Fast Week, Passport Ban Ha, Long Weekend Ahead

Monday at work after I got back from Chiang Mai went by like a flash. Then, on Tuesday, Pavath and I were talking about our passports and how our pages are getting close to the end. He took his out and was looking at it as we talked. Then, he said wait a minute, some of the pages on the back say endorsement, where as the majority of them say visa page at the top. I jumped online and found out that the endorsement pages are for big changes, like to your name, added nationality, or alteration to a passport and are not allowed to be used for exit and entry stamps through immigration. I suddenly got worried that I didn’t look closely enough at my passport and I might be completely out of pages. I still need to get back to the States and then back to Laos again. My original plan was to just add pages when I’m back visiting my family at the end of this month. Well I also found out that if I want to show up in person to the embassy, then I have to pay a $60 penalty fee on top of any services, which would be the $82 to add passport pages. I guess they assume that if you’re in the States then you haven’t left for your trip yet and should’ve planned farther ahead. In the same day Caroline tells me that for our colleagues wedding on Saturday, our office gets the day off on Friday. First, I wait to go home to check my passport and sure enough I have just a little over a page left.

Still thinking about the problem (which in the Lao language is ban ha) I don’t want to use my time home to wait in line at an embassy, I want to avoid the extra fees, and I have a four day weekend, with Monday being off for International Women’s Day on Sunday. I make a quick decision to buy a flight down to Vientiane and get everything taken care of before I go back to the US. We emailed our bosses in the US and found out that we can have the costs for the pages reimbursed by PoP. I greatly appreciate the monetary help and it makes sense to since the visa for Laos takes up a whole page and most of my pages have been used since coming here to Laos. My ticket is bought to leave Thursday after work and then come back Friday evening. I could’ve stayed longer, but I’m not interested in more time off with the Chiang Mai trip and my upcoming trip back home. I’m passionately waiting the opportunity I’ll get on the weekend to study the Lao language.

I blink a few times and before I know it, it’s Thursday and I’m getting ready to leave for the airport.

On a side note: I have some pictures to add to this story from past week’s adventures.

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When Martin was here we had a bunch of crazy activities. This one in particular was to make a sandwich blindfolded. The goal was to get them to cooperate together just by talking and feeling around. Yes, they were cutting with that big cleaver on the ground, blind folded! No, no one’s finger was included in the sandwich. On top of that some of the women were cutting through the food into the direction of their hand. I suppose when they do that everyday of their life, they don’t need to look. I’m sure when they’re doing it in their kitchen, they are talking and doing other things as well. In the picture, the four main people posing, from left to right are Lee Vong, Sai, Pok, and Anthu. Lee Vong is the video editor and creator for our teacher training videos. He’s amazingly skilled at creating videos. Sai is the team leader for the teacher training team. He’s always calm and a very logical, well rounded leader for the team. He also has one of those laughs that makes me laugh every time I hear him. I think he’s also so serious all the time that when he laughs I can’t help myself but join. Pok is next, she helps with the videos. Often when I have questions about the Lao language I ask her and refer to her as my Lao ajan (in Lao means high level teacher who teaches adults). Pok and I also like to tease a lot in the office and create fun where ever we can. Last is Anthu, who is one of the people on the WASH team. She’s very humble for how smart she really is. She caught my attention early on because whenever I would be speaking to the staff, even if she wasn’t included, she would always be listening in and trying to learn.

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Here Martin had them create their own village. The catch was that they were going to all be living in the village and had to role-play as the villagers. Since this blog is public I have to be really careful with what I say here and will intentionally leave out a lot of details, sorry. Just remember that I’m living in a Communist country. I’m hoping that you should be able to fill in the holes and implications. Martin then had them discuss where they put their house and why they drew certain things in certain places. I wasn’t able to understand a lot, but Martin caught most of the nuances of the conversations. They defended why they built bridges and asked for things like who paid for it and now who owns the bridge. They came up with some really intricate ideas and discussion about public policy and development and none of them studied any of that in school. Then, we to pick who would be the village chief. Also, remember that the Lao society is very male dominant. Men have basic respects for women, but it doesn’t stretch much beyond that. Most of the time women can’t eat at the same table and certainly are never given power or the ability to make big decisions. It’s been a bit of a problem in the office and something that I’m working to try and open up a little bit. I don’t think our small office culture is going to change anything in the big picture for the area, but I hope to be able to give our female staff a voice and a passion to demand what they feel they deserve. My idea for the group came when Martin was talking about a similar type role-play where he presented a simple question like who was your favorite teacher in school. Some of the female staff opened up and talked about how they would have loved to get an education, but their family only had a little money and their brothers were sent to school instead. The situation became very emotion, to say the least.

