Where am I? What am I doing here?
I started building a house in Vientiane a few years ago on a plot of land I bought (well, paid for, anyway) in 2008. The plot is about 800 square meters and abuts a sizable tract of family land (about 6,500 square meters of mostly rice fields). The house project got put on hold as I focused my already limited resources on the Bolaven Plateau project. The photo to the left shows how far we’ve gotten. I wasn’t permitted to play with green building– I was told it had to be a concrete and brick convection oven, just like all the other homes in the area– and that’s part of the reason why I have so little interest in it.
In addition to the book Shimazaki-san had given me to translate, he’d handed me a brochure in Lao about SRI. The family in Vientiane hadn’t heard of it, but I could see that they were both curious and skeptical. I asked them if I could do some small trials on the first of the rice fields that abut our land. Sure, why not. Unlike the Thais, the Lao people are more willing to accept outside ideas, especially if a foreign government foots the bill. SRI is now being officially promoted by the government, although the “top down” approach is a bit dubious. Unlike Thailand, Laos cannot produce enough rice to feed its people (although they claim to have already reached self-sufficiency). Mountainous areas of Laos (i.e. most of Laos) such as around the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang can’t grow enough rice and there’s no room for more rice fields, so they are proactively promoting SRI. Anyway, at least it’s not something I came up with on my own, I could point at the Lao brochure and say, “I want to try this.”
Easier said than done– the story of my life. As usual, I wasn’t satisfied just following the SRI recipe. I can never leave good enough alone. SRI encourages innovation, so lacking any preconceptions about rice cultivation, I planned a number of different trials mixing SRI with things that I think are cool, such as “no-till agriculture,” “living mulches,” and what’s called “aigamo rice cultivation” in Japanese which is letting ducks putter around eating weeds and insects while aerating and fertilizing the soil. Altogether I had 6 test plots planned with various combinations of cutting edge if somewhat obscure techniques. I just had to wait for the rice that was already growing there to be harvested.
I was informed that people will steal my ducks. In cases like this I employ a word often used by highly intelligent people to replace a wide range of words and emotions– ahh. The only way to avoid losing my ducks would be to assign someone to night-time guard duty. That would be Dad. But it would be asking a lot just for a few ducks, so I spent a few days trying to come up with a snappy solution. Motion detecting lights and a used iPhone is what I came up with. There is a security-related app for the iPhone that can make it start taking pictures when the lights suddenly go on. As it takes them, it sends them to you by email. I imagined my email inbox filling up with clear shots of startled, mean-looking duck thieves. They’ll steal the phone, then the ducks, I was told. Yes, surely they will, but they can’t steal the photos from my inbox. I’d had the battery stolen from my truck the first day I owned it and, later, the deep-cycle battery and inverter/charge controller for my solar unit on my farm was stolen. I didn’t care about the ducks, I wanted to catch these people who have no respect for another person’s property. I was on a mission.
But, as usual, things escalated.
By this time, and for reasons completely unrelated to duck security or the synthesis of groundbreaking new rice cultivation methods, we’d moved out of our apartment and into the family abode. There was quite a bit of concern about whether I’d be able to handle it, while I was worried mostly about whether the family would be able to handle me. It’s not a bad house. Mom sold some land a few years ago and turned it into an almost bearable concrete and brick convection oven. It’s more of a shop house, really. The wife of the older of the two younger brothers runs a beauty salon in front, so there’s usually a small group of women chatting to the rhythm of blow dryers, scissors, and running water– all day long. There are two bedrooms and I get to dwell almost all day and all night in one. My room has one window but I can literally reach out and touch the building next door. The neighbors raise chickens and ducks in the arm-length gap between, so I get some real country sounds and smells– all day long. Both bedrooms open to a living room which is partially divided from the salon by a big cabinet. This living room, and much of the rest of the house, seems to be refuge for a vast number of neighborhood kids who favor it to whatever their lot in life is at their own home. I often wonder if some of them even have homes. The number of people sleeping on the floor in the living room at night varies. If there’s been a party nearby then Dad will surely be a permanent fixture for at least two days straight. Mom often sleeps there, too, as it’s cooler and less claustrophobic than her bedroom. Both the brothers were sleeping there for quite a while, even though the older one’s wife has a fairly decent house nearby (he married an older, single mother), but he’s been sick a lot and it was thought to have something to do with evil spirits inhabiting her house. They must have exorcized them because he’s looking better and sleeping there now. Recently he’s been replaced by one of the local kids, but I don’t know why. The youngest brother is almost always sleeping there because he has nowhere else to sleep. At night, if I need a pee, I have to exit the bedroom (the door only opens one-third of the way, as if conspiring to limit my access to daylight), cross through the living room full of prone, lumpy people, tread down 3 precarious steps into the kitchen, which is almost as big as the living room, to the toilet on the far side. As a beer drinker, it’s not really “if” I need to pee, but how often. In a way, the kitchen is one of my favorite places. It’s where I cook my crude yet often surprisingly tasty meals. I enjoy sitting on one of the steps leading down into the kitchen and watching them prepare and devour their meals of leaves, twigs, and assorted small-boned creatures. They eat on the floor in the middle of the kitchen around a low, round table which is normally stored in a corner. It always fascinates me how happy they are. Although I’m just sipping my beer on a step a few feet away from them, I almost feel like part of the group, which often includes people who have just stopped by at the right time. Anyone who passes by the open door at the back of the house, the kitchen door, is greeted with, “We’re eating, join us!” And then there are those “other things” that inhabit the kitchen. Creepy, crawly, slithering, sloshing things– whatever Dad has caught and they haven’t eaten yet. These creatures often remain quiet during the day, waiting, it seems, to startle me at night as I commute to and from the toilet.
