Land of a Million Elephants

Quite a few people have asked me to share my experiences from when I worked in education and rural development overseas. Perhaps this "blog" will help. My background is mostly in Turkey, Laos, and Indonesia. After a near-fatal accident, I returned to the US and started a new career in information management. After the long term effects of the accident (including amputation of the right leg above the knee) I have settled on the waterfront in St Petersburg, Florida.

Name:
Location: St Petersburg, Florida, United States

Saturday, March 04, 2006

UPDATE ON QUOC Letter dated January 7, to a friend

I am including this item, a "paste" from a letter to two longtime friends, Long Nguyen and Randy Holmberg. This expresses my panic -- at the time -- as decently as I was able:

Today [January 7, 2006] at noon, we took a friend and his wife and one of their three kids out to dim sum in Tampa. The friend, a guy named Quoc, took a work team to New Orleans to make a little Christmas cash for their families. Somebody had cranked up a generator (to watch TV) in the building where they were sleeping. One of Quoc’s team had gone back home that afternoon because he sensed “evil spirits” in the building. The police found Quoc collapsed over the generator, apparently trying to turn it off, with his two best friends dead on the floor at his feet. The final member of the crew, who was in another room, came back to St Pete as a permanent “human vegetable.” Quoc himself was in a coma for almost two weeks. Ban, Quoc’s two brothers, and his wife, camped out in the ER waiting room the whole time. When they got him back to St Pete, no ER would treat him or even diagnose him due to lack of insurance. Good old “Bush-ism” in health care! (If you’re too stupid – or poor – to buy insurance, to hell with you. Literally. Let god clean up the gene pool.)

Hell, Florida’s “baby Bush” version of “Compassionate Conservatism” is at least a tiny bit more in touch with ordinary people’s reality than that of his older brother George, and that of the political "Star Chamber" cabal he fronts for.

Well, Quoc isn’t at all the same person he was: used to be a real hell-raiser, always mouthing off; now, pensive and silent. We thought he was a Night-of-the-Living-Dead zombie until somebody cranked up a Karaoke machine in his house: Quoc suddenly “came to life.” I was able to help his wife understand that though she didn’t get back the same Quoc, just as Ban didn’t get back the same Frank, she did get back the REAL Quoc. If there is a god, he surely is perverse to stick me, with my annoying but relatively minor brain damage into the middle of such a heartbreaking episode of brain damage! (The last two entries to my “blog” have to do with my near insanity at home alone while Ban camped out in the New Orleans ER waiting room with Quoc’s wife, and his brothers.

The one advantage seems to be that both of us, Quoc and me, came out of the “brain-dead” experience looking younger, me a little younger, him a lot younger. Today was the first time I’d seen him face to face since the coma. He looks much too young to have a wife and three kids! On my advice, we kept me and Quoc from meeting, up to now, because he seemed not to be able to cope with English, and I knew from my own experience that having me, with my only Vietnamese being bedroom-and-poolhall-Vietnamese, attempt to talk with him could really drive him nuts.. My experience with similar phenomena is that it is kind of like being back in your own home (in your own brain) and suddenly finding that somebody else has come in and rearranged everything: you know where everything is, only when you try to grab something, it isn’t there. So you have to keep groping around until you find it. As you may be able to see, I am still a little emotionally “strung out” over all this. It made my OWN difficulties return vividly. Unbearably vividly.

(Beware, I may paste some of the above into my “blog.” This is the first time I’ve put it into words that seem to me to be an honest description of what happened to me and also seem to have some likelihood of being understood by others.)

[And this posting is what was threatened in the parentheses above. -- Lobsang]

Saturday, December 17, 2005

New Orleans on my Mind - A Gal Named Katrina

Another "post" to the blog that doesn't add chapters to the Laos Experience!

