Vision, Determination, and The Living Land

I stepped off the bus in Luang Prabang and hopped into a tuk-tuk to get to the lodge that I had booked for my short 3-night stay. Driving through the town, I instantly had an affinity for the streets humming with people, the stands brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables, and all of the street vendors. My lodge was just off the street where the morning market is set up and a block from the night market, so I was surrounded by colorful wares and delicious smelling food. When I checked into my lodge, the desk manager asked if there were any tours that I wanted to do while I was there. Since my time was so short, I hadn’t planned anything, but asked him to recommend the best one tour. “The Living Land”, he said.  It was a tour of a sticky rice farm. I thought, I’ve been eating sticky rice with almost every meal for the past three weeks… it would be good to know a little more about what I’ve been ingesting. It seemed that my time on a farm was not over yet after all.

The Living Land Farm

The Living Land Farm

The Living Land farm is located about 5 kilometers outside of town and the tour offers a 14-step education on sticky rice, from seed to table. The farm is beautiful with rows of green vegetables, pristine thatched roof houses, and several plots of rice. When I arrived, I joined a group of 9 other people and met Laut Lee, the Director of the farm. He started the morning with a cheerful introduction, quickly memorized everyone’s name in the group, and showed us the tools that we would be using that day. After introductions, we were off to start our steps and learn about sticky rice, which as it turns out, is sticky due to the glutinous varietal, and not due to the cooking process.

Lee told us that this was going to be a roll up your sleeves and mud up to your knees fun morning, so I rolled up my pants, put on my borrowed bamboo hat, and marched off to the field in bare feet with the rest of our tour group.

The egg test to ensure our water has enough salt before testing which will be the best rice to use.

The egg test to ensure our water has enough salt before testing which will be the best rice to use.

Seeding a paddy.

Seeding a paddy.

Step #1: Identifying the best seeds. This involves filling a bowl with salt water until an egg will float in it. Once the egg floats, it means there is enough salt. Then, add the rice to it and the rice that sinks is the sturdiest and best to use for planting. If it floats, it is still good and means it’s the freshest, but will not grow as well.

Once the best rice seeds are identified, Step #2 is Planting the seeds for germination, which simply involves sprinkling them on a mud paddy.

Plowing a rice paddy!

Plowing a rice paddy

Step #3: Plowing the rice paddy field. It was time for our mud bath… some people pay a lot of money for this at the spa. We all got a chance to plow the field walking behind their water buffalo, who, by the way, only responds to two Lao phrases for stop and go, and pauses frequently to pee and poo while we plow. Slightly different than the mud spa experience. Lee only laughs and says not to worry, this is important for fertilization and if the buffalo didn’t poo while plowing, he would have to go find some poo to add to the field for fertilizer. Ah, well, it’s all natural, right?

All lined up to plant our rice seedlings.

All lined up to plant our rice seedlings.

Step #4: Planting. Now that the rice paddy field has been plowed, and the seeds have germinated, it is time to transplant the seedlings into separate, smaller bunches – only 2 or 3 seedlings planted about a hand’s width apart in rows.

My row of planted rice seedlings.

My row of planted rice seedlings.

The best way to plant is to start at one end of the rice paddy and walk backwards in the mud planting two rows side by side. Lee does this effortlessly as he shows us, while we all lose our balance a bit in the mud and did our best to create straight rows of rice.

Irrigation channels between rice paddies.

Irrigation channels between rice paddies.

Step #5: Irrigation and Weeding. It’s important for the rice paddy field to stay wet. In order to do this, Lee has built irrigation channels that bring fresh water down from a mountain stream, and irrigation is done quite simply by shifting the mud at the edge of a paddy to allow more water into one paddy from another. Weeding also occurs quite easily because the mud is so wet, and weeds can either be pulled up or stamped down into the mud and suffocated. Lee does a combination of both because he likes keeping some organic matter in the soil to make it rich with nutrients.

Luat Lee asking me to hand over my sickle after cutting my bunches of rice.

Luat Lee asking me to hand over my sickle after cutting my bunches of rice.

Step #6: Harvesting. This requires the use of a sickle. Lee shows us how to cut the rice, bundle by bundle until we have 3 or 4, then tie them up and toss them along the side of the paddy. The bundles are left lying alongside the paddy for a few days to dry out in the sun.

Threshing the rice by beating it against a wooden plank.

Threshing the rice by beating it against a wooden plank.

Step #7: Threshing. Once the bundles are dry, they are gathered from the field. Threshing involves separating the rice grain from the stalk, and basically requires beating the stalk against a wooden board until all of the rice falls off. This seems like a great form of exercise when one needs to let out some aggression after a bad day!

Winnowing the rice with a giant fan to separate it from the stalks.

Winnowing the rice with a giant fan to separate it from the stalks.

Step #8: Winnowing. Once the rice has been removed from the stalk, it needs to be fanned to separate the empty husks, which often get mixed in with the rice after all of that beating. We use large fans to direct air at the pile of rice and blow the husks away. Lee does this expertly, making it look like a dance while he fans then uses his feet to sweep the pile of rice together, fans more, and sweeps rice. Lee then whisks off his woven hat and scoops the rice grains into a basket for carrying back to the village. Once the rice is separated like this, it can be stored for up to two years in the husks.

Lee carrying a basket of rice the traditional way with the strap over his head.

Lee carrying a basket of rice the traditional way with the strap over his head.

Step #9: Transport. There are many different baskets for carrying the rice… an over the shoulder long wooden carrier with a basket on each end, a simple basket strapped to the shoulders, or the most difficult one, which is a single strap that gets strapped around the forehead. I’ve seen men, women and children carrying baskets like this and can’t believe how heavy the baskets are. There is clearly a technique to this method of carrying that is learned from a young age. My neck and head would be killing me!!

Milling the rice.

Milling the rice.

Step #10: Milling. This involves a large, wooden arm that is hoisted similarly to a seesaw. Under the far end, there is an arm that falls into a large bowl filled with rice and as the end of the wooden arm pounds the rice, it removes the rice from the shell. Once again, we all try this and it’s about finding the technique and rhythm.

Separating the shelled rice.

Separating the shelled rice.

Step #11: Separating the shelled rice. This process is done typically by women who have honed the technique of tossing the rice into the air over a woven circular platter. As the rice falls, the shells are blown off the platter. The woman who showed us this technique also swirled the rice around the platter, which forced all of the sturdy white grains to the center and pushed all of the empty shells to the outside so that she was able to scoop up the grains in the middle. Lee explains that if a woman cannot master this technique, it is unlikely that she will find a husband. On average, the people of Lao each eat about 20 kilos (44 lbs.!) of rice per month, so it’s easy to understand why this is important! Lee complimented me on performing this separating technique quite well for my first try and encouraged me to stay and try to find a husband there… hmmm.

