Friday, October 10, 2008

Reflections on the good, the bad and the in between

What I will miss:

- The people I have met - Lao and falang.

I don't expect to ever meet people like the Laotians again - constantly giving, never angry, always easygoing. They make us Westerners look like the fussiest and unhappiest people on Earth - I hope I have managed to learn some of their ways while I have been here.
The foreign community has really sustained me during my time here - from the AYAD group (especially our lovely flatmate Sam), to my tight knit work group, and others I have met along the way.

- My church.

I really thought that being a Christian in Laos would be difficult, considering that it is a predominantly Buddhist country. But God took care of Chris and I, and we ended up at an amazing church with a very strong sense of community and some very good teaching. I have learnt a lot this year and am in the best place I have ever been in my Christian walk (plus I have had the opportunity to lead music - just me and a guitar! - for the last few months!) While I have a good church in Sydney to return to, I will sorely miss the fellowship that I have experienced at this church.

- The food.

Where to start??? I will miss being able to afford to go out every day to fantastic restaurants - Lao (laap and sticky rice, yum! And my daily dose of khao pheak for lunch...), French (the creperie, creme brulee from Le Silapa, and the baguettes from Le Benetton), Japanese (croquettes and hot chocolate cake from Yulala....THE best restaurant in Vientiane), Italian (Le Gondola's homemade fettucine and Swedish pizza), Indian (Nazim's for church lunch on Sunday), Chinese (one word required - DUMPLINGS!), Vietnamese (bi bun, kao jii, spring rolls, and that yummy fried rice ball thing from Nam Neung, PVO and the Spring Roll shop)...the list goes on and on. I have absolutely gorged myself this year - and usually for less than $5 a pop. God help me trying to cook again.

- The massages.

I'm never sore for very long here when I can go and have a massage for $5 at Oasis. The best thing is you can walk straight in off the street and be relaxing within 5 minutes. And if Oasis is full? Then there is always another place within walking distance :-)

- My job.

Kind of a strange thing to say?? Not really - thats why I came. And it hasn't disappointed. Its been an exhilarating, stressful and frustrating ride at times, and sometimes I'm not sure whether I have contributed anything. But the people who work at Sunlabob are phemenonal - especially our managing director Andy, who has more energy and drive at 50 than I have ever had. The technologies that we get to play with here, and the techniques for introducing them to Lao villages in a sustainable fashion, are really innovative and exciting - and I'm proud to have been a part of it.

- The country, and the region.

Laos is a amazingly beautiful country - my bus trip from Vientiane to Phonsavan during my third week in Laos was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, as we wound our way through mountainous terrain in a bus for 10 hours. But I don't even have to travel to see beauty here - behind my house every afternoon is one of the most awe inspiring sunsets you will ever see, as the sun sinks behind the banks of the Mekong River in Thailand.
I've also loved the sights I have seen in other places in South East Asia - Halong Bay in Vietnam and Angkor Wat in Cambodia instantly spring to mind. There are really a lot of sources of inspiration here :-)

What I'm not sure about:

- The roads.

I absolutely love getting around on my scooter - its such an exhilerating experience (although the SuperCub doesn't go particularly fast...) The SuperCub is one of my prized possessions - hot pink (matches my helmet!), very retro looking, having only the bare minimum functionality in order to be on the road..........

But the unpredictability of the traffic can be extremely wearing - there's only so many times you can take people coming down the wrong side of the street at you, or driving through red lights, before you start to feel serious road rage. But in line with the Lao character, you will usually just be greeted with a smile and a wave by the lunatic who almost just killed you.

What I won't miss:

- The language barrier.

I tried very hard to learn Lao in my first six months here, and looking back on it I know I made considerable progress. However, I struggled a lot with tones and being able to put words together into sentences. Sometimes I wish I had had the patience to keep trying, because I feel I could have made better friendships and learnt more about Lao culture if I could have spoken the language better.

- The homesickness.

