Friday, January 22, 2010

Getting Ready

Strange happenings recently are apparently not limited to Massachusetts, there have been strange events here in Isaan. Despite this being the dry season, we have had rain for the past two days. The rain has been like a gentle shower but has lasted for several hours each day. I guess that it just goes to show that weather much like politics can not be counted on or taken for granted. What has always happened in the past will not necessary will be what will always be in the future.

There has been a two day celebration in a village near Tahsang Village marking seven years since the death of one of Duang's friend's mother. Typically the celebration, merit making, is held one year after the death but in this case the family is poor and had to have additional time to save up the money. One of the daughters has recently married a falang, so funds are now available. There are also close ties between the villagers of Tahsang and the family of the deceased.

Someone was needed to transport the Tahsang Villagers back and forth to the celebration. Since Duang told the people that I would not be attending, the family decided to pay Duang's son gas money for the two days. Each trip out to Tahsang Village costs $10 and $10 back. Since I am a falang, many people assume or believe that I can afford to run back and forth to help them without compensation.

Duang and I have fairly well convinced people that we are not a bank readily and willingly capable of loaning them money. We are now working on convincing them that we are not operating a free transportation service.

Yesterday, I obtained the Owner's Manual for the Toyota truck that we picked up in October. It was a condition for buying the vehicle back in July. We had been following up on it since October and yesterday it was finally available. I can't complain though - I imagine that it was a great deal easier as well as quicker to obtain an English language Owner's manual in Thailand than to get a Thai language manual in the United States.

We leave for Laos the day after tomorrow so I have been using this time to prepare the cameras for our trip, to pack my bag, gather travel documents and complete the research for the trip.

Friday, January 15, 2010

200th Post - Elementary School Program

This is the 200th post of Allen's World - I guess some sort of a milestone.

Last night we had a late night returning home from Tahsang Village after midnight.

I am not sure what we did but we enjoyed ourselves immensely. It is not that I drank too much and can not remember the night. It was the event that we attended and participated in was unlike anything I have attended before. I will try to describe it as best as I can and give my interpretation of the events.

My wife had told me that a teacher at the Tahsang Village was leaving to teach at another village school. There was going to be a party to wish him good luck. It all sounded simple enough and not anything all that special.

As the day wore on she gave me a better idea of what the evening's activities would be. There was going to be another parade where the students would walk from Tahsang Village to the Elementary School. People were going to eat dinner at the school. Last year we had attended a fund raiser at the school so I thought that I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Later in the afternoon, Duang's son stopped by to take Duang to the Chinese wholesale store to buy 3 cases 1.25 liter bottles of soda for the school children. He bought two huge (2 foot diameter by 5 foot long) bags of snack food for the children.

I was involved in a long conversation to Korea over the phone, so we were unable to head out to Tahsang until 6:00 PM thereby missing out on the "parade". We arrived at the school and it was very apparent that the evening would be different for sure.

The front of the school was filled with all types of tents of various construction. Some tents were typical nylon camping tents that you buy at sporting goods stores. Some tents were made out of tarps placed over sticks that had been driven into the ground to form loops. Some tents were very similar to tepees.

About 300 children were running around playing tag, muay thai boxing, and in general having a great time. In the center of the field was a large pyramid of wood awaiting to be lit to create a bonfire. There were several of the pavilions that are used to provide shelter at celebrations. Amongst the encampment, at least 8 village dogs were running about.

We parked the truck to offload the supplies and were greeted by one of the teachers. She arranged for help to offload the truck and wanted our names. She needed our names so that the man at the PA system could announce our donation and give us proper credit. It seems that in Isaan there is no such thing as an anonymous donation.

After offloading the truck we went to a covered area where people were being served food that was being prepared and cooked by mothers of some of the students. As I looked around I started getting a better idea of what was going on. Some of the adults were wearing portions of Boy Scout uniforms. Because the people are not wealthy, there was only one man who had a complete uniform. Two women wore US Marine Corps Drill Instructor style hats and several had only a Boy Scout bandanna around their neck to indicate their affiliation.

