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Luke Melia

1/29/02, 1:45 am

Saw some old friends from high school tonight at a concert at Mercury Lounge. Don’t think I’d seen Karen Sweeney in at least 8 years. Pretty crazy.

Seeing a young (not all that great) band perform inspired me to tab out the songs I’ve been working on. I’ve revised Show Me, and posted Too Busy Living (a travel song) and Do You Want To Be My Girl (a love song).

1/28/02, 8:44 am

After seeing Cabaret the other night, my grandma announced that she was hungry, so I, my grandmother, my mother and my sister Jessica ended up late night at the Veg-City Diner (6th Ave & 14th). Doing the late-night diner thing with three generations of my family and vegetarian food was sublime.

I had four friends over for dinner on Friday night — the first time I’ve done so in my nearly two years at my apartment. It was big enough, I found, and we looked at pictures from my trip (I’ll get them online, soon!). Later went to a party that was cool but a bit too crowded to be comfortable for me. Moby was there.

Yesterday, mom had a big dinner as a bon voyage for Jessica, who’s leaving to study for the semester in Bolivia. Monica wasn’t feeling well, but everyone else was in good spirits, eating tons of tofu lasanga and other incredibly delicious food. I’m really excited for Jess and can’t wait to hear of the adventures she will have.

Caught up with Brad M. on the phone last night, and Ryan, who seemed to be doing pretty well post-break-up. Ahead: A new week of work. A chance for volleyball victory. More catching up with friends. Low-stress activities. I like it.

1/26/02, 4:04 am

Saw Cabaret tonight on Broadway. Good production, starred Molly Ringwald. Reminded me of how important it is to keep telling stories of the horror of the Nazis. We must never forget.

1/25/02, 1:22 am

Explanation of the duck pictures currently on display: Liz had me in our office secret santa exchange, and she got me a selection of travel gifts including the endearing rubber ducky. The ducky came with a note (ostensibly written by the duck, but I’m suspecting he had help) that said “I love to have my picture taken all around the world.” Southeast Asia ain’t a bad start!

The only New Year’s resolution I’ve identified so far is to exercise more. (Gimme a break, I was out of the country…) I’ve now got a strategy to go about that. My carrot is an iPod. My offer to myself: I get one in exchange for 100 workouts, marked off one by one on a nifty chart. I’m 2% there so far and highly motivated. I did think this morning, though, that my workouts would be much more enjoyable if I had the iPod already!

Meeta and I went for Japanese food tonight, and then went to see a documentary called “e-dreams”. It’s the Kozmo.com story… the rise and fall, boom and dot-com bust. We both found a lot to identify with and connect to our own our experiences. It made me think some of my failed software company (though thankfully I was playing with pennies compared to the millions Joe Park and Co. raised) and reflect on the the past few years. Looking at scenes as recent as eighteen months ago, it’s incredibly clear that the financial and business deals happening were ludicrous, and yet we had a collective suspension of disbelief as a society and believed that it was real.

I guess I’m settling back into New York living, and at this moment I’m really happy to be back. I’m a bit sad by the unsmiling, unengaging nature of many people in New York, but there are enough great people to make up for the miserable ones. And I really like my life… the people, it’s daily rhythm, music, food. I’m not without worries, hopes and goals, but I never will be; the sense of peace I seem to have brought back from my travels is wonderful.

Good night mist, good night moon.

1/24/02, 6 pm

Good new from Washington today. According to the NY Times article, “The advocates of overhauling the nation’s campaign finance law triumphed over the House Republican leadership today and gained enough support to force a House vote on legislation that would make the most wide-ranging change in the campaign law since the Watergate era.”

This is a topic I’ve written my representatives about and had a letter to the editor printed in Times a few months back. It’s taken a lot of clamoring of that sort to overcome special interests to even get a real debate and vote on this bill. And that, poetically, is proof of it’s necessity.

1/22/02, 1:20 AM

1/22/02, 1:20 AM

Back in New York. Jet lagged, happy, and more appreciative of hot, high-pressure showers than ever before.

Work begins tomorrow and volleyball the day after. Life is getting rolling again and though I’m sad that my adventure’s over, I guess I’m ready to roll.

One of the most interesting things from my trip, philosophically, is a conversation that Elbert and I had in Laos trying to make sense of the extraordinary kindness and generosity we were shown in our time there. I was expressing a wish that I could bring the same generosity and sense of community to my life in New York. One of us (can’t remember who) said this:

“In Laos, people trust each other by default. In New York, people distrust each other by default.”

