There Are Three Good Things (à la Lindsey Mingo)

Also known as, three reasons to smile today

1) After a sustainable hydropower conference in Phnom Penh, I am in Siem Reap! Tomorrow, I will venture out for my first day of exploring the Angkor Wat complex.

2) I wandered downtown for some dinner tonight and had some amazing traditional Khmer sweet potato curry (added bonus good thing!). On my walk home, I was approached by my 34th tuk tuk driver of the night, who exclaimed loudly “HELLO HONEY WOULD YOU LIKE TUK TUK RIDE?” Which was followed by a rather surprised look on the young guy’s face and then a rambling apology of “Oh, excuse me! Lady. I mean lady. Lady would you like tuk tuk ride?” I turned to his three giggling tuk tuk buddies and  couldn’t help but to crack a huge smile and join in the laughter. Laughter truly has no foreign accent, even for overly zealous tuk tuk drivers. I must admit, I’m curious to know who this guy actually does call ‘honey.’

What I'm dealing with here (consonants only).

3) I took a bus from Phnom Penh this morning. It was a long drive and between my empty iPod battery and the fifth hour of strangely identical (same same but different, anyone?) Thai karaoke love songs, I started to get a bit antsy. So I pulled out my Lao flashcards that Hannah was nice enough to lend me and attempted to read. I’ve yet to get any sort of grasp on reading words in Lao. And without anyone to help me, I didn’t expect my attempt at studying would provide a distraction for very long.

Suddenly, the tiny guy who had been curled up in the seat next to me (rocking two button up dress shirts at once, in addition to the sunglasses that really only old people in Florida should be allowed to wear) perked up. He pointed at my flashcard and read the word. In a second, we had launched into a conversation in some strange variation of Thai and Lao. He was from Cambodia but had spent a fair amount of time in Thailand and knew a smattering of Lao words as well. All of a sudden I had a study buddy! I worked through words, pointing at vowels that I couldn’t remember, we compared notes on the differences between some Thai and Lao words, as well as the English vocab. Sometimes I would flip over a new flashcard and my partner would exclaim the word before I even had a chance to make out the first letter (show off…). We worked for almost an hour, and I am happy to say I still suck at reading Lao, but I’ll get there.

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That Time I Went to Africa

Have I mentioned yet on this blog how awesome my job is? Well, it’s awesome. I’m working for the Challenge Program on Water and Food, a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research 11 year project looking at ways to improve water management practices in six different river basins all over the world. One of those projects is located in the Mekong, looking at hydropower development and governance in the region.

But the program also operates in the Andes, Volta, Nile, Limpopo and Ganges. A couple weeks ago I had the incredible opportunity to go to South Africa to take part in the Third International Forum on Water and Food, organized by CPWF. It was an amazing opportunity at the perfect time. Not only was I able to meet all of the people I have been emailing and skyping with over the past three months, but I was also able to gain some real clarity on where the program is and where it is heading.

My job was to help document and promote the Forum through a range of social media outlets. If you’re interested, you can check out the Forum website or our Twitter account (shameless promotion here…) It was a complete whirlwind event, and unfortunately my impressions of South Africa are limited to an evening in Johannesburg and a visit to a game preserve located between Johannesburg and Pretoria. Until I return, my most vivid memories of South Africa will involve the Greek style conference hall, endless amounts of feta cheese and cheese and cheese, and almost getting run over on the one morning I ventured outside for a run.

Regardless, it was an awesome trip. I made a lot of connections and some great new friends. There is talk of a communications trip in June to either Peru or Burkina Faso and I can’t wait to meet up with my commrades soon. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

And now, for what you’ve all been waiting for, pictures of ANIMALS. Okay, and some people too.

Saw lots of these guys.

Evidence we weren't exactly in the middle of nowhere.

The reserve had 3 17-month old rescue lions.

I think this was actually a yawn...

...

I volunteered myself for the jump seat on the front of the truck as the sun was going down. Smart, right?

Pictures won't do this justice.

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Tham Konglor

The magical adventure to a six kilometer cave through a mountain. Baan Konglor, Lao PDR, October 2011.

My bus ride buddy on the crazy Lao bus

Taking the songthaew over the mountain for the last leg of the journey. Scary, winding roads with tractor trailers to follow.

Our homestay family's kitchen. All in one oven, stove, microwave and toaster oven.

Ducks in the backyard, on the walk out to the bathroom.

Home for the weekend, before the rain cleared.

Kyle and our guides getting ready to head across the pond to the cave entrance.

The six kilometer river through a mountain. Still raining...

The boat that will take us up the river.

We rode up in almost complete darkness. At times, you could make out the walls close overhead. At other times, our guides' super-strength headlamps would illuminate a space at least four stories tall.

Then they kicked us out of the boat. Our guide flipped a switch in a small electrical box on the side of a path and all of a sudden a world of underground formations was illuminated.

