It’s almost been 2 months here in Laos. I think this Friday is the actual mark. I can’t believe how fast the time goes. The shock wasn’t any where near what it was to move to Ghana, so I’ve skipped that phase of every day seeming like it was a week. Not to say one is better then the other, but I’m just faster to adapt here I suppose. I think it’s also different because I’m not living on my own in a community of people who I know very little about, I don’t have to fetch my water every day, and the only white person isn’t the one I see when I look in the mirror. All that has definitely made me appreciate what I have here though. I’m glad I didn’t do it in the reverse order. I had a lot of support from my employer, but my job was largely just to “figure it out”. Soon after I got into the swing of things I loved and got addicted to going head on and figuring things out myself. That has also lead to me going above and beyond my experience here. I’m really taking that extra time I got back with these modern upgrades and putting in that time to explore the culture. I’d say the only thing I haven’t done enough of yet is to explore the markets on my own. Exploring the biggest market in West Africa, in Kumasi, was a weekend adventure for me.
Three weeks Andrea, my boss and head of the programs team, was on vacation. That didn’t change much in the office because I had plenty of tasks to keep me busy the whole time. I spent the beginning of the week helping scholarship team prepare for their visit on Monday and got a little ahead with their visits later in the week. This was a short week because we had Tuesday and Wednesday off from work. Tuesday was teacher day and Wednesday was some Buddhist holiday that was described as being the end of lent. I’m not sure what that means exactly since everything about Buddhism I’ve studied is totally against the idea of lent. To be a serious Buddhist as a monk or novice, they are required to give some things up for good and others to use in moderation. It goes against any kind of fasting or giving something up completely for a short period of time for lent. It’s thought that it’s harder to do something in moderation then to decide to give it up completely for some period of time. The other thing about Buddhism is that it doesn’t really have a “head church” or organization. That means that it can vary between regions or even from one monastery to the next. I’m still not really sure if it’s a miss translation or I what I read about the Buddhism in Thailand is that much different. Regardless of what the lent part actually means I’m still interested to take part in the celebration, so I talk with one of my work colleagues who used to be a novice monk for a year. I asked if I could tag along with what he was doing for the day. He said yes and then explained to me what we would be doing. I only picked up something about a village and a bowl. I don’t really care about the details, so I just agreed and exchanged numbers.
Tuesday was a nice day off. I did my usual Lao studying in the morning and early afternoon and walked around when I got to hungry to continue. I’ve found this place that has cheap food and the cheapest fruit smoothies I’ve seen yet. I keep going back because not only is it cheap, but the smoothies taste like the fruit was just dumped right in from the tree. I’m also friendly with the brother of the owner who is often out front working on his paintings. I meet Pavath, Caroline, and Caroline’s friend and they say they want to go and try that smoothie place. No way can I say no to going there again, even if I was just there at noon.
Before we left I had Pavath call the colleague I’m meeting tomorrow to ask details like what should I wear or bring. My instructions are to wear nice clothes, like what I wear to work and to bring some kind of small candies. He said he’ll be at my place at 5:00 to get me and prepare.
The next morning comes and I’m outside at 4:58, just to make sure I’m ready to go. I bring my Lao flash cards to study some while I wait. Some time passes and it gets to 5:30. I’m thinking now that he’s not coming, so I’m starting to plan the rest of my day around this little bump in the road. In the middle of my thoughts he drives by and finally gets me at about 5:40. Now, that’s really Lao time. I get on his motorbike and we go to his house. He gives me a sash and ties it diagonally around my shoulder and opposite hip. There were many things I didn’t expect to happen ont his holiday and entering a beauty pageant was certainly low on that list… We go buy some more candy, I guess for the judges, some sticky rice and then drive up and park next to one of the biggest temples in the city. Again I think temple is another mistranslation, but I won’t go to far into this one. I think temple could also be considered as a monastery. He sets up the thinnest mat I’ve ever seen on the side of the street and pulls out a big golden looking bowl and puts the rice in and opens the candy bags. A big line of monks comes down the street and he tells me to get ready. I guess we’re giving alms to the monks.
Every morning Buddhist monks walk around town with a bowl and collect alms food from the local people. Each local person gives a small bite of food into their bowl for them to take back to the temple. The people giving the food believe that by giving food to the monks they are creating good merit for themselves and their family. Merit can also be thought of as fortune or blessing. The monks take the food back and then split it amongst them selves. Any extra food is generally given to homeless people or shelters supporting the needy. Also in return for giving alms, the monks are available to the local community or “lay people” as spiritual guidance coaches. I think there is also a sense of honor shown toward the monks who give up living a indulgent life for the pursuit of helping all of humanity. Anyway, this balance is probably much deeper and could be a book in itself, but that’s basically all I know and enough of an overview to get an idea of what I’m participating with.