You mainly notice it with strangers, because you know enough about friends to have a more informed opinion. A British guy who runs an eco-tourism company in Laos noted the campaign in many countries to get kids to not talk to strangers. He called it short-sighted, noting that it’s quite contrary to the older adage, “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.”

I guess I’ll talk it over with my friends. And maybe with some strangers…

1/14/02, 5:00 PM, Phuket, Thailand

1/14/02, 5:00 PM, Phuket, Thailand

Last one to the travelogue list for this trip:

To my dear friends and vicarious travelers,

I made it to Thailand to meet Elbert and within 15 minutes of his arrival at Bangkok’s beautiful Shanti Lodge, we’d decided to go explore Laos some more, and we had our plans organized a few hours later. We’re now back in Thailand, on the resort island of Phuket, where we spent yesterday on an empty beach and catching up with Patti’s friend Scott and are planning a trip to explore some submerged caves by sea canoe and do a bit of scuba diving (Elbert) and snorkeling (me).

I’m feeling a little homesick around now, but not enough to keep me from enjoying every day and every moment here.

Here are some bits and pieces from the journey:

+ Movies in Style in Bangkok

We had a bit of time in Bangkok, though, and so after spending the a day on foot, we decided to catch a movie.

We caught a cab over to Siam Center, a big mall with a movie theater on the top floor (a common arrangement in Asia — I saw “Lord of the Rings” in Singapore in a mall with a similar configuration). They sure do malls well here — creative architecture, great use of light and plants, and an impressive lineup of stores make for a very modern, hip feel. We saw lots of hip Bangkok teens in high fashion and funky hair hanging out at the mall that night.

We purchased two Gold Class tickets for “Ocean’s 11” for 300 baht each (US$7.50) and got a bite to eat before the flick. I had pad thai from a fast food joint at the mall called Rider. Their slogan is “Good Guys Eat Noodles”. :-)

Once it was time for the movie we showed our tickets and were ushered along a red carpet where a pair or translucent doors automatically slid open as we passed through into a plush bar/lounge area. We proceeded to the theater and were guided to our seats. I sat down in disbelief in a plush red velvet lazy boy that had a full recline mode. A table sat between my chair and Elbert’s and a waiter in black and white was on hand to take our snack/drink order before the movie started. The screen was as large as any theater in NYC I’ve been to recently. There were 25-30 seats in the whole place and the audience was split between tourists and locals.

After previews and before the feature presentation, we rose to sing a song (well, listen in our case) honoring the king of Thailand. Then I kicked off my Tevas, curled up in my chair and enjoyed the movie, ignoring the Thai language subtitles.

It almost made “Ocean’s 11” seem like a really good film!

+ Up in the Hills of Laos

In northern Laos, there’s a small town called Nom Kiaw. It’s on Route 13, the best road in the country, so it’s easy to get to. We got there via song-thaew (literal translation: two benches, for the two benches that passengers sit on in the back of the covered, converted pickup truck. It’s a beautiful spot, and we snapped a few pics that inevitably won’t do it justice before boarding a river boat. We took the boat about an hour up the Nam Ou to the tiny village of Muang Ngoi that has become a stop on many backpacker’s itineraries for it’s natural beauty and remoteness. A generator runs in the evening until 9 PM there to provide some light for bedtime preparations, but otherwise, there’s no electricity here and forget about phone lines or cell phones.

Wandering through the tiny town on our second day there, we met a high school teacher named Kong Keo roasting some fish with his family outside his home. He works as a trekking guide in addition to teaching and we arranged with him to do an overnight trip into the mountains near Muang Ngoi to a few hilltribe villages there. (As we arranged the details, a 4-year-old bounced down the street hugging in his arms a surprisingly docile chicken!)

The hill tribes are indentified as a separate ethnic group in Laos because they live in different types of houses and tend to be animists as opposed to Buddhists. Animism remains part of many Buddhist Laotian’s lives, actually. Kong Keo told us that when one of his children is sick, his wife wants to kill a chicken to cure the sickness. He counsels against it, suggesting instead that they sell the chicken and use the money to take the kid to the hospital.

Anyway, the next morning we hiked out through rice paddies and crossed streams in our sandals and stopped for lunch at the first village after about three hours. I drank a bit of lao-lao (homemade rice whiskey) with the men of the village and then Elbert, the Canadian couple we invited along, and I entertained the local kids with a combination of origami, language, mime and paper airplanes. The kids were wonderful in all of Laos, but especially in these villages. They were universally tickled by seeing themselves and them friends on the LCD of my digital camera, and many hung around and watched as we ate our lunch of fried fish, sour mixed vegetables, omelette, a spicy chili sauce for dipping, and sticky rice.