This appeared to be a sort of Boy Scout Jamboree except that the number of girls far exceeded the number of boys. Again, because the children are poor, for those that had a uniform, their uniform consisted solely of a bandanna around their neck. I questioned Duang about what was going on and she indicated that this was like a party for the end of the year and beginning of a new year. Nine village schools were participating in the camp out. On Saturday the students were going to pack up and hike to a different village school to camp out. Friday night, Tahsang Village was hosting the group and was responsible for feeding the masses and running the program.

Before we even took our seats to eat, I was given a glass of whiskey and soda. I shared it with Duang and she was eventually given her own glass. It seems that all social functions here, there is drinking. Duang introduced me to many of the men at the table. No women other than Duang were seated at the table. The women had apparently eaten earlier and were occupied serving the men. Duang and I sort of bridge typical Isaan customs at these events. Men and women typically sit apart from each other including merit making rituals at the Wat. However since I am clueless most of the time as to what is going on, I sit with Duang so that she can explain to me. Our seemingly breaches of etiquette are tolerated and apparently accepted. However I don't think that we will be influencing Isaan Lao Loum customs any time soon.

After finishing our meal, we were directed to the area in front of the pavilion where the announcer and PA equipment were located. A row of stuffed sofas and chairs along with a cocktail table were situated at the edge of the field. Behind the stuffed furniture was a row of plastic chairs where we were directed to sit. This arrangement is typical at Isaan events. Monks, dignitaries and government officials sit in the front rows on stuffed furniture. No Monks attended the festivities. The front row was comprised of each village's "Headman" and some dignitaries from the District. When the dignitaries were seated, a woman brought them glasses of beer and whiskey. Seated behind them, Duang and I were given glasses of cola.

The Master of Ceremonies commenced his address when there was huge commotion to the side of the public address system. The lights flicked and went out . The sound system went dead. The air was filled with cries, growls and flying dirt. One of the 8 village dogs had tried to get up very close and extremely personal with one of the dogs, she vehemently objected as well as a couple of the other male dogs. During their battle, the extension cord supplying electricity to the pavilion was dislodged. Order and electricity were eventually restored although the dogs continued to have their "differences" the rest of the night - a little bit of unplanned and unexpected entertainment.

The planned entertainment commenced with a fire lighting ceremony. Some girls came out in costumes along with headdresses and danced around the wood pyre in a skipping type dance in accompaniment to conga drum beats as well as chanting my the "Boy Scout" adults. Their outfits were brown sacks that had been decorated with day glow paint. Four black lights had been mounted on bamboo poles around the pyre. Their headdress was a day glow head band with a cardboard day glow feather over each ear. I was not certain if the girls represented some Lao Loum deity, Animist spirits, or Thai mythological figures. When they and the adults gave out war whoops a la 1950's television and movies that I realized that they were "Indian" maidens. After the maidens had taken their position, a "warrior" arrived. He appeared to be more of an Inca or Mayan warrior and unfortunately he was very overweight. He skipped danced around the maidens three times. On one of the passes in front of us, a man called out to him in Lao "You are too fat. You eat too much pig!"- talk about a tough crowd! Undeterred the boy trooped on. He came before the District Leader, a man with respect and deference that I am sure that President Obama wished that he had,an received a lit torch. The warrior chief then danced to bring a torch to each of the 4 maidens located at the cardinal compass points of the pyre. Once all the torches were delivered the wood pyre was ignited with the torches. As the pyre leaped into flames, fireworks were shot into sky. A total of 7 fireworks were shot into the sky exploding into colorful bursts with powerful booms. While the fireworks were shooting into the sky, some of the maidens had long tubes that were shooting roman candles over the fire.

The students, assembled around the field, watched in amazement and excitement along with their parents as well as younger siblings. This was a family as well as community event. Everyone was in good spirits - some adults in more "spirits" than others.