The decision was to have Pok and Thanoy in the chief position. Martin and I didn’t cheat anything, it was chosen by the group. This was quite unexpected and then Martin stood in a little bit to stir things up. He had the women talk about balancing the field a little bit and requiring men to have a stricter dress code, just like the reality for women today in Laos. The women have to wear sins (traditional Lao skirts), pin their hair up, and cover up most of their body. The men can wear whatever they want as long as they have pants on and have no requirement to wear the traditional clothes, like the women. They came up with some rules and some other basic things like no physical harm to people’s wives. Well, when they presented this the men broke out into hysterics. They were mocking Pok, who took the main leadership role now. They made some nasty comments about prostitution and brushed most of the issues aside. They asked why Pok and Thanoy didn’t talk about the issues from their chief speech, specifically about the city layout. Pok, through all of the commotion, sat very dignified, smiled at every comment, waited her turn to speak, and addressed everything with passion and logic. It was really beautiful and probably one of the most interesting and inspiring experiences I’ve had since being here in Laos. She kicked major ass and Maritn and I we’re quietly rooting for her the whole time. Marin and I told everyone afterward that we were so proud of everyone for all being able to stretch their thinking a bit and talk about some soft spot issues.

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Here’s Pok cutting the green papaya in the back of our bumpy moving truck. I tried to get the picture before she switched knives. At first, she was using the big cleaver that was on the ground of the other picture and yes cutting into her hand again. I was on the other side of the truck, cringing the whole time. I think she switched knives when I started to cry.

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Here’s our last day with Martin, we went to the river at lunch and had a fun day for the rest of the day. We had music, the two guys closest to me set up, and lots of food, that all the people are preparing at the tables in front of us.

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They’re washing the already cut papaya, with Pok, and the lettuce in the back. From left to right they are Thanoy, Pok, (behind her is) Na, Anthu, and then Martin. Thanoy is on the community development team. She doesn’t like the center of attention much, but she’s funny, smart, and very skilled at communicating. She explains a lot to me about the Lao culture. Na, is on the Teacher Training team. She is by far the silliest person in the office. She’s one of those people who can’t sit in at a desk and do work for more than 10 seconds, but it’s amazing to see her work her magic when she gets the stage in front of students. She’s the one who gave me my Lao name, Boon Me (which means to have good luck). I remember the first time I met her was when I was at the film shoot, one of the first few weeks I was in Laos. The crew was running shot after shot in a classroom full of children. The hard part was to keep them in their same places to keep the background of the shots consistent. Like any children, after about 10 seconds they were ready to go and play somewhere else. We were trying everything to keep them in control. Finally, I though hey, I’ll go get Na and Tong to come in here, they work with children all the time. They came in and started doing their teaching that Martin taught them so well with using rhythm, sign language, and a bit of child-like enthusiasm. It was shocking to see how all of a sudden they all sat at their desks with the posture like they were being told the secrets of how to make the best candy in the world. They would all respond in unison and forgot completely about being stuck in their seat at school. It really made me proud to support PoP and our initiatives to train teachers how to bring this kind of skills to their own classrooms.

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Here’s the papaya salad after everything is cut and put in this pestle to now be pounded and made unbelievably spicy.


Here’s the food now on the table. From closest to furthest away, there is tissue (yes, that’s toilet paper, no not for what you think, the people here use it as napkins just about everywhere you go), some greens to mix with everything, a big mound of sticky rice (just to the top right almost touching the greens), a big barbequed fish, then noodles (just to the top left of the fish), papaya salad ready to eat, pork rinds and some cooked other parts of the pork I don’t want to ask more about, and finally a repeat of those things on the other side of the table. You eat by taking some of the greens or sticky rice as a scoop for the fish, noodles, pork, and/or papaya salad.

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There’s Maisa being goofy. She’s one of the Teacher Trainers. She specializes with English and improving the rest of the team. I work with her a lot. She was very shy at first, but now that we’ve gotten to know each other much better, she is very goofy and hilarious. She’s like the younger sister I never had.

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Here I am at Pok’s wedding celebration. That’s Thanoy on the very left as I’ve pointed out in other pictures. The bride and groom walk around to everyone and give them wisky shots out of that silver bowl.

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There’s Andrea, my boss, on the left and Caroline, the other intern, on the right.

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