After lunch, we crossed two more streams and then swapped our sandals for boots and started to climb. After about three hours of hiking, some tough, we reached the second village, where we spent the night.

In keeping with our practice of sampling of the local drink, we took Kong Keo’s suggestion and asked for a jar of lao hai It’s an alcoholic drink made of sticky rice and something else that we weren’t able to indentify, served in a large earthenware jar and sipped through a long bamboo straw. Lao hai has a distinct fermetnted taste and a bit of sweetness.

After a bit of that, I walked through the village, amidst the chickens, pigs, and dogs. The roosters chased hens, the pigs hung out in the shade and the dogs slept in the embers of last nights cooking fires. I watched a woman pounding rice with a large lever contraption and then came across the kids. Initially scared of me but curious, the digital camera technique won them over and soon they were eagerly teaching me their language. I would mime something and they told me the word and cracked up when I put together a short story of mime and words based on running, walking, eating, drinking, and crying.

Over dinner, we asked Kong Keo questions about the village’s operations and customs. Women eat after men. The village is led by a chief. The chief’s appoval is required for someone to move into the village. Crime is uncommon, but if someone is caught stealing, first offense is a warning, second is a fine and/or community service, and third is exile from the village. There was a conversation about the village wanting to save up and buy a generator and music system. They wanted to know from Kong Keo if a guesthouse could fund the expense. Doubtful, we decided after running the numbers, and if it could, Elbert pointed out, it would ironically lessen the village’s tourist appeal.

We slept early that night in the home of a village family under a big mosquito net. The house, like all in this village was made of about 90% bamboo/10% of wood. New York City morning street noise has nothing on the sounds of a hilltribe village at dawn. Rooster’s cock-a-doodling, pigs oinking, dogs barking, kids shouting and the rhythmic pounding of rice.

In the morning, I went to woods ouside the village to go to the bathroom and heard the sounds of someone following me. Some kids? Elbert? I turned and saw a big ol’ pig. I ignored him, and he watched curiously but thankfully, left well enough alone.

There’s more to tell, but my fingers tire. Stories of Jing, the Hmong kid with the slingshot, and the founder of the third village, who smoked a bit of opium before offering us a mediocre (probably sounded good to him) musical performance on a bamboo-based wind instrument. But these and others will have to wait until another time. Phuket’s beaches call.

One more thing on my mind, though…

+ Asian Imagery

The imagery of Asia has always occupied a special place in my mind. Workers in the fields with pointed hats. Bamboo huts. Misty mountains. Gnarled bare trees peeking out above a mountain landscape.

In my life, they’ve been implanted in my head in a variety of ways. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, designs on tea cups, photographs from the Vietnam War and movies depicting that period.

To see the reality of it as I traveled through rural Laos was somehow a completion of feelings and thoughts I didn’t know were unresolved. A bit esoteric, I know, but I figured I’d mention it in case you can relate. A big piece of the beauty of the area comes from the way man-made phenomena and the natural landscape interact. Rice paddies grow bright green in a terraced landscape against a dark green mountain behind it that rises into a white mist in the morning. Open-sided bamboo huts, built for naps and lunches in the shade on hot afternoons dot the paddies and rice farmers work as other folks walk the tiny raised path separating field from field balancing today’s wares across their shoulders on their way to market

It really is beautiful to look at. And to become a part of the scene rather than a passive viewer through a media or artistic interpretation… that’s sublime.

+ Sawat dee khap

That’s hello and goodbye in Thai, and appropriate, because this is probably the last installment of this travelogue for this trip. I return to New York in 5 days, and to work the day after. BTW, I disconneted my cell phone before I left, so I’ll have a new number sometime in the next few weeks.

Until I return, may the road rise to meet you and the wind be always at your back!


1/2/02, 2:00 PM, Vientiane, Laos

1/2/02, 2:00 PM, Vientiane, Laos

From my travelogue list:

Dear friends,

I’m head over heels for this country. It’s beauty, people, food, landscapes, textiles, and customs are amazing. I know I’m being dramatic, but I don’t know how else to communicate what it’s like traveling here.