I have been nearly psychotic the past week or so due to obsession with the fate of friends (one old, one new) affected by what has been going on in New Orleans. Most recently, our dearest friend Quoc (pronounced more like "wok" in English) went to New Orleans to take advantage of reasonably good wages for doing the kind of work he does best; if he advertised, he'd probably call himself "handyman." He worked for a small residential remodelling company in St Petersburg, but injured his back on the job and, of course, was promptly fired. That's one of the consequences of Florida's "growth friendly" labor laws, loosely defined as "Employment At Will." Basically, both employer and employee have the right to terminate employment at any moment for any reason with no prior notice -- the essence of Donald Trump's "Your Fired!"

"Use 'em up, then trash 'em" is another way of putting it.

So Quoc is now a self-employed "remodelling specialist," seeking independent jobs that fit his abilities. And his repertoire of skills is prodigious!

Ban, my lifemate, first met Quoc at his gym. At that time, Quoc could best have been described as an "angry young man." Or, less attractively, he might also have been described as "street punk." Under Ban's mentorhood and with my encouragement, he became a responsible family man: attractive wife and three young daughters. With perseverance he worked his way from publicly subsidized housing to buying a small bungalow in a neat neighborhood.

Then, his first disaster, the back injury, occurred.

We got word of his second disaster early in the evening of December 1: two members of the New Orleans Work crew he organized were dead; he and two others were in comas. Someone, perhaps Quoc himself, had started up a generator in the building where they were working and (as is pretty necessary in today's New Orleans) eating and sleeping. The police had found him collapsed over the generator, which he appears to have been trying to stop. The two dead guys were nearby.

Quoc is bright enough to have heeded the warning (not really required, but usually present on generators) only to use the machine in a "well ventilated area." Open a window, right? WRONG! After every hurricane that passes through Florida several people, anywhere from three to ten, pay the price of thinking a garage or carport is "well-ventilated." For internal combustion engines, only a location outdoors or in another uninhabited, ventilated building is safe. Carbon monoxide is deadly. It is an invisible gas, but flows through space like a liquid, with currents and "water levels" all along the way. If you are inside a building, for example, it will fill up a room until the "water level" reaches the windowsills, then it can overflow to the outdoors. Anybody whose head is below the level of the sill of the open window will first experience a sense of extraordlinary well-being and relaxation. If the person gives in to the urge to take a nap, he probably won't wake up. That is why suicide by carbon monoxide is so popular: mild nausea at first, but then uncontrollable euphoria and that feeling of well-being and relaxation. What a way to go to heaven!

(No, I don't have this info from personal experience -- I'd be dead then, wouldn't I? It comes from a book Self Deliverance - The Good Euthanasia Guide by Derek Humphrys, updated regularly. I read it avidly at a time when my numerous medical problems made "self deliverance" seem to be the best option for me. Carbon monoxide was the method I had chosen for myself.)

Quoc somehow managed to overcome the euphoria and think to try to save his friends. As noted, the police found him collapsed over the still-running generator with his hand near the "kill" button. Ban immediately made arrangements to accompany his wife and two of his brothers to New Orleans. Due to my own critical medical problems, I had to be the one to stay home alone and take care of Skippy, our canine "son." As some of you will know, I almost lost my mind worrying about both Ban and Quoc! Ban told me as he packed his little travel bag, Quoc is my younger brother! And on reflection, I thought, "Yes, Quoc is 'favorite nephew' to me too."

During my despair, I made a personal pledge -- a possibly bad habit left over from my Christian upbringing -- that I would somehow involve myself in a spiritually oriented organization, perhaps a church, perhaps the little Buddhist Temple that Ban and I have informally supported in the past. I haven't been able to implement that goal yet, but perhaps it will be one of my first major projects in the new year to come. But to whom would a Buddhist make such a pledge? One wit proposed a Buddhist definition of "God the Omnipotent and Omniscient" as a "socially acceptable imaginary friend for those over age 12." A person can have one god, no god, or thousands of gods as far as the teachings of the Buddha are concerned; the "god-concept" just isn't particularly central. So somehow, I'll drag my hybrid (but probably nonexistent) "soul" to one religious establishment or another until I find one that seems to "fit."

