Monday, November 25, 2013

Right Now in Laos: Book Reports and Bedtimes, Passed over Motorcycles and Lost Novels

After two days of grading book reports I'm still not finished. I gave it up for the night, took a shower (a strangely daily occurrence now, instead of... well... it used to be more infrequent, let's just put it that way) and pulled up some Neko Case to put me to sleep, because I must say, I am so tired that I truly do wish I was the moon, regardless of how fruitless such a wish may be.

 Instead, I sat down to blog about things of little to no (okay, all no) consequence, like what I'm doing in this moment on a Monday night after a long day of working hard just to stay in one place. My apartment is filled with plants now, thanks to a weekend investment in making my life more livable. I have orchids hanging on my wall instead of art; they are cradled in silver wire and their roots frizz out of the cracks in the bamboo that holds the minuscule bit of soil they need to live. They hold themselves in such a spindly-dainty way and they are so outrageously beautiful that they make me shudder with happiness when I look at them making crooked strange shadows behind themselves on the wall. I'm sitting at my desk (not the product of procrastination desk, that one I left at the old house, and it was for the best). The scarf I dyed in frothy, stinking indigo runs over the top of the desk under my laptop, and my gold toes (thanks to the women whose services compelled me to move into this new place) are curled round the bottom slat. Really, this desk is a dream, and I didn't even have to buy it. It was just hanging out here when I moved in, and I have to say, it is a great roommate. My hair is so dirty I cannot even bear to think about it (look, I'm showering every day, isn't that enough?) but that's what buns and bobby pins are for, and oh believe you me I am bunned and bobby pinned. My nightstand lamp is on and the room is dim and saying "Hey, come crawl into bed with a book, why don't you?" But I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I left "The Moor's Last Sigh" on a table at the coffeeshop the night I met up with a traveling French man, whose motorcycle I thought I would want to buy now that he was finished taking it all over Cambodia and Vietnam. I don't know, it just seemed like the kind of bike that would have a home with me, with a history like that. After taking some tentative turns in the parking lot and mastering the clutch, I realized I really didn't want a motorcycle with a clutch at all, in terms of the stutter stop traffic that slowly slugs its way through the streets in this town. In the excitement of learning to ride something I actually didn't need to buy, and in the ensuing "Hey, let me buy you a coffee since I didn't buy your motorcycle" guilt, I totally forgot about my patient book, waiting for me on the table. I can't tell you how frustrating this is, seeing as how there is almost certainly no way I can find a replacement in this town in any good time. And oh, that book, it was a good one.

I can't wait to wake up to the birdsong tomorrow, and open my windows to let the light block walk in all over my bed while I get dressed. The mornings here, with the sun in the palm trees making slat shadows that shift and bend all over my kitchen like so many pick up stick prints, are really excellent. I have plans to get fresh noodle soup and Lao coffee for breakfast from the family down the street. Here's to fighting through more book reports on the other side of some sleep.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

In the Sunday Rotation

Love, let me sleep tonight on your couch
and remember the smell of the fabric
of your simple city dress.

This week was laughably long and hard. I spent this afternoon at the coffeeshop trying to cram work into the sporadic bursts of excellent internet punctuated with random outages. When the network was cooperating, I listened to Grace on YouTube. Then I came home and did a grad school assignment and kept the same soundtrack. The whole album is beautiful, I love all the songs, but the walking halting lilt of the music at the beginning of this song gets me every time.

Sundays are supposed to be for squandering. Why did I do so much work?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

New Digs

I'm not where I used to be, and I am so relieved. The Treehouse, though I tried, remained aloof to all my efforts to bring it into the fold of easy familiarity and comfortable rapport. It was, at it turns out, built for two (I mean, think back to any treehouse ever- they're more fun if someone is hiding out with you, the two of you snickering behind a secret password and the knowledge of the expertly hidden trapdoor). The Treehouse was staunchly indifferent to the single lady and her rag tag street kittens. I would come home and feel like I was intruding. "Um, hey, Treehouse? Yeah, work's over so... can I hang out with you?" And Treehouse would harrumph and purse lips and shrug shoulders as it deigned, through thinly veiled condescension, to let me enter. It's wood y'all, how is this level of emotional warfare even possible? Oh, but it is.

