Living a Laos life: the canine and child edition.

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August 28th 2020
Published: August 29th 2020
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I finish a blog and, once posted, have absolutely no inclination to type any new thoughts for at least a week. Of course you do, typically, have to wait for something mildly of interest to actually occur before you can write about it.

But, with current inevitable time on our hands, I re-read our previous blogs from Laos and they bring the pandemic’s projection very much into real-time focus, revealing the shocking reality of quite what can happen, has happened, in such a short period of time. In little more than 5 months (since the WHO announced the outbreak as a pandemic on the 11th of March) we’ve gone from 126,214 cases and 4,628 deaths worldwide to a position where several countries are independently recording half that number of new infections per day and globally we’ve had more than 23,000,000 (identified) cases and over 800,000 (recognized) deaths. On the 15th of May Laos: the land that Covid forgot? (published on that date, but written at the beginning of the month) I had expressed:“My view on the easing of restrictions (the measured “internal reopening” of countries)…? Absolutely in Switzerland, Australia and the other “in control” nations; with extreme care in Italy, Spain, Turkey and Iran; risky in France; somewhat foolish in the UK and USA; no in India, Mexico or Russia; and not unless you’ve lost your bloody mind in Brasil, Pakistan, Bangladesh or South Africa.” Disastrously, many of those who were labelled foolish to do so, or worse, did. And here we are. The UK and the USA both suffer in having poor leadership, although one is markedly, it’s hard not to say criminally, worse. On the 5th of August the latter incompetent brushed off his country’s 161,000 deaths as “it is what it is”. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan’s fates were/are, you’d think – due to the magnitude of their populaces and more to the point their enduring poverty – unavoidable: it simply isn’t possible due to the inability to provide universal financial support, let alone maintain social distancing, to adhere to effective lockdowns and it was always going to be very bad. Nevertheless, whilst Indian infections are still yet to reach a zenith, Pakistan is seriously stifling the virus’s spread. Brasil, with similar federal non-leadership to the States, compounded with extreme poverty, continues to drown. And then you have the negligent slip in Australia. Apparently, so my Aussie sources relate, those quarantining in Melbourne were “policed” by a private firm and certain unscrupulous members of said firm took to having sexual relations with some of those they were meant to be monitoring… and the virus (hell, maybe more than one) was off and running again. You couldn’t script such irresponsible stupidity (not even in America).

As predicted the closed case death rate (positive tests with a resolution) worldwide has decreased from some 20 percent in May and currently stands at ca. 5 percent, although there are numerous countries undercounting attributable deaths and so it may – falsely – drop even lower. Yes, we know that the true mortality rate if accounting for unknown/untested asymptomatics would probably be ten times lower still, but, unfettered, the death of 0.5 percent of the world’s populace (38 million) is still a rather large number. Bizarrely, now if you test positive in the UK and then die more than a month later you have not – officially/statistically – died from Covid?!

Here in Laos the 24th of July saw our first Covid case in 102 days. A Laotian had returned home from Korea, he tested negative on arrival but was still immediately placed in a secure government-organized
facility. On retesting several days later his results were positively towards positive (one might say, if cerebrally impaired). The authorities had all other returnees from his flight similarly under quarantine and none subsequently tested positive themselves. The threat was handled impeccably. Of course when your country’s base line is zero, you have totally closed borders and any repatriated citizens are strictly isolated and rigorously monitored then control is possible, even if you are one of the poorest countries on earth.

Recent developments in neighbouring Vietnam have not been so rosy. Lauded as one of the largest countries to have recorded no Covid deaths the encouragement of local tourism for nationals saw 80,000 descend on the region of Denang and, subsequently, a new rise in numbers and ultimately their first mortalities. I fear that my hoped for SE Asian bubble is as far off as it ever was. Meanwhile complacency and lax compliance has seen pockets of resurgence throughout Europe, most markedly in Spain.

And then on the 11th of August Jacinda Ardern the world’s poster premiere for Covid handling announced that even New Zealand had four new cases. Like Laos they had also previously recorded 102 days with no internal transmission.

Although not unexpected these set-backs are heartbreaking and as they continue will become ever more wearying.