One of the leaders moved his chair and ended up inadvertently placing it upon my empty glass. I spoke to him in Thai to wait a minute and removed the glass from underneath his chair. The next thing that I knew was that he wanted me to sit in the stuffed chair next to his. I sat down, and a woman brought me a glass of beer - Yes rank has it's privileges. But there is no such thing as a free lunch or glass of beer. Some young girls came out and danced around the fire bearing offerings for the dignitaries. One girl presented a trophy that would be awarded to the school that was judged to have had the best spirit. Another girl presented a watermelon that had some bamboo sticks with papers stuck on them. Other girls had fresh leis made out of banana blossoms. The dignitaries placed the floral arrangements around their necks. I was given two of the leis to wear. But as Duang so often tells me "This is Thailand, not same as America" - I could not fit the leis over my large head! After consultation with Duang and the dignitaries, it was determined that I should wear one lei on my head like a crown and one wrapped around my left wrist.

I mentioned that there is no such thing as a free lunch or glass of beer. After receiving the leis, the dignitaries and I had to dance with the girls around the fire. Fortunately I am familiar and comfortable with dancing Lao style. The crowd was also kinder to me than the previous warrior chief. It was great fun and upon returning to our seats, the District Leader poured and sent me a shot of whiskey. Rank has it's privileges - especially in Isaan. I was offered more liquor but since I was driving I did not accept the kind invitations.

There was a full night of entertainment and activities. The children enthusiastically participated in round singing, cheering competitions, and exercises. Each school presented a skit. As best as I can determine the skits were reinforcing social behaviors such as not smoking, patriotism, not let your dogs attack people's ducks, etc. Two of the schools had their girls perform Go-Go or MTV video type dance routines. It appears the the Isaan pipeline of dancers to Bangkok and Pattaya will be kept functioning well in the future. Prior to and after presenting their skit, the groups lined up in front of the dignitaries and gave them a three fingered salute which was returned by the District Leader. It appeared to me that the entire event is designed to reinforce and encourage community values as well as expectations with the students.

Tahsang Village school was the most comical to watch last night. They were "naughty boys". A couple of the younger brothers who do not attend school, sat with their older siblings. They were not bashful at all - dancing any and every time there was a beat in the air. Many times their dancing disintegrated into "kick boxing". It was very entertaining especially knowing that they were not your children or going home with you.

The program ended around 11:30 PM with the students going to their tents to sleep. Some teachers and two security guards remained to watch over the children. Naturally the dogs remained trying to do what they had been trying to do all night long. No seemed to mind.

We were invited to stay longer while a pig was roasted over the fire that had been used in the festivities. The Tahsang Village Headman set up his computer with a small amplifier for karaoke. A couple of the teachers sang Isaan songs. They were excellent singers and pleasant to listen to.

It was getting late so after eating some fresh grilled pig intestines, we left for the one hour drive back to Udonthani.

I am not certain what it was all about. I am not sure that I understood what was going on. I know that we had enjoyed another unique Isaan experience.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Isaan Silk

Sunday, January 10th, we drove approximately 150 miles south east to Baan Chat Yai Village in Maha Sarakham Province. The primary reason that we went to the village was to participate in the Anniversary Death Celebration for the mother of one of Duang's friends. The woman had died while we were in Vietnam so Duang could not attend the funeral.

As I had written in two previous blog entries, after a person has died, there is a big merit making event, essentially a party, to assist the deceased to earn a better status when they are reincarnated. For many Isaan families the celebration is held one to three years after the death when the family has saved up enough money for the event.

Duang's friend was staging a three day event, we were there for the second day. Since the deceased woman had social ties and perhaps family ties to Tahsang Village, we stopped in Tahsang Village to pick up 11 relatives to take to the celebration. We ended up driving along the roads looking like a typical Isaan vehicle - 4 people in the back seat and 7 in the pickup bed along with bags of rice, sahts, and mohns. Rice, sahts (hand made woven reed mats), and mohns (colorful intricately decorated covered rectangular pillows)are offered along with money to earn merit for the deceased as well as the donors.

