Thursday, December 14, 2017

Tiger Balm Can Cure all...?

It's been five weeks since my motor bike fiasco and my shoulder still hurts like hell. I don't sleep well, it doesn't move in all directions, and the arm continues to radiate pain. I've been told it's fine, just needs rest, so I've been treating it with tiger balm and box red wine, with the occasional gin for good measure.

For weeks, my colleagues have urged me to try a private hospital in town, just for a second opinion. I've got time for swim lessons, reading books, and finding new smoothie shops, but not for private hospitals. Frankly, after dabbling in personal injury, I've got a sincere cynicism for physical therapy and tissue injury treatment. Boon agrees, these things just take time, and besides, three doctors in Vang Vieng Hospital already checked it out. But after five weeks, it's time to drag my stubborn butt to a hospital.

I walk into a clean white building, cheerfully decorated for Christmas, and sign in. I need my passport or work permit, and within five minutes, a nurse is telling me I can probably avoid the whole appointment by just doing some stretching exercises. Heifer, if stretching was working, would I be wasting my Wednesday here? I think to myself, but politely nod and ask if a doctor can review my Vang Vieng x-ray, just for shits and giggles.

A few minutes later, a boy in scrubs walks out to the waiting room, leans forward in a bow, and politely but pointedly asks me "So, the doctor you saw said your arm was not broken, right?"

He goes back to the triage room, and from what Boon can roughly translate, he's apparently really a doctor (just insanely young looking), and he's not sure what he's looking at. I'm called back, and the x-ray is displayed on a bright screen. I don't know anatomy, but I know children's art, and the shoulder bone looks like a little snow capped mountain. As in, there's a clear jagged line going across, which apparently is the fracture I got on the day of the incident. The one nobody told me about. The one I've been treating with tiger balm and gin.

After much talk, a second x-ray, confirming several times which shoulder is damaged, and another doctor's review, I get the call: yes, it was fractured, but it's basically healing back into place. An older doctor in the radiology department reviews the new x-ray with a nurse, and since I'm so clearly foreign, they speak in loud tones. All I catch is "Vang Vieng... falong... jeip kaan... ga-dai..." which I believe means "Crazy foreigner in party town hurt arm, it's ok." Just as he turns the corner, I see his smartphone: it's open to google, search "fractured shoulder." I know, because I was just on that google page, and I recognize the images of shoulder x-rays. This does not bode well for me.

A lovely elderly doctor eventually explains the mending process to me, assures me that it doesn't need to be re-broken or pinned, as it's healed back into place. Boon asks "so do you have a physical therapist you recommend? I used one for my torn rotator cuff in high school," and the doctor laughs like the good-natured Dr. Hubbard from the Simpsons. "We need a lot of doctors don't we... we don't have that here. Have you tried acupuncture?" and proceeds to draw a map for me of the acupuncturist he trusts. He just warns me, "it might look strange, just don't run away screaming, give it a try," and assures me they'll use fresh needles when I broach the subject of hepatitis.

Boon and I create a homemade X-ray viewer
I text the news to my family whatsapp chat, and my dad politely but firmly responds, this was a fun experiment, now get out of the developing world and come home for real medical treatment. My mom reviews a texted image of the original x-ray, and determines it looks displaced. My friend notes that I wasn't given any opioid pain killers, and maybe that "suck it up attitude" is why Laos doesn't have the opioid problem that America has (or, it's possible that Lao addicts just don't last as long as American addicts due to less medical treatment options...I'm not an expert and can't comment).

I walked out with a bill of $47.00. I'll keep resting it and slathering on tiger balm. I'll go back in a month to take another x-ray and make sure I'm really on the mend, although the doc made it clear "if you feel fine, don't come back, you're probably fine." For the first time in my life, I really don't have any health insurance or way to wiggle under a family member's policy. I spent an hour and less than the price of my co-pay for treatment. I don't know what this would have cost me in Virginia. I don't have a conclusion yet, I don't know what I think about all of this.

And all I wanted to do was hike a mountain and swim in the blue lagoon...

Monday, December 11, 2017

Deet or Dengue: Your Choice

My morning beauty routine hasn't changed much since moving. Lotion for ashy ankles, face powder to hold the oily complexion at bay, and a quick spritz of perfume on the way out. Or rather, a big spritz. On my feet, ankles, legs, arms, neck, and depending on where I'm going, my mass of faux-'fro.  Then a similar dousing for two wriggling boys and we're out the door. And it's not so much perfume, as it's a Lao concoction that promises 12% DEET content, with a soft floral scent. I can't read the label or the contents, but apparently even Lao consumers want to see DEET in Times New Roman bold.

