2011 In Perspective

As we close out another year I look back at our accomplishments and also things that didn’t go quite as planned…perhaps review the things that could have been done just a little better.  I thought I would start with some of the highlights of the accomplishments through pictures – just a few, to remind me of why we are here. Many of you have seen some of these before.

Water Filter Systems for Phon Savanh Village (with Hygiene Training)

One Very Happy Villager in Hat Kham taking his water filter system

With the first bank done, villagers and tourists come to use it.

From mud hole to dam, water tank and this unforgettable smile!

These 2 kids could not afford to go to school until now!!!

Done Lom School - for 3 classes. Primary 1-3...our latest accomplishment

None of these projects would have been possible without the support of so many Rotary Clubs including Whitby Sunrise, Port Hope, and Oshawa.  This year we are also delighted to gain support from the Rotary Clubs of Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Toronto and Scarborough.  THANK YOU!  Our thanks certainly don’t stop there either.  Jai Lao Foundation has agreed to sponsor Hat Kham School, Jennifer’s Jazz It Up Studio has been a strong supporter and there are hundreds of sponsors who have made such a positive difference in so many lives.

One thing we are really delighted about – The hospital water project which gets underway today is fully sponsored by the Rotary Club of Oshawa.  It is not only the first Rotary project in Luang Prabang, but it is only the second Rotary project in all of Laos (the first one was in the Vientiane sponsored by the Rotary Club in Bangkok a few years ago).

I am personally thankful for the logistical, accounting and moral support of two great people – Cleve Pendock and Ron Coleman!  In addition to their daily support, together we managed to gain Charitable Status in a very short time, setting the scene for much greater things to come.

Summarizing the political and logistical landscape in Laos has not been an easy task and it is ongoing.  We have made strides with the local and district governments and have begun to expand this to Provincial and National Government but still have a way to go.  It isn’t exactly a simple process – I have been known to put the cart before the horse so-to-speak, due to inexperience and lack of knowledge but am gradually getting to know the landscape and have made some good contacts resulting in fewer mistakes.

On the other side of the coin there are definitely things that I need to improve both here and in Canada.  While we run on a shoestring budget here, everything beyond the direct project costs still comes from my pocket including most of the overheads.  I have to find a way to change this somehow hopefully sooner than later.  I also will need to find more logistical, bookkeeping, planning, media and other support in Canada on a volunteer basis which is equally difficult.  In Laos, I still need to find a couple more people here that I can trust to continue some of the projects when I am not here.  We are ok for now but if something happens – sickness or other with the two people I do trust, it is going to be very tough.  That is a goal for next year to be sure.

Some of the other things I need to consider of course include more exposure across Canada, with the corporate world and beyond.  Hopefully charitable status will help me do that. To be able to speed up preparations for construction before I arrive and to complete 90% of the construction projects during the dry season is another goal of mine.  Transportation can be nearly impossible during the rainy season and there is a lot of sickness here during that time.  I hate to see people suffer and with roughly 7 months of relatively dry weather, so much more should be able to be accomplished.  We certainly have a way to go on that front.  These are just a couple of the obvious targets but there are more, perhaps on a lesser scale.

That just about wraps up the year for me.  I miss turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, I miss Wendy’s hamburgers and frosties but most of all I miss my dearest friends and family including my Rotary family.  It doesn’t take long for me to realize though that it is all worth it.  The rural villagers deserve the things in life we take for granted.  Clean Water, Education and basic Sanitation.

Happy New Year to All of You and Thank You for being there for us.

Had Chanh Village Update

It is hard to believe that I am almost caught up with my blog entries!!!  We returned to Had Chanh to revisit friends, discuss some minor updates to the school and to discuss the build of permanent toilets for the village school.  Last year we built a temporary one but vowed to come back and build a permanent structure.  I also wanted to see the little girl who has cerebral palsy and take her a stuffed toy.  Finally, upon the insistence of Khamdee we were all invited to share in some Lao Hyan (sp.) which is a rice wine of sorts – a bit like the Japanese Saki.  I have to admit that I suffered with Motezuma for the next three days.  I knew I shouldn’t have had any, or perhaps limit it to just a sip but it is difficult to say no when they prepare it in your honour!

Here are some highlites;

Kids just can't resist candy - nor can the adults

She remembered me!!!! I just melted with that smile and didn't want to leave

Lao Hyan (sp.) - sweet and potent.

Sharing Lunch with the school teacher from last year

It was particularly difficult to see the man sitting next to me with the tuque.  He was the school teacher last year and had sent a letter to the District Government to ask to retire.  So vibrant at the time – always smiling.  About 3 months ago he suffered a stroke but has been able to walk with a lot of difficulty and one arm is of no use – at least he can talk.  I wish there was something I could do and he asked to go to the hospital but they do not have the facilities or the expertise to deal with this.  Khamdee (teachers son on the right) said he would explain to his mother when they were alone.

