit on the porch with a friend, unwilling to let him and his fleas onto our rugs and sheets quite yet. He's all purr, barely able to sustain more than a scratchy rasp of a meow, when Declan pulls him into a bottoms-up hug. In a week, he's wearing a collar, though it has to be knotted to fit his tiny neck, only the size of my pointer finger meeting my thumb. He's developed a squeaky-meow, and found his sunny spot on a window sill. He clings to Declan's shirt as they tumble across the bed, and finds shelter with Caden under pillow forts. His respite from Pandemonium Valley is my lap, kneading my belly or reclined on my legs. He is, very quickly, my little love.

He's barely as long as my forearm, and is easily managed in the palm of my hand, so Boon starts to worry when he tries to venture off the porch. We become more diligent, closing the porch door despite his whines, when Daam is loose on the street. We've taken to leaving a long PVC pole by the gate, usually used to knock down rose-apples, but converted to Daam Dog defense. We've come home early, after Caden's kindergarten graduation, sleepy from a lunch of crepes and quiche. Daam is loose again, but the pole makes him back down, so we assume he'll wander elsewhere for the afternoon.  Our Mae Bahn, Ving, doesn't quite get the message about Daam, and I'm checking email at my desk when M'Bako climbs across my books. I casually put him back down of the floor, and he zips out the door when the water delivery comes. Within a minute I hear the kitten's shrieks, and he's there, half-skinned and mangled in our driveway, Daam knocked off by Ving and a stick. I'm hysterical, and despite my screams to stay inside, Caden saw him. So did our Mae Bahn's nine-year old daughter, who'd run to get the gate for the delivery. I've already changed into a bra-less house dress for the 100 degree afternoon, so I gather him up onto the kaleidoscope skirt, not caring that the water delivery guy has now probably seen my Target-panties.

For more than two hours, the veterinarian and his staff try to clean his wounds and stitch back his fur, but they can't reach the organs inside that were pierced in the attack. I've read of maulings in novels, and wish I could have left the image there. Boon is left to sort the details, translate for the nurses, and make final decisions; he's not one for public keening. Surgery is possible, but from what they can tell, at least one organ is wounded, probably more, and the legs may not be helped. He's a tiny kitten, and any internal surgery is unlikely to succeed. Caden and I give in to grief as we say good bye to M'bako, now covered with a blanket so Caden doesn't have to see the wounds, just his fox-like ears and snowy white face exposed for a child's nuzzled kisses. We leave the kitten sedated, as the staff isn't ready to put him down yet, they need a break. We pick up Declan from school and don't tell him anything, unclear of how to tell a two year old that his kitten is gone.

Five weeks we've waited for the Landlord to take the dog to the country, and Boon's voice over the phone is out of patience. He drops me and the boys off at a friend's house with a bottle of gin and enough chips to keep the boys quiet till delivery can arrive. He deals with the Landlord, the Realtor, the Landlord's wife, trying to understand how we're expected to spend the next three months locked inside our gate since they've already spent the money from our pre-paid rent. I don't know the details, but I'm told the dog will leave in two days. But that's what we were told the last time he bit someone, so neither of us is hopeful.

The veterinarian waited until today to let M'Bako pass, partly due to an obscure Buddhist holiday, but possibly because he hoped we'd change our minds about the surgery to repair the bladder, hips, legs, and whatever other internal organs weren't visible but also shredded by the mauling. Alone in the glass operating room, Boon had to make the choice again, let the kitten go, or try to let him live with at best, three legs and no bladder control. Alone, he held his head as he went to sleep. Alone, Boon buried M'Bako along the Mekong, a ways past the sidewalk hot-pot shops and bars, down the stairs to where the tall grasses grow. He dug the hole with a discarded plank, deep enough to escape the rains. He tells me the details through the crunch of french bread khaogee pate* sandwiches, brought unannounced by a friend on her way to work. She brings lunch and white roses, so we didn't have to think of details today. We take a drive just to get out, and finally tell Declan that his kitty was hurt, and he can't come home from the doctor.

