In the Land of Golden Flowers

IMG_1268 IMG_0220I suppose it’s time I wrote about something other than food. At the end of a long day, it’s hard to wrap my brain around anything too serious. Tonight is no exception – but I figured I could write about the other thing I love to take pictures of: flowers. In Laos, it’s not flowers growing in gardens or yards that catch my eye, but the heaps and heaps of marigolds for sale for people to use as Buddhist offerings. Finally I can post some photos that do justice to how much beauty can be found here.

IMG_1261The sight just fills me with happiness on so many levels – especially seeing the flowers as offerings in the temples and on people’s personal altars and shrines. The color is one of my favorites and the idea of offering the flowers to the Buddha also makes me smile. I was just reading that, while marigolds are native to the Americas, they were introduced to South Asia in the 1500’s or so (at least according to these websites). I’ve definitely seen stunning photos of marigold-draped Buddhas in India. Gold is certainly everywhere when it comes to Buddhism here. Unlike the Tibetan, Chinese, or Vietnamese Buddhist images that I’m more familiar with, in Laos (and I’m guessing Thailand), the Buddhas and temples are all ornately carved, golden, and gleaming. The sight is like being filled with sunshine.

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Monks on a cell phone

Monks on a cell phone

The bright orange that I love is also everywhere in the fabric of monk robes. With so many temples around, monks (or rather, young monks in training) are constantly passing by, often with an umbrella in hand to shade their shaved heads from the sun. Apparently it’s quite common for families to send their sons to become monks just for a few years – they aren’t necessarily becoming monks for life, just a temporary service. I’ve learned that monks aren’t allowed to drive scooters – although apparently it’s ok to ride on the back. Many ride bicycles instead.

I love the fact that our office is right between two large temples. There seems to be a temple every few blocks, and you can usually walk right through them. They often have the best trees in the city. Sinsamout and I cut through two to go to lunch last week and avoided the traffic completely. You can even drive a scooter or car through some of the temples during the day time, although I find that a bit disconcerting. Jacque and I stopped into a larger temple while we were biking around a the other week – since it was a Sunday, many families had come to make offerings and receive blessings from the monks.

The monk "dormitory." I just love the color combinations.

The monk “dormitory.” I love the color combinations.

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Receiving a blessing.

Around 5:45 pm every day, I hear the faint sound of the temple bell ringing next door, low and resonant, almost somber. It reminds me of my stay at a temple in Vietnam. Sinsamout said it’s calling the monks in to pray, and anyone can join to pray or meditate with them. Jacque and I peeked in last week on our way off to aerobics and saw the monks sitting there in rows before a giant statue of the Buddha lit up with spotlights. I will have to make a point to join them at least once before I leave. I could hardly find a better spot for a meditative reflection.

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The (bi-)Weekly Dish – Weeks 2 and 3

Pad thai

Well, it’s proven a little harder to get blogging in than I anticipated. Work has kept me pretty busy (see a post I wrote about the fish passage conference I attended on the FISHBIO blog). but that’s the whole reason I’m here, after all, so I can’t complain too much. I will try to get a little better about more frequent updates, or at least sharing some photos occasionally.

The biggest development of the last two weeks is that I now I have a roommate! My boss’s niece Jacque is fresh out of the Peace Corps and is staying here until December while she, among other things, diligently studies for the GRE (I’m really impressed by her focus!). She’s also been a lifesaver in helping with data checking for a big FISHBIO project that is one of my many time consuming activities here. It’s been really fun to have someone to explore Vientiane with, eat with, and of course, do dance aerobics with! Jacque even has a blog of her own.

Jackie at a smoothie stand as we take a break from bike riding.

Jackie at a smoothie stand as we take a break from bike riding.

Here is a sampling of some of the food I’ve experienced or tried to make in the last few weeks. I am quite proud of my Thai basil bruschetta, but probably one of the best dishes I’ve had recently is the pad thai above. Lots of vegetables! I’ve also given in to fried food cravings in the form of fried rice and crispy spring rolls – although I’ve tried to compensate by making a few fresh spring rolls of my own. I know many people back home who are all about making these rolls, but this is my first attempt. When the raw ingredients, especially the herbs, are so abundant, it’s hard not to give it a try!

My co-worker Sinsamout’s mom was so kind and even gave us some Vietnamese-style dumplings wrapped in banana leaves that she made herself! It’s delicious and reminds me of home – called bánh giò (thanks, Cô Khanh!) I can’t remember the name for it (banh something – someone help me out!). It has meat and mushroom filling inside. Very tasty, and I was able to decently wing the fish sauce dip that Sinsamout advised me in making! I was also thrilled to rediscover the canned drink called coconut freeze that I fell in love with during my brief visit here last year (when I won a can as a prize in a carnival game!). The drink is coconut juice with sweet chunks of coconut meat mixed in – it’s so delicious, I need to figure out where to buy it in bulk!