Breaking news here yesterday (the 14th) revealed that some 54 Lao students studying at the same Vietnamese institution – incredibly a medical school - had done a runner and illegally crossed back for the holidays… at the end of July. Their stealthy passage being unknown they had not been forced to, nor voluntarily chose to, quarantine. If any were infected/transmitting we might well now see all of the nation’s vigilance undone in a single selfish collective act of negligent madness. Repercussions for these individuals should be extreme; they should definitely be prevented from continuing their studies and indeed be barred from ever becoming healthcare professionals because evidently they care not a jot. On a personal level this is particularly irksome and some of the youths were from, and returned to, our province of Salavan.

But never fear because Russia has a vaccine. Yeah, a vaccine that has never even seen a stage three trial. Putin’s daughter has, purportedly, been vaccinated with it (you’d think such a manly man might have offered up his own arm) and of course
this is all a bit Trumpsy (and here I do paraphrase): I took hydroxychloroquine and didn’t get it (or get sick). Well, there’s time yet. They may (now) have both heard of “r” numbers, but maybe not so “p’s”.

Regardless, we are not inspired to return home. Not that it is even a remote physical possibility currently. Hell, we’re yet to be inspired to leave our adopted home village.

Let’s move on…

“Our pup”, hardly a pup anymore, is not a happy bunny. Scratching and gnawing at himself incessantly he has removed large patches of fur, whilst his ears and elbows are bald and raw. We thought he had fleas (as well as ticks – but that’s a seasonal hazard) and managed to get a friend visiting Pakse to obtain a suitable shampoo. Thus he suffered his first ever bath. It was not appreciated. He also gets brushed daily with a nit comb which he doesn’t actually object to, as long as you don’t meddle with his tail. He has since bravely tolerated repeated shampooing; rigid and mournful he doesn’t – bless him - so much as growl. Nevertheless, his condition is steadily worsening. Evidently he has mange-causing mites (probably scabies) and these are, potentially, far more problematic. No one seems to know of a vet and the only one I could find on-line is two days away in the capital Vientiane.

If Pak Dam wasn’t stress enough, beta no-name male (who miraculously survived a month of constant coughing/choking with a bone or some other obstruction wedged in his gullet) now has an even more traumatic affliction. He is constantly attempting to defecate and yet is unable to produce anything other than (skip to the next paragraph now if squeamish) a black (no doubt largely old blood) fluid. He is obsessed with his anus and periodically howls pitifully in pain. As I type this I am now aware of the potential connection, although the long hiatus between the two maladies may suggest an unassociated condition.

Meanwhile pup’s mum was being gang raped. Every dog within several miles came a calling and she was apparently well worth fighting over. She took to sheltering at the far end of our balcony, accompanied by pup and whom we presume is Pak Dam’s father (he’d already deposited his load). Often there were stand-offs and we’d chase away the sex-crazed interlopers; indeed we erected a huge barrier of pallets to prevent access at night, although several wily old dogs managed to traverse them. Thus, for a week, none of us got much sleep… On the up side there is every chance that we may see a litter of pups in 60 days or so.

Christ, our pampered pooches in the west don’t know they’re born. There is no doubting that dogs in rural Laos are not considered “pets”.

One evening we were deep into the day’s English lesson when three familiar faces appeared: Jules, Elana and Yan. Could Ali go to the last shack before Fandee guesthouse? A young girl had crashed her motorbike and, helmetless, seriously bashed her skull. They didn’t think it was life threatening, but what did they know? Thus with a quick wind-up and with head torch in hand off we tootled. She was indeed rather roughed up, the right side of her face a swollen purple mess. And yet the accident had apparently occurred yesterday and she had already slept a night in her potentially concussed state. We encouraged the assembled family that she had already, unwittingly, straddled one hurdle: she wasn’t in a coma. Her pupils were responsive, although one was sluggish and her peripheral reflexes sound. She was coherent and could follow translated instruction, wasn’t bleeding from any orifice, had no signs of any broken bones and her pain was centered on impact sites: she didn’t have a screaming unlocalised headache. Obviously in the west you would head straight to A&E for X-rays and a more thorough, highly qualified, check-up. They had neither the transport nor the funds for the lengthy trip/tests/treatment/stay and thus with no glaring signs of internal bleeding or imminent demise they were more than happy for Ali to merely re-check their daughter the following morning. Had things appeared far worse the western contingent would have commandeered a vehicle and financed the necessary; but, life here really does rely on percentages, hope and not a little luck.

