Shades of Culture Shock

Jomo Bakery Cafe in Vientiane.

Jomo Bakery Cafe in Vientiane.

I awoke early full of excitement and anticipation for my journey and the orientation for my volunteer project that would follow once I arrived in Vang Vieng. I got myself packed and ready, then strolled down the street to find a cute breakfast spot where I would be able to sit outside and enjoy the cool morning air and observe the town coming to life. Jomo Bakery Café offered just what I needed with a delicious breakfast burrito and soy café latte, my first taste of caffeine in nearly a month. I watched other travelers stroll in and out, trying as I always do to determine their nationality by their accents, style of dress or the

The friendly man who gave me my hot pink braided bracelet.

The friendly man who gave me my hot pink braided bracelet.

name brands on their clothing. My attention was drawn regularly to a man sitting on the sidewalk in front of the café offering braided bracelets for a donation. One child approached and then another passerby. Many of the locals riding by on their bikes shouted good morning to this fellow and he offered a kind, warm smile in return. I offered a donation for a bracelet as I left and was surprised that as he tied it on my wrist, he said a chant or perhaps some sort of prayer. It immediately made me feel like I was armed with a bit of protection for the road ahead.

Back at the hotel, I patiently waited for my driver to collect me and take me to the bus stop. There were three of us departing from my hotel and we only had to go about 5 minutes away to get to the meeting point for the bus. When we arrived, I was a little puzzled because there was only a bus and I had purchased a ticket for a minivan. For only $2 more, I thought that a minivan might be a little more comfortable for the three to four hour winding, bumpy ride into the mountains. As our small group approached the bus, it seemed it didn’t matter because there were no more seats left for anyone else. The operator who was organizing everyone said that we were going to have to wait for the travel company to bring another bus, which would arrive in about an hour. So, five of us crossed the street to a few wobbly benches under some trees and awaited our fate. I quickly grew bored, hot, and uncomfortable, so I went across the street in the other direction to get some pineapple mint juice, sit by a fan, and work out my frustration, which was waning with every sip of the ice cold, delicious potion in front of me.

The bus to Vang Vieng.

The bus to Vang Vieng.

About 75 minutes later, another bus arrived. It seemed futile to argue about a minivan. At that point, I just wanted to get to Vang Vieng and after chatting with a few of the others who were waiting, apparently several of them had paid for a minivan as well. The bus was comfortable enough so off I went.

I sat next to an Australian backpacker who would be continuing on to Luang Prabang with her friend after a short stay in Vang Vieng. We compared itineraries and our malaria medications, chatted about observations on the road and then drifted off into our own thoughts. I had fortunately gotten a window seat and was absorbing the scenery of our route, which was surprisingly lined with houses, small grocery stands and souvenir counters along most of the first 90-minutes of our ride. There were a few small fields with cows or farm stands selling watermelon, but it was far less rural than what I expected. We stopped for a break to stretch our legs and use the restroom before starting up the mountainous section of our drive. The restrooms were scant as I expected but what was a

The chicken pecking at trash next to our roadside rest stop.

The chicken pecking at trash next to our roadside rest stop.

little frustrating and sad was the amount of litter that lined the shoulders of the roads and sides of buildings. I had been witnessing it the entire way but was shocked when I saw a chicken pecking at some trash on the ground, standing within a stones throw of a trash can right next to our roadside stop. How was this amount of litter acceptable and ignored? Since I had been seeing it along the roadways, I could only conclude that it wasn’t just tourists who were potentially leaving it. It had to be the result of locals as well. I read that subsistence agriculture accounts for half of the county’s GDP and I wondered how a culture so reliant on the land could be so ignorant of the affects of litter and pollution on that very same land.

The rest of our drive into the mountains was a slow one and far more rural than what I had witnessed during the former part of the ride. The roads are narrow and although this country officially drives on the right hand side of the road, it seems that the road rules are a little loose, so more often than not our bus was driving down the center of the road, passing those walking or biking on the side. There are lots of potholes and rocks in various sections and our bus’ radiator and engine seemed to be languishing in the heat under the strain of the air conditioning. It took about two and half more hours for us to make it to Vang Vieng. When we pulled into the bus station, we were informed that we needed to hop into the van that was parked next to our bus to be dropped off at the center of town, which only took about five more minutes. In the center of town, the streets were bustling with backpackers searching for hostels or guesthouses, and tourists roaming the shops. I easily found a tuk-tuk driver who knew where my accommodation was located, so I negotiated my rate for the short drive in the best Lao I could muster.

Fruit Friends House

Fruit Friends House

We turned off the main street onto a rocky, dirt road and my driver shouted to a few kids playing in the street to inquire how far down the road the house was located. We pulled up to a friendly and welcoming home that read Fruit Friends in red over the open front door. As I climbed out of my tuk-tuk, a young girl emerged from the house and quickly took my bag, which was almost as big as she was. Her name was On – she welcomed me and invited me inside. As is customary with all homes in Laos, I left my shoes outside the front door and stepped inside to a large, open living room with a desk to one side, cushions on the linoleum floor, and a staircase on the left. On introduced me to another young girl named Ved. The two of them gave me a quick tour of the first floor, which consisted of a kitchen, 3 restrooms with showers, back patio with washing machine and clothes lines, and two bedrooms off to the side. I was informed that both of those bedrooms were occupied so On scampered up the very steep stairs carrying my 17 kilo (38 pound) bag as if it were a sack of feathers and asked me to follow her. On the second floor, there were 3 more bedrooms. She informed me that she and Ved share the first bedroom and then opened the door to the second, which would be my room, to drop my

My shared bedroom.

