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Published: June 13th 2020
Our last day in Brasil Chugging across Brasil and a quick return to Blighty (where there'll be no laundering of the packs).
found us in our most favoured of habitats, a local’s boozer. Here the indulgent management blessed their rare gringo visitors with a – lengthy - Celine Dion medley on the jukebox. We were touched and not too traumatised, but still thought this weird. Fast forward eight months to yesterday in Laos. Teaching was over for the day and we’d just polished off our self-caught fish dinner when Khamlar came running. “Teachers, come come, we go”. Where? Along with the elder children we piled into the back of the pick-up and off we sped into the sticky night. The throbbing neon lights that greeted us did not suggest a two year old's birthday party, but that it was… for the stocky bruiser that is Mario (yes, a further name we can pronounce). Another member of the extended family, who is often present around Sipasert
, Mario simply adores Ali and he has been known to throw a paddy when a parent attempts to extricate him from her charge. Anyway, immediately on arrival we were presented with duck noodle soup (a rather good variant with a spicy coconut milk base – but we’d just eaten…) and the first
of a rapid procession of beer Laos. Then, on came the Celine… Really? Bring back Bob Marley…
Mid-May and clinically nothing had changed here, with no new Covid cases in six weeks. There were now no restrictions on internal travel and the buses were once again running. Aside from no mass gatherings and the compulsory use of face masks on public transport all was pretty much as (the old) normal. To Ali’s possessive chagrin westerners began to reappear in Tad Lo.
Nearby in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, not to mention China, things were equally benign. Antipodean talk was of an upcoming “air corridor” enabling Australia and New Zealand to transit freely between their “in-control” countries. I started to envisage a South East Asian bubble with a re-opening of borders between Laos and our neighbours. However, this certainly wasn’t imminent and thus – for us – there was no fevered necessity to get on the move, we’d visit those hither-to unseen Laos’ destinations (and we had already travelled extensively in the north years ago) when the possibility of subsequent departure was far closer to reality. Plus, we had our teaching responsibilities to consider; and a carp to catch.
On a recent fishing trip the action on the longer ledgered lines was slow so I fashioned a bastardised roach pole, a long light reel-less rod from which I could merely flick the bait out and swing the fish in with. The unanchored bait wafts naturally downwards through the water column and – hopefully – proves too tempting for the small fish present to ignore. And so it proved. Immediately I was whipping out a succession of tasty morsels (Mr. man Akai Three weddings and a tweeting cockwomble*
would have been proud). A young unknown boy was loitering behind us and after a few minutes observation he scuttled off into the bush only to emerge with his own “wand”. This he offered to Ali. She declined, and we duly kitted him out with line, hook and corn to try out himself. The young rascal was soon out-catching me and on his departure he left with a large bag of fish to present to his mum.
Pot-belly man (we do – should - know his name but it’s a real stinker to remember), apparently a friend of the family and perhaps, maybe, the security guard of dubious vigilance – he’s often fast asleep when I
gather beers from the shop’s fridge - continued to make regular, startling in the depth of night, appearances on our balcony. He speaks not a word of English but is very fond of singing, typically accompanied by some unique dance moves. He may deliver a monologue that, presumably, he thinks we have some comprehension of before helping himself to a fag and/or pouring himself a beer (Naresh’s bag of Chuppa Chup lollys were equally fair game) before ambling off. That said he has, over the months, often just materialized and left in his wake a very much appreciated gift.
And now a Covid-related snippet (at last I hear you cheer) and it is a pleasant-ish one: the 30th
of May saw, for the first time since the outbreak, “closed cases” surpass “active cases”. With mega-populous Brasil, India, Russia, Pakistan and Bangladesh still in the ascendance this is unlikely to persist for long; but, somewhat distortedly, it does give you the feeling that we are starting to apply the brakes.
Naresh had taken advantage of the ability to move, heading north to the town of Tha Khaek and his reports back indicate that there is a real return to
internal backpacker traffic.
Here, rainy season keeps threatening to establish itself with some days totally washed out, only then for the next three days to revert back to blue skies and sweltering temperatures. Nevertheless, it was taking increasingly longer periods before the river ceased to resemble mud soup and even Ali was baulking at the thought of swimming in it. I switched back to Joe Wicks and Ali to a Pilates program. Equally, highly coloured water does not good fishing conditions make.
Oh, and here’s something that I probably should have considered somewhat earlier (hell, my bloody PhD was actually on trematode parasites): the possibility of our little river hosting schistosomiasis (aka Bilharzia), the infective cercarial stage of which emerges from a freshwater snail host. River snails, as I’ve mentioned, repeatedly Laos: the land that Covid forgot?
