Power/Trip

I had my first ever snow day here in Laos on Saturday. Well, sort of.

I remember when I was a kid, the ritual of watching the weather forecast the night before, of making guesses at what sort of landscape you’d wake to in the morning. Sometimes, it was a false alarm (weather forecasts are somewhat futile, after all, when it comes to lake-effect). But those magic times when it was just as bad as predicted (or worse!) I’d always wake up extra early to speculate with my mom (“they Have to call it with the roads looking like this!”) and watch the school closings on channel 3, channel 8, channel 13. County by county, they’d roll by on the bottom of the screen… Allegan, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Eaton, Ionia… Kalamazoo! Then all the Christian schools, Kalamazoo Public and Parchment Public (this is looking promising…) and then finally, my favorite words of the day, “Portage Public Schools.”

Snow. Day.

As an elementary school student, it meant an almost Christmas-like glee — (special breakfast! sledding! baking cookies!) and as I got older, the glee stayed, but it was usually attached to something more like a “get out of jail free card” (an extra day to study for math or write that paper on The Jungle). Even in college when, thanks to the on-campus residency requirements, we never had a snow day, if I heard that the local schools or the schools back home were getting one, I’d be in a good mood. It was never a matter of hating school or not wanting to work, but more just the novelty of the day itself and the idea that any winter morning could be transformed into the drama of anticipation and excitement.

I love snow days.

So this past Saturday, when the power magically went out at 8:55am (class was meant to start at 9) and we saw that there were men climbing the power lines across the road (never a good sign), the bubbling anticipation set in. After 20 minutes of class without power, school policy says we have to let the students go. Saturday mornings are for extensive reading, so I sat with my class as they read, trying not to watch the clock. 5 minutes, then 10, then 15… at 20 past, I walked around to see if other teachers were letting their students go, and I waited a few extra minutes just to be sure and then… SNOW DAY.

And it’s not that I’m not completely smitten with my job and am not happy to do it 6 days a week because I definitely am. But the novelty of it, the fact that a normal Saturday morning was turned into the drama of anticipation and excitement… It was a great start to my weekend.

Sunday was a day of filming (more on that as it develops) and in between the two, I decided to go to China.

China? Yep. China.

I have a break coming up in 3 weeks, and I’m getting a nice paycheck today or tomorrow. The combination of the two, along with the fact that I only have 4 breaks a year and that my other breaks this year are already spoken for, made me want to take a trip somewhere. But the excess of choices combined with the excess of work I’ve been up to lately had gotten me nowhere in terms of planning. But then, as I was watching a film about the Rugby boys in Hong Kong (again, stay tuned), I had the thought “you know, I could go to the Great Wall of China next month, if I wanted to.”

So I’m going to.

Another part of the back story is that I recently finished my “101 things in 1001 days” challenge that I started in 2009. Back then, I had no idea that I’d be living abroad in France, much less Laos (I’m pretty sure it would have taken me a few minutes to locate Laos on a map) and I was still a few months away from meeting Maggie. After I finished the old one (I only got 61, but a lot of that had to do with the huge changes that happened in ’09 and ’10), I immediately made a new one. And if all goes as planned, I should be able to tick off at least 3-4 of my 101 things with this trip.

I’m going alone (don’t worry, Mom, all things considered it’s probably much safer than Cambodia) and I’ll be on a train for over 60 hours of my trip. I’ll be going to Guangzhou, Beijing and Xian in 15 days, visiting all sorts of landmarks in the process. I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to attempt the Great Wall (a sea of literally millions of tourists at Badaling isn’t really my flavor), but I’m sure something will work out. Most of all, I’m just excited to have an escape from the norm, and to be able to feel that inevitable pull towards “home” in the form of my apartment in Vientiane. It’s good to feel that every once in a while, I think. It keeps a person grateful.

And now, I’m smelling grilled cheese (and watching a random man offer up a glass of restaurant water to the pair of monks in front of me), so I think I’ll go have some lunch.

 

 

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Cyclical Living

So now begins the time of anniversaries.