This portion of the cave had been illuminated about four years ago as part of a French development project.

An hour later, there was light!

And the rain had even stopped!

We wandered with our boat driver to a village 2 kilometers from the river. About 20 families live here. They had no electricity until three years ago. The only real way for them to reach the 'bigger' towns is to go out by boat through the mountain.

Ingenious! At first I suspected something veryyy strange was going on with the pigs in this village but these 'collars' allow the pigs to roam freely, without getting into the rice fields.

Children harvesting rice.

We made some friends at the little refreshment stand near the river. A great way to practice our Lao.

Back through the mountain now.

Making more friends.

This was a tough crowd, but Kyle persevered.

I believe I used the word 'unreal' a lot that weekend.

We wanted to help 'geyow cow' (harvest rice) but the closest offer we got was to help carry it. This girl is separating the rice grains from the stalks.

A little snack from our homestay mom. Actually a lot more 'sep' (delicious) than it probably appears. Fish soup and a fish dip (eaten with sticky rice) from her backyard.

Wandering around with our homestay mom. I think this is about when she pulled the snail out of the pond and Kyle proceeded to hum to it.

And that, good folks, is why words weren’t really going to cut it on this post.

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Boun Ok Pansa and Boun Souang Heua

One of a few overdue blog posts. (Since my mom asked so nicely this morning!)

I had the opportunity to take part in an amazing, traditional Buddhist event a few weeks ago; I raced a sacred boat down the Mekong! The boat races take place during the Boun Souang Heua festival, as part of the celebrations marking the end of Buddhist lent. The majority of the teams that take place in the Vientiane Boat Race are comprised of Lao people from surrounding villages, although there is one co-ed international team. I joined the one ‘mixed’ team, made up of international women living in Vientiane and Lao women from a nearby village.



For the six weeks leading up to the festival, we would head out to the village once or
twice a week for training practices. Our arrival usually sparked a bit of activity in the village. People would wave and shout ‘Hello!’ as we drove in and generally quite a few onlookers would head on down to the banks of the Mekong to watch the spectacle.

Boat racing is a sacred activity. The 50-person dragon boats are carved from a single blessed tree that is chosen by monks and cut on a particular day. The boats are housed in village temples for most of the year and may only be practiced in during the weeks of Buddhist lent. Just as with a temple, you aren’t allowed to wear shoes in the boat. Before and after every practice, when everyone is seated in the boat everyone bows in unison, an act of respect for the Naga, the sacred serpent that inhabits and protects the Mekong.

Our practices were tough! The motion for rowing is unlike any I’ve done before. Essentially, you have to hold your paddle vertically, bend at the waist, plant your paddle, and rock back up to sitting (that’s me in the back!). The Lao women have all been doing this for years but the falang definitely got quite a workout every week. Our practices were made bearable, however, by our hilarious, pint-sized coach, Kibu. Kibu knew just a few choice English words of which “Don’t stop. You stop, I kiss” was a personal favorite. Despite the fact that someone inevitably stopped during each lap, he never followed through on the kisses. After practice, we would usually treat ourselves to some Pepsi in a bag (yes) from one of the mobile food vendors that had come down to the river. I was never brave enough to try the dried, flattened squid or grilled river snail, though.

October 12th marked the end of Buddhist Lent. I woke up at five and met up with the women to head out to the village. We were dressed up in our finest Lao-fashion, wearing the traditional Lao sinh skirt (ingenious…a post to come on this later) and scarves across our bodies. We were also loaded up with lots of fruit, juice boxes, mini-cakes and sticky rice–the alms that we would give to the monks at the village temple.


At the temple, we sat on rice mats, facing the monks. The ceremony that took place lasted about an hour and involved lots of chanting, lighting of candles and placing our alms in the overflowing baskets of the monks. I’m always a bit lost at Buddhist ceremonies, but I was so fascinated by all the young monks seated before me. You could tell that these young boys were trying very hard to sit still and look monk-like, but they were more antsy than I was! After the ceremony ended, we ate a huge breakfast complete with all my favorite Lao foods. I never considered myself much of a rice fan before coming to Asia, but sticky rice is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. And it makes a great breakfast staple.

That night, Kyle and I headed down to the river to watch people set off small, candle-lit banana leaf boats down the Mekong. It is said that these boats are an offering to the Naga. Downtown was insane. I had watched all of the stalls and stands and carnival rides and stages go up over the week, but that night, the entire riverfront and all adjacent roads were absolutely packed. It was an overwhelming scene, with people shouting into microphones advertising laundry detergent next to a stand with people shouting into microphones selling flip flops.

As I walked among the sea of people, I couldn’t help but marvel at the entire thing. Lao is a rapidly changing, growing country. I can only imagine what this event looked like 20 years ago when the country was relatively cut off from the rest of the world. We wandered along the riverfront, watching people make their way to the water to set off their boats as paper lanterns floated up into the night sky. All around us, people were setting off hand-held fireworks. It was one of those ‘I can’t believe I’m really here’ moments, for sure.