Early last week, Quoc was simply discharged from the hospital in New Orleans, the only hospital that reopened in the city after Katrina. Though he was probably very obviously in need of further attention, no referral was made. Ban kept probing me with regard to what options are available to someone with no insurance. Well, in Florida even those WITH insurance are well advised to invoke the state law that anybody who manages to stagger into an Emergency Room MUST be accepted for treatment, as Ban and I found out on numerous occasions when I myself was near death. Neither hospitals nor doctors are particularly pleased at the idea of accepting patients, unless the law forces them to.

This is the nearest present day concept I know of that parallels the medieval concept of "Sanctuary." If you make it to sanctuary, you live. If you don't, you die.

So we had no option but to wait: knowing that Quoc would get sicker and sicker without treatment, hoping for some crisis that would qualify his case as an "Emergency." He spent last Thursday, Dec 15 "dizzy," then collapsed on Friday Dec 16. They rushed him to the Emergency Room at a county hospital (I won't say which one) that has the reputation of "sanctuary of last resort" for the poor, the homeless, and the uninsured. Hallelujah, they accepted him as a patient but immediately referred him to St Joseph's hospital in Tampa, where they knew the high tech equipment and the medical specialists needed for "brain cases" are available.

At St Josephs, they got him to the point of being "stabilized" and sent him home. He is still officially a patient and his orders are to return Monday morning, when the brain specialists and the staff who run the brain-related diagnostic equipment will all be present. We, his "family," are on pins and needles, but at least we managed to get him to an Emergency Room in critical enough state that law required them to accept him, but not in that old critical medical state known as Death!

Lately I have spent much more time in front of the Buddha, "sitting." Those of you who try to practice the Buddha's teachings in their starkest form will know what I mean by "sitting." It is all there is for me to do. And even if it doesn't do anything to heal Quoc, it helps to heal me.

The older New Orleans friend? He arrived in St Petersburg several weeks after Katrina as a refugee. He is a very attractive young man and has proven to have both the education and the work experience necessary for survival. The one requirement he did not have was a white skin. Back in New Orleans, he had had to sit on the rooftop of his building watching the helicopters go by to "whiter" places. He and the people on top of his building lived out a nightmare of trying to protect themselves (without weapons) against those who had weapons to take away.... what? All that was left for them was the clothes on their backs.

When the water went down to chest-deep, he made it to the Superdome. He loses the ability to speak when he tries to describe what went on there. Having undergone my own little "post traumatic stress," I predict it may be years before he can verbalize those memories in an attempt at self-healing. Or he may never be able to access all of them. Every time we meet, those things hidden from us become the topic of conversation. Our brains are remarkable in being able to file the unthinkable in separate compartments, each small enough not to kill if accessed. Somehow he managed to be evacuated and just happened to end up in the Tampa Bay area. Volunteers tried to help him get settled.

The first 51 phone calls to prospective landlords -- developers and property owners who saw potential for making a buck out of Katrina -- turned out to be interviews mainly oriented toward determining his race, which most would classify as "black," a hangover from the old miscegenation laws that defined "Negro" as anyone who had "even a fraction of a drop of Negro blood" in their veins. (I get this mental picture of a ghoulish coroner dissecting out the circulatory system one vein or artery at a time, trying in vain to find that fraction of 'black' blood." I think I would call it hybrid, a delightful melding of racial qualities that make him the deep south equivalent of Hawaii's "Golden Man."

As fate would have it, this man is, like me, a gay alcoholic. And, as fate would have it, the largest and, in my opinion, least idiosyncratic gay meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in St Pete sits across the street from the most upscale gay bar in St Pete, Georgie's. I've made it a personal crusade to make a turn northward toward the meeting and continued sobriety more alluring and enticing than a southward turn toward familiar ego-validation and the subsequent oblivion at Georgie's, the familiar bar environment.

