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Leaving Vietnam

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My second day in the field with PSI Vietnam was just within Hải Phòng documenting their promotional efforts and outreach. We started in the morning with a trip around the city with a local staff member photographing billboards promoting safe practices and HIV testing, ideally with groups of men sitting or standing nearby. The billboards were generally placed in strategic areas – places where men drink (bia hơis) or industrial areas where they work.

A PSI billboard promoting HIV awareness

For lunch we had bún chả at my request. Our local contact took us to a place that was quite renowned for it, and rightly so; the spring rolls were delicious – stuffed with crab and shrimp. I ate very well, but it seems the others were able to eat a fair bit more.

Crab and shrimp springrolls with bun cha

After relaxing in the hotel lobby for a couple of hours (I uploaded photos to my last blog post), we returned to the PSI office where they male client team was meeting before heading out for the evening’s work. They practised a couple of interactions with a mock group of men out drinking, and apparently it was very humorous and realistic. After about an hour we took a group photo, then they all rolled to various quarters of the city to do their work.

We met up with a couple of teams (they work in pairs) on a busy street lined with bia hơis. Their outreach was very similar to what I’d seen in Phnom Penh – a worker would approach a group of single men in the target age group and engage them in discussion about condom use and HIV prevention. From what I understood, much of the talk was about how you can’t tell if someone has HIV and that it’s best to be safe and practice prevention. One example they used, presented with flash cards, was that you can verify what your friend says about the weather by looking at a weather forecast and what he says about a restaurant by trying it, but you can’t take his work on whether a sex worker is safe, so it’s always best to use a condom. At the end of the chat, a few gifts – pens, condoms and condom holders – were passed around and the worker found a new table.

A PSI outreach worker with potential male clients of sex workers at a bia hoi

This kind of work can’t really happen late in the evening as the men will have had more to drink by then and would likely be heading to ‘entertainment establishments’ if they were planning to do so, so we were on the road back to Hanoi by 7pm. It was a steady, slowish drive again and it wasn’t until about 9pm that we got to where I would be staying in the northern part of the city. We had some phở, then I was dropped at the Newtatco Hotel, an unusual place which I think was a state-run guesthouse. It reminded me of something out of China in the early 1980s, and the bed was as comfortable as sleeping on a sheet of plywood. Like most nights on this trip, I didn’t sleep well.

At 6:30am a taxi arrived to take me to the airport which was surprisingly busy. There were long lines to check in and for emigration. The flight on Air Asia was smooth and comfortable and time, and Bangkok’s airport was surprisingly quiet and I was out the door and on the airport train quickly.

I checked in to Jim’s Lodge not long after lunch and tried unsuccessfully to nap, so I got up and headed out on the town. For a snack I picked up a couple of buns at one of the ubiquitous 7-11s, then took the BTS to National Stadium. My plan here had to meet up with my PSI connections from last year. From National Stadium I was planning on taking a taxi to meet Piboy, the outreach worker I followed for a few days last year, but it turns out he was an hour away, so unfortunately I could not meet up. My other contact here, Alex, had to head out to check on projects in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, so I couldn’t meet him either.

I ambled around MBK mall for a bit, watching people buy cell phones and gizmos, but looking at the price of camera gear, it was clear things are actually cheaper in Canada. I did buy a screen protector for my point and shoot which came to $3, installed.

Jeremy Tan recommended a chain of classy and high-quality spas as a place to get a thai massage. Normally averse to massages, he claims going to Health Land converted him, so I had to check one out. It look me a long time to find the location I was looking for as Bangkok street names and addressing are confusing at best. I walked up and down many streets including the infamous Soi Cowboy (the go-go bars being prepped for the evening’s action, and the bar girls having their dinners). Eventually I simply got a moto driver to take me to Health Land (I had been very close several times). When we arrived he expressed concern that I was in the wrong place. Through hand gestures he let me know that I couldn’t possibly want to go here as the place doesn’t offer boom boom as part of the massage. I let him know that it was OK.

It was a very pleasant place with beautiful wood finishing and fragrant herbs in the air. The customers were mostly women and couples. For 450 Baht ($15) I got a 2 hour thai massage in a nice, soothing room by a stout and powerful masseuse. Thai massage, when done properly, often makes you think, by god this hurts but it sure feels good for me. A great deal of time is spent on the legs, and when you have hamstrings as tight as mine, there were times when the pressure almost made me sing. Two hours of finger and elbow pressure, plus twisting and pulling reduced me to a sack of jello. I had come in with a headache and it was long gone, and my legs felt pleasantly achy.