Step #12: Soaking. Once separated, the rice needs to be soaked before cooking, which should be for a minimum of 3 to 4 hours, but is best when left overnight.

Cooking our sticky rice.

Cooking our sticky rice.

Step #13: Cooking – this is done by steaming the rice for about 30 to 40 minutes. As we waited for our rice to be ready to eat, Lee showed us how they turn the rice into rice flour with a giant mill; how they make sugar cane juice; how they weave bamboo into baskets and other tools and toys that they use for their platters, fans, hats, and entertainment for the kids; and how they make all of their own tools at the farm. Of course, we all got to try these activities for ourselves and let’s just say that our group will need a lot more practice.

Sharing and eating our sticky rice in all it's delicious forms!

Sharing and eating our sticky rice in all it’s delicious forms!

Step #14: Eating! Enjoying the fruits of our labor. When we all sat down to share our freshly cooked sticky rice, Lee had laid out a bounty of different rice concoctions for us to try. There was a delicious variety that went well with the home brewed rice wine that Lee shared with us. Lee was impressive and engaging, spoke English well, and was able to cater to the two kids in our group as easily as he catered to the adults.

Laut Lee, Director of The Living Land, in his element.

Laut Lee, Director of The Living Land, in his element.

While learning the process of seed to table was interesting, what was even more fascinating was Laut Lee’s story. Lee grew up in the mountains about five hours north of Luang Prabang, hunted for his food every day in the forest and did his best to help provide for his family. He didn’t have much opportunity for school and if he had stayed there, he would have lived a very simple, and likely meager life. As we ate our rice treats, I asked him more about his story and he explained that while hunting one day, he observed planes flying over the mountains headed for Luang Prabang, and he thought, “I want to go there”. During his teenage years, he found a way to get to Luang Prabang, engage with the local community there, and slowly form his vision.

Fully grown rice stalks ready for harvesting.

Fully grown rice stalks ready for harvesting.

The Living Land is a cooperative run currently by about seven families. This farm employs local workers who have poor education and may not be able to find a job elsewhere. The farm also helps to fund schooling for children, educate 3rd year students from the local agricultural college for free, and works with the Department of Agriculture to run rice trials. They have successfully proven that they can grow higher yield crops without fertilizer through the use of their techniques. Additional involvement includes several other community projects for sanitation and water drainage.

It was Lee’s determination, work ethic, and passion that was the most impressive. Laut Lee is not only the Director of this farm, but he still goes to college and will have to do so part time for about another six years until he is able to finish his teaching degree. He hopes to continue to expand this cooperative and further his involvement in the local community through the help of the outside support that the cooperative receives through tours. They also offer home stays and special events on the farm.

The cost of the three and a half hour tour that morning was about 344,000 kip, or $42, which is a little pricey for the area, but well worth the experience and the support that it will help to provide. If you’d like to learn more about The Living Land experience, you can visit The Living Land.

My morning of learning about sticky rice made me appreciate the labor of love behind the harvest and Lee’s story is one that I was compelled to share. Also, in the majority of my hazy pictures, the gray that can be seen in the background is the smoke that hangs over Luang Prabang from all of the slash and burn farming that is done in Laos, as explained in my last post, Slow Growth – Volunteering in Vang Vieng. So, supporting a cooperative like this one that teaches better agricultural techniques to students, who will hopefully build a brighter (less smokey) future for Lao rice farming, seemed exceptionally worthwhile.

Revelling in gratitude for those with big dreams and the determination to achieve them!

Slow Growth – Volunteering in Vang Vieng

VIP Bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos.

VIP Bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos.

I boarded the VIP Bus headed to Luang Prabang, a bit relieved to move on to the next portion of my travels. The bus looked like it could have been built in 1990 with its blue and yellow patterned seats, floral paneled ceiling, missing arm rests, and dust-caked, tasseled curtains. I found my assigned seat and was happy to spread out for the 6-hour journey since the bus wasn’t full. I knew it was going to be a slow, bumpy ride, and I was hoping to sleep a bit because I hadn’t slept well for the past two nights and my body was pleading for some relaxation after three very physical weeks of working on the farm garden.

This bus ride marked the end of my volunteer work in Vang Vieng and I was leaving with mixed emotion. As we began our ascent into the mountains and the bleary countryside crept past my filmy, streaked window, I had an opportunity to reflect on the past weeks, that seemed almost as blurry as the scenery. It felt like so much had happened, yet one day melted into another as my routine melded into place and it was only the mental determination that differentiated one day from another.

I highlighted Week 1 in Juggling Act – Volunteering in Vang Vieng.  Weeks 2 and 3 were dedicated entirely to the garden since the construction on the secondary school was almost complete and I wasn’t asked to teach. During our Saturday planning sessions I learned that the purpose of the garden was waning a bit. It was originally intended to increase funding for the education programs through the harvesting of fruits to be used for making and selling jam, a talent that Davone, one of the program managers, had developed. Unfortunately, in test sessions of selling the jam to local hotels and guesthouses, they found that it didn’t sell well, so they were still looking for other ways to leverage the fruits of our labor in support of the existing school education programs. At the very least, the fruits and vegetables would be used to supplement the groceries for the volunteer house. Either way, I work much better with some clear priorities, so during our planning sessions, we made a list of what we could accomplish.

Pineapple Plants

Pineapple Plants

I worked with Sanne, the volunteer who I mentioned in my prior post, both weeks and another volunteer, Lauren, who was originally from Detroit but had been teaching in South Korea, for just one week. We expanded and fertilized the banana tree beds and tried to level the grading of the hill where they were planted. We weeded around our more than 100 pineapple plants. Sanne cleaned and organized our shed so that it could once again be

Our newly refurbished toilet / shed… we just kind of make it all work.

Our newly refurbished toilet / shed… we just kind of make it all work.

Lettuce in our vegetable beds.

Lettuce in our vegetable beds.

used as the toilet. Sai, our program manager, weed whacked nearly the entire lot. We made labels in both English and Lao to post next to our plants and trees, weeded vegetable beds, cleared out branches, laid stones around our muddy well, and transplanted papaya trees. Every night, Sanne and I went back to the house and researched how best to care for a specific plant or tree, how to test the soil, what to use as fertilizer, or how to build a compost bin in order to relay the information to Sai or offer suggestions. We also sanded and started painting our hut, which offers the only shade in the garden and is where we eat our lunch everyday. And, of course, there was always the watering, every day, twice a day.