Daam jets into the gate when we return. The fierceness of my curses surprise even me, as I chase him out with the pole. A black storm is brewing, thunder rolling across the city, gathering near our home, cooling the air and darkening the skies. M'Bako is gone. Daam is not. Our Mae Bahn may never come back to work, we really don't know, she doesn't answer the phone and we don't push it. We have no idea what her daughter saw or how she feels. What we know is this: The dog did what he was trained to do. The cat did what curious cats do. The Mae Bahn and her daughter did what they were expected to do. I did what I've always done. There's no place to lay blame. And the problem with atheism is, there's no place to go with questions.

 khaogee pate* = the Lao version of a Vietnamese Bun Mii sandwich, usually filled with fresh and pickled vegetables, pate, yaw (lao style mystery meat), moo-foy (silk-thread like shredded pork, which kids love), eggs, spicy pepper sauce, but made with laughing cow cheese for me.

Thursday, May 24, 2018


Only one teacher is bright eyed by the time our red Air Asia jet lands in Kuala Lumpur. I try to direct the student's attention to the endless rows of vibrant green rubber trees that carpet the land below our descent, to no avail. I'm trying to balance my role as teacher from my instinct as giddy tourist as we guide the entire 8th grade on a two city tour through another country. Four teachers, 28 students, cash, passports, selfie-sticks, and pandemonium.
The boys gave me their Ninja Turtles, so I wouldn't forget about them.
As if the c-section scar wasn't reminder enough. 

The students are nearly through Malaysian customs when one teacher follows two confused teens in a line against the flow of traffic, back into the bowels of the airport. The Immigration Office. We wait for thirty minutes or so before it becomes clear- this will not be a simple matter. The teacher returns to the baggage claim for back-up, and, being an immigration attorney, I of course believe this is my time to shine. We've checked passports- they're all valid for more than 6 months. There's extra pages. No visa fees for ASEAN member nations. None of my students is a known drug mule or involved with an online terror cell. Whatever issue this officer has, step aside, I've got this.

Straight back. Square shoulders. Eyes connected. Voice clear. (I didn't litigate cases for 9 years without picking ups some habits, you know) I'm 2/3rds of the way through my argument for the validity of my student's passport when the officer pulls at his goatee, purses his lips and raises a finger to silence me. "Are you teaching me? Because I'm not your student."

My eyes narrow as I launch into a counter argument that his alleged passport photo recency policy is invalid; no such policy is published on your government or embassy website, the policy is not evenly applied as other students were waived through, the principal of inter-governmental reciprocity requires that-


This is not America. I don't owe you any explanation. Your student is on the next flight to Vientiane, period. - Goatee is done with me. I can take my American legal theory and shove it.

Except the next flight to Vientiane isn't today. It isn't tomorrow. It's Tuesday. That's the bit about living in a Least Economically Developed Country- you don't get commuter flights to fancy cities like Kuala Lumpur.  It's 3:00 pm on a Saturday afternoon and the automatic 'cafe quality cappuccino' dispenser in stale immigration office is earning its keep. An Iraqi man in transit from Hanoi to Beijing, with a layover in Malaysia, is helplessly pleading his letter of acceptance to a Beijing University to study Chinese. The poor English translation of his acceptance letter states that the course started two weeks ago; he will not be boarding this connecting flight to Beijing.  A toddler with squeak-toy shoes runs circles around his grandmother's legs as his mother tries to explain why their passports don't match. My students cheeks are smeared with tears as the teachers and I try to negotiate their release from the airport for our 5 days in historic Malaysia. I'm not sure what they're more upset about- three nights in the airport or missing the legendary mega-malls in Kuala Lumpur.

