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EPIC JOURNEY HOME from 4,000 Islands

Home again after a 12 hour epic journey from Don Det, surrounded by 4,000 Islands, back to Savannakhet.  We had a pink piece of paper that said 3 pax, from x bus station to Savannakhet.  To get to the bus station, we needed to wait for a ‘ferry boat’ that left at 11am.  Rani had his own pink ticket, that took him from the bus station, to Pakse airport, ready catch a flight to Luang Prabang, and then on to Van Vieng the next day on a bus.  Luckily, after most of our cash was stolen, even though we had to be very careful to make it last – 800,000 kip ($AUD140) between all of us didn’t go far!  (OK, in hindsight, a lot further than it would have back home in Australia!)

So with Rani phone-less (didn’t survive being dropped down a toilet), Caroline also phone-less (got stolen along with our kip), and about 7 bags between us, we waited in a queue of about 30 other falangs going to various destinations, on the same (rather small long) boat, at the same time.  Then the wonderful refrain that you hear when travelling with a gorgeous 7 year old, “aaaahhhhh, Tilly, you come with me, yes, all of you, come and get on this boat!”  Ah what a relief, she’s certaiDSC_7247nly made herself known on this little island haven!

So we managed our way onto the boat with our luggage, Rani doing the heroics carrying most of it with him, got to ….  Remembered where the bus had dropped us off days before, and walked the 500metres or so, to find the bus was there ready for us.  We got ourselves on – yay, good seats, lots of space, air con… luxury.

After a couple of hours, the big bus managed to get us up the side street in Pakse where our amazing travel agent Khem was waiting for us.  As we got off the bus (hoping to get ourselves some food for the rest of the trip) a savage tuk tuk driver got on the bus saying “Pakse airport, Pakse airport”.  Being tired and not thinking I said to Rani, quick quick, follow him … quick hug, kiss, best wishes for the trip, that was the last I saw of my son … Found Khem who said “where is your son?”  She had been ready to get him to the airport herself, and I realised it was just an opportunistic tuktuk driver who had taken him … god only knows what he charged him but he’s gone now … no phone or way of contacting so just hope for the best, once again.

 (In general, don’t trust tuktuk drivers in Laos – rip offs!  A 10 km trip that costs a local approx. 10,000 kip or AUD $1.65 will be bumped up to around 50,000 kip for a falang – find out what it should cost and offer them that – be prepared to barter or walk away, and agree before you or your bags are on board).

We got to have our lunch – a case of going to a restaurant, asking if we could have baguettes rather than bread sandwiches, and that we only had 5 minutes before our bus left, and smiled at the restaurant owner as she took off on her motorbike to go and buy the baguettes … 10 minutes later, back to our luggage at the travel agent, and onto a tuktuk arranged by Khem, with two Israeli guys with very limited English, and who didn’t seem to know the name of the place they were headed to.  The tuktuk stopped in what seemed a rather random location, on the side of the road next to a little portable shop that sold watches – we thought maybe he needed one because he didn’t seem to know what time the bus was due to leave.  Amazingly, up drives a bus, stops on the side of the road and he tells us to board it.  Um, ok!

Luxury comfort, leg room, air con, music video playing, bags loaded, and off we went.  We didn’t know if this was just the bus to the bus that we were taking or what, so we sat ready for the next off-loading, but no, on we went and we were all very happy with that!  Bus stopped a number of times for toilets and food (wow!) and random monkeys in cages.  Now this is good travelling!  Until … a horn, a bump, a scrape, bus slows to a stop, a smash, metal crunching … immediate thought, we’ve hit something … the crunch and the smash under the bus, OMG, we’ve hit a motorcyclist, they are under the bus, Matilda whimpering, what’s happening mummy?  We stop.  We wait.  No one speaks English.  Most people stay on the bus.  We wait.  They clear a space in the luggage area and my mind makes up the whole scenario (loading the body and wreckage into the bus hold…).

 

We wait.  Finally I climb out of the bus to see what’s going on.  No sign of smashed motorcycle.  No sign of blood or dead animal.  There is a little crowd at the front of the bus so I go to investigate.  I see that the window in front of the driver is smashed, a small hole with shattered but intact windscreen.  People standing around discussing … um, whatever.  A woman talking urgently on the phone.  OK.  I take the opportunity to have a wee on the side of the road.  End up sitting down so that the passing traffic doesn’t have to be upset by a view of my big white ass.  Goddamned it, prickles – why do I always seem to land in the prickles?

We were probably there for an hour – after some time we gathered that the bus had actually hit a buffalo, buffalo just wandered off, window smashed, four hours still to go to get to Savannakhet, darkness.  Then suddenly everyone gets back on the bus and it sets off slowly, cautiously, and we wonder what time we are going to arrive home at this pace, if at all.  It’s night, can’t see a thing … we are crawling along.  Next thing, the bus stops again, and I hear “Savannakhet” and the bus man gestures to us to get off the bus.   Just as I was finally getting comfortable enough to sleep.  Oh.  Caroline (speakers back on, settling back into sleep mode) we have to get off!  Mad scramble for our multitude of bags, and I look around – this sure doesn’t look like Savannakhet to me!  Bus station, lots of market stalls open, but absolutely no idea where we are!