My shared bedroom.

bag by the bed. I walked into a wall of heat as I stepped through the door and much to my astonishment at 4pm in the afternoon, there was a very dazed blond haired girl asleep in the bed next to mine. It was a very small room, with only enough space for one person to stand between the beds. The girl’s name was Laurel, she was from Oregon, and she tried her best to give me a friendly hello before apologizing for her delirious state. Apparently she was very sick and had been sleeping all day. After my prior illnesses on the road, I was instantly filled with both panic for my own health and sympathy for her condition. I haven’t had a roommate in over ten years and I had certainly never shared a room that small with a complete stranger, a sick one at that. As On was explaining a few more housekeeping items, I was mentally recalling where I had stashed my emergen-C in my pack and calculating when I would be able to gulp it down with a glass of water.

We went back downstairs as On explained that Davone, one of the program managers, was on her way to the house to meet me and give me my orientation regarding the volunteer work. While waiting, I chatted with On and Ved, who were respectively 15 and 17 years old. They live in the house and help a lady named Boun with the cooking and housekeeping for all of the volunteers. The volunteers are provided with breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. The girls were friendly and sweet, and it seemed they could understand more English than what they could speak. I excused myself to use the

Shower trashcan

Shower trashcan

restroom and upon investigation was a little horrified with the lack of cleanliness and couldn’t seem to find light. Curiously there was also a large black rubber trashcan next to the shower. I was told that I would need to share this bathroom with Laurel, as well as the bedroom, so I made a mental note to ask her about the trashcan later and ask if she ever cleans her space.  I made a second mental note to pick up shower shoes or flip flops in town as soon as possible. When I asked On & Ved about the light, they told me there was none. Due to their limited English and my limited Lao, I wasn’t sure if that meant there was no electricity, period, or if this was a temporary state.

When Davone arrived she too was very friendly and welcoming. She explained that Laurel, my roommate, was one of four volunteers who would be leaving mid-week. I would be able to have one of the bedrooms on the first floor once that group left, which made me feel a little relieved. I could handle a roommate for 3 or 4 days. I decided I would load up on vitamin C and then try my hardest to cure Laurel’s illness with the extensive supply of medication in my first aid kit so that she didn’t share it with me in the short overlap of our visits. Davone also explained that due to the shortage of current volunteers, although I had requested farm work, in addition, she was going to need me to teach English every day that week at an after school program, as well as three additional classes on Monday and Thursday at the primary school during the day. So I would only go to the farm on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and leave by 3pm to come back to the house, shower, and change to go to the after school program on those days. Wow, seemed like long days but I was there to work and they clearly needed the help, so I assured her it was no problem. She showed me the English books for the classes, where the schedule was posted, how to reach her if I had questions, and reviewed the white board that showed the schedule of all the volunteers. It appeared that I would be maintaining the same schedule as a volunteer named Sanne this week.

When Davone left, I decided that I would go explore the town a bit and find some flip flops. It seemed like they would be easiest to wear anyway since there was an outside table where the volunteers often ate dinner, which meant that I would be taking my shoes on and off frequently going in and out of the house. There were half a dozen bikes available for use because that is how all of the volunteers got to the school and the farm. As I was leaving, one of the other volunteers rode up on a bike and asked Davone if the electricity was still out. When she said yes, he huffed and rode off again. He seemed frustrated but I was relieved that it seemed like a temporary problem. In town, I was thrilled

Sunset over the mountains from Vang Vieng town center.

Sunset over the mountains from Vang Vieng town center.

that there were so many people out walking despite the heat. I was also pleased that there were plenty of ATMs, convenience stores, shops, restaurants and bars. It looked like it was going to be a fun place. I stopped in a bakery that had delicious looking pastries in a glass cabinet and ordered a juice. It was a great spot to stare at the sunset, people watch and get some free wifi.

When I got back to the house, an easy 5 to 10 minute bike ride from town, I was drenched in sweat. The rest of the volunteers were there, the electricity was back on, and the girls were cooking dinner, which is served by 7pm every night. I decided to take a shower before we ate but could only seem to get a cold drizzle of water. I thought I must be doing something wrong. The cold didn’t bother me since it was so hot and the low pressure was okay that day, but if that’s what the pressure was like all the time, I had no idea how I was going to wash dirt off of me after working on a farm all day. This should be interesting I thought.

That night we had a communal dinner of some type of noodle dish with vegetables that was distinctly Lao and very good. I learned that all of the other volunteers were from the US and they were all between 18 and 21 years old. I felt like the mama bear, but I didn’t tell them how old I was. I could tell from the dinner conversation that they were living it up a bit in Laos doing all of the things that they couldn’t do in the States. They made mention of taking me out that night for my first night in town, but I had no interest in alcohol in that kind of heat or drinking the night before I started work. I politely declined and instead tried to create some sort of lesson plan for my classes the next day before going to bed that night.

I could tell that the day’s events and discoveries had taken a bit of an emotional toll along with the heat and I knew I was in a bit of shock. I laid in bed that night with two fans blowing on me carefully directing the inner dialogue in my mind… reminding myself to stay positive, take it day by day, keep an open mind and just do my best. I still believed volunteering and living in this way would provide me a greater education about the Lao culture than hanging out with the backpackers in town and going on tours. After all, I would be living with two Lao girls and working with two other Lao program managers and a house manager. I was sure my day would seem easier in the morning.

Sometimes gratitude is free flowing and other days I search for it… the revelling always comes back to me.

One thought on “Shades of Culture Shock

  1. Pingback: Happy Rain Dance | Revelling in gratitude

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