Treehouse wasn't always giving me the silent-I-can-barely-bear-you-treatment: I felt fine at first, but living alone there suddenly everything felt too big. At night, when I would crawl into bed, my big, open downstairs room felt like an uncomfortable presence underneath me; I was nesting on an enormous emptiness. No wonder I couldn't sleep. The wall rats, the geckos, the outdoor kitchen- I could hang with the quirky charm of it all. I made plans for a garden. I bought everything necessary to make the outdoor kitchen work. But in the end, honestly, I just needed my own place. Not the place I suddenly had to myself. That's not the same thing. My own place. One I chose as my own.

Yesterday, after a week of sickness that spiraled into cabin fever that served to magnify my discomfort in my own (by default) home, I went out with Jinni in search of painkillers (for her rib) and dirt cheap spa services (for both of us). While Jinni got a massage, I went next door where two tiny women bent over my feet and hands and cleaned me up with ever more delicious smelling scrubs and cold, sharp tools. The sun was streaming in through the windows, the women were smiling and fastidious and kind, and the amiable lap of the leather chair gave way whichever way I needed it to. I rolled my head back, eyes closed, and thought that I hadn't felt this great in weeks. It was then that I realized, in a way that left an angry-cold fist in my stomach, that even though I was still weak and a bit sick, I actually felt more comfortable in that much shared chair, in a strange salon, with unfamiliar strangers touching me, than I felt in my own home.

I decided then and there that I would not spend one more night in the Treehouse. I would give up the guilt; I would give up my stubborn "I will make this work" bullheadedness. I would allow myself to see moving out not as a failure, but as a valid and logical course of action given the circumstances. Why should I continue to live somewhere that felt less hospitable to me than a public chair in a nail salon on a tourist trodden road? The genesis of my discomfort and unease was irrelevant. I had walked myself through all the benefits of the house so many times it was almost a mantra- it's beautiful, it's close to work, the garden, the washing machine, the extra bedroom, the way the afternoon light spills onto the wood in the living room and makes everything glow like a nostalgic painting, it was so cheap, it's already paid a year in advance, you can make this work if you just try, why won't you try harder, you're just not trying hard enough. It simply wasn't working. I was so damned tired of flogging myself to keep trying. I gave myself permission to do something I rarely ever do- I just gave up.

And so I followed Jinni home that very same day and promptly rented the apartment right next door to hers. I have a familiar face nearby, but I'm still living on my own, which I truly enjoy. My bed has only ever been my bed, so it doesn't feel empty when I go to sleep. I woke up this morning and cried in relief because I felt, for the first time since Sept 23rd, like I could actually like living here. I was blaming Laos for how out of sorts I felt, but the problem might be my experience of Laos up to now, due to my trying so desperately to create harmony out of disparate parts and unwilling players. The Treehouse was never my house; it was our house, but now I'm the one who's here. I didn't want to stay where I found myself as a random result of unfortunate events and make it work; I wanted my own place, from the beginning. Now I have it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sick in Laos: I Puked in the Street, but I Almost Used that Brick

The past two weeks, I have been accompanying my friend and co-worker, Jinni, to various doctors in order to find some relief for her broken rib. In doing so, I was reminded of all the times I found myself in unfamiliar hospitals, in foreign lands, trying to converse, across a language barrier, with doctors about something as deeply personal and important as my health. It's not, I can assure you, anywhere near the top of my list of "Things I Enjoy About Living Overseas". Of course, being sick isn't anywhere near the top of anyone's list of things to enjoy, but nothing takes the wind out of your "I'm on top of the WORLD!" foot loose and fancy free ramblin' man sails like getting sick far from home. Even a simple cold feels so much more isolating, so much more personal, so much more of an obstacle to deal with.

