Archive for November 2008
I have a bellyful of Hokkien prawn mee, which means that I am in Singapore Changi airport and have successfully located the staff canteen. Contrary to false rumours and suppositions, it has not closed for renovation or moved to Terminal Three. The old access point has been closed, however, and you now have to enter down a stairwell near the Burger King in Terminal in a ruse carefully concocted to keep joe average traveller out of the place. I, however, infiltrated and enjoyed one of the finest food courts in this city, dining on the mee, iced coffee, black rice pudding with coconut milk and lime juice, all for about $8 SGD. Now I sit and wait about four hours for my flight to leave for Hong Kong.
The rest of my time in Kampong Speu yesterday went very well with the exception that I was incredibly tired. A dog barked all night right next to the guesthouse in the most loud, obnoxious and random way. Earplugs didn’t help – it sounded like it and some of its friends were right in the room with me. So, I spent the rest of the time out in the countryside with a foggy and dopey head. It didn’t help that I slept through my alarm, waking at 7:01, one minute after I was supposed to meet everyone. I was packed and downstairs by 7:10, and Vaesna, the driver and I went for a quick breakfast of grilled pork on rice, and coffee, close by.
There was already a crowd of women and their children waiting at the clinic when we arrived (the three team members were already there and setting up). More continued to arrive as well. There was probably about 30-40 women there, many with young kids and a few babies, which is a testament to their interest in birth control. After registering, they all piled into a room and Pen Sopheak, one of the midwives, gave a presentation on different methods of birth control. The next step was one-on-one consultations; the three team members set up in offices and discussed with the women their history and which method they were most interested in. They followed with a quick physical examination (plus an internal one if the woman was requested an IUD) and a pregnancy check, then provision of the birth control. The options were pills, implants (active for three years), IUD, injections or condoms. The three team members are qualified to provide each one on the spot. I documented the initial consultations, plus the insertion of implants into one woman’s arm, which is not a simple procedure and requires local anaesthetic. PSI is also very interested in showing how sterile their practices are, so I documented the sterilization and equipment handling for an IUD insertion (the woman was behind a screen, but I had a clear view of the team member and the medical equipment). There was a sterilizer provided by UNICEF in place in the clinic, a large cannister like a pressure cooker that sat on top of a portable propane stove.
The conditions in the clinic were basic. There was no electricity while we were working there, and an assistant had to hold a flashlight during the IUD insertion. Nor was there hot running water, although there was an over-abundance of running water at one point out of a bathroom that flowed through one of the offices where the team was working. Although all possible precautions were taken, they were challenging conditions to work under although probably no different than what the team is used to.
It was a lively place, too, as a result of all the children around. Women were helping each other out with the babies; one I saw breastfeeding the child of another woman who was in with the team. It did the trick. One very chubby girl was inconsolable without her mother until she saw my camera and decided that playing with the strap was the best thing ever. A few other toddlers found me interesting and distracting as well. The mothers themselves ranged in age from about 20 to probably 40. Some had one child, others had three or four. One woman was crying during her consultation: she had four children and had very recently found out that she was pregnant again. Medical abortions are available, however, and Vaesna was able to provide her with some counselling (and possibly even a bit of money to help her out).
We were there until about 1:30, then drove back to the city. The first part of the drive went by quickly, but once we were past the airport things were painfully slow working our way through Phnom Penh mid-day traffic, which like Hanoi, works on the principle of critical mass. Once enough cars and scooters and tuk tuks and bikes build up, they then start making their way through an intersection until the cross-traffic does the same. Car and trucks take precedence and will force motorbikes and lesser vehicles around them, and driving in the on-coming lane is perfectly acceptable, both in the city and on the highway. It all works because nothing goes very fast, although I am sure that there are accidents.
I was dropped off at the hotel and desperately needed a nap. I tried for a bit, but decided that I had too much to do before dinner, so I headed out on a moto. First I want to Baskets of Cambodia up on Street 86. A couple of years ago, Kristi bought a great tatami-sided handbag made by this Cambodian cooperative (she found the bad in Agassiz of all places). They have a shop in Phnom Penh, so I suggested to her that I could stop by and pick her up something. The shop was more part of a house than anything, and it was run by two young folks who didn’t speak English, but were friendly and happy that I had made the trip. I bought three bags of different sizes, all stylish to my eyes, for the incredible price of $17 total.
