Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Andrew on Field Duty

Ten days after getting back from Europe I was scheduled to go south for the three monthly field visit.  Both my Vientiane finance staff couldn’t go – so it was a perfect opportunity to bring Andrew to the field to see where I work and my colleagues.  It was an interesting trip

First off our flight to Savannakhet was delayed by 30 minutes – we later found out it that it was because the Prime Minister’s plane had landed before us – and everyone else just gets rescheduled.  We were sent out to the airplane, only to be turned around by the pilot blocking the door because he wasn’t ready for boarding yet – so like a line of Lemmings, wilting under the blazing hot sun, we returned to the waiting room to await a later boarding.

We got into Sepon much later than expected – as it gets dark driving speed decreases dramatically.  Sepon isn’t a bustling metropolis at the best of times and at 7:30 pm Sunday night ‘dining’ options are next to none.  So we picked up some grilled chicken legs & rice from the ‘night market’.  The extent of the market was 5 vendors with a light hanging above them.  But we purchased some cold beers from the hotel and prepared ourselves for the week ahead.

After a walk in the morning, it was time for french baguette and the strongest coffee known to man.

Andrew undertook the role of accounting–assistant and did a reasonable job of not giving everyone around him his opinion on life, finance procedures and forestry in general.  Some staff automatically assumed the tall male foreigner was the ‘Boss” 

And he cemented that role at the party on day 3 of the trip.  One of the top managers from Europe was visiting our operations so there was a team meal followed by…karaoke.  Eventually a few English songs were put up and Andrew joined for a rendition of ‘Hotel California”  Sadly he didn't know ANY of the words and the lyrics weren’t on screen for that one song.  But there was no stopping him from putting his moves on.  Below are 2 of my expat colleagues, a Thai colleague and the boss from Finland – and Andrew- look at him dance.  I didn't realize Karaoke was part of my job description, but it was almost compulsory to join in. 

And here he is looking happy just before his plastic chair collapsed under him and he lay on the floor covered in spilled beer.  But like a jack-in-the-box he jumped up, a more solid chair was found and the party continued. 

While here we visited the charcoal kilns.  We are working on a process whereby villagers make/sell charcoal from plantation thinnings.  Charcoal is still huge here as every uses it to cook with.Traditionally it is made in earth kilns but we have metal move-able kilns.  The process takes 3 days and the recovery rate charcoal : raw wood put in should be 20 – 25%.  anyway it was very interesting to see it in process. 

From Sepon we did the 7 hour drive around the mountain to the even smaller settlement of TaOy.  Not even a night market here, but a nice restaurant down by the river.  This trip was also dubbed ‘hit-your-head-on-low-beams-Andrew’ trip.  Everywhere he went he hit his head – low door frames, small doors, outside cabanas – you name it – he hit it. 

Sadly while we there one of our staff was involved in an accident with a motorbike.  Unfortunately one of the 2 young men on the motorbike died and the other had broken bones.  It seemed to be a true-accident, no one obviously at fault, but the outcome was our staff member was put in jail and remained there until the company concluded compensation negotiations with the families.  The police prefer that grievances are sorted between the parties – to reduce their paper-work.  And no-one wants to go to court because the law is not guaranteed to be blind and the party with the biggest pockets will win.  In this case our staff member was in jail for 10 days while the process was worked through. 

In his parting remarks my head of Field accounting asked if Andrew would come again.  I said maybe.  He then suggested maybe in the future Andrew could come on quarterly visits and my accountant and I could stay in Vientiane.  He and Andrew could go drink beer and sing songs.  Yeah, no.  Not going to happen that way, sorry!

Saturday, September 26, 2015


While we were in Europe it was a good chance to go up to Finland to meet some of my finance colleagues.  So I flew up from London to have some meetings.  The company has offices on the waterfront which were designed by the famous Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto.  

 Meanwhile Andrew spent a day in both Cambridge and London before flying up to Helsinki for a little time there.

Sadly for his exploration day alone it rain from sun-up to sun-down.  Meanwhile I got to visit the staff canteen where staff get subsidized lunches and very good food.

Luckily the rain disappeared for the weekend and we spent it exploring the city.  The architectural style is distinct - such as the yellow apartment building below.  Or the large city churches.

There were two events on over the weekend which we came across.  The 1st was 'garage-sale' day when anyone and everyone can set up on the street and sell excess goods.  The other was the midnight run which actually started at 9pm and runners run 10km through the city streets.  We went down to Senate Square and watched the start.  With over 10,000 entrants and plenty of spectators there was a great party atmosphere.  And lots and lots of bananas!

 And this was a city where we ate rather well.  From reindeer pastries at the market..bye bye Rudolph

To lovely dishes with red currant berries, everything was tasty.

But maybe the last word should be a picture of the man ordering "Mummy's Boy Meatballs", isnt he sweet?

From here it was a series of flights London-Bangkok-Vientiane.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Porto Wine

The main reason for coming to Porto was to meet with the Portuguese wine contacts. We were invited to go for a visit up the Duoro Valley.

João picked us up from the apartment and drove us through to Amarante for a coffee and small local sweet nibbles.  We couldn't refuse.

Then it was on to one of the vineyards to meet one of the winemakers.  The scenery was stunning as usual and the winemaker passionate about her job.  She was also about 5 foot nothing.  I towered over her.

And Andrew simply looked like a giant in comparison!