Heading back to Nong Khiaw - what a great shot! Thank you Sean

Phonsavanh Village

This trip was perhaps one of the most spectacular ones I have been on where trekking wasn’t involved.  From Nong Khiaw it was another 2 hours driving along the top of the mountains following their contours and at times the pat was no wider than a cow path.

Once we arrived, there was fanfare of course.  Our intention was to provide hygiene training and discuss the water project we had planned for them.  It was cold and with no sun it certainly wasn’t comfortable.  It should be noted that these villagers have nothing and I mean nothing.  They have to trek for their water, they have no electricity, no toilets and one very dilapidated bamboo school house.  We hope to build a school there next year if all goes well, although it won’t be cheap – even the sand and gravel has to be shipped in.

Our arrival with the water filters

The Village of Phon Savanh

The village mascot! (I mean the monkey, not Sean)

Two more images I just couldn't resist - back in time for the training

Filters waiting for a new home

Anticipation! there must be balloons or candy around somewhere

Contract Negotiations for new water while filters are being set up

Art showing the art of balloon blowing - is this the best you can do?

Wow Art, your training worked well!

Hygiene Training - prerequisite for receiving a filter

Happiness is.....

Another celebration of Bacci

A Truck sets up a temporary market

Stunning views on our return to Nong Khiaw

The steep inclines were just a bit too much for the van!

Nong Khiaw

Shortly after the Rotarian visit, Mike, Roland from Toronto and Art from North Carolina came for a visit – they will be here until the end of the month but we didn’t waste any time.  We headed up to Nong Khiaw to use that as our base, complete another hygiene course at an education compound and then head to Phon Savanh to distribute more water filters, complete another hygiene course and discuss the water project there.

Hygiene Training in the Education Compound Meeting Room

We also provided training and a water filter system to Oudon who is in his final year of high school.  This is his dormitory but he managed to fit the filter inside.  It was pretty cold but I guess with enough blankets….

This last picture was taken outside a restaurant in Nong Khiaw.  It turns out that the guy beside me was one of the crew who works for the UXO Office (unexploded ordinance) and just happened to be part of the same crew who removed all of the bombies from the Done Lom School site.  He told us they removed over 150 bombies – OMG!

Unsung hero of Laos - shy too!

Little Steve

The day we came to officially open the primary school in Done Lom Village, there was a birth in the village.  I had not idea at the time but as we were leaving the village to head back to the boats, I noticed that Bounmy and others were caressing this infant.  As they left I went up and Bounmy called back to me that the child was named ‘Stebe’, after me (the villagers cannot pronounce Steve).  I was really touched…..and for those of you who might be thinking – no…it is not my child.

Governor’s Cave

We were all a little surprised to be taken to the cave where the Governor hid during the Vietnam war – located just a few minutes outside Nong Khiaw.  We don’t know if it was a District Governor or a Provincial one.  Nevertheless it was very interesting.

Bounmy hams it up for the camera in front of the cave

Entrance Stairs to the Governors Cave

One could imagine the deafening echo of bombs during the secret war

Imagine the sound of the bombs echoing off the walls during the secret war.

Governor's meeting room

Interesting Rock Formation

The next day we headed to DoneLom Village by boat and provide the Rotarians an idea of the projects we have been doing over the last couple of years but first I had to fix a mistake I made on one of the labels – I accidentally put a Canadian Flag as the background for an American donor so I didn’t waste any time correcting it.

Sorry Audrey for the error - all fixed now!

I cannot seem to go anywhere without a big bag of candy for the kids (and adults too).  It brings such joy and maybe bad teeth but that is why we supply toothbrushes too.

Above: climbing up to Done Lom School with great views.

Rotarians, Villagers and guests - THANK YOU

Toronto Rotarians come for a visit

It was with great pleasure we welcomed the Rotarians from Toronto Canada after their sweat equity trip in Cambodia with dear friend and Rotarian Lisa McCoy.  I think they managed to find a new definition for sweat!!!!  So we cooled them off a bit and took them to Kwangsi Waterfalls. After a meander up to the start of the falls, it didn’t take them long to go for a swim.  Mike said it was freezing, but the Rotarians felt it was just like swimming at home.

Rotarians at Work by Kwangsi Waterfalls?

We were asked not to take pictures below their neck!! Looks Refreshing.

We made an easy day of this allowing them to see the sights of the city on their own since most were right on the street where they were staying.  The following morning we picked them up at their hotel and headed to Nong Khiaw, about 2 1/2 hours north to spend the night there.  They had a delayed start because I had forgotten to go to the bank on the Friday before and had to wait for it to open on the Monday.  They settled into their bungalows and then we made a short trip to Nong Ein – about a 10 minute drive from where we stayed, visited a school where AAVIL and its sponsors had supported two children – one had lost both their parents, the other was being supported by his elderly grandparents who were left with the child when the parents left them.

