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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Traveling Gray

(I didn't actually ride it as I knew I'd hurt somebody if I did.)

I wondered how traveling alone would go for me at age 56. (56?!) Before leaving, I worried about issues that never crossed my mind in my 20’s, when one, two, or three months a year, I would be “on the road.” Would I get claustrophobic and panicky on the long plane ride to Asia? (got a prescription for lorazepam) Would the heat be too much for me? What about the language barrier and having nobody to travel with? Would this whole “adventure” be an ordeal of loneliness? Never before had so much real estate in my backpack been devoted to pills. Diarrhea, constipation, nose sprays, malaria, sleeping, motion sickness…….oy.

Fortunately, from the moment I got into my seat on Japan Airlines – complete with a personal TV screen for movies and games, meal followed by snack followed by meal, I somehow knew anxieties would pose no problems. As it turned out, neither anxieties nor loneliness ever clouded my travel-days. Every morning I awoke excited, wondering what would unfold and who I would meet. I interacted with so many different folks though the majority of travelers were young. I left those thoughts of being a 56 year-old back at the birthday brunch we’d had two days before my departure. Nevertheless, there were a few times when my age hit me like an ice pack on a sore knee and gave me pause. In those hours, I remembered that at my corporeal “north pole,” there was a thinning crop of gray hair announcing my advanced “stage of life.”

One night in a tiny Chiang Mai bar near my guesthouse, I got into a bar-side conversation with a British guy where everything out of our mouths sounded ultra-clever, astute and hilarious. Whether the subject was politics, music, or Bangkok, we had each other laughing and nodding emphatically. About an hour into it, he mentioned that he’d lived briefly in Santa Barbara when his dad got a teaching position at UCSB. I got quite excited, as I’d graduated from UCSB. I wondered what his dad had taught. Wouldn’t it have been wild if I had been his student?
“What year was it?” I asked.
“It was 1977.” he answered.
“Oh, I was already gone at that point. I graduated in ’74.”
“1974!! That was before I was born.”

That last reply did not get me laughing. Instead it got my brain wheels moving to a private space, wondering who my bar friend was seeing throughout our conversation. Was I like a professor colleague of his father’s or maybe an old family friend of his parents’ generation who is easy to talk to?

The last couple of days of my trip were in Bangkok, Thailand - from where my return flight would leave. I stayed near the ultra-modern Skytrain which could get me almost anywhere I wanted to go – what with some walking. It was also just off Sukhumvit Road which is lined with young prostitutes for probably a mile in either direction from the hostel where I stayed. It was unsettling to see the dozens of older white men who walked hand in hand or obviously in “relationship” with a Thai prostitute less than half his age and weight. You’d see a lot of these couples in the restaurants with nothing to say to each other. Often the girl might be on her cell phone while the older guy occupied himself with the details of the restaurant walls or ceiling. The arrangement in Bangkok was one in which the two would keep company for 12 or 24+ hours at a time. Even if there were no language barrier, many of these guys had to deal with the fact they had no communications skills. Most of them also avoided eye contact with tourist families and couples who were not in a “rental” situation.

On the plane from Vientiane to Bangkok, I was seated next to a pretty, blonde 28 year-old backpacker. She was engaged to be married, but decided to go traveling for awhile before planning a wedding. She hadn’t made a guesthouse reservation. She asked if she might come with me to see if my hostel had room for her. We ended up spending much of my final two days together, touring in the mornings and getting back together for dinner in the evenings, yakking and yukking up a storm. One night we were on the Skytrain and I caught our reflection in a mirror across from us. It gave me a start. There’s no question that there was an older man – albeit with a cool, celestial shirt and big smile punctuating his ancient skull – sitting next to a surfer girl. An image of those Sukhumvit Johns buzzed my brain before I could look away.

You may ask what does it matter if I appeared to be an older man; of another generation; not in his virile, dark, curly-haired prime? Does it change any of the enjoyable interaction I had with her, or any other young travelers I’d spent time with? Granted I’ve done a lot more aging than evolving as a man. Who has time to evolve when it feels that someone “in charge” leaned on the “fast forward” button on my life and forgot to let up? But I hope that at least a lot of other 50-somethings (and older) would understand, and not just my sad, paunchy cousins down below on Sukhumvit Road.

Coming back from a trek I did with a sister and brother from Canada.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bombies in Laos

One morning while in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, I saw a flyer, advertising an art exhibit by or about handicapped persons. It appeared to be in walking distance, so I headed over to it. I went a bit off course and must have looked perplexed when a woman my age came by on her motorcycle and asked where I was going. She said she was a doctor and had time to take me there between meetings.

