Last week was a very good one with not too much going on. My Lao teacher had his schedule change, so we had to make up classes Monday through Wednesday. It was good because I also had an active Lao learning week in the office. My new strategy is to listen as close as I can to people speak and then ask then to write down what they say when I don’t understand. Well, I don’t understand a lot, so I had plenty to ask my Lao teacher. Before I would just settle with the one word I would pick up and guess about the rest based on context. Asking such specific questions has given me a lot more to study, but is also making my Lao learning quicker. I’m also still trying to practice speaking as often as possible with anyone that will give me the time. So far, the office is still my best opportunity because my colleagues want to learn English and when those people don’t know how to explain something, many times one of the managers is around or I take the word to my Lao teacher to understand further and then practice once I understand the translation. Karin, the M&E (Measurement and Evaluation) manager in our office, and I have monthly meetings to check in with each other about our work and personal lives. She’s the only other approved foreigner in the office, besides for Andrea, my direct manager. In my meeting with Karin she said that Andrea, Caroline, her husband, and her were talking about my progress with Lao and they couldn’t believe that I was learning so fast. She then said that they were trying to plan to make sure that I didn’t pass any of them. To give you some context, Caroline got here a month ahead of me, Karin here for a year and a half, and Andrea for a little over a year. I just hit my three-month mark (this current week, not the one I’m writing about). It’s not quite as amazing as it sounds because even though Caroline has been here for a month longer, she spends a lot of her time studying French and this is really her first language other then Language that she’s becoming conversational with. She’s studied French a lot and might very well be further along, but she’s also been studying that for 7 seven years in and out of school. That’s very different from learning a new language when immersed in a new culture. I literally just got done doing that during my 10 months in Ghana. I was able to take my two months at home to really analyze my strategy for learning a new language. I still have a lot to figure out, but I’m much quicker then I was before. With Andrea and Karin, they don’ t have much time to study because they have so much work to do, all the time. I’m really enjoying this language and how many resources that are available to help me take on an immersive study plan. I’m currently taking lessons, which are a nice review on how to read and write. They also introduce me to vocabulary that I wouldn’t otherwise learn. The best part of the classes are that my teacher really listens well and correct my pronunciation and that I can ask him clarification questions about things I heard or wrote down. I also go to a website by the U.S. Foreign Services Institute where I take a different type of course that really helps me with reading and learning vocabulary words that most people wouldn’t teach me, but use all the time. I’m also reading a book I got that has English and Lao of the same text right next to each other. That one is a very slow and still a bit too hard for me. I’m also studying flash cards of new words that I want to add to my repertoire. Still nothing really gets drilled into my head until I do the most important part of my studying, which is practicing with my colleagues at work. That’s really the time that I think has made a difference in my speed of learning. I’m able to work on all my skills at once and get instant feedback from everyone in the room. There are about 15 people in the programs room and more that are passing through all the time. At any time there are 2 or 3 people who know enough English and Lao to help me really understand how to say something and what it means in both languages. I really hope by the end of my time here I will actually be fluent in another language. I don’t want every new place I visit to be like Ghana where I become conversational and then have it slowly slip away after I leave. After I learn Lao, I will have an easy time switching to learning Thai, which is a well-spoken international language and the way I will keep my skills sharp after my time here in this area.
Then, on Friday I had my English lessons again and really made some great progress. I had some more advanced speakers in the class who helped me to translate some of the nuances. I also found out that the English I was using in the lesson was making it difficult to understand the concepts as well. That balance of having really basic English while teaching these intricate professional development skills is something I’m still making progress with each week. Next week I will be teaching how to make a mind map in order to develop their ideas to their full capacity.
Also, after work on Friday I leave on a flight to the capital city of Laos, Vientiane. I need to cross the boarder to Thailand because I’m coming up on my three-month stay in Laos. Every 2 times a foreigner renews their visa they must leave the country and come back. I’m also very grateful that PoP is paying for the flight and visa parts of my trip. Also on this trip will be Caroline and Pavath coming just to tour around the city. We have a holiday on Tuesday, so many people decided to take it off. We will all be staying through the end of the day on Tuesday. Our PoP driver takes us all to the airport. Everything goes very smoothly with the tickets and security. I don’t even have to take off my shoes or any thing out of my pockets. However, they do take my shaving cream out and throw it away. So much for me not looking like a slob on this trip. Pavath goes way ahead of us and when Caroline and I get through we lose him. Then in the seating area I look around, but still no Pavath anywhere. Then I go and pick a spot to sit and strangely enough Andrea is there waiting for her flight to Vietnam. Then Pavath comes back and sits with us. When I was planning this trip I imagined doing it all alone and now I’m here with three of my PoP people. We go up stairs to the terminal and board the plane. The whole flight takes 40 minutes, so they barely have time to run around to get us water and a snack before we land. It’s still much better then taking the 6-hour bus ride that could easily turn into a much longer bus ride if there are any delays. Last time I think it took Pavath 20 hours to get back up to Luang Prabang.