I try reasoning with a female supervisor, confident that pure misogyny has blocked my rational defense. My direct and rational analysis of the situation is even less well received, as she gives a backwards glance to Goatee before sadly shaking her head 'no.'

The science teacher, a veteran of three field trips, stands next to me at the counter and shakes his head. He gives a little dad-frown, and sighs softly, "how will their parents feel to know their daughters are in the airport for three nights?"

I step back to comfort the girls ineffectually, then resort to calling the school director to pull any strings in Vientiane that can be pulled. Unfortunately, no strings are dangling on a Saturday afternoon. That's too much like a Monday.

When I return, the lady behind the counter is frowning too. I consider approaching, but realize maybe it's my time to move to the shadows. Allan's voice is soft. His hands only move as much as they need to to tell the story. Her head nods. She glances to Goatee, who still frowns, but gives an outstretched hand to review our field trip itinerary. More soft talk. A photocopy is made. Girls are called up, one by one, with instructions to thank the lady, and offer her a "Ramadan Mubarak," and nok* before taking their freshly stamped passports.

My co-teachers, all Filipino and veterans in Malaysia, shake their head at my incredulous rage. Perhaps I needed a lesson in how to stop. talking. now.


Nok: the thank you expression made with prayer hands and a bowed head, common in Laos, but respected throughout Southeast Asia