A man with no English is gesturing and petting Matilda, touching her face, trying to get her to sit with him.  Who is this man?  Where the hell are we?  Why did they make us get off this bus in this strange place?  I walk around and say to everyone, “Savannakhet”?  I can’t work it out because they say “boh” –  no – so why the hell are we here????  I come to my senses and remind Caroline that it all seems to work out in the end … they seem to know what they’re doing, so we can only play along, and keep the faith.

Amazingly, a minibus appears and we are ushered into it – crammed full of non-English speaking refugees from the previous bus, presumably heading for Savannakhet, we manage to squeeze in – Matilda on my lap in the front seat with our creepy sleaze-man, we set off again.  Along the way, I finally start recognising the ‘free economic zone’ on the outskirts of Savannakhet, and Matilda was the first to  spot the familiar dinosaur roundabout.  They dropped off some passengers at their hotels (how did they know that?) and we just kept the faith.  I asked our sleazy friend if he knew Savannakhet (yes) and did he know the Avalon hotel (yes) and tried to have a conversation and then he said he was Vietnamese, hence the non-understanding, and as we soon found, he had no idea where the Avalon was – once we got to the bus station, he virtually pushed us out of the bus, with no intention of dropping us anywhere near our destination.

Well, we managed to get a tuktuk back to the Avalon where we had a celebratory and very relieved Beer Lao – 12 hours after leaving the island.  Wow, another adventure…. Xox  The moral of the story was, for me, is keep the faith… If you have been promised to be transported from point A to point B, you will probably get there … eventually.

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Communication in Laos

Whenever I go out in Laos, I talk to anyone who is willing to talk back (and some who aren’t, it’s true).  The bigger the population of falangs (white people), particularly those just passing through, the less people there are that seem willing to chat.

As an English teacher, students often ask how they can improve their spoken English – without a doubt, having the confidence to talk with a falang is a great start, and a great opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills.  But it takes a willing falang, an ultra confident Lao, and often a certain ability to get past the inevitable misunderstandings that occur.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but that of course involves too much shame, or too much effort for many people to even try.

Trying to get past misunderstandings is also the responsibility of both parties; it takes an effort, practice, and some interpersonal/cultural skills.  These are ones that come to my mind, as both a current English teacher and a Lao learner – but also keeping in mind that some contexts will change the dynamics, that hierarchies (age/status), respect and culture also play a part, and the purpose for the conversation is another potential form of misunderstanding – I just wanted to practice my (limited) English/Lao and here you are asking me questions???

  • Slow down!  Speak clearly!  Enunciate every word!  (Whether English OR Lao).
  • Use Gestures!  Sign language, point to objects, count on your fingers.
  • Be patient.  Be kind.  Smile a lot!
  • Ensure time to formulate answers.  Try counting slowly to five after asking a question – feels like a long time but often what is needed.
  • Remember that often Lao students only hear English from their Lao speaking teachers, including any mispronunciations.  As much as possible, speak English with a Lao accent!  Listen to the way they say the words themselves – that is what they will be more likely to understand.
  • Falangs also have accents!  Be conscious of your own accent!
  • Lao speakers often leave off the end of the words when speaking their own language as it is not always required for understanding.   However in English the ends of words are necessary for communication (plurals, tense, meaning).
  • Tone is another key area of difference – Lao is tonal, and the tones will change the meaning (quite dramatically) of the words spoken.  Whereas in English, our use of tones is more likely to change the meaning of the phrase or sentence – eg. whether we are asking a question, making a statement, being sarcastic or making a joke, etc.  And don’t think that the Lao speakers don’t also have their fun with tones and misunderstandings – just that often it is only one side of the conversation that ‘gets’ the joke.  My strategy is hey, just laugh along!
  • Many Lao learners of English will basically learn the same structured conversations that depend on both speakers giving the standard answer or asking the question in the same order and structure it was taught!
    • Greetings and Introductions  (Hello!  How are you?  I am fine thanks.  And you?)
    • Where are you from?
    • Occupations/workplaces
    • Family
    • Food/drinks/colours – like/don’t like …
    • Less experienced (ie most) students will know little else beyond these basics.
  • A Lao conversation is more likely to be along the lines of Sabaidee, are you good?  Where are you going?  Have you eaten? (in my limited understanding! – and I often get it wrong, or can’t understand anything after the 1st question…)

Most Useful words/phrases to learn in Lao:

Hello  –  Sabaidee

Thank you  –  Kawp jai

No worries!  –   Baw pen nyang

Remember too that there is no agreed upon phonetic spelling for English pronunciation for Lao words.  Primary complications are the tones that change the meaning of words, and sounds that have no exact English equivalent.  Phonetic spelling of sounds may well be pronounced differently depending on your first language/accent..