We check in with a nice hotel and go across the street to get Italian food. I get a pizza and beer of course, a natural pick at any fancy Italian place. The food is wonderful and after there was little effort to get me to try their homemade ice cream. I got the chocolate, which is the opposite of my normal fruit choice. It was well worth it because it was amazing and was only 16,000 Kip, which is almost exactly $2.
The next day we all decide to walk around and check out a few things Andrea suggested for me to visit. We see a statue, two temples turned into museums, and the outside of the presidential palace. Whoopdy do Bazzle, what does it all mean!? I don’t know what it meant and it got old pretty quickly. I was trying to be a good friend and mature museum hopper, but I just wanted to run through them get on to really exploring the town. My idea of exploring is just walking with no destination and just watching my surroundings and maybe going in a building or area when I feel compelled. It was interesting to see at these museums much more of the French influence from France, the Lao colonial masters. In Luang Prabang, it’s much more English based and less focused on old history and more of a sophisticated kind of tourist atmosphere. Luang Prabang is more of a back packer’s destination for those in their 20’s or 30’s. We head up one of the main streets to what is known as the Arc Di Triumph of Laos. It was basically a big archway over a park thing. It was pretty cool that we got to climb up to the very top and see Vientiane. We finish up with this one quicker then the last museums and get back on the main road to find a big gold temple, which is used on a lot of literature related to Lao. We get to the temple and it’s big and beautiful and looks like it’s literally all made out of gold. It was cool to look at and even better that it wasn’t open so we didn’t have to go in and read sign posts for an hour.
Before leaving we decided to check out a few of the other buildings in the same temple compound space as this big gold pointy thing. The next building had large stairs with a red carpet leading straight up the middle. Large pillars and two giant doors met us at the top. As I neared the top few stairs I looked up and nearly fell backwards. My balance is really not that good when my head is whipping around and I was taken aback by the beauty of the mural on the ceiling just outside of the door. The symmetry on the repeated shapes and colors was so well matched it looked like a 3D illusion. We took off our shoes and entered. My favorite part was how we all just split up and did our own thing at our own speed. The inside had very tall ceilings with similar mural paintings that were on the ceiling of the entrance. I also notice some paintings along the walls. It seems like they’re all telling different stories of either just the Buddha or other great spiritual leaders as well. The best part about this so far is that there are no other tourists in the building with us and Pavath and Caroline haven’t said a word since entering he building. I walk from the first room over to the main room which had everything the first did and a big carpet leading down the middle to a big shrine with a giant Buddha statue at the end. I see Caroline sitting in front of the statue, looking very compfortable. I’m not sure what to take in first so I walk slowly toward the statue and take everything in. Maybe it’s because were in such a large and beautiful place with no other tourists or something else, but this place just feel right. I could spend hours here looking at all the details and just sitting and appreciating the silence. Then the silence is shattered by the low base sound of what I can only guess are speakers in the distance playing music. Then I catch a glimpse of Caroline at the far edge of the room looking over at me with a big grin. I get to her and find a gong with a fuzzy hammer in her hand. Of course if they left a hammer sitting next to a gong they are expecting tourists to use it. Or that was a test and we all just failed and are going straight to hell. Either way I gave it a go and had some fun really getting to listen to the sound itself with nothing else to distract us. Then Caroline and Pavath were in the other room and I could get a sense they were ready to leave. I’m not even close to being ready yet, but I don’t want them to just wait around and get bored. This right here is exactly the reason why I like to travel alone. I do also like to be with people and make memories with them, but when I’m alone and come across an experience like this, I can really take my time and soak everything up.