A haze of mosquitoes awaits us: crossing through the potted plant wonderland of our building's stairway, hiding between the laundry that hangs in the back patio, hiding in the crevices between the eggs and tomatoes bowls on the kitchen counter. All of this is a mere nuisance, until Dengue comes to town.

Dengue Fever is a tropical virus transmitted by mosquito bite, mostly during the daytime. The symptoms start, if at all, about 4 days after the bite, and lead from just feeling fevered and poorly, to having a flu that isn't the flu, a fever that lasts 4-7 days, to hemorrhaging.  There is no real treatment for the flu or fever version, besides just treating the symptoms, like with any virus. Dengue in Laos is common, although 2017 has been worse than past years. This year, it came to Vientiane, and hit my school hard. Throughout the fall, several students and teachers were hospitalized, either in Laos or Thailand, with Dengue or Swine Flu. Our own house experienced waves of unexplained fevers, days of misery, recovery, only to slip back into fevered misery. We are lucky- we know the stories of relatives, vibrant and young, who die in hospital beds from hemorrhages that can't be stopped or aren't treated with the proper blood type. We are lucky.

I ponder this topic on a cool Sunday afternoon from my favorite place in Laos: my mother in-law's gazebo. Sao Souk, the auntie who raised Boon, wanders by to see the needle point I'm working on. We swat halfheartedly at a lingering mosquito as I tell her my troubles, then her normally airy manner becomes hard and clear. Know where you are, she tells me. Know who you are. In Vientiane, she warns, echoing the women who came before her, you are not special, but how you move on is your decision. The girls have an agenda and they are everywhere. Many a man has gotten lost in his ego here, in a place where anything can go after midnight. Boon isn't just any man, but he's got to know who he is, too. Work, she cautions, but recognize, if work isn't working, maybe staying isn't for you. I consider her hard-earned experience as she walks off to join the women playing cards inside. You can't kill every mosquito, drain every ditch, or avoid every bite. You live among them, but are not of them. I continue my needlepoint, pulling a dove of hope from the dull blue background, as the mosquitoes loll beside me.

At home, we go to war against the mosquito horde. At the Lao markets we buy long sticks of incense that we think deters them, until we notice the flies dropping dead mid-flight in a gust of incense smoke. Perhaps we shouldn't breathe this in ourselves? I've bought an electrified tennis racket to swat them; my neighbors wake each morning to the snap, crackle, and pop of battle. The dead mosquito bodies litter the patio floor, but are gone within hours-- maybe the geckos like their food blackened? The children I raised to be pacifists jockey for the tennis racket, and when Declan comes out the winner, he stalks the swarms, whispering "kill kill kill." It's disturbing, yet effective.

I guard the boys with DEET. I place beta fish in the old vodka and soda bottles that hold my startling vines. We talk in low tones as the boys struggle to guard the patio against the onslaught. I know who I am, where I am, and who we have always been. We choose DEET over dengue and hope for the best.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

When the Bottom Falls Out

"Night night, Daddy."

That is not a text message you expect to see on your husband's phone when your actual children are arguing in car seats behind you. We are driving in the black of night towards a lake house resort, on hour three of what should have been an hour drive outside of the city. I'm trying sorting through the Youtube Christmas playlist selections when the bottom falls out of my world, in the form of a text message.

Without detailing what ensues, suffice it to say, the expat life is made for forgetting your troubles. People move abroad to the developing world and find a freedom you can't imagine in your homeland. Musicians on stage serenade you with the latest Chainsmokers release while you guzzle beers under the limelight, surrounded by strangers and friends. A $40 tab gives you open access to the VIP experience, only its any night of the week, as many nights a week as your liver can handle. Some people get lost in the haze of the Vientiane night life, replaying the same party over and over again, the same ten songs on endless replay. I just never realized my husband was one of them.

To be fair: I am experiencing the many stages of grief as I type this. I am only a few days separated from the realization that I was waiting at home for a husband who was out at the club with Nui, Apple, Lar, and whatever that other heifer is called, not just his brother and cousin. I am only a few days from realizing that people I've known for years have looked me in the eye and smiled, knowing damn well what was going on when I took the kids to bed. I am struggling between rage, heartbreak, hope, and delusion.