, are rather common here. However, a smidgen of research suggests that outside of the Mekong proper – think 4000 Island’s Don Khone – it is highly unlikely. Plus, I’m pretty sure we’ve never been served the particular species of snail that the parasite is specific to (eating them is not a transmission route, but it would demonstrate the intermediate host’s presence). And… neither of us has/has
had bloody stools or pink urine… “Swimmers itch” a tell-tale sign is hard to differentiate from sweat rashes and ant bites, of which we’ve had plenty.
A far more valid concern is the risk of contracting the
virus, the one we really are wary of, Dengue fever. For us it would be for a, potentially far more dangerous, second time Dengue fever
. It is endemic in Laos and seemingly increasingly more prevalent: there have been over 1586 cases thus far in 2020, 77 of which were in our province, with four deaths nationwide. And high risk season starts… with the rains (May-November). Out front of Sipasert
are two small raised ponds, more like giant bird baths really, housing some rather pretty lotus. On closer inspection they were also hooching with mosquito larvae. Wandering by, Pon noticed my interest; maybe, I suggested, the introduction of some tiny fish would be a good idea. To my amazement the very next day the larvae were gone, replaced by a small population of mosquito-munchers. This lady really does listen.
Thus far our adult mosquito sightings sit happily at a solitary example (she, unfed, met with a rapid demise). They will come and dusk
is now greeted with the tedious ritual of DEET application. We pray that numbers never rival those encountered in Alleppey Old friends and new experiences
because they made for a miserable existence. Our room doesn’t have a net, but we have sourced one and no doubt it is only a matter of time before its purchase and erection becomes essential.
As dark descended following one recent deluge there was a more warmly welcomed invasion: a hatch of giant mayflies. These, we were informed, are edible. Everyone was out with water-filled receptacles in which to gather the bounty (once submerged in the water its surface tension prevents escape). You can catch them by hand but I had the cunning idea to employ our coffee sock as a mini butterfly net. With a suitable amount harvested Pon set about deep frying them in batches. Were they good? Well… unlike the cicadas we weren’t too disappointed that they would be a one-off.
Hoi, young mum of baby Comcan, came to speak with us. Without any shared language it was still not hard to discern the subject matter as she dejectedly gestured at her face. She is suffering severely from acne. The miniscule pharmacy in Tad
Lo was without options so we promised that we’d seek something out on our imminent visa extension run to Salavan (sadly Laos hasn’t followed the path of Thailand and still charges for the privilege of entrapment). Bless her, Pon insisted on driving us (on two consecutive days: hand-in/collection) and whilst there we were able to pick up a promising ointment. On receipt Hoi was ecstatic and even came down the following day to evince its miraculous powers. Personally I saw no change and, as a similar victim myself in my youth, am very aware that any improvement takes weeks at best. Still, she was a happy girl. Hopefully it will help and then we’d be delighted to replenish her stock; it’s not often you get the chance to improve someone’s life for a mere few dollars.
Pot-belly man witnessed Ali shaving my head and was immediately eager for her to remove the bum fluff on his chin. Oh, and he just happened to have a button-less pair of trousers with him… I sewed a new one on.
Yesterday, the 5th
, I read an article detailing how Belgium has the highest death rate per capita in the world. This
I dispute on two fronts: one, Belgium has included likely deaths due to Covid in its counts, significantly elevating their numbers (I’m not aware of any other country doing this); and two, these numbers are not based on “closed cases”, merely positive tests and deaths. You don’t know how things will pan out until the case is closed: you recovered or you died. On the latter data Belgium still has an extremely high 37 percent death rate although Sweden (yeah, who’d ever have thought the – normally - sensible Swedes’ judgement would be so awry), the last time I was able to check, were on 47 percent mortalities. Interestingly Worldometer
(UN and WHO sourced) no longer displays data for closed cases from Sweden… Nevertheless, their graphs make for grizzly viewing: there is simply no obvious decline in their new infection numbers; their death rates do now seem to be on the decline, but maybe that’s because they’ve already knocked off so many of their vulnerable? Of course the UK are one of the very, very few countries who have never disclosed this breakdown. Sigghhhh…..
And whilst so many not-yet-ready countries begin to prematurely open-up internally the focus is ever
more on testing and tracking. Thus, of course, I can’t resist some of May’s very best quotes on the subject. On the 14th
the usual suspect treated us to “So we have the best testing in the world”. Not true. America has performed the most tests and yet it ranks 33 in the world for per capita testing and it is coverage that counts. Admittedly the top testing performers are wealthy tiny nations such as Monaco, UAE, Bahrain, et al. but the USA is still 13 places lower than Russia, 11 behind the tardy UK and even out performed by markedly non-wealthy, though still small nations such as Belarus and Latvia. However, he was far from finished. “It could be the testing’s, frankly, overrated? Maybe it is overrated? If we didn’t do any testing we would have very few cases”. As if this masterful reasoning was not sufficient evidence of his genius (and there is no data for hydroxychloroquine-induced dementia) on the 22nd
he stretched the world’s mental dexterity by announcing that he himself had, that morning, “tested positively toward negative”.