I was really surprised by this - possibly because I've never really experienced it before (but then again, I've never been away from home for so long before!) It got better every day, but I still felt the absence of my family and friends all the time, and wished I could have been there to share special times with them. My trip home in April helped to soothe the homesickness, but the strength of this feeling convinced me that I am not meant for the development 'lifestyle', and that my family and friends at home always come first.

- The bugs.

Before I left I really expected that the mosquitoes would give me grief (with the potent combination of me having yummy blood that mosquitoes like, and nice diseases like dengue fever and malaria for the mosquitoes to give). And don't get me wrong, they were really annoying (although thankfully I ended up with no diseases, and found a really awesome and entertaining way to kill them with my Lao electrified tennis-racket-shaped mosquito killing machine). But the ants were far worse. Within five minutes of you putting food anywhere they were all through it (eventually all food had to live in the fridge). And if you got on their wrong side then their bites were vicious. They particularly seemed to love my towel, and I would only discover this after I had finished my shower, dried myself and was stinging all over.

- Lao lao.

Just thinking of this stuff makes me want to retch. It smells like methylated spirits, and I'm sure it tastes just the same. You can feel it disinfecting all your organs on its way through the body. The worst part is, its rude not to have some if it is offered to you (especially in the villages, where they pride themselves on their home brew - and this is the strong stuff). Thankfully I can get away with just one shot these days, although that is more than enough.

I learnt this the hard way when our neighbours were having a party, and I thought that since I didn't like beer, I'd go for the lao lao. Now I say - give me beer any day.

- Not being able to find things.

Some of this springs from language barrier of course, and some of it springs from simply being in a developing, non-Western country. But the rest of it (when it comes from going from A to B anyway!) springs from no road maps, no directions, no street signs, and no street names. I got seriously sick of having to explain things like this: 'To get there, you have to travel on the one way street into town, turn right on the second dirt road after the traffic lights, and drive along this until you see the white house with the black fence..' etc. It made every conversation about 20 minutes longer than it had to be.

Last week at work + Malaysia!!

Sa bai dee everyone!! Chris and I have just returned from our week long trip to Malaysia and are coming to terms with our last few days in Vientiane - we leave next Tuesday. We have a few farewells planned for the next few days, plus getting rid of as much junk as we can so we can still pack our suitcases, and preparations for the boat racing festival are getting into gear, so we should be pretty busy!!

My last week of work seemed full of farewells. First of all to AJ, who has been working on the water purification project with me for the last few months - we did some karoake and bowling :-) Then on Tuesday night, we farewelled our bible study group with dinner at our favourite Italian restaurant, La Gondola. Wednesday was my last day at work, so Chris and I paid for a Lao feast for lunch for everyone in the office, just like we used to have every week when we first started. However there are now so many people working for Sunlabob we could hardly fit around the table!!! And the tables were absolutely covered with food....As a farewell present Andy gave me a German beer glass which were used for German National Day on October 3, which I thought was nice. I will really miss my work and the people at Sunlabob - its been by far one of the best professional and personal experiences I have ever had :-) However I was pretty excited about four weeks of holidays!!! Wednesday night was another farewell, as we went out for dinner with some of our Sunlabob colleagues, including Mariano and Simon (Andy's son) and Kate (who was an AYAD and is now Mariano's girlfriend).

Thursday morning we left on our AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur - I was really surprised about how long it took, about 2.5 hours from Vientiane to KL and then an hour just from the terminal to the city. After getting confused at both the airport and the train stations, we didn't get to our hotel until 5...but were greeted with a lovely view over KL Tower and the Petronas Towers, which was alright considering how cheap our room was! For some more information, KL Tower is the fourth highest tower in the world, and the Petronas Towers are the tallest twin buildings in the world. We set off to the revolving restaurant at KL Tower for dinner - the buffet was really yummy, and the views were great! Especially as the monsoon storm rolled in...KL Tower was beautifully lit at night, and twinkled every 15 minutes (reminscent of the Eiffel Tower!)