The toilet doors that were nailed shut at the Secondary School in Keo Kuang

The toilet doors that were nailed shut at the Secondary School in Keo Kuang.

During the second week, my donation was utilized to install doors for the toilets at the primary school in Keo Kuang. We drove up there on Friday of that week to inspect the work and were disappointed to learn that the doors were not aligned properly, had cracks in them and were nailed shut. After an hour of trying to ascertain the facts, we were told that the children were hanging on them and banging them closed, which damaged the newly installed hinges. Additionally, drainage was not working properly, so the doors were nailed shut until all could be fixed. I started to wonder if the kids even cared about the doors or the toilets for that matter. With all of my Western sensibility, they were desperately important to me, even if it was just so that I could use a toilet when I worked there, but I wasn’t sure that those kids felt the same way. After all, I don’t think many of them even had toilets in their homes. And lack of proper toilets certainly wasn’t stopping them from attending school. I don’t think the sudden introduction of toilet doors was going to change anyone’s mindset that week. Regardless, I was told that all had been corrected the day before my program departure.

To the left is what the garden looked like when they purchased the land… to the right is what it looks like now.

To the left is what the garden looked like when they purchased the land… to the right is what it looks like now.

Before arriving in Laos, I’m not sure what I was expecting when I first signed up to work on a farm… perhaps fields full of vegetables or orchards full of trees, or maybe a few animals requiring care. I think I was probably expecting a slightly more established version of what we had since it was my understanding that the land for the farm was purchased nearly two years ago. What I failed to realize, until I got there, was that the land was covered in a jungle of trees and weeds when it was purchased. Clearing that land happened with little more than poorly made handsaws, scythes, shovels and hoes. So, although the garden still has a long way to go before the fruit trees will yield fruit, I had to keep reminding myself to be patient and kind because growth and change, no matter how fast I’d like it to be, usually happens slowly.

Slash and burn farming on the drive to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Slash and burn farming on the drive to Luang Prabang, Laos.

My head was bobbling from the rocks and ditches in the road just as much as the thoughts were bouncing around in my mind. As we drove at what was often a mere 15 kilometers an hour, I observed large patches of burning hillsides, smoke billowing into the sky and hanging on the peaks of the hills and mountains casting a haze over the scenery. It is the month for slash and burn farming in Laos. The slashing actually happens in January or February, the slashed trees are left to dry in the sun for a month or two, and then the burning typically happens in April before the rainy season starts in May or June. It’s unfortunate because this type of farming is typically only for subsistence agriculture, tends to exhaust the soil in a season or two, and contributes to erosion. The smell of smoke permeated our bus cabin and nauseated me as we puttered up the next hill. I thought… the Fruit Friends garden was not as developed as I had anticipated but at least they didn’t try to clear the land by burning it. They did it the hard way, the better way.

Living in the cosmos of the Fruit Friends house, I remembered thinking surely there is more that can be done… surely this could be better organized. Now, having stepped out of that universe, driving through ramshackle villages with litter strewn about the houses; watching naked children play in trickling streams in the midst of the hot afternoon haze, women peddling food or goods on the roadside in tattered clothing, thirsty cows wandering alongside our bus, I realized, the challenges go far beyond the perimeter of the garden lot or the Fruit Friends house. I inserted myself for three weeks… the program managers have lived in the villages in Central or Northern Laos their whole life. Between working with an American NGO, reporting to a Lao sponsored funding organization and abiding by Lao governmental mandates, I can’t judge their endeavor in three week’s time. I can only hope that my three weeks effort helped contribute a little bit to support education and that each new volunteer’s time does the same. Growth happens slowly.

Revelling in gratitude for my own educational experiences and opportunities.

Happy Rain Dance

I’ve always loved the rain ever since I was a child. Whether it was a spring thunderstorm, warm summer shower, or the tail end of an autumn hurricane coming up the coast, I could smell it in the air and I would wait in anticipation for the first droplets to fall. It always felt like it was cleansing the sky or washing the world clean and everything seemed to be happy. It would cool off the hot earth, the flowers and trees would soak it up, my dog would play in the puddles, and especially when it was a hot summer, I would go dance in it.  I’d be in my garage or standing by a doorway and stick my hand out first to see how much water was falling from the sky, then I would take a step outside. Looking up at the sky, I’d catch drops on my tongue, then open my arms wide and spin in circles. Sometimes if there was no lightning, my parents would let my sister and I stay in the pool and swim in the rain. The pitter-patter of it on the roof always lulled me to sleep and there was nothing better than a lazy day inside, occasionally staring out the window at an all day soaker.  Rain makes me happy.

Here in Vang Vieng, Laos, it is the hot, dry season, and although there is often high humidity, it doesn’t rain all that much. It was a balmy Thursday night and I had just come back from teaching my after school class. I was going to take a shower before dinner, but

Shower Trashcan

Shower Trashcan

there was no water. Remember those black trashcans in the shower that I mentioned in Shades of Culture Shock and found so curious? Well, they’re full of water for times like these. I opened the lid, dipped the large plastic scoop into the cold water, and poured it over me. The cold water is refreshing but the first splash is always a shock to the system. I poured another scoop over me, lathered up with soap and then took a few more scoops full of water to wash off. It’s not ideal, but works well enough.

The next morning, there was still no water, so I went to the trashcan once again to get a scoop of water to wash my face and used my water bottle full of filtered water to brush my teeth. It’s Friday, so I was off to the garden to start with the watering. The plants and trees need the water as much as I do in the heat. This is also the Friday I referred to in Juggling Act – Volunteering in Vang Vieng when I got to plaster cement to the side of the village primary school in Keo Kuang. We were in a bit of a rush on this afternoon to get back to the house to shower and change for our after school class. It was one of those days when I was already soaked in sweat, water, and mud from carrying 5-gallon jugs around the garden to water banana, mango and papaya trees. Then I spent the afternoon with cement up to my elbows. With three of us working on the same patch of wall, I had cement smeared on my pants, caked on my shoes, and stuck in my hair.  I was not a pretty site at the end of that afternoon, and Sanne and I were both really hoping for water when we got back to the house. Unfortunately, we were disappointed. I know there wasn’t much that can be done about it, but trying to rinse cement out of my hair with cups of water was no small feat. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get it all, but I figured the kids at the school wouldn’t care.

These kids ride their bikes right into the river … both they and the bike get a bath.

These kids ride their bikes right into the river … both they and the bike get a bath.