Most importantly, have a go!  Lao people are, on the whole, very very friendly and appreciate a ‘good heart’ that shows in your actions

(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Declaration of human rights in Lao

Sample text

Transliteration
Manut thuk khôn kœ̄t māmīkẏat sâk sī, sitthi, sēlī phôp læ khwôm smœ̄ phôp thàw thẏam kân. Thuk thuk khôn mīhēt phôn læ khwômkhit khwôm hian swàn tôw khɔ̄̄ṅ phai khɔ̄ṅ mân, tǣ̀vồ manut thuk thuk khôn khwan paphʉt tàṁ kân khʉ̄ kân kâp pianốy nɔ̄́ṅ kân.

Translation

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

http://www.omniglot.com/writing/lao.htm

This life and that one.

This life and that one.

Two Months Left … Not ready to leave!

I left that one for a multitude of reasons:

  • Working as a sessional academic in a university for 15 or so years, and still be a lowly kicking ball is demoralising and ultimately soul-destroying.
  • Turning 50 was life-changing – time to live my dream.
  • Becoming a volunteer overseas for the second time in my life was that dream.
  • Living, working and learning in a new country/culture was also part of that dream.
  • My older son needed to find his own way in the world.
  • My younger daughter has a father who loves and looks after her, and a life in which she is happy, living, learning and thriving.

But overall, I didn’t feel wanted, needed or appreciated in that life, but in this one, I do.

I feel as if I’ve been on my way to turning 50 forever.  I went back to higher degree study in 1999 after finding out that my Graduate Diploma of TESOL did not entitle me to teach in Victoria.  I eventually completed my Masters and then my PhD whilst working as a sessional academic in 2011, aged 44.  At that time I had a 2 year old daughter and a 15 year old son.  My CV was pretty good; I have never stopped working, always being independent and thirsty for new knowledge and experiences.  I had been interviewed for a few academic jobs (tenured), but at that time the message was always … finish your PhD first.  I still remember how at that time I felt invigorated and energetic, hopeful and happy to become an ‘expert’ in whatever it was they considered necessary in order to give me an ongoing position.  And as anyone who has also been through the gratuitous process of applying and being knocked back, that energy and invigoration is likely to soon get sucked out of you.

I finished the PhD and found that my university faculty no longer had any work to offer me.  I seemed to have reached a dead end there – after 12 years or so of studying and working in the same faculty, I got to one of those low points between contracts and had to accept that I had been labelled something along the lines of ‘troublemaker’ and that I would just never be good enough.  Yes, I’m allowed to feel disappointed … (see below).

And the rules had clearly changed along the way, not just ‘finish your PhD’ but ‘finish your PhD and a mass of publications in highly ranked journals to show you are serious and publishable’, ensure your work ‘fits’ the current milieu, and that you are already ‘known’ as one who will succeed within that …

Where/when do you realise you have left your run too late?

I’m allowed to feel disappointed…

[…] I shared my experience with students, colleagues, and friends—anyone who asked me how I was doing got a real answer to that question. I made things very uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially my institution or anyone who couldn’t handle my public airing of feelings or the reality of academic labor practices.

(from:  https://theprecariatandtheprofessor.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/im-allowed-to-feel-disappointed/ 1Jul17)

Luckily, I was able to get sessional work at the university just a little lower on the ranking scale, and a little further from my house.  Some more insufferable job interviews for the work I was currently doing as a sessional, an underlying sense of humiliation and failure, and my 50th birthday looming closer.  Four years spent doing the work, walking the walk, talking the talk, improving my practice and knowledge and learning ways to ‘suck it up’ as required for a sessional who wants more work for the next semester.  My writing was often focused on my experiences working as a sessional and teaching/lecturing in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy, with a primarily critical sociological viewpoint.  At that time I wrote about the ‘problems’ of diversity and social justice, critical thinking/teaching/reflection, student evaluations, the precariousness of sessional work and mental health implications.  And lived it.

*     *     *

I began looking for overseas volunteer work that matched my credentials, preferably in South East Asia.  I found a job and had a phone interview in which I was able to draw from all of my experiences, the good the bad and the shocking, along with how I learnt and what I learnt from these, and how this experiential knowledge would be useful for working in a place where the challenges are not simply theoretical, but which impact on every aspect of your life, every day.

It was my first successful job interview in around 20 years.

And now I am in my last 2 months of my assignment.  Wanting to do more.  Wanting to come back and continue my work.  Applying for such positions and being told my years in academia, whilst useful for knowledge and theory, do not cut it against those who spent the last 20 years of their career working in ‘development’.  And at the age of 51, what do I do?  Where do I go next?  How do I find the equivalent to that appreciation and meaning I have in my life at this point?