Looking down on Suhkumvit from the Asok BTS station

For dinner I walked a few minutes over to Cabbages and Condoms, a social enterprise started by the fellow who really brought condom use to the fore in Thailand in the 1990s. The restaurant is in a lovely treed courtyard, and a musician from a music school plays traditional Thai music. The food is very good too. I had tom yum talak (spicy seafood soup) and penang kai (chicken in a thick coconut curry sauce), with sticky rice and fresh coconut water. For desert – mango sticky rice, of course, and a glass of Thai whiskey. The bill came to about $17, which is pricey for here, but certain worth it for the food and the ambiance.

Then, back to the hotel for an early-ish night (although I still didn’t sleep too well). I’ll pack up now and head to the airport for my flight to Phnom Penh.

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Written by sockeyed

November 4, 2010 at 20:05

Hà Nội-Đồ Sơn-Hải Phòng

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My last night in Laos – the 29th – was a lively one by Lao standards. I joined my old friends from last year’s malaria project (Tak, Saen, Seng and Dao) for a night on the town. We started at the expansive waterfront bar Moon the Night (not sure what that means), where a crate of Beer Lao was delivered to the table and there were various things to nibble on. At around 9 or so we decamped to a karaoke bar near That Louang for some crooning. Only one of them (identity protected) had a woman sit with him; I can only imagine the agony of one’s days spent listening to men yowl along to the latest Lao and Thai hits.

Mr. Seng belts one out

I was home by 11, I think. And I’ll be ice in my beer kept me sober (I’m learning to nurse my drinks long enough to get me through an evening without wobbling).

My flight for Hanoi left in the late afternoon, and to be honest I was worried about how I was going to spend the day as I really had drained Vientiane of options. Fortunately Dao was having a party at his house as he lives near a part of the river where there was a boat race festival. Apparently it’s traditional – if you live by the river – to host all of your friends, feeding and beering them under a canopy. Tak picked me up at the hotel and we joined Dao for a few hours of sitting and grazing. Once again I nursed a small amount of beer through the afternoon.

Mr. Dao hosts a party

I arrived at the very quiet airport in plenty of time for my 17:50 flight on Vietnam Airlines. The flight was fine although I was disappointed not to be fed even a peanut or cracker in the course of the one hour flight. The time on board was extended by 50% when we sat on the taxiway for half an hour behind some other plane. I worked on reading my book.

I picked up my visa on arrival and was met by a PSI driver. We zipped into town, then got, bogged down in traffic, as expected, but eventually I made it to my hotel. I was very pleased with the Hanoi Elite, a two week-old little gem in quiet alley in the old quarter. I had a very nicely appointed little room in a modern Asian style, and the staff were very pleasant and helpful, running out to get me a SIM card or a moto driver, and providing excellent breakfast.

The Hanoi Elite Hotel

I was tired and hungry, but it was Saturday night in Hanoi, so I grabbed my camera and spent a couple of hours wandering the streets and photographing the highly-aesthetic chaos. Nothing is quite like Hanoi traffic, and organic mass of scooters with the odd car screwing things up like a clot in an artery. Crossing streets is much the same as it was in 2004 – walk steadily and let everything flow around you; hesitate or run and you’re likely to get in trouble. There is a new dangerous element however – it is not unusual for a rider to be text messaging on the scooter. Danger danger.

Near Hoan Kiem Lake

I enjoyed a bowl of pho ga at a streetside stall, squatting on a 6′ high stool and watching the world flow by. The chicken broth put a dent in my sore throat (which lasted until today – November 1).

A typical streetside pho restaurant

The next day – Sunday and Halloween – was a free day for me in Hanoi, so I woke at 6am, hand breakfast in the hotel, then hit the streets. I crisscrossed, circled and ambled my way around the Old Quarter, savouring its vibrance and looking for spots I remembered. I also noticed the changes. It’s quite likely that I have a selective memory, but it really seems to me that there are a lot more tourists and backpackers than there were, and a lot more restaurants and bars catering to them. And locals responded differently, probably tired of being photographed and being in the constant presence of travellers.

