Project Phongsali: Days 1 to 7

February 8, 2010

Project Phongsali

Daily Log: Week One

Day 1

I arrive in Vientiane at midday on a flight from Taipei via Bangkok.  My assistant and interpreter, Bounnphasit Xayavong, “Yai” to his friends, picks me up at the airport.

It’s the peak of the tourist season and I have no hotel reservation but I am confident that there will be room for me at my Lao “home from home,” the Soukxana Guest House.  (The Soukxana, at 13 bucks a night, occupies a sweet spot: too expensive for backpackers and too seedy to appeal to better-heeled tourists).

After checking in at the guest house, Yai and I immediately head to a meeting with Paul Stanford, a retired RAF armorer who has done bomb and landmine removal in Laos for many years and is recognized by many Americans due to his prominent role in the critically-acclaimed documentary, “Bombies.”  We spend the rest of the evening pumping Stanford for advice relative to clearing ordnance in remote areas such as Phongsali Province.

Day 2

I meet with Mick Hayes, owner of Phoenix Clearance Ltd., a New Zealand based clearance company.  Hayes has agreed to lease WHWV the vehicles and de-mining equipment that we need to do surface clearance of unexploded ordnance (UXO).  In addition, his company will provide us with all supplies, everything from drinking water to TNT, throughout our prolonged stay in Phongsali Province.

Hayes provides me with a draft of the written contract that we have discussed via telephone calls and emails for months.  We agree to meet to review, discuss, and sign the contract within a day or two.

In the afternoon Yai and I meet with the Director of the Lao National Library.  Over the past five years WHWV has had the library staff construct over 40 Book Box libraries for delivery to rural elementary schools that completely lack reading books.

The Director greets us warmly and is pleased when I tell her that I need six more book box libraries, each holding 200 individual titles (all in the Lao language).  She assures me that she will personally see to the construction of the boxes and the loading of books. They will be ready in three weeks.  We tell her not to rush.  There’s no room in our truck to Phongsali; our six new libraries will go to villages in the south, after we return to the capital in March.  We are thinking of carrying them to villages in Attapeu Province that were devastated by typhoon Ketsana last fall.

Day 3

Yai and I construct and revise a list of all the equipment and supplies we anticipate needing for the next six to eight weeks.  We repeatedly draw upon our years of working together in Khammouan Province and try to anticipate a repeat of every major problem we’ve faced in the past.  We find few things absent from the PCL contract.  Aaron Hayes, son of the owner, and his assistant, Kham, have anticipated just about every contingency.

The staff that PCL will provide includes a team leader, a driver, a medic, and four de-miners.  Yai and I discuss the qualities we want in a driver, since the mountainside road to Phongsali is no walk in the park.  (And the medic, since we’ll be far from outside help).

Phongsali Province has many ethnic minority villages (in fact ethnic “minorities” comprise the vast “majority” of the population in the province).  I am pleased to learn that two of our four de-miners will be ethnic Hmong, fluent in both the Lao and Hmong languages.

Later, Yai and I head to the National Rehabilitation Center to deliver funds donated to WHWV to pay for the manufacture of artificial arms and legs for amputees injured by old ordnance.  We meet with the out-reach coordinator and make tentative plans in the event that we find needy amputees in Phongsali (IMHO: a “sure bet”).

He suggests that we transport amputees to their Luang Prabang Center, it being much closer to Phongsali than is Vientiane.  I learn that my friend Miss Monivahn is now the director of that center.  Nice lady.  Somewhere on my blog is an interview that I did with her years ago when she was just starting her career.

Day 4

Yai and I continue to plan for our departure and to shop for personal supplies.  I need some emergency rations to have on hand for days when I can’t handle the Lao food offered in the village.  (Long ago I drew a line at eating mashed water bugs or the green contents of cow’s intestines.  On days when certain items are all that is available I’m doing sardines and ramen noodles).

In the evening Yai and I visit our friend Om, who remains in critical condition from a head injury he received a few days earlier in a rollover car accident.  Om is tied to his bed to keep him from falling out during seizures.  At one point, he opens his eyes and brightens in recognition of my face.  A sad situation that may or may not get better.

Day 5

Our plan to leave tomorrow falls apart when our designated driver backs out.  His wife is adamant.  She won’t let him go so far from home.  She considers Phongsali to be just too remote and distant.  I can’t argue with her.  As the saying goes: “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”

I really wanted that particular driver, as he owns his own truck.  In Laos that is the best guarantee that the vehicle is in good driving condition and that the driver won’t take unnecessary risks.

Day 6

We arrange for another driver.  Another truck.  This vehicle and driver are unknown to me.  Frankly, I’d rather be heading up the mountain with someone I know.  Last year, about this time, I was on that road. Large segments had not been repaired from raining season washouts and landslides and, of course, there’s not a foot of guardrail along the entire route.  The worst stretch is only 110 k long and we only have to make one trip up and one trip down.  Still, I want a driver who is both skilled and cautious. And…a truck with well-maintained steering and brakes.

Day 7

The wheels fall off the wagon.

Our planned day of departure: cancelled.

Yai is at the doctor’s complaining of aching joints, nausea, and pain in his back. One leg is swollen about double the size of the other.

Yai has not been his old self ever since I rushed him to Thailand two years ago with Typhoid Fever.  He was in bad shape then, but got good treatment and (mostly) recovered.  Since that episode, he’s been diagnosed with Hepatitis B, a condition that is fairly endemic here in Asia.

I call home and ask my wife Marty to check some medical websites. Yai’s symptoms seem a pretty good fit for “cirrhosis” (deteriorating or malfunctioning liver), one possible result of Hepatitis B. Not good news.

7 Responses to “ Project Phongsali: Days 1 to 7 ”

  1. Jerry on February 15, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Well, that’s not good news at all. Do send Yai best wishes and thoughts from me and Karen. We are really looking forward to seeing you both in fine form soon.

  2. Tong on February 23, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Check UW-Health at Madison. They supposed to be the center for Hep. B specialization.

    I can ID with Hep. B. That is not good news for Yai, hopefully they can get the right medication for him.

  3. Tong on February 23, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Check UW-Health at Madison. They supposed to be the center for Hep. B specialization.

    That is not good news for Yai, hopefully they can get the right medication for him.

  4. Jackson Hill on May 20, 2010 at 2:42 am

    Hepatitis could lead to liver cirrhosis if you did not maintain a healthy lifestyle.:`-

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