Actually, maybe there is a good way. Here’s a story… (warning: it’s long. you may want to print and read)

+ New Year’s Eve in Laos

January 1st is known as International New Year’s Day in Laos. It’s celebrated, but it’s not the big deal that it is in the western world. I wasn’t too bent on doing anything special. I’d made some friends among the staff at the guesthouse (a guitar is great for that!), one in particular, a university student named Sombath studying English at Lao’s National University. I hung out with him and his friends that previous day (that story is better told over a beer on my return), and he invited me out to some parties with him that night.

So I spent that day wandering around Vientiane, looking at some Buddhist temples and taking in the vibe. Everywhere I’ve been in Laos, people smile at me and greet me with “Sabaidy”, the Lao greeting, usually accopanied by palms pressed together at the chest, that functions as “hello”, “good morning”, “good afternoon”, “”how are you?”, and “i’m fine”,,, Children are especially apt to greet a foreigner this way are are gleeful when you reply in kind.

This gorgeous day was no exception, and I was in a good mood as I sat to rest my legs at a stone bench under a tree by the Mekong River. The Mekong separates Laos from Thailand and has dramatically different levels in the rainy season and the dry season. Currently (dry season), it’s planted with crops in the dried out parts of the river.

As I sat on the bench, an older gentleman on a bicycle stopped to ask me where I was from. He’s a doctor here in Vientiane and was glad to chat for a few minutes in broken English but disappointed I didn’t know good enough French to communicate. Like many older, educate Lao men, he spoke French well as a result of Lao’s colonial history.

Not long after that, a young man named Leum pulled up on his bike, leaned it against a tree and struck up a conversation with me in decent (for Laos) English. He’s a 20-year old student studying English on his own time. He had a Lao-English dictionary with him to help him through snags in the conversation and had come out that day expressly to practice his English. I offered him the seat next to me and we talked for a while, breaking only for him to buy us a snack of a some type of white root vegetable less bitter than radish that everybody peels and eats for snack here. He was curious like many people I’ve met here, about the WTC attack, and expressed his sympathy for me and my country.

After a while, he gave me some pointers on the surrounding areas and I walked around some more, had some lunch (noodle soop), and went back to the guesthouse to take a quick nap before meeting Sombath. He knocked after short but helpful nap. I went downstairs, chatted with the staff and other travellers, and then hopped on the back of Sombath’s motorbike.

The next few hours consisted of trying (mostly without success) to round up friends and party details. Nobody has cell phones here and few people have landlines. Socializing and planning is consequently much more diffcult. The general strategy is this: stop by on your bike and invite someone out, go run an errand or invite someone else while they get ready, go back and pick them up. Not efficient, but sufficiently interesting for me.

We stopped by the dormitory for female medical students where his girlfriend stays. (As a side note, gender relations and equity seem to be quite good here, from a superfical perspective at least). She had some bones to pick with him, though, so that didn’t go too well. Other friends had left already and plans weren’t looking good. We were hungry so we went for dinner.

We pulled up on a side street that sported about a dozen food vendors with carts on wheels and bought, from various stalls, some sticky rice (wrapped in banana leaf), a mixed salad of cooked greens, a cold noodle salad, and a roasted and salted fish, whole on a stick. Each purchase went into the basket on the front of Sombath’s bike and when we were through, we went back to the guest to eat. The total cost came to about 15,000 kip, or about US$1.60. We shared it and it was delicious. Both are standard here.

There were some issues about the possibility of Sombath needing to work at the guesthouse that night to fill in for another employee (who is also the boss’s son). Needless to say, my friend wasn’t too pleased by this prospect, but in the course of the night, we stopped at a few places to call in and confirm that he didn’t have to go in.

Back on the bike, the night wind and dust cool on my face we headed to the first party and noticed along the way that the streetlights were out. Indeed, all the power seemed to be out. People sat in houses and shops with candles and things were a bit quieter than usual in Vientiane. Noticeably missing was loud Lao music playing somewhere nearby. (People listen almost exclusively to Lao and Thai music here.) Only the din of traffic and chatter continued unabated.

Our destination was a dirt courtyard with a few dozen people hanging around, in the dark. We stopped for a while as Sombath and a friend attempted to chat up some your Lao women. During this, the power came back on, to the great delight of everyone and the squeals of children. The flirting was predictably unsuccessful (even I could tell they weren’t interested and I speak about 10 words of Lao) and we soon were back on the bike.

We stopped for a beer at place that had several stone tables outside and Lao karaoke VCDs playing. I should explain the Lao style of beer drinking, although it works better in a group larger than two. There’s one glass and a large bottle (or several) of Beerlao, Laos’ domestic brew and, by far, it’s leading brand. The first person poors themself a bit of beer and raises his glass to his companions, getting their attention and often a gentle nod of the head. He finishes the glass and poors each person a bit of beer in turn. You can’t refuse the first round, and you’ll have trouble refusing later one’s too, though it’s acceptable. After the glass goes round, the next person pours. It’s a great way to drink, though it has the obvious drawback that people with various tolerances are forced drink roughly the same amount.

