a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Staying in Laos

Well our three months in Laos has turned into six months…and counting! Stephen was supposed to have completed his consultancy by the end of February.  But after only a month and a half, the organization offered him a full time position. As the country director! We had to really think about it, but ultimately Stephen and I agreed that he should accept this offer. So now he’s the country director for a small Dutch NGO in Laos. We came here thinking it would be short-term and now we have agreed to stay on permanently!

This may not seem unusual, for us to be living in Laos (another southeast Asian country). But if you had asked us a year ago what we thought we would be doing and where we would be living, it isn’t likely we would have mentioned Laos. But while we were pursuing a life back in the US, this opportunity appeared out of nowhere. So a bit reluctantly and cautiously we agreed to accept. It was only short-term after all! But Laos has turned out to be quite a nice surprise and we are not unhappy to be staying for awhile more.

Since we are now residents of Laos, I want to share with you a few things about this little southeast Asian country. But before I do that, I want to make a correction on something I wrote earlier.  I said before that it’s not correct to pronounce the ’s’. However, as time has gone on, Stephen and I have noticed there’s some confusion on that. We hear both with an ’s’ and without from Lao people. So we are not quite sure which is appropriate. (By the way, Laos rhymes with ‘loud’ but with the ‘d’ replaced by an ’s’. It’s not “Lay ocean” the way I’ve heard some American politicians in videos from the 70’s pronounce it. Nor is “Laotian” a real term. It’s Lao people, Lao food, etc.)

Laos is bordered by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. Unlike it’s neighbors, Laos is a landlocked country, so no beaches. The language is Lao and it’s very similar to Thai. In fact the two languages share about 70% of their words. Written Lao is script that comes from ancient Khmer (Khmer is the language of Cambodia) and looks very much like Thai. Here is an example of how to write the script for the phrase meaning "Happy New Year" in both Thai and Lao. They are so similar it might just be a matter of different fonts!

So far Stephen and I know “sa bai dee” which is the Lao greeting and “khop chai” which means thank you. I have spent a bit of time studying Thai online. Since we visit Thailand frequently and the two languages share so much in common, I thought it would be a good start. Just recently I found a YouTube channel for Lao language. Vanida is quite funny.

I have found it challenging to learn SE Asian languages. Serious language study is time intensive and sometimes plain exhausting. But I hope to make a little bit more progress with Lao than I did with Burmese or Khmer. If I could go back in time and relive my college years, I would study languages (and art). :) So we’ll see if I can manage to do my own independent language study instead. 

Laos is a poor country. On the Human Development Index (HDI) for 2015, it ranks 138 out of 187. Just to give a little bit of reference, the US is ranked 8 and is part of the “Very High Human Development” group of countries. I’ve mentioned the Human Development Index before but for anyone not involved in development work, it’s not familiar or easy to understand. The HDI is a more comprehensive measure of the quality of life for people within a given country. Twenty-six years ago the first Human Development Report was published. Before that, how well countries were doing was based solely on Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But in 1990 the UN adopted a new measure. The shift acknowledged that looking only at the economy of a country did not fully explain the quality of life for all the people living in that country. The new three-dimensional measure tells a more complete story. Just because a country’s economy grows does not mean that all or even most of the people within that country benefit. By measuring 1) how many years people live and how healthy they are during those years of life, 2) how much education people receive, and 3) if they can earn enough money to pay for their basic needs, the UN can assess and rank the countries of the world. 

I’ve been reading the latest Human Development Report from 2016 online and it’s fascinating! There is a web version of the report with interactive graphics. (Click here to read the report yourself.) I love graphs and graphic representation of data. Hans Rosling a Swedish public health professor (who sadly passed away in February of this year) gave two awesome TED talks illustrating just how cool statistical information can be. (Click here to see his first TED talk) Graphs help make it easier to understand certain kinds of information. Below are three graphs showing the 3 dimensions of measurement that comprise HDI. I have included the US, South Africa, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, all the countries we’ve lived and worked in. I have also included Thailand because it is a neighbor to Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos but has a much higher rank on the Human Development Index. 

Laos makes the third southeast Asian country we have lived in now. It feels somewhat familiar but also different. For example, there is still the language barrier but we can get by with only English. Most Lao people know a little bit of English, and the rest of our communications are with gestures: nodding or shaking your head, indicating whether to go straight or turn by pointing with your hand, holding up fingers to negotiate tuk-tuk fare. Three fingers means 30,000 kip. When we shop we know we have to search for ourselves for the items we are looking for because we mostly cannot ask. Well we can ask, but we won’t get an answer! I have gotten into the habit of going through an entire store just to make note of what they sell, for future reference. You can’t search the internet for stores that sell what you are looking for because a lot of places of business don’t have websites, or they aren’t in English anyway. It was the same way in Cambodia and Myanmar. 