We got up early on Friday morning to go to the Petronas Tower to get a ticket to go on the Skybridge. However, true to Malaysia's amazing cultural diversity, it was the last day of the Hari Raya Aidilfitri (end of Ramadan) so it was a public holiday and thus not open. We instead went to the central market where we did some shopping (I felt like I was in about 5 countries at once! The bizarrest thing I saw was the fish spa - where you pay to have fish nibble your dead skin off your feet. Yuck...) and then to the Bird Park in the Lake Gardens, the largest covered bird park in the world. We then caught a tourist coach around town, stopping briefly at Merdaka Square where Malaysia declared independence, before heading back to our hotel for a sleep. The evening was spent eating and walking around the massive night market in Chinatown, not far from our hotel.

Friday morning we headed back over to the Petronas Towers, and joined the massive line to get tickets. We eventually secured tickets to go on the Skybridge at 2.45pm. We got back on the tourist coach to take us to the Aquarium, only to find out when we got there that we were literally 2 minutes walk from the towers - we had basically paid for the driver to take for an elaborate trip around the block. We had a good laugh about that :-) The aquarium was cool, with an underwater tunnel where stingrays and sharks swum above our heads. After laksa for lunch (yay!!) we headed onto the Skybridge - even though the Skybridge is on the 41st floor, its still less than halfway up the building. They're pretty huge!!!! We spent the evening in Jalan Bintang, one of KL's shopping districts, where I bought myself a very cool souvenir Paul Frank t-shirt!!

The next day we headed for the East Coast. Not an easy endeavour at all - we caught a taxi to the bus station at 4.30am, then the bus to the terminal which arrived at 5.45am, then a plane to Kota Bharu on the east coast at 7.30, then a taxi from Kota Bharu to the jetty at 8.30, then a boat to our island (the Perhentian Islands) at 10am. However, as soon as we got there I knew it was worth it.....soft white sand beaches, crystal clear blue water, cloudless skies and bright sunshine (we were worried about the monsoon, so this was a blessing!), and hardly any development - no roads on the island, just beaches and walking paths. By the end of the first day I could already feel myself becoming comatose :-) Aside from swimming, reading and eating, the only thing we did all day was take a short walk to the other side of the island - while there was not much to see there, we did encounter some huge monitor lizards and black monkeys who threw stuff at us from the treetops. Thanks to our early wake up, we were in bed early :-)

The next day we went on a snorkelling trip in the morning. Usually I love snorkelling, but I was put off by warnings of a triggerfish that would take a bite of me if I went anywhere near its home, so I spent most of the snorkelling looking for it so I could avoid it. The first stop was Shark Point, where some reef sharks were spotted - completely herbivorous, but another thing to arouse fear :-) The end of the trip was highlighted by sighting a giant turtle near our resort, which must have been more than a metre long.
In the afternoon Chris and I went to the resort spa and had a scrub - when we had asked for a massage. It hurt a bit on our already sunburnt skin, but at least I smelt nice!

Tuesday was quite similar - a snorkelling trip in the afternoon, where we saw the turtle again and I tried to avoid the biting fish. Dinner in the evening was lovely - fresh fish and prawns cooked over the BBQ, washed down with an almost comically big pineapple juice (1L!) that Chris and I shared (having learnt from our first day that no, we couldn't drink an entire one each!!)

The next day we left at 12pm - we had hoped to leave at 4, but the boat wasn't running. Thus we had to kill about 5 hours in Kota Bharu before our flight back to KL. We went to the cultural centre, where there were demonstrations of martial arts, drumming and batik (painting on silk). However, other than this it was a pretty boring town, and we were happy to get to KL and collapse into bed at our hotel at 11pm. We went straight from bed to the airport at 6.30 am this morning :-)

I will probably post again a few more times with some thoughts about my time in Laos, but I doubt I will post any more about my activities. I hope you have enjoyed my stories from Laos - I know that this experience will stay with me for a long time to come.

