Monday, December 5, 2016

Poetry and pain

He served 14 years in prison in the USA. The only thing that kept him sane, kept him from giving up on life - was the thought of being back in the loving arms of his family in California. But Cambodian poet Kosal Khiev never got that chance. Just as he came to the end of his sentence he was deported by the US government without warning back to his birthplace - a land completely foreign to him - a land that he was forced to flee at the age of one with his mother and six siblings due to the horrors of genocide and war.

Over the weekend, I watched this passionate and tormented man pour his pain into poetry. I was moved by his story. He's one of more than 2 million refugees who have been deported back to their homelands since 2009...stripped of all rights to ever return to their families and lives in America.

Kosal was a teenager when he was arrested in the US after a gang-led shooting. He was found guilty by association for attempted murder and tried as an adult. He was sentence to 16 years in jail at the age of 16.

It was inside the infamous Folsom prison where he discovered his gift for the spoken word. He wrote about his struggle. He wrote about regret. His words were the tears that he wasn't able to cry.

He wrote about his longing to be reunited with his family - and, when he was finally a free man, he wrote about the prison of his deportation to Cambodia. Without his friends or family or the life he had known since the age of one - Phnom Penh was a different kind of solitary confinement.

If you get the chance to watch 'Cambodian Son' - a documentary about his struggle and achievements, I can highly recommend it.

Friday, November 18, 2016

A matter of comfort

When it comes to comfortable seating, Laos ranks 185 in the world. Given that it's one of the poorest nations in Asia, I can understand that bum-comfort is not a priority. The Lao people have better things to worry about than the loss of feeling in their lower limbs after sitting too long on a plank of wood.

The chairs in this place feel like they were designed to do permanent damage to one's tailbone. I have never come across such physically challenging furniture in any other part of the world. To address this important issue, I have taken to carrying a butt cushion around town. It's a terribly sexy look.

I stumbled across this couch, placed outside a blue-themed home in a village not far from Luang Prabang a little while ago. It's one of the most padded seats in the region. I'd recommend a trip to Ban Donkeo just to sit on it.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Singing like nobody's listening?

A performer once gave me a wise piece of advice. He said, "Even if you feel like it's the worst gig of your life and that nobody is listening, sing to the one person who is listening and sing as if they are the most important person in the world".

A few weeks ago I was asked to represent Australia at the ASEAN Plus Music and Culinary Festival in the capital of Laos, Vientiane. The event had been set up in a shopping mall carpark next to an amusement park.

As I sat on the stage, trying to sing over the din of dodgem car rides and neighbouring stages where techno beats boomed so loudly that they made my heart rattle in my chest, I spotted a couple of blokes with Billabong t-shirts standing in front of me with two little girls on their shoulders who were smiling and waving.

I sang my soul out to those little girls. I sang Hallelujah for Leonard Cohen, whose passing filled me with too much sadness. I closed my eyes and imagined him waltzing at the side of the stage with his stylish hat on. I sang his song full of feeling, even though the majority of Lao people standing before me would have had no idea about the man or his beautiful words and melodies. I sang until tears almost fell from my eyes... and then I left the stage.

It was not the best performance of my life. It was probably one of the most challenging. But I gave it my all. And as I walked into the crowd with my guitar, those two small girls ran up to me, faces beaming, with their arms wide open. They didn't say anything, they just hugged me.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The barking dog

I've never been much of a dog person. When I moved into my rental here in Luang Prabang I was unimpresed that I'd have to share my front yard with two mangy mongrels. My landlady, who lives in the same compound, assured me that her dogs were necessary for security - and for the past six months I've pretty much despised them for the way they've barked at anything that moves, often in the middle of the night for long periods of time.

Some evenings, when they've charged at me in full voice as I enter the gates, I've barked back - particularly at the smaller one - a grey and white spotted thin-faced mutt who seemed the dumber of the two. A few weeks ago I noticed he'd become a little frail. He was barking less. My landlady told me he was refusing to eat. In the days that followed he has grown thinner and weaker.

Last week I came home to find him lying on my front porch. Despite having no strength, he lifted his boney body off the ground, head down, and carried himself down the steps - knowing that I'd never liked him sitting there and that, in the past, I'd shooed him away. I felt terrible and tried to stop him from leaving. I told him that I was changing the rules. That he was now welcome to sit on my balcony. I went and got a bath mat and laid it on the porch, along with a bowl of water. Each night since, he's been sleeping on my verandah. Last night we sat together in the darkness and I hummed his emaciated body a song as I watched his rib cage rise and fall in the half-moon light.

I was afraid to open my front door this morning because I know that soon he'll be dead and that I was the girl who, only a month ago - when he was barking his brains out at 2am - had wished that fate upon him.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Shadow graffiti on temple walls

"Do you ever feel lonely?" the novice monk asked me as the sun sank around us, "because I live with many monks here at the temple but I feel lonely. I miss my parents. They live so far away. I think, if you live alone, you also must be missing your family. I think you feel lonely, same as me. Sometimes I want to leave the temple and go back to my village but my family is too poor to take care of me."

Vithone is 18 years old. His parents are rice farmers in a small rural village six hours from Luang Prabang. They have five other children. They brought him to the city when he was 12 years old so that he could get an education and left him there. Three years later his father visited him. He hasn't seen his mother for six years. His days begin at 3.30am when he wakes and heads to the temple hall to pray. He then walks the streets in his orange robes, collecting alms in his bowl.