After all, I’m sure that they were in similar situations and it didn’t stop them from running around the yard, playing games and getting dirty. That night, I think we all went to bed hoping that the rain would come. I used my trashcan water sparingly because I wasn’t sure what would happen when the trashcan was empty, but I had heard stories of prior volunteers going down to the river to rinse off, which is often what we see the locals doing when we drive through the mountains to Keo Kuang where many of them don’t have running water.

On Saturday morning, I awoke to a familiar scent. I pulled back the curtains shortly after sunrise to find that the sun wasn’t shining as bright as it normally does. There was a flutter of excitement and anticipation in my belly. I closed my eyes for a few more minutes, planned my day in my mind, and listened. Only a few minutes passed before the familiar scent was followed by a familiar sound. Pitter-patter at first, and then plunk, plunk, plunk. Yahoo!! It was raining. I jumped out of bed, scooped up some trashcan water to wash my face and got myself dressed. I went outside on the patio as if I were 8 years old again. I stuck my hand out to test the water, peered up at the sky, and then started my happy rain dance. This was a full-fledged thunderstorm and it was glorious.

On Saturday mornings, the program managers all meet with the volunteers to hold a weekly planning session. We held that Saturday’s session on the patio so that we could all listen and watch the rain as it fell. Normally, we would have to go to the garden after the meeting to water so that the plants and trees didn’t dry out over the weekend, but rain meant it wasn’t necessary. It was shaping up to be a great weekend. The rain stopped by noon and it was a beautiful afternoon afterward with slightly cooler temperatures.

The clouds starting to lift from the mountains after the rain.

The clouds starting to lift from the mountains after the rain.

Thankfully, we had another huge thunderstorm on Monday night, so we had plenty of water in the house and we didn’t have to water on Tuesday at the garden. We were able to get a ton of weeding done on Tuesday since the soil was soft. It rained again on Thursday and by that point, it was even cool and windy and I found myself pulling out my rain jacket.  I’ve never been so happy for rain.

On March 22nd, the day after I did my happy rain dance, the world celebrated and honored World Water Day. From a town where we keep trashcans full of water in the shower for when we run out, extra 5-gallon filtered water bottles on hand for drinking, and pull buckets up from a well to water our garden, I’m begging you… I’m shouting it from the mountains of Vang Vieng… please don’t take water for granted. Do you really need to let the water run when you are washing your dishes, or brushing your teeth, or washing your face, or shaving your legs? Are you collecting any of your rainwater for your plants or gardens instead of running the sprinklers every day? What can you do to celebrate and honor water in your life?  If you missed it or didn’t know about it, you can visit http://www.unwater.org/worldwaterday/home/en/ to learn more about World Water Day.

Revelling in gratitude for so many things… but especially for water this week.

Juggling Act – Volunteering in Vang Vieng

Every time that I start a new work assignment, I step into a situation or environment that already exists and since “you can’t unboil an egg” I have to listen, learn, determine what can versus needs to be done and press on. Much of what exists in relation to the volunteer work that I’m doing is a result of government mandates, lack of funds, lack of availability to find tools and resources, and engrained cultural norms. Please also understand that while it may sound a bit grueling at times and far different than what might be able to be done in a developed nation, this is what is available here. It’s simply a different way of life and the managers of this program, along with the volunteers, make the best of it. Frankly, it’s humbling.

Week One, Day One: Monday

I’m off to the Huay Sangnao primary school to teach English. My first class is equivalent to what I believe would be Grade 3 students, my second is Grade 4, but they’ll have the same lesson. Then, in the afternoon, I’ll teach Grade 5, and finally, at 5pm, I’ll teach an after school class of mixed students. The day is a little choppy. The morning classes are back to back, but then we get a two hour lunch break, then about another two hours until I have to go back for the after school session. The school is only about a five-minute bike ride from our house so I ride back and forth three times.

I’ve done plenty of trainings and presentations for teams of adults in a corporate office setting, but I’ve never taught children. So right here, I’d like to stop, take a moment, and thank all of you out there who teach children or run a daycare for that matter. I have a new level of appreciation for all of your hard work, endless patience, and energy. Shaping young minds takes a special set of skills. I initially thought that this would be a very easy day but it turns out that teaching, especially to young children who don’t understand everything that I’m saying, is emotionally draining.

Vang Vieng Elementary School English Book - one of our lessons.  It's not easy doing these two lessons when the kids don't have books.

Vang Vieng Elementary School English Book – one of our lessons… not easy to teach when the kids don’t have books.

I was a little frustrated with the books that we were given for the class because they didn’t seem to follow a logical progression for learning English, but they are approved and mandated by Laos’ government, so there is no changing them. Once I got in the classroom, I also learned that not all of the children have books, so the beginning of each lesson consists of a vocabulary session where I write all of the words that we’re going to use that day on the board for the kids to copy, practice saying aloud, and then spelling. They’re very good at saying most of the words and copying them, but they can’t spell them without looking at them. I determined that they don’t really know what the words mean either, so they have trouble turning them into a sentence. The comprehension level seemed to vary widely, so some could copy in just minutes while others took much longer. This means the advanced kids get bored while waiting for the others, start talking to one another, and I lose their attention. Then their talking distracts the rest of the class and slowly I lose control of the whole dynamic. I did everything I could think of to keep their attention, which meant that class quickly turned into a game of charades and then somehow morphed into songs when it was clear that a prior volunteer had taught them a few catchy tunes. Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes… You put your left hand in, you put your left hand out, you put your left hand in and you shake it all about…

Teaching the after school class.

Teaching the after school class.

The classrooms are rudimentary with concrete floors, two-person desks with bench seats, and two chalkboards leaning against the wall in the front of the classroom. Some of the windows open and some don’t. Only one of my classrooms had a fan and it was broken. There is chalk and little cloth bags full of cotton to be used as erasers. Most of the children have notebooks and pens and they all wear uniforms, except in the “after school” class.

I watched these kids and even while they spoke another language, it was easy to pick out the class clown, the queen bee, the studious ones, the shy ones, the leaders, and the followers. There were those who liked attention for doing good work and those who liked attention for doing poor work. It’s funny how not much changes as we grow up.

Week One, Day Two: Tuesday

I’m off to the farm, which is a block of land in Ban Pak Po.  My fellow volunteers are trickling out the door one by one. One of them tells me, “make a right at the end of the road and then stay on the main road and keep riding for 25 minutes until you cross the bridge.” By then, she assured me that she will have caught up to me and will show me where to turn off for the farm. The ride has small rolling hills and quite a bit of traffic, which consists of pedestrians walking along the road, other bikes, motorbikes, cars and trucks. Cyclists have as much of the “right of way” on the road as other motorized vehicles. I wish I had one of those masks I mentioned in Things that make me go hmmm because the truck and motorcycle fumes are nauseating, but at least my sunglasses keep the dust out of my eyes. The first half of the ride is a bit hectic, but the second half is quiet and lovely with the mountains to the left of me the whole way.

