for doing what she did and getting free

Friday, August 13th, 2010

ses_phet_noy
If I had a legitimate excuse for my prolonged hiatus from this blog, it would be these two women: Lanoy (basketball star/surrogate Lao sister/PoP MVP) and Phet (architect/duck blood soup lover/PoP Rookie of the Year).

For the last month I’ve spent hours on end with these two ever-inspiring, always-entertaining, seriously kickass women. We’ve tediously translated budgets, interviewed contractors, braved the monsooned roads, hosted village wide meetings, and, of course, drank beerlao.

Our goal was very simple: build a school. Build a school and show every single villager, government worker, unconvinced observer, and ourselves that we could. Build a school and provide the kids in Houy Thong with a place to learn.

So we did. With the empowerment and help from an amazing visiting co-worker (and every person in our organization) we built a school.

And a few days ago this little school opened to some very happy people and very big party.

There were speeches (mine nervously in Lao), there was dancing (think square dancing take Lao), there was massive amounts of food (and beerlao), and there was me, with a ridiculous cotton-flower smile on my face all afternoon.

And I can say now with complete confidence that I have never been so honored, so humbled in my life as I was that day with those two great women at my side.

And you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen.

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

DSC_0447Noy and I excuse ourselves from dinner; it’s just after eight and people are heading to bed. The generator has been turned off, the moon is out and the fires are smoldering.

Here in Phayong Village, several hours from any main town, we live by the sun, the stars, the roosters.

This village of about 600 people sits in the middle of the mountains. An adventurous motorbike ride up a windy, uneven, and often flooded dirt road to get here. During the summer months, Phayong is cut off from any other village or town; rain falls and rivers rise, leaving them here, in this lush green pocket, alone.

As Noy and I walk the main path of the village, we hear sweet, low voices singing children to sleep, the crack and sizzle of water on flame, and the few lone roosters already starting to crow

Noy, who grew up in the city, in fascinated by life in the village. She is a part of Pencils of Promise because she deeply believes that everyone, regardless of status or location, deserves access to knowledge and opportunity. She says she can’t imagine being a woman out here, having a predetermined future of pregnancy, birth, work, repeat. Says she’s lucky for her wealth and choice.

At the top of the hill, we hear what is undeniably a teenage girl giggle. We shine our light ahead and see two girls, huddled together over a cellphone. This point, at the very peak of the village, is the only spot with phone reception.

I whisper to them, ‘saibaidee,’ and we share a quick understanding that nobody should know they are out here.

By all appearances, we share nothing, these girls and I.

But on top of this hill, huddled together, we smile, blush, and call our boyfriends to say goodnight.

Food was flying everywhere, and I left without my hat.

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

cookingIn the states I felt pretty good about my foodie abilities. I strutted my stuff with homemade bagels and hand folded raviolis. I confidently managed a glass of wine and a good conversation while sautéing. And I made probably the meanest mac and cheese around.

Here, I suck.

I make a lot of mistakes. I scrape too hard when I descale. I forget to sharpen my machete between chickens. And I don’t rotate my coals soon enough, turning my roasted eggplant to ash.

I have to unlearn everything I’ve known about cooking before. Lids are never to be used. MSG is best for flavoring. Iceberg lettuce goes in soup. And absolutely nothing is wasted. Fish fins and lime rinds? Throw ‘em in the pot.

And shoes should never be worn. Rubber flip-flips only.

(When you’re squatting on the pavement scrubbing veggies with water from a hose, and your friend is shredding raw fish with a butcher knife, sending bits of flesh flying, the last thing you want are shoes you can’t rinse.)

Yesterday I made a traditional meal, laap, with Noy and Kaman. Laap is basically meat salad; the meat (usually raw) is finely ground and mashed with toasted rice, mint, cilantro and pepper. A paste like substance, you eat it with balls of sticky rice and your hands.

Despite a major pepper-washing-eye-touching mistake during yesterday’s preparations, lunch turned out pretty damn good, thanks mostly to Noy and Kaman.

