formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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April 24, 2018 Coping (part XIV in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 24, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We had arrived in Luang Prabang on one of Lao Airlines’ turboprops, an ATR-72, and departed for the country’s administrative capital, Vientiane, on an Airbus A-320.

Vientiane has much to offer. We had too little time to take in everything. The city is busy as one would expect, with heavy traffic, but also great coffee shops, and a mix of old and new architecture. As we did in Cambodia, we stayed in a traditional wood house. We had asked around, what kind of wood is this? Mahogany? Rosewood? People replied, “Something like that,” but no one recalled the names of the rich native timber used for building houses that last over a hundred years. So we looked them up: sokrom, kokoh, koki, sroloas and beng. The trees are lovely. The landscape is stunning. It’s a beautiful place to have a war.

Here, recovery is still a current event. We are drawn to how healing comes. Throughout much of Cambodia we learned the vital role of art in helping generations deal with genocide. In Vientiane, we discovered the hope that comes from C.O.P.E.—Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, dedicated to helping people move on. This locally run non-profit works with partners to provide rehabilitation service for Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survivors across Laos. They make prosthetic legs and custom-fit arms and hands.

UXOs still litter the countryside as a result of U.S. and Laotian bombing to rid the world of the evil Pathet Lao. This year, hundreds more Laotians will be killed or injured by UXOs left behind forty years ago. Most are farmers plowing and children playing. They live in rural areas without emergency care. Funding from countries and companies throughout the world, including the United States, covers the cost of travel, accommodation, and treatment for all patients who come to any of C.O.P.E.’s five rehab centers.

In the visitor center and museum we learned their perspective of the history of bombings and resulting disabilities. We walked through a mock-up of a typical family’s house, with pictures on the walls and all the comforts of home, except this mock-up also included all the dangers of a home in this area. We read the stories of survivors and the stories they told of those who didn’t survive. In a tape-recorded interview, a kindergarten teacher recounted losing one of her students who was playing in the dirt and dug out a UXO. She couldn’t stop him in time. A film documentary introduced us to one of the thousands of people born long after the war, caught in crossfire that lay dormant for decades—a young farmer now surviving without arms.

C.O.P.E. is one of the most highly rated attractions in Vientiane, with five stars on every travel site. Each star given speaks to the preciousness of life.

Ten to thirty percent of the two million tons of bombs dropped on Laos did not explode. Teams from several organizations are moving through the country, finding and detonating them. But for those innocent victims, there’s C.O.P.E.

April 17, 2018 Mount Phou Si (part XIII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 17, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Last week we shared our amazement at the storytelling talent in quaint Luang Prabang, Laos. They told of myths, legends, and folktales of kings and monkeys; of fruit from trees with magical powers; of villains and heroes, threat and beauty, comic fantasy and triumphant goodness.

One of the best loved tales of Laos is about Mount Phou Si (“sacred mountain”), which we climbed. Twice. It’s only about 328 feet tall, topped with a temple, Wat Chom Si, and sits right in the middle of the city, facing the Royal Palace (now the National Museum).

Uneven, somewhat-crumbly stone stairways are on two sides of the mount. Around lunch time we scaled 328 zig-zagging steps originating on the northwest side for the famed panoramic view. One of us was satisfied with the rewarded exercise.

The second time we abused our quads (355 steep and uneven steps on the southeast side, by the Nam Khan River) was because one of us had this brilliant idea to go again in time for a photo opportunity at sunset. Great idea, but not original. It turned out that about 500 of our closest strangers shared that brilliance.

While space was crowded at the top, sharing the moments with people from all over the world was actually quite fun. We took pictures at 5:36 p.m., 5:37, 5:38… When that last little pop of brightness was sucked down behind the mountains, all those stranger-friends with whom we now had something magical in common let out one big collective “Awww…” of jesting disappointment, and then, applause! We looked around at the happiness on every face.

With our new friends we would make it back down to the busy night market just getting set up. The main street between Mount Phou Si and the National (Royal Palace) Museum hosted the nightly event. Streets closed to vehicular traffic filled with local craft makers and sellers of popular authentic souvenirs. We also found the vegan buffet an English couple had told us about in a riverside café the night before. Vegan buffets are rare in any country. This solo chef was tops. We piled our plates, picking from about 30 options. The chef then heated our choices in his wok and we savored our meals in the fresh night air.

