Thailand or Bust

Vientiane sits right on the Mekong River, which divides Laos and Thailand. It’s just a short drive (or a 39-minute bike ride) to the Friendship Bridge, which crosses the border. On Saturday, the school arranged a shopping trip for new teachers to see whether the grass is, in fact, greener on the other side.
We all met at school, where a convoy of school vans and personal cars awaited. We took off at 7:30 a.m. At the bridge, we handed our passports and paperwork to our drivers, who took them to the appropriate booths. Staff members who had never been to Thailand before had to wait in line to get their pictures taken, so the rest of us waited for them. Finally, we crossed the bridge with a big cheer: “Hoorayyyyyy…” only to have to stop again and repeat the process on the Thai side.
In Laos, people drive on the “right side” of the road (as in, the North American side), but in Thailand, they drive on the “wrong side” (as in, the Australian side). When you cross the Friendship Bridge, the road criss-crosses to get your car on the correct side!
Once in Thailand, we pulled in to the Mut-Mee Guesthouse in Nong Khai for breakfast around 9:30. (If you’re interested, check out the website: www.mutmee.com.) We sat in their tropical garden on the banks of the Mekong and sipped Lao coffee (strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk), freshly squeezed lemonade and egg sandwiches.
Finally, we drove the last hour to Udon Thani, home of many big stores and malls. We went to just one on this trip, a mall with Robinson’s Department Store. Our goal: Find pants for Tony, who has lost about 50 pounds this year. Just inside the mall, we discovered a store called Export, where we found heaps of clothes made in Southeast Asia and exported to the West. Tony even found the exact same shorts he bought at Target in July, only in a size that fits his new skinny butt (and for only about $10). He also found a few pairs of Dockers pants. Perfect!
Otherwise, we bought a trashcan for our kitchen, and that was about it. We didn’t really need anything. I compared prices of toiletries, and they weren’t any cheaper than in Laos. However, it was nice to wander through Watsons, Boots and even a little Body Shop. There are no Western fast-food restaurants in Laos, so we gorged on junk from KFC, Dairy Queen and Mister Donut at the mall.
In the parking lot, we were all ready to leave when our superintendent, Steve, discovered his car had been blocked in by a white van. A mall security guy showed up with a jack and prepared to haul the van away, but the owners came dashing out just in time. Of course, they were shocked that anyone would touch their car, but they grudgingly moved it so Steve could get out. Ha!
We’ve been told that better bargains are to be found at Tesco or Metro, but those explorations will have to wait for another time. When we first heard of the shopping mecca of Udon Thani, we thought we might head over there a couple times a month, but the border crossing makes the journey a little too time consuming. We’ll likely stick to our little village market until desperation hits.

Hash House Hilarity

I’ve been hearing about the Hash House Harriers for ages. “Drinkers with a running problem” is how they describe themselves. All I knew about the Harriers was that they usually had weekly runs that wrapped up with a lot of beer swillin’.
There was a group in Turkey, but I never found the motivation to check it out. There was a group in Shanghai, but I was just too lazy to make the trek across the city. And what do you know? There’s a group here in Vientiane.
Now, just to clarify, running is no longer my thing. After my sister, Katy, and I ran the Anchorage Marathon in 1999, I decided to take two weeks off from running. And I never ran again.
So I wasn’t interested in the Hash as a running group; I was more interested in the social aspect. Linda, a pre-K teacher from the Netherlands goes nearly every week, so she sent out a blanket invitation shortly after we all arrived in August. I wanted to join, but the stress of moving, the blazing heat in Laos, and the workload at school all seemed like valid excuses to skip. Finally, on Monday, I decided to give it a whirl.
We all met at a Laos restaurant. I knew Linda and Whetu from school, and I quickly met a few of the regulars – about 20 in all. They referred to each other by their Hash names, which was a little weird at first. I mean, it’s always risky to introduce yourself to someone new, but you REALLY don’t know how to respond when you stick out your hand and say, “Hi, I’m Sharon!” and the guy says, “I’m Numb-Nuts.” Hmmm ….
We set off, following the marks on the path. A “hare” had set the route with chalk symbols, including false trails and dead ends. When walkers and runners came to a chalk X, we had to guess which way to go and look for chalk markings that indicated if we were on the right track. Fortunately the lead runners usually sorted out the route and then hollered back to the stragglers. The Hashers shouted out code words such as “RU?!” (Have you found the proper trail?) and “Checking!” (I’m still looking for the chalk marks.) and “On on!” (Yep, this is the right trail!) to help everyone stick together.
I kept up a brisk walk, chatting with the ladies, without worrying about where I was going. The trail took us into Lao villages, where kids played volleyball and shouted out “Hello!” to us. Neighbors gathered at the roadside to smile, wave and greet us with a friendly, “Sabaidee!”
The route eventually led back to the restaurant, where we stood outside in a circle for some silliness that smacked of university frat parties. Tony skipped the run but met us for dinner, so the two of us “Hash virgins” were invited to the center of the circle to introduce ourselves and down a beer. Finally, we all filed into the restaurant for dinner.
The whole concept of Hash House Harriers is just too complicated and bizarre for me to describe, but I found that the Wikipedia info pretty much matched my experience. Check it out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hash_House_Harriers.
The verdict: Good times, good times! I’ll be back.

