I am wayyyyy behind on blogging. Here’s my final post about Laos (unless I get overcome by another wave of nostalgia).
I am wayyyyy behind on blogging. Here’s my final post about Laos (unless I get overcome by another wave of nostalgia).
I am wayyyyy behind on blogging. Here’s my final post about Laos (unless I get overcome by another wave of nostalgia).
As the president, secretary and – ok, in the interest of full disclosure – the ONLY member of the Grass is Always Greener Club, I hereby call this meeting to order.
First, we will review the minutes from our June 13 meeting.
Location: Vientiane, Laos
In Attendance: Me
(1) Bitch about Laos.
* For the last 4 (FOUR!) Sundays we haven’t had electricity at our house. While we can count on power-free Sundays, we’ve found Saturdays to be more of a mystery. Sometimes we have power; sometimes not. In case you haven’t heard, our shippers are coming in a week to pack up our house for the move to India. Electricity sure would be useful right now. We’re not just talking about lights. We’re talking about air conditioning (it’s sweltering in this house-cum-sauna), the water pump (can’t flush the toilets!), and the fridge (can’t keep any food over the weekend).
* The school is making us pay back about $1,200 they gave us to attend professional development classes this year. Never mind that Tony was REQUIRED to attend his class and that I offered FOUR staff workshops to share my learning. I think they got their money’s worth. But apparently they didn’t think so. Not cool.
* Rain. Rain. Rain. Seriously? More rain?
(2) Look forward to getting back to the U.S.
* Michigan 4-berry pie
* Clothes dryer and a dishwasher
* Good wine
* Semi-retired dad and entertaining mom
* Pool and lake
* Wooded bike trails
* Fourth of July
* the Apple Store
* and so on and so on, ad infinitum.
And now let’s review the minutes from our June 24 meeting.
Location: Lake Orion, Michigan, USA
In attendance: Me
(1) Wax nostalgic about Laos
* After eating a foot-long banana that tasted like a banana-scented sports sock, I found myself wistfully longing for Lao fruit. Those tiny bananas were packed with rich sweetness, and the juicy rambutans with their wacky spiky red jackets were in season when we left. Our mango tree underproduced this spring, but the ladies at the market just outside my gate were happy to oblige. Right up until my last days in Laos, I was discovering fruit I had never sampled before. Although all dragonfruit has fuchsia skin, did you know some have equally hot pink fruit? I only just learned that! Some kindergarten kids showed me a marble-sized fruit that I hadn’t yet tried, but they didn’t know the English word for it, and I never did figure it out. Despite my tendency to take all good things for granted, I do believe that I fully appreciated the fruit in Laos to the point of boring the pants off anyone unfortunate enough to be nearby when I bought/ate/thought about it.
* My Lao friends at school gave me the most heartfelt going-away gift: a photo album with funny little poems, stories and memories from our time together. When they presented it to me on the second-to-the-last day of school, I had a serious emotional meltdown. In this international teaching world, we often cross paths with our expat friends again and again, but the local staff generally stays put. Unless I visit Laos, I’m unlikely to see them again. And they really are some of the kindest, cleverest, funniest, most selfless people I’ve met. I miss them already.
* For two years, my Chinese knock-off Giant bicycle served me well as both my sole method of transportation and my main form of exercise. While rainy seasons literally put a damper on my cycling pursuits, and hot seasons forced me to carry a change of clothes for the 5-minute ride to school, I learned a great deal about myself and my host country while pedaling along the Mekong, around the dusty roads of Vientiane, and through the villages with Team Dai on our three-day trip to Phonsavanh.
(2) Rag on America
* After reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, I had every intention of being a “locavore” this summer. I wanted to eat only food produced in Michigan, especially closer to home. But that’s easier said than done! At our local grocery store, the strawberries were trucked in from California and the blueberries made the trek from North Carolina. All of the salad fixin’s had road tripped to Lake Orion from everywhere BUT Michigan. On Wednesday, we visited the local farmer’s market, which boasted five booths. Only one sold locally grown produce. I bought some organic eggs, a couple red peppers and a few tomatoes. That took care of Thursday’s breakfast. Now what?
