A (Selfish?) Life in Savannakhet, Laos. (+addendum…)

I just came back from a party to farewell another fabulous human being I have met here, Michael.  He originally came here as a Fulbright scholar, and stayed for longer than he was contracted to… I mean, who wouldn’t?

It was a fabulous party.  Held at mutual friends’ house, ‘Pot luck’ – bring a plate.  Fabulous food, fabulous company, great conversations, music, shared interests – new faces, old faces, local people and expats.  Michael is a sociable person who has worked at a range of different places, and he invited them all!  He is around half my age, but his playlist was excellent – huge range of music from different places and eras.  This epitomizes a very different life to the one I lead back ‘home’.

People who had seen my recent facebook posts asked me about my plans for when my contract expires, at the end of August.  For the first time I needed to articulate something I’ve been putting off, what am I going to do?  It is June now, my contract ends in three months.  I don’t want to leave but I need to go home.  I want to come back.

I talked with my 85 year old father today.  He said something like “So you’re looking forward to coming home, because I miss you and many other people miss you too…”  My immediate thought was no, I’m not looking forward to coming home.  My ‘home’ is a miserable place, a job in which I am devalued and constantly on edge, never knowing whether I’ll have work for the next semester, no chance of achieving an ongoing position.  Children who I adore but I cannot continue to be their all when living a life of discontent.  A complete lack of ‘community’, where I sit at home on my own and wallow in my misery.  A lack of meaning and feeling as if I am contributing to the world.  Here I feel as if I am on my way to contributing.  To helping others achieve, to inspire, to educate, to share my knowledge and be a part of improving the lives of others.  I don’t want to go home.

Is this selfish?  Am I only thinking of myself?  Or does a meaningful life actually matter?  It seems to matter to me.  I have worked hard for a long time to develop the skills that I want to share with others.  I have tried to do that in my ‘home’ context, in working with students in Australian universities to inspire, to provoke, to work towards a better future for their students and the world.  Sometimes this feels like an achievement, as if I’ve made a difference.  And then I get my student evaluations, I get rejected for ongoing positions, I feel like I’m not inspiring, or achieving, or doing anything of any value to anyone.  I feel like a failure, with nothing to offer. God I hate that feeling, but it’s real, and it hurts.

So I leave Australia, I work here as a volunteer, supported by the Australian government.  I feel as if I have some purpose to what I’m doing.  I feel as if people appreciate what I’m doing.  People seem to acknowledge and recognise that what I’m doing is selfless – this is not for me.  I have knowledge and ability and I can share it unselfishly – I simply need enough money to live, and beyond that, I will give what I can.

This is the dilemma I find myself in.

Addendum:  a year later, another volunteer position in a different country…

The dilemma is still with me.  Again I find myself in a position that feels right – in a position that welcomes me and my skills, where I feel I can make a difference, where I am challenged every day.  As I leave home, my father hugs me and every time it feels like the last goodbye.  My children hug me as I farewell them, and I assure myself that my discontent presence is more damaging than my content distance – that technology provides a channel for more communication than would be possible with my presence.

I was asked by a friend why I didn’t look for the same work in my own country – out of respect for being a closer part of my kids’ lives, and (presumably) to work for the betterment of my own country rather than overseas.  It is difficult to articulate why I do not have any desire to work in my own country, but I think I have expressed this in many ways over many years.

Professionally, there are people who have training and experience in my profession who can certainly do these (local) jobs and who I would have to compete with based on questionable measures of competence.  I am tired of battling to prove myself, to present myself in an ‘acceptable’ manner, to write and to speak in a way that is not true to myself and has nothing to do with what I want to accomplish and how I want to work with others.  Or how I can draw on a life-time of experience that doesn’t ‘fit’ in my ‘3 page max CV’ and certainly isn’t mentioned in job interviews.

For a long time I have just wanted to work at my best, to meet challenges head on and to use my ‘big picture’ thinking to work on immediate issues … I don’t have as much energy as I did 20+ years ago when I started on the desperate journey through academia so I’d rather put the energy and passion into the work I have, than into getting my foot in the doors that remain closed to me.