Friday was the one year mark of stepping on the bus in Aix that would take me to the plane in Nice and others in Germany and Thailand that would eventually land me here. Saturday, the one year of stepping off the plane into the tropical heat, re-capturing my luggage, disbelievingly embracing my girl. And today is the anniversary of swallowing my fears and walking into work for the first time, anxiety-ridden, wondering if I was making a huge mistake. And, of course, of the massive relief that followed in the first true small-victory in the form of a few syllabi and reassuring words.

There will be more anniversaries, of course, all through the next 12 months until the cycle begins again… but these felt pretty fabulous, none the less.

This blog probably doesn’t reflect just how trying those first few months of living here were. Ever an optimist, I tried to at least outwardly focus on the good. And there were many good points, of course, especially revolving around the life I began to build with Maggie. But things were pretty rough for a while, so getting from there to here seems in reflection to be even more of an accomplishment.

I’ve been watching the turnover from term to term at VC: new folks arriving and old hands leaving – and the same thing seems to happen. When I first arrived, it seemed like I was the only person who was clueless and everybody but me had already “figured out” the whole system. Now, though, I realize that some of the folks who seemed so confident had only been there one or two terms before me, and were certainly far from as experienced as I am even now, just a few more terms in than they were. I’ve seen several new people in the same place of uncertainty I was when I arrived and I’ve seen myself take on the same role of the VC vets, even just a few terms after starting.

I don’t think this is at all intentional. I think rather, that it’s a sub-conscious projection of self-reassurance that we have at least the realm of work under control. Life here can get pretty chaotic and disorienting at times, and so it’s comforting to walk into the doors of VC and know that everything functions more or less as it should.

I was thinking this week, too, about how early everybody comes in for the evening shift – I would estimate at least 75% of the teachers who don’t have late-daytime classes are there at least 2 hours early. There’s preparation to be done, of course, but it’s very common to see teachers hanging out and chatting or strolling across the street for a coffee with an hour or two left before class. It’s fantastic to work in an environment where everybody is so willing to give up their free time to put in extra hours at their desks, regardless of how much work is actually being done.

Thoughts on VC aside, life here is progressing normally.

We’ve got a temporary French roommate who is encouraging us to speak more French (even though her English is impeccable) and the first of the big departures is happening this week. After KT leaves this week, there will be Kate and Tia, Sam, Karlee and Bruce from work and possibly a few others in June. Pi Mai Lao was epic and fantastic and made me love living here more than almost anything else to date. I wish I’d had a waterproof camera to capture the festivities, but suffice to say they were great. The weather is hotter than I’ve experienced yet and it’s tempting to spend my Sundays cooped up with my aircon and fans, reading or studying or writing. But I guess I’d do the same in a Michigan snowstorm in February.

Snow seems so far away, but I know there’ll come a time when all of this will seem a distant memory. I might as well take advantage of it while I still can!

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Bangkok and Beyond

It’s been forever. I’m sorry.

This is the first travel-blog post I’m writing on here. It feels funny to just recount my travel experience, but I think it was worth recounting, so here it goes.

Term 1, 2012 ended just as it began: quickly and quietly. After a day of rest, Maggie and I headed down to Bangkok for her birthday celebration and my first trip to the big city.

My first impression was that it seemed like an overgrown Chicago with some balmy weather and really good street food thrown in for good measure. It’s amazing how an hour flight south changes the temperature, but as soon as we got there I started sweating and I didn’t stop until I got back here over a week later.

Despite that, I love Bangkok.

I love the mix of people and the wide boulevards and the sound of traffic and the BTS (Metro/Skytrain). I love that they have a Dean + Deluca next to a classy 7/11 downstairs from a Mac store and across the street from the best Jazz bar in town. I love being able to visit half a dozen malls in a day and find shoes that are actually my size.