We got up at 5:00 A. M. to get to Tahsang Village by 6:00 A.M.. We actually arrived at 6:15 A.M. but in Isaan that is considered to be early. We arrived in Baan Chat Yai at 9:30 A.M. Upon arrival we made the rounds of other guests and were introduced to everyone. It was a happy reunion for all the people. We were immediately seated at three of the many tables and served beer and soft drinks. As is customary when guests arrive in Isaan, we were fed sticky rice, and several plates of ethnic food. Many women were in the backyard under tarps cooking the food over several charcoal and propane gas fires. Several women were busy washing pots, pans, and bowls. Young women were busy serving the guests. Everyone seemed to know their duties and responsibilities. The whole process was very well organized.

In the middle of the street in front of the house, a very long pavilion had been erected. The pavilion was the site where the Monks would be fed and the formal merit making ceremony would be conducted. Fourteen Monks were served a meal. Four of the Monks were grandsons and nephews. Just as when she died, some male relatives, shaved their heads, shaved their eyebrows, and became Monks for the three day event. I was lead to believe that the number of Monks had to not be divisible by two but Duang assures me that 14 was not a problem.

Prior to the start of the ceremony at 11:00 P.M., Duang's friend gave me two beautiful "par mai". I had been given two pakamas (phaa khao maa)by Duang's family when we were married. The pakama were made out of cotton and are part of the Lao Loum identity. On Sunday I was given two "par mai" that had been hand woven in Baan Chat Yai, one of the many villages in Isaan where the tradition of silk hand weaving is maintained. "Par mai" are silk pakamas. The par mai that were tied around my waist were about two meters long by 3/4 meter wide. They had a red stripe motif on each end with the remainder of the fabric being a series of richly colored plaids. Many of the men at the ceremony had similar garments. This was not the end of our welcome and acceptance into this village.

Duang's friend then led us to the main pavilion where many people had assembled and were sitting on sahts awaiting the start of the formal ceremony. The people, mostly women, wanted to wish Duang and me "Good Luck" and "Good Fortune" and "Happiness". Duang and I went from group to group of the people and knelt before them. I extended my right hand to them. In a sort of baii sii ceremony, the people tied a piece white butcher's string around my wrist while chanting. As part of the string tying ritual, a knot was tied in the middle of the string and rolled along the inner wrist. Duang extended her left hand and the process was repeated for her. At the conclusion of our visits, we each had 48 strings around our wrist. The origins of this ritual go back to Animist beliefs that there are 32 necessary good spirits that dwell inside of us. These spirits are necessary to maintain our physical, as well as spiritual well being. The purpose of tying the strings around the wrist is to bind the spirits inside of us to prevent their escape. The ritual is also a manifestation of a community's acceptance and goodwill for a person.

The Monks were fed and went back to their Wat in the village except for three senior Monks. These Monks were seated in intricately carved, guilded and jeweled thrones. Each Monk had a microphone and took turns in speaking or chanting. This was the start of a 5 hour ritual. The Monks spoke about virtues, life, and death. They reminded young people of their duty and responsibility to care for their Mother and Father.

After one hour, I was getting sore legs so Duang and I got up for a walk around the village. Another of Duang's friends from the village invited us to her home. As we all walked towards her home, we came upon a lot filled with many bare spindly trees or more like bushes. There were a couple dried up leaves remaining on one bush. I thought that I recognized them as mulberry bushes which are used in silk production. Duang confirmed my suspicion.

Her friend's home was more of a family compound. Several family members live on the grounds with out buildings for storing rice, sheltering animals, working on equipment and weaving silk cloth. This was a teat that I had not anticipated.

We stopped at a covered work area where there was a raised platform with sahts on top of it - typical throughout Isaan for having one's outside meals on, a place to socialize with family or neighbors, a place to nap, and a place to care for children up and above the chickens and dogs. To the side of the platform was a large rustic loom for weaving silk. The loom was very rustic. It was constructed of heavy rough hewn lumber, a piece of PVC pipe, ordinary hemp rope, bamboo and sticks. The only piece of the loom that appeared to be manufactured was the blue plastic shuttle atop the piece of completed fabric on the loom. Two pedals for weaving the fabric had been fashioned out of two sticks attached to the loom with fabric. Long skeins of silk thread were draped over the top of the loom.