I consider drowning my sorrows with whiskey and soda, then realize a run might actually make me see clearly. I run along the Mekong, side stepping the electricians repairing the fresh fish stands, speeding up as I pass the monks, unclear if I'm supposed to respectfully pass or not, holding back tears as I listen to Coldplay's Ghost Stories. I stop for water at the park we imagined taking our boys, back on that crisp December day when the possibility of really making the leap towards our dream first occurred to us. Sitting on the grass, staring through the vast leaves at the sky, tears stream down my face unapologetically. I don't care if the group next to me is weirded out enough to move. Go to hell. I can almost feel the branches of the trees envelope me in my sorrow, and I won't pause to make some stranger feel less awkward.

I pass by the bar where I was so betrayed, and for a moment I plan how I will enter, screaming and scratching, to scar some woman as badly as I've been scarred. There are so few black people in Vientiane that the city (and the country?) lack the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman. I'll have one eye ball out before they realize what's going on; they'd never see it coming. My friend urges me to come to my senses from across the world, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes as I focus my anger on maiming someone. The door is locked, and my anger is left sizzling on the dusty pavement.
the "your life has imploded" essentials kit:
box wine, flowers for yourself, and a snack bread.

I am leagues away from my tribe, and yet, across the distance they circle the wagons. From California, Texas, Georgia, Philadelphia, and New Hampshire, they come. The bottom fell out of my world, and yet, my tribe is here extending the net before I hit the bedrock. While the thought of just returning to my mother's couch lures me, I know this isn't an issue we can escape with distance. We will figure it out, one day at a time, like any married couple not looking for the exit sign. While these may be sweet years, there are still bitter weeks.

I'll have pithy observations on Lao/Falong life, however, I may keep them to myself for a time while we sort out our life issues. Thesweetyears blog may be on a hiatus, I'm not sure. Thanks in advance for your patience and well wishes. Happy holidays to all.

Friday, November 24, 2017


Caden has been saying it for months, it's time to go home. He wants to go back to America, back to his pre-k, back to his room. We've brushed him off, since frankly, even when he was "home," he wanted to be somewhere else, he's just never satisfied. Declan wants to go back to "popee boat," but doesn't seem to remember too much else about our lives before July. Boon misses the convenience of the grocery store, the familiar products, the availability. Me? As an army brat, 'home' is where I'm sleeping; it isn't tied to 'place.' I haven't felt homesick in the least.

Until this afternoon. It felt like all the air got sucked out of the room, my skin went cold, and I felt it: that deep, earnest, singular need to sit with a friend.

The first time I moved away from Georgia, to a first floor apartment of a Philly row house, I felt it every time I looked outside: I miss my friend. I missed being able to walk down a hallway or across the backyard to sit cross legged on her floor, gripping a hot cup of tea, and speak freely. Speak honestly. To take my feelings and dissect them, to analyze the problem, search for solutions, or accept when there is none. I missed her swallowing me up in a bear hug, reminding me that it's ok. Looking out at the brick wall that faced my dining table, I missed that friend so deeply it hurt. More than law school exams hurt, more than Philly snow slush hurt, more than being lost in the brick jungle hurt. But at least she was on the line, from across the miles, answering the phone to reconstruct that special physical space.

With time, as my friends followed their dreams and careers, I got used to settling for phone-call friendship. And since moving here, video-chat friendship, FB messenger, and whatsapp have kept me in contact as though I'd never left.

Then this afternoon, as my first instinct was to reach for the phone, my thumb pressed the screen unlock and it flashed in front of me: cold hard numbers, it's 2:49 am where she is. I'm on my own for this one.

Your best friend can't bring you that hot cup of chai across the miles. Your mom can't hug you from a video chat. Your dad can't wipe your tears across the digital divide. You're on your own, just you, a screen, and the hours in-between borders.

Comfortable Bubbles

Vacation us: we ride bikes along the river, stopping for a photo and a beer
There's a difference between vacationing and inhabiting. On vacation, you carry a guide book (or, if you're not as ancient as I am, you download the Lonely Planet app), then you see and do, taste and feel, run and breathe, until you collapse on your lumpy guesthouse bed watching the ceiling spin.

Then you go home.

When we first came to Laos on vacation, it felt exactly like that- a whirlwind of new places, new tastes, and confusing toilets. The second vacation felt more familiar, as we recognized some places and faces, and this time knew how to use a squatter (albeit imperfectly). Now, as immigrants with work visas, a lease agreement, and weekly swim lessons, we've fallen into our groove. Fridays after work: "river office meeting" with our coworker friends. Saturday morning: swim class for Caden, pick-up basketball game for Boon. A degree of predictability is settling in.