A street in the Old Quarter

A street vendor in the Old Quarter

I had a few enjoyable interactions, particularly in one case where I stopped to watch two men and one boy sanding the rust off an old disassembled child’s bike. The boy stood at the ready with a can of blue spray paint. The pulled up a stool and invited me to join them, so I did, communicating what I could and photographing the scene.

Bringing an old bike back to life

I had fantastic Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa) in a cluster of coffee shops on Trong Thanh and a massive and delicious lunch of bún chả hà nội (fried spring rolls, grilled meat, noodles, greens and soup) at Dac Kim on Hàng Mành Street (recommended by Vinh).

Where I enjoyed my cà phê sữa

bún chả hà nội

I laid down for a rest in the afternoon but didn’t really sleep, and got up around 4pm to catch the better light. A visit to the Temple of Literature turned out to be a bit of a mistake; it was totally mobbed and just moderately interesting. Well, it does have an impressive history and some interesting stellae celebrating ancient professors, but I didn’t feel moved. The moto ride through the Old Quarter, however, was very exciting and warranted shooting lots of video clips.

A detail at the Temple of Literature

Mob scene at the Temple of Literature

Three years ago in Luang Prabang while photographing the Luang Prabang Children’s Cultural Centre I met a CUSO Cooperant named Derin. It turns out that she’s now in Hanoi working for Oxfam Canada, so I joined her, her mom and sister for a dinner in an open-air restaurant southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake not far from the railway station. We caught up on what we’ve been up to and enjoyed a variety of Vietnamese dishes, prepared in hawker-like stands around the periphery. The dinner came to $5, or 100,000 Dong each with beer. Yes, Vietnam is still very cheap (and this wasn’t street food).

Why not carry a giant plant on your scooter?

I enjoyed my last evening scooter ride through the city and slept nearly a full night.

Rush hour (note the standard way of moving infants on the right)

Hoan Kiem Lake at dusk

Today it was back to work with PSI, but it was a very enjoyable and full day. My guide, Ms Ngoc, and a driver showed up at 8am for a long, slow drive to Hải Phòng (100kms in two hours). Ms Ngoc is like many of the PSI local staff I’ve worked with – very bright and helpful. Prior to work with PSI she was with Save the Children, and she spent time studying in Switzerland. She fell asleep in the car.

We passed straight through Hải Phòng, continuing another 20kms to Đồ Sơn, a resort town on the coast. It was actually pleasant, with a cool breeze, shady trees and a reasonable waterfront. We spent our time with Mr Thu, the local distributor for PSI’s Number 1 condoms. I learned a great deal from the experience. Here, hotels and guesthouses are largely responsible for providing condoms for their sex workers, but they are also seemingly the central organizing element in the sex trade. Quite often, women were based in the guesthouses and sent around the town to clients on the back of motorbikes. It was a surreal scene as the place was actually quite deserted-seeming, but there was a steady buzz of women in tight pants and heels being delivered here and there. Condoms also seem to be quite a commodity. PSI is interested in encouraging as much use of their high-quality condoms as possible, but they face competition from cheaper Chinese ones. When guesthouses run through 10 shoebox-sized boxes of them in a week, I guess economies of scale come into play. So Mr. Thu has to actively promote his product.

Number 1, big here and in Laos and Cambodia

 

He drove around town with a big box of Number 1s on the back of his scooter and we followed in our car. He chatted up and made sales of varying sizes to street stall vendors and guesthouse operators, and pitched the condoms to the sex workers directly. I documented it all.

Mr. Thu out on his motorbike

Interacting with the owner of a tea stall who sells Number 1 condoms

A week's worth of condoms for a guesthouse

 

Late in day we rolled back to Hải Phòng and spent a couple of hours with the female sex worker outreach team – Sống đẹp (“Clean Living) – first in their office where they mocked up a series of 1-on-1 education sessions with sex workers, then in the field. We didn’t have any success getting into any entertainment establishments, which we expected, but I was able to photograph outreach to a couple of street workers. Much of what I’m doing is carefully shot to preserve the identity of the sex worker.

Sống đẹp outreach workers fill out their log books

A Sống đẹp outreach worker provides support for a female sex worker

 

Hải Phòng is bustling and dusty, but not ugly (for the most part), and I got to see a lot of it as we drove around after the outreach teams. PSI has put my up in the decent Bach Dang Hotel in the centre of town on Dien Bien Phu Street. Ms Ngoc led us to a decent and filling dinner of pork cake and rice noodles dipped in sour-saltly-sweet-spicy soup. I was back in the hotel in plenty of time to write this and backup all of the 300 images I took today.