The rains are becoming more regular and steadily increase in severity. Consequently the river is on the rise. Our little temporary bamboo bridge was hastily deconstructed, and just in time as one morning we woke to find that the water had crept twenty feet up our sloping bank, the waterfall was a thunderous orange sheet and the river’s main push racing. Minutes later, with no care for our drowsy need of caffeine, there were calls of “come, come”. The inhabitants of all waterside dwellings were out with small round drag nets hunting for tiny shrimp and fry on the flooded banks.

I was informed that line fishing was now allowable. It might now be allowable but it was also – armed only with bottle and stone – nigh impossible (sadly, and here again a shout-out to the very kind Iain Sorrel, his fishing tackle package remains stubbornly out of country: there has simply been no international mail delivered to Laos since early March). Still, showing willing, I charged Ali and our children with digging up some worms. It was a pointless, ant attacked (they angrily retreating from threatened nests) endeavor in the turbulent muddy water and one that was not pursued for long. Nevertheless, would I be allowed to re-try when the spate abated and a catch far more likely?

And with the passing of the bamboo bridge – for that was our access (to Fandee Island) - I note that I have been remiss in not mentioning a recent heavenly treat, a food that would
usually rank low on my desirables, that is until you’ve not even smelt one for at least six months: a cheese burger; and it was not any run-of-the-mill dry, overcooked specimen but a rare-cooked chunky homemade burger of real succulence, dressed with a subtly dijon-infused mayo and cradled in an equally splendid and well provisioned bun. At $8 a pop, two mouthwatering examples do cost the equivalent of three days accommodation, but…

The prevalent rain may have seen temperatures drop but the humidity has notched even higher. And then when the sun does push through we are now happily graced with swarms of agile dragonflies whose aeronautic acrobatics in front of the balcony decimate far less welcome airborne insects.

Meanwhile my mate Khamlar (our ten year old student) and his chums are delighted with the river’s engorgement. Suddenly two inflated tractor inner tubes appeared and the current favourite pastime is to launch yourself (and tube) into the river off the ruins of the old bridge, scramble a-top and be whisked down the speedy flow. Little concern exists regarding the tangled mass of iron torn from said bridge that is now just, lethally, submerged and they constantly tumble from and flip their chariot. And we worry about our ten year olds walking near a swollen river… Half a mile downstream they manage to paddle to shore, walk back and then repeat, ad infinitum. There are no overweight children in Tad Lo.

And on that note, I’m certainly getting out of shape. Thus I erected a chin-up bar and Khamlar (equally competitive) now joins me in recording our daily improvements, whilst he is also, seemingly, keen to tone my abs and has taken to punching me in the stomach (with no restrained force) as I descend from each sit-up repetition. This is something we’ve noticed here: that many families are essentially single parent with fathers either largely absent working elsewhere or indeed estranged – separations and divorce are common. Khamlar and Pancake’s father does visit sometimes at a weekend but there’s no doubt that he, in particular, does yearn for a more consistent fatherly presence. Quite how that translates into beating the shit out of me is up for debate.

Mid-August saw what is known locally as Big Buddha day: Boun Hor Khoa Padap Din. On this holiday, hungry and forgotten spirits come out to wander the Earth.
Banana leaf containers are made and filled with sweets and offerings to be left around fences, gates, and houses for the hungry ghosts. Once again Fa had all the farang women kitted out in traditional attire and we joined first her and then Sipasert's contingent at the wat's early morning celebrations. Later, of course, there were beers.

Here, maybe, we should reintroduce young French ex-pat Mathilde - she of the successful crowd-sourcing campaign for the village (that subsequently saw her name adorned on the wat’s walls) on the back of last year’s catastrophic, crop failing rains. Firstly, we’re delighted that she and charming Czech ex-pat Martin are now an item; Christ, as if you couldn’t see that coming… Second, she seems rather convinced that we might be joining this rather elite group; that is, staying here for the long haul, that being even well beyond our interminable incarceration. Consequently she has been pointing out houses that are for rent, suggesting ways we might earn a crust, emphasizing the ease of obtaining a “working” (protracted stay) visa and encouraging us to contemplate a far more elaborate and wide reaching teaching program – free to those unable to pay, but with contributions from the few wealthier families to cover the incumbent costs for all participants. Oh, and maybe we’d consider making our new (outsize) home a safe refuge (mostly Monday to Friday) for children from those really destitute families to ensure they were well fed and able (equipped and encouraged) to attend school? Essentially run a… hop in/hop out orphanage? Not much of a commitment there then. Equally my mind spins as to the drawn-out suitability/safety checks that such an arrangement would, quite rightly, necessitate almost anywhere else in the world. Some thirty-odd years ago we initially planned on having four or five children (and we do have their unclaimed names: Charlotte India, William Suva, Ami Jaisalmer…) but circumstance, working abroad and a selfish loose-footed attitude towards life thwarted such a path. Now we seem to have the dog we could never commit to and who knows what else we may end up adopting. You thought Covid had thrown you a curve-ball.