* I forgot how fun it is to drive! Unfortunately, road rules in America are actual RULES and not merely suggestions like they are in other parts of the world. There is easily enough room to make another lane on the highway, but god forbid someone tries to wedge her way between the regular lanes of traffic in her altruistic attempt to ease the unbearable rush-hour congestion.
* This is the land of the free, but you know what’s not free? Mobile phone service. In fact, it’s freakin’ expensive. And if you only reside in this country for five weeks out of the year, you’ll pay out the wazoo for some top-it-up disposable phone. Which is what we’re doing.
* Last August, I called AT&T and explained that we were leaving the country and wanted to disconnect our internet. No problem, they said. We’ll just switch it right back on when you get back, they said. Liars. An AT&T workman spent four hours at our house yesterday, alternately messing with the router inside, poking wires around in the outdoor utility box, and – I kid you not – hoisted up in a cherry picker to do something with the overhead lines. Sigh.
* My parents lent us their PT Cruiser for the summer, which is such a blessing (even if it triggers creepy bedroom eyes in the octogenarian crowd at the local CVS drugstore). Having a vehicle seemed like such a treat after two years of commuting by bicycle … that is, until I had to pump gas. We’ve been in the States for about five days, and we’ve put almost $90 worth of gas into that car.
Hmmm… I see a pattern here. Let’s shift gears for today’s meeting.
Location: Lake Orion, Michigan, USA (on the deck, overlooking the lake)
In attendance: Me, a few ducks and the swan family
(1) Express Gratitude for the Past
Every place has pros and cons. Living in a developing country and working at a school that wasn’t the best fit for us posed a new set of challenges, some of which we met successfully head-on and some of which inspired unparalleled whining until the moment we boarded the plane to leave Laos. As someone who obviously doesn’t know what I’ve got till it’s gone, I can now appreciate how much I grew and learned. Looking back over my blog posts from the last two years, I can’t believe how much I saw and did in a place where there’s really not that much to see and do. I will always have a spot in my heart for the sunshine, landscape, culture and friendships that blessed my life in Laos.
(2) Express Gratitude for the Present
After spending two years in a third-world country, I’m struck by the commercialism, materialism and waste here in the United States. At the same time, I love the ease of life that comes with all that. So while I try to leave the smallest carbon footprint possible during my month in America, I’ll treasure the comfort of being home.
This week I’m surrounded by family, including my beloved little nephews, and nothing makes me happier!
(3) Express Gratitude for the Future
On July 24, we’ll head off for a new adventure in India. We’re moving to New Delhi, where we’ll teach at the American Embassy School. I’m nervous about the pollution and congestion of a big city and the lack of diversity of our new staff, but I’m super excited about our school’s excellent reputation and the return to a curriculum and teaching methodology that jibes with my own style. Tony and I look forward to getting involved in a vibrant school community, exploring our new city, learning about the local food and culture, and traveling in India.
As of today, the Grass is Always Greener Club is hereby disbanded. I’m thinking of starting the Gratitude is the Best Attitude Club. Any joiners?
There’s nothing like a wedding to offer foreigners a glimpse into the local culture. Despite lots of begging, none of my Lao girlfriends seemed inclined to get hitched just to ensure I could attend a wedding before leaving for India. I was getting concerned. Then Johnny, our primary school Lao teacher, secretly announced her engagement (although she waited till about 10 days out to distribute the invitations).
The wedding reception was last night, and here are some highlights:
I caught a ride with my friend Eric and his two kids, Jasmine and Ty. Their mom had coached basketball all day and was too tired come. Eric picked me up and drove the short distance to the reception hall. As we approached our destination, the road was clogged with wedding-goers in search of parking. We finally found a spot but had to walk for awhile (which was unpleasant in my awesome party shoes).
We walked toward the entrance, where a large portrait of the bride and groom stood on display. Family members posed proudly, ready to greet us. As we prepared to enter, I took another look at the portrait and said, “Hey, that’s not Johnny!” Lao brides get a serious makeover on wedding day, so sometimes they are hard to recognize. Eric perused the picture for quite a while before he believed that we were at the wrong wedding. We all cracked up and then saw another wedding portrait at another entrance, so we wandered over to that one. Again, wrong couple. By then, we were in hysterics.