So after a marvelous weekend getting my culture fix with my girl and spending a whole lot of money in the malls, Maggie shipped out to Hong Kong and I went the other direction to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

I’d read many “warnings” on the internet about taking the bus and what a scam it is and even how dangerous it could be to be an uniformed tourist taking that route. So armed with a “best-chance guide” and crossed fingers, I set out to the bus station where I took an all-Thai bus to the border. Since I’d left so early (5:15!), I was the only person in the non-Thai line at the border and had absolutely no difficulty crossing over. I splurged on a taxi on the other side (Poipet rhymes with toilet, but I found it slightly nicer) and found myself in Siem Reap in time for a delicious dinner at cheaper-than-Thai prices.

The next two days, I temple hopped, with my personal guide and driver. I’d gotten the Lonely Planet back in Vientiane, so I had some idea of the history of the temples and the itinerary that I wanted to follow (“little” temples on the first day, “major” ones on the second day). My guide took care of the rest, and we visited more temples than names I can remember. I was able to take several hundred photos and have a great not-too-touristey experience, thanks to my guide who specialized in both of those things. The highlight was probably coming upon Preah Khan (my favorite) from behind, after trekking several kilometers through the jungle – even though there were tourists up front, from the way we entered, it was really easy to feel the same sort of wonder the first re-explorers must have felt when they came across these incredible temples in the 19th century.

What else…

I loved my experience of Khmer/Cambodian people. After the highly-professional-keep-to-themselves attitude of the Thais I met in Bangkok, it was great to be back in a warm and playful society. The guys I met in the hotel and in town reminded me a lot of some of my favorite Lao folks: very kind and helpful with a wicked little playful streak and a deep-rooted love of smiling and laughter. Something about being a tourist and being alone pushed me into my extra-extroverted mood, and wiped away the anxiety I sometimes have about interacting with people in Laos. The result was a whole lot of fun and not a lot of worry, which was nice for a change.

After a third solo-day photographing the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and the Bayon (the two castle-temples built by the Khmer kings), I headed back to Bangkok for some last-minute shopping and a cinema fix. I stayed at a lovely hostel where, thanks to my 4 days of solitary travel, I made a nice group of friends very quickly. They went to see The Hunger Games with me and, again, made me feel comfortable and relaxed looking like an idiot not knowing where to go rather than stressed out and annoyed (as I would normally have felt if I’d done it alone). The next day, I met up with Maggie back at the airport and we flew home together, to our cats who probably didn’t miss us as much as we missed them (they have each other now, after all).

It’s hard to believe that my one-year anniversary is coming up in just a few short weeks. Term 2 has just started and we’ve got (my first!) Lao New Year in a few weeks. Over the break, I had many chances to explain what I’m doing here to all sorts of strangers. It felt good, saying that I live here and have been here for a year with another year and a half ahead of me. I love my job and my house and my cats and my girl… Things are going pretty well.

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The Macro and the Micro

Time seems to be moving differently for me, lately.

When I was living abroad before, days and weeks seemed to stretch on forever. The seven months I spent in Aix felt like a small eternity. It was enough time to learn the town, visit the region, make lifelong friendships. I caught myself referring to my friend Tia’s six months here as “nothing, in the grand scheme of things” the other day. This week, difficult though it was, disappeared in a string of indiscernible workdays.

Why is that?

I remember when I first got here, how every day shuffled by slowly, each one wholly distinguishable from the others. It was wonderful at times and excruciating at others. Now, though, I can’t seem to pull my days apart in my memory. Was it Tuesday that I went to my favorite restaurant, or Wednesday? Last weekend or the weekend before that we bought those plates? The micro seems to be lost on me these days, so it’s the macro changes that I’m noticing the most.

I’ve been thinking about seasons a lot lately, for example. I’ve been here long enough now to have seen all the different seasons of the climate in Laos: Hot and rainy, cold and rainy, cold and dry and now hot and dry. I got here at the tail end of the hot and dry season last year, so the heat I experienced was fleeting, if intense. Now, it’s been (as the seasoned veteran teachers at my school put it) “quite hot” for a few weeks now, and I find myself looking forward to the rains in a few months, if only for a change of pace.

The other day I mentioned to a student that I’d like to visit Africa one day. The student’s response was “WHY?! It’s hot there.” I then reminded her that it was currently 36 degrees Celsius outside. She didn’t see the connection.