Next stop was the Storya mall for a bit of computer software, then back to the hotel where I had enough time to drop my bags, change and head out for dinner at Sharkys with Vinh and Sue (Sharkys had a very different vibe this early in the evening). The owner of Sharkys is a great expat cook, and he put on an amazing spread for American Thanksgiving with everything you can imagine: turkey (deep fried), scalloped potatoes, green beans, stuffing, cranberry sauces, biscuits, corn, pumpkin pie, apple cobbler, and much more. Everything was absolutely amazing and was just what I needed. We had a good time, but I was dopey from the lack of sleep, plus I needed to get back and pack, so I headed out at 8:30 and was in bed around 10am, with my now-stuffed bags ready to go.
I was up at 5:30 and Pee/P/Pi the tuk tuk guy was waiting for me out front at 6:00 for the smooth drive to the airport. Check-in and emigration were quick, and the one-and-a-half hour flight easy. Before long I’ll be back in Hong Kong and dad should be meeting me at the airport. I will see if he’s any different looking as a newly-minted grandad.
The night out with Vinh (Sue was tired and stayed home) didn’t end up getting too sketchy, which is probably a fine thing. We started with a couple of Anchor beers at the Cantina bar, which is a normal, straight-up place, then walked rode over to the Pussycat Bar, right around the corner from my hotel, and as we walked through the door, I was instantly surrounded by working girls like I was the hottest new commodity. Vinh was seen as less-interesting, which was a bit disturbing in itself, but I guess that I fit the typology of the usual customer, although perhaps a decade or two too young. It became obvious that we weren’t that interested in what was on offer, and several were magnetically attracted to the next fellows to walk through the door. It felt creepy, but more because of the clients than the women, who are more easy to relate to than the sex-pats. We didn’t linger, but I did get to chatting with three of the women, not about services (that talk died down pretty quickly), but about them. The three I talked to had kids and were in their late 20s. They even showed me pictures of them on their cell phones, and I felt sorry for the fact that they had to be doing this kind of work in Phnom Penh while their kids were being raised elsewhere. I got the sense husbands weren’t in the picture.
We didn’t linger and went down the road to Sharkys, a bar clearly oriented towards the foreign crowd and Cambodian working girls. To be honest, by this point Vinh and I ended up talking more about cameras and photojournalism, but the old guy-young woman dynamic was evident all around us, and Vinh pointed out a few nuances and details.
There were seedier places to go to, but we called it quits. The flavour of what was available was evident, and I don’t think that I wanted to see anything more. I did get a sense of the kind of environment PSI and similar organizations work in in this part of the world (although the Cambodian scene is different from the sex-pat scene, and relatively much, much larger).
I didn’t sleep well at all, probably because of the four beers in my system, which for me is a lot. I was groggy most of the day. I made it out of bed and was hungry for breakfast, so I called up Rick and we walked over to Chi Cha for a filling Indian grub. He didn’t have time to linger, though, so I took off for the Russian Market, about 10 minutes by moto south of the hotel. I didn’t find much to buy there, but it was pretty photogenic in the food area. Unfortunately I only had my point-and-shoot digital with me.
Back near the hotel I went for a haircut at the Kennedy Barber shop, on the same street as Rick’s place near Norodom. It’s a classic barbershop if there ever was one, and it celebrates its namesake with pictures of JFK throughout, including on the sign. Apparently it has been around for yonks, and looks it. For $2 I got a very meticulous haircut from a serious barber, then a shave, which was very close and good. I don’t think that I’ve had a straight-razor shave since I was in Turkey in 2002. Good stuff. I actually returned there today with my Leica to take some shots of the place. The barber looked very confused and didn’t understand my intentions, but he shrugged and let me snap away. About five minutes in, a light when on in his mind and he recognized me from the day before. I was a little stunned that it took so long (or that it took any time at all), but a big grin appeared on his face and he relaxed a bit.
I like a good thing, and I’ve decided that Chi Cha is one, so I actually had dinner there yesterday as well: chicken fry, vegetable curry, chipati, rice, dahl and a mango lassi. Great.
Last night I was out with PSIs IPC (Inter-personal Communication) outreach teams, who target group is at-risk men who are likely to have encounters with sex workers. They work between 5 and 9pm in male-female pairs, and they approach groups of men in restaurants, BBQ joints and beer gardens. Any later in the evening and men are usually too drunk or preoccupied to pay much attention. The key message is HIV prevention, and the teams interact with quizzes and games. Since June of this year, they have managed to engage 40,000 men in this way.