In truth, my contribution has been next to insignificant. This man is self-motivated and, no matter how emotionally scarred by his experience, will succeed! For me, in fact, it is a privilege that he allows me to share as a spectator and self-appointed head cheerleader as he pushes toward success. His current job involves work shifts of at least 12 hours out of every 36, so he has little time at present for his passions. Maybe that's a good thing right now. Passions can drag a person upward toward heaven, or downward toward the various hells of despair.

But, at his direction, I've made up business cards for his lifelong dream: a martial arts salon.

Somehow, this man's fight uphill against heavy odds and Quoc's fight just to remain in the world as a human rather than as a vegetable are inextricably intertwined in my mind.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A New Beginning

One reason I think I've been so reluctant to continue the pattern of posting I had developed -- essentially, the rough draft of a potential book, in chapters -- is that I was beginning to tread perilously close to topics that even today have a capacity to wound me deeply. Topics that, to me, have had a lot to do with my acquiring a lot of psychological baggage that ultimately led to some pretty unsavory periods in my life, things that even now I am dealing with, recovering from.

Another reason is that I have long tended to avoid starting anything unless I can "win." How does one "win" with a blog? I don't know, but I've always had somewhat of a chip on my shoulder and I've been notorious for doing things at the last minute or not doing them at all, all in order to somehow "win" in an imaginary life competition. This predisposition has been at the root of the bizarre extremes my life has gone to. Granted, I have done a lot of "winning," but was it worth the price? A chronic "winner's" life is a lonely one!

As of now, I'm going to stop waiting until I can cope with the feelings involved before adding to the blog. I'm going to try to force myself to contribute at least once a week, even if all I am ready for is air-head "dear diary" postings. Yes, the "Adventures in the Land of a Million Elephants" will continue. But no, they will be added only when I feel I can cope with them. The result, I think, will do me more good as well as eventually turning out more rewarding stuff for this hypothetical "book."

From this point on, the format will be as follows:

1. "Dear Diary" entries, like this one....

2. My most recent "chapter" in "The Land of a Million Elephants"

3. The "chapters," in logical order, from Chapter 1 onward.

In other words, the most recent stuff first, even if it isn't all that "good," followed by "The Book."

Another thing that will change: I will start allowing people to post comments that will appear with the blog, at least for a while. That will oblige me to check more frequently to be sure that material that violates the blog provider's "Terms Of Service" does not appear for too long.

And those of you who have continued as loyal readers even when I wasn't a very loyal writer, please accept my warmest regards. I'll do better!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Foreword

The current "post" is

Chapter VIII. Souk's First Birthday; the Arrival of Mr. Nixon

You may click on any chapter

In the list to the left
in order to get there directly.

Hear ye, hear ye! From now on, I will have the most recent "post" appear at the top, just under this announcement. Other chapters will appear in order below it, some of them scrolling off the screen. Use the menu at left to get to them.

Note that dates are not correct. They are "spoofed"
to make the "Chapters" Come out in order, like
chapters in a book -- which this "blog" may evolve
to become someday.

Feel free to send comments to me at fwelsh1@tampabay.rr.com.


If you wish, I can add you to a mail list through which I let my "fans" know when I've managed to get around to adding to the "blog." Thanks for all the encouragement!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

VIII. Souk's First Birthday; The Arrival of Mr. Nixon

First posted September 28, 2005

After the family trauma of Thongdy's near death (Chapter VI), it was difficult to settle down to routine. But what had brought me to Luang Prabang was a contract to teach English at the Teacher Training College of Luang Prabang, which supplied primary school teachers for most of the northern half of the country. So Thongdy was left with orders to rest, mostly, and Khamsouk did the marketing (a formidable task), running our kitchen, and tending to laundry and basic cleanliness in the house. I had to ride my trusty (mostly) 50 cc. Vespa motorscooter to the College, a kilometer or so outside the town, in time to be at the flagpole assembly to join in the singing of the haunting Royal anthem ("Since we Lao migrated here....") and chant the Buddhist "Five Precepts for Laypersons."