I’m also thinking about macro changes in terms of work, school, and the big question mark that is my eventual return to the states. Another term has somehow slipped away and I’ll have now completed a full-year cycle at Vientiane College. My one year contract is up soon at ChildFund and I don’t intend to renew. A lot of my friends here are in their last six months (or less) and there will be new folks coming to replace them in due course. Maggie’s two-year contract (!) with PIA will be finished in just a couple months, so there are significant changes on the horizon for her, as well. All of these things tumble around in my mind as I glide on through my day-to-day, which despite all of it, I don’t really notice all that much.

I don’t notice it that much, but minor things are still capable of snapping me out of my reverie. Small victories have always seemed huge here, just because, acclimated to it though I have become, everyday life here is just tougher. It’s harder to find that thing that you’ve been craving and it’s harder to get from point A to point B in once piece. So when I finally take the plunge and buy a Chinese router I’ve been eyeing for weeks, and it’s flawlessly set up and protected within 10 minutes of bringing it home — it’s a pretty big deal. Or when I happen upon a clean, safe veterinarian 3 times closer to home than the old disgusting one — it’s cause for celebration. Or when coffee cards and discount cards pay for themselves, or a favorite lunch spot adds a new item — small changes, big reactions.

My army class made fun of me the other day when I got So Excited that they’d all gotten gmail addresses and figured out how to edit a webpage. The thing is, completing such a task with a group of native speakers in a country with decent internet and nearly ubiquitous basic computer literacy would have taken 10 minutes at most. Here, with none of those things, it took about 4 hours over the course of 3 days. It’s the seemingly impossible nature of these things that make them That Much Sweeter when they’re conquered.

In any case, it’s Sunday morning and my life is gloriously work-free for another 18 hours or so, so I’m off to enjoy it. I know I’ve been terrible with pictures lately, so here’s a snapshot of my darling kitten, curled up next to me on my couch. Not a bad idea, I think.

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Whirlwind, what’s new?

So far, 2012 has been more full of change than any year I can easily remember.

I think going home really changed my relationship to living here. At the same time that I have felt more often and intensely homesick since coming back, I’ve felt much more established and content being established as a person who lives (and isn’t merely visiting) here.

I’ve been insanely busy and haven’t updated (as usual), so let me get you up to speed.

Our family has expanded again in what I dubbed “the closest thing to an ‘oops baby’ as Maggie and I will ever get.” One sunny Sunday, I was minding my own business on the way to breakfast. I saw some girls dumping a kitten at the temple (normal practice here for unwanted animals) and walking briskly away. The only problem was, the kitten didn’t want to stay at the temple and ran angrily after them, meowing her little head off. To make matters worse, they walked right into the busy traffic, unaware (or uncaring) of their follower. They escaped and the kitten continued to follow, nearly getting hit several times. I couldn’t stand by and watch her get crushed, so I called her over. I noticed she was a beautiful cat and had obviously been well cared for by her momma. Wondering what on earth I was getting myself into, I put her in the basket of my motorbike and carried her home. She stayed outside until Maggie came home and promptly fell in love with her.

The rest, as they say, is history. Her name is Henry and she is very pleased to meet you.

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Speaking of home, that has managed to change already this year, too. We had some disgusting and seriously frustrating problems with termites that, on top of the poor lighting, poor maintenance and general “ick” we felt around the place, broke the camel’s back and pushed us to find a new place. So, taking advantage of the extra time I had the week before my daytime contract started, I went out with a few agents and managed to find an amazing townhouse not too far from our old place. It’s two levels, so it feels a lot more like a home, and the lighting and storage and general modernity of it are more refreshing than I thought they’d be. Our old landlady gave us a break on rent if we moved out by the 15th, so despite the fact that Maggie was in Bangkok, I managed to get all of our stuff over to the new place over the course of two weekends. This past weekend, we were both home and spent most of our waking hours putting away and organizing the place to death. By some miracle, we finished Sunday evening and now have a beautiful and frankly surprisingly organized new home. I’m actually excited to go home to it every day.