I’ve got a long ways to go before I take on a meal alone. And I think its safe to say I can forget about that glass of wine.

So, for today’s lunch?

Cornflakes, milk, sugar.

on the pavement.

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Major development: I can ride a motorbike. A manual motorbike at that.

In the backpacker culture, I was awkwardly behind the game; I was starting to feel a little middle school in my lack of experience.

Today, just outside the city, Noy pulled over and told me to scoot up. (My only previous experience was two days ago doing two laps around a dirt track before I killed it and couldn’t restart.) Bryce blew past us on the back of Nu Si’s bike, with a look that I tried to interpret as confidence but was, most realistically, ‘what the…’.

Noy called each gear in my ear as we drove down the road, through the hillside and greenery on our way to Ban Kia Luang. We butted right up against a cattle truck: “Dhak Vhai, slow and slower. Three, two, nothing.” Nothing, it turns out, translates as neutral.


By the time we arrived at Ban Kia Luang to scout out some playground equipment, for B to replicate and improve on, Noy and I had only had one or two full-body muscle clenching moments. She informed me she would be driving home. “You are very fast learner. But enough for one day.” She wanted to let me rest, I’m sure.

On the way back, oddly running on schedule, B and Nu Si’s bike got a flat. Lao time. The number one Lao lesson: never expect anything to happen in a timely way.

Stuck on the side of the road in a small village, it didn’t take long before a pack of local kids were following B and I, the two falang. I had some pencils in my bag so sat down in the dirt with them and started handing them out.

Unsharpened and without paper. Perfect for drumsticks and swords. Kids came balling down the street to play with us; to have a good look at the two random falang.

We spent a while there, Lao time, waiting for the tire to get fixed. The first mechanic said he couldn’t help because he hurt his arm. The second directed Noy through each step and she did it alone.
On the way home I sat behind Noy. We shared my headphones, danced the whole way back. Johnnys in the basement mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement thinking about the government.

education vs safety

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Check out a blog post, by yours truly, on the PoP blog about the Champet girls’ dormitory.

visit the PoP blog here.

salty, warm, thick.

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

She ladles a vibrant red liquid into my cup—red like the center of a ripe hood strawberry. Red like fresh blood.

“Blood of duck,” she says, the fat one. (Her name is kuat, ‘slim.’) Before I look inside, I clutch my cup with one hand and chug it back. Blood of duck: salty, warm, thick.

Inside the singing is a low and constant murmur of hums and claps. A small cup of beer is filled over large chunks of ice. Fill it, refill it, pass it around.

We are at Noy’s sister’s house. Noy is a friend and now a co-worker. Together we will direct, organize, coordinate Pencils of Promise here on the ground in Lao. She’s taken Adam and I to this house to pick something up. But, in the Lao way, time and plans have changed drastically. She tells us we have ‘free time’ now, and takes off on her motorbike.

Adam is next to me in the circle on the floor. Here in Lao, he goes by his initials, AB. It is easy for Lao people to say. They fumble their way through Leslie. I say, to the one who knows a little English, that I need a Lao name. “Daak Vhay,” she says. “White flower of cotton. You are very pretty—very white.” She touches her skin and looks at mine.

Daak Vhay. It seems perfect. I pass along my beer, khawb jai lai lai, dhak vhay. ‘thank you every much, white cotton flower.’

It’s a culture of peer pressure here, in the best way possible. Drink more, faster, harder. They laugh when you wince and hesitate. AB and Daak Vhay. The falang will be drinking for a while.

I text B to get a ride here on Noy’s motorbike; that he will have to take the next beer lao shift. AB and Daak Vhay will have to make a quick escape before the beer, meat balls, bbq and duck blood soup settle into something scary.

Here, in Lao, we are happy. We have found a place to live (with Noy). We have cell phones, a nice café with solid wifi, my new job. We have strong stomachs (even mine), good pho, new friends. And eachother.