We leave the big beautiful building and walk around the compound to another similar building. This one is locked so we head toward the exit. After a few steps we hear a very deep drumming sound coming from in between both buildings we just explored by where they had a meditation hall and sleeping quarters for the monks who live in this temple compound. I ask them if we can just walk over and both are excited to get closer. We get up right next to the tower with the drums in the top and sit down to listen for a bit longer. The novice monks are hitting a very large deep pitched drum and a smaller gong similar to the one we hit in the big building. All three of us sit there in silence for about 20 minutes and it is wonderful. At first some tourists are around us and all I can think is how much I wish they weren’t here. After a few minutes of anxious pacing, they all get bored and continue on their way. That leaves most of the drumming session just for us to listen. There’s a man next to us sweeping leaves and as he gets closer he starts to talk to us. He tells us that the novice monks hit the drum every morning and evening to mark the start and finish of the day. He then told us that he’s here to sweep the leaves to make good merit for himself. It’s funny how both Caroline and Pavath said how much easier it would be if he just had a leaf blower to get the job done in a fraction of the time. I didn’t want to sound preachy or like I actually knew his intentions, but I’m pretty sure I knew why he was using an old broom. The part of Buddhism that I really enjoy reading discusses doing mundane tasks like sweeping leaves at certain forest monasteries. It would emphasize that even before finishing the sweeping you could see leaves beginning to fall again on the area already swept. Even still, everyday it’s important to sweep and even more so to be very mindful of the entire activity. In Tibetan Buddhism they have an activity quite in the opposite direction, but with a similar message, I think. They build these beautiful pictures by placing small colored pieces on a large canvas. By the time their done they’ve made a wonderfully beautiful piece of art that would make any place more beautiful. Instead of framing or taking a picture of their art, they destroy it immediately. Both of these activities are to teach the person about impermanence and how it happens again and again, no matter how bad we want it to go in the other direction. Any time something is born it’s natural direction is toward decay and disassembly. There was a scientist in the early 1800’s, named Carnot, who described this as the Second Law of Thermodynamics or entropy. Instead of clinging to something that will decay at some point, they aren’t attached to it and let it go, while using strong mindfulness the entire time of it’s process to analyze how they feel and react to this process. Haha imagine if I had spoken up and giving an answer like that to “I think that guy should use a leaf blower.” I think that would have been a bit obnoxious.
We leave the temples and start to head back to town. Later at night we find a restaurant that specializes in taking people off the street to train them with professional skills at their restaurant and gives them a chance at a better future. AND they have wonderfully delicious cocktails at 50% cost at happy hour. My new favorite place!
Sunday was pretty slow. Pavath left to visit his girlfriend and Caroline and I went around to find a few places she needed to visit on Monday. Then, we walked to a place called Cope Visitor Center that Andrea suggested to visit. Otherwise I wouldn’t have ever picked this place. I was prepared before going that this place is a support of those people in the country who have suffered from land mine injuries and disabilities. In case you didn’t know Laos is the most bombed country per acre in the entire world. Apparently as the U.S. would come back from Vietnam with their bombs, they would either drop them on Laos as a target or if the bombs were too heavy to carry back to their air bases. The bad part about this is that they were now bombing mostly civilians to get maybe a few bad guys hiding in the villages. Another bad thing is that some 20% of the 100’s of millions of bombs didn’t explode, but were still armed. Probably the worst part of this are the types of bombs they used. The U.S. was developing a bomb to use during the Korean war. We were afraid that we were quite literally going to be over run by Korean troops, so we developed a bomb to blow up and destroy a very wide area. Unfortunately we didn’t get them developed in time for that war, but we now had many of them and a mass production infrastructure to build these types of bombs that were quickly becoming not so useful with the way wars were turning. Around Vietnam the wars were quickly turning away from the big battle fields of just soldiers to a much less identifiable battle field with all kinds of innocent women and children nearby. So our defense and economic advisors decided we still had to use the bombs even after we knew all of this I just told you. These bombs are still being blown us today and killing people off in those tiny villages near the boarder of Vietnam. Most of the people who live out there are very poor and when they find scrap metal, like cans, old car rims, or giant thick pieces of expensive metal covering a small fuse and a lot of explosive power. It was terrible to walk around this wonderfully done museum and read all of these personal stories of the innocent people affected so terribly by these bombs. Toward the end of the walking part we saw a list of nations that had signed a declaration to bomb the use and manufacture of these bombs. Most developed countries and many developing countries had signed the declaration except a very important one… The U.S. That was a really big slap in the face after this whole presentation. I was ready to think okay this was bad, but we learned from our mistakes, right? No so much. They also showed a map of all the places where scatter bombs have been used and it basically marked all of our war zones after Vietnam through the Middle East and even into parts of Africa. We went into a small theater and watched a few short films and I had enough at this point. We bought some books at the counter to support their cause and then left.
