Projects in progress and proposed, with a whiff of a return in the air.

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August 28th 2021
Published: August 29th 2021
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Early June and a rather miserable Phuang presented with conjunctivitis (pink eye). Ali recommended chloramphenicol eye drops and they were duly sourced and initiated. However, a mere day into their application and Phuang reappeared bearing a small dish of a greyish creamy liquid that had been proposed as a supplementary (traditional) remedy. What was it? Breast milk. OK, I am aware from whence milk originates… it was human milk. And there is no shortage of this commodity, there always being a newborn or two in the vicinity. The idea was to peel a length of turmeric root, excavate one end to form a bowl, add the milk and then float the receptacle in hot water until the human exudate acquired a temperature of optimal potency for purpose. We were both skeptical and Ali somewhat reticent to be the one administering said fluid to her eye. Some quick checks on-line and, a semi-reassuring lack of associated horror stories received, Ali did agree to apply the infused concoction. Someone else would have given the drops regardless and probably with far more enthusiasm, and less finesse. The result? Her eye was back to normal after several days, as you’d expect, with… chloramphenicol.

Several evenings later we were amidst a lesson on adverbs of frequency when a motorbike careered passed and onto the adjacent bridge, the, rather evidently, broken bridge. The rider threw the bike just shy of the absence of planks and fortunately neither he nor the machine plunged into the river below. We all rushed to his aid. Had he not been aware of its condition? Ah, it was our itinerant friend and he’d simply been – drunkenly - going too fast to break in time to turn into Sipasert, his destination. The palm of his hand bore a tendon-revealing flap of flesh and his helmet-less head a decent gash to the temple, but there were no broken bones nor signs of a concussion or internal injuries. Nevertheless, the wounds were way beyond Ali’s depleted first aid supplies and we had him whisked off for a bunch of stiches. An hour later, just as the kids were becoming fluent with always, often, sometimes, rarely and never, in he sauntered: bandaged but hardly shaken, let alone traumatized. The bike wasn’t quite as resilient.

Mid-June saw us get our second Sinopharm shots (recognized by the WHO, but bizarrely – and frustratingly - not the EMA) and in so doing we noticed a set of scales. We’d not weighed ourselves in well over a year; nor, for that matter, had we viewed ourselves in anything other than a barely illuminated, facially-limited mirror – we generally have to inform each other when our nasal hairs are running amok. In all honesty we were quite shocked. Some quick maths revealed Ali’s BMI to be in the red, whilst mine was only just within the limit of normalcy: I’d lost more than 10 percent of my typical body weight; Ali hadn’t, proportionately, lost as much but she had less she could afford to lose. Breakfast eggs were upped from two to three each, bread baking increased to twice a week (abundance = increased consumption) and protein components to evening meals doubled. Jeez….

New Zealand, deservedly, won the World Test Championship; whilst in July England surprised most and waltzed into the final of the European Football Championships. The last time we’d made an International football final I was two months old and it was a very different Eng-er-land (and Britain): Zimbabwe was colonial Rhodesia; we’d just abolished the death penalty; homosexuality was still illegal; Action man had recently arrived in British stores, no doubt primarily Woolworths; the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”; the first hovercraft service was nipping across the channel; Buster Edwards, the moors murderers and Ronnie Kray were all on trial; the ATM was invented and the first British credit card (Barclaycard) released; Hillman Hunters and Ford Cortinas began rolling off production lines; and, thankfully, Pickles (the dog) found the stolen Jules Rimet Trophy in time for us to win it.

Care of Martin’s homemade giant screen, a projector and Czech television’s streaming services we watched all of England’s matches including the final, most kicking-off at the ungodly, by then drunken, hour of 3 a.m. Of course football was not destined to “come home” and “fifty five years of hurt” would continue when the inevitable penalties yielded predictable results. At least the Scots were happy. A number of ignorant racist English fans were anything but, with a sickening stream of on-line vitriol targeted at our players who’d missed those decisive shots. It was so sad to see that the progress made on the pitch was not mirrored by certain attitudes off it.