I need to write an entire story around Jinni's broken rib (honestly, it contains the best of what is, in a dark way, the unique comedy that arises out of navigating hospitals in the developing world) but as it turns out I was waylaid with an illness of my own. It started Sunday, faked me out on Monday by pretending to retreat, and by Tuesday morning I was a shaky, coughing, bleary eyed, sinus fire snot mess. I went home from work in a haze of water limbs and sweat and slept all day. I dragged myself, shivering and goosebumped, into a balmy tropical evening. I had to go about a quarter of a mile down the street to get water, but this seemed like a marathon as I stopped every few feet to hack and cough and sneeze, and to will myself not to faint. Every step was torture. This ordeal was made worse by the fact that an enormous work truck filled with tens of wiry young construction workers communicated to me that there ain't nothin' more libido inflaming than a hacking, snotty, stumbling falang. As I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, they leered and heckled and catcalled me the entire length of the street. Dear reader, I have to say, in that moment, when I was feeling vulnerable, and miserable, and filled with fever and yes, a bit of fear as to what I was supposed to do if shit got real with this illness, that the heckling was just too much. I burst into huge, wracking sobs. The men just laughed at me, but when, between the tears and the coughing, I actually gagged and had to stop to puke in the street, they did finally ignore me.

I guess even construction workers in developing countries have standards. Good to know they set the bar as high as "when a girl is sobbing and puking and coughing in the street and can barely walk, that's when you stop heckling and whistling and yelling at her". Chivalry is alive and well in Laos!

After my traumatic evening stroll through my wonderful neighborhood, I came home with water and, more importantly, cat food. If I was going to die alone in my bed, I was going to be damned if my ungrateful street kittens were going to eat me. I dumped an exorbitant amount of cat food in their bowls, then dumped a bit more as a stern "Seriously, there will be no reason other than gross betrayal if you eat me when all of this is right here" warning, and then I collapsed into bed. After that, things get a bit hazy, as I proceeded to toss fitfully in and out of some pretty wicked fever dreams all night long. I do remember that my neighbor, who is a particularly moody kind of drinker, rolled into our shared driveway around 10:30 blasting a very badly produced love song. True, it was in Lao, a language I don't speak, but when you stumble, fever drunk, in your sick-sweat drenched nightshirt to peer out of the curtains of your Treehouse, and you see a sullen looking twenty something man sitting at the wheel of his car, blaring music while he pounds a Beer Lao and stares off into the distance, I don't know, you just know it's a love song. Also, the fact that the same song was played no less than 5 times on repeat is, to my mind, irrevocable evidence that some sort of heartbreak was being worked through in that front seat. The good thing is, when his obnoxious bass shook my Treehouse (the stilts upon which I live are quite sensitive) and woke me up, my fever had peaked at 101, which gave me an opportunity to pound a liter of water, stand in a freezing cold shower, and ponder whether or not I should call the emergency number of the French clinic. I was so tired and weak I just decided to make 102 my line in the sand and call it a night if I reached that line. This was, honestly, nothing more than an awful sinus infection/head cold, or perhaps a flu, with as bad as I was feeling, but fevers in America are not fevers in Laos. In America, a fever is a fever. In Laos... is this A FEVER? Tropical climates are pretty fantastic at cooking up some gnarly diseases, and when I find myself living alone in a foreign country without ambulances or addresses, much less a hospital, anything over 99 degrees suddenly seems much more ominous.

I woke up this morning feeling a level of awful that was appropriate considering the heat snarled, frequently interrupted sleep of last night, so I promptly went back to bed. At 4:00 I finally dragged out of my house to get some food. I still can't breathe, I still feel like tiny pizza cutters are rolling leisurely through my sinuses, but this is all firmly in the land of no big deal now I don't feel like I'm burning up from the inside out.

And so it's here that I will admit that yesterday I had a brick in my hand because of the dog that always chases me down the street, and when the men started in on me, I swear to you, if I had even 5% more strength I would have hurled that brick right through their windshield. Instead, I puked in the street, which is certainly a less violent deterrent, although far less satisfying than seeing the look of shock on their faces as the brick sailed in a graceful arc of "SCRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEW YOUUUUUUUU", before landing neatly in the center of the windshield and crackling it into a spider web of "SHUT YOUR DIRTY MOUTHS" right before the entire thing shuddered into a crystal pile of "YES, I AM THAT CRAZY" sparkle shards all over the front seat.