We visited three sites where teams (about 3 pairs and a leader) were working. The first was a series of dog meat restaurants (poor woofs), which are known for offering pretty cheap eats ($1 a plate), so the men here tend work is less well-paying jobs. Our next stops were more mid-level restaurants, some offering BBQ. In all these places I was very impressed by the skill and energy of the outreach teams and they approached tables of strangers. In the very large percentage of cases they were received openly and actively, suggesting their techniques really do work well.
It wasn’t a late night. Samnang, the outreach coordinator, dropped me off at my hotel at around 9pm, and after an episode of The Wire, I was in bed, listening to music for a few minutes, then having the first long and decent sleep in a while.
I was up at a reasonable hour, maybe 7:30. There is a lively outdoor market a block in from the river, and as the sun was still low and the light good, I wandered over with my Leica and shot close to a roll of film, focusing mainly on the cyclo drivers whe were hoping to pedal people and/or goods home from the market. One cyclo was full of pineapples, one with bananas, another with grandma and her bags of groceries. The light was great and I hope that I got some decent images.
I packed up what I’d need for my overnight trip to the countryside, then headed over to Rick’s place where he was working on a video presentation that had been the subject of government censorship for showing touchy subjects. He’ll be working at the Post by the time I roll back into town tomorrow, so it was my last chance to see him. I took a few photos of him in his great apartment, working with the cat overseeing everything. I left him with the bottle of lao lao (hooch) that I brought back from Vientiane and wasn’t able to get into. He’ll enjoy it more than the Mekong Whiskey he is partial to.
From there I took a moto over to PSI’s offices and had lunch at a nearby western coffee shop with Bill from Virginia, the fellow who’s helping coordinate my work with PSI. After that I loaded into a truck with Vaesna, PSI’s Medical Detailing Manager (and a pharmacist by training), and a driver. We drove about an hour or so south to Kampong Speu, out in the country in the rice fields, where we linked up with a skilled outreach team – a doctor and two midwives – who are promoting PSI’s ‘birth spacing’ initiatives. Essentially this revolves around long-term reproductive health for couples: education about and provision of birth control (pills, injections, implants or IUDs).
The objective today was to drive around the villages in a small area north of Kampong Speu and share information about tomorrow’s information session and clinic in the local health centre. We drove around the dirt backroads looking for groups of women and children. When we came across them, the team would get out and tell them about their clinic. People were very receptive and interested, and it was all very novel to have shiny 4wd vehicles and a foreign photographer show up. The kids were particularly excited, although a couple of little ones were driven to tears by my uniqueness. Everything was very worthy of being photographed, and I shot about 250 images over the course of a few hours. There are obviously some duds, but a few photos look promising.
The villages are set among rice fields which look healthy and productive, but lack the vibrance and beauty of those in Bali. The better houses are concrete, the lesser ones wooden and rather flimsy; all are raised well above the ground on posts. The people seem generally healthy and tough, and a visibly darker than folks in Phnom Penh or the outreach team. There are kids-a-plenty, so it is apparent that there is a place for birth spacing here.
We are staying in a guest house in town, and am sitting on one of the twin beds in my room writing this. It’s a new and comfortable family-run place, and with the exception of barking dogs, it’s quieter than my hotel back in the city. We’ve just come back from a meal of traditional food at a restaurant by the river. We ate on the wooden floor on raised platforms surrounded by benches and hammocks. The food was good: dosa-like things filled with ground meat and shrimp, eaten almost like lettuce wrap; roast chicken; and beef in a salty-sweet sauce and potatoes.
We have to be on the road at 7am tomorrow, so I best head to bed.
I’m just drying off after a very wet moto ride back from the PSI office, about 10 minutes away from the hotel. I get the sense that it doesn’t rain for long here, but it rains pretty hard when it does.
I spent a very interesting half-day in Kampong Chnang, a bit over one hour north of Phnom Penh, working with the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a mine action group. Vinh organized the trip for Rick, him and me with the intent of giving Rick (video) and me (photography) the chance to document their work. Golden West is based and run by highly-trained ex-military personnel who partner with national organizations in the countries they work (currently Vietnam, Cambodia and Nicaragua, previously Angola, Mozambique, Iraq and Azerbaijan). They are not a demining organization per se, but rather use their expertise to support initiatives in very creative and sustainable ways, which I will explain.