Ah, and how sweet is this, the orange meanie dictator really does finally have a bestie in Jair
Bolsonaro of Brasil (somewhat predictably not black). Bolsonaro also continues to push the now thoroughly debunked concept of hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic, he also wants to cut ties with the WHO, similarly doesn’t give tuppence about his populace, the environment, or his country’s standing in the world, whilst they share a common mantra “bigots’ lives matter”. Oh, and evidently neither’s first language is English. Sadly for Bunker Baby, Brasil ratified an extradition treaty with the US in 1969 so ultimately there will be no bolt-hole there, although he may think it worthy of “inspection”.
Late May in Tad Lo and the children returned to school in dribs and drabs without a discernible pattern. Needless-to-say they were far less inclined to endure English lessons; some might arrive late, plus new fun yet educational games were becoming ever harder to devise (thank the gods for worksheets which, bizarrely, they love to focus on). Yet, their reduced enthusiasm was not aiding our ebbing motivation; the teaching itself was still fine, but the lesson planning and prep was becoming a real chore.
June arrived and with it another year on this mortal coil was ticked off for myself. Post-lesson I was relaxing
with a beer when the students and Ali appeared amidst a rendition of Happy Birthday which was rather nice. Ten minutes later, at eight o’clock, the whole family appeared with a birthday cake. Where Pon sourced this with no notice at such an hour was beyond us.
And then came the backpackers, suddenly the guesthouse was packed. All four water-facing rooms with the long shared balcony were now occupied, shortly to be followed by those in the main house and the bungalows.
of June saw the last of Laos’ 19 active cases recover; we were now “officially” Covid-free, without a new recorded infection in almost 60 days. In Tad Lo there were no longer any efforts made at social distancing. The masks had vanished and handshakes, hugs and parties laughed in the face of the potential for lingering unknown asymptomatics. Everyone here has been in Laos for months, but most of the interlopers
arrivals (already known to each other and descending in groups) have come from northerly destinations (Vientiane and Luang Prabang) where those few cases have occurred.
One set of new neighbours, a French flute player of some renown and an Italian faster (neither
habit is usually a particularly endearing trait to us), we did rather like and several days later they invited us to join them in celebrating their two-year anniversary. This grew into a rather larger affair and indeed Pon and Honeybee’s Fa (pronounced somewhere between Var and Bar, but definitely not Far) joined us. Somewhat later Fa announced that today was actually her birthday and that she’d be hosting a party herself that evening. We were all invited. And so the day morphed into a night of total gregarious chaos.
Back in Britain the “Stay Alert” message has been met with much dark, confused mirth. A further easing this week allowed the formation of a “social bubble” with a single individual able to meet with members of another household. Whilst no doubt of great comfort to certain lone elderly you then have the plight of a family who have to choose between two such isolated parents, one of whom continues to miss out on seeing their grandchildren (and now feels even more alienated). The seemingly successful New Zealand model started with a bubble of 10, all of whom could be from different households. I’m still not certain whether they were
allowed to mix their bubbles, a no-no currently in the UK… Regardless, they had closed borders and were far more in control. There is still plenty of scope for things going tits-up in Blighty.
In Laos we can only hope that we’ve not all jumped the gun. Elsewhere I fear that many countries didn’t even wait for starter’s orders. The American States of Arizona, Texas, the Carolina’s, among others - all relaxing protective measures - haven’t even reached a first transmission peak yet.
Meanwhile on the 19th
of June the inept one is holding a mass indoor
rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the location of the 1921 black massacre on the anniversary of the abolition of slavery. In the terrible, wholly justified, current climate you know this is going to be a train crash on so many levels. Beautifully, to sign up for the event you must also agree to the following disclaimer: “By attending the rally, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to Covid-19 and agree not to hold Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.; BOK Center; ASM Global; or any of their affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, contractors or volunteers liable for
any illness or injury.” Hopefully this stupid, ill conceived, shameful event will further ensure his political demise whilst not contributing to another legion of deaths.
The next blog will surely see us on the road again somewhere else in Laos. I’ll save our gratitude and thanks to the people of Tad Lo until we do, finally, bid them farewell. But… They have been wonderful.
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