Written by sockeyed

November 1, 2010 at 17:59

Slow Going in Vientiane

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It has been a slow-paced four days in Vientiane which kind of suits the nature of the city. On Tuesday we set up a list of photo subjects for my time here. It seemed impressive, but I managed to get through it all quite easily. Generally my days have begun with a fairly early rise and a quite-tasty buffet breakfast (mixed Asian and western food) at the hotel. The PSI driver arrives in his truck and we crawl through the chaotic yet slow traffic to the office where my days were arranged. I covered a whole range of subjects including:

  • Visits to pharmacies to document birth control options (including Chinese abortion pills) and to private clinics with Tick, the team leader from last-year’s malaria project in Attapeu;
  • The PSI warehouse plus the facilities of Diethelm, their new distributor;
  • The “New Friends” MSM (men who have sex with men) drop-in centre, including their new branding plus information and counselling sessions;
  • A new text messaging program encouraging people to get free HIV testing;
  • Wandering the Morning Market looking for moms with kids to photograph for the reproductive health program;
  • TB training for staff;
  • A primitive clinic that provides exams and treatment for female sex workers;
  • Outreach to female sex workers in the Ramayana Hotel karaoke bar; and
  • PSI staff group photos.

A PSI outreach worker educates female sex workers about STIs.

The PSI Laos Team

I am happy to have accomplished all that was laid out for me. I’ve had plenty of time to wander the streets of the central city between shoots or after my day’s work. I’ve had some tasty food, particularly phe (or pho noodles) and café lao, the best of both I’ve decided are on Heng Boun Road, west of the Lao Cultural Hall. I also found really good pad thai at a stall where Heng Boun meets Chao Anou Road.

Phe Noodles from Pho Dung on Heng Boun Road

Pad Thai Stall on Heng Boum Road

 

I’ve enjoyed finding a good spot to have a café lao or Beer Lao and sit watching street life or reading a book on my ebook reader.

Lao Coffee, tea and an e-book

There’s really not a whole lot else to write about. I haven’t found much personal photographic inspiration here which is probably partly a function of having spent quite a bit of time here before, of Vientiane not being that inspiring, and of the fact that my last two trips – to India and to the Arctic – were incredibly inspiring.

More about Attapeu

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Yesterday followed the same pattern as Friday.  The village we travelled to was about 5kms down the same road.  The difference was that the locals there spoke a different dialect – closer to Khmer – that no-one on the team could understand, so the Lao-speaking village head and another local translator helped out.  The villagers seemed visibly poorer – they were dirtier and their clothes were more basic.  While not unhealthy, they appeared unhealthier than those in Pouy.  It’s a hardscrabble existence on this rice-farming plain prone to flooding and a hot dry season.  My understanding is that there is only a single annual harvest of rice here.

PSI Delivery

A PSI Land Cruiser is used to shuttle villagers to the clinic

Ban Donephay

Team leader Tick registers people in Ban Donephay village

 

The day’s event was quite successful – at least 200 villagers showed up to be tested, with only 2 showing positive for malaria.  PSI staff were constantly busy with intake, testing, and field interviews in individual houses.  I was able to get quite good images of all aspects, I think.  Seeing into each house was sobering as conditions are very basic: sleeping on bare floors and cooking over charcoal fires.

Ban Donephay

A girl watches as villagers are tested around her

The village head decided to kill a pig for the team’s lunch, but the collection of quivering entrails and organs in stainless bowls didn’t appeal.  Sen, as he always does when presented with any meat, dug in with gusto.  Fortunately, the team brought along other food and I munched on sticky rice, hard-boiled egg, dried beef, and a noodle-fish mixture prepared in a leaf wrap.

Lunchtime was quiet, so the team relaxed.  I managed a short nap in the back of one of the Land Cruisers, with two drivers – Sen and Seng – snoring up front.

We stayed until mid-afternoon then all piled in one truck (the other was in Pakse for the day) for the hour’s drive back into town.  Back in town I washed, rested and downloaded my images, then had a delicious meal prepared at the guesthouse by the some of the team.  It was one of the top meals of this trip: tamahoon (green papaya salad), morning glory with chillies, fish stew with lime cilantro and chillies, scrambled eggs, steamed watercress and other herbs, and of course sticky rice.  I stuffed myself.