So the ‘dilemma of selfishness’ remains but …

Deliberating inside my Cave…DSC_9022-Optimized

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Pakse Trip 1: Bolevan Plateau and Waterfalls, Champasek

When the internet / wifi doesn’t work and your phone is kaput, thank god for cheap beer, food and cigarettes.

We had a fantastic day today, a minibus tour around the Bolaven Plateau in Eastern Champasak province.  Thanks to Debbie and Al for helping to arrange it all!

( – from Pakse, 150,000 kip, booked through Khem at Lao Adventure Travel, ph: 02095775785 – there are a broad range of tours to take, or travel independently).

Pakse has so many more international tourists than Savannakhet – and it is easy to see why.  So much more development, more built up, more investment, and by far, more natural sites to visit.

But the flipside of that is, tourists are not so friendly (or desperate?) to talk with another falang, and the local people are far more used to foreigners.

We set off sometime after 8am, and picked up others on the way.  The ‘planned tour’ we were sold wasn’t quite the way it eventuated, but no problems (boh phenyung), it was an adventure.  All those on my bus just happened to be Germans, but spoke English well – lucky me!  (oh never forget the privilege of being born into a majority English speaking country!)

First stop Tad Fan and Mr Coffee.  Brilliant waterfall dropping far down into the abyss from two different rivers.  Not sure how the valley was formed but really spectacular, photos could not do it justice.  Coffee plantation was fascinating, seeing the beans on the trees, the spiders doing their business, and bees producing honey as well.  Sample coffee was delectable, had to buy myself a supply to take back with me.  Tea plantation a little further on also had delectable teas so I finally managed to get some black tea for my new teapot (Thai – Muktahan).

The stops at ‘Ethnic villages’ are always a little discomforting.  You have to wonder how the people feel about these strangers wandering around their homes, taking photos and trying to be friendly – but understanding that our tour pays a fee for the privilege, and  recognising the little signs of how these proceeds are spent such as a very decent little outdoor toilet that I was much relieved to find!  This wonderful woman sitting on the step chatted away to us in indecipherable language (ethnic minority groups have a range of languages different to the more common Lao – by her body language I could only think that she was telling us about her sore head, her sore eyes, her sore legs…  I asked for a photo – it was still quite unclear what she was saying, but she was so delightful and animated I had to give her some money – she took my hand in response and seemed so happy, aside from all her aches and pains… again, my interpretation!

Another woman sitting in a doorway had bags of roasted almonds she wanted to sell.  They were actually very good, reasonably priced, so Debbie and I agreed to buy two bags.  She was particularly interested in my rings (what she wants my rings as well as my money?).  I went over and showed her my hand – she seemed interested in my mother’s wedding ring (a diamond), but also a ring made out of tortoise shell from the Solomons.  She wanted to take them off – luckily they are pretty well jammed on my fingers for good!

The stop I most enjoyed was the two hour lunch/waterfall/swim stop.  I had my stash of fruit with me for lunch and after taking some shots of the spectacular waterfall, took off downstream to the little shelters by the swimming area.  Ah, the water was so cool and delectable, all so serene and refreshing.  The sand underfoot is apparently volcanic residue, ground down to a silken consistency.  I investigated the little river side bungalows – 50,000 kip / pp – what a wonderful place to come back to with my family!  I wandered through part of the village and met these wonderful girls, Anny (13) Tookrok (13) and Daowan (15) at the little ‘free school’ there – most entertaining and friendly!  I only got their ages because Anny wanted to know mine!  Daowan didn’t know how to write her name in English so I gave her my approximation.  Tookrok – I think her sister, wrote it on her hand for future reference.  They all wanted to take photos with my camera of us together – that was fun!  Very friendly and welcoming people here.

Final stop was yet another waterfall/ethnic village/museum.  Again, spectacular, with a swing bridge constructed to walk across, and an amazing wooden structure that composed restaurants, viewing areas and accommodation.  Not a long stop but I could also imagine spending more time here relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere, and the lovely people too.

Dropped back at guesthouse, happy and contented after a day’s adventures! 🙂