Project Phongsali: Days 8 to 14

February 15, 2010

Project Phongsali

Daily Log: Week Two

Day 8

Yai is definitely out of the Phongsali Project.  He’s putting his affairs in order so he can check into a hospital for more tests and treatment.  His joint ache is worse, his swollen leg is larger.  If he feels as bad as he looks, he’s in crummy shape.

Yai feels so bad about pulling out that he promises that when the doctor releases him, he will come north on a bus and work for free as a volunteer.  I thank him but remind him that if he has a relapse in Phongsali, the lack of medical care and rudimentary transportation would leave us with a crisis on our hands that could sink the whole project.  Yai understands.  He nearly cries.

I make phone calls to my contacts in Vientiane to find a substitute translator and assistant.  Now, instead of counting down the days to departure, I’m counting the days that pass since we should have left the city.

Day 9

I’m using the unexpected time in Vientiane to solve some logistical problems.

None of the maps of Laos that are readily available show much detail of the area we’ll be working in.  That’s no problem if we stick to villages along the one road that runs through the two southernmost districts: Khoua and May.  We’ll start in what amounts to the only town in the region, Muang May, and slowly work our way east.  Whatever is along the road is along the road, whether it is on a map or not.

Eventually, we’ll end up about 30k from Muang May at the Lao border with Vietnam. Were we to cross the border and head due east, we’d soon be at the Vietnamese town of Dien Bien Phu, famous as the site of the 1954 Vietnamese victory over France in the First Indochina War.  (That battle marked the end of French colonial rule in Vietnam and the start of greater American involvement.)

If we venture north or south of the main road, we won’t have true roads to travel on.  Footpaths and motorcycle tracks will be the rule.  (Even the “main road” is unpaved.)  Tiny villages exist and no doubt have ordnance.  For planning purposes it would be nice to know their names and locate them on a map.

I tramp around Lao government offices trying to acquire more detailed maps.  Due to new construction, none of the offices I’ve frequented before are where they used to be.  Government office workers are far from helpful.

When I finally find maps with sufficient detail, staffers demand that I return the next day with a written request that they will submit to their supervisor.  They caution that the supervisor is a busy man who may or may not have time to consider my request any time soon.

When I tell the staff that I’ve purchased similar maps in the past without delay, the office manager points with a flourish to the newly decorated office and explains, essentially, “New building.  New office.  New rules.”

I remind myself: “I’m not in Wisconsin.  This isn’t my country.  She doesn’t make the rules and neither do I.”  I talk myself back into my “Lao zone.”

Day 10

I return to the government map office.  To spare myself aggravation, I take the precaution of having my written request for maps embellished with an official looking stamp.  I avoid the Lao lunch and siesta hour.  The office staff is brusque and bureaucratic.  I am in and out of the map office, maps in hand, in ten minutes flat. In all honesty, no credit to me.  It’s Yai.  He could charm squirrels out of trees.

Yes.  Yai’s along, in spite of his being ill.  He wants very much to go to Phongsali with me and is trying to prove to me that his medicine is working wonders.  He’s confident that he’ll soon be good as new.  I argue that his swollen leg isn’t any smaller. But Yai cheerfully points out that it has stopped getting bigger.

We spend the afternoon trying to find a cell phone modem that will work in Phongsali.  I had intended not to attempt Internet connection up there but, with time on our hands in Vientiane, I decide to give it a go.

We buy and return a couple of modems that won’t work.  Finally, someone at the phone company explains that those modems would work but the phone company’s server is down.  The server is overloaded and repeatedly crashes.  Therefore, the company is not signing up new customers.  I ask, for how long?  “At least two weeks.”  So… modem or no modem, I can’t get service now.  I should come back later in the month and try again.

I sincerely, earnestly, desperately hope I’m not in Vientiane two weeks from now.

Day 11

I’m still searching for a substitute interpreter for Yai, but I have yet to find a replacement who can fill Yai’s shoes.  I know that I’m being hard to please and therefore lengthening my delay, but I need more than language skills alone.  I’m not keen on the idea of spending all day, every day, on uncleared land with someone who has never spent much time around unexploded ordnance.  Among the fellows we’ve considered, we find this irony: the city boys have English language skills, but no experience with UXO; the village boys have experience with UXO, but no language skills.

The only person happy with my dilemma is Yai, who each day grows more confident that his health is improving and he’ll soon be ready to work again.

Day 12

Feels like time wasted.  I waited throughout the day to hear back from someone we offered to hire in Yai’s place.  The candidate left us thinking he was eager to join but then he never called back to formally accept.  I’m beginning to realize that it’s probably a situation that occurs here so often: culturally, it’s very difficult for a Lao person to say something that might disappoint or anger another.  So… people commonly say what they think you want to hear, and then do the opposite.  They don’t view their behavior as being deceitful; they think they’ve done the right thing by making you momentarily happy.

Day 13

I’ve had too many days in Vientiane to think about Pongsali.  I’ve used the time to dream up all kinds of scenarios in which things go wrong. Or, as I keep hearing the Brits say, “go pear-shaped.  (Gotta learn the origin of that).  Beginning to feel over-planned and over stocked.  Definitely… over stocked.   Need to get Yai’s situation resolved soon and get this show on the road!

Day 14

Someday events of the past week will be funny to me.

Someday. Not today.

Who would believe:

I’ve been stalled here in Vientiane because Yai, my assistant and interpreter took ill.  While I tried to find a suitable replacement time passed.  Yai, who wants badly to go to Phongsali has called almost daily claiming to feel better by the hour.  Today, upon my insistence, he gets his doctor’s unequivocal opinion that he is suitably fit to make the trip.  Great news! We plan to leave within 48 hours.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Our driver has slowly developed cold feet over taking his truck to Phongsali and today, an hour after Yai is declared well enough to go, he declares that his truck just isn’t up to the rigors of the trip.  He pulls out, leaving us, momentarily, without a vehicle.

And then…Oratai, the man we’ve designated team leader for the Lao staff, carries word to us that the fellows have been talking and would rather not bunk in the big army tent that we’ve used in the past.  They ask that I rent a house for them, not in the village where we will be working but in a town some 20 k away, because it will be more comfortable there.  (By “comfortable” I’m certain they mean closer proximity to wine, women and song.  Hummm…make that wine, women, song, electricity, toilets and running water).

I send word back to the guys that our work is in the village, not the town.  I don’t want to lose an hour a day driving between town and village.  If we find an empty house in the village, I too would prefer it to the tent, but only if that alternative comes with no expense to the project.  (I remind Oratai that I lived in that tent for months when we worked together in Nakai and know it to be comfortable).

IMHO: It’s no wonder that for thirty-five years the people of Phongsali have been unable to persuade aid organizations to come to the province to help them with clearance.

2 Responses to “ Project Phongsali: Days 8 to 14 ”

  1. Tong on February 23, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Hopefully you’re off your way to Phongsali and Yai is getting better. I cannot believe you have to go through so much logistics…but again, you’re in Laos!

  2. Carole Daughton on March 5, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Jim–I have you in my thoughts and prayers every morning. You must be very frustrated. Do be so extra careful under the circumstances. I’m happy you are taking Yai. We’re planning a dinner with our confirmands here to help with funds. They loved hearing about your work. I handled the money for the prosthesis all wrong. I should have send cash with you. I’m going to email Marty to see if I can wire some at some point. Stay safe my friend and in good spirits. Carole

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