Sunday Outing

When Whetu asked whether I wanted to go to the local zoo, I shuddered. Asian zoos are notoriously unpleasant with cramped cages and sickly critters. However, I hate to miss out on anything, so I said, “Sure!” With her gardener serving as driver for the day and his cousin tagging along to translate, a group of us packed into his van this morning, and off we went.
The zoo was small, and some sections featured the usual depressing concrete pens, but it was much nicer than I anticipated. Most animals had roomy enclosures with shade and thick vegetation. The jungle setting had no real organization (gibbons were next to bears, etc.), except for an area that had been funded by an Australian organization (or the Aussie government, not sure) and highlighted animals from Down Under, including kangaroos, emus and cassowaries. The latter looked like a cross between a turkey and a velociraptor. Wild.
As we left the zoo, our driver and his cousin, Gail, told us about a “beautiful waterfall” that was only about three kilometers off the main road. We decided to check it out. Unfortunately the “road” was more of a muddy collecton of craters and ruts, so it took us about 30 minutes to reach the “waterfall,” which was really more of a watering hole. Lots of Lao families were picnicking along the banks or playing in the water fully dressed. Nobody wore a swimsuit; kids frolicked in their undies. The water flowed over interesting rock formations with holes deep enough that children could stand in them with water up to their chests. We all agreed it would be a fun way to spend the day … except for the flesh-eating parasites we keep hearing about. Better sort that out first.
Back on the main road, we headed to the floating restaurants. We walked down a rickety gangplank to a collection of thatched-roof dining areas on the Namnim River. A hostess led us to our own boat, where we sat on cushions around a low table and ordered a collection of delicious Lao dishes – fried rice, chicken lap (spicy minced meat), seafood, very spicy noodles, fried chicken, steamed fish, chicken curry, and more. After the food arrived, a guy came aboard, started up the motor and took us for a little cruise. We didn’t go far before he cut the engine and let the boat drift.
We all pushed back from the table, got comfy on the cushions and enjoyed the tranquility and good company. Very nice and less than $10 each!

Biking for Bliss

Getting out on my bike is the perfect anecdote to the stress of setting up a new home and learning a new job.
This morning, I went for a ride with two VIS teachers – Whetu, an English teacher from New Zealand, and Linda, a kindergarten teacher from the Netherlands. They both participate on a dragonboat team, so we rode along the Mekong River to the spot where their team keeps the boat. Our journey took us through bustling villages and verdant rice paddies. We dodged traffic, gaping muddy potholes, geese, dogs, goats, and chickens.
When we arrived at the dragonboat, it was filled with water but still floating. The villagers, who operate a ramshackle refreshment stand, didn’t seem concerned. They greeted us and seemed especially excited to see Linda, who speaks decent Lao. One old man took Whetu’s bike for a quick spin. Whetu and Linda figured someone must bail out the dragonboat every time the team wants to paddle. After all, it is rainy season, so that boat would fill up quickly.
We took a different route back from the river, sticking to a more direct main road. Last week on that road, Whetu and I got drenched by a sudden storm. Today, I got a pretty nasty sunburn. But it was worth it.
I counted 13 Buddhist temples on our route before I lost track. We passed orange-clad monks on bicycles, in tuk tuks, kneeling at the temples, and walking along the side of the road. That never gets old.