Our day started very early, at 6am. Rick and I met up in front of his apartment, and a few minutes later Vinh showed up in a white truck driven by Thomas Eisele, the Regional Program Manager for GWF. We drove northwest to Kampong Chnang through pretty thick early morning traffic, with trucks and carts piled high with folks heading into towns for work, plus quite a number of oxen carts. Things change fast in the countryside.
Out at their facility we met Roger Hess, their very articulate and impassioned Director of Field Operations, who led us through their work there. The first major initiative is their explosive harvesting system (EHS) – essentially the recycling of explosive material for re-use in demining and UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearance. The explosive charges necessary to destroy mines and munitions are in huge demand in Cambodia because of their decades of war. What GWF does is extract explosives from high-calibre munitions, like old artillery shells, and convert them into explosives to be used by demining organizations. We watched (and documented) the process as GWF-trained and employed technicians cut open 105mm artillery rounds with a bandsaw (we were watching the automated process on video from a hardened location), steamed out the core of explosive material, then cooked and blended into either soft plastic explosive or harder blocks of moulded explosive that can be cut into the necessary sizes. The material they were creating was highly stable and could only be detonated with the addition of a trigger charge. Obviously they demonstrated a high degree of professionalism and care in their work. Additionally, they applied locally relevant technology that could be used as a model for future work with or without them. For example, they had started with a water cutter for the ordnance, but it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy, operate and maintain. They replaced this with a readily available water-cooled bandsaw that has worked flawlessly for thousands of cuts, is locally repairable, and actually works much faster. They did similar with their steamer.
The Foundation also develops new ways of demolishing ordnance in place using less-expensive charges made from recycled RPGs and PVC pipe packed with shaped charges designed to safely destroy explosive material in mines and bombs. One of the more exciting things I got to experience was triggering the detonator to destroy two landmines (in a brick pit a very safe distance away). This is obviously something one can’t do everyday.
The final element that we looked at was their work with explosive detection. What they are developing is inexpensive means to quickly determine the extent of UXO in areas suspected of being contaminated. To do this, they have looked at ways of attaching looped wire arrays, essentially large detectors, onto vehicles. The idea is that this array can be driven in swaths across an area thought to contain UXOs, and audio and visual signals indicate with high accuracy where metal of all kinds is in the ground. These are marked. In this way, it can be quickly determined where UXO exists and, more importantly, where it doesn’t, in a process called area reduction. Clear areas are safe to use, and contaminated areas can be cleared through UXO-clearing action.
The technology isn’t unique to GWF, but what they are doing is creating simple, effective and cheap way to attach the arrays to vehicles. Their prototype is a John Deere Gator to which they mounted a simple hinged PVC pipe frame that could be raised and lowered by a hand crank. The pipe framed strong and inexpensive trucker’s tarp onto which the two arrays were attached. This same system can and has been mounted on a basic hand tractor, ubiquitous in the country, with very limited modification. They have done the same with a full-sized tractor, mounting eight arrays on it which allows for very rapid area reduction.
It was a fascinating morning, and I have about 250 images to process and share with Golden West. With luck I can use my connections with them to do more similar work next time I’m in-country.
Thomas drove us back into town and treated us to a tasty (and unhealthy) lunch at the Cadillac Bar next to my hotel. I had grilled cheese and tomato with fries, but Vinh’s dinner hardened my arteries looking at it and was far more dangerous than any of the munitions we’d seen earlier in the day. He had chicken fried steak – two massive pieces of deep-fried beef – plus he substituted the mashed potatoes for fries and the steamed veggies for an omelette. Somehow he made it through, but his eyes were pretty glassy by the end of it.
Rick went to work at the Post, Vinh probably went to bed and I grabbed a moto over to the PSI offices (south of the Independence Monument on s.334). There I met up with staff, American and local, and arranged things for my days there. They will keep me busy with outreach locally tomorrow night, then an overnight trip into the countryside to the south on Wednesday, which should prove an amazing experience.
Tonight – a night out with Vinh and Sue, and hopefully Rick, to see Phnom Penh’s seamy underbelly, which should help me understand some of what PSI’s work here is all about.
It’s a lot of fun to be back in Phnom Penh, and it’s certainly several rungs up the energy ladder from Vientiane. After Laos, it’s noisy (lots of honking), the streets are dusty and crowded with scooters and tuk tuks and cyclos and trucks and cars, the sidewalks are jammed full of stalls and scooters and people sitting around, and there’s simply a lot more city than in Vientiane. It’s hotter, too, about 28 or 30 degrees, and fairly humid, so it’s easy to get sweaty walking around the streets.