We’re in the Money

An assortment of Lao Kip - all together about $21.75

An assortment of Lao Kip – all together about $21.75

Now that I’ve been in Laos nearly three weeks (I’ve been a bit remiss in my updates!) I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of the currency and no longer fumbling with the bills as much, trying to add up how many thousands of Lao kip I need to pay. The color coding helps, but really all the bills that aren’t blue kind of blend together in my wallet (yet American currency is only one color and I seem to manage at home just fine!)

It doesn’t help that each bill contains excessive zeroes, and there aren’t even commas to help you discern a 5,000 from a 50,0000 in a hurry. But I can’t complain about the exchange rate. There are about 8,000 kip to $1.00, so I get daily practice at my 8 times tables. The top bills in this picture, the 50,000’s, feel like big bills, like carrying around twenties. Yet they’re only about $6.25. For some quick reference, the 20,000 = $2.50; 10,000 = $1.25; 5,000 = 63 cents, and 2,000 = 25 cents. Approximately.

I can’t help but notice that the images featured so prominently on the back of the bills are all emblems of industry and development. Buildings, hydropower, roads – it’s a telling sign of values, of priorities. This country is a hotspot of natural biodiversity, but those kinds of assets just don’t seem to hold the same kind of value here, or at least not enough. That’s a good part of the reason why my work is here – trying to help elevate discussion of the importance and value of fish.

I have to say my favorite of the bills is the lowly 1,000 kip note, a whopping 12 cents. At least it showcases a bit of cultural heritage – the three women on the front are a common icon in Vietnam as well, highlighting the customs of the north, south and central parts of the country. The 1,000 note even has animals on the back! Albeit cows. With power lines in the distance.

1,000 Lao Kip – about 12 cents

My first few days here, I was keeping a detailed record of every kip I spent, trying to keep track of my spending and get a handle on the conversion rate. I’ve pretty much given that up, since a little money can get you quite far here. It’s possible to eat out for lunch and dinner and only spend about $5.00 total, which I did today. A $10 meal is living large. My bowl of pho for lunch today was only 16,000 kip ($2). However, the box of Great Grains cereal that I splurged on: 52,000 kip ($6.50). Buying imported American goods can add up fast. But a 22-oz bottle of Beer Lao: 15,000 ($1.88) – dangerous. A bunch of Thai basil at the market: 1,000 (12 cents). And the aerobics class along the river that brings me so much joy: 3,000 kip (40 cents). Somehow I assumed that dancing around in a public space must be free, but they still charge you for the pleasure. It’s so much fun though, it’s worth every penny.

I actually had a bit of a money mishap on my first trip to Laos last fall which I have been meaning to post on this blog, so may as well recount it here. I had been in the country only a matter of hours when I visited an ATM to withdraw money. As I had done at ATMs a number of times while in Vietnam previously, I expected to see a range of withdrawl amounts displayed, and I could probably safely choose one of the middle. Instead, at this particular ATM (an ANZ Bank), I was asked to type in the number of kip I wanted to withdraw. Uh-oh, a pop math quiz. Having become accustomed to converting 20,000 Vietnamese dong to dollars, my brain froze up as I tried to multiply 8,000 into some reasonable amount – those tricky 8’s. When the ATM graciously asked me if I needed more time to complete my transaction, I hastily pushed “yes.” And then again. And then once more.

Apparently anyone who takes more than three minutes to withdraw their cash must be up to no good because with some flashing of lights, the machine sucked my card inside and admonished me with a message to the effect of “suspicious activity.” It printed me a receipt that matter-of-factly described a “card capture” and instructed me to go to the bank headquarters to retrieve my card.

Of course, this left me somewhat speechless and I finally caught the attention of my Lao coworker who had been making a call on his cell phone. He was probably stunned that I could manage to lose my card in the machine in a matter of minutes while his back was turned. (This is the same coworker that recently had to extract a piece of a new key from our office door lock that I managed to break in half while testing it out. He probably wonders how I can function on my own.)  Luckily, he took me to the bank headquarters the next day and I was able to retrieve my card a few days later after they emptied the ATM. Lesson learned – do your math ahead of time.

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1,000 Lao kip can buy you a bunch of herbs!

Running in the Rain

Rain on the roofI’ve come to Southeast Asia smack in the middle of the rainy season, the period from roughly May to October when tropical monsoons roll through and drench the subcontinent. The rain held off for my first two days here. Then, late into my second night, the thunder came with a boom and a bang, and the rain pounded down.  And so it’s been every other day or so since.