In the last missive (or on Facebook, whatever) I did boast that our two older teenagers had blown their peers away, both scoring way more than 70% in their end of year English exams; and this was mightily impressive, they are amazing. However, those feelings regarding their achievements don’t even come close to actually see a child begin to sound and build words, to start to read, and the joy when they realise they can actually transcribe what they now know. We are just blown away by our two youngest who are, now, already several years ahead of their contemporaries. Five months of intensive - even with totally unqualified, yet enthusiastic – tutoring can make such a wonderful difference.

Then we discovered pork steaks and (proper) mash (at Palomi Guesthouse), were introduced to Tim’s (embarrassingly it is right next door to Sipasert) by our returnee flutist Fabrice and Valet and thus discovered his reasonably priced, not too shabby, Malbec as well as salads with... olive oil and vinegar dressing. Truly decadence.

There is now a small relatively stable (both static and sane) population of foreigners in town, mostly they’ve visited the places they want to in Laos and have decided that here is as good a place as any to ride things out. Jules, a carpenter, and Nathan are helping out at Palomi’s in progress, rather grand (way out of our league) new build; whilst others have been aiding with the planting of the rice crop. Thus Matilde has organized a Tad Lo social web site with film nights, cook-ins and general piss-ups now common occurrences.

I was pointing out Pak Dam’s increasingly sad condition to Pon and attempting to explain how we’d charged Martin with trying to track down a vets that might exist in Pakse when she suddenly offered up that there was one in Salavan. Really? Yes, she’d take us there in thirty minutes. Surely she must have known how we had been fretting over his deteriorating state; but, regardless, thank heavens. Incredibly the dog himself would not be required to make the journey. Sure enough, having seen our photos, the vet confirmed scabies and enquired how we felt about administering injections? No worries. Ali used to run a travel vaccine clinic in Scotland, how hard could it be? Three rounds of Ivermectin over seven days, accompanied by three additional shots of vitamin B complex to boost his general health, would be required. The first injection didn’t go too well; he yelped but at least it was in. With the second, the Vit B, he screeched like a
stuck pig and attempted to bolt, you’d think we’d poured boiling water over him. Ali was more traumatized than the dog. That one was not happening and in future I’d be in charge of dog pricking. Apparently vitamin B complex injections are known to sting and we rapidly decided to procure some oral equivalent on our return to the veterinarian. Fortunately jettisoning one round of (less vital) jabs freed up a set of needles enabling us to switch them out between drawing-up and provision, and either this or some rapidly acquired tolerance saw his last two doses of Ivermec progress without a flinch. Brandishing a syringe took me back across the years to when I used to bleed myself (or Luke our PhD student) to feed the Randford-Cartwright Group’s mosquito colony at Glasgow University (when the blood bank had failed to deliver). Equally I was always mocked as my blood was apparently substandard: it may have been low in plasma lipids (you’d be shocked how the plasma atop spun-down blood appears after a greasy fry-up – examples of which you can now see with the TV footage of plasma from post-infected individuals being touted as a rapid response treatment for Covid), but was, seemingly, high in intoxicants and subsequent malarial infections in thus fed mosquitoes typically failed. Nevertheless, I would suggest that they were one mightily chilled bunch of ladies (the males don’t blood-feed).

Anyway, Pak Dam’s health is on the up and up and his coat is already recovering. However, with his waking hours no longer dominated by scratching and gnawing he has become a nagging pain, demanding entertainment. Errr, you’re in Laos mate. Of course he now has a knotted length of old sheet on which to tug and – much to the derisory amusement of his peers – is rapidly getting into the idea of fetching a ball. Plus, the little rascal will sit upon command (we’re a long way off on “stay”) if there’s something in it for him.