Rob, Meriem and I had a good night out on friday. Our meal at Le Centrale was great. I had onion soup and tilapia served on a round of mashed potatoes and smothered in creamy sauce, and we all shared a bottle of French wine. For dessert we walked to a place near the fountain called Ty Na or something like that, and had a pair of very good crepes – one flaming one with bananas and rum, and one full of ice cream and chocolate sauce. I was very pleasantly stuffed after that. Rob and Meriem walked me the ten minutes to my hotel and we said our goodbyes.
Getting to Phnom Penh was very straightforward – a short van ride to Wattay airport, quick check-in, a bottle of lao lao hooch in the duty free, then I boarded my Vietnam Airlines flight for the one hour flight south. I sat next to a very young-seeming backpacker from Atlanta, working her way through Southeast Asia and Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. She seemed to be enjoying her adventures. I provide what tips I could about Phnom Penh.
I had a good laugh when I arrived at the airport and made my way out of the terminal. My friend Vinh Dao, a journalist who has worked with the Cambodia Daily and is now freelancing, sent a tuk tuk driver friend to meet me, and there he was holding up a big red Anchor beer box with my name written on it, much to the amusement of all the other drivers around him. Piy (Pee? Pi?) was his name, and he drove me to the Paragon Hotel on the riverfront. It was a lively, hot and dusty trip; very stimulating.
Vinh booked me into the Paragon. It’s a decent place to stay with a good bed, hot water, fridge, and more. It’s clean and very central. Initially I was in a riverfront room, but today have moved to the back of the hotel because of the incessant honking.
I made some phone calls and got settled, and wandered the great streets around the hotel. There are several markets close by, and no shortage of stimulation (and “moto-dops” and tuk tuk drivers offering rides, often to unsavoury locations). In fact, the ubiquitous moto-dops are very useful: for a dollar they will drive you almost anywhere in the central city. I’ve already used them a number of times.
Speaking of dollars, I’d forgotten that the USD is the de facto currency here, at least for folks like me. In fact, bank machines dispense dollars. The only time that I’ve got Riel is when I’ve been given change for amount less than a dollar (there are 4,000 Riel to the USD right now).
I got out on one PSI Cambodia project last night – an MSM drop-in centre about 5-10 minutes by car from the hotel. It was karaoke night, so the folks sat on the floor and crooned along with Cambodian pop songs. There was also a group game, although I’m not sure what was being taught through it, and a quiz with prizes. I’m pretty sure that the object of that was male sexual health. Green mango with chili and salt was being passed around as a snack and I helped myself to a fair whack as it’s delicious stuff.
I was there for about an hour, then returned to the hotel and called another friend, Rick Valenzuela, who is from New Jersey and is here working for the Phnom Penh Post. I’ve known Rick for about four years, though internet photo groups, but last night was the first time that I’ve met him in person. Since 2004, he has lived in the US, Chiang Mai and Dakar, Senegal, and has now returned here (he used to work for the Daily).
He has a great second-storey corner loft just a block from the hotel and also on the riverfront. It’s a classic Phnom Penh concrete building, and we sat on the curved corner balcony surrounded by a huge number of plants, and drank Mekong Whiskey with the tabby cat who came with the apartment. We were joined by one and then another staffer from the Post who happened to walk by and was beckoned up from the balcony. Both lived very close by.
At around 11pm, we heard from Vinh and walked the 15 minutes to the Rock Bar (which is actually called the Zeppelin Café). It is one of my favourite spots in Phnom Penh. The owner loves his classic rock and has a great vinyl library. He spends his time behind a couple of turntables and spins tracks all night. He doesn’t play the usual classic rock dreck you hear on the radio, but a great mix of hard rock, heavy metal, early punk and more. Rick and I had a few drinks ($1 Ricard on ice for me), then Vinh and Sue showed up. We chatted and drank there until after 1am, and ordered some great Chinese-style dumplings. They were up for going out some more, but I hit my sleepy wall, so we hopped on respective motos and were driven home.
Another favourite spot of mine here is the Chi Cha Indian restaurant, about four short blocks northwest of my hotel. I had breakfast there this morning at about 10am – an omelette, dahl, chapati and chai for $2.50. I had dinner there last night as well. I can imagine myself going to Chi Cha quite a few more times before I head home.