I won’t talk about the toilet. Oh, yes I will. Why not? But you’ve been warned. It’s not as bad as some toilets, but that’s not saying much in this country. It’s kept very clean. It was a squat toilet until we moved in. An attempt was made to improve flow (flushability?) which resulted in a broken squat toilet, so a sit-down one was installed in its place without the hoped-for flow improvement. It flushes by “bailing” repeatedly. Now, I lived a long time in Japan where they take their toilets seriously. The trajectory, water flow rate, and water temperature for the electronic bidets on their toilets can be programmed such that each family member has a bidet experience of their very own. The bidet experience is followed by a thorough blow drying of one’s private parts. One need not get closer to those private parts with your hands than you do pulling up your underwear. This toilet stands in stark contrast. Most of us who have lived in SE Asia long enough have grown accustomed to and come to regard almost affectionately the ubiquitous “bum gun.” These are simple, hand-held sprayers like you’d find attached to a high-end kitchen sink in the West. After blasting yourself with it you dry your bum with toilet paper, unless you don’t mind walking around in soggy knickers. In the photo above you may notice the lack of a bum gun and the lack of toilet paper in holder. Instead there is a plastic hose which is held to the spigot by a winding of rubber inner-tube. On rare occasions there is toilet paper in the holder, but it’s usually a half-disintegrated, soggy lump, because all the kids use the bathroom as a kind of water playground. I have experimented with the hose and can confirm that you can, in fact, reach your private parts with it, but if the inner-tube which holds it in place doesn’t give way, it tends to kink somewhere, providing an inferior bum-cleansing experience. I have given up. My left hand now gets intimate knowledge of my nether regions while my right hand uses a plastic bailing ladle to pour water from behind precisely down the crack of my bum (no photos available). But I haven’t gotten to the worst bit, yet. Acoustics. The kitchen-side wall doesn’t reach the ceiling, because there is no ceiling. While sitting on the pot, I can hear people in the kitchen chewing, so you can imagine what they can hear, while they are eating, no less.
So, when I learned that they probably weren’t going to grow rice themselves anymore, rather they’d lend the land to other farmers for a percentage of the yield, two things occurred to me. First, it’s pointless to attempt to enthrall a family that has stopped growing rice with SRI. Second, with another 6,500 square meters to play with, I could do something useful with the land (including growing some rice) that would justify my finishing one room of the house and living on my land there when I’m in Vientiane, and have Dad stay there when I’m gone. The thought of the peace and quiet I’d have there started to make my living arrangements feel a good bit more irritating. In the evenings, when I’m not watching the family eat, I also like to sit outside on the steps of the salon and watch the people go by on their way to the market. Their dilapidated modes of transportation, mostly human-powered, are quite remarkable. But the well-intentioned neighbor at the beer shop across the street frequently comes over to sit with me. He talks a lot and I nod in agreement as if I understand what he’s saying. He thinks I’m lonely, I was told, and it was also suggested that he may be, too. Anyway, after spending the day in my dark, cramped bedroom/office, I enjoy sitting outside, alone, watching the world go by. I began yearning for some good, old-fashioned solitude. Elusive solitude.
To be continued. . .