Fruit Friends Farm (Garden)

Fruit Friends Farm (Garden)

As we arrive at the farm, I couldn’t immediately differentiate which were plants and which were weeds. It seems that with the ebb and flow of volunteers, the weeds can overrun quite quickly. After surveying the land, I would describe this project as a garden, not a farm. There are no animals and it definitely requires daily maintenance, unlike crops that might be planted on a farm. The first thing that we need to do is water all of the flower and vegetable beds, and then all of the trees. We have banana trees, pineapple plants, mango trees, cassava, lime, and a host of others along with onions, lettuce, lemongrass, and a few other vegetables. Honestly, I’m still learning them all because they aren’t labeled and the program manager, Sai, often only knows the Lao name for them, so I have to translate the Lao name to English. It’s a long, uphill lot and the only option for watering is a well. We have 2-5 gallon jugs and 3 watering cans. One person has to man the well and pull water up bucket by bucket, then we all take turns filling the watering cans and jugs, and the rest of us walk the lot to do the watering. With 5 volunteers, it takes about 90-minutes to water everything. By the end of the week, we will be down to just me and one other volunteer. I imagine it will take well over two hours by that time.

Trail to the shed in the garden.  Hopefully this will soon be the toilet instead of the shed.

Trail to the shed in the garden. Hopefully this will soon be the toilet instead of the shed.

After watering, there are a list of other things that need to be done… weeding almost everywhere, sanding the new hut that was built so that we can seal the wood, building a compost bin to try to improve the soil, and cleaning out the shed so that it can be used for it’s originally intended purpose as a toilet.   Right now, working on the garden means strategically drinking enough water to stay hydrated in 100F degree (38C) heat but not drinking so much that you’ll need to use the toilet because it’s not accessible.

The recently built hut in the Fruit Friends Garden.

The recently built hut in the Fruit Friends Garden.

We finished watering around 10:30am and then started weeding. Our program manager, Sai, stops by the Fruit Friends house every morning to organize the day and ensure that everyone is going where they are scheduled to go. Also, Boun, our Head of House, is his wife, so in the morning, after Boun ensures that we’ve all gotten breakfast, she makes us lunch. Sai waits for her to finish making it and packing it for us and then he brings it to the garden. We stop for lunch around 11:30am because by that time we’ve worked up quite an appetite. We leisurely enjoy our food under our newly constructed hut in the shade and once we’ve digested our food, we go back to whatever we were working on before we started eating. By 2pm, we start watering again. This is the hot, dry season so the plants need to be watered twice a day to survive.

At about 3pm, Sanne, one of the other volunteers, and I stop watering and ride the thirty minutes back to the house. Both of us are assigned to after school English classes this week, so we have to shower, change and then ride to the primary school by 5pm to teach for an hour. Clearly I was a little too soft on this class of students in Monday’s class because today they are walking all over me… talking amongst themselves, taking twice as

The angels / devils in my English class in Vang Vieng.

The angels / devils in my English class in Vang Vieng.

long to copy words than it should, running in and out of the classroom. To top it off, it’s super hot so we have all of the windows and door open, which means that the kids who are still there, playing in the yard, occasionally pass by the windows and yell to someone in the class. It’s utter chaos. All of my ideas from Monday seem to be useless. While I was writing on the board, they even went through my bag and found my camera and were looking at pictures. By that point, I gave up and just let them look at the pictures for the last 10 minutes. I was exasperated. These adorable children are terrors.

Week One, Day Three: Wednesday

I’m off to the garden again and this time I know where I’m going and I feel a little more comfortable biking in traffic so I enjoy the ride. The morning goes much like the prior one except that today there are only 4 of us to do the watering. Some time in the middle of watering, Sai joined us and informed us that we needed to go to the secondary school in the village of Keo Kuang to help them work. Fruit Friends has already built a primary school in this remote village and now they are adding a secondary school. The village of

The Village of Keo Kuang

The Village of Keo Kuang

Keo Kuang is an hour drive away, about twenty minutes on the main road and another forty on a narrow, winding, mountain road. They were cementing the walls of the outside of the building today. This means sifting sand, manually mixing cement, and then running buckets of water and cement back and forth to the local laborers who were working on the walls. Initially, I felt like I was standing around and doing nothing, waiting for them to need more water or cement. So, when they took their lunch break, I asked Sai if I could mix more cement for them. He said yes and instructed me as I worked on it. That was my first time mixing cement and I liked learning something new. Sai also walked me over to the primary school that they had finished to show me their work. It looked exactly the same as the other two schools that I’ve seen. There was one problem, though… they had built a building for three toilets but there were no doors. The boys often used them anyway or found a tree around the outside of the yard, but the girls often had to run to a neighboring house to ask to use the toilet. When I talked to Sai about why they hadn’t finished the doors, he said they needed a professional to come back out because he didn’t have a power drill to install the hinges for the doors.   They had all the materials, but needed 300,000 kip to pay the laborer. This is $36. I told him I would donate it but wanted to see the doors on the building before I finished my volunteer time. Considering that they were already working on another site, I wondered if it was truly the money, or perhaps availability, motivation, or indifference, but as a woman, providing a closed-door toilet just seemed like human decency.

Sanne and I had to get back for our after school class, so we left the site around 2:30pm, drove an hour back to the garden, picked up our bikes, rode home, showered, changed and rode to the school. The kids were as much a nightmare as the day prior, so I had to put on my serious, “don’t mess with me” face and let them know that I would kick them out of the class if they didn’t listen. I also had to close the door and windows on the side of the room that faced the yard to prevent the other kids from distracting us, which meant that I was teaching in a classroom that felt like a sauna. They didn’t like my sudden change in attitude, but at least they started to realize that I was serious when I kicked two kids out. Give me strength… teaching is much harder than any physical labor that I do all day at the garden or the construction site.

Week One, Day Four: Thursday

It’s a teaching day. After last night’s “after school” class, I’m not really looking forward to it, but I’ve been silently giving myself positive coaching all morning as I get ready to leave. I could tell that Sanne felt the same way that I did as we walked out the door. We wished each other good luck before going separate directions into our classes. The first class went okay. They were a little tough, but I made it through with no major disruptions. I went on to my second class and they were angels, especially in comparison to the first class!! I even got some thank you’s at the end of class. Wow, maybe I was getting the hang of this.