Silk thread had been set up on the loom to form the foundation for weaving a piece of fabric about three meters long - I have no idea how much thread had been used for that purpose but I am certain that it is an impressive length. I was told that all the silk had been grown and processed in the village. The small plot that we passed on the way to the compound was only one of several plots were mulberry bushes are cultivated as food for the silk worms.

At the family one of the sisters came out to show us how the silk thread is woven to create fabric. When she realized that I was going to photograph the demonstration, she excused herself. She returned wearing a very pretty silk blouse that had been made for her. She wanted to look her best for the photo. On the loom was a section of completed fabric. Many villages in Isaan have their own distinctive patterns for the fabrics that they weave. The patterns are kept inside of the weaver's head. There are no cards, computer sheets, or specification sheets documenting the sequence or steps to produce the desired design. It is beyond my ability to contemplate the process - threads lifted, threads run across, threads dropped, different colored threads at different times - I am glad that I was an engineer and not a home weaver!

The weaver sat on a simple bench with the obligatory radio next to her. Most of the time Lao Loum people have Mahlam Morlam music or Lao music blaring as they toil away. I have witnessed a young man spreading fertilizer by hand on newly planted sugar cane with a large and loud portable radio slung over his shoulder with a piece of rope. I witnessed farmers gathering sheaves of harvested rice listening to Isaan music until they backed the farm wagon over the radio.

After the weaving demonstration, my attention was diverted to another piece of handmade equipment. This device was a sort of spinning wheel. Rather than the pieces of art that were made out of fine woods such as maple back in New England which are now collector's items, this device was made out of rough lumber and a bicycle wheel. I continue to be amazed at the Lao Loum penchant to utilize whatever is available and to recycle. The other part of the spinning wheel assembly was a sort of drying rack constructed of bamboo strips and string. A skein of multi colored silk thread was placed over the rack creating large loops that seemed like leopard skin patterned fabric.

The bicycle wheel was turned by a hand crank to take the large loops of colored silk and spin them into thread on a bobbin to be used on the loom. Each woman, including Duang, had their turn at the device so that their picture could be taken. It was a fun time. One of the family dogs remained oblivious to his surroundings and continued his afternoon lounging.

The leopard skin pattern on the silk threads had been created by tie dying the silk in a process called "Mudmee". In mudmee process the silk strands are alternately tied and dyed to create the pattern that becomes apparent once the fabric is woven on the loom. It is quite ingenious and much sought after by collectors. I hope to see the mudmee process on a future visit to an Isaan weaving village. There are some villages near Udonthani so perhaps we can avoid another three hour drive to the south.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Photo Gallery Available for Viewing

I have finally finished reviewing and editing the 629 photographs taken on 30 December 2009 documenting the Elementary School Field Day and the Lao Loum Funeral Rituals.

Despite four frustrating days of limited Internet access here in Udonthani, blogs on the two events have been written and posted.

Today was spent grocery shopping. We ended up going to three different stores to complete our grocery list of common foodstuffs such as Cheddar Cheese, Sunflower Cooking Oil, Turkey Breast. It is something that you get used to - eventually. You also learn that if you see some foreign food item, i.e. "Grapenuts" that you know that you will need in the future but not necessarily now - you buy it now. I have waited a month to buy Grapenuts. I have waited 6 weeks now to buy Carrefour's apricot desserts.

We had a surprise today too. In preparing for our upcoming trip to Laos, I had asked Duang about my reporting date to Thai Immigration. Every 90 days, foreigners in Thailand must report to Immigration Police their address and telephone number. Usually when you report, the Police put a paper in your passport with the next date listed in English when you must report. The last time we had used the office at the airport in Udonthani which was in the process of opening for business. My paper had a date in Thai for my next reporting. I asked Duang last week when I had to report and she told me "After Songkran (Thai New Year)" Today I asked her again and pressed the point to discover January 2nd! She had used the term Songkran to mean "New Years - Western New Years"! Fortunately the airport is only 10 minutes from our home so we drove over to resolve the issue. Duang explained the situation and the official said that there was no problem. I filled out the form and got a new paper stapled in my passport with the next reporting date stamped in English.