At around 8pm I went to Champa 100 Years with Tak, one of the communications guys, who is younger and speaks English well.  We chatted for about an hour about school and work and his recent heartbreak, when his girlfriend of five years left him for a Thai fellow (note: later in the evening his ex sent him several text messages saying that she’d had a fight with the new guy and wanted to patch things up.  Tak made a point of not responding although it was clear he was torn).  Dao, one of the drivers arrived and we moved to another table with the restaurant owner and two young women, one of whom made me laugh a great deal despite not understanding her Lao.  She kept making me recite all the Lao I knew and laughing and laughing at my immense vocabulary of 5-10 phrases.

At around 9:30 we rolled across town to Happy Day on the other bend of the Xe Kong River.  Sen and Seng were there, and we listened to the music for a while, drinking more Beer Lao and munching cucumbers, fresh tamarind (sour!) and watermelon seeds.  Not a great deal happened and we were back home by 11:00 and I had a solid sleep.

I decided, however, to have a rest day.  My stomach was a bit off (much better now) and I figured that I could not get a ton of photographic value returning to the same village again.  So, I spent the day at the guesthouse, reading half of my book – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and relaxing.

At lunchtime a truck from the French Croix-Rouge pulled up three fellows – French, English and Lao – checked in.  I chatted with them, and then joined them as they went for lunch in a local Vietnamese place.  They are here to look into food security issues following the recent cyclone.  Apparently the rice harvest was damaged in the flooding and they are here to assess interventions for four days.  They will be journeying into some very remote parts of the district by boat or possibly even foot by the sound of it.  David, the Englishman, spent four years treeplanting in northern BC , has a family in Tamil Nadu, and works as a disaster-management consultant.  Benoit is from France and lives in Vientiane, working for the Croix Rouge, and I’m guessing that the Lao fellow is from the a government ministry.  It was very interesting to learn about this very direct kind of work being carried out on the ground.

For dinner I met up with the usual suspects – San, Seng, Tak and Dao – for a dinner at their friend Miss Mai’s shop at the bus station.  San cooked up a vat of boiled clams in chilli broth, and Mai grilled an entire catfish over a charcoal brazier.  We sat around a concrete table in front of the store watching the local buses come and go.

Written by sockeyed

November 1, 2009 at 18:44

Posted in Photography, Travel

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Attapeu

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The journey was long – 23 hours from the Hualamphong train station to the Attapeu bus station – but it went as smoothly as imaginable.  I didn’t sleep so well on the train for some reason, perhaps because it seemed exceptionally bouncy, and also because the conductor and his friends were jabbering away a few feet from my berth.  The stunning thing is that the train arrived on time in Ubon Ratchatani, which is almost unheard of.  A tuk tuk drove me through the unremarkable town to the bus station where I bought a ticket for the 9:30 bus to Pakse.  I had time for a bowl of chicken on broth-y rice and a coffee.  I also realized that my Thai mobile was almost out of credit so I couldn’t send a text message anywhere.

The bus ride took about three hours.  Crossing the border was an exercise in way-finding through fences and around buildings, eventually arriving at a black-glass window with a hole far too low to actually see or hear anything through.  I passed in my passport and a bushel of papers came back at me, which I dutifully filled out and returned with the $43 fee.  Canadians still pay the most of any country for a Lao visa.  We must have really offended them at some point.

At another similar window around the side, a disembodied voice asked for an additional 50 Baht, probably for the Lao Border Guards Retirement Fund or something.  I paid and walked away with my passport and Lao visa in hand.

Instantly things change on the Lao side of the border: the landscape is hillier and more treed, and things look less prosperous.  Most houses are feeble wood things that look like they could blow over or combust at the smallest provocation.

After an hour and on the far side of the stunning Mekong, we pulled into non-descript Pakse.  I hopped on a Lao style of tuk tuk – a covered sidecar – and went for a ride through the town, stopping to get a SIM card (using French with an old guy) – then south 8km to the other bus station.  I had a couple of hours there until the 3:15 “VIP” bus left, so I drank some drinks and ate some buns.