Afterwards, we were back on the bike (I know, I know, not the brightest move in the world, but par for the course here and I was thankfully safe on the road), stopped a few other places including a men’s dorm (think 20 cots in one room…) before heading for what was to be the most interesting destination of the evening.

It was the birthday party for Sombath’s friend Tho. I knew that he was the son of a Brigade Leader in the Lao Military, so I suspected his family was fairly well to do. We had some trouble finding the place and were about to go back to the main road and count dirt lanes to find the third from the opposite end as the way we’d come in when we tried a smaller dirt path of the lane and saw a house with lots of motorbikes parked outside. Western music floated out the window and I saw party decorations in dim light through the window.

We were warmly greeted at the door and inside I saw a few low tables, but together in an L-shape. They were spread with various Lao dishes including papaya salad, rice and meat. Around them, in ornately-carved high-backed chairs and benches that had a throne-like quality to them, sat about two dozen twenty-something Lao men and women.

We removed our shoes, and were immediately absorbed into the party. It was a well-educated crowd and many spoke a bit of English. I met a woman who planned to study in Los Angeles, and man from Myanmar studying in Laos for a five years, and the birthday boy, who was very gracious and happy to have me there. On one wall, stencil english letters spelled out “HAPPY NEW YAER” and lights wrapped around colored streams provided all the light in the room.

For such a large group, the Lao style of drinking I described above had to be modified somewhat. At any given time there were two or three pourers and they stood and circulated around the room. I took my turn to pour, which was a lot of fun. Amidst a debate between friend over whether one would drink the beer I offered despite already being quite drunk, the glass broke. The lights came on and the beer was swiftly cleaned up and broken glass carefully retrieved from the floor by barefoot partyers. A new glass was in my hand in minutes and the party continued.

It later gave way to dancing and a few trips to the bathroom, where a pair of communal flip flops were happily donned to keep my feet off the wet floor of the standard asian squat-toilet-and-the-room-is-shower-stall bathroom. Throughout the party, I felt incredibly welcome and cared for.

Midnight passed without notice and when I headed home with Sombath at around 1:30, we noted that it was now 2002 and wished each other a Happy New Year.

+Odds and Ends

I’m now back in Vientiane after a trip to Vang Vieng, which you may have seen profiled in the NY Times recently. Oxygen folk, the newspaper photo above my desk is from there. It was great. I played takraw, a game sort of like volleyball but with your feet with some village kids, who were impressed with my abilities (who’d of thunk that all that hackeysack and volleyball experience would come in handy in Laos?). I kayaked (for my first time!) down the Nam Song and explored two caves where I had to wade through cool underground water up to my neck to get through.

I head tonight by night bus to Bangkok, Thailand, where I’ll meet up with Elbert and go off to who knows where. Our plan was to go north to Chang Mai, Thailand, but I’m itching to explore Laos some more, or maybe head up into Myanmar.

+ “Too Busy Living”

Now that I have a guitar, I was able to capture the difficult time I have keeping a journal here in a song. Guitar players can give it a shot and let me know what you think…

(I lost my pick, so this is written to be played with a simple finger-picking pattern ;-) )

[E]I try to make notes
I [D]want to recall
My [E]friends, lovers, places
I [D]cherish them all


Got to [E]remember these sights
[D]remember those sounds
but I’m [D]too busy living
to [A]write it all down
Yes, I’m [A]too busy living
to [E]write it all down

[E]Smiles from children
and [D]how-do-you-do’s
in [E]all different languages
to [D]all different tunes

repeat CHORUS

Bridge (instrumental): [G] [D] [D] [G] [A] [E]

[E]Smiles in Singapore
[D]Laughter in Laos
[E]Dinner in New York
At my [D]grandmother’s house

repeat CHORUS

end with [D] [A] [E]

+ On to Thailand

As the song above suggests, I can’t even write down everything I’m experiencing myself, much less do it justice in email. I hope that what I can send back is enjoyable for you, though, and provides a bit of a window into another culture. Let me know what youthink!

More from another spot in a bit. Hope all is well with you and yours!

Healthily and happily in Laos,

LukeMelia.com created 1999. ··· Luke Melia created 1976. ··· Live With Passion!
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