Lunch was at one of famous Portuguese chef Rui Paula's restaurants.  Sitting on the Duoro river it is a beautiful place to dine outside watching the world go by and eating the most beautiful 8 courses small plates.

Oh, we also tasted a little bit of wine.


Once again we returned to Porto. This time we had a small studio apartment a 5 minute walk from the centre of town.

Small shops and street side vendors remain the mainstay of the shopping scene.

We wandered the streets following a bit of an unofficial food tour - managing some Chaves pastries before lunch.  Then lunch at a superb spot Flor dos Congregados  - so good we came back from a dinner there and later in the day some pretty good eclairs.  These were all good, but coffee everywhere was pretty average - there is just not a big coffee/cafe culture here.

There is also a growing street art scene with some really nice pieces out there

The weather was pretty average while we were in town which was a shock after the hot temperatures in France.  We took the tram out to the beach at Matosinhos.  But it was cold and threatening rain - so the visit was more like the 'Shipwreck' sculpture on the beach then a fun day on the sand. 

 But the sun did shine at time, we ate well and explored and had fun

Monday, September 21, 2015

Oppede part 2 Nice, Aix and Carpentras

One of the things the Fergs wanted to do was make a trip down to Nice to check out the Matisse and Chagall Museums. So it was a solid day driving there and back on the motorway. Andrew and I weren't huge fans of either artist so instead of visiting those museums we did some walking. 

Near the Matisse museum are lovely gardens with a view over Nice and a Franciscan Monastery. When we walked into the chapel the effect was stunning - it was one of those places that made stop and go wow. It wasn't ornate, rather it was subtle and as a whole simply beautiful. Pictures do it no justice at all.

Lunch was in the walled town of Vence where ate, drank, and generally had a lovely meal in a nice setting. We were in Vence to see the nearby Rosaire chapel where Henri Matisse had painted in the chapel at the request of a nun who had previously worked as his model.

Aix-en-Provence was a destination that had always been planned as an excursion from our location. It was a lovely town, famous amongst other things, for its numerous fountains and links to many artists.

The cathedral also had a superb organ with the organist perched up high and playing while we were there.

Leaving art and culture behind we visited the Camp des Milles on our way out of town. This former factory was used as an internment camp during WWII before they were transported to other camps. Today it has a major display and interpretation centre and it is a thought-provoking memorial. It displays and explains well, but it also goes another step and has a significant area devoted to learning from the past and looking at how similar genocides are able to still occur e.g Rwanda, Bosnia etc.

We visited towns such as Isle sur la Sorgue, Venasque and Carpentras. Carpentras definitely had it's own vibe, sightly different from anywhere else we had been in the region.  The cathedral was described by our guidebook as architecturally 'absurd' with a hodge-podge of styles.  And around the back was a roman triumphal arch dating from 1 AD.

And this is how "we" (by we, read Andrew) park in France. None of this fitting into a single parking space. Method employed by our driving hero, park right in the middle of 2 spots and make sure everyone can fully open their car doors. Never mind it was a busy car-park with people looking for spots...

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Oppède, Luberon

From St Jean du Gard it was a 2.5 hour drive east to the Luberon area of Provence.

On the way we stopped at just outside the town of Baux-de-Provence. Here in an abandoned Limestone quarry the large flat walls make ideal surfaces to project pictures onto. When we were there the works of Michelangelo were displayed.

We had heard it was good but it is hard to explain how effective and interactive it felt. It was a very good detour.

Home for the best part of the next week was the tiny village of Oppède. Here we had a refurbished old house along with the Fergs. The house was lovely with high ceilings, beautifully decorated, and well equipped both indoors and out. And it was surrounded by fields but it was only a 3 minute walk to the bakery. From here it was a good base to explore some of the villages in the area.

We arrived on a Sunday and because we had not shopped we were short of food (most shops are closed on Sundays) But at the restaurant we eventually found for lunch Ferg saved half his cheese and we ordered another cheese plate and two bottles of wine. That combined with what we could cobble together made a dinner. From there our dining experiences were all good. From plat du jour for lunch and barbecues and salad for dinner. Summer fruit and a few wines were also part of the mix.

As usual, in the face of scarcity,  Andrew managed to find a beer (in an over-sized glass) 

One day we visited 3 quite touristy villages, the 1st of which was Gordes which was the nicest and least overrun.

The next, Rousillon, was built on distinct red earth and had a different feel, but it was absolutely crawling with tourists.

We drove to the small city of Apt for a pleasant lunch before heading to Bonnieux,  Bonnieux is quite hyped up by travellers.  It was nice, but not outstanding

The big surprise for our last afternoon was to return from exploring and finding the Circus camped opposite our house. It was impressive how quickly they had set up and were planning to be in business that evening. They had initially placed some posters in the nearby villages. They used a van with four large loud speakers on top and drove around the nearby villages advertising their shows - very very loudly. Out tranquillity was destroyed when they parked the van 50 metres from our house with the loud speakers still in action. After a while it was apparent the noise was not going to stop so I walked over to the circus and politely used sign language with a team member and the speakers were turned off. The noise from the performance was ok and the animal noises were different.

The fact remains - Andrew, the Grinch, asked the circus to be quiet!  As a result he got ignored by me for a few hours after that performance!  

Next up, exploring Aix-en-Provence, Nice, and a few other places-->