Finally, we walked around the corner and found a portrait of Johnny and her new husband, Kaisone, so we knew we were at the right wedding.
An Impromptu Toast
Last week in the staffroom, Johnny asked if I would speak at her wedding, which was in TWO DAYS. Thanks for the advance notice! She explained that a man would give a long blessing in Lao, and then I would explain what he said in English.
“Johnny, I can’t do that!” I said, pointing out that my Lao language was limited to buying mangoes at the street stalls. There was no way I could translate a wedding speech. “If you write out what you want me to say, then I could do it.” She said she would “try” to write it down for me.
When I got to the reception last night, she and her new husband were greeting everyone at the door. Johnny grabbed my hand. “I didn’t write it down,” she said.
“Just give a blessing to the bride and groom, thank everyone for coming, and then tell them to eat dinner and enjoy the dancing,” she said.
I asked how I would know when to do the announcement, but she brushed off my concern.
Not one to shirk from the spotlight, I was happy to take the stage, but I felt nervous about when to do it. When the wedding party lined up in front of the stage and a man started a very long speech, I grabbed a Lao friend named Not and made her accompany me to the front of the room. She waited till the man’s speech was wrapping up, and then she sent me up on the stage.
I thanked Not for helping me, and she said, “I’m your bodyguard!” We had a big laugh over that because she is the tiniest bodyguard you ever saw.
I gave a quick little toast and then received cheers and looks of adulation from the crowd as I wove my way back to my table.
For my Lao friends, the highlight of any wedding seems to be the dancing. They don’t just get down and funky like we westerners do. It’s very structured. “Phon” is like a line dance with the same steps repeated over and over. There seem to be a jillion different “phons,” which the Lao people learn by watching DVDs or practicing with their friends. I was truly way too stupid to figure it out. My friend Mai gave me a quick lesson during one “phon,” so I managed to do the simple kick-kick-step-step-turn.
Carol had the moves, but she couldn’t resist cutting loose occasionally.
The Couple’s First Dance
Johnny and Kaisone took the floor for their first dance, but they looked like awkward eighth graders at homecoming. My friend Addie told me to push them together, which seemed inappropriate, but of course I did it anyway.
What a fascinating experience!
I have spent the last hour scouring the internet for information about the insect order Coleoptera, aka beetles, and specifically trying to identify this big guy. He was hanging out on our outdoor shoe rack this morning, ironically draping his antenna over a bottle of Off insect repellent.
In my quest, I learned that beetles:
* constitute almost 25 percent of all life forms,
* live in every habitat except the open sea,
* comprise more species than any other order in the animal kingdom, and
* roamed the earth up to 318 million years ago!
People who study beetles are called coleopterists, which I have been for the last hour. Fascinating stuff. But really I just wanted to know what was lurking on my shoe rack and whether he would bite my face off if I got too close. There are several beetles with similar markings, but I think I can safely say this guy is a Batocera davidis. I couldn’t find any information about his inclination to attack or spray poisonous venom, so I’ll take that as a good sign.
I’m going to leave him alone, though.
If you heard blood-curdling screams coming from the direction of Southeast Asia Saturday afternoon, it’s very possible it was the sound of 13 teachers and friends whooping our way through the Nam Lik forest.
Eleven Lao men and women and two foreigners (Regina, from Switzerland, and me) drove about two hours north of Vientiane – the last 7 kilometers on a rippling strip of dusty dips that really doesn’t deserve to be called a road. We arrived at the banks of the Nam Lik River and waited for the guides from Green Discovery, the eco-tourism agency that developed the “Jungle Fly” experience.
They were late, of course. As the Lao participants posed for their requisite photo shoot, Regina and I wandered down to the water, where we were duly entertained by:
• some guys butchering an animal,
• two young girls washing clothes,
• a man unloading a motorcycle from a long-tailed boat,
• a youngster who had caught a squirrel and tied a piece of fishing line around its leg to keep it from running away, and
• a boy who stripped down to his underpants for a swim.