I love the percussive sound of falling rain, love watching it pour off the rooftops. I’ve heard many variations on thunder since I’ve been here, mostly waking me up in the wee hours as I lie in bed. It’s quite an education for this resident of relatively thunderstorm-free California. There’s the classic low, growling rumble; the reverberating wobbly sound—like a big sheet of plastic they would shake in school plays to simulate thunder; and, most nerve-wracking of all, the metallic, crashing crescendo like cymbals exploding over my head.

So far, the rain hasn’t bothered me much. In fact, the other day I found myself wishing for rain to take the edge off the heat. Of course, if I had to ride around on a scooter, as many people do, then I might think differently. Ponchos are definitely the accessory of the season. Streets flood, and many villages too. Even the apartment below ours is prone to flooding (one of the main reasons we opted for an upstairs abode!).

Constructions workers ride home in the rain

Construction workers ride home in the rain

I also find the rain especially comforting when I have to spend time working inside. It helps me focus by reassuring me that I wouldn’t really rather be outdoors anyway. But I may have to reevaluate that notion after my experience getting caught in a downpour while running the other day. It was a faint drizzle when I started, but by the time I was nearly home, a full-on deluge had commenced. And it was exhilarating.

My mom once told me the rain in Vietnam felt like taking a shower. And I have to say, the rain was definitely stronger than the water pressure in my shower here. (Although yes, the shower does have hot water, for those who asked). The rain itself was also warm enough that it didn’t bother me that I was soaked through. The people around me barely seemed to notice either. Kids still kicked soccer balls in the street, couples walked under umbrellas, vendors doggedly set up their stalls for the night market under tarps.

Running in that movie-style downpour was something I’d always wanted to experience. There are few things better than the feeling of rain on your skin, knowing that you’re almost home, knowing that you’ll soon be dry, knowing that you’re awake and alive.

Rain on the roof of our old office across the street

Rain on the roof of our old office across the street

The Weekly Dish – Week 1

Homemade omlet with some Asian herbsIf you’ve ever eaten a meal out with me, you’ll probably know that I’m one of those people who likes to take pictures of my food. When people make fun of me I either a) blame my brother for getting me started or b) say it’s because I’m Asian (true statement?). In any case, since eating is one of the best parts of cultural exploration, I figured I would do something of a weekly roundup to share some of the highlights.

Although probably not as exciting tastewise, the top photo is an omelet I made to celebrate stocking my fridge. It does have Asian herbs on it (cilantro, lemon grass) so that makes it cultural right? The toast was also a small victory (and attempt #2) in figuring out the settings of our toaster. The rest of the photos are a bit more reflective of the region…

Finally, a bit of cultural trivia I learned today: After Sinsamout (my Lao co-worker) sneezed, he explained that the Lao saying about sneezing is that it means somebody’s complaining about him somewhere. He gave me a ride to buy some fruit today – so it definitely wasn’t me!

Back to Laos, Back to Reality

Reporting for work!

Reporting for work!

A new Dragonfish chapter is starting, so it’s time to blow a little dust off this blog! I’ve returned to Laos, this time for an 11-week stint for my work with FISHBIO.  It’s still hard to believe I’m actually able to live and work in the Mekong – something that just a few years ago I thought amounted to nothing more than a pipe dream. I feel like I have so much to learn, but that’s the reason I’m here.

My place of work and residence! (the upstairs)

My place of work and residence! (the upstairs)

So just what will be doing in Laos? My first few days were a whirlwind as I attended the Lao National Fish Passage Workshop, where researchers shared findings and strategies for improving the movement of fish past floodplain barriers, such as irrigation weirs. For the next few weeks, I’ll be trying to learn as much as I can about Mekong fish, meeting with our local collaborators, pursuing funding, and trying to help set up a pilot study for a standard fish sampling program for the Mekong Fish Network. I’ll also be working with my Lao coworker to check the data entry from one of our previous fisheries studies, and helping write a manuscript on that data.  And I’ll also be keeping up with my regular editing and writing duties for the FISHBIO website—and hopefully finally getting into some video editing.  I obviously will have plenty to keep me busy!

Hopefully in the midst of all that work, I will be able to explore my surroundings and get a taste for life in another culture. The other night, I met up with the Vientiane Foodie Group – a group of ex-pats that meets every week to eat—and of course drink plenty of Beer Lao. I only talked to a handful of the large group, but what struck me was how brief my not-even-3-month stint suddenly seemed compared to those who have been here for 9 months, 2 years, 2 and a half years. When I was preparing to depart for my trip, 3 months seemed like a long time away from my family, friends, and the new place I was finally starting to settle in to near my beloved Pacific Ocean. But now that I’m here, I feel incredibly fortunate for the chance to immerse myself in this corner of the world. I know I will be learning a great deal about the work I hope to dedicate myself too – and undoubtedly learning about myself as well. Looking forward to sharing thoughts and experiences with you on this blog!

With a few of the fish passage meeting participants.

With a few of the fish passage meeting participants.