• Baghdad Wedding Bells: Reporting has become a pretty grim task in Baghdad, says correspondent Annia Ciezadlo. "Everywhere you go, people talk about relatives killed, kidnapped, or thrown in prison. They're afraid to talk to you, and often beg you not to use their names."
But Annia noted one distinct exception to the rule: the marriage bureau (page 1). "It's the happiest place in Iraq," she says. "In the hallways, happy families gather to celebrate. Iraqi policewomen joke with the families, ushering young couples in and out of the judges' office for the quick, no-nonsense ceremony that constitutes the civil aspect of marriage in Iraq. After the ceremony, according to Iraqi tradition, the newlyweds' female relatives pass out candy to any and all people present - the judge, the police, the foreign journalists. Sometimes, as the ceremony concludes, the women break out in to loud trills of happiness, another Arab wedding tradition. I found my visit to the marriage bureau to be almost surreal: Outside, everybody wants to talk about how the situation in Iraq is going from bad to worse. Inside, all anybody wanted to talk about was how much better things are becoming."
• Where's the Noodle Shop? When correspondent Simon Montlake traveled from Thailand to the site of a proposed dam in Laos (page 7), he noted how a tangle of electric cables and consumer advertisements gave way to modest houses and rice paddies. "On the plateau where the dam reservoir would be, it's mostly subsistence farming," he says. "There were no street stalls or any food for sale. In Thailand, people snack all day; to go on even a short journey without mountains of snacks and drinks is considered foolish. This part of Laos had little surplus to sell. Instead people eat what they farm and fish."
Even so, there was a generous reception for the guests. "On the night of our stay at the dam developer's guesthouse, the local town chiefs entertained us in a drafty concrete reception hall. There was plenty of food and drink to go round. Red banners hung from the walls, and we asked an official to translate the Laos script into English."
For those hoping to instill a grass-roots sensibility into the project - through consultations and local input - it wasn't too encouraging. "Implement the goals of the people's politburo" was a rough translation. "On the stage was a bust of a revered Communist leader," says Simon. "Apparently post-Soviet kitsch never went out of fashion in Laos."
Deputy world editor