It turned out to be a campus of sorts where wheelchairs and prosthetic arms, legs, hands, and feet are crafted. There was also a gymnasium specifically for wheelchair sports. One single story building with a loft inside was the headquarters of COPE an organization that makes prosthetics - half of which go to people missing limbs blown off by bombs. There might be as many as 300 new victims a year in Laos - most of them hurt by cluster bombs they call "bombies". So who's bombing Laos? It was the U.S. throughout a secret campaign of nine years (1964 - '73) during our war against Viet Nam. It's estimated that 30% of the 260 million+ bombs that we dropped on Laos did not go off at the time. Most of these are cluster bombs and pineapple bombs, small enough to pick up in one hand. Filled with ball bearings that rip a body apart, they are designed to hurt people, not tanks or buildings. Dozens are released from a cannister as it falls to the ground and spread themselves over a wide area. Many end up just under the ground, only to be set off when a farmer hoes a rice field or a person digs a posthole for their home.

In Xienghuang province, where I'd just been, (the 2nd most heavily bombed area), there are posters and even songs in the schools instructing kids not to pick up the little yellow metal balls. It's not just the kids who need to be warned. With the price of scrap metal going up in recent years, many poor Laotians have looked for bomb scraps to redeem for money. There's been a big business in the kind of metal detectors you see people swinging in an arc along the sand at public beaches in the States. Besides the little bombies, we dropped 4 million king-size bombs and consequently there's a lot of scrap metal waiting to be harvested by entrepreneurial risk-takers.

Since 1994 there have been bomb clearing squads who painstakingly clear the land and have safely destroyed about a half million of them. That would leave about 77 million left to go. The U.S. has offered to send additional clearing teams, but the Lao government has turned down the offer. My understanding is that they would appreciate more funding to develop their own teams. So far our government has contributed $20 million over the 15 years since the clearing started. One and a third million a year is the kind of bonus that many of the VP's and CEO's in our infamous financial sector received annually.

The COPE building does house a very moving exhibit. It includes a life-size model of a typical dwelling you'd find in a Lao village and it is filled with metal hooks, pots, and bowls that have been fashioned from bomb fragments. There is a photo exhibit and narrative of a father who went fishing with his two sons and found a cluster bomb. He'd heard that you could catch many fish if you throw a cluster bomb against the water. Needless to say limbs were torn from his body as his experiment blew up. Fortunately his sons were behind a tree. The exhibit included a shelf full of defused bombs. It was disconcerting to find out from the COPE Coordinator, Jo Pereira, that many similar bombs on display shelves in restaurants, guesthouses, and travel agencies throughout the town of Phon Sa Van - where I'd stayed a few days - have not been defused. Some still contain white phosphorous.

At first there was a very young Lao woman who guided me through the various exhibits. It's overwhelming to view the photographs (none are graphic), the bombs, etc. without feeling deeply connected to it as an American. My guide was very kind and there were no anti-U.S. messages in the exhibit. But when you are surrounded by this painful reality that we never think of at home and that has been part of Laotian life these past 45+ years, it's impossible not to tear up.

Jo, the Project Coordinator, made some coffee and talked about her work. She's an expat from Britain committed to repairing bodies with prosthetics - one person at a time. With every new arm or leg an individual receives, a whole family is put "on its feet" again. Since it began in 1995, COPE has restored mobility to over 9,000 people.

At this point there are just a handful of countries that have not agreed to end the manufacture and use of cluster bombs. Jo was proud to have testified with some Lao friends just before Britain decided to sign. Still holding out are the U.S., Israel, India, and China. Listening to President Obama - in his first address to Congress - mention so many things that he would turn around from the very dark years of the Bush-Cheney administration, there is hope that this terrible business of cluster bombs will finally end in the U.S. and go the way of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and torture.

more information:
COPE parent org. -
United Nations Development Lao -

Bombs on display in Phon Sa Van

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Khoun Community Radio in Laos

The second community media center that I visited in Laos was in a little town in one of the poorest, most heavily bombed provinces by US forces during the Viet Nam War. Khoun Community Radio is the first experiment of its kind in Laos - a place where all the programming is authored and produced by local people. Much like the community media centers where I have worked, there are classes for the volunteer program producers and outreach to get more programmers.

Unlike our media center in Palo Alto, California, the programmers are mostly from the Hmong, Khmu, Lasu, and Laolum tribes that make up the town and nearby villages. Each tribe speaks a different language and has its own religious practices and musical roots. So the programming day is divided by tribe and language. There are more programmers in the dry season when the rice-dominated agricultural season is in hiatus.