Mr. Ngi is 11 years old and now able to go to school

Mr. Ged, 12 years old now going to school every day

Ged and Ngi at their home, shared with many others.

Vientiane, Pakse and the Prime Ministers Office

It was time to take the trip to Vientiane for a number of reasons but primarily to inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs what we were planning this year. I booked the flight but had to book executive class to my surprise – I didn’t even know there was a plane here that was big enough to have different classes of service. It turned out that Lao airlines now has an A310 flying to Paris and back with a stop of in LPB.  Instead of 40 minutes, it was supposed to be 20 minutes.  In reality the flight got cancelled and they had to give me a refund for the difference.

We arrived in Vientiane nothing went right the first day other than some shopping that we managed to get done – We were to meet the Permanent Secretary of the National Science Council and Assistant Advisor to the Prime Minister and Rotarian, to assist us in submitting to Foreign Affairs but the meeting was delayed to 4pm (when most offices close), we ended up at the wrong building causing another half hour walk and by that time, he was in another meeting.  So with a brief hello and an offering of documents to us, the meeting was rescheduled for the next day.  Bounmy did get a chance to go to the Khmu radio station to introduce himself and say hello – these are the folks that allow us at least some contact with the villages by making announcements for us.  They put him straight on the air and interviewed him.  I know what it must have been like – been there…done that.  He was nervous to say the least but did well from what I understand.

Bounmy with the KHMU Radio Station Hosts

The next day I was able to find a good reasonable source for bicycles that I need for a couple of villages, did not find the blackboards that I have been searching for and finally met with the National Science Council Permanent Secretary, Ir. Somphone Phanousith.  He brought in fellow Rotarian Prof. Francois Polidano (France) who also works in the Prime Ministers Office.

Ir. Somphone Phanousith (middle) and Prof. Francois Polidano (right)

We did not manage to get to the Foreign Affairs office at all but I was requested to send the information by email to Mr. Somphone and he would process it on behalf of me.  We discussed Rotary and their function in Laos, their challenges and their structure.

One thing we tried to do was pick up some malarone, a malaria prevention drug, to replenish Sean’s supply.  We did find a childs version meaning that 4 pills would have to be taken daily instead of one and they were very expensive.  The main drug they sell for this is Chloroquin – it works in places like Central America but not Asia because the mosquitos have developed a resistance to it.  So the only other possibility is to get the drug in Thailand.  So if you are coming to Laos, bring your Malarone with you!

The next morning we headed to a city I have wanted to visit for a while now….Pakse.  I was surprised at the wealth of not just the city itself but the surrounding area.  The trip was just a sightseeing trip and also to get 2 days of down time. We headed to what is identified as the largest waterfalls in Asia.  In fact the driver tried to make a comparison to Niagara Falls….hmmmm….not so sure about that one.  Let’s see what you think.

'The Jewel of Asia' located about 2 hours from Pakse

Bounmy's required reading in Primary 2 was about these falls.

We were supposed to head over to an ancient temple afterwards and we got to the riverbank where we were to drive down to the shore (many people got stuck in the sand) but it wasn’t to be.  The van overheated and it took another 3 hours so we had to head back to Pakse.

The next day however, with a replacement vehicle we did manage to see the temple, although we had to cancel the rest of our tour plans due to the previous days mishap.  Here are some highlites;

Looks a lot like Ankor Watt doesn’t it?

This temple is believed to have been built about 1500 years ago

South Laos is surprisingly flat - roads are certainly better too.

The night of our return I managed to have dinner with some rotarians from the Whitby Sunrise Club (Diane Allen) her sister and husband from the Cobourg club and a doctor after they just completed a sweat equity trip in Cambodia with my dear friend Lisa McCoy from the Gravenhurst club.  I never thought to brig my camera – sorry!


Done Lom Village – 2nd Distribution Complete

It didn’t take long before we were back in the villages again.  While we had intended to do a  number of things during this trip, there was always something that prevented us from doing it.  Still, we managed to head back to Done Lom with a boat load of water filters and took four tourists who turned out to be a fantastic help to us.

Here are a few highlites;

It takes a lot to make them smile, but when they do....wow

More great smiles but one frustrated child.

We managed to get some good pictures of the school without all the tenting and activities going on in the front.

A better shot of the finished School - just needs wider steps

We still need to mount the sign properly but we offer our sincere thanks for the many sponsors who supported this school.

Thank you to everyone who supported this school.

Thank you to our wonderful volunteers! I wish I could remember their names.

Five countries here – Left were an English couple, Belgium in the backleft, Canada, Laos and Spain.  Now what the heck were their names?