When my friend Lae came down to check out the action, I pointed to the butchers and asked, “What animal do you think that is?” She went over to them and chatted in Lao.
“Is that a goat?”
“No, it’s a cow.”
“Why is it so small?”
“It’s a small cow.”
We were glad they were a bit downstream from the laundry girls, and even gladder when we saw a woman brushing her teeth in the river water at the laundry spot at the end of the day.
Finally, the Green Discovery guides showed up and loaded us into two long-tailed boats for the short journey upstream to our adventure course. We disembarked at a would-be-peaceful-were-it-not-for-the-giggly-ongoing-fashion-shoot waterside hut, where the guides built a fire and grilled delicious kebabs for our lunch. The lead guide, Mr. Vat, issued each of us a helmet and a bamboo stick to use as a brake on the ziplines.
He then led us on a 40-minute steep trek into the lush bamboo forest. Regina and I generally stayed quite close to Mr. Vat, asking him questions about the region and the wildlife. Slowly, the Lao group fell further and further behind, but we could always hear their laughter. Occasionally, we paused to let them catch up, and they would slog up the hill dramatically, calling out for a tuk tuk or piggyback ride. Striking poses to illustrate their exhaustion, they shot photos along the entire way, couching all complaints in a smile or a joke.
We arrived at a clearing, where (after taking a few group photos) we rigged up in our harnesses and got a quick lesson on the equipment. Mr. Vat asked for a volunteer to demonstrate the proper ziplining protocol, using a mini-zipline. Mai quickly stepped up for the demo, but then everyone else wanted to give it a whirl, too. Eventually, we wrapped up the practice and filed across the first suspended bridge, excited and nervous.
Green Discovery wisely built the course with short ziplines at the beginning, so ding-dongs such as ourselves could get over our anxiety and master the bamboo brake before tackling the longer, speedier ones. There was plenty of screaming and even a little crying as we zipped through the forest canopy on cables up to 37 meters (120 feet) high and 180 meters (almost 600 feet) long.
The most harrowing activity of the whole day, in my opinion, came early in the form of a single-cable bridge with no handrails. We gripped ropes that dangled from above, giving the sensation of standing up in a swervy subway as we crossed the tightrope.
Other challenges included a “spider net” that was just what it sounds like; a “U-bridge,” which featured U-shaped cables attached on either side that dipped and swayed when stepped on, nearly sending me into the splits; a few regular suspension bridges, which could trigger a flurry of Lao shrieks with just one or two bounces; and abseiling back down to earth.
“Abseiling” is just a fancy word for clipping a rope to your harness and dropping off a tall platform. The first time I did it, the guide clipped the rope to my front, so I descended in an upright position. The second time, which was at the end of the adventure course, he clipped the rope to my back, so when I stepped backwards off the platform, I immediately lunged forward and descended face-down. I proceeded to “fly” like Peter Pan, dropping slowly to the riverbank in a theatrical conclusion to an exciting day.
A few final notes about Green Discovery’s “Jungle Fly”:
• The guides followed their own safety rules, which I found reassuring. (I wish I had a dollar for every divemaster or tour guide I’ve seen who was too cool for safety or tried to show off by taking absurd risks.) The Green Discovery guides kept their carabiners clipped to the safety cables the whole time and always modeled smart behavior on the towering platforms.
• A portion of the tour fee is donated to poverty-alleviation projects in local villages. This helps discourage the wildlife trade and slash-and-burn farming, which is common in this area.
• I want to do it again!
My friend Candice recorded Santa’s entrance at last night’s Christmas party. Played by the school’s tae kwondo instructor, Santa was a hit with kids and adults alike. His vocal inflection was more “ghost” than “Santa,” but he clearly has a big heart.
Before Candice added the speech bubbles, I tried to transcribe his comments, but this is all I got:
Sit dowwwwn! Sit dowwwwn! I have a xxxx. Sit dowwwwn!
I come a mountain! I come a mountain!
This year, have a ice and have a snowwww!
I want to cooooold!
And then I go to ….
Merry Christmas (teacher?), happy new year!
I would have sworn he said something about a spaceship.
Our three-day bicycle trek ultimately dropped us in Xieng Khuang Province, which is generally known for two things: unexploded ordnance (UXO) and the Plain of Jars.