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

That Damn Dog

The sky has been darkening for over an hour, but I'm too absorbed in 8th circuit case law to notice. The breeze from the coming storm streams in through screen windows, keeping the normally stuffy living room perfectly cool for an afternoon of work. The boys are gone with friends to celebrate Lao Labor Day, Boon is in Jakarta, and I am getting shit done. With any luck, I'll be done with my work by the time the boys get home, and we can finally enjoy a mom-n-boys night spent watching pirate movies.
I don't hear the wooden gate scrape across the tile floor, or the shuffle of padded paws crossing the living room. When I get up for another cup of tea, he's just there: Daam is crouching in a corner, ready to wait out the storm.
Except, he's not supposed to be. Given the size of the tick Boon found on him last week, a shriveled corn kernel of a thing, he's definitely not supposed to be inside. We've put a tick and flea collar on him, but I trust that just about as far as I trust this damn dog. He's got to leave.
Dogs aren't my thing. I don't just love them, as innocent human-like members of the family. After being "that drunk girl" at a frat party at Georgia Tech, I had a chow-lab mix bite my face and neck, forever ending my infatuation with the four legged brethren.  (Cats, I can do, especially mean, autistic ones named Schatzi) But dogs I prefer from a distance, and this dog has been aggressive enough times for me to keep away from my kid's bedroom.
The porch is a good place for him. He reclines on the cool tile on Sunday mornings, getting a belly rub while we sip coffee. He's got a crate in the covered back porch with a fresh comforter and a little roof. He gets fed, he gets petted, he even gets Declan's kisses. He just doesn't get inside the house. It's a system, and it's worked.
The thunderstorm changes the rules though: this is still his house, he's still the alfa, and he wants his corner. He's an older dog, grey in the muzzle, but he's fought off enough street dogs to establish his title as the alpha of the house; his wary eyes tell me as much.
I try to lure him out with sausage, and nearly get him to the door before he shuffles back to a corner. I try grabbing him under his front legs and drag-walking him, the same way Boon and I have gotten him out in the past. He growls a low growl, gives a warning bark before lunging at me, but I dodge in time. I try again, cajoling, pulling, urging "pai aow, pai aow."  He gets to the door before he lets loose on me, swinging his shoulders back at me to snap at my face and arms, a sharp siren bark of defiance his last word on this issue. I jump back just in time for him to get my right arm, just a scratch with his teeth, but enough after the last two warnings for me to get it- he's not leaving.
He settles back into a corner, but this time where he can see me. His eyes follow me as I wander the house, considering my options, before settling on shutting all the doors. The storm is coming, I can't tell how he's going to act, and I'm not willing to find out. I shut the windows against the coming rain, grab my laptop and hope I can finish my work at a coffee shop. Instead, an expensive trip to the international clinic for the first of five rabies shots eats away at my work time.
I can't call the police, I don't know that there's even really a number. There's no animal control to speak of, but there is a general assistance number. Unfortunately, no one gets paid enough to answer the phone on a state holiday. I text my teacher group, my Lao-American friends, and my brothers-in-law; someone has to know how to get this dog out.  My Lao-American friend doesn't have an answer, but he is fluent in Lao, so he offers to speak to my landlord about the issue. Several phone calls with my drunken landlord later, I learn the simple truth, no one is going to leave a Labor Day cook out to deal with this damn dog.
Hours later, we pull into the driveway and I tell the boys under no uncertain terms: stay in this car until I get this dog out of the house and yard. The storm has passed and things are nearly dried out in the Southeast Asian sun. The windows are all shut, the toilets blocked off, no food to be found.  Daam is hot, thirsty, and hungry- he willingly runs out to the porch. He stops for just a minute to take a stance, lift his chin and issue a barbaric yalp at me: he's still alpha.
It's days before the landlord can get him out of the yard. I keep him out of the house, but only by blocking all the doors and forfeiting my front porch. I trip over my bare feet to race to the gate whenever he runs after a street dog to fight, and manage to lock him out only by locking us in. We don't leave in the afternoons, after he's locked out, because it's just too hard to keep him from coming back in. There is no animal control. No one will take away a dog that bites. My friend offers one possibility- he might just get eaten if he's out of the gate for long enough. When the landlord finally does "take" him, it's just to the house next door, owned by a family friend. Whenever our door opens, the gate cracks, or the car starts, Daam wails from the other wall, separated from his house by an alley and my fear.
The landlord promises to take him "outside of town," but can't get him in a car. He promises to pay for my rabies shots, but quietly stops mentioning it when Boon comes home from Jakarta. The dog is waiting for us when we get home from work, waiting at my car door to bark me to the front door. A friend mentions I can buy Valium at the pharmacy and put him to sleep myself, just a suggestion, but I'm not that cruel. Where I come from, we take our animals to an over-air-conditioned examination room, stick a needle in their leg, and put them to sleep with our dignity.* I can't imagine an animal, even one I don't like, dying in a bowl of his favorite food. It's just not right. But after a week of waiting for him to find a new home, I get why it's an option.
We have two days of peace and think maybe the landlord really did take him to the country, before he's in the yard again. He's pacing the back door while I cook black bean mushroom tacos, so I push a water jug in front of the screen door, think better of it, and shut the proper door. The kitchen turns into a sauna within minutes, but it's easier than another round of rabies shots so we'll deal.  It was a fake out, he's rounded to the front and pushed the solid wood gate out to bum rush the living room. A storm's coming.


"Pai aow": the incorrect way to say "go out," apparently I was supposed to say "aow pai," which would have probably have been equally as ineffective

*I'm not being facetious, that's exactly how we put down Schatzi. I wailed like a crazy lady, and the animal clinic let me stay with her till I could get it together. She went easily, peacefully, and with love.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Living More with Less

My sandals are starting to slip as I walk. After daily wear as a teacher, trekking through Vientiane, Krabi, Bangkok, Luang Prabang, and all places in between, it's time to go shoe shopping. Frankly, they are ugly, old-lady sandals as is, a purchase of necessity when I realized my Croc ballet flats were killing me after teaching five classes. I would never wear these in D.C.- never.