DSC_9303-Optimized

 

That steep slippery slope of insecure employment

(Originally written August, 2015 for Eric Grollman’s blog https://conditionallyaccepted.com   – with thanks to Eric for suggested changes)

In Australia, we are not called ‘adjunct professors’ – a term commonly used in the United States.  Rather, we are called  ‘sessional’ or ‘casual academics‘.  And, as I understand it, these positions may include research, teaching, planning and coordinating units, supervision, student consultations, marking – yes, all the work of a ‘real’ (tenured) academic without the security.  Of course our CVs will say ‘academic’; our insecure employment status is not how we label ourselves or what we do.

 I am given a ‘contract’ of sorts, that over the 11 week trimester, I will be paid for teaching time, meetings and marking.  We can claim nothing during the 2-5 week ‘break’ when students are off on their placements.  The ‘breaks’ between trimesters means a break in income, unless, as often happens, the marking extends over this ‘break’, but that really is just stretching what we are entitled to.  My annual income can easily fall below what might be considered ‘poverty level’ and I am never sure that I will be granted any work for the next trimester.

Just back from my psychologist – first appointment I’ve had for around a year.  Because I was doing ok.  Or was it because I was doing ok for a while, and then as I sunk down lower and lower into depression, I just couldn’t even pause for a minute to even consider how I was doing?  I have written before about sessional/casual/insecure employment in academia, and links with mental health.  I want to share some of this story while it is fresh, and while I’m feeling better, and the way seems a bit clearer.  Should I use a pseudonym?  I won’t because I want to say it how it is, to make it as real as it is to me, and not pretend we can protect ourselves with some hidden persona – because that is part of the mess I continue to get myself into, by being myself, and by being as absolutely honest as I can, as me, Annabelle.

I realised I needed to seek help (again) because I was so, so angry.  I have worked so hard for so many years, studying, teaching, writing, preparing applications and for (the occasional) interviews granted for those ‘real’ positions that offer some kind of ongoing job security, to do the job(s) I am already doing.  I was working days, nights, and weekends, on preparing, reading, writing, marking, planning.  I was working so damned hard, that my house was an absolute mess, my health was suffering, my diet abominable.  I didn’t eat, I didn’t have time to eat!  I was angry that I was putting in all this work, and yet was still not achieving any recognition (beyond the pay, when I had time to work out and submit my pay claim for each hour worked, in each category – as long as it was within the limits set by my initial contract). And, no matter how much my students appreciated the time and energy I put into teaching, my employer had no clue.

I was angry because I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be simply ‘happy’.  Because I had no ‘holidays’ due – in fact, I couldn’t even work out what to do if I had a true ‘holiday’.  I had lost sight of the difference between ‘work time’ and ‘holiday time’; either I was working, or I was worrying about whether I would get any more work.  I was miserable company, every conversation seemed to come around to how angry I was, and why.  Yes, I knew I had a point, but really, that’s just how things are … suck it up.  There were no ‘answers’ that my friends could give, or that could improve how I was feeling – it’s just the way things are.

As a critical educator, ‘that’s just how it is’ is not good enough.  I want to question why it is this way, how we could improve this, how ‘this way’ is making people feel, and is this how things should be?  I want to help people see that it has only become ‘this way’ in academia because we have let it happen.  Because we feel that we can’t raise these issues (i.e., insecure employment, overwork, power in the workplace, institutional priorities, economics) because of the way things are (i.e., insecure employment, overwork, power in the work place, etc.).

So I found myself sinking deeper into this angry pit of depression, and my marking was due.  And a job had been advertised for which I thought I had a good chance (actually for doing what I already do).  I prioritised the application and preparation for the interview.  I failed to impress – no job.  Dreams of getting a ‘real job’ shelved.  Again.  Marking still due.  Feeling miserable, incapable, and yes, angry.  I managed to devote myself for four days and nights, in silence, laptop on my lap, and I got that marking done, before the administrative cut-off, but after the turnaround for students to receive their feedback.  The story got around, “Annabelle – late for her marking – again.”

And I haven’t even mentioned my children.  My 20 year old son who has spent his whole life with his mother studying and working, saying that I need to do this so that I can get a ‘real’ job.  And him telling me he didn’t want his six-year-old sister having to hear the same story as I sat at the computer, days and nights, working and worrying.  His six-year-old sister now spends the week with her dad, who takes her to school and looks after her everyday needs, so that I can concentrate more on my ‘work‘ and have time for her on the weekends and holidays.

The job I had lined up for the next trimester was suddenly no longer ‘available’.  The students I’d worked with, and who expressly wanted to work with me again, had no say, and neither did I.  I managed to procure two teaching units, both of which I’d taught before, one of which I had chaired the year before.  In an 11 week trimester, students are off on their practicums for between 3 and 5 weeks.  Hence, no pay, no work for me.  No money puts my mortgage, my bills, my bare existence in limbo.