When Sanne and I went home for lunch, Davone, the other program manager, was at the house and she informed us that there was no afternoon class on Thursdays and that we wouldn’t have to teach next week, which might have been the best news that Sanne and I had heard all week. Every week on Thursday afternoon, the kids have game time all afternoon long. I think it’s a little like what gym class would be for us in the States, except that they do it for much longer. Between the bike rides or walks to school and the playing in the yard, these kids seem to get much more exercise than probably 90% of the kids in the US (Don’t quote me on that; I’ve done no research whatsoever. I just see a lot of kids in the US sitting in front of TV’s, computers, and X-boxes). Sanne and I had a relaxing afternoon and then went back to the school for our after school class at 5pm. Again, not so bad… I still had to kick two or three kids out of the room, but all the others got the point. They know what my limits are now.

Week One, Day Five: Friday

Off to the garden and today it’s only Sanne and I. We’ll have to do all of the watering, just the two of us. Sai had to get supplies for the construction project today so he won’t be coming until later. It’s much easier when he’s there because he’s stronger and can pull buckets of water up from the well much faster than we can. Without him, it took us about two hours, which wasn’t bad considering we had twice the volunteers on Wednesday.

After watering, we are off to Keo Kuang again. They are finishing with the cementing today. By the time we arrive, it’s lunchtime, so we eat first. As we finish lunch, the construction

Learning how to cement the walls of our school in Keo Kuang.

Learning how to cement the walls of our school in Keo Kuang.

crew breaks for their lunch, so we start by sifting sand to make more cement. Once we finish, they set up some wobbly scaffolding and told us to climb up. Exciting! I expected a somewhat boring day since during the last visit, I mainly just carried buckets back and forth. This time, it seemed like they were going to teach us how to cement the wall… and that’s exactly what they did. I think we did well for our first time, although there is certainly a technique that can come only with practice. The professionals had to smooth our sections out a bit at the end.

After finishing the wall, we had to jump back in the truck to head back to the farm, pick up our bikes, ride to the house, shower, and change to teach our after school class. When we arrived, my classroom was locked, so Sanne and I decided to double up on her class. This worked very well. The kids weren’t sure why I was there, didn’t know me, or what boundaries they could push with me, and there were two of us to keep them orderly. When I was writing on the board or asking them to copy, Sanne was able to walk around the room and check their work. It was a very good end to what was a rocky week of teaching.

I went through a roller coaster ride of emotions this week, but I can attest that every day seemed to get a little bit easier. It definitely helped that I moved into a downstairs bedroom in the house, had a little more privacy and could easily rest or go to sleep when I needed to recuperate.  Assignments like this one make me appreciate the simplest things in life. I’m slowly beginning to revel again.

More to come soon on the town and goals of our projects…

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.

Things that make me go hmmm…

I’m on my way to Vang Vieng, Laos!! I have about 12 weeks to see South East Asia, and although my initial travel plans when I left 18 months ago (yes, 18 months!!) were to spend a month in each country, this time, I decided that I needed to see more. I also feel more confident wandering so nothing is planned, except for my decision to volunteer for three weeks on a farm in Laos. Why volunteering?  Sometimes, I can hardly believe I’ve been a nomad for this long, but over the course of this time, I feel like the universe has given me so much that I need to give a little back to the world. Why Laos? Let’s just say, paths collided and there was a meeting of the minds. So, here’s how the adventure begins…

It was a lively crowd on the noon flight out of LAX to Hong Kong, which I knew would make for an interesting fifteen and a half hours. I had a window seat and was sitting next to an older Asian couple, who were perfectly content fading in and out of sleep. I was well into my third movie almost 9 hours into the flight, catching up on all the Oscar nominated films that I missed, when the octave level of the passengers seated two rows behind me kicked up a notch. They had been talking and joking loudly the entire flight, but the conversation seemed to have turned into an argument. They were so loud that I couldn’t hear my movie and when I turned around to see what was happening, about four flight attendants were gathered all around the row of seats asking a very inebriated, Spanish-speaking man to calm down. For the sake of the story, I’ll call him Mr. Odioso. There was gesturing, then shuffling of the passengers in the row where Mr. Odioso was seated and clearing of the passengers in the row in front of him. Everyone’s patience seemed to be wearing thin. I had turned back around for a moment to pause my movie and when I glanced back again there was some sort of scuffle. Did Mr. Odioso have the neighboring passenger in a headlock, or was he just pulling his hair? I couldn’t tell, but that was the beginning of the end for him.

It didn’t take long for the flight attendants to issue more escalated warnings to Mr. Odioso, which seemed to be met with complete disregard. A few minutes later, one of the flight attendants came back with plastic handcuffs and it only took two seconds for a rather burly man one further row back to volunteer to hold Mr. Odioso down so that they could handcuff his hands behind his back and then strap him into his seat with a seatbelt at both his waist and across his chest. At this point, he proceeded to yell and whine and threaten what he would do if he got out of those restraints. I recognized some of the Spanish slang and curse words, and he seemed hell bent on letting everyone know that he was from Mexico. Ok, Mr. Odioso, way to represent Mexico. After about an hour, his rants trailed off into what sounded like a 4-year olds temper tantrum, and then eventually what I can only describe as the kind of whimpering that you might hear from a puppy. This went on for nearly 5 more hours. It wasn’t until the last hour of the flight that they allowed him to use the restroom and then moved him to a different seat in the back of the plane. Hmmm… think twice before you decide to get drunk on a plane these days. I’m fairly certain that Mr. Odioso went straight to Hong Kong security when he deplaned and that is no way to start a holiday.

Installation in the Hong Kong Airport.

Installation art in the Hong Kong Airport.

Once I got to Hong Kong, I had a short layover between planes. In my transition, I couldn’t help but notice that the restroom attendant was outfitted in a hospital mask and was carrying a bag of trash in one hand and a pair of large kitchen tongs in the other hand… the kind of tongs that you might use while grilling. It struck me as such an odd picture and made me wonder, why was she using kitchen tongs in the first place and what exactly was she picking up that required such long tongs? Hmmm. I didn’t speak enough Thai to ask, didn’t have enough time to wait and see, nor did I think that taking a picture in a public restroom appropriate. At this point, I hadn’t really slept a wink and when in a dazed state, I tend not to engage others in a foreign country. So, as I waited for my second flight to board, I listened to music and observed. There were many more people walking around wearing masks. I did recall this from being in the Bangkok airport last year, but had forgotten. I wondered… do they wear masks because they’re sick and they’re politely shielding us from their germs, or are they trying to keep from breathing the rest of the world’s germs? Or is it both? Hmmm.