Vientiane International School

When Tony and I were preparing for the job fair last winter, he delegated the research to me. Not one to embrace change, he didn’t really want to leave China, but he understood that this “Third Culture Kid” needed to move on. I spent hours on the internet, schizophrenically obsessing about one school or another. I kept coming back to Vientiane International School. I loved the idea of a small school in a tropical climate. We were thrilled to accept job offers (primary English as an Additional Language for me; secondary English for Tony) at VIS during the Search Associates fair in Bangkok.
Now that we’re here, it’s hard not to make comparisons to our previous school. That’s not fair, of course. Shanghai American School had 3,000 students on two huge campuses. We had a decadent amount of resources and technology that I only now fully appreciate. With only 300 students, VIS has to be a bit more frugal. So I’m really only making observations when I describe the situation here. I swear, I’m not complaining!
In Shanghai, I had my own classroom and cabinets stuffed with top-of-the-line resources. Each fall, we ordered new supplies for the next year, and I was able to stock the ESOL office with fantastic manipulatives, flashcards, games, books, and everything else we needed or wanted to reinforce the grade-level content. If I needed pens, construction paper, Model Magic … well, anything really … I just marched up to the SAS supply room and went shopping.
At VIS, I share an office space and a classroom with two other teachers. At first, I didn’t use the classroom. It seems my predecessor taught all her classes in the grade-level classrooms, so that’s what I did. That means I had to haul all my teaching supplies with me wherever I went. Inevitably, I forget something and had to run back downstairs to get my supplies. I’ve started bringing most of my classes down to the EAL classroom, and it’s working out much better. The room is used for all grade levels, from grade 1 to 12, so I’m trying to lay claim to a corner that will be a nice learning space for the little guys.
As for materials … sigh. It took me hours just to get a pen. I had to fill out a form, and then wait for someone to fill my order. When I asked for a trash can, the nice Lao girl working in the office brought me an in-box tray. So I had to fill out a new form with more details. Teaching materials are old, outdated and geared toward older students. There’s nothing very useful for teaching English to the little kids. I’m glad I brought so much of my own stuff! The school seems eager to get our department what we need, though, and we recently got a grant from the American Embassy to buy EAL and special education materials.
I also took a step backwards with regards to technology. At SAS, I started an ESOL blog and used my laptop and projector frequently in the classroom. I attended two conferences on technology in education and felt quite inspired to work with our little “digital natives.” At VIS, there are a few portable projectors that can be checked out from the library or we can take our kids to the library tech lab, which is equipped with a projector. Mr. Lin is a fabulous techie, who installs all the hardware and handles all the trouble-shooting, but there’s nobody on staff designated to train TEACHERS in tech integration. It’s hard to keep up with technology under the best circumstances, and these ain’t the best circumstances.
On a positive note, the kids are very sweet. While most of my students at SAS were Korean, my VIS classes are much more diverse. I have students from Laos, Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Pakistan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Columbia. Several of them have no English at all. I have students in grades 1 to 5, and I am having a blast with them.
Another plus: no more bus ride to school! After four years of a long commute, I can now ride my bike to school in about 5 minutes. I love that!
Perhaps the best thing about our new school is the slower pace. Everything is much more relaxed (and as soon as Tony and I learn how to relax, I’m sure we’ll appreciate it). I do believe that once we learn the ropes and get situated, we’re going to love it here.

Geck-o-rama

Yeah, they leave tell-tale signs of their visit all over the walls, but I just love the geckos here! We usually have one or two keeping us company in the kitchen or living room each evening. They stick to the wall with their plump little toes and freeze for hours at a time before scurrying off in search of a snack. I strongly encourage them to eat mosquitoes. As pets, they are no worse than my belated cat, Ketta, who begrudgingly allowed me to pet her just long enough to lure me into a false sense of security, at which time she’d whip her calico head around and sink her fangs into my hand. I fell for that trick again and again. Geckos are equally unaffectionate, but at least it’s not painful.
This poor little guy was hanging out in the kitchen when I got home from school. I set my camera on “macro” and got right down in his tiny face. He must have been blinded by the flash or paralyzed by fear because he was still in that position when I was heading upstairs to bed.