Monday comes around and Caroline goes to a local café to get some work done. I leave for the bus station on my own to cross the boarder into Thailand and make my way back into Laos with my fresh new visa that I can stay in the country with for another three months before I have to leave again. I leave very early to catch the first bus out, just to make sure I have enough time if I decide to travel anywhere else in Thailand or some issues come up with getting the visa. I get to the station about 30 minutes early and the counters are still closed, so I walk around the area and try to find the morning market to do some exploring. I saw it on a map and walked by it on the way to the Cope center, so it wasn’t hard to find. I take a busy dirt road that I though would lead either to the market or some other network or dirt roads that would ultimately get me lost. Good thing I know the word for bus station in Lao. I walk by some empty stall and turn a corner before getting to a long narrow area with vegetable vendors on either side. As I pass I can hear some people talking about me, not sure exactly what they’re saying. Probably something like, hey that white guy is lost. Then I take another corner before getting to a large open square with hundres of people walking around to vendors of all kinds. I’ve been to a few developing world busy markets now, but this one seems different from the rest. I’ve never seen such a concentration of people that I could see all in one gaze. It’s really beautiful to see this kind of dance that goes on everyday and is such a dependence for so many of these people I see. Before I can finish the thought I realize that I’m at te mouth of the human river dumping into this square and I should probably close my mouth and keep walking. I don’t want to lose track of time, so I decide to go to the other end, turn around and then head back to the bus station. I’m not sure I could explain everything I saw on that walk, without writing a whole new blog post. I’d have to say even that would be stealing from the experience. It did give me some more examples of the culture and local life in many areas.
Back at the bus station I but a ticket and shortly after board the bus for the boarder town in Thailand. The bus ride took about 40 minutes and then we all got out at what looked like a typical boarder crossing. This part should be easy, since I’m just being stamped out of Laos. I go up to a counter that says passport holder and am stamped out quite quickly. I go to pass another gate under the same passport sign, but there’s a place to scan something and I’m not holding anything that I can scan. I walk back and try to see if I missed something, but quickly realized that the immigration guy was done with me and didn’t want to give me anything. There are some other French people doing the same back and forth dance. There are people on the other side waiting for people to walk through, but they don’t seem at all interested to help us. Finally we walk up to a gate on the left with a cement block behind it to keep it closed and push the gate open just enough for us to squeeze through. I’m not sure if it’s the right or wrong thing to do, but it definitely seems to be upsetting the man with the machine gun being waved at us. Just joking no machine guns, just masked men with machetes. We get to the guard on the other side and he takes a half second glance at the passport before waving me through. Like I said, being stamped out is probably the job for the officers who didn’t get sucha good score on their tests. We all get back on the same bus and continue across the Friendship Bridge to the boarder corssing on the Thai side. Just as confusing and as little help, as I go around looking for the paper to fill out and a pen to use. One lady on our bus comes over to me and helps me out. She speaks amazing English and looks like she’s wearing a uniform, so I think that she is with some organization or something to help lost people like me. That part goes smoothly and we get back on the bus yet again to now enter the city on the other side. I expected a small town on on the edge of this main commuter road, with pretty straight forward areas to go and then leave again. I expected it to be more like a rest stop in the states rather then the giant city it actually is. They dump us off in the middle of no where of the city. I start walking around the block of the bus station and don’t see anything even in English, so I just go straight until I hit a big road. I cross the road and quickly get to what looks like the end of buildings for awhile. I turn back around and ask a man on the side of the road for a bank. I’m speaking only in Lao and somehow he understands me even though he’s Thai, or maybe he’s a Lao person on this side of the boarder. I start walking with his new directions and then a few seconds later I hear an annoying honking coming right at me. It’s the man I was just asking for directions now on his motor bike telling me to get on. He takes me across the street and through a small market next to the bus station. I don’t think he wen’t below 10 MPH and probably averaged about 15 as we went through this busy market. I thought many times that we were going to crash into someone or into something on the side of the market. He kept swerving between people and passing people who were going normal speeds. Not to mention that this is a walking market and only enough room for maybe people to come through with their stalls to set up. Somehow we make it through the market and to just on the other side of the bus station where there is a big main road with everything I was looking for.