Being angry and depressed, my head was full of questions, accusations, frustrations.  What have I done wrong?  I’ve asked questions, I’ve let my frustrations be known, I’ve put myself out there.  I’ve tried hard, but maybe I really am just not good enough?  Why haven’t I published?  I don’t have time!  I don’t have support!  I am a sessionally employed teacher – my university has no support of, or even expectation that sessional teaching staff need to do research and be involved in research groups, conferences or discussions.  My student evaluations sometimes tear my heart out – but I tried so hard!  I have good pedagogical reasons for being a ‘hard marker’, for not giving straightforward answers to questions, and, at times, not responding ‘appropriately’ (an unfair accusation that I am unable to respond to in anonymous evaluations).  And the significant number of  good comments suggest that I’ve helped and/or supported my students more than any other teacher they’ve had, that they appreciated the challenges I presented them with, or asked whether I could teach them again.  And yes, the good comments mean a lot to me; they recognise and appreciate the effort I put in.  So why doesn’t my employer?  And why can’t I be ‘rewarded’ with prior notice about my teaching load for the next trimester?  Why do I have to wait and wonder, and worry, and beg, and plead for enough work to pay my bills and support my family?

Yes, there were moments when I felt as if the world was conspiring against me.  This is part of the downhill misery slope: no  matter how hard I thought about it, the only reason for not being given the work was that I had displeased someone, somewhere along the way, and this was their way of getting rid of the problem – me.  Don’t be so paranoid Annabelle!  This is not about YOU!  This is just the way it is, why it is called “insecure employment”.  There are reasons that have nothing to do with you personally.  Ah yes, perhaps, but they do affect ME personally, and I have no alternative avenue to take – aside from leaving academia?  Sadly, there are many who have taken that path after years of frustration (e.g., http://www.howtoleaveacademia.com/ ).   Leave and go where?  Ah that steep, slippery slope.

My numerous chronic, but invisible health conditions, my children, my mortgage, my advancing age, my single parent status – none of these are reasons to get any special treatment.  But I do find myself at times railing against how much I have to deal with, and yet how little recognition or reward I receive for what I put in to my work.  I know, of course, I’m not alone there.  But to just suck it up?  Not complain?  Not share my story?  Not imagine that something could be different?

Advice to Self:

Don’t ask difficult questions; don’t ‘rock the boat’; don’t bring up the issues that everybody just has to deal with; don’t remind those who manage to work with the system of how they’ve had to compromise their ideals; and just do the job you’re being paid to do.

Of course, my psychologist does not suggest that my ‘issues’ would all be fixed if it wasn’t for the conditions of my employment.  Perhaps my ‘choice’ of employment is a result of the ‘issues’ I have.  Maybe the ‘precariousness’ of my employment is a choice that relates to my inability to commit?  Perhaps my commitment to honesty and asking the difficult questions, and interest in critical consciousness in all that I do is also a precursor (or result) of these ‘issues’?  I have no idea, and will be going back to my psychologist to try to learn how to avoid tripping over into that pit of angry despair again.  But, unfortunately, the issues that I have raised here and elsewhere are unlikely to go away.  And I really hope that others are able to avoid the pit, and maintain a dignified and fulfilling balance in their academic and personal lives.  And to keep on talking about it.

(Advice to Self be damned!) 

 

Later…

I recently completed a course in ‘mental first aid training’, that I thought might help me with better responding to my students’ needs, and situations I seem to find myself in as a confessor and ear to students with various serious issues impacting on their studies and their lives.  As a sessional, I had to battle a bit to get accepted into the course, which was for ‘all those who have direct contact with students’.  Hmm, sounds like something helpful for we casual teaching staff that take on a huge amount of the face to face work with students.

I completed the two day course and enjoyed it.  I didn’t learn a whole lot I didn’t know about mental health issues, but I did learn a whole lot about myself.  I learnt that this is part of my calling, that being an ear and a consoler for those suffering mental health issues, and in helping to support and encourage them through their course, is a large part of why I do what I do.  And why I do it in the way/s that I do.  And why I pine for collaborative and supportive work environments, rather than competitive, dismissive and nasty ones.

As a sessional, I have been told – by union representatives and by sessional, contracted and tenured peers, that I am doing a disservice in spending my time with students when I am not paid for it, not expected to do it, and increasingly, not even entitled to do it.  This role belongs to those for whom it is written into their job descriptions, and no matter that they are overworked, have no prior or working relationship with these individuals, or do not have the personality or desire to take on this role, I should leave it to them.  Somehow this will show that sessionals should be paid for this responsibility if they take it on, that managers and unit chairs are somehow better at this role than sessionals, and administrators are cleared of responsibility because this is made clear to all involved.

Again, as a sessional, I want my story to be heard – that is, a huge part of my satisfaction from my job, and recognition that what I do means something to someone, is through my contact with students.  Yes, unpaid time that I put in responding to emails, meeting with students and staying after class, that give me an opportunity to use my skills and to help a student in their time of need.  This is time well spent.  And I can come home to my family and tell them about this, and they feel proud – that their mother/daughter really cares about who she is working with – they see that this is what gives me some feeling of worth, so different to the rest of the frustrations I come home with.