The Teacher College of Luang Prabang, also known locally as "Houanakang,"
as it appeared when I first arrived. A three story classroom building
joined the nearer yellow two story building.
Dorms, library, dining hall, and infirmary are across the road.
The French Lycee is in the white buildings to the left.

These "Five Precepts" are worthy (I hope) of a short digression. Westerners often confuse the "Precepts" with "Commandments." "Commandments are prescriptions for behavior that must be met. "Precepts" are goals that probably never completely fulfilled, but toward which a person strives on a daily basis. The "Precepts," -- imperfectly transliterated and imperfectly translated into English are --

"Panatipata veramani, sikkhapadang samadiyami."
I undertake the training rule to respect the lives of all sentient beings.

"Adinnadana veramani, sikkhapadang samadiyami"
I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking anything that is not freely offered.
(A little stricter than "Thou shalt not steal.")

"Kamesu michchara veramani, sikkhapadang samadiyami."
I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct.
(Sex by coercion, sex that involves breaking a promise. No, the Buddha didn't much
care what folks did with their genitals, as long as there was no coercion, no broken vows.)

"Musavada veramani, sikkhapadang samadiyami."
I undertake the training rule to refrain from allowing untruthful things to be communicated.
(Stricter, I think, than a mere prohibition on one's own lying.)

"Sura meraya majja pamadatthana veramani, sikkhapadang samadiyami"
I undertake the training rule to refrain from the use of substances that might tend to
impair the functioning of the mind.

These Precepts were chanted daily in Pali, the language of all early Buddhist scriptures.

My first year, my time was devoted almost solely to teaching English, interspersed with Sunday outings with students to swim at really glorious nearby waterfalls and perhaps collect wild orchids off trees along the way. I was pretty good at teaching English as the Peace Corps had given us the equivalent of the classroom work for a Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Foreign Language under the combined auspices of Princeton University in the U.S. and "Robert Koleje" (now "Bosphorus University"), often affectionately called the "Harvard of Turkey," in Istanbul. That was followed by two years' teaching English at Ataturk University in Erzurum, high in the Pontic mountain range, in the foothills of Mount Ararat in the far northeastern part of the country. To give you an idea of distances, it took overnight on the "Far Eastern Express" to get from Istanbul to Ankara, the capital, and then another two days and a night on the same train to get from Ankara to Erzurum. In Ankara, the hotels hated to see us coming because we turned the bathrooms black with the soot we'd accumulated going thru tunnels on the rail line with coal-powered steam locomotives along the way.

If other moral obligations had not presented themselves, I probably would have fulfilled only the two-year contract I had with International Voluntary Services (IVS) and then returned to the U.S. Not that teaching in Laos was not enjoyable! Because the only thing actually "worshipped" by Buddhists is "knowledge" or "wisdom," teachers are treated with an unbelievable degree of respect. In Turkey, teachers were expected to manhandle unruly students; I had found it bizarre to be slugging or wrestling a 280 pound university soccer player to the floor (I weighed about 130 pounds at the time and was as scrawny as a beanpole). In Laos, the idea of a student behaving in an unruly way never even occurred. One of the national holidays was "The Day for Worshipping Teachers." The idea appalled me at first, until somebody pointed out, "They aren't worshipping YOU; they are worshipping any wisdom that may be in you." On meeting a teacher anywhere, students would bow their head and put their hands together in the universal sign of respect.

Watch this Space!
I will continue to add to the current chapter, VIII!
Souk's Birthday Party
Mr Nixon's Arrival (Nixon the Monkey, that is)

Saturday, June 18, 2005

I. Prologue:

Almost all non-military people I know who worked in Laos during the war years were, and probably still are, paranoid to one degree or another. Laos in the war years was more isolated than Tibet has been for the past few centuries. You had to have a job in Laos or pull a lot of strings. Nobody, especially media people, made casual visits.