Today is sunday so there wasn’t a ton to do shooting-wise, so I mostly just walked the streets after breakfast. I strolled over to the Central Market, then to the new Sorya mall, where I bought a pile of DVDs to talk home to folks for Xmas presents. I moto’d back to the hotel just after noon and switch rooms, then wandered out again. I decided to walk down Street 63, which runs south from the Central Market. It is apparently where many brothels are found, so I figured that it would be relevant for my PSI work to see where they are and what they are like, but I didn’t spot one. They have to be there – the street is infamous for them – but I guess that I don’t know what to look for. There were no red lights, no legions of women sitting out front, no pimps dragging you in. Oh well. I’ll ask Sue about it tonight.
I went back into Sorya mall, partly to cool down and have a drink, but also to pick up a few more DVDs (at $1.50 each, it’s kind of addictive). The light was getting nice, so I returned to the hotel to get my Leica and wandered for about an hour and hopefully got a few decent street shots. Excellent material here to work with, regardless.
I’ll be meeting Vinh and Sue in about 20 minutes for dinner down at Le Cedre for Lebanese food, so I’d better get ready.
I’ve continued my work with PSI over the last two days. I didn’t accomplish much during the day yesterday; mostly just visiting sites – the old Wat Sisaket and the newer Wat Simuang – relaxing and waiting for things to happen. There isn’t a ton to do in Vientiane, I’ve decided, although I’m still fond of the place. At dusk I met up with Cristina, another PSI staffer just in from Washington, and an Albanian woman who used to be in the same field, at the Sunset Bar on a beautiful part of the river. There we had a beer and some delicious snacks, particularly the Mekong “river weed”, cooked up in a very tasty garlic and chili sauce, and some Vietnamese-style fried spring rolls.
At about 7:45, a taxi arrived for me and drove me to a hotel about 10 minutes from the town centre after a detour to the closed PSI office where he thought he had to take me. Attached to the hotel was a nightclub, and there I met two members of PSI’s sex worker outreach team, Mouiy and Latana, both peers I believe. Despite a profound language barrier, it turned out to be a very productive evening. They set up in the ‘backstage’ of the nightclub. Over th next hour or so, about 15 women arrived and prepared for the evening by putting the final touches on their outfits and makeup. I found out today, talking to the communications director at PSI that they were likely 15-25 years old and their clients were Thai and Lao businessmen. They worked out of the nightclub, and either went to backrooms in the club with clients, or to hotel rooms upstairs. The client pays about 1,000 Baht, or $35, for the women’s time.
To me, it seemed that the women were healthy-looking and relatively happy; they don’t seem to show the desperation that many sex workers do in Canada. Then again, what I’ve seen in Canada is the women who work the streets and in desperate situations. Again, there is less stigma associated with being a sex worker here, and it is recognized as an opportunity to make good money.
The PSI folks were there to promote good sexual health. They provided condom demonstrations and got each woman to do the same. They did a couple of simple presentations on STIs (the graphic images resulted in some alarmed looks), and passed out Number One condoms and pens with PSI’s information on them.
I was able to get some good images that I hope will be useful. The women were comfortable with being photographed, and the peer workers had a great energy and spirit. My greatest regret was not being able to communicate with them.
The club was deserted with the exception of the women when when I left at around 10pm, but I understand that the clients arrive around 11pm or so, and that the club stays open until 2 or 3am.
Today I spent most of the day at the PSI office. When I arrived mid morning, we drove out to the warehouse and I photographed the cute blue PSI truck being loaded with large boxes of condoms to be taken to the office where they’re repackaged for sale and distribution. Rob Gray, my old friend and the Country Director for PSI, arrived last night from Bangkok, so I saw him for the first time at the office. I got a couple of images of him looking officious at his desk next to his bust of Lenin (from his time in Uzbekistan).
Elena and had a great lunch at a local restaurant down the street from the office where we bumped into the staff from the men’s drop-in centre. We ate delicious green papaya salad and noodles, both in spicy, tangy sauces. The other staff also shared some very nice sweet/sour meatballs and cucumbers called something like “small children”. For dessert, a large cold and creamy iced coffee shake.
There wasn’t a lot to do this afternoon other than catch up on email and news, take some group shots in front of the office. Back at the hotel at 5:00, I decided that I’d better take in my last Laotian sunset over the Mekong of this trip, so I went to the top floor of the Bor Penyang Bar, as recommended by either Cristina or Elena, and enjoyed a dark Beer Lao and an amazing view up and down the river as the orangey sun went down.