The 4 hour ride to Attapeu was lovely.  We drove around the Bolevan Plateau, which juts up several hundred meters from the plain around it, in places with sheer cliffs and bastions of rock.  We made our way clockwise around it in the gorgeous evening light.  One thing that I noticed is that Lao people walk with their backs to traffic, which resulted in many of the having the beejesus scared out of them when our bus came barrelling up behind them honking.

The bus pulled into the dirt bus station at 7:30 and shortly thereafter a big blue Toyota Land Cruiser covered in Number 1 condom logos pulled up, and I was greeted by Tick, the young energetic team leader here, and Sen, the driver.  Both speak good English.  We drove the short distance to the guesthouse.

I had a nice room, but unfortunately it was on the ground floor right by the front desk and door, so I had a fairly lousy sleep because of noise.

I got out of bed at seven, and at half-past, Tick took me for a bowl of noodles down the street.  At eight, the entire PSI team showed up (8 folks in two vehicles), and we drove about 30kms down a rough dirt road westwards to the village called Pouy.  Flooding earlier this year damaged the whole area and the road is badly scarred in places.  An amazingly sketchy suspension bridge with a one-ton limit has been built in one place, and everyone piled out to watch the Land Cruiser creep across it.

Bridge Crossing

A PSI Land Cruiser crawls across a suspension bridge

The standard practice for the team is to set up malaria testing and also conduct field interviews about malaria-prevention practices.  A series of tables are arranged and villagers are invited to drop by, sign in and get a finger-prick blood test on the spot.  Results are available within 15 minutes.  This was the second day at the village, so it wasn’t particularly busy although by the early afternoon a crowd of about 30 or so had gathered after being tested in anticipation of draw prizes.

Malaria Blood Test

A girl winces as she gets a finger-prick blood test for malaria

Pouy

The girl on the right has tested positive for malaria and is given a Coartem treatment pack by the PSI team

Villagers wait to hear the results of their malaria tests

The village, like all that we passed, is situated on a large floodplain of the major river in the area (that flooded during the storms).  To the north is an impressive forested plateau, possibly the Bolevan, rising abruptly up from the plain with sheer cliffs and waterfalls.  While dry right now, this is obviously an area that turns to soup and glue in the wet season.  The red soil likely turns to porridge, and then to concrete as it dries.  Rice farming dominates although lots of livestock – water buffalo, cows, goats, geese, chickens and ducks – roam.  The houses are simple: one or two rooms high on stilts, with a ladder or stairs leading up.  The walls are wooden boards for the most part, with lots of gaps for air and mosquitoes.  I was able to go into a couple of houses for the field interviews and they were as basic inside as out.  For beds there were simple thin mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets suspended from the ceiling.  It seemed as if most families slept in one room.

Lao Village House

A typical rural Lao house in Pouy village

Mosquito nets hang from the ceiling in a rural house

Because it was quiet today, the program wrapped up just after 1pm and we piled back into the vehicles and drove into town.  I was feeling pretty zonked, so I changed into a quieter upstairs room and had a 1.5 hour nap.

At five, Tick and another team member took me for a walk into the market.  The vegetables and herbs looked fresh and delicious, the fly-covered fish and meat, the squirrels, the crickets, and the dried buffalo skin, less so.  We walked onto the bridge and peered at the quite-lovely meandering river below, then went to a riverside restaurant, the Champa 100 Years, for a tasty meal of grilled duck, fried rice with egg, spicy salad and zesty watercress or morning glory.  And of course, Beer Lao.

Attapeu Market

Looking down on a street leading to the Attapeu market

Squirrels and Mushrooms

Squirrels and mushrooms for sale in the Attapeu market

Beer Lao was the story of the evening.  I went out on the town with a number of the older guys from the team, and each stop involved plentiful large bottle of Beer Lao, fortunately served over ice, which dilutes the beer somewhat.  First stop was an open-air karaoke bar on the river.  Instead of canned music, a fellow sits at a keyboard playing the tunes will all sorts of other instruments programmed in.  Sen sang a couple of Lao tunes very well and won the appreciation of people there.

Beer Lao

Beer Lao Heaven

Next stop was a ‘disco’ full of Lao young-uns.  It was a mid-sized room with a lot of tables, dripping air conditioners, lasers and such, and a decent and loud sound system.  The youth were having a pretty fun time moving to Thai pop hits.