Home sweet home in just five days!!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A years work shows some fruit

Sa bai dee! Its three weeks today until I leave Vientiane - now I am really getting into 'last' territory. Chris has already finished work (as you would know from reading his last blog entry!) and now my last day of work is next week. Both the idea of leaving here and the idea of returning home seem very surreal...

The big news from this fortnight is that we installed the water purification unit in Ban Sor last week!!! However, it didn't all go to plan :-) We arrived at Ban Sor last Thursday at about 11am to find the Sunlabob workshop crew already feverishly laying pipes, putting up solar panels etc. The house for the water purification unit has already been built (and recently painted, as I discovered after I had white paint all over my black Sunlabob shirt). It was very exciting to see something that we had been envisaging all of this year finally have a physical presence. We got to work installing the water purification system (well, I got to work filming other people doing it). Everything was going swimmingly well until the afternoon, when we couldn't test the system because there wasn't enough pressure. Thankfully we did have an extra pump and solar panels with us so we got started on building that - in the dark.
The evening was passed drinking lao lao (not much for me!) and eating yummy Lao food - and my first public shower. Most people in Ban Sor wash in the river, but the family we were staying with collect rainwater in a small tank and pour it over themelves with buckets. So I wrapped myself in my sinh and stood around washing myself while trying to a) not expose myself and b) get clean. I managed to do it in the end :-) That night we slept three under the mosquito net - but with the heat and the 6.30 wake up call by the village roosters, I didn't get much sleep.
Friday was the day we were meant to train the two Sunlabob franchisees (Boualai and Khamsao) how to use the system. We got started on this - thankfully we have trained a Sunlabob technician, Khambang, how to operate the system over the last few months so he did most of the explaining! - while the other Sunlabob workers put together our second pump. We eventually tested the system again just before lunch - the first water that came out was brown, but that didn't faze us because we expected some stagnant water in our pipes. But then we got more, and more, and more brown water....eventually we made the call back to the office, slightly panicky about our brown water! We were reassured that everything would be ok, so we went back to our training sessions. The most interesting part was when we started discussing the financial aspects of selling the water - Boualai and Khamsao were very against the idea of us selling our water cheaper than our competitors, because by undercutting our competition we would give ourselves a bad name and wreck our future prospects. I guess this must be how things work in a Communist country :-) After work was finished, we went on an expedition to buy a jar of lao hai, the fermented rice whisky that tastes a lot better than lao lao. It was good to explore the village, even though at any one time we had about 20 Lao kids following us, keen to see the falang.
That night, over dinner, we noticed some yelling coming from nearby and soon people were running past with logs lighted by fire. Thinking this was a lot of activity for a Lao village, we asked what was happening - it turned out that something akin to an exorcism was happening in a nearby house. Thankfully it all calmed down before long, and we settled in for another night under the mosquito net.
The next morning (Saturday) we left in a sawngtheaw for Vientiane at 8.30. The road was pretty bad - especially considering the flooding that occured last month - so it was a bumpy ride, and eventually we got a flat tyre. We ended up making it back to Vientiane by 2 - while the trip there had only taken 3 hours!
I'm pretty happy that we got the system installed, and confident that we will find a solution to clearing the colour from the water after meetings at work this week. A new intern has started to replace me and I am hoping that I can teach her everything she needs to know before next Wednesday (my last day). In more exciting work related news, Andy is coming to speak at this year's EWB conference in Melbourne! So it looks like I will be making a trip down south at the end of November :-)

In other news:
  • More farewell parties - Christian this time, an Austrian intern who had been with Sunlabob for three months. The Sunlabob staff had a shirt printed with pictures from his time in SE Asia - what a great idea!!
  • Dinner at Leon and Geri's house with their Lao friend Air - they cooked us laap with sticky rice and I watched and learned. After dinner we then went to Wat Si Muang, because it was the last full moon of Buddhist Lent and it was time to make offerings. We walked around the temple three times with flower and incense offerings before laying them at a stupa. Something that I have never done before :-)
  • Our computer was fixed! Hooray!!!!
Next week Chris and I are off to Malaysia for a weeks holiday - I can't wait! We are heading to Kuala Lumpur for a few days, then to the Perhentian islands off the East Coast. I will try to write as soon as we get back - possibly my last blog entry before I leave Laos!!