All in all another good day here in Isaan.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Elementary School Field Day - 30 December 2009

Last Wednesday we had planned on spending the entire day at the Elementary School Field Day, a sort of Olympics, just outside of Tahsang Village. We ended up watching and enjoying the first 4 hours of the 8 hour festival due to attending a funeral in the afternoon.

In Isaan as well as the rest of Thailand, student athletic competitions are held at the end of December to close out the old year. The competition is between the schools of the various villages with village pride as well as honor up for grabs.

In our travels back and forth between our home in Udonthani and the family back in Tahsang Village, we had seen many competitions being held at both elementary schools and high schools from December 25th to 30th December. We attended only the competitions involving the young children from Tahsang Village.

In Isaan, children as young as 3 and 4 years old can attend elementary school. They can attend a sort of nursery school run by the government at the public school if they pay 200 baht ($6.00 USD) each month. Older children do not have to pay to attend elementary school. The issue with them is their parents being able to afford to not having the children working in the fields to help support the family. Many children do not attend school beyond the 4th year or after they are 11 years old. The good news is even after only 4 years of school, they are able to read, write, and do simple mathematics. But I often think about the lost opportunities for so many of the children in not being able to get at least a high school education.

The inclusion of 3 and 4 year olds into the events with all their energy as well enthusiasm, despite distinct lack of skills, made the Field day very enjoyable. Two of my favorite events were the 3 and 4 year old boys and girls relay races. It was not so much the races themselves but the efforts and struggles to get the children set up for the races let alone getting them to understand that they could not start to run until their teammate had given them the baton. After a couple of false starts, both races were eventually completed much to the excitement of the participants. All the spectators enjoyed the events and had huge smiles on their face.

As best that I can figure out, the competitions that were held prior to Wednesday were for practice and making a statement leading up to the big event on December 30th.

We left Udonthani early and arrived at the school in Nongmakha Village. Nongmahka Village is about 4 KM from Tahsang Village. Their school is on the main farm road out of Kumphawapi and has a very large athletic field. Nine villages including Tahsang Village competed against each other. At about 8:00 A. M. there was a short parade where the competitors and many of their family members marched along the farm road to the school and onto the sports field.

Each village team in the parade was preceded by children carrying a banner or sign with the village’s name. Along with the sign bearers there was a majorette leading the school’s drum corps or band. Some schools had only drums and some schools had drums along with students playing keyboards that they powered with their breadth through a plastic tube. Typically the majorette was a no older than 14 year old girl who was dressed up and made up to look much older. The emphasis on beauty is very strong here in Isaan due to the belief as well as perception that a way out of the economic hardships for a young woman and her family is through her beauty. Her beauty and her ability to exploit her physical talents are considered keys to her opportunities to find work in the larger tourist-centric cities and perhaps to find a foreign husband. Typically the majorettes were girls, but this is Thailand, so there were a couple of majorettes that were actually Khatoeys (Ladyboys). There were no visible stigmas associated with a 14 year old boy dressed up and made-up as a girl or rather young woman. The Ladyboys seemed to be accepted well by their fellow classmates as well as the spectators.

Each village had some very young students dressed up in fancy outfits reflective of Siam royalty – little Princesses and Princes. They carried trophies that the village had won in previous year’s competitions or sports equipment to be used in this festival. They were very cute and you could not help but smile as they marched by. They were then followed by the village school team.

Each village team had their own distinctive outfit – essentially a soccer (football) uniform. The children marched in unison as if part of the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Along the parade route one of the little boys received a call of Nature, he broke out of formation, went to the side of the road and while oblivious to the other people around him, watered the weeds as his team marched on. Sufficiently relieved he ran, caught up with his team and fell back into formation. It was no big deal. Quite often, we see men alongside of the road, alongside their car or truck answering the call. Women are more discrete and hide in the bushes, cassava plants or sugar cane.