What else…

I reached a big milestone the other weekend when I re-attained “Aix-zen.” I experienced, for the first time since leaving France, the feeling of utter calm and perfect contentedness that I felt so often when I was living in that city. It was something to do with the weather and the food and my schedule and a disregard for watches and, most of all, my friends. I’ve finally attained that here and it feels great.

Schedule-wise, things are pretty hectic at the moment. I’m working 5 mornings a week now at VC and I’ve switched up my ChildFund schedule to make that 5 days a week as well. I pulled a 13 hour day yesterday (with a 20 minute lunch break) and I fear those will become more frequent as the term pushes towards crazy-town pretty soon here. Most of next term will be the same, but then, in May, things will start to quiet down. By the end of that month, both my VC daytime contract and my ChildFund contract will be up and I’ll be left with a lull… for a few weeks, at least. It’s busy, but I really don’t think I’d have it any other way.

On the topic of schedules, though, I have to get to completing mine for the day, so I’ll end this here. Hopefully, I’ll have some house photos up soon.

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… In with the New

I just finished a book, Jamrach’s Menagerie, in which the main character, a boy of 16, travels to the very edges of human endurance and somehow manages to escape alive to the other side. I won’t say too much for fear of spoiling the book (you should read it) but there’s a moment near the end, when he has made it back to his beloved London, and he just sort of stands around staring in disbelief. It’s a place he has recreated hundreds upon hundreds of times in daydreams and night dreams and every kind of fantasy and when it’s finally there in front of him, he struggles to make it feel more real than all of those illusions he knows so well.

Home was kind of like that for me.

I made the most of it, I really did. I saw all the people I wanted to see, managed to get through my shopping list and even improvise a little to bring back the things I needed and made a point of stopping and thinking and storing up little memories (my cats’ fur; the sound of my bed’s beaded curtain; the taste of wine in an Indiana hotel while playing cards with my parents) to savor later. I spent a marvelous couple days with Maggie’s family which felt like a delicious preview of what will be waiting for us when we make the big return and throughout it all, had no travel disasters (which is saying something, considering the boatload I had last Christmas).

And now, a week after coming back to Laos, I’m already back in the swing of things.

The New Year brings some new resolutions, notably to make our kitchen a Primal one. If you don’t know about the Primal Blueprint, you should maybe do a little reading on it; it really makes sense, I think, and so far it has been treating Maggie and I very well. Thanks in part to our jetlagged odd hours, we’ve been waking up early ever since our return and going for early morning walks. I’ve always loved Laos in the morning, and it’s a really wonderful way of getting my blood flowing and my body ready for the day to come. We’re also making an effort to buy more from the little shops and stands in our neighborhood and less from the giant chains and Western grocery stores; a trip to the organic market costs about half what a trip to one of those stores costs and the quality and quantity of the food is generally much greater.

Let’s see, what else…

The new term at work is getting off to a great start. I love all of my classes and, for the first time, there isn’t one that stands out as “challenging.” This is also the first term that I’ve had repeat students and repeat class-levels (I’ve got 3 groups of the former and 2 groups of the latter). It’s hard to believe that this is the beginning of my fourth term at VC; the time, as usual, has both dragged and flown.

I’m making more of my mornings in all respects this term. I’ll be changing my schedule at ChildFund, too, so I’ll be working at 8am three days a week and at 10 the other two. Combined with my early rising and commitment to good breakfasts, I hope this will re-shape my days a little bit for the better. It’s just after 9 and I’ve already gone for a walk, had a relaxed breakfast, and finished my book. I like that.

Just like there was no way of going back to America as if nothing had changed, there was no way of coming back here as if nothing had changed. I was very lucky to have had such a perfect trip back home and am very lucky to have had such an easy re-entry here. Here’s to continued luck in 2012!

 

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Ho Ho… home?

Before coming home, I was in a state of disbelief that the time had finally come for me to travel back to this continent. And now that I’m here, it’s still hard to grasp. It’s especially hard to grasp the idea that I’m going to be heading back to that world of mine in just a few short days and that I need to make the most of every second I’ve got here.