Pai gorn deuh,

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chris goes for a walk

I officially finished work a week and a half ago, so last week I took the opportunity to fly to Luang Namtha, a town in the north of Laos near the Chinese border. Luang Namtha is the main starting point for treks through the Nam Ha National Protected Area, which is the most famous natural feature of Laos. It is a remote location, but the new airport opened a few months ago, so it is now possible to fly there.

I arrived on Monday afternoon and explored the town on foot. I had read about a hill on the side of town that had really good views of the whole valley, so I walked up there. Apart from the views (which were great) I found that this hill was also the site of a new giant golden stupa (pointy looking temple) that was visible from basically the whole town. It is still under construction, but looks like a fair imitation of That Luang, which is the most sacred stupa in Vientiane.

The next day I left on a three day trek with one of the local tour companies. We were trekking (in Australia we call it bushwalking) for three days through the middle of Nam Ha NPA with a Laos guide named Sai and some assistance from some villagers who live on the edge of the NPA.

I had put my name down and the company tried to find someone else who wanted to go, and they found someone late the evening before. She was a 43 year old Serbian woman called Tanja who clearly was not an experienced hiker.

We were due to set off at 8:30am, so I arrived and got myself ready at about 8:15. She wandered in at 9, introduced herself and immediately asked me to go and buy some children’s books for her. She gave me 4000 kip (50 cents) and asked me to buy three books, assuring me that they were only 500-1500 kip each. I walked down the road, leaving her to pack her bag (no, she hadn’t even started to do that), and found that the books were 5000-15000 kip each. Not having brought my own wallet, I returned empty handed. She therefore spent the next half hour buying the books herself, along with a Coke that was her only breakfast.

Upon arriving at the village that were starting the trek from, Sai showed us around. Tanja loved the school, and spent over half an hour playing with the children, and talking to them in English despite the fact that they clearly understood none of it. When we finally managed to drag her away, she remembered the books she had bought to give to children in the villages, so I got one out of my pack (they “didn’t fit” in hers) and she promptly returned to the school to read the book to the children in English. The theory was that it might “help them to learn English”, which most of them will never study. (The book also had Lao writing in it for the children to read themselves, which was the idea. The English text is so that tourists like Tanja and I know what the book is about when we buy it.)

By now it was 11am, so I was impatient to get going. We only had 4 hours of walking on the first day, but we had missed the cool of the morning and would be walking in the hottest part of the day. Tanja then asked if she should wear socks. She wasn’t wearing any and was starting to get blisters. (She had one pair of ankle length socks which she wore for the whole three days.)

Once we set off, I found myself being stopped every 50 metres to take photos of Tanja, and after 500 metres I found myself carrying half of Tanja’s water, which was frustrating, but the scenery was nice enough. We crossed several small streams, most with log bridges, and the dense jungle was really pretty. There were lots of different butterflies and later I noticed at least 6 different species of fly, some of which were bright green and bright yellow. We stopped for lunch halfway where two Khmu villagers (from the village we started in) had prepared a delicious Lao lunch.

The afternoon was a much tougher walk since it was an almost constant steep climb, but we reached the forest camp at about 3:30. It consisted of three buildings: A kitchen, and large hall for sleeping and a toilet. There was also a really nice stream about 5 minutes away where we could wash ourselves off, and I sat on a log and soaked my feet for a good 15 minutes. It was a great end to the day and the area around the camp was probably the prettiest on the trek.