Laos is in the tropics and has a similar climate to Cambodia and Myanmar with seasons being the following: 1) hot and dry 2) hot and rainy 3) cool and dry 4) cool and rainy. We use umbrellas to protect ourselves from the sun’s blazing heat as well as to shelter from the rain. I carry a bottle of water and handkerchief to wipe my face everywhere I go. I do a lot of laundry and I hang our clothes to dry year round. Dryers are rare. They use a lot of energy and mostly aren’t needed anyway.  

So those are a few of the ways that are similar and familiar to us having already lived in two SE Asian countries. But Vientiane feels different because it seems easier to live here than it did to live in Tugela Ferry, or Phnom Penh or Yangon. For one thing, the availability and reliability of goods is much better. In Cambodia we could go to the store and find cans of V8 on the shelves one week and then not see any again for months. Stephen likes Oat Squares cereal. When we found it here we were amazed and bought several boxes. But when those ran out we couldn’t find them in the three stores that had previously carried them. Stephen was sure we wouldn’t see any boxes for months. But it was only a week or two later, boxes of Oat Squares were back in stock. It might seem trivial. But this unreliability applies to many things in daily life. The inconveniences compound over time. But Laos is more reliable and that reliability makes it easier to live here. Not only can we buy the groceries we want when we want them more predictably, we also enjoy reliable power and reliable fast internet. These two things are huge. Power outages and disruption in internet access add a layer of challenge to getting work done and following plans. In Myanmar when I was teaching my music classes, my lessons almost always incorporated using the CD player, the computer, and the overhead projector. During a power outage of course I couldn’t use any of those. In 6 months we've had few power outages and the longest only lasting 2 1/2 hours. In Myanmar we would go all night without power and 6 hour power outages were a regular occurrence. Remember, no power means no air conditioner with temps in the 90’s and 100’s. 

So Laos feels easier and it is easier. We’ve experienced harder so this feels easier. I wonder, though, if we had come to Laos straight from the US without the other experiences to inform us, would we think it was harder to live here?? I also wonder what South Africa would feel like to us now. Any easier? A lot easier??? We have already been in Laos longer than we stayed in South Africa but the way the time felt to us couldn’t be more different. South Africa seemed like years, not months. We dove in to work, to language learning, to community involvement, to exploring the country. We read a lot of books on South Africa both before going and during our time there. And it all felt so very intense. With Laos, it’s much more laid back. 

So a little about Stephen’s work. He started with one project. His consulting was focused on a European Union (EU) health policy project in Laos, 1 of 8 such projects the EU is funding in eight different countries around the world. (Stephen’s work in Myanmar was also one of these eight.) The projects are all intended to advocate for good public health policy at the national level. This project is a “capacity building” project. Capacity building is a development term that means helping develop skills and increase the knowledge of the people within the country. Capacity building it often more challenging than things like digging wells, building schools, or distributing bed nets (to keep malaria carrying mosquitoes from biting you in your sleep). Capacity building means working alongside people to change them and/or their organizations in hopefully good ways. To do the work that Stephen is currently doing requires excellent relationship skills. As country director he is now managing several projects, people, and partnerships. It’s been a tremendous amount of work. Lots of “peopling” which is especially taxing and draining for an introvert, but also putting systems in place, getting a handle on the big picture ideas plus tracking down the small details. He is providing “Quiet”  leadership and building a good team around him. 

In December Stephen took me to the COPE center here in Vientiane. The knowledge that we gained from our visit has given us a feeling of connection to this country. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. They provide prosthetics and rehabilitation for the people of Laos. Tragically, many people in Laos need artificial limbs because of the unexploded ordnance (bombs and cluster bombs) that were dropped during what Americans refer to as the Vietnam War, but that the Vietnamese call “the American War” and the Lao called “the Second Indochina War”. Around 30% of the bombs dropped didn’t detonate. The ground was soft and muddy from the monsoon rains, so the bombs didn’t meet enough resistance to explode.  As a result, there are still bombs in the ground, killing and maiming Lao people when they step on them, or when children pick them up not knowing their danger. Between 1964-1973, during the “Secret War” in Laos, the US dropped 2 million tons of ordinances on Laos. That’s the equivalent of a planeload of bombs dropped every 8 minutes 24-hours a day for 9 solid years. Here is a map that shows where that enormous volume of bombs were dropped on Laos.