Here’s what the Lonely Planet guidebook says about UXO in Xieng Khuang:
Unexploded munitions, mortar shells, white phosphorus canisters (used to mark bomb targets), land mines and cluster bombs of French, Chinese, American, Russian and Vietnamese manufacture left behind by nearly 100 years of warfare have affected up to half of the population in terms of land deprivation and accidental injury or death. A preponderance of the reported UXO accidents that have occurred in Xieng Khuan happened during the first five years immediately following the end of the war, when many villagers returned to areas of the province they had evactuated years earlier. Today about 40% of the estimated 60 casualties per year are children, who continue to play with found UXO – especially the harmless-looking, ball-shaped ‘bomb light units’ (BLUs, or bombies) left behind by cluster bombs – in spite of warnings. Hunters also open or attempt to open UXO to extract gunpowder and steel pellets for their long-barrelled muskets – a risky ploy that has claimed many casualties. Several groups are working steadily to clear the province of UXO, including the Lao National UXO Programme (UXO Lao), financed by a UN trust fund that has significantly increased the availability of multilateral aid for this purpose.
We had a few spare hours before our flight back to Vientiane on Tuesday, so we hired a couple vans to take us out to see the Plain of Jars. The 2,000-year-old stone jars are scattered across several areas on the outskirts of Phonsavanh and remain a mystery. Were they used for human burial? Wine fermentation? Rice storage? Nobody knows for sure.
Despite my muscles screaming in protest, I somehow mustered enthusiasm comparable to our first day’s adrenaline rush. Maybe it was the knowledge that it would all be over soon. Maybe it was the promise that the last 35 kilometers would be flat (which turned out to be a massive lie). Maybe it was the chocolate. For whatever reason, this was an awesome day.
The highlight was an extremely long downhill switchback (reported to be around 20+ kilometers/12+ miles) through lush forest and flowering trees. Few vehicles invaded my zen, but I did freak myself out when I looked down at my bike computer to realize I was zooming along at 53 kmh (32 mph) just before a sharp gravelly bend in the road. Reality check. Brakes. All was good.
The hills never really stopped, but we had a tailwind most of the time, and I felt re-energized every time I crested the top and sped back down.
We broke for lunch at the only restaurant around, but unfortunately it had closed. We sat on its shady deck overlooking a murky pond. More fruit. More chocolate. More granola bars. More motivation to get to the end of this day and eat a real meal. At the end of our break, I headed to the restroom, and when I emerged everyone was gone. I took up the rear with Wil, our wonderful coach and organizer, who always hung back to make sure we didn’t leave anyone behind. I rode hard to try to catch up, but I didn’t reach the team till the next rest stop. I wasn’t the only one who’d been ditched during bathroom breaks, so I didn’t take it personally. The end was in sight, and we were all very excited.
After another 15 kilometers, we regrouped to ride the last stretch together. The van led for a while, blasting “Eye of the Tiger” from the stereo. Finally, we arrived in Phonsavanh! Just a bit further, and we stopped at an ice cream shop (owned by a rider’s colleague’s family) for hugs of jubilation, as well as ice cream, French fries and beer.
After celebrating our success, it was painful to get back on the bike for the short ride to our hotel, particularly because our hotel – the lovely Auberge – was perched at the top of a HILL. As usual, I felt no shame walking my bike up the steep path, and I stepped, rather than rode, across the “finish line” with a wave and a whoop.
Thick with pine trees and overlooking the valley, the hotel’s property felt like an upscale campsite. After a decadently long shower, I joined the others for cocktails on the restaurant balcony. Later we enjoyed a three-course French-style dinner and laughed about the funny moments along our journey. All the new riders were given nicknames. Claiming that I always seemed to look clean and rarin’ to go, they dubbed me “Fresh.” What an illusion I pulled off!
Cocktails on the deck, followed by fancy schmancy dinner! The pink flowers came from Maurice, a French rider, in honor of International Women’s Day. He gave them to us in the morning as we were lining up to leave Phou Khoun, and we ladies rode with them all day stuck on our helmets, bikes or jerseys.