Final stop was another karaoke place called Happy Days or something like that, also on the river.  In addition to a keyboardist was a guitarist; apparently they are brothers, and they were talented.  There was less actual karaoke as the band did most of the work, but there was some dancing, which, much to my dismay, involved me as I was dragged up by the guys.  Dancing in front of a crowd of Laos was not high on my list of priorities in coming here, but at least the bottles of Beer Lao loosened my inhibitions and mortal terror.  It was a late night for Laos – we didn’t make it home until midnight, leaving when the bar shut down.

Written by sockeyed

October 30, 2009 at 18:39

Posted in Photography, Travel

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Sticky Bangkok

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I am writing from the Atlanta Hotel, where there are more rules (about scallywags and catamites) than there are rooms.  Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration because it’s a fairly big hotel, but there are a lot of rules posted on many walls.  It’s possible the owners are German.

The flight from Hong Kong was short and comfortable.  I was somewhat surprised to be riding in a 747.  The taxi ride into town involved hurtling down freeways, then Bangkok city traffic slowed us like a mouse stepping into a glue trap.  The roads were totally bottled up, as usual, and the last few hundred meters took about half the overall travel time.  By the end we were driving through hotel parking lots (with the attendants as will accomplices, it seems), and we magically popped out on Sukhumvit Soi 2, not far from the hotel.

I’ve come to Bangkok to document Population Services International (PSI’s) injection drug user (IDU) outreach program.  This has been moderately successful although I’ve been a bit less successful than I expected.  This is partly because of language issues, important people being out of town, and those who are here being caught up in meetings.  Nonetheless, I have managed to spend some time at the O-zone drop-in centre and on the streets with outreach workers, and I’ve had remote help from Alex Duke in the PSI office.  I met up with him here last year when he and his girlfriend took me out on the river for the Loy Krathong festival, and we’ll have dinner together tonight.

The outreach work has been interesting.  I’ve been out with a number of peer workers who scooter from place to place where they know they can expect to meet IDUs.  When they do, they chat with them, go over educational materials, and hand out clean needle kits and condoms.  It has taken me into parts of Bangkok that I would never have seen, and the scooter rides have been hair-raising to put it mildly.  I often have to tuck my knees in tightly as we squish between moving cars, and the oncoming lane is quite often used for passing if no (or few) cars are coming the other way.  (Mom, you didn’t read this part, but you will be happy to know that I was wearing a helmet).

My angle is to humanize the peer outreach workers, to show that they have lives just like the rest of us.  My hope it to focus on one particular man, Piboy, who is 53 and has been a user for 30 years.  He uses rarely now, but still relies on daily methadone.  You’d never know, however.  He’s going to get married on the 31st, and I’ve already been invited to the wedding.  His wife-to-be isn’t a user herself but is aware of his addiction issues.  I hope to really focus on his daily life tomorrow – not just the outreach work, but also his home life.  With luck I’ll have a translator along and a bit more coordination from the office.

Aside from they photography, I’ve been putzing around Bangkok.  I’ve had some tasty food including a great lunch at the life-changing food court in the MBK mall: green curry with eggplants, green papaya salad, glutinous rice with black beans and coconut milk, and iced coffee.  I’ve also managed to get a thai massage (at the same place in the Muslim quarter that I visited last year).  There were some points in the massage (hamstrings) where I would have freely admitted any state secrets had I known any.  Nonetheless, the kneading seemed largely therapeutic and relaxing.

The weather has been something to be reckoned with, and even the locals seem to be complaining.  It has been very wet, with multiple daily thunderstorms.  It’s about 30+ degrees out, so it’s a might-bit sticky.  Air con can be appreciated at times like this.

I do enjoy Bangkok, but I’m looking forward to moving on to India.  There is a mystery as to what I’ll do when I return here on the 27th.  I was supposed to travel into southern Laos to work on PSI’s malaria programs, but recent storms have made that area quite inaccessible.  I’m waiting to hear from PSI Laos about whether or not they’ll go ahead.  I have the offer of doing more projects here in Thailand – in Chiang Rai and/or in Pattaya – but I’m keen to get out of Thailand, possibly to Cambodia or Vietnam if things don’t work on in Laos.  We shall see.

Written by sockeyed

October 14, 2009 at 03:27

Posted in Photography, Travel

Tagged with , , ,

Don’t Tell my Mom that I Blew up Some Landmines

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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.

Written by sockeyed

November 24, 2008 at 22:00