Bussaba Bangkok hotel room.

Bussaba Bangkok hotel room.

When I arrived in Bangkok, I was relieved to move rather effortlessly through passport control, baggage reclaim, and then the taxi stand. My hotel in Bangkok was close to the airport and turned out to be a bit of an oasis outside of the crowded downtown city area, which was fine for my short 3-night stay. Why only three nights?  Well, I had a hard time figuring out where to start and I procrastinated a bit when booking so only a week before I departed, I decided it would be least expensive to fly to Bangkok, get an initial feel for the city and then decide if I wanted to go back. It would also help to acclimate to the region before I started working / volunteering.  Finally, my travel doctor made a strong case for obtaining the vaccination for Japanese Encephalitis since I would be working, trekking, and traveling through very rural parts that have had cases. As it turns out, the best vaccination for the disease is made in the US but only sold in Asia and the easiest place to get it is Bangkok. It’s also about a fifth of the cost of those sold in the US. So, after what felt like a very short night of sleep, I ventured off to Bangkok Grand Central Hospital to request my vaccination.

When I arrived at the hospital, it was easy enough to find an attendant who spoke English and explain that I wanted the vaccination. She in turn, found a nurse, who took my vitals. The nurse then passed me on to a doctor who clarified and verified what I was requesting. The doctor sent me to the pharmacy technician who administered the shot and the technician sent me on to the cashier. Every single one of them looked at me a little funny and asked in a tone that was half question, half statement, “you want Japanese Encephalitis vaccination?”   “Yes”, I would say not wanting to get into too much detail. “O-kay” would be the response. I’m fairly certain they were thinking, hmmm, crazy American.

One of the side effects of the vaccination is muscle soreness, which I felt almost immediately after receiving the shot, so although initially I thought I would stroll for a bit, the hospital wasn’t really close to any sites so I quickly changed course and hopped in a taxi. I’ve heard some great things about Bangkok, but I’ve got to tell you that it was nearly 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius), smoggy, loud, and traffic was terrible.

Lumpini Park covered in blossoms.

Lumpini Park covered in blossoms.

I asked the taxi driver to take me to the first green space that I could find on my map for a little peace. It turned out to be Lumpini Park. It was lovely and long, with blossoms half covering the grounds, and new flowers in bloom. There were gardeners tending to the watering and it seemed the only other people insane enough to be outside in such hot weather were other tourists snapping a few photos. After walking the length of the park,

Lumpini Park walking path.

Lumpini Park walking path.

I decided to do as the locals do and find some air conditioning, which led me toward Central Plaza. I enjoyed my first Thai meal, rehydrated, purchased some Lonely Planet phrasebooks for Thai and Lao, and realized that I was still exhausted and sore. I also wanted to get out of the city before rush hour, so back in a taxi I went to my little oasis.

As we drove back to the hotel, I saw mopeds riding down the shoulder on the wrong side of the road, families of four on motorcycles, mothers with babies strapped across their chest on their moped, and plenty of bicycles carrying two people. I’ve witnessed this in smaller towns and villages but wouldn’t necessarily have expected to see it in such heavy traffic on main highways and roads. Hmmm, interesting. Also, while walking on the sidewalks near the highway that day, I decided that the masks everyone seems to wear are to keep germs or dust out and I wished I had one.

Koi pond at Bussaba Bangkok.

Koi pond at Bussaba Bangkok.

My next day consisted of exploring my neighborhood, tasting some local fruits at a nearby market, getting a fantastic Thai massage for $6, relaxing by my hotel’s koi pond while feeding the fish, and studying my Thai and Lao phrasebooks. It was just the type of day that I needed to battle jetlag. Everything else required almost an hour-long taxi ride into the city anyway so I decided I would come back and stay in the city next time. The following morning I was off to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos.

Buddhist Temple along the streets of Vientiane.

Buddhist Temple along the streets of Vientiane.

Vientiane was an easy hour-long flight and we still received a full breakfast on Bangkok Airways. Visas were simple and cost $35 upon arrival. The center of Vientiane was a quick 10-minute taxi ride and I could tell immediately that this place would be a bit more my speed. It was smaller, bustling with backpackers, and cute shops and restaurants. Buddhist temples dotted the route and I could instantly feel the surrounding

The streets of Vientiane.

The streets of Vientiane.

community influence. My hotel allowed for an early check-in, so once I dropped my bag, I was off to explore. I booked my bus ticket for the following morning to get to Vang Vieng, got a watermelon shake and decided to try some Indian food, which was delicious. By the time I had walked around for two hours and finished lunch, I was so hot that I had to go back inside for some air conditioning. When I went back out again to explore the temples and museum, they were closing, so instead I wandered through the neighborhoods. By this time, the sun was setting, the air was cooling off a bit and people were in their homes.

Wandering neighborhoods is one of my favorite things to do when I travel to get a feel for how the locals live. In Vientiane, the homes were close together and very open – the front of many of the homes seemed to have doors resembling garage doors, which were wide open so I could see the living area. Hmmm. I wondered if many people work from their homes or leave the doors open to get air since it is so hot. There were people playing cards, preparing food, playing games, doing hairdressing, organizing supplies, and all sorts of other activities. The children were playing

Restaurant and lounge in Vientiane.

Restaurant and lounge in Vientiane.

in the streets and dogs were roaming freely. “Sai-ba-dee”, the kids would shout and wave. Sai-ba-dee, I would reply – it is the standard greeting in Laos. I stopped by the local street vendors and chose randomly from the selection of fried foods. I bit into what turned out to be some type of donut with coconut custard in the middle. It was delicious! By the time I walked back to the main street where my hotel was located, the entire street had come to life. It was almost 8pm and the restaurants were getting busy and the bars were just opening their windows to let in the cooler night air. I wasn’t all that hungry in the hot weather so I lingered just to absorb some of the energy before going back to organize my things for the morning.

My bus ride the next day would be between three to four hours and once I reached Vang Vieng, I would have my orientation for working on the farm…

Revelling in gratitude … to be continued…

Build it and they will come

I know what you’re thinking…

Dubai disappearing in the fog

Dubai disappearing in the fog

I disappeared on all of you again.  It seems it’s becoming a bit of a pattern.  As I transition through the end of a work assignment and start planning the next adventure or visit, my blogging goes to the back burner.  Here’s the good news, the next adventure has begun and I’m super excited to start sharing it with you, but before I do, I owe you a final post from my time in Dubai.  Many of you have asked about the excursions, tours, or sightseeing that I did there, so I wanted to give you an update before I move on to the next adventure.