Meanwhile, the delta variant sweeps the world. More transmissible than previous incarnations it will scythe a great chunk of human kind: tragically among those who are yet to have access to vaccines and, needlessly, those who are non-inclined to accept protection. Numbers in Laos are rising (daily now into the low hundreds) as increasingly panicked migrant workers return from Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia where they are starting to see startling European/American continent-like rises in infections. The excellent, rigidly strict, Laos re-entry system catches almost all and there are (as of July 27th) 9,154 individuals in the 57 quarantine centres; but I fear that (due to the fearful reluctance in uptake compounding limited supplies), in the words of G.O.T, “winter is coming”.

Back in the UK we have an admirable percentage of the adult population (some 70 percent) fully vaccinated, with almost 90 percent having received their first shot. However, this still leaves some 13 million juveniles (plus those nay-sayers/medically unable) potentially vulnerable (who knows what percentage of these individuals have previously been exposed, were asymptomatic, and now have – at least a degree of - immunity). And yet, as of July 19th - “Freedom Day” - we have thrown caution to the wind. Ignoring potential long-Covid effects, these children are far less likely to become very sick, or die - although some will, but they still provide an extremely large petri-dish for evolutionary mutations and who knows what might emerge from it? There again, in recent days we have seen new infections soar but then top-out at around 50,000/day (many scientists predicted a far higher peak) and these numbers are (for now at least) dropping. So, maybe, the UK “petri-dish” isn’t as big as it theoretically might have been and we might not be, unwittingly, excessively promoting the selection of vaccine-resistant variants?

Sadly the same hopeful scenario does not, currently, apply to the USA; although, admittedly, unlike the UK, they still retain many restrictions. There, in 15 States, more than 50 percent of adults are yet to receive a single shot, with – presumably, given their ready access – most of these unlikely to do so. That is a scarily large number of incubators. And on that point, and it gives me no joy in returning to the legacy of Trump, 14 of those 15 States all voted for him; the one exception being Georgia where the Democrats won by a mere 0.2 percent.

What is to be done? Well… California and New York are proposing to make vaccination compulsory for health care workers, municipal workers and the like, and the mandate will surely broaden as the situation worsens. Indeed, no doubt, so will voluntary uptake as figures increasingly reveal that it is almost exclusively the unvaccinated ending up in hospitals and morgues. Yes, an individual absolutely has the right to freedom of choice, but not when it adversely effects those around them: there are reasonable limits even to fundamental rights, particularly when they impact upon public health, safety or national security.

In Laos all will comply if and when they are told they have to – it is a communist country after-all – but what might transpire in “the land of the free” is a worrying prospect.

Here, economically, the hardships for most increase. Many who worked in the tourism industry are compelled to look for seasonal work in the fields planting/harvesting manioc, rice, coffee and other crops. Local convenience shops’ stocks have dwindled and as the Laos kip progressively loses value so prices are rising: eggs are up 60 percent and, horror-of-horrors, beer – for maybe the first time in a decade - has risen by 10 percent.

One morning we were sat with coffees when Palomei’s Poh and an unknown gentleman, his friend-in-need, appeared on our balcony. Could we aid them? They handed over a wad of documents, in English, whose complex contents we (proof-) read. It was some kind of grant proposal application and we stated that the English appeared totally satisfactory. No, that wasn’t the point. Could we complete the forms? Oh… What was the money for? Who was seeking it? Who was potentially providing it? And when was the deadline for submission? It was now 10 a.m. and it took until mid-day to be informed of the most basic of necessary information. The documents needed to be returned on-line by 3 p.m., that day. Long story short: the money was Japanese, designated for projects in developing countries; and they, a vocational school here in Tad Lo, required the money to aid/sponsor graduating students (their courses and the school’s costs are already covered by the Laos government) in initiating independent businesses: to provide tools for a would-be motorcycle mechanic, a loom for a weaver, a first month’s rent and some stock for a retailer, or sponsorship for further specialized training. The majority of the school’s intake are highly disadvantaged individuals striving to escape from a cycle of poverty and such funds would have a huge impact. Sadly, I doubt that our, by necessity, rushed efforts – delivered at 2.56 p.m. – will be competent enough to secure the funding, but we live in hope.