Back at the hotel I packed up my room and will shortly join Rob and Meriem for dinner at Le Central.
Things generally don’t really get happening until the afternoon and evening in terms of PSI’s outreach work, so I had the morning to myself to explore the town a bit more. After a breakfast of granola, fruit and yogurt, and a cappuccino, at JoMa, I walked up to Samsenthai Road, then east to Lane Xang. A bit north there are a pair of markets, the ‘morning market’ which is mostly electronics, clothes, and so on, then the much more interesting Khouadin market, which has a covered and atmospheric clothing area and a very lively outdoor food market. I shot a lot of film on my Leica of vegetable and fish stalls, a bacci game (on which many thousands of Kip were being wagered), barrows and barrow-men, and just lots of action.
Walking back in the direction of the hotel, I stopped at a sandwich and juice shop on Samsenthai for a very tasty cheese (Vache qui rit), mayonnaise and salad (lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro and lightly pickled veggies) baguette and a mango shake, all costing about $2.50.
At 2:00 the driver came to the hotel and whisked me out to PSI. I met up with Elena and the two of us went to PSI’s nearby drop-in centre for transgender (TG) men and men who have sex with men (MSM). The centre offers a variety of services including anti-HIV and STI education (condom use and awareness), internet access, a doctor’s office, kitchen, dance area, TV room and access to peer support workers. It was a busy place and I managed to get some good shots of the action, plus some staff portraits.
Trangender men have a very different position in society here than they do back home, and katoey, as they are called, are quite visible and very accepted. It is a very similar situation to that in Thailand. Some katoey have a subtle effeminate nature while others are indistinguishable from women and have undergone hormone treatment and sometimes surgery. In some cases, their female mannerisms are very accentuated and are caricatures of what it is to be a woman. Some do work in the sex trade, sometimes with foreigners, sometimes with locals. I was told that some katoey will sleep with a foreigner, then take that money to pay a young local man (likely university age) to sleep with them. That young man will in turn take that money to buy things for his girlfriend. This is apparently not a rare phenomenon.
Being openly gay but not a katoey, from what I understand and have seen, is also broadly accepted. When I went out with the peer outreach team, we spent time in very ordinary places and the team was very openly who they were. There were no looks or energy from any in those places; they were simply who they were and that was considered normal. I can’t say that the same would happen in Canada, despite how liberal we might be. TG men certainly couldn’t live the same kind of open life.
The first excursion with the team was to a beauty salon about 14kms from the centre of town, very close to the massive and impressive Beer Lao brewery. There the peer workers chatted with about four men, some katoey, some not, about condom safety. They passed out literature and free condoms, and the men they talked to seemed very open and relaxed.
We returned to town and I had a bit of time before we were to head out again, so I went out for dinner at the same restaurant as the previous night. I had a tasty green bean salad, as was the bottle of dark Beer Lao, but the main course was challenging. Fried Vientiane-style beef sounded good, but the tough jerky-like leather that arrived, while tasty, required endurance to chew through. I made it, and also downed about a pound of sticky rice. I felt a bit dazed afterwards.
I met up with the peer team on their motorbikes at the main fountain in the centre of town just before 7:30, and I got on the back of a bike and we headed out of town again. We stopped on the way to pick up a young Danish student doing her masters in public health. Over the course of the night she provided me with some very interesting and useful information about katoey and MSM in Laos.
We drove out near the Beer Lao brewery again and pulled into a restaurant where we had beer and snacks. The peer workers knew it as a place where they could make contact and share information. There was not much action, however, so I mostly picked the Danish student’s brain.
Down the road a kilometre was a sprawling outdoor venue called the Dodo Bar, adjacent to a hopping nightclub (it seems that Wednesday is one of the main nights to go out). Here there were a great deal of katoey and some MSM, so the peers sat down at a table with some beer and would take off around the place to chat with folks, share info, and give out condoms. Sometimes it was quite subtle and fast, sometime less so. It was a challenging place to do photography as it was very dark, but I think that I managed to get some shots that captured the essence of what they do.
Sitting at the table was interesting as well as people would come and sit for a while and chat. We, the farang, weren’t of particular extra interest to anyone (as is generally the case in Laos), which was fine, and people were comfortable with being photographed. Quite a few katoey joined us, and some very quite stunningly female and certainly blurred all sorts of preconceived lines of what gender means for me. A number have spent time in Pattaya, the sex capital of Thailand. They were saying that they could make more there in a week than in a month in Laos. At least one had a regular foreigner boyfriend who called and sent money frequently.