One of the dishes was mushrooms, which takes us back to the tale of Mount Phou Si. According to lore, the queen woke one morning craving mushrooms and sent the monkey king to gather them. The problem was that she wanted one specific type of mushroom, but she expected him to read her mind. He made several trips up and down the mountain, and each time she scoffed because he brought the wrong fungi. Finally, Monkey King had enough. He ripped the top off the mountain, brought the whole thing to the queen and told her to pick her own mushrooms. This explains why the mountain sits in front of the palace.

We didn’t see any ‘shrooms up there, so maybe drama queen finally found them herself.

April 10, 2018 Folklore (part XII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 10, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Hopping city-to-city around Southeast Asia on several different airlines gave us more time to experience that part of the world than had we opted for ground transportation.

In Laos (meaning “Land of the million elephants”), Luang Prabang, the provincial capital, is home to many ornate and colorful wats—Buddhist temples—built within the last hundred years. They’re decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha and topped with golden roofs. Lush green jungle and rugged mountains complement the view. Here in this city is the National Museum, formerly the royal palace.

It’s a typical royal palace museum—he slept here, she slept there, here’s where they dined, original furniture and all, and here’s their library holding books from centuries ago and gifts from world leaders…clothing, portraits, weapons, crowns—the usual stuff. What I adored more than the dazzling jeweled walls, however, was the ancient Lao folktale, “The King’s White Elephant.” Each framed page and sketch hung along the hallways so one could read the story a piece at a time while viewing the life of royalty. It was a regular tale about magic powers, evil and good, sin and forgiveness—a fun read.

Mike: Speaking of stories, we had a date night with Garavek, a Laotian company that performs traditional storytelling. The small, black-box theater seats about twenty. Comfortable chairs are arranged in a quarter-circle in stadium-style rows.

On the corner stage are two rattan chairs, a small table between them, and a large drum made from animal skin. Two men enter, wearing black robes, red scarves wrapped loosely around their necks. The storyteller sits as the elder plays an ancient instrument, a khene, a handmade bamboo mouth organ—eight pipes of varying length tied together.

He plays what must be root music, grown from Laotian spirit and soil. His eyes meet every visitor as he blows on the end of the khene. A call of natural beauty emanates. His musical introduction informs us of Laotian tradition.

His song finishes to rousing applause of forty or so hands energized by his show, every mind allowing a proud smile because we in this small theater are the privileged few—the wise few who chose this experience over any other.

The elder’s eyes are bright and his leathery smile is genuine. He bows, hugging his instrument, and takes a seat on the simple stage.

Behind them, a mural, maybe four-by-five feet, hangs in front of the black drape covering the walls. Rich and busy, the painting is filled with images from folktales we will hear: elephants, birds, monkeys, dragons, and giants; waterfalls, rafts, and lush gardens; rivers, mountains, and humble thatched houses; royalty, temples, and ordinary people.

Linda: The storyteller is young and handsome. Animated and enchanting, he draws us in as if magically powered. Garavek means magical bird.

His tales recount origins of landmarks such as Mount Phusi and the Mekong River, and exploits of legendary characters. Spellbound, the audience doesn’t want the show to end.

This was a most exquisite date night, with one of the world’s best storytellers.

April 3, 2018 The Bookseller (part XI in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 3, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: His name is Douk. He’s a street peddler. He isn’t a beggar, and he doesn’t want to be. On our last full day in Cambodia, Douk approached us among the busy markets of Pub Street. On the bin of books strapped over his neck and shoulders was a sign that told his story in English. Severely injured when a long–buried landmine exploded, he is doing what he can to support his family. His entire body is scarred; his arms were blown off, his bronze skin a patchwork of pieces used to sew him back together.

Tragically, this is not uncommon. Many unexploded landmines are still quite prevalent in rural farming areas, posing great danger to farmers and children. About half of the country’s minefields have been cleared, but beautiful Cambodia remains one of the most landmine–impacted countries in the world.