The station started operating in October, 2007 with funding from the UN Development office and the creative energies of Xaisongkham, the only paid staffperson. Xai, a handsome twenty-something came on board in 2006 to develop policies, curriculums, and community relations. Unlike in Palo Alto, one of his first jobs was to get the area cleared of unexploded cluster bombs that are just under the ground before the three-room building could be constructed. They are up to 7.5 hours per day of programming - including lots of live call-in shows mixing music and talk, and pre-recorded/edited shows that cover community happenings. Call-ins are frequently for song dedications, but are sometimes about matters like a lost buffalo. There is no internet in Khoun City, so the radio is a much more important social networking tool. You can see the low-power transmitter at the top of a nearby mountain. It's powered by a solar panel.

Just like our U.S. public access media centers, Khoun Community Radio grapples with the need for ongoing funding and offers short public service announcements to local businesses. Unlike our centers, some fees get paid in rice. Unlike our centers which were established by Congress to provide a forum for free speech (though the law falls short of some free speech guarantees), in Laos, the formerly Communist Pathet Lao government keeps a wary eye on the program content. Programmers know not to criticize the government and are told not to speak badly of any other tribe or religion. An official from the Ministry of Information sits on the Board of Directors.

Xai will soon be leaving Khoun Community Radio for a grad school program in Australia for which he was awarded a scholarship. His replacement will be Soukkhy, a young woman who moved into Khoun City's only guesthouse on the day of my visit. Soukkhy confided how nervous she is about trying to fill Xai's shoes. She has no I-T background and was working at a privately owned mining company. After six happy years there, she just felt she wanted to do something new and something for community development. Xai will train her, and with her quick wit and intelligence, she will be an excellent successor, but that day she was facing a very unknown future without any friends nearby, and she expressed her doubts to me. I told her of numerous station directors I've known in the U.S. who came to it without a tech background and who built thriving community media centers.

With college educated activists like herself and Xai starting to run programs like this one, the older Ministry of Information and Culture officials and the government as a whole are destined for some profound changes as well in the coming years.

More information:
Station Blog

"@ My Library" in Laos - community media & learning

Most of my career has been spent working in the nonprofit field of community media - and public access TV channels/media centers. The incredible, recent success of YouTube and similar sites for user-generated video notwithstanding, I have frequently felt that I chose the road less taken and it didn't really lead anywhere special. Public access cable TV channels are surfed over like shopping channels by most people for reasons I have examined and tried to overcome a hundred-thousand times over the years, with some "hits", and many more misses.

On my trip to Laos, I visited two non-profit media projects that are making a difference and feature some of the best ingredients of community media.

The first was called "@ My Library" in Luang Prabang, Laos. Started by Carol Kresge, an expat from Connecticut, around five or six years ago, it has evolved from a library geared to youth who don't have the same access to books that we take for granted in the West. Over time about eight computer stations have been added to the cozy space where people can pull up a chair and a set of headphones to study English, play educational games, or learn computer applications. Most recently, the center has added some digital cameras that can be borrowed. A few have now become adept at Adobe Photoshop and one twosome created a movie 30 seconds at a time, using the video setting on a digital still camera, and then editing all the segments using the Movie Maker application. There are over 1,000 book checkouts a month and 25,000 hours of computer usage per year. It's a place that has changed lives who - as adults - will probably change Laos.

I met a 19 year old monk in Thailand who asked me to deliver a message to his teacher in Luang Prabang, Laos. One afternoon, I located the correct wat (monastary) in Luang Prabang and readily found the teacher's 17 year old brother - a novice monk. After we found his elder brother and delivered the message, he asked what I wanted to do next as his afternoon was free. I told him I'd seen a flyer for "@ My Library" and he immediately guided me there. As soon as we arrived he obviously felt at home and went straight for a computer and a set of headphones. It looked a bit incongruous with the headphones on his shaved head and the saffron robe completing his attire, but no more so than stumbling across an outstanding community media center in Luang Prabang, Laos.

For more info on "@ My Library": (photo gallery) (to donate)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thailand Laos Village Schools

In my 20's, going "on the road," was a guaranteed source of inspiration, punctuated by full impact encounters, and intriguing coincidences. I wasn't so sure if it would generate the same rewards three decades later, or if I might get sidetracked by neuroses and bodily distractions I've collected over the years. Two days after turning 56, I took off for a solo, 25-day trip to Thailand and Laos, cashing in my airline "infrequent flyer" mileage. It went by in a flash and delivered all the best goods of the antecedent, longer trips. You know the magic is working when you wake up each morning full of enthusiasm for whatever will unfold and the unknown people you will meet. Having spent my "career-years" in the non-profit sector, I included a number of visits to various projects that I either found by "googling" beforehand or by walking around in the towns I visited. The next few blogs will detail some of those project visits.