I cannot imagine the hell those villagers lived through. And the horror lives on. These unexploded bombs are still in the soil all over the countryside ready to explode at any time. So that even today! about 50 Lao people, many of them children, become bomb victims each year.  This isn’t old news, on legaciesofwar.org the news from May 21, 2017 is that 1 person was killed and 12 were injured by a 4 decades old UXO (unexploded ordinance). Children often mistake the little bombs as toys, as the 10 year old girl did two weeks ago. 

Because it was my country that dropped these bombs, I feel that helping Lao people in some way, is a meaningful and valuable thing to do. The bombs were dropped before I was born, but the legacy of war is far reaching. If I can do something generative in a country that has suffered so much destruction, that just feels right and good.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Christmas in Laos, New Year's in Thailand

We spent Christmas in a foreign country again this year. This makes the 5th Christmas outside the US for Stephen and me. To be honest, during most of those years, I was happy not to have any pressure whatsoever to decorate or buy presents or really do any of the kinds of Christmas-y things I would normally do in the US. I think I was suffering from "Christmas fatigue". But this year I felt differently. I was delighted by any and all Christmas decorations or hints of a holiday season.

And even though we are just staying temporarily at a guest house, I bought a string of Christmas lights and taped them to the wall in the shape of a Christmas tree. Several of the coffee shops and restaurants, that mainly cater to tourists, had some decorations, holiday food and beverages.

Since I grew up in a place where December is snowy and cold, heat and humidity don’t really go with Christmas for me. But this year both Stephen and I were in the Christmas spirit despite the setting. We turned on Christmas music and enjoyed our Christmas “tree” twinkling in the background each evening.

Since returning to Vientiane after the retreat/conference in Vang Vieng, Stephen and I have been doing pretty ordinary things. It’s just that we are in an unordinary place. We have rented a room at a guest house that’s only a 10-minute walk for Stephen to his office in the National Institute of Public Health.

It’s about 30 minutes to walk into the city center where most of the good restaurants are. So nearly every evening we walk in to get dinner. Our room has a kitchenette with a sink, refrigerator, and two electric burners but I haven’t found a good place to buy groceries yet; so we mostly buy snacks and then eat out. I would prefer to cook but as we are so temporary, I don’t have any of my cookware and the ones provided by the guesthouse are rusty or otherwise questionable.

Just like we did in Yangon and Phnom Penh, we pay for everything with cash. The currency here is the Lao Kip (LAK). So far I’ve seen denominations in 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000 and 50000.

The exchange is 8000 LAK to US$1. The ATM machines spit out 50000s which are only $6.25 each so a common amount to withdraw is 1,000,000 kip! Pretty crazy. It’s kind of like getting a whole bunch of 5 dollar bills. But it’s hard to think about such high numbers NOT being worth a lot. At the store a few weeks ago, the total was 400,000+ kip. The decimal point was in a strange place so I didn’t read the cash register correctly and I handed the checker a 50,000 bill.  That’s like giving the checker $5 when the total is over $50. Brother.

There are tuk-tuks here but they are much less comfortable than those in Cambodia and also much more expensive. A short trip is 50,000 or $6.25 which is 3 times as much as it was in Cambodia. So we have only taken a few tuk-tuk rides so far. Once with the country director to see his rental space, once with all our luggage to move from one hotel to another

and once to go to the airport.

What that means is that we are walking everywhere we want to go and getting lots of exercise!

Our guesthouse is $25/night which includes a breakfast. The breakfast is simple consisting of instant coffee, an omelet and a baguette with butter and jam. There are twin beds in the room and Stephen’s is particularly hard. The room is cleaned about every other day by the maid service but even so I bought some sponge cloths and scoured the shower, and revolting drain, and mopped the floors by hand. We need to be careful when we shower because the electrical does not really meet US-code, with a 220v outlet on the wall practically inside the shower.

The internet at the guesthouse is quite terrible. We are almost the closest room to the main office and we barely get a signal in the room. For the best strength we need to go sit inside the office or on the porch. But that doesn’t guarantee you will have internet. It fluctuates wildly. One minute I’m connected, the next minute I’m not. Going to coffee shops is usually better but not during busy times. Everyone has the same plan and it then slows everything down for all of us.

Since we are living in a guesthouse, I don’t have a washing machine. So we found a laundry service in the city center that charges 8000kip ($1) per kg.