They are beautiful, aren't they?!Any my
sandals are ugly, aren't they?? 
But these pumps, they call to me. They whisper "Ahhhmandahhhh" from their midnight sea blue and green sequins, and delight me when I realize they change to shades of electric purple and fuchsia when your fingers gently caress the sides. I am thankful for the millionth time that my size is always the display size, and I glide through the Aldo in Jakarta, unable to explain to the sales lady to say "I'm just trying these on." They're only $43.00 on super sale (because who on earth was buying them anyways?) and Virginia Amanda wants them, now. Vientiane Amanda puts them down (but only after trying on black satin pumps with elaborate floral sequin foolishness). Vientiane Amanda moves down the aisle to the black patent leather flat sandals and walks out with what she needs, not what she wants.

The shopping mantra since we arrived has been "live more with less," and with a fully furnished apartment, it wasn't difficult. Having moved across town to a little house twice the size, with half the furnishings, we're suddenly confronted with the complicated aspect of living on less; like, can I buy a vegetable peeler? Can't I just peel with a knife?

Sitting in the open living room, propped up by questionably old throw pillow on someone else's broken down couch, less makes less sense. I'm tempted to find modern curtain rods and light blocking curtains. To find a skillet that won't burn and warp over the fierce gas stove. To make a home in this house and settle in.

Except: I'm ready to go home now.

It's not the heat. It's not the food. It's just time. On her 6th day in Laos, my friend Tiff turned to me and said, "yep, I'm having a great time, but I'm ready to be home now." It's possible to have a great time, and be ready to leave at the same time- like at a wedding with a really good D.J., or Disney Land. Like a slow rolling tide that washes away your sandals at the beach, home sickness has invaded my life. The boys have felt it in waves since we moved, but it took the quick approach of summer vacation for it to swell in my own chest. We've signed a two year contract to teach, so we have a degree of certainty until 2019. The plan has always been to spend this one summer traveling or relaxing in Vientiane, taking full advantage of our time abroad. And yet, when I've got writers block at work, or I'm too lazy to read, I find myself on, looking for flights from Bangkok to Boston, not Vientiane to Kathmandu. I imagine a summer spent floating on an inner tube at my dad's lake house, sipping coffee in a dragonfly teacup with my mom, clearing out her piles of news clippings she's saved for me over the months, planning the day's menu with my dad. I feel cool mountain breezes across the top of Caden's head as we take a scenic train in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I think about night spent around a fire pit when my cousins come to town, the stories they'll tell me of the wedding we'll miss. I wonder if our friends will trek north to see us. I consider the arguments we'll get in, and the food we'll cook to get over it. I'm ready to be with my family again.

I spend a day frantically buying and cancelling flights to the USA, as the flight cost estimator causes my blood pressure to sky rocket. Boon and I fight over the expense, the frivolousness of it all, the timing, the route. I finally accept, after much acrimony, that I just can't always get what I want. For a day I feel dazed and lost, then spend another day wanting to stay in bed and scroll through old pictures on Facebook. The boys won't tolerate that, but they will compromise, so we spend an afternoon locked in the bedroom, air con on blast, watching last season's Black-ish. I'm slightly comforted, then thrown back into homesick depression. My family not a pair of fashion-trash pumps; it's hard to say "no" to that want.

As an immigration attorney, I work with clients who left with little more than their identity cards and the shoes on their feet. They fled to the United States, knowing they wouldn't see their mothers again. Some wait two decades to return; some never do. It is a luxury to have a U.S. passport, a country visa, and the knowledge that I can cross borders when I need to; my sadness is a privilege.

The problem with plans is how they change and morph. There's a plan in place, but putting it into action is another story. When Excel spreadsheets and budgets are made, boxes packed, and renters located, one can conveniently put the "miss mamma" issue into a bullet point, and cross it off with "Facetime." All the Facetime in the world can't show my parents how Declan's smile rolls across his face to his eyes when he want's something, or how his little shoulders start to scrunch up when he's tuning up to belt out "Moanaaaaa, make way....!" in his toddler rasp. Caden curl into the crook of my dad's arm and read "Emmett's Awesome Day: Lego Movie" to them.We made the choice to relegate this to electronic senses, I just want to change my choice now. I know we are living more, but I feel its with less.