"Mostly I get food but sometimes people give me money. I save it because I want to go to university and my parents can not afford to send me. I don't know if I will ever have enough money to be able to further my studies. Maybe one day someone will be very generous to me - then I will be able to go to university."

Before we met, I had been painting shadow-graffiti on the wall of his temple whilst listening to Bon Iver.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Foxtrot lesson by the flight home

A break to stretch my legs on the flight back to Laos turned into an introductory lesson to the Foxtrot next to the lavatory with 86-year-old Tom who confessed that in the mornings, while making porridge, he likes to shimmy his hips in time to his favourite songs.
"My wife died 10 months ago. We were married 64 years and I miss her terribly - but in life, we have choices - and I decided, six months after she passed away, that I didn't want to become one of those miserably oldbuggers who sits around waiting to die. No, not me. I decided I was going to be 'the happy man'. So now I start my day by dancing around the kitchen. And I go to the RSL club where people my age are sitting around sad and lonely...and I make them smile. And if they are really down in the dumps, I'll Cha Cha for them. Life should be a dance, dear...a joyful dance," he said as he shuffled his feet rhythmically in front of me.
Tom met Vida in England when they were in their early twenties. They both had a passion for ballroom dancing. The became partners on the dance floor, and in life - waltzing through six decades of marriage together until last year when, on a cruise from Australia to Noumea, Vida got out of bed in the middle of the night and somehow tripped - slamming her head onto the side table.
"That blow to the head - it killed her - but not instantly. She held on for eight days. It was a horrible way for her to die. But I'll tell you something, on the day I met Vida I thought to myself 'Now that's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen' and that beauty remained until she took her last breath".

Friday, June 10, 2016

Joni and Jaco...singing in BKK

I'm still struggling to find words to explain what happened at last night's Jaco Pastorius tribute so I thought I'd share this, written by the manager of the venue. My heart is full!

"I was particularly moved when during the second set, a lady stepped on stage and sang two of Joni Mitchell's songs from her Jaco Pastorius years. Her name was Angie and she is an aussie living in Laos. When she saw the Facebook event page she emailed the band and asked to join the tribute concert. It was a beautiful moment of poetry when she sang. Few people knew in the audience Joni was Jaco's biggest supporter. 
This was purely magic. Thank you Angie." 

- Sanya Souvanna Phouma, 
Concert Producer, Maggie Choo's Jazz Bar, BKK

Monday, May 30, 2016

Madam Money and Mr Gold

This is the love story of Madam Money and Mr Gold who tied the knot today in a muddy garden in Luang Prabang. Her real name is Ngern but, when we first met, she told me it was too hard for foreigners to say so, "You just call me Madam Money, okay? Easier for you. My name meaning in Lao is money!"

For the past few months I have been renting a small home in Madam Money's compound where she lives with her two sons, mother and father. Her first husband died from diabetes. She said that she cried too much, every day, until her house cleaner gave her the number of a man who had also lost his partner. The man's name was Kham, which means gold in Lao. He lives in Xiangkhouang Province, eight hours away. His wife died trying to birth their second child.

Madam Money and Mr Gold spoke many times on the phone and then he travelled to Luang Prabang to meet her. They fell in love and he asked her to marry him. You could always tell when Mr Gold was coming to visit Madam Money because she would sit on her front porch and sing, for hours, waiting for him. This singing would continue while he was in town and stop when he departed. Then she'd look sad and talk about missing him. But today they got married...which means there will be a lot more love songs sung outside my window. But first I must survive the wedding party karaoke that's blaring into my home and will no doubt be blasted by the doof doof loudspeakers for many hours to come.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Wrinkled hands and happy pants

If palm readers study the lines on palms to predict the future...what do you call a person who studies the tops of hands to understand a life that has already been lived? I discovered these two sets of wise hands on my way back from Muang Nan...and two sets of feet that, no doubt, have walked many miles...and two pairs of happy pants.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Lao Rocket Festival

Each year in the dry season during the month of May the men in the villages of Muang Nan gather to make rockets for the annual Bun Bang Fai festival. The aim - to create a rocket that goes the highest, bangs the loudest, creates the biggest cloud of smoke. To the beat of the temple drum, trucks drove to the launch site - each carrying a rocket or two, often adorned with red and yellow flowers. The rockets are made from long pieces of bamboo (some up to nine metres in length) and blue PVC piping that has been pounded full of black powder. These homemade rockets are then hoisted up some bamboo scaffolding and, without a countdown or warning, launched into the sky.

There are a few myths surrounding this awe-inspiring/pants-shitting festival. Some say the rockets shoot holes in the clouds to release rain. Some say they are to wake up the Rain God. There's also a connection to fertility, with many festival-goers running around holding penis impregnate the land perhaps? Whatever the case, it's truly the most thrilling festival I've ever witnessed.

"Tonight we just make small rocket party in temple. Tomorrow we put big rockets to the sky"....the words of the local tourism official when I asked him about his village's festival schedule. The 'small rocket party' involved young boys carrying ornate offerings through the temple courtyard. At the centre of these offerings - a large bamboo bong stuffed with black pounded powder that, once lit, shoots a pillar of fire into the night sky...

A few metres from the pillars of fire, two monks sat with their fortune telling bamboo sticks. Locals lined up to put a few thousand kip in the bowl and pick a stick. On the stick - a number correlating with a piece of paper which was then handed to them by one of the monks. I got 21. In the words of my workmate who so kindly translated my little scrap of paper: "This one meaning is that the people who hate you now love you and also you will have a son or a daughter”.