A friend of mine, really upset at what was happening in the carpet bombing zones, wrote an anguished letter to his Senator. The Senator's chief of staff and the usual gaggle of reporters arrived. As a result, a tiny bit of what I call "The Stink of War" began to escape the hermetically sealed box that was Laos. For months we received memos and letters from officials of the American Mission along the lines of "loose lips sink ships," and the necessity to see that none of the facts escaped the information wall that was around the country. Some people, even "neutral" IVS volunteers, were suddenly sent home or reassigned.

A lot of the non-Lao people who were there were, and still are, in positions to really hurt you if they want to. Some of the Lao we lived and worked with are still there; in fact, most of the best people I worked with stayed, determined to make the best of what was then an uncertain situation. The people I was closest to are the ones most likely to be injured by having their names thrown around loosely. I hope some of them are in government and education and are making their patriotic contribution to the Laos of the future. In my classes I always emphasized that whether it was right or wrong, the government was still OUR government.

That is why, as they say in some prefaces "the names have been changed to protect the innocent...

"...and the guilty."


Luang Prabang in the morning mist.
The gilded stupa at the top of the sacred mountain centers the town.
The white walls of the former King's Palace (Now the National Museum)
gleam through the coconut palm trees on the far shore.


Partly because my own life has been complicated (mostly by critical medical problems) and partly because I didn't want to put innocent people in harm's way, I have lost touch with almost everybody I was directly associated with while I was there. One of my dreams is, if my health permits, to make a nostalgic trip to Southeast Asia. The first stop will be in Rach Gia, on the southernmost tip of Vietnam to meet the half of my life-partner's family that chose to remain in Vietnam after the war. It would also be wonderful to go back to Laos, especially if I could make contact with any of my old friends there. Maybe this "blog" can help me make contact anew with colleagues or even with some of my foster sons, who should be celebrating the births of grandchildren by now.

Looking at current tourist maps of Luang Prabang, it seems that almost half the houses have been turned into tourist facilities: hotels, guest houses, restaurants --even a swimming pool or two! (The buildings in all that existed of Luang Prabang in the early 1970s are a part of the United Nations "World Heritage" zone and cannot be altered externally or torn down.) Where do all those people from the houses live now?

LUANG PRABANG TOURIST MAP: The "Pond House," the first place we lived, is across "Bounkhong Road" from #67 on the map. Our second house, where we moved to escape the virulent malaria at the "Pond House," is next to Wat Xieng Thong, The [former] King's Wat, #2 near the top edge of the map. So who ever knew that "Bounkhong Road" had a name!

When I was there, there was one restaurant, one soup shop, and three 24 hour-a-day Ovaltine cafes. Yes, Ovaltine! There was one place for transients to stay called locally the "bunk-ka-low"("bungalow"), and until the Phou Vao Hotel was built just before my departure, there was no swimming pool closer than the American suburb outside Vientiane, hundreds of miles away. But who needed swimming pools with three magnificent waterfalls with crystal-clear water to relax in? One of my traditions while I was there was an annual Christmas Day skinny-dipping party at the most spectacular of the falls, the 150-foot-high-three tiered Kouang Sy falls just south of town with its three basins, each in a more enchanting tropical glade than the one before. This trip could have been dangerous as "the other side" in the war pretty much controlled that territory. (Americans called the Pathet Lao -- "State of Laos" -- army "the other side." Lao called them "our brothers and sisters." Slight difference in point-of-view.)




Fun at a tiny waterfall within easy walking distance
from town. The scrawny white guy in the middle is me.
Khamsouk and Thongdy, my first adoptees, are to my right.
The guy furthest toward the left in the picture is Bounthanh. He got swept up
in one of the regular dragnet sweeps and shanghaied into one or another
of the armies the day after this picnic at the falls. He came to show us his
gun, which was as tall as he was, and probably weighed more. His family
told us he died three days later. We never saw him again.
His sad, short life - 14 years - is probably a whole other story.