The next morning, we were aiming to set out at 8:30, and at 8:10 Tanja was still in bed. She refused breakfast and went to have a wash since she hadn’t bothered the previous afternoon. When she came back she pulled out a litre of shampoo and gave it to the Khmu guides, since there were “no showers” and she didn’t want to carry it.

I was still carrying a litre of water for her.

The second day’s trek was extremely tough. It was 6 hours of walking, but we took 8 including stops. It was hot, and it was very muddy. It reminded me of pictures I have seen of the Kokoda Trail, with everyone up to their ankles in mud as they climb up steep hills, surrounded by jungle. It was slow going, trying to pick the path that you wouldn’t sink too deeply in to, and trying to avoid the bamboo that had been broken and was across the track about a metre off the ground. Sai explained that water buffalo had used the track recently, churning up the mud and breaking the bamboo. It was at times very difficult to force my way through the bamboo, and I got remarkably muddy, and by lunchtime I was already exhausted.

The one good thing about the mud was that we could see tracks. Mostly water buffalo tracks, but a handful of tiger tracks as well, which was exciting to see.

By mid afternoon we left the mud behind, crossed a river, and an hour later I found I had lost a sandal that had been strapped to the back of my pack. Sai went back and found it near the river. A distance that had taken Tanja and I 45 minutes took him about 20 minutes – return. My only consolations were that he had done it without his pack, and that he did find my sandal so I could walk around that evening without my boots on.

We spent that night in an abandoned village of the Akha people. When the NPA was created, this village (and probably some others) were within the boundaries so they had to move to the edge of the forest. Most of the building were barely standing and had been stripped of the easily accessible timber walls. Only the hut that we stayed in was intact. An Akha man met us at this camp (as the Khmu villagers had returned home that morning), prepared our dinner and gave us “happy water”, which is really just Lao-lao, or rice whisky, made by the different ethnic group.

It was another beautiful campsite, and I really needed the rest that night. There was another nearby stream, and the ruined buildings, and it was very peaceful.

Tanja spent the evening explaining to Sai that he should start his own business doing some things for tourists. The problem was that the tour company we were with already did all these things, she just hadn’t bothered to go in and ask. She basically wanted someone to come up to her, tell her everything that she wanted to know (but only the things she was interested in, and without asking what she was interested in), and organise her trip for her, all with no input from her.

Nevertheless, we all slept well.

We chose to take the easy route on the third day. It was shorter and easier terrain, and Tanja and I were tired enough to choose that. Tanja again refused breakfast, and we were outside the NPA quite quickly and wandered past rice fields, rubber plantations and vegetable plots. The views from this track were better than the day before since they weren’t totally obscured by trees, so the third day turned out to be just a pretty as the first two. Tanja insisted on very long, regular breaks (the last 20 minutes of walking took about an hour including breaks), but we made it to the Akha village for lunch.

The Akha people have a unique culture, and three of the most interesting aspects were explained to us while we ate:
1. Once a woman is married with a couple of kids, she is no longer expected to hide her breasts. This was not merely explained, but observed.
2. When a woman give birth to twins, the Akha consider this to be an “animal” birth. Animals have multiple births, people have single births. Traditionally they kill both babies and send the parents into the forest for three years as punishment. More recently, the Lao government has stopped the infanticide and the babies simply disappear from the village as if they never existed (and are adopted and raised in Khmu or Thai Dam villages).
3. When an Akha man reached 15 or 16 (old enough to be a man) he builds himself a very small hut. He still spends the day and works with his family, but he spends the night in his own hut. He finds a village girl that he would like to marry and she stays with him in his “Loving Hut” for about three months. If she gets pregnant, they get married. If not, “he does not love her enough” so she moves out and they both look elsewhere for a future spouse. “But she usually gets pregnant.”

From there we walked to the main road, and since we were early and the mobile phone network was down that day, we walked a couple of km to a crossroads to wait for a tuk-tuk to take us back to town. At the crossroads was a 400 year old stupa which was knocked over by a bomb during the Vietnam war, so I climbed a very large hill to see it. There was also a new stupa next to it, but that wasn’t as impressive.