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This may be the same one as the kitchen gecko. Dunno. But he was chillin’ in the living room this afternoon.

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This is our carport, where the geckos get together for late night dining. About 10 of them scattered when I approached with my camera, but this one didn’t get away in time.

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Bless Our House

Our landlady, Mrs. Villay, and her handyman, Mr. Pye, stopped by the house on Saturday with a couple trays full of little snacks and drinks. When I opened the gate, I said, “Oh, wow, thank you!” and Mrs. Villay said, “It’s not for you. It’s for the spirits.” So she put one tray on the front steps and the other in the backyard, burned some incense, said a little prayer, and then popped inside for a minute to chat. Most Lao people are Buddhist, and they usually have a little spirit house in their yard, where they leave all kinds of treats: bananas, sticky rice, noodles, beer, Coke, cigarettes, fake money, etc. We don’t have a spirit house, unfortunately, but I guess the next best thing is to make an offering in an auspicious corner of the property. Hope it worked.

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Vientiane Shopping Excursion

My fantastic EAL coordinator, Carine, invited me on a shopping excursion last Saturday with our new school counselor, Leslie, and our new special ed teacher, Barbara. We went to Home Ideal, a smallish version of a Chinese K-Mart; a rattan shop, where I bought a shoe shelf; the “Morning Market,” a crazy collection of Laos handicrafts and Chinese crap; a pharmacy; and then a lovely Mekong Riverside restaurant. So civilized!

Lovely Light Fixture

We had been living in this house for more than a week before I really noticed our living room light fixture. Its awesome-ness simply can’t be captured with a camera. The center looks a big like a bunch of grayish grapes. Five large beige scallop shells surround the grapes, but the extra long fluorescent lightbulbs stick out the ends of the shells. The most truly fabulous part of all is the rope lights with colored Christmas-y twinkle lights inside. Pink, green, yellow, orange. You really cannot imagine how truly hideous it is. But it makes me happy every time I look at it … which is a lot. I just keep picturing our landlady at Home Depot, thinking, “Ah ha! That is exactly the most perfect fabulous light fixture I ever saw! I must have it for my house!”
Lovely light fixture

First Impressions – The House

A driver took us to our new home straight from the Vientiane airport on Aug. 1. When Mr. Lamon pulled open the huge metal gate, the wildly overgrown yard distracted us momentarily from the two-storey French Colonial home. He unlocked the side door and beckoned us inside, where we found a layer of dust blanketing the vinyl furniture and hardwood floors. Gecko poo dotted the white walls, and the kitchen counters and cabinets showed signs of rodent infestation. Ant trails criss-crossed nearly every surface. Upstairs, dirt filled all the nooks and crannies of the rattan beds and night stands. The built-in closets and drawers of the four bedrooms were desperately in need of a good scrubbing.

As our spirits sank, our new superintendent Steve Alexander popped in and cursed a bit. The landlady had promised to clean up the house and yard, he said. He placed a few calls, and before long a cleaning crew showed up. Their efforts made the house habitable in the short run, but we knew a lot more elbow grease was needed before our shipment arrived. Luckily for me, Tony suffered terrible insomnia for the first week, so he whiled away the hours mop in hand while I enjoyed Ambien-induced slumber.

After just three days, the movers delivered our shipment – 124 boxes! We happily replaced the landlady’s furniture and began setting up our home. Slowly, it’s coming together. Tony fixed a stopped up shower drain, assembled several shelves and took down two hideous light fixtures. The permanent shower rod was installed too high, so water splashed under the shower curtain and all over the bathroom, but I solved that problem by purchasing a spring rod and installing it a bit lower. I also came up with the brilliant plan of covering the front door with a Turkish kilim (and using the kitchen door exclusively) to open up the living room space. Every day, we get the house a little more organized, a little more decorated. Today, I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast without having to move anything out of my path. Progress!

Any idea how to make the captions show up? If you’re interested, click on the photos to go to flickr.com.

Adventures in Teaching and Travel