The evening was one of those mind-bending experiences not dissimilar to my work with deminers on the Lao-Vietnam border last year, in the sense that it’s so different from my routine experiences back home. One could not possibly pre-imagine spending an evening drinking Beer Lao with Laotian katoey at a outdoor bar 14kms outside of Vientiane.
I made it on the first flight out of Luang Prabang, and in fact even had an exit-row seat with a mile of legroom (although on a 45 minute flight, that’s not a huge deal).
Our ATR-72 touched down at Wattay International Airport around 2pm and a driver from PSI was there with a sign with my name on it. All going according to plan. We drove into town and he dropped me off at a monumental new neoclassical office building on the river, so I signed in at the entryway while the driver left. I was a bit perplexed as he was supposed to take me to my guest house. This was not my guest house, but perhaps PSI’s offices were somewhere in there, but I had my doubts, particularly since the building was clearly labelled as the Mekong River Commission. I dragged my luggage up a big ramp and into the foyer and it all felt wrong. With luck I had the number of a PSI contact who had been organizing things and explained the situation, and I could sense her shaking her head. “The driver is coming back for you,” she said. So I signed out at the front gate, three minutes after I’d signed in, and waited the for the driver who returned 5 minutes later. The guard watched me get into the van and drive away.
The driver had been told to take me to the guesthouse near the MRC office (where I had been let off), but he understood that I was to be let off at the MRC itself. He spoke no English, and he was very stoic, but he may have been a bit sheepish.
My guesthouse was a short distance away. Called the B and P for some reason, it is pleasant and functional, has air con and a pretty good bed. I showered, changed, and went out for a walk.
Vientiane feels small. For a capital it is very quiet and low-scale, and the traffic isn’t that bad, at least in the centre, in part because some streets are one-way. There are many a wat, and therefore many a monk ambling about in orange robes and flip-flops. It is winter here, about 25 degrees, so I saw at least one monk wearing a toque. I walked about 10 minutes or so from my hotel and found that I’d covered most of the centre of town. I enjoyed an iced cappuccino at JoMa, got some money out of an ATM (new and novel for Laos), and dropped in an internet café to check emails and admire the latest pictures of my new niece.
I spent pretty much the rest of the day walking the streets in the town centre. This is a more attractive proposition than in Ubud, where you are in mortal danger of falling into a hole leading into a sewer, or in Bangkok where there are many obstacles and a great deal of sewer-odour. I wasn’t even pestered to buy things, with the exception of the odd tuk tuk ride.
I enjoyed a Beer Lao at an open air restaurant on the Mekong as the sun went down, and as night fell I opted for a massage. This, again, was easier than in Bangkok as ‘special’ massages aren’t on the menu here from what I know. I ventured across the street to Sabaidee Massage and enjoyed a massage several notches down the pain scale than I experienced earlier in Bali and in Thailand.
I wasn’t in the mood for restaurant food, so I went to a grocery store and bought crackers, La Vache qui rit, juice and yogurt, which I ate in my hotel room while watching TV shows (The Wire) on my laptop.
I spent today out at the PSI offices. I am working with two very nice, organized and helpful staff, Cristina and Elena, from Boston and Baltimore, respectively. Cristina’s focus is on harm reduction and family planning, mostly (their own Number One brand) condoms and education, and Elena is focusing on anti-malarial programs. PSI is a world-wide NGO working on health issues from a social marketing perspective, that is, they develop a market for health-related products by educating people and supplying product at a reduced cost, thereby creating demand which attracts other companies and their products. The end result is a healthy and educated population.
Today my work with them focused mainly on documenting their office activities. This involved photographing staff at work as well as about 12 people repacking condoms into packages of three for sale in pharmacies and stores. Staff at the PSI office include doctors, researchers, video specialists, a graphic designer, outreach workers and more. Elena also took me to their warehouse (which had been flooded during a recent surge on the Mekong) where I photographed condoms numbering in the thousands. Funny to think about their future. We also visited a number of pharmacies to document their products on display alongside other brands of condoms.
In all is was a fairly quiet day with a fair amount of waiting for things to happen. I did get locked in a bathroom once when the handle stopped working, but Elena rescued me after I resorted to knocking loudly on the door. The next few days should be a bit more productive when we can work more closely with the communications director to get me out with some outreach teams.