There were also a small contingent of well dressed beautiful young women that I originally thought were associated with the government but later found out that they were high school girls. They were the attendants that carried the gold, silver and bronze medals to be awarded for the various events. These young women were dressed in typical Lao Loum style clothing albeit the fabrics were much higher quality and cost than normally worn by the Lao Loum women of Isaan. The cut of the fitted jacket and lines of their sarong mirrored those often worn in the villages.

There is a unity across the classes, a sort of cultural Lao Loum identity, in Isaan for women with this commonality in clothing style. It is the quality of the fabrics and the number of outfits that provides the distinction between the "haves" and the "have nots".

The teams circled the competition field three times – once again the magic number of the Buddhist faith permeating everyday life and activities in Isaan. After circling the field, the participants formed up on the athletic field. Government officials reviewed the groups and evaluated them. Trophies were then awarded for the groups followed by a formal flag raising ceremony. Tahsang Village was awarded a trophy, much to the delight of the villagers, for the small children marching.

After the Thai flag and local flags were raised, a boy ran around the field with an Olympic style torch. He ran to the side of the field where a large monument had been erected out of scaffolding with an urn at the top. The monument had a large sign on it with 9 interlocking rings depicted on it representing each of the competing villages. As the boy ignited the “Olympic” flame, actually a large urn of charcoal, fireworks were fired into the sky. The little girls from Tahsang Village in their matching yellow dresses and white stockings were not thrilled with the fireworks! I have several pictures of them astonished, frightened, and covering their ears with their white lace gloves.

At one side of the field, each village had their separate decorated bleacher set up for their sport team. Dispersed among the bleachers were sahts on the ground where family member rested, ate and drank. This was definitely a family event complete with grandparents, aunts, uncles and young siblings. It was very festive with each village having their own portable sound system blaring away with Mahlam Lao, and Mahlam Sing music. The students danced and waved pom poms while seated.

At one end of the field, pushcarts and tables were stationed selling soft drinks and food. At some of the concrete tables used by students for lunches, men were drinking beer and Lao Kao brand of moonshine type whiskey.

Throughout the area toddlers, other than Mai’s 2 year old brother, were busy wandering around and playing. They played with balls, balloons, or chasing their older brothers and sisters. Mai’s brother is too young to go to school with her, but today he was thrilled to join the students in the bleachers. He was smiling and acting as if he belonged on the team. I could almost hear him saying, as Jon Fogerty sang “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play…” He never got to while we were there.

On the other side of the field pavilions were erected where dignitaries were seated on leather couches for the highest ranking officials and plastic chairs for lesser ranked bureaucrats. After completion of each event, a dignitary would go up to the awards podium on the field and award the medals with the assistance of the lovely high school young women. Homemade gold, silver and bronze medallions were awarded the successful athletes. Often the local and government officials posed with the winners to have their photograph taken. It was all very relaxed and beautiful in its simplicity and innocence. I believe that the adults enjoyed the day as much as the athletes did - I know for certain that Duang and I did. I did notice that most of the athletes had more makeup on than the adults. Many of the competitors were still wearing makeup and vestiges of their fancy hairdos from the parade and procession to the competition field.

The competition was fierce and entertaining as well. The races were run barefoot. The schools and students are too poor to afford specialized footwear. The spectators were all supportive of the athletes. Each race was set up by an official with a portable megaphone hung over his shoulder. Officials at each end of the course with red and green flags signalled when the race was ready to start. The man with the megaphone then gave the Lao equivalent of "On your mark, Get ready Get set Go" at which point a small brass bell was struck - as opposed to firing a gun or air horn.

Our time at the athletic competition with our friends, young and older, was a pleasant way to close out the year and to prepare for the new year with all the hopes as well as hoped for opportunities that it is expected to bring.