I have been teaching sessionally for a long time now.  I am no longer a poor student trying to support my way through to my PhD.  I am an experienced, thoughtful, critical and reflexive practitioner and I am able to use my life experience to both teach and support my students in their journeys.  I am not looking for more money, simply some recognition and security in continuing the damned good job that I am doing.  But most of all, I do not want my role as mentor, as a willing ear, as a supporter, advisor and voice for my students’ needs and rights to be taken away from me because I am not a ‘real’ or tenured employee.

(2,345 words)

 

A life that just gets better!

(Post Written for Diabetes Can’t Stop Me  link to post here)

Some Introductory details:

  • I was diagnosed with T1 diabetes in 1977, at the age of 11 years.
  • I was admitted to the Royal Children’s hospital (Melbourne) almost in a coma. I stayed in the hospital and was ‘trained’ to look after my condition over 2 weeks.
  • I was embarrassed and ashamed at that time and didn’t want anyone to know. My older brother (by 9 years) had been diagnosed at age 9 but he never talked about it.
  • My mother took the brunt of my care. She boiled my glass syringes and reusable needles every night, to soak in Methylated spirits until required.  I had to test my urine, using a dropper, test tubes and a magic tablet that was dropped in the tube, changed the colour and then was then measured up against a chart.
  • At the age of 13, more complications for my life after a serious car accident (Anglesea, during a Diabetes camp run by the RCH).
  • Needless to say, my teenage years were a mess, but I survived!

Skipping a few decades, I am now 51, working as a volunteer in Savannakhet, Laos – a little known landlocked country between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Myanmar.  I have two amazing children, a boy aged 21 and a girl aged 7, who still live in Melbourne where I grew up. I did a lot of study over the years, culminating in a PhD (Education) in 2011.  I volunteered in the Solomon Islands in 1994 after spending two crazy years in Kalgoorlie (Western Australia).  I never believed that having diabetes should stop me – and it hasn’t.

Not to say I’ve always been in the best of health, or particularly well-controlled.  My teenage years were a disaster – but having diabetes in a way stopped me from going as far awry as some of my friends did.  I have spent some time in hospital on occasions from DK (Diabetic ketoacidosis) and learnt a lot about my body and control in the process.  I felt close to death on occasions, and this is frightening, but gave me more determination to survive.

My son was born in 1995 (I was 29) – I spent 5 weeks in the RWH (Royal Women’s hospital) before his birth because of my badly controlled diabetes and risk of preeclampsia.  He was induced early, weighed 5lbs at birth and is now a healthy 21 years old.

My daughter was born in 2009 (I was 43) – and that was when I was able to go on pump therapy which has changed my diabetes control incredibly.  Another gorgeous healthy baby, induced but much easier than the first time around.  She is now an incredibly delightful child of 7, so much like me that I’m afraid she will be the next diabetic to join our extended family (currently – 2 siblings, 1 cousin and his child, 1 uncle – and who knows who else draws the next short straw?).

So, at the age of 51, with 40 years of diabetes under my belt, I am proud to say that it has actually incentivised me to conquer the odds, and do the best I can for humanity.  Here in Savannakhet, I am working at a Teacher Training College, with teachers who train young people from rural areas, so that they are able to return to their villages and share their knowledge as a teacher.  I feel appreciated for what I do, and I am so glad to be of help however I can.  Life here is not necessarily easy – complete lack of availability of the medications I need (I had to bring as much with me as I possibly could, and have cut back on blood tests and some medications so they don’t run out), the heat is constant – I’m always sweating, the food is so different to home, there is no suitable medical care locally and I must travel to Thailand or Vientiane for appropriate treatment for any problems that occur.

On the upside, I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever been before in my life.  I have everything I need.  My insulin requirements are much less than when in Australia (yes, even with the dreaded rice as a staple of my diet) and I have had incredible experiences and adventures.  And I appreciate life and every moment so much more.  I really thought, as a young badly controlled diabetic, threatened with blindness, amputations, and kidney disease for all my sins, that I would never get past 34 years.  Well I have, and I’m loving it!

on the bike-Optimized

Thakhek – Not so fun Adventures…  Heed the warning signs!

On the road to Thakhek… Long Weekend, Sat 29 April – Mon 1 May.

As I’m buying my ticket (30,000 kip – $5 AUD), a man a grabs it and points me to a bus.  I ask if I have time for a cigarette – he ignores me and so I climb aboard, find a seat, and just as I was getting a smoke out of my bag, the bus takes off.  With two local people running after it and waving it down.  So it was a quick getaway.  As usual, bus stops to pick up people on the way – I used to be mystified by this but I now know there is a telephone number on the side of the bus and it is prearranged (for those who speak Lao).  One stop included a motorbike to be packed on the roof of the bus so while a couple of them heave it up, I get to have my smoke.

Now stopped at a bus station, around ten women board the bus as soon as it stops, hawking whole bbq chickens on a stick, various chicken innards on sticks, 5 eggs on a stick, luke warm soft drinks, water and green papaya.  Half hour later, still sitting here with engines and aircon rumbling along.