When I got down, a tuk-tuk had arrived, so we went back to town for a relaxed afternoon.

The next day, freed from my slow and slightly infuriating companion, I hired a bicycle and visited a waterfall to the north of town. It was beautiful, but difficult to get to since the path and a bridge had been completely washed away in recent flooding. I also rode to the southern town, about 6km south of the main town, to explore that before I flew home in the afternoon.

It was good to get home, but I promptly locked myself out of our bedroom by forgetting that Susan, who was away for work, had the room key. Luckily we have a spare room, so I slept there, and got Susan’s keys from work the next day. So my adventure was finally complete.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Time is ticking by...

Sa bai dee everyone! Again, I am typing on the work computer as Chris and I are starting to fear we will never see our laptop again...Chris has now been to the computer shop four times and received just as many stories as to when it will return. It is a real pain not having a computer at home - but if the latest story is true, we may see it tomorrow :-)
Today it is six weeks until I arrive home - simultaneously it feels like a long time and a short time. I'm approaching the time of 'lasts' - for example, Chris' last day of work is next week. However I received some good 'first' news today - in two weeks time we will be going to Ban Sor to install Sunlabob's first solar powered water purification system! I am excited that it is happening before I leave. Also, next week the girl who is replacing me arrives at Sunlabob, so my 'last' few weeks at work will no doubt be very interesting!

Other than that, what is news?
  • Another 'first' - my first motorbike accident. However before you panic, its not as bad as I'm making it sound :-) I went to the clinic at the Australian Embassy to get the doctor to check my sore throat and ear. As I was leaving, I smacked my foot against a concrete block on the side of the road (all along the road in Vientiane there are these concrete blocks which seperate the footpath from the road - their only real purpose seems to hurt people). It was quite painful, and when I arrived back at the office a few minutes later, I discovered my foot had already swollen to resemble an egg covered in skin. Thankfully I got some ice on it straight away and while it is still swollen and bruised, it could have been a lot worse.
  • Going to the circus. This is not a frequent occurrence in Vientiane, despite the fact that there is a building called the National Circus. A bunch of French performers had come to Vientiane and taught some Lao people some circus skills, so we went to watch the end result. I was extremely impressed - first there was the Lao girl twirling hoops that must have weighed more than her, then there was the cortionist, then there was a long elaborate choreographed sequence which include a person wrapped in a rug, flying bowls, and a trampoline amongst other things. Good value for only 10000 kip! (just over $1 USD)
  • Attending more farewells. The most significant of these was Sugandha, a Nepalese girl who had been working at LIRE for four months. First there was a farewell party, then a farewell dinner - I made a photo album for her with pictures from the last few months and got everybody to sign it. She seemed quite sad to be leaving...I wonder what I will be like?
  • Sunlabob badminton competition. Last weekend there was a annual Buddhist festival where people offer food and other things to their ancestors. We celebrated on Friday with a badminton competition :-) I was pretty hopeless, but I still enjoyed the BBQ and free flowing beer :-)

Stay tuned for the next few blog entries, where I will share my adventures of water purification in rural Laos, and Chris will share his adventures trekking in the mountainous province of Luang Nam Tha, which borders China in northern Laos :-)

Sok dee,


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Making the most of opportunity...

Quote from journal entry, 10/8/08

'A new question is plaguing me...have I made the most of this opportunity? I am plagued with doubt.
Part of me thinks I could be trying harder - after all, I've had to work at some things very hard in the past. Perhaps I could have spent all my free time trying to learn Lao, and practising it, and making all sorts of friends, and not watching DVD's and other similar useless endeavours. But that thought makes me sick to the stomach - how could I have wasted the opportunity I was given?
But part of me thinks I have tried hard enough - this is really the largest challenge I have thrown myself. I have learnt a lot of things I never knew before, met people I would otherwise have never had the opportunity to meet, seen and done things I have never done before. My eyes have been thrown wide open. I have come closer to God, and I have had the chance to be involved in projects at work that I could have never dreamt of.
But it doesn't feel right to say I have tried hard enough if there are things I haven't achieved. Plus it feels like a complacent thing to say - if I've tried hard enough, then I don't need to do anymore, do I? But shouldn't I constantly be striving for challenge?'