There were some massive changes to my life here while I was gone and I’m still in the process of wrapping my mind around them. I’ve seen my father’s empty parking lot, gone to his “not-really-retirement” party and spent the days with him when he’d normally have been at work, but the reality of it still hasn’t really sunk in. And I’ve seen my friends, talked to them like I always did, tiptoed around the fact that this’ll be an especially difficult Christmas and even seen the place where she died, but it’s still got the air of having been an arm’s length away all this time — and it probably always will.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what is going to happen between this Christmas and next. Barring extremely unusal circumstances, I won’t be sitting on this couch again for almost exactly one year; in that same amount of time, this world has become in many ways just as foreign as Laos was when I first arrived — what will happen before I get back to it again?

Still, it’s so comfortable. At least half of Maggie and I’s conversations this week have been along the lines of “I can’t wait to live here with you again and make this our home.” It’s been great to eat the foods I’ve been craving, to see the people I love so much and slip back into the driver’s seat of my car just like no time had passed at all. Time has passed, though, and that inescapable fact colors pretty much everything I’ve been doing — not to mention all the time that will pass before I get to do it all again.

I haven’t been documenting things nearly as much as I’d said I would. Before I got home, I kept saying that I wanted to take pictures of all the “normal” things that surprised me, to look at myself and to show to my students. It’s the same sort of effect that keeps me from photographing too much in Laos though, I fear — it’s too Normal to think of it as novel, even though I know full well just how novel it’s going to be a few days and a few thousand miles from here.

So here’s my plan: today is Christmas Eve and I head to Detroit on the 29th — that gives me 5 days left in this funny little town of mine. I’ve done a good job of buying the things that I want to bring back to Laos with me, so I’m now going to focus on the images that I’ll bring back with me. My camera and I are going to be inseperable and, even if it seems excessive or silly, I’m going to try to document as much as possible. I know I’ll thank myself for it later and, if nothing else, it’ll give me something to reflect on this time next year when I’ll again be returning to alien territory.

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Strange as Normal

I live in Laos. I’m not visiting, there’s no definite end date to my stay here, and I have an income and bills and individual transport just like I would at home. I get excited when the scenery of this familiar town changes (new restaurants and bars and stores are popping up all the time) and I have a complicated and well-entrenched set of social connections. When we leave (which, for the record, is no earlier than fall 2013, now), it won’t be simply “going home” – it will be “moving,” and, more apt, “moving to a different country.”

But, as comfortable as I am and as much as I feel like I am a true-blue expatriot, there are still any number of things that I find strange, different (and ultimately fascinating) on a daily basis.  Here are some I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • Helmets are required here to ride a motorbike. It’s a relatively new law, so people have been slow to adapt and the police don’t often punish it. Some of the helmets here are pathetically thin (more like plastic batting helmets than anything else) and others have obviously already been through a crash or two and probably wouldn’t do much to protect their wearers in an accident. As far as I can tell, the importance of protecting one’s skull isn’t very high on the list of most people’s priorities. It’s lower for some, in fact, than protecting their lungs — to the point where it’s not uncommon to see someone driving around with no helmet (or even with a helmet sitting in the basket, to put on should they see a policeman), with their mouths and noses covered with a cloth surgical mask, to protect their lungs from the exhaust fumes.
  • Some Lao words are just cool. We’ve been learning animal names in one of my ChildFund classes, and one of the coolest I’ve heard is “water cat.” Can you guess what a water cat is? It’s a seal. The reason why we’re learning animals is because for the Lao lottery (and in general, to a certain extent), each number and combination of numbers has its own animal. So, 13 and 93 are Elephant numbers, 26 and 66 are Dragon numbers, 11, 51 and 91 are Dog numbers and 37 and 77 are Pangolin numbers (do you know what a Pangolin is?). Even cooler, all of the animals are animals that can be found naturally in Laos. Anybody who plays the lottery (which is a sizable portion of the population) knows all of these numbers and associations quite intimately. The final dimension of this phenomenon is that if you dream about certain symbols (a crying child or a cat chasing a mouse, for example), you should play certain numbers. I find all of this too fascinating for words.
  • I thought that a Buddhist/Animist culture where next to nobody actually celebrates Christmas would be pretty devoid of the usual yule-tide decorating. Contrary to my expectations, it seems that Christmas kitsch has officially made it into the country and is continually popping up all around town. Expat places everywhere are  sporting gaudy Christmas trees that look suspiciously like Charlie Brown’s poor sample, and the mall even has a 16+ foot tree covered in lights and ornaments. It’s all well and good that Christmas cheer is being imported by the bucket-full, but to me, it just seems strange and ultimately unsettling. Like that song: “Do they know it’s Christmas?” — well, no, but why should they? What’s so wrong about not knowing it’s Christmas? I prefer my holidays more about symbolism and less about capitalism, anyway.
  • Surrounded by longtime expats at work, some of whom have been away from their home countries for 5, 10, 15 years, you tend to forget that you’re living a life that’s not the norm. You tend to forget that most people see their families more than annually and that the thought of spending Christmas away from the country (and continent for that matter) isn’t normally acceptable, and certainly not enjoyable. Especially because I’ve created my own family and home here with my girl and my cat, homesickness doesn’t really make much of an appearance in my daily life. This week, though, I’ve been thinking about home constantly. It’s as if my mind is finally letting myself miss this thing I know I’ve got coming to me in just a few short days. There’s no point pining for something when it’s months or maybe even years away, but when it’s right on the horizon, I’m letting myself feel just how much I can’t wait to be back there. And yes, I’m excited that it’s going to be Christmas.