As I’ve alluded in prior posts, I didn’t exactly have an affinity for UAE culture, but it should be noted that there is a plethora of things to do and see there – really just about anything your heart desires, if you don’t mind spending a significant amount of money along the way.  And I do mean anything… from indoor skiing to amusement parks, to lavish restaurants and bars and big name concerts, as well as diving, camel rides, horse racing, car racing, you can find it.  Opulence, fantastic service delivery, and a very open minded philosophy for an Arab nation, has attracted the most diverse expat community I have ever witnessed.  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and his father before him, with their “build it and they will come” motto, are brilliant.  They didn’t just think it, they committed to it and the results are astounding if you look at the explosive growth that has occurred in Dubai over the past 30 years.

View from the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

View from the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

Now, all that being said, I’m not all that comfortable with frivolously throwing my hard earned money around because after traveling for about a year, I’ve learned that a lavish weekend in Dubai could last a week or even a month in places like Peru, South Africa, or South East Asia.  So, when I decided to explore the view from the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world based in the heart of downtown Duabi, instead of paying $125 to go to the 165th floor, I opted for the second rate experience on the 125th floor, which costs about $35.  I’m told there are drinks, food, and a far more luxurious experience “At the Top”, but I don’t believe the view would have been all that different.  It is the only place where I was able to clearly see the Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago of islands in the shape of a palm tree, and the World Islands, shaped as the name implies. Both are best seen from the sky, so if you’re in Dubai for a short week-long holiday and you want to go all out, I say do it.  It is exactly that, an experience.  You may just have to pick your poisons or your penchants as you go.

A shimmering view of the Dubai Marina Walk.

A shimmering view of the Dubai Marina Walk.

While I was there, I tried to find things that I would enjoy specifically in that climate, so while an indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates was certainty a novelty, I felt confident that it wouldn’t beat the experience of skiing Mammoth or Vale, let alone slopes throughout Europe, so I opted to pass.  I did go to a concert on the Palm Jumeirah that I thoroughly enjoyed, although I suspect more so for the company and location than the event.  I did

The Miracle Garden -  holds the record in Guinness Book of Records for having the longest wall of flowers

The Miracle Garden – holds the record in Guinness Book of Records for having the longest wall of flowers

ride the fastest roller coaster in the world at Ferrari World on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, which was hair raising fun.  The Marina is a great place for a lovely stroll and it has some great restaurants and bars.  It can be very crowded on the weekends and tough to get there due to traffic, so the best way to go if you aren’t staying there is by metro.  Even the Miracle Garden turned out to be a pleasant afternoon stroll.  For the garden, check times – it is only open for part of the year.

Fountain display at the Dubai Mall

Fountain display at the Dubai Mall

I was a bit disappointed with the Dubai Museum, as it was fairly small and lacked the intricacies of the historical and cultural detail that I was seeking. I visited the Mall of the Emirates, Marina Mall, and Dubai Mall and while all of them have their highlights, I preferred the layout of the Dubai Mall and usually tried to stay long enough to see the fountains dance during each visit.

I highly recommend spending a day in the souks and floating down the Duabi Creek in an abra. It was one of the only days and experiences in Dubai that felt authentic. The gold souk, glimmering from floor

Gold Souk

Gold Souk

to ceiling, and the spice souk, lined with aromatic and colorful spices that will flood your senses, are on one side of the Dubai Creek and the garment souk, with its tapestries, pashminas, and souvenirs, is on the other. The easiest way to get across is by water taxi, or abra, which is a traditional boat made of wood with a bench seat running down the center of it. It only costs about one durham to cross, however, for

Abras on the Dubai Creek

Abras on the Dubai Creek

about $20 to $25 (feel free to negotiate), you can get a 60-90 minute tour of the Dubai Creek, which is a relaxing way to spend the afternoon and is a welcome break between bustling souks and haggling with vendors. In the souks, everything is negotiable, so I’d recommend starting at 30% of the quoted rate and meeting somewhere around 50 to 60% of the initial request. Everyone loses face if you acquiesce too quickly or remain too stubborn.

Pausing to watch the sunset in the middle of my Dune Buggy Safari

Pausing to watch the sunset in the middle of my Dune Buggy Safari

One of the other highlights during my stay was a desert dune buggy safari. There are many tour companies that offer this excursion or a variation of it, so you can find one just by asking your hotel concierge. I did an evening safari departing around 4pm. It takes nearly an hour to pick up the rest of your group and get out to the desert. By the time you are in the dune buggy and gliding across the sand, it is almost sunset and it is gorgeous. The sun radiates over the golden silt and casts shadows on the dunes making for a fun and adventurous ride. Warning: don’t wear clothing or shoes that you like too much because you will have sand everywhere by the time that you are done. After the hour-long ride, most of the tours continue at a desert campsite where they will host a buffet

The infamous camel...

The infamous camel…

barbeque. It’s typically a walled site with low tables seated around a center stage. There will be belly dancing shows, outposts for getting henna tattoos, smoking shisha, or purchasing souvenirs. There are typically also a few camels available for camel rides. Second warning: careful getting on and off those camels! It’s not like getting on and off a horse. The camel will kneel down to let you on and do the same thing to let you off. Camels are quite tall, so if you’re not paying close attention when it kneels down to let you off, it’s a long way down and a much harder landing than you might expect. I can attest from experience!!

Exquisite veal fillet, vitelotte potato puree, broccolini and jus.

Exquisite veal fillet, vitelotte potato puree, broccolini and jus.

Finally, my last recommendations for Dubai are Friday or Saturday brunches. Remember that Friday and Saturday is the weekend so after an exciting evening out on the town, you can awake at the mid-morning hour and find lavish buffets with continuous pouring of libations where you can leisurely pass the day with friends. I also enjoyed a food and wine dinner pairing at the Dubai Creek Country Club, which was a five-course meal prepared by a guest

The Palace

The Palace

chef from Italy that offered wines from the same region. My taste buds were in over-drive! High tea at the palace is also lovely, especially if you linger until sunset. There are no shortage of amazing restaurants and vistas to watch the sun set over the water. Dubai is a place where you can splurge very easily. They’ve built it all so that you would come, so go!!

I left my Dubai assignment with mixed emotion because while I missed seeing green grass and some of the routines and familiarities of home, the work assignment was a fantastic learning experience.

Now, after visiting friends and family in London, South Carolina, and Los Angeles, and recharging my travel engine, I’m off to South East Asia with only my backpack and an open mind.

Revelling in gratitude for all of your wonderful support.