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A very interesting two weeks indeed...

Hello all :-) In contrast to my last blog entry, this one proves to be very interesting, since much has been happening over the last few weeks! However I am updating the blog at work today since our laptop kicked the bucket the other day and has gone to the doctor in Thailand - hopefully to return in two weeks. I am missing my Skype chats already!

So you might be wondering what was going on with Chris' blog entry that indicated impending doom due to flooding. Well it came pretty close. E-mail flood warnings started pouring in after the Mekong rose beyond 12m, and our boss told us to put all our computer boxes on our desks. I started going for afternoon walks along the road that follows the Mekong behind our house, and watched the water get closer and closer to the top of the levee bank every day. It got to the point on Tuesday where we started to move things upstairs (and I couldn't sleep for fear of floodwaters in the living room when I woke up!) and our AusAID manager telling us to evacuate on Wednesday. We stayed with our friends Philippa and Sam (who were fantastic to us, feeding us, watching Olympics with us and lending us books!) until Sunday afternoon - the river eventually peaked at about 13.5m. I have no doubt that the flood that we dreaded would have occured if not for the Lao government's heroic efforts of laying two million sandbags all throughout Vientiane - Chris says this is one of the advantages of an authoritarian government :) It was amazing to see army guys laying sandbags behind our house on Thursday when we popped by for a visit. Although they did go a bit overboard with the road closing, which was annoying. I think the sandbags will stay until the end of September, as the river actually normally peaks in September and if previous records mean anything, we could see an even higher peak (and consequent flood risk).

Other than that excitement, there has been:
  • Another visit to Ban Sor to do some site assessment and water testing. Ban Sor will be the village where we launch our new solar powered water purification system - which will probably happen in the next five weeks before I leave Sunlabob. Preparing for some crazy times ahead! AJ and JB got to taste their first shots of lao lao over lunch - and ended up having 4 or 5 each (I've spent all year steeling my resolve to say 'no' to lao lao, so I got away with just one).
  • Games day at our house. Even though Chris and I only have a deck of cards and a chess board, we managed to entertain 20 people for about 6 hours! Of course, it helped that they brought their Risk and Scrabble and various other things. There were some very funny games of Celebrity Head and Mafia to get us started :-) It was meant to be Olympic themed (since we had many different countries there, and the Olympics had started the day before - which incidentally we can watch on about 5 different stations!) but we gave up on that quickly :-)
  • Weekend away at Ban Sufa. Chris and I were both in need of a break, and so we took our bike out to this small resort 12 kms from Vientiane. Its a beautiful spot on the edge of an enormous ricefield stretching to the horizon, with several bungalows, a swimming pool and horses and........the best part......French owners, who book the most amazing French food. Chris and I spent our time alternating between swimming, reading, getting massages, sleeping and EATING. I felt like a total glutton - at least I didn't have to walk very far!!!

I also found out this week that one of our fellow AYAD's has some famous friends and has asked them to come to Vientiane to play a charity gig for COPE, the organisation that produces prosthetics for UXO victims. The friends? Regurgitator. When? The day after I leave. I can't believe it!!!!!!!!!!

My time here in Vientiane is dwindling away - I can't believe that it is now less than two months until I leave, and only five more weeks of work. My emotions are mixed - I have started to get comfortable here in Vientiane, and haven't felt homesickness now for a long time, but at the same time I am really keen to get home, see everyone again, and get started with my new job :-) How do I balance these out??

Sok dee deuh,