At least, that's how I imagined it going down in my fever addled brain.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Laos Goals: Money

This post may well be boring to most people, but I'm a budget nerd at heart and I have some big goals I need to organize. Thus, I'm about to show my hand and get all detailed about my income and expenses in the interest of having some sort of accountability thanks to the fact that I put it out on the internet. I know many people don't like talking/thinking about money, but I say get it out in the open and know what you're working with. Plus, talking about what I'm doing after Laos keeps me motivated to stay in Laos, and I'm not too proud to admit that I need that motivation. I'm just warning you, this cartoon is the funniest thing in this post (and it's not even funny, so...).

Edited to add: There is some dumb stuff at the end that's sort of okay in terms of levity. 

Here's what I'm working towards:

Come June 15th of 2014, I want to roll out of my contract with enough money saved to sustain me through the end of December without income. That will give me a 6 month hiatus to chill out after a long and hectic year of full-time grad school, full-time teaching, and 24-7 living in Laos with my life to deal with (you know what I mean). On the most fragile gossamer strands of tentative plans, those 6 months will consist of 3 months dirty drifter backpacking (you'd think SE Asia, but honestly, folks, ol' Gadget Cat might just wanna shake the dust and hop a plane to another hub) and, much more firmly, 3 months of time stateside. I hope to be in the U.S. all of October, November, and December to hit the home run of the best holidays of the year with dearly missed family and friends. Places and time might change, but right now I really, really know that however I dice up those 6 months I need them to be at my disposal to dice. I really, really know that.

Here's what I'm working with: 
I take home $1,500 a month. $750 is deposited in my USD checking account and the other $750 is converted into the local currency and deposited into my LAK account. As a result, my baseline "Do not drop below this or you're a jerk" savings plan is $750 a month. I won't touch the USD account. If I do that for the next 9 months, I will have a $6,750 baby. Since I'd like a nice, round number to aim for, let's say I save an extra $28 a month to bump (this analogy just never ends, huh?) the savings up to $7,000.

To save that much, I'll need to live off of $722 a month. Here's a breakdown of my fixed expenses, which are $290 a month:

Rent:                             $150 (actually $300, but I'm getting a $1,500 travel reimbursement that                                                   pays back the other half)

Internet:                         $50 (so expensive, but I have to have it for school)

Electric:                         $75 (even more expensive, because I'm getting the special screw the                                                     foreigner rate, but that's a post for another time)

Water:                           $15 (over estimate since the first bill, for two weeks, was $3)

That leaves me $432 a month in discretionary spending. I don't drink, smoke, or do recreational drugs, and I don't care about buying fancy electronics, or going clothes shopping, or buying random crap for my house. I eschewed a motorbike and bought a bicycle, which I have already paid to have serviced (new brakes, new tires). That means I have $108 a week to feed and entertain myself, and buy random household items as needed. I've already dropped the big wad of setting up life in a new country cash, so if I can't stick within $108 a week then I have serious problems.

If all goes according to plan, I'll be able to leave Laos come summer and live off of $1,166 a month for my 6 month break. That's more than I will have lived off of monthly for almost an entire year, so it's safe to say that's a comfortable figure. The only debts I have are student loans, which are not due during full-time grad school, and which are in post-grad deferment for 6 months after graduation. Ah, it all makes sense now, doesn't it? Taking 6 months off post graduation is not only what I need, it's what I would do anyway because it will be the last time for a long time I can do something like this. Once my student loans come due I am going to aggressively pay them down to get them off my back as soon as possible. I just want a bit of a breather, some down time, and some family home time before I launch into that battle.

I'm going to track my spending for all of November, starting today, to see where it's all going, and I'll see how all of this works in real life come December 1st. I know that you are probably thinking "I cannot WAIT to hear an update, the suspense is going to KILL ME!" Bated breath, antici

       pation- I'm sure it's too much excitement to bear. Try to calm down. Maybe you could make a countdown chart? Something like those primary Christmas calendars where you affix a single cotton ball to each day for a month, until you have created a nasty-sticky, matted cotton beard to give context to the creepy Santa eyes/nose/mouth free-floating above the date boxes. Just a suggestion.