Before I found myself in Laos, I had graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Summa Cum Laude degree in English literature, with a specialization in renaissance literature and somewhat of a gift for languages. My original choice for a career, the calling for which my really first-class education prepared me -- things like classical and New Testament Greek, a smattering of self-taught Hebrew, sundry theological courses -- was blocked mostly because of my family's deserved reputation for public scandal (the South could be like that, 'way back then).



Old East at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
built in 1792, was my dorm.
Nowadays, it has been gutted, rebuilt, and turned into an office building.
The only thing left of my Old East is the brick skin.
Alas, the little rooms for the students' personal slaves
are long since gone too, the victim of even earlier makeovers.

In France, or even in Britain, black sheep sons from disreputable families used to be sent overseas with the Foreign Legion or with Colonial Armies. In the U.S. the Peace Corps sometimes served the same function. Completely demolished emotionally and totally confused as to what meaning the rest of my life might have, I joined the Peace Corps on graduation and was assigned to teach in Turkey. For some reason, I felt (and still feel) that I have to prove myself "tough enough." History is full of men who because of physical weakness or emotional turmoil pit themselves against the toughest odds they can find. In recent history Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt come to mind. I maneuvered myself in to one of the more challenging assignments available, teaching at Ataturk University in Erzurum, a frigid place on the lower slopes of Mount Ararat. It was a wild place where people were either tough or dead. One crisp winter morning, a wolf was killed on my doorstep. From October through mid-May there were snow accumulations of several feet with drifts of several yards and nighttime low temperatures hovered between 40 and 50 degrees below zero. (At minus 44 degrees, Fahrenheit and Celsium temperatures are the same.) We rode one-horse sleighs to work at the university campus just outside town. Motorized vehicles couldn't make it. The only times I got really warm was Saturday afternoons, when I went for my weekly bath at a local hammam (Turkish bath), some of which were built in the early 1200s. A whole afternoon of luxury for less than 5 cents! Then a leisurely dinner of schnitzel, the local specialty, and plentiful, cheap Turkish beer. It would be worth a trip back to Erzurum just to repeat one of those delightful Saturdays, probably minus the beer.

After returning to the U.S. with admission to graduate school at Cornell University, it seemed that my future as a professor was made. Yet I knew that the tameness of American college life was not what I really wanted. The only other choice in the mid-1960s was to sit and wait to be drafted for cannon fodder in Vietnam. I didn't want that either. A friend had had experience with an outfit called International Voluntary Services (IVS) which had a colorful history dating back to World War I as a haven for young men from the traditional "peace churches" to serve honorably, usually as ambulance drivers or attendants where their survival rate was often lower than that of soldiers in the trenches.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

II. Getting There

It is said that President Kennedy modelled his earliest ideas for the US Peace Corps on the IVS volunteers he had seen teaching (and occasionally getting shot or blown up and killed) in Vietnam, when on junkets as a young Senator. By the mid-1960s, IVS had programs in Vietnam and Laos, among other places. At first I thought I would push for assignment to one of their teaching positions in Vietnam -- the "tough guy" obsession again. IVS, however, was gradually pulling back in Vietnam because so many of its volunteers were being killed in particularly gruesome ways. IVS was used to being treated as "neutral," somewhat as the World War I ambulance attendants had been treated, so this brutal treatment was puzzling. Years later we found out that American intelligence operatives had infiltrated the organization and compromised its neutrality. In Laos, the only jeeps ever to be rocketed were being driven at the time by intelligence operatives, usually with one or more unsuspecting "normal" volunteers aboard. Both kinds of volunteers were barbecued.

My options seemed to be either cannon fodder in Vietnam or rocket fodder in Laos. I chose Laos. If I was going to die, I at least wanted it to be doing something that helped somebody.