There’s a driver and 3 helpers – who tout potential customers along the way, and load luggage – bags of rice, fertiliser, live chickens, gardening equipment – anything you can think of.  One little tough nut looks about 10 years old – he collects the money and has no English so stands there with his receipt book demanding – well something, because I nor the other English speaker had any idea.  So I had to ‘explain’ – “Driver … ticket …” gesturing – finally seemed to get through and haven’t been bothered since.  (Unfortunately I later discovered I did have my ticket in my wallet – sometimes it’s just not worth trying to argue with a foreigner.)

A bit of a story of Laos that epitomizes my (self made) experiences here.

Got off bus in Thakhek at main bus station that I knew was only a few kilometres out of town.  For once, no harassing tuk tuk drivers so I could get my bearings and chill a little.  Walked over to where the tuk tuks were gathered – not a lot of action going on but saw a group of locals heading for a tuk tuk and thought I’d try my luck in joining them.  Well no, they waved me off and another driver pointed to a tuk tuk with 3 guys hanging around it, one lounging in a hammock hooked up in the back.  “Where you go?
“Town Centre”  Ok they say… Thou dai?  (how much – never get into a tuk tuk without setting your price first!)  He holds up a finger and says ‘one’.  I say, incredulously, one what?  One hundred thousand he said.  I couldn’t believe it – AUD $16!  I’d never heard such thing!  No Joke!  They came down to 50k, I said 10.  They said ‘kin keow’ – we can’t even get a meal for that!  I think my jaw hit the ground.  Ok, 50k …. 40k…. 30k ….Then the other guy who had waved me towards them said 20k and that was the clincher!  So they got nothing.

In the centre of Thakhek,  which is a lovely tree lined square leading to the river, I found my hotel, Inthira Hotel  Error no.1 –book at least your first night online – they’re better deals and you can see what else is available after you’ve settled in.  So I paid the asking price $35 (forgot I was thinking in AUD, it was USD).  And cut my losses with my visa card (+ the usual 3% fee).  Had read online that rooms were good but better to go ‘deluxe’ for the advantage of a balcony overlooking the centre of town – so right!  Ended up in a really delightful room, well decorated, lots of added clever touches, really comfortable bed, compact shower and wc, and perfect balcony.  What more could I want?

Checked the tour prices for a day at my intended destination – Kong Lor caves – around $ USD121- – that is not really in my league.  Decided later to rent a bike for 2 days – the Thakhek Loop (or Tha Khaek) is a more hefty 3-4 day trek – and stick to local sites.  Good deal, only 60,000 kip per day ($10AUD – WangWang‘s – just across the road from hotel/night market), booked in for the morning.  (It is not Mr Wang, it is named after his young son, WangWang.)  And took myself off for a walk with camera ready.

Bought a delightful passionfruit drink with ice (served in a plastic bag with a straw for less than $1AUD). And walked towards the river.  Saw a seat.  Sat down.  Woman approaches, ‘madam?’  I say I just want to sit (not buy anything) she says no.  So I walked on and didn’t dare sit on any of the other plastic seats by the riverside.  Found myself a convenient (but dirty) kerb in shade, sat down there, and thought shit, I don’t like this place.

This is where the self-made stuff comes in.  Annabelle, get over it, go for a walk and who knows what’s around the corner!  Shift the attitude cos that one’s gonna get you nowhere…

Walked further along the river, passed by a group of people having a happy drink and food at little stall.  One of them, Khamone, invited me to join them.  Hey, why not!  Glass of beer with ice placed before me, women seeming to be talking very aggressively, chastising the men, all in Lao, child crying at the sight of me, I wondered if I should just go on my way.  An hour or two later, numerous beers, I’d made myself a number of great new friends, been in the middle of a whole lot of suggestive banter, and been very happy that I still wear my mother’s wedding ring on my ring finger.  And that I know enough Lao to say b’dai – cannot, boh – no, leo – enough, luk saow, luk sai – son and daughter, and la gon – I’m going now!

The women were clearly unsure about me, and the men were being rather close and suggestive.  Khamone who invited me to join him, managed to communicate to me that he was a teacher, that he lived at the nearby hospital alone, and could I come with him tonight?  Well we ended up all being friends (including the women who did warm to me) and me going on my way – alone.  To the sounds of the women telling the men to pull their heads in.  That’s it in a nutshell, I couldn’t have these experiences in a bad frame of mind worrying about the consequences or feeling insecure about where I was and what I was doing (alone).  I still love Laos!

Ended up meeting a fascinating young German in the hotel, and spending the rest of the evening drinking beer with him on my balcony.  If you’re feeling open to meeting people, it will happen!

Sunday Errors in Thakhek

So many errors today.  Rented bike from Wang Wangs and set off to explore around Thakhek.  Spent the first few kms in first gear – thought I had an automatic and gears weren’t kicking in.  Semi auto, 4 gears.  Along route 12, looking for signs to turn off to explore caves, swimming holes, various sights I’d read about.  First stop was about 5 kms out of town  I’d been told, Buddha Cave, but realised that the speedometer/odometer did not actually work.