The heat and humidity continue to ratchet, although most of the threatened thunder storms – for now - pass us by. Nevertheless – we’ve been here before – the rains are inevitably coming and with them the very real possibility of having to evacuate (again) as the waters rise.

Our ex-pat friends Mathilde (business graduate entrepreneur) and Martin (previously a film producer) have been far more proactive than us and proposed a new venture: live interactive (physically participating, if you so wish – you receive a shopping list before the event) Laos/SE Asian cookery courses held from within the local ladies’ kitchens, with all profits (from post-event donations) going to those women. If it proves viable – and there has already been some French-based participation - then one of us is going to have to be the translational host for the English-speaking market. Let’s hope they’ll appreciate a Keith Floyd-like (alcohol-buoyed) presentation…

At the beginning of August, prior to the full-blown onset of classes, M&M were planning a week’s break in our closest town of Pakse. One of their dogs, Pukey (she had a dicky tummy as a nipper), was heavily pregnant and would almost certainly pup whilst they were away. Would we consider coming to live in their house for a week to keep her well fed and oversee developments? Access to their pristine, well-equipped kitchen made this a no-brainer. And then… Pakse went into lockdown. Thus there’d be no excursion for them or baking of bread in an actual oven for us. Nor, for that matter, would there be a re-stocking of those longed-for luxuries (butter, cheese… wine…) that can only be sourced in cities. Indeed we had, in recent weeks, moved on from Roti-Fridays (the children love them, particularly rolled with condensed milk) – that are actually meant to be cooked on a hot plate – to more adventurous stove/crucible-top pizzas. Initially I was none too convinced that these would be a success and yet how wonderfully wrong I was. Hence the kids are forever hankering after another batch and, without doubt, oven-baked examples could only have been even better… C’est la vie…

Ali’s spoken Lao abilities (she now does an on-line course) are progressing rapidly (alongside her Spanish, sign language, Makaton and… Bengali – we link up with a friend in Bangladesh once a week for language exchange), whilst I, pathetically, grasp at her linguistic coat-tails. My achievement for the month of August? I can now place every country/territory/dependency on earth on a map and identify their flags (hell, the flags were actually pretty tricky). Oh, and I am now a third of the way through the complete works of Charles Dickens. The latter is proving far less worthwhile than the former as most are truly verbose shite: Ye Old Curiosity Shop, my most recent, was almost as tediously dull as Dostoyevsky: yes, free Kindle books are largely limited to “classics”. Classics my arse. Nevertheless, I have started Dickens so I will finish; scarily, on completion, Shakespeare and Homer loom.

Our room’s walls are now adorned with a multitude of pictures drawn by children both familiar and not, whilst Ali’s “lengths” of the river are increasingly interrupted by impromptu races, games of tag and swimming lessons for the tots.

We really are focusing on a return to Blighty, although we won’t – sadly, true to their predictions - make my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Most here now view us as “residents”, those at Sipasert simply as “family” and all will be very shocked when we do depart, not least M&M. When… when we do leave it will have been (almost?) two uninterrupted years and that makes Laos our joint third longest residency in a foreign country. We do so want – and need: passports full, credit/debit cards expiring, clothes close to being beyond repair, the computer held together with Duck tape and our teeth in a deplorably neglected state – to head home. We’ve not seen my parents since our return from Brasil and Ali, her mum, since Nepal. But there is that caveat of how long will we have to stay in Blighty? When will we be able to escape again? Our house has just been rented out for another six months (well, it will be as soon as the devastation inflicted by the previous tenants is rectified) and, in all honesty, neither our long suffering parents nor we want to have us crash at theirs’ for an indeterminate period of time. The return needs to be a finely timed affair.

Plus, there is one final event that we would so like to be involved with. I’ll not go into details now as its possibility totally depends on finding an NGO (Mathilde is on the case) that is prepared to receive/distribute all monies that are raised.

Oh… Pukey had six pups, all doing well. And… our Lulu is due imminently.

A final thought goes out to all those caught up in the ill-managed exodus from Afghanistan, particularly to those poor souls who will inevitably be left behind.

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