Douk is an honorable man. In my small way, I wanted him to know he blessed me. I picked a book on Cambodian history. This book I hold dear because of its own history, carried to me by a man who will not allow horrific circumstances to stop him.

Linda: People who have suffered so much for so long yet persevere with kindness are the ones we wish the world would emulate. Not that pain is what we wish for others, yet those who suffer greatly often have a greater capacity to live and love. I’ve experienced this throughout much of Central Africa, and we witnessed it all over Southeast Asia. And the contrast is everywhere in our own country.

Mike: We’d say good-bye to our wonderful hosts in Siem Reap and board Alex’s tuk tuk for one more ride—to the airport where Vietnam Airlines would whisk us north in an Airbus A320 to the provincial capital of Laos, Luang Prabang.

Our friend Lance calls Luang Prabang “Shangri-La,” as it is the most beautiful place on earth to him, and a place he stayed for a time during the Vietnam War. The city has lots to offer. While we don’t recommend group tours, such as to the gorgeous waterfalls or ancient caves, it’s only because the tour buses seat sixteen, but the Chinese business owners crammed in eighteen. The unfriendly non-natives drove furiously over pitted roads, and never once smiled at customers. Private tours with native Laotians resulted in a much better experience.

On our first night in “Shangri-La” we strolled along clean cobble-stoned sidewalks in front of a mix of architecture in French Colonial, Chinese, and Vietnamese design. Impeccable landscaping incorporated the most beautiful flowers and greenery. Mod coffee shops, small restaurants with local cuisine, and other businesses filled one side of the main but winding road that followed the meandering Nam Khan River to where it meets the Mekong. We would call Villa Sayada our home for a few days full of wonderful sights, each day ending with an awe-inspiring sunset behind jungle mountains.

See you next week with more on amazing Laos.

March 27, 2018 Phare (part X in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
March 27, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Following our (fairly) fearless feat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, our feet freshly furbished by fish, we would have one more night at our hosts’ exquisite traditional Khmer wooden house. We had climbed through ancient temple ruins, watched the sun set behind Angkor Wat, the largest Buddhist temple, toured a silk farm, boated around the floating village on the Tonle Sap, experienced Pub Street, and gained a new friend, Alex, the hard-working young man with the entrepreneurial spirit who drove us all about town. The one other item high on our list was the Cambodian Circus.

This is no Barnum & Bailey–Ringling Bros. It’s an exhibition of life before the Khmer Rouge, through the genocide, and the restoration journey since. This “circus” will break your heart and make it leap in your chest as you cheer because the story is real and there is still so much healing needed—personal tragedy beyond comprehension. It is painful, powerful, and hopeful.

Phare” was organized with the intent to provide a way for children in poverty to learn a skill and earn a living, to rise from atrocities of genocide and foreign occupation and to keep Cambodian heritage alive.

In 1994, nine young Cambodians and their teacher, Veronique Decrop, returned from a refugee camp near the Thai border to create a school called Phare Ponleu Selpak (“brightness of the arts”). Many of the students had spent their childhood at the Site 2 camp in Battambang. Ms. Decrop and other French volunteers taught them to use art to cope with trauma, poverty, and abuse. She would help children overcome and rebuild their society. To this end, the organization grew to offer classes in visual and performing arts, with academic and social support.

We claimed our seats under the small tent. With few props and no nets, the troupe performed “Sokha,” a story about a child haunted by war. Her memories of the Khmer Rouge combine with surreal visions and nightmares to create a distorted and bleak reality. Scenes move from her happy days at school to the invasion of her town. As she tosses in her sleep, a live band carries the mood and supports the action: acrobats leap into the air only to fall violently to the bang of gunshots, one after another after another. An artist rolls out his easel and paints stunning portraits to fit the moments: beautiful homes and countryside replaced by the darkness of war, starvation, and fear; faces of evil; then a new sunrise as the small, scared refugee discovers her strength through art and finds the tools to heal herself and her community.

The acrobats flipped, danced, and balanced atop each other. Their muscles were upstaged only by their dedication to show the long term effects suffered by post–war victims and that art is still providing a powerful way to heal and rebuild their country.

Deep and purposeful, Phare provides a hope for tomorrow in Cambodia.