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Collecting Thoughts

– The French pronunciation of Laos has always confused me. “Lah-ohse.” The country name comes from the name of the ethnic groups which are all pronounced “L-ow” (ow, like you hurt yourself) so the extra syllable always confused me. I learned a perfect explanation for it, however. In Laos, there have always been two main cities, Vientiane in the middle and Luang Prabang twelve hours north, through the mountains. When Francophone Laotians of the 19th and early 20th century wanted to talk about the latter, they would say “la haut” (lah-ohte); the French picked this up and pronounced the country in the same manner.

– I’ve reached a point at which I’m totally comfortable on my motorbike. One of my favorite things about driving (a car, back home) is the sort of hypnotic state you reach when you’re relaxed with your vehicle and surroundings. Until recently, I was constantly on edge while driving my bike, but I’ve become more familiar with it and this town so that I can now reach that comfortable driving place pretty regularly.

– The tiniest shows of gratitude and enjoyment from my students are incredibly rewarding. After working with the customs group yesterday, one of my students grinningly took a picture of the white board (with a paragraph we’d written about me as a class using new vocabulary) – later, a quiet student from an elementary class gave me a tourist notebook from her hometown, explaining that she gets to go home in a few weeks. Even just a “have a good weekend, teacher” at the end of the class has a tendency to brighten my day quite a bit.

– I’d forgotten until now that I have a background in phonics. Most of my  Lao students have expansive and frankly impressive vocabularies, especially considering that all the words they can read, they’ve learned to read as sight words. That is, they know that the letters “b-o-y” say “boy”, but they have little to no concept of what the individual letters say. I’m making it my personal vendetta with my private lessons (and also my class lessons, to an extent) to integrate phonics as much as possible so that when I’m gone, the students will be able to read new words on their own.

– As the crazy kitten chemicals have left Bill’s body, he has become the most sweet and docile cat I’ve met. He is still loud, but usually, it’s only to demand that he be picked up and allowed to flop in our arms. His rituals are both comforting and so quintessentially him – the places he sleeps, the way he “hunts” our hands, the times he wants to drink from which sink. I remember after his operation, it was these rituals re-emerging that assured me he was OK.

– Maggie and I made the most spectacular changes to our apartment over the course of the last two weeks. Two Sundays running, we’ve gotten ourselves up and engaged and have moved all the furniture in our apartment, hung all the art we’d had framed months ago, and re-designed our “Bill-free” spare bedroom to incorporate all of our non-kitty-friendly weavings and tapestries. It’s amazing what a bit of grunt work and some fabric can do to completely reinvigorate a space.