Resident us: we drive here after work, bringing our kids,
to enjoy happy hour at a Falong Bar

And yet... the three-day weekend: still a cause for celebration, despite the fact that our new working life is far more relaxed than in the States. We've taken advantage of the nearest out-doorsy get away, Vang Vieng. And we'll be back again, just not until my arm is fully recovered from that motor bike incident. With 'winter' break (and I use the term 'winter' with a strong dose of relativity), I can't help but get the urge to flip through that old guide book, scroll through the travel blogs, and calculate a proper rush-of-blood-to-the-head vacation. The sentimental, homesick version of me asks my parents to join us for the holiday season, but the realist, frugal version of me knows it's not possible due to family and financial constraints. So now, for once, there's a winter break, and we have no one to visit. No where we have to be... almost.

My brother-in-law is getting married, and having two weddings: one on Christmas Eve in Salavan, Laos, which is about a 12 hour drive from Vientiane along rocky roads.  The second, on December 30, in Vientiane. The boys and I will forego the Salavan trip, saving the wedding party from enduring Caden's endless whining and Declan's well-timed explosive diapers. So while Boon searches online for silk ties for the wedding party, I search Air Asia and Tripadvisor for holiday escapes.

I calculate the cost for flights to a Thai, Malaysian, or Cambodian beach, a resort or hotel, consider the food and tuk-tuks, and hesitate. Wouldn't it just be easier to stay-cation here in Vientiane? Take a day trip out to the butterfly park, dine at the riverside, have a day on the couch reading? Haven't we already "traveled?"

No matter where you move, the comfortable bubble will form. Despite your best intentions to grab life by the throat, that little voice inside says "oh, but you haven't seen everything there is to see right here... wouldn't it be better to stay home?... oh and the expense... couldn't you spend that better on something more practical?" We used to think of that voice inside as the voice of reason. It convinced Boon to major in business instead of history and philosophy, since being a teacher was out of the question. It convinced me to be satisfied with a maymester abroad in college, instead of a full year, so I wouldn't miss any of the courses I wanted to take and could save on student loans. It's not the voice of reason, it's the voice of the known. The voice of safety. The voice of experiences tried and tested.

I book the vacation to Krabi, Thailand. I download the Lonely Planet Asia app. We consult our friends for which bush walk is best for kids, and how to take the boat from the mainland to the beach. The comfort bubble will be here when we return, heads spinning, stomachs full, and eyes wider.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

It's not all cafes and sunsets

A perfect cup of coffee at Kaogee Cafe

The early morning sun brightens the clear glass bricks that line the upper walls of our apartment, waking us. I roll out of bed and turn off the single-room air conditioning unit, then open the front and back doors to let the cool morning breeze in. My toe presses the surge protector "on" button to start the flow of electricity to the water dispenser, while my hands grip the blue lid on the up-cycled peanut butter jar to get the coffee into the french press. Four scoops of strong Lao coffee equals three cups of morning joy.
What I actually drink, most days: strong Lao coffee with lots of powdered creamer

Boon joins me outside for coffee and we listen to the sparrows, crickets, and what sounds like an owl or some other wild bird, while the land lady's straw broom adds a constant swish to the soundtrack. No matter where I've lived, it's the same song in the morning, just different singers. Some mornings, the song is punctuated by the snap and sizzle of my electrified mosquito swatter, swung in lazy circles out of habit. The landlady is clearing all the dead leaves from the tree roots, clearing the durian, mango, and papaya debris, to burn in a rusty old drum barrel. I want to tell her to leave the leaves to create the humus layer that feeds the trees. However, since I don't know the words for leaves, trees, let alone "decomposition," we just sit in our borrowed blue plastic chairs, waiting for the smell of burning leaves.

It's fall now, in America. It's the dry season here in Laos. We're planning to celebrate Thanksgiving with our fellow American immigrant friends- one has secured a coveted imported Turkey, while Boon is making smoked ribs. I'm trying to decide if it's worth it to mash potatoes with a fork for 15 people, knowing I'm too cheap to spend the 78,000 kip to buy a 4th quality Chinese export potato masher. I can already picture my head exploding when the handles snaps off 4 inches deep into potatoes, the heat from the electric burner stove radiating against my greasy post-work complexion, while four little hands grab my shirt begging for those mashed potatoes. Perhaps everyone will be satisfied with skillet fried potatoes, instead?