Knowing all of this before, I get very excited when I find out I’m taking part in this dance between the lay people and the monks. I grab a piece of candy in one hand and a small ball of sticky rice in the other and try to soak in the moment as they are coming to us next. I put the first few things in their basket, but the sticky rice, as you could and have probably guessed, stuck to my hand. That means I only have him part of the food and who knows what happened to the rest of it. It probably entered the ether the Buddhism. My brain is being pulled to what I just did and how I’m probably creating negative merit. Then, I’m pulled back as a big group of them comes to us. I’m now entering panic mode as I tear the candy bags further open and give up completely on the sticky rice. I’m practically throwing the food at them now and I see some food get thrown back. Oh great, I’ve offended them so bad, they’re actually throwing it back at me now. The big group passes and I take a deep breath and try to stay calm and improve my process for the next group. I grab a bigger glob of sticky rice, so when some falls into the ether I still get enough into their bowl. I’m starting to get the rhythm, but none of them are slowing down for us. It’s like they’re on a conveyer belt that only has one speed! I can barely keep up with all of this action. In the blur of everything I can still see things being thrown back at us. Then about 15 minutes later my colleague, Khamphat, tells me it’s over. I’m not even sure what happened or if I actually just fell asleep outside of my guest house waiting for him to pick me up. I’m hoping I will wake back up with my merit still in tact.
I had no idea such a peaceful relationship, religion, and event was going to be so stressful. I had in mind we would be sitting at a china table sipping tea with each other talking about doves and rainbows. Totally exhausted, we head back to his house. We have some candy left over and he has the food they threw back in one of the bags. Apparently, they’re supposed to do that and we mostly got these really good sticky rice balls with grilled bananas in the middle. We also ate some candy and enjoyed each other’s company. I played around with his guitar and he showed me his side business of printing digital photos on merchandize.
The next day the same holiday continued at night with a boat burning festival. It’s also a light festival where people light these paper cylinders and let them float off into the air. We walked around town and into a few different temples to see the beautiful boats and festivities. It’s was all nice, but not really my speed of thing to do. It was nice being able to spend the night with some of my Lao colleagues and get to know them better. I’ll add some pictures here.
That’s me on the left with a monk angel on my shoulder, Na in the middle, and Phavath on the right. Na is a Lao native who is a very outgoing personality in the office. Makes sense why she’s one of the teacher trainers. Pronounced Pavat, on the right, was raised in Washington, but his parents are Lao, so he’s fluent in the Lao ways. He’s also the other one who stays at my guest house. I like this picture ever since Phavath said we look like a band.
Phavath there again on the right, Na in the grey sweatshirt. The only other person in the photo is Maisa on the very left. She’s another teacher trainer and very silly. All of them are good friends in and out side of the office.
The week after I attended a school opening which is basically like a big party the schools throw for us after we complete a build. This one was technically just a library being built, so the ceremony is a little different. I had fun spending time with Lanoy and the construction team. The construction team are all men and a bit older from everyone else in the office. I really love hanging out with them because they are man’s men and we have a lot of fun joking around with each other. One thing I thought I wouldn’t see happen in this not so aggressive culture (compared to Ghana), was women being aggressive toward dating me. In Ghana they would argue with me if I said no and then negotiate to just making a baby with them. That was a real source of entertainment for me when I was there. Well at this event I’m sitting with Lanoy and a woman comes up to fill up our drinks and talk a bit. She asks Lanoy to ask me if I have a girl friend. I say no and that I’m not interested in dating right now. Then, she Lanoy asks me if I would like to date her. I hesitate a bit and restate the question and look over to see her looking right at me with a serious look. I laugh a bit and try to be as polite as I can as I repeat what I said before she asked.
The event doesn’t close until after work is over and then after we get back to the office they all invite me to go over to one of their houses and drink and eat more. Of course I agree and we have a mini party right next to their house in a busy alleyway. I even have enough beers to get up and play guitar a bit, and quickly stop when I remember that I can’t play at all past the few songs I learned when I was in high school. Afterward, we all leave and go to a club. It was really a blast a completely different part of Laos I hadn’t seen yet. Then around midnight we leave and head home when the club closes.