He drops me off and I head to an ATM to pull out Bhat, the Thai currency, to pay for the visa on the way back to Laos. They only take Dollars aor Bhat because Kip, the Lao currency, is too unstable and they will lose money. I got to several ATMs, but am rejected at all of them. I prepared for this before and pulled out enough Kip to be able to exchange. I can’t find an exchange person to change the money though. I thought it would be easier because they’re all over the place in Laos. I find a 7-Eleven and some ATMs outside. How perfect I can get money here and then a slurpy as a reward. I’m in heaven. Okay, I’m actually in hell because I’m rejected from both of those ATMs. I found out later that my bank was suspicious, even though I told them I’d also be going to the surrounding countries around Laos. After another hour of searching for a bank to exchange money, I find that bank and change the money. I’m now literally in a half trot half run to get back to the slurpys. On my way back I catch a glimpse between buildings, down a side road, of a giant white building. I pass and then about 10 steps passed, I stop and wonder what I would feel like after wondering what I had just caught a glimpse of. I take the path and soon realize that it was an optical illusion of a few different buildlings that just looked like one giant one. I continue down these side streets parallel to the big one, kind of tracking how far I should go until I cross back. Then I see the biggest buddha statue I’ve ever seen to my left overlooking what looks like a body of water. I have to go take a look at that. Now, I’m heading down another side street totally in the opposite directions of the slurpys. What the hell is my problem!? I get down to a street paralleling the Mekong river and Laos on the other side. I get to the other side of the street and look back at the statue. It’s pretty cool, but would be better if I could be up there looking at the view it’s getting. I keep going down parallel to that first main street deprately looking for a way back to the main street and my slurpy treat. I finally find a system of smaller side streets. I come across a man on a bike that makes a strange noise as he’s looking at me and stops his bike on my path of where I’m headed. I smile as I pass and he says hey another white man! I laugh and we chat for a bit. He’s from Finland just visiting Thailand. I find his English hard to understand so he must really find it hard to get around here. I keep going down the road and finally get back to the main one I started on. As I get to the road I realize I’m literally square across the street from the 7-eleven. It must be destiny then. I quickly shuffle my way into the store and take a nice long look at all the things I haven’t seen for awhile. It’s still not as amazing as an American 7-eleven, but it’s pretty cool. Okay, no more messing around, time for that slurpy. I get to the front by the cups and drink machines. There’s the soda one of course and then the only other one is a coffe one. NO SLURPYS! I thought that was standard at 7-eleven and even heard from Andrea it’s a must once I get over to that side of the boarder. After this whole struggle with the money and finding where to go, I’m ready to be back in Laos where I know the language, money, and places to find tasty treats. I buy a chocolate milk and some dried jack fruit before heading to the bus station.
At the station they tell me that I can’t buy a ticket without a visa. Shocked at first I realize it makes sense if I have to spend time filling out the visa information it wouldn’t be fair for the people who just pass through with a quick glance from the immigration people. I take a Thuk Thuk (it’s actually called, not Tuk Tuk). I have to say it really drives me crazy the way most foreigners come into this country and mispronounce the words here. It’s one thing if you’re a tourist, but if you’re living and immersing yourself here, get it right. I’ll save that rant for another day. Back at the boarder I run into another lack of signage, but just figure it out due to how the crowds are moving and how European people look. A young woman asks me where to get the visa application and I tell her I have no idea, I’m trying to figure out the same thing. I go up to the window that says completed applications and he gives me two of them. No I go to the usual desk with pens, but there’s not one to be found. No pens anywhere and I have none with me. Great, I’m going to be stranded in Thailand because on a little bit of ink. Okay I think there’s something sharp in my bag, I’ll just write it in my blood. I ask that same woman to borrow a pen and thank goodness she has more. She asks me some questions about the application and because of all the visa runs in Ghana I knew how to answer them to the standard the immigration will be looking for. In Ghana if you made a mistake and crossed it out they would tell you to restart the application, so this one should be a breeze. We go through the rest of the process and then I she gets stuck at the same gate I was stuck at before at the other entrance. I walk up and push the cement block and gate back and the man with shaving his beard with a machete makes a snort, but doesn’t mind too much. I must have looked like an expert to her, even though I was just a pin balling fool a few hours before. We get in the Thuk Thuk and chat for a bit. I find out she’s a German woman who lived in Isreal for a while at a Jewish commune for a while before coming here to visit friends in Thailand. I also hate her because she knows German, English, French, Thai, and English. Damn Europeans and their multilingualness. At the morning market we get off and walk the rest of the way. At the first stop light, right in the middle of the cross walk, someone gets off the bus next to us and walk parallel to us with a strange look on their face as they stare at us. I quickly realize it’s Pavath and he’s actually wearing the same PoP shirt as I am too. I laugh at the coincidence and we all join and walk back near my hotel.
The next I go to that same big temple again on my own. It was nice to go and sit in there for a bit, but it’s also Lao National Day, so there are too many tourists to make it enjoyable. I leave and make my way back to check out of the hotel and spend the last few hours before going back to Luang Prabang.
The flight back was quick and easy and the PoP driver, Ai Mai, picks us up at the airport. He picks us up because technically the whole trip was for my visa and they offer either reimbursement or a car to and from the airport. Thanks PoP! Back at home I unpack and immediately rest before the rest of quick the workweek.