Found a turnoff that looked promising, ended up riding towards the spectacular mountains and stopping at a little shop to buy water, park my bide and take a walk.  Decided to tackle View Point sala (according to the sign) and started the climb – after some difficulty (the gate was locked) and the kind shopkeeper (an elderly woman chatting away in Lao, saying something about her top and my top and … ???) who showed me how to climb in under the gate.  OK.  So I climb.  And I climb.  And I sweat.  I rest, I climb some more.  And then some more.  It felt like hours.  I was exhausted.  I was climbing up rickety ladders, steps, piles of stones.  I stopped and looked up – no sign of any end to it, in fact it just looked like it was getting harder … and steeper.  One good call for the day, took a photo of the view and decided to go back down again. By this time my legs were so weak and shaking I could hardly stand, let alone climb.  Managed to get back down and headed up the road to Tham Xang – Elephant cave.  Nice place, good rest, no one around to collect entrance fees.  Good view from inside the cave and some interesting figures inside.

Headed off to Buddha Cave – fascinating back story, only recently discovered and become a tourist destination.  This was weird.  No photos inside, around ten locals sitting around with their various offerings for sale.  Kind man asked me to sit by his fan – yes I was still sweating bucket-loads.  A group of kids had been following me – we all sat together, had a laugh, practised some English, and sang nursery rhymes.  Great meal there too.

Back on the road, I decided I really wanted that swim.  Stopped at a place where locals and their kids were swimming and having lots of fun, but decided no, I’ll go on to the swimming hole which in my imagination was deliriously cool, clear water, beer lao, cool off at the end of the day.

Warning signs.

  1. It’s called Pha Falang – what could I expect?
  2. Was told earlier not to take bike in because of thieves – local or foreigners I asked? That led to a conversation about the gangs and the drugs amongst young people in Thakhek at this time.
  3. Saw the sign hanging upside down as I was passing – this is not a good indication!
  4. Went down the dirt road  across from the sign, big mud puddles on the track. Felt wary, went back to ask if it was ok.
  5. Stopped at shop and asked where Pha Falang is – he said oh, you pay, you pay pay pay … But yes, it’s that way if you want to swim.
  6. Stopped at a big muddied puddle that filled the whole road. Barbed wire on the side, fence on the other, no dry trek through- ANNABELLE YOU SHOULD HAVE STOPPED THERE AND THEN!
  7. There was a truck parked on the other side of the mud and a guy came and offered to ride my bike through. OK (No, no, you should never have done that!)  So he rode it through and I followed on foot.  Slippery mud – I fell, I slipped, slid, fell again.  Both shoes came off because of the suction of the mud.  What a mess.  They were all laughing at me and my kind host came and gave me a hand.
  8. On the other side was an open gate and another guy came over and said come, come, come in here. I looked at the others in the truck and said, can I swim here?  Yes yes you come here said the guy (with a strong whiff of alcohol about him).  No, no said the others, no swim here, you go that way.  Huh?  (instincts – get out of there now, go back the way you came!)
  9. Follow the track on, see some water, go on further – more puddles, more mud, sun starting to go down. Turned around – not an easy feat – to head back.  Stopped by some water to wash the mud off my feet.  Not looking good – I knew I had to cross back over that hogwash on the road back.
  10. Met a group of people walking on to swimming hole – they’d (sensibly) left their bikes on the other side and walked the rest of the way. Got back to puddle, parked bike, and sat on the side of the road to contemplate my options.  Watched a guy ride through, skidding and sliding, but persistent, got through.  Saw another couple of girls coming through then they got stuck but managed eventually – one had socks and thongs on her feet – oooh, muddy.  And they weren’t going to help me.  A truck came past with about 9 drunken guys in the back.  Nope, no help there.
  11. Realised shit, I’ve just got to do it, slowly slowly. Fell off 3 times. Smashed the bike mirror.  Got ‘helped’ (harassed?) by a mysterious local guy who appeared, stinking of beer (maybe the one from earlier, by that time I was beyond noticing).  He helped me get the bike out of the mud but he couldn’t start the bike.  I got it started and then, he climbs on behind me!  No no!  Managed to get him off and head towards the road, getting darker by the minute, no time to clean off the mud that I was caked with.
  12. Realised I’d completely lost my bearings. Which way back to Thakhek, which way to Vietnam?  Three tries later, I got directions from a disinterested shopkeeper and headed off, slowly.  It was dark.  Route 12 has many trucks going between Laos and Vietnam – big trucks, complete darkness, middle of nowhere.  I was nervous, putting along slowly, freaking out about trucks running me down so I stuck to the side of the road.  A bit too far.

Shit.  Bang, went off the edge of the road, tipped to my left and head hit the road (thank god for that helmet), skidded down an embankment.  Glass smashing, glasses come off. Lying down a ditch on the