Declan wakes up, peaking his head outside the door at me, before grabbing Boon's chair to push it closer to me. He's naked, but for a diaper, because the polyester sheets burn him up at night. After getting lost in the morning music for just a moment, he remembers that I feed him, and demands "kin khao, kin kai dao!," then fills the diaper for good measure.

It's not all cafes and sunset beers. Some days it's just powdered creamer coffee, grey cloudy skies, and sparrows songs.
The plain view from our balcony

"kin khao, kin kai dao!" = Eat rice, eat fried eggs

Friday, November 10, 2017

Thinner, Brown-er, Broke-er

When we imagined our new life, we imagined three things: becoming thinner, brown-er, and broke-er. We’d sacrifice our well-paid jobs, our benefits, and our savings, leaving us far more broke than we’ve been since leaving retail work. We’d bask in the Southeast Asian sunlight, riding bikes to center-city, hiking every few weeks, and generally living a life in the sun; hence: brown-er. And as a result of this Utopian lifestyle, we’d naturally become thinner, foregoing the daily post-work cocktail for a post-work walk.

So far, we’re brown-er, we’re broker. But we’re damn sure not thinner.

As Meh pointed out to me a few weeks ago, “Amandaah, what you gain, three, four kilos?”

I looked at her with abject horror, almost too shocked to stop eating the freshly fried pork rinds in my hand. It’s not impolite to call someone tubby in Laos. It’s impolite to not feed them. I’d say she’s only saying this because mother-in-laws have to be a bit picky to uphold their reputation, but she’s not the only one. The tailor sucks her teeth when I come in for a sinth fitting, then moves the waistline just a few centimeters higher, “so you can eat.”

I’d like to blame it on the Lao diet of Beer Lao and sticky rice, but frankly, I’ve never seen so many flat-stomached women in my life—and I lived in Miami. Clearly, it’s not Laos, it’s us. We’ve started to take stock of our eating habits, trying to track down the source of the problem. I mulled the problem over from the passenger seat of the car, gingerly holding the bag of carrot cake, harvest cookies, and chocolate brownies from our late-night Common Grounds run. I considered it again as I practiced my Lao at the doughnut cart, making sure I got twenty cream filled doughnuts, not two. This way, I wouldn’t look selfish at the teacher’s lounge, being the only one scarfing down doughnuts (“look guys, there’s some for you, too!”). 

It’s possible it’s the sweets.
My favorite doughnut lady

The dense first version. Obviously,
despite it's flaws, I ate it. 
I have a student who is an aspiring pastry chef. He discovered Krispy Kreme doughnuts in South Korea, which blew his mind.  He learned that I’m somewhat of an expert on said doughnuts, and has been using me as an unwitting taste tester for his homemade version. The first batch, which I absentmindedly said were “a bit dense, not airy enough to be Krispy Kreme” sent the student into a shame spiral, leading to a period of weekly doughnut experimentation. Between his perfect brownies, the chocolate crème filled doughnuts, and granola, the other teachers are beginning to avoid his “baked bribes.” I, however, have never been one to crush a child’s dreams.
The second attempt. 

Neither of us were ever sweets lovers, until I was pregnant with Declan. In-utero Declan demanded cake and steak, which probably explains his stout physique. My pregnancy baking frenzy led to an expectation of weekly, though not daily, dessert. I didn’t expect Laos to have much of a dessert culture, as I’m accustomed to the sticky rice and grilled meats menu. Laos, a former French colony, with copious fresh fruit trees lining neighborhood streets, and a significant Chinese culinary influence, has a bit of a sweet tooth.

But pair that with the savory offerings: the lettuce wrapped salty fried rice paste, topped with fresh shaved lemongrass rings, galong (Asian ginger) sticks, and pork rinds. The skewered pork with papaya salad, so spicy you have to wash it down with liters of Beer Lao. The rib-lets. Don’t get me started on the rib-lets. 
Snack table at the Talat Sao mall

Happy kiddo eating mall food

So, three months in, I’m re-evaluating our goal to be “thinner, brown-er, broke-er” after our time here. The mango pancake I’m savoring during this evaluation leaves a little whipped crème on my cheek, and as I wipe it off I conclude: we may need to work a little harder on that ‘thinner’ part. After my snack time banana egg roll with condensed milk, I’ll run a few laps. 
Sticky rice mango pancakes from Kung's Cafe