The local draft board in Charlotte NC had fixed ideas on who could possibly be a "real" pacifist: "Do you belong to the Quaker church? Then you aren't a pacifist. Classification 1-A. Next." I had already left graduate school, so I went on to Washington to prepare to leave for a position teaching in Laos, exact location yet to be determined. There was one catch: those with potential draft problems had to sign agreements that if drafted, they would pay all transportation costs and in-country costs associated with being in Laos. I couldn't do that.

For six months I cooled my heels in Washington, with nowhere to go and nowhere to return to. The more I heard about Laos, the more I wanted to go there. There seemed to be almost no reliable written resources on Laos, even in a place like the Foreign Service Institute's library, and this was the prime place for training America's diplomats. I did meet a steady stream of returning volunteers, though. Without exception, whenever the subject of "the Lao people" came up, their faces lit up and they got a special warm smile. All their "war stories" told of a gentle people coping with a particularly savage war they didn't understand. I wanted to go to Laos!

I first heard the maxim "When buffalo fight, it's the grass that suffers" in Laos.

A "friend of IVS" (it still amazes me how many of these "friends" IVS had then and still has now) knew of a young Foreign Service Officer in Lao language training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA. His posting to his first job as a diplomat in the Embassy in Laos depended on Lao language competemce. His Laotian teachers felt he would benefit by being in a classroom environment. He was getting one-on-one training -- the best money could buy -- and access to state-of-the-art language laboratories. I was invited to join his class on an informal basis.

The strategy seems to have worked. He graduated with flying colors. By the time IVS had cleared up my draft status (by routing my draft board appeals to the New York state draft board where yet another "friend of IVS" was a member) my Lao language skills had gotten pretty good. I had learned to read it and write it, as well as speak it. I remained in draft classification 1-A, but somehow I never got called, even when a national draft lottery was instituted some years later.

Privately I was told that the "friend of IVS" on the New York draft board relayed the unofficial opinion of the board to us: "If the fool wants to go to Laos without a gun and be shot at from behind practically every bush and boulder, LET HIM!"


"The "Vertical Runway"

The "Vientiane International Airport" had mostly unpaved runways.

Cement was donated to pave them and otherwise modernize the
airport. This is where the cement ended up. The "Samlo," or "Three-
wheeler" in the foreground is how peons like me mostly travelled.

Before that time, IVS in Laos had trained new volunteers only in spoken Lao. When they saw how quickly I was progressing after becoming literate, they began an experiment in teaching them to read and write as well as to speak. The usual result was that they got a slow start since Lao script is alien to the basic concepts of western languages. Vowels are made up of an assortment of squiggles that can be before, after, above, and below the consonant that "carries" them. Very often a particular vowel sound can involve squiggles in all four directions. None of the consonants were like those in Western alphabets. That slowed the students down in the beginning. But when they finished the introductory part of the course, the ability to read and write gave them the ability to keep on learning rapidly. Lao is a tonal language, and Lao script represents the tones well. "Phonetic rendering" into western alphabets does not. So the volunteers spoke more correctly as well as having a tool that any second grade Lao school kid could help them with.

Laos was a pretty dangerous place when I arrived. Two voluteers died when their jeep was rocketed on an isolated country road. At that time, it seemed that IVSers were serving in places unbelievably isolated and vulnerable. To the cynical, it appeared that these volunteers were being given radios and then posted mostly in order to serve as expendable "enemy" troop detectors. I almost was not sent out to a site; nobody was sure whether IVS's neutrality would be respected. A decision was made to place volunteers only in major towns and never in such isolated locations as before. As it turned out later, I was able to help reinforce the idea of neutrality in a quiet way, just by being myself, treating everybody I met with honor, doing a good job for my Lao school directors, and especially by trying to avoid being absorbed by the ever-present American community. (They used to have to withhold my Living Allowance funds even to make me go to Vientiane for Team Meetings.)

Ultimately it did turn out that Southeast Asia and Laos were to be a big part of my future.

Those years in Laos turned out to be the most rewarding of my life.