Before I left the U.S., I made contact with a guy living in Mae Hong Son, Thailand - a picturesque little town near the border with Myanmar. He is trying to get a "community service" project off the ground that will bring supplies for young students at remote schools in the hill villages close to the border. He saw me as a potential link to funders or to an agency that could act as a fiscal agent for donations and grants. I started to receive some rambling emails from him that answered just a couple of my questions and that implied we would spend several days together. I drew some boundaries on our upcoming time together and hoped for the best, knowing that we'd be bringing supplies to two school sites.

When the squat, bouncy propeller plane dropped me off at the little airport, it wasn't long before all my fellow passengers had made their way out of the facility and into town. Apparently, my internet friend had forgotten my arrival info. All the tuk-tuks and taxis were gone. A thick, friendly woman about my age rode me into town on her motorcycle, dropped me at my guesthouse (motel) and rode by my "host's" house to tell him I arrived. A few minutes later he knocked on my door, along with two associates.

He was a retired American who has lived in Thailand for about 25 years - beginning with his Viet Nam war service - stationed in Thailand. He then worked for Chevron in the states and returned to Thailand when his contract was bought out. Right away he told me he had the shakes from tying one on the night before and needed to drink some beer during our morning meeting. We headed over to a restaurant where he could tell me more about his work and his plans over his beers and my coffee. I'll call him "Down the Hatch" since the beers were followed by shots of whiskey and more beers throughout the day. One of his associates was a formerly high ranking, retired Thai military man who I'll call Mr. Sir. The other was a devoted assistant and driver for Mr. Sir who still does undercover work and could not be named. "Down the Hatch" and "Mr. Sir" met way back during the war years and they share a deep affection for each other.

We drove 55 kilometers into the mountains skirting the Myanmar border and first-gearing a long ways up a very narrow unpaved, extremely vertical stretch to reach a very remote, impoverished Lahu or Shan village. Miraculously I did not get car sick and did not even take a Dramamine when far smoother, straighter rides have made me sick back home. (Did the little white string bracelet that an old monk tied round my wrist in a Chiang Mai temple, have anti-nausea properties?) "Down the Hatch" was not so fortunate, and regurgitated a bit into his baseball hat. We passed by a couple of military checkpoints where teen-age soldiers were on the lookout for "illegal aliens" or drug runners from Myanmar.

The school building was just a room with no desks and a couple of pictures on the wall. All the kids stood in lines just outside the school room, waiting patiently for the blankets and school supplies that Mr. Sir handed out and stepping forward one at a time to be measured for a coat and shoes to be brought on a subsequent trip. When a child was given his or her blanket, they bowed in thanks and brought it to one of the mothers standing nearby. "Down the Hatch" and "Mr. Sir" also met with a young woman they've hired ($30 per month) to help the teacher with the younger kids who need their diapers changed etc. Many of the kids were coughing even though the weather is great. The villagers said they suspected one girl had malaria, but Mr. Sir said we'd get in trouble if we took her to a hospital without first letting the government health officials come to the village to see her.

Almost no teenagers or men were in sight. Allegedly, they were either tending an opium crop or smuggling it in from Burma. There seem to be no other job opportunities or agricultural options on those hilltops. As we drive to a second village Mr. Sir passionately tells me that education of the children is the single best hope for getting them away from a life involved with opium. The second village is less remote, even though we must walk across two bridges composed of side-by-side bamboo poles. Lots of villagers come across the bridges to carry the supplies from the back of our pickup truck. These kids appear much better off, if also more rambunctious. Their village is closer to town on lower, flatter ground that allows for fields of crops. They just got a water filtration unit the week before from another agency that targets Burmese refugees.

Again, "Down the Hatch" stands to one side while Mr. Sir does all the interacting with the children and the teachers (one teacher and three assistants for about 100 kids). As little confidence as "Down the Hatch" instills as the "face" of this would-be enterprise - as a team they definitely get supplies to places that need them. And even though a grander vision for economic alternatives is needed for these remote villages, every can of sardines, every pencil and notebook, and every blanket is really needed by these children. I feel very lucky to have been part of this field trip with them and hope that I might be able to steer some $ their way from my affluent environs in Palo Alto.