– It’s the That Luang festival this week and, as much as I’d like to attend the festivities, I’m seriously wary of the gigantic crowds and increased police presence. We’ve been on guard all week since Vientiane College is located on the street leading up to the stupa – they told us we’d have to show our IDs and prove we were going to VC in order to get past the police checkpoints. I think I’ll be staying home tomorrow morning and relying on my friends photographs to show me how it went.

– Speaking of police, here’s an 8-second snapshot of my commute. The police direct traffic (you can hear one blowing a whistle) and occasionally intone traffic rules and regulations through a megaphone for commuters to hear as they wait and drive past.

– I’ve gone sinh crazy lately. The sinh is the skirt worn by most women here, especially in work or other formal settings. I’ve had a few made before, but they were poor quality and so I rarely (see: never) wore them. Since getting the job at the customs department (where it’s 100% necessary to wear one), I’ve had several others made and, lo and behold, they’re extremely comfortable. So now I’m wearing them almost every day – besides being comfortable they’re quite pretty and never fail to get a reaction out of just about every Lao person I meet.

 

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A Return…

In my defense, dear abandoned blog, I’ve had a lot on my plate.

The Rugby World Cup is finally winding down and for the first time in 5 weeks, this weekend won’t be sunup-to-sundown rugby Friday thru Sunday. Overall, the RWC has been an awesome experience – I’ve gotten to know both national teams much better and, as a sort of French-language-liaison, I’ve gotten to know a bit of the French community here as well.

Last weekend was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Laos so far; after the two Sunday rugby games, Maggie and I hung out for 6 hours or so with the men’s and women’s national teams (plus a good portion of the club teams, as well). After the final whistle, most of the falangs cleared out of the bar, but the Lao folks stayed behind, and we stayed with them. The result was good-old-fashioned Lao Beer-halling, which, as one of my new friends told me, is always “bor tang gaan” or off-the-record. In my experience, Lao people love to play at just about anything; the beer hall is an excellent forum for their playful natures to have free reign, laughing, talking, and everything in between. All to be forgotten the next morning, of course.

The cool part for me, though, was that they didn’t bat an eyelash at the fact that I was participating. It made me feel confident in my Lao that I could follow a decent amount of the conversation, and it was such a welcoming atmosphere that I felt more at ease with a large group of folks speaking my non-native language than I have probably ever felt. I was even separated from Maggie for most of the night, but it really didn’t matter.

Speaking of Lao, I’ve been making great strides with my classes both at VC and CF. The in-between language at ChildFund continues to develop and flourish; I know that I’m catching subtleties in the Lao and translations that I would have completely missed a few months ago. Stringing together whole sentences along the lines of “She should try that shirt on first, I’m not sure it’s going to fit” actually come easily now and we’re all happier for it.

At Vientiane College, I’ve started a new term and my unquestionably favorite class is Elementary 1. Elementary classes don’t have a good rap at VC, so anybody willing to teach them is usually well-accepted. Thanks to my Teaching Assistant, communication is a breeze. And as an added bonus, my level of Lao is approximately at the level of English that I’m teaching them, so I’m able to follow along with the translation and learn quite a lot of Lao myself. As for the actual content, I think I gravitate towards the small victories as a teacher – I would so much rather congratulate a student for finally mastering the present simple form of “to be” than for writing a good 3-paragraph essay.

So now that I’ve got Lao down (hah…) I’m starting to pick up Thai. I’ve got no interest in the language itself, but the writing system is so ubiquitous here that I figured I could use my visit to Thailand two weeks ago as an opportunity to pick up some learning materials. Well-made flashcards are actually fun for me, so hopefully, that will go well.

The trip itself was lovely – I went to Chiang Mai by way of Udon Thani  and while the latter wasn’t good for much but shopping, the former was very beautiful indeed. Here are some photos and video:

  

(click the photos for the full albums)

Alright, that’s enough for now. I’ve got more to say, but I’ll save it for another day, which will hopefully be less than 6 weeks from now!

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