The next day was the big day, Boun Souang Heua. I woke up early and biked downtown, clad in my team shirt–long sleeve, of course. (I wasn’t about to try to get my motorbike through the insanity that had become the city!) When I arrived at the river, our Lao teammates were already at our tent with breakfast in hand! Breakfast consisted of sticky rice, spicy chili pepper-based dipping sauce and sun dried beef. I ate up. Some of my teammates who work for Lao Rugby told me sticky rice makes you strong.

We watched as some of the mens teams did warmup laps up and down the Mekong. Winning the boat race is a huge deal–it means a lot of money and prestige for your village. I was tired just watching them practice! Eventually, we got in our boat and rowed upstream. We pulled up on the edge of the Mekong and exchanged some friendly banter with the other female teams. ‘Sou, sou’ means something along the lines of ‘Fight, fight’ slash ‘Win, win.’ Everyone was so nice and friendly–they probably had a clue that we weren’t going to be much competition.

Then Kibu told us to start rowing and our steerers (two men who stand on the back of the boat) turned us to face downstream. We were rowing up to another boat with women in it, we were just about to pass them, we were racing! As if out of nowhere Kibu banged the boat with his oar– the signal to start rowing, and fast. As I frantically paddled, I felt a twinge of guilt. Hadn’t we just gotten a solid head start over that other team? My guilt quickly vanished though, as I saw the other team catch up to us and then pass us all in a matter of 30 seconds. 1.3 kilometers later, we had lost. By a lot.


We had two more races that day, each of which got progressively better! We lost all three, but they got better! In the last race, we actually had a chance of winning and our competitive spirit definitely kicked in as we raced neck and neck (or I should say, Naga and Naga) down the Mekong, as hundreds, if not thousands of people looked on from the banks of the Mekong. By the time we pulled in from our last race, I was completely drenched in river water and exhausted. The round of applause that we got from the crowd and our coach, was enough to put a huge smile on my face, though.

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My Favorite Saturday Morning Spot

With blended coconut coffee drinks that are to die for. And that is really saying something, because I am not a coconut person.

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Heuan korng koi (my house)

The hilarious house (strange glass dividing walls and gold-mirrored support beams included) that I share with three of my fellow PiAers, Hannah, Kyle and Mike. Oh, and my snazzy motorbike!

                                                                                                                                                                                                              

 

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The Monk Photoshoot

Downtown Vientiane is crazy right now! Celebrations for Boun Awk Phansa, the end of Buddhist lent, began yesterday and the ‘sleepy’ city has come to life. The streets are jam-packed with vendors selling everything from toothpaste to flip flops, giant flat screen TVs to fake Ray Bans. Next Thursday is the big boat race festival in Vientiane. Teams of fifty people will fill sacred boats and compete in a 1.3 kilometer race down (thankfully, not up) the Mekong. And guess what? I will be in one of boats! More on this to come soon.

Walking downtown today prompted me to think back on a short exchange I had
with a monk last weekend along the banks of the river. I had just eaten my favorite fresh spring rolls at my favorite Lao lunch place and was feeling rather giddy after my first Lao cafe yen (iced coffee made with instant coffee, sweetened condensed milk, sweetened non-condensed milk and extra sugar) when I decided to go for a stroll down the river. The Mekong is something to see right now. The end of Buddhist lent also marks the end of the rainy season here, a truly welcome reprieve from the incredible volumes of rain that have fallen in Lao this year. As I looked out, the title ‘Mighty Mekong’ definitely seemed fitting. I watched as giant tree stumps and a few poor fishermens’ boats swept past.

Not long ago, the only thing that separated the city from the river was a natural, sloping bank. Today, with the help of some serious Chinese investment, the Mekong is kept in its place by a large retaining wall. Where little bars used to teeter precariously over the edge of the water, cement blocks and giant stone steps now rest. The development of the river bank has provided many positives for the people of Vientiane, as is evidenced by the many families seen enjoying the walk along the river every night and the gigantic aerobics class that takes place in front of a lovely fountain. I still can’t help but wish I could have experienced the old Mekong riverbank, watching the sun set over Thailand.

On that day, I encountered a site that reminded me fondly of my study abroad days. Monks being photographed. No, not by tourists but by their friends or fellow monks. This monk was reclining on the giant steps, holding an umbrella to shield himself from the sun and his friend was snapping away, capturing all the best angles. I guess I paused just long enough to grab their attention because soon the monk was asking me where I was from and how long I had been in the country (in Lao!). Before I knew it, I had unwillingly become a fellow companion in the photoshoot. I had strolled right into a monk photoshoot! I smiled as our awkward exchange was documented, wishing I had my camera as well.  And when my new friend and I had run out of discussion topics (what does one talk to a young monk about, exactly) I was on my way again, strolling down the Mekong.

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