When I give my clothes to the owner of the shop, I hand it to him in a plastic bag. The clothes are not itemized, he doesn’t ask for my name, or give me a receipt. He simply says, “tomorrow morning”. The first time we took our laundry to him he weighed the bag and told us how much it would cost. But since then he just tells me the total when I pick it up the next day. Quite an honor system. But so far we haven’t lost a single item of clothing. So that’s pretty great!

We decided to spend the New Year’s holiday in Bangkok. It’s about an hour flight and we don’t even change time zones. :) We always enjoy visiting Bangkok after living in one of the less developed countries in the region. Things work better like shower drains and internet, we can buy clothes/shoes, medicines and toiletries if we need to, and there's a Starbucks on nearly every block!  Each trip to Bangkok is a little reprieve from the day to day living challenges we encounter in whichever country we are coming from.

There were plenty of decorations for Christmas and New Year’s throughout Bangkok even though the whole country is in mourning.

In the Thai airlines magazine there was a section explaining that though it wasn’t mandatory, visitors were requested to wear dark tone clothing to honor the late king Rama IX. All Thais are required to wear black, grey or white. The inflight magazine had a large story full of paintings of the king. When we went to the movie, there was a long documentary honoring the late king. There were phrases like, “our father hasn’t left us, he’s in the earth…and the wind”. Almost like he was deity. And as usual we stood to honor the king just before the movie started. In the airport while we waited for our flight back to Vientiane, there was another, longer documentary about all the humanitarian projects the king had started during his 7 decades of rule. I don’t know long the period of mourning lasts. The king Rama the IX passed away on October 13, 2016 and most everyone was wearing black and/or black ribbons pinned to their shirts through the new year.

On the flight back a new magazine was in the seat pocket for January. On the cover was the new king Rama X, the son of the late king Rama IX. The article in the magazine stated that the new king has ascended to the throne. Maybe the period for mourning will end soon.

These customs and practices and reverence for a king are things that I, as an American, cannot really relate to. For me kings and kingdoms are only ancient stories I’ve read about. Most of the time when we visit Thailand it’s easy to look at the skyscrapers and high end shopping malls and overlook the Thai culture underneath. But this visit was different. Thai culture was more dominant and I was glad that just by accident both Stephen and I were wearing dark colors and white.

It was a nice short trip to Bangkok. We picked up a few supplies to bring back: coffee, shampoo & conditioner, citronella mosquito repellent, and high quality dark chocolate. Just a few things to make life a little nicer. The water in Vientiane, just like it was in Yangon, is harsh on my hair. Some good conditioner cuts down on the mass of tangles I have. And though we did bring mosquito repellent with us because mosquitos LOVE Stephen and find him everywhere, it didn’t seem to deter them and they would buzz in his ears all night. Unfortunately we did not bring our mosquito net with us. Stephen did a little research and found that the repellent that we had, picardin, has little effectiveness on the type of mosquitos here in Vientiane. I’m happy to report that the new citronella repellent does work. Thank goodness.

Vientiane really is a charming little city. I like it. And it’s nice to be back. Bangkok is so so crowded and there are traffic jams nearly all day and night. Not in Vientiane. There is a short rush hour around 5pm but the rest of the time it’s easy to find a break in the traffic to cross the street when you want.

Mostly people drive slowly and there is hardly any honking. Yangon was a cacophony of car, truck and bus horns. The bus horns were especially obnoxious and loud. And on more than one occasion a driver would honk his horn just as he passed me, to see me jump, and enjoy a good laugh at my expense. I haven’t encountered that kind of rudeness in Vientiane yet. The tuk-tuk drivers are respectful too. They will ask me if I need a ride, but only once. If I say no, they most often reply, “thank you”. In Bangkok this time Stephen had to say “no” to several taxi drivers repeatedly. They did not respect our first “no” and instead went on to name tourist attractions they could take us to. I understand they need to make money, and I suppose that tactic must work for them sometimes, but it’s quite rude. So it’s nice that in Vientiane, by contrast, I can have pleasant exchanges with the tuk-tuk drivers instead.

Stephen is back at work after a little holiday break. And I’m working on my art. The ideal thing for me is a studio that I can set up and leave. But I’m trying to do what I can, given our unique situation. We’ve moved to a different room and the table outside gets a nice amount of natural light to work by.

It’s still the cool dry season so I don’t have to contend with high heat and humidity or torrential rains. So this little set up affords me a few good hours during the day to work on my colored pencil pieces. For now. :)

So that’s what we’ve been up to. We ended 2016 on a nice note and are excited to see how 2017 unfolds.

Happy New Year everyone!