As the month of August crept towards its close there was only one week remaining of the school holidays and, masochistically, the farang contingent – whipped on by Mathilde - took it upon themselves to oversee a week of activities for interested children. These ranged from clay modelling, cookery and mural painting through child-friendly yoga and dance to team games and football. And on most days the number of five to ten year olds participating was in excess of thirty. Our personal domain, the daily afternoon slot, was games and they necessitated some lateral thinking: what can you play with almost zero resources? It turned out quite a lot: pass-the-parcel (banana leaves and old twine); pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey (discarded cardboard, a random nail and an old torn sheet); a huge Twister (utilizing the inverse of a length of lino and some random left-over paint); team line races passing balloons (either air, or water-filled between knees, under the chin, etc..); hunting or running games galore with a mass of painted pebbles (Treasure Island and Reducing Circles were particular hits – and here a big thank you to our nephew Jon, owner of JWC Sports Coaching, for invaluable ideas and advice); team speed bowling (sand-filled and sewn pockets dissected from derelict shorts for bean bags and partially filled, trash-reclaimed, water bottles as skittles); and then old rice sacks and more torn sheets for sack and three-legged races; not to mention wheelbarrows, piggy backs and the renamed/worded “Bamboo Bridge is falling down”. Oh, and a box full of our English teaching flashcards provided ready-made material for charades (in Lao). Sivilay Katu, a local English-speaker, was forever at our side explaining rules and helping to maintain a modicum of decorum. He really is a gem. As for the children? Well, you should see the videos: most of this catchment are from under-privileged families (the excellent free lunches care of Mathilde/Honey Bee and other local establishments were a big wow); whilst their sense of fair play and incredible patience defies their fearless approach to the physical – never before have I seen anyone, let alone six year old girls, throw themselves with such abandon across rough planked floors in desperate attempts to secure a point; nor, for that matter, take defeat with such grace. Pass-the-parcel only stopped (limited by the number of layers achievable due to banana leaf dimensions, and driven horribly by my metronomic singing) at maybe a dozen or so children (a sweet being present within each layer before the ultimate prize) and not once did a child mither that they were sweet-less. Hell, in my blindfolded (randomised) state one tot got to unwrap twice, apparently without a flinch from her cross-legged neighbours.

Thus employed (and exhausted come 5 pm) our children have gone a week without English lessons, although they have roped us into a few evening games of skittles, whilst little waif Namphun always materializes on our balcony post-dinner (and duties) for an hour’s Youtube on Ali’s phone.

Following the last day of activities us foreigners gathered for a beery debrief and collective pat-on-the-back. It had been hard, sweaty work, but the kids’ enthusiasm and joy made it a very special, rewarding experience. Mathilde may have some grand ideas although, evidently, she does make them come to fruition. Hats off to her.

And so another month in Laos passes. We have the full force of the rains ahead of us as well as half a kilo of home-cured bacon that is due to arrive from up north in mid-September. With this in mind we wangled a day’s outing to Pakse where we bought pasta and parmesan in preparation for a bastardised carbonara (oh, the anticipation). The reason for the Pakse outing was actually to procure new school uniforms for seventeen privately sponsored children (the money collected by a French charity and, predictably, coordinated by Mathilde). Thus we accompanied Palomi’s owner Poh, his wife Tim and the seventeen
on the Poh-owned “school bus”, this being a converted truck with facing bench seating and canopied top. Poh himself is a local legend rising from poverty to Tad Lo’s wealthiest inhabitant and having adopted/raised dozens of children along the way. Really, this tiny village is a place of such inspiration.

Bacon guzzled we will go for a meander up north for a month or so to finally visit the capital Vientiane, revisit some old haunts and generally stretch our legs, but it is hard to envisage that we will not return. For how long and in what capacity remains to be seen.

In 2012 we visited Laos and liked it very much. This March we entered as a stop-gap, Covid-dodging maneuver. Never did we expect to be here for so long or for it to so deeply capture our hearts. Life truly is beautifully unpredictable.

And.... A last minute caveat: Beta-no-name has done it again. We had him marked as a gonna, but he's dodged another bullet. Thus we have now provisioned him with a name: Captain (Scarlet).

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31st August 2020

I really enjoyed reading about your COVID-induced stay in Laos. You write really well! I have not yet been to Laos, but your blog has given me a tiny taste.
1st September 2020

Hi Karen. Thank you. Yes, Laos is charming. I would thoroughly recommend a visit when we can all move freely once again. Best wishes, Andy and Ali.

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