This past week I went to another school opening, but this time a full school opening. We sit through the same ceremony as before, but this time they ask me to come up and accept a few gifts and take pictures with some of the officials. Then we go to the next room over and have the Bossi ritual, just like after the filming and when I first got here with Karin, Aaron, and Axel. I hadn’t eaten food and they bring in all kinds of really delicious food. This school is probably the furthest I’ve been off away from any towns and that made for some of the best food I’ve had since being here. The bananas had seeds, which I’ve never actually run into before. I mean big seeds I couldn’t just chew and swallow easily. The food in the villages is so fresh and amazing I stuff my face. At the same time people around me are trying to feed me more with drink and food. I get to the tipping point, but can’t really say no to anyone’s gifts, a mistake I will be sure to remember next time. I get so full I feel like I just need to go and throw it up in the bathroom to feel better. Then they call my name on the loud speaker.
A woman is standing in the middle of the crowd all by her self and one of the construction guys leads me to her. I greet her and get ready to do the lao dance with her. It’s basically holding your hand out like your going to compare palms sizes with someone and then winding them in circles. It’s more beautiful then how I described it, but it’s no Salsa. The music doesn’t really start and I can tell she’s nervous because she’s looking at her friends around us and not at me at all. Then we start and I start to sweat because I’m so full of everything and we’re underneath a black canopy designed to keep rain off I guess, but it’s just keeping in the humidity. Now the sweat starts to drip off and she can’t stop laughing and mimicking me to everyone behind me as we go around in a circle. If I hadn’t been in similar situations in Ghana I would have really freaked out here. This sounds more like a nightmare then anything else. Everyone in the group is now laughing at me and she’s totally stopped dancing, but instead is just circling around with me mimicking everything I’m doing wrong. I think these people skipped out on their hospitality classes. I am now feeling like that’s the only reason I was called out there and I just want to go to the bathroom and try to pee to relieve some of this full feeling and try to wipe some of my sweat off. The song ends and I thank her and go immediately to the bathroom. I wasn’t really offended because I know these people don’t really understand what kind of situation they were putting me in and I got to make them all laugh really hard, so it was totally worth it. After I’m done I go back and sit down and reject all food and drink offered to me with many thank you and apologies.
The next day after work I go home immediately to work out and reset myself after all of the other things I’ve been doing. It feels good and when I call Phavath to go get some food he tells me to come to the office, which is also the home of one of the construction guys. Once there, a lot of the men of the office greet me and pour me some beer. I eat some of the food and they tell me they ordered dog. I get nervous and try to drink some more to get a small buzz before I go down this path. I’ve always had the rule in my family to try all food at least once, so there’s no way I can turn this one down. It arrives and just looks like normal barbequed meat next to a nice smelling sauce. They tell me the sauce is like a peanut sauce, so I dip some veggies in it and prepare my self for the dog. I take a bit without any sauce and make sure to really take in the flavor. The worst part of this whole experience was how much I actually enjoyed the flavor. Phavath disagrees and says the worst part was that our office puppy was right there next to us. I can’t say I disagree much with him, that was a very strange part. I also find out later that the sauce isn’t at all peanut sauce, but made from the dog’s liver. Wonderful! I’m not sure I would ever order dog again, but I did enjoy it enough to take another bite if someone orders again. Phavath and I end the night going to the best pizza place in town and it was absolutely the best way to wash away our guilt of eating a dog.
This past Friday, I went to the same constructions guys house and he had some more food for us. He had soup with a long skinny fish thing in it. The broth was amazing so I picked up some of the meat and chewed the tough, but tasty meat. I found out soon after the first bite that it’s a snake he caught early in the day. I feel much less guilty eating snake then eating dog, and it’s also really tasty in soup. I wouldn’t have suspected it, but I’ve been eating stranger things just in my short time here in Laos then I ever did living in Ghana. Probably the even stranger part is that I enjoy all of it.
This is the PoP ice cream crew. We go to get ice cream often after work. We do other things too, but mostly ice cream. That’s Caroline on the left. She’s the other intern in the office. Phavath again to my left, next over is Na again. Then next over is Thong, no the h is not pronounced. It’s sounded out like Tong. She’s another teacher trainer oddly enough. She’s very professional when it comes down to it and still is right there with everyone when we’re joking. Na and Thong were the first people to come up to me at Axel’s Bossi on the first weekend of my being here in Laos. Lastly is Maisa again on the right. I’ve made friends with everyone in the office in very interesting and lovely ways, but these are the ones I’m introducing in more detail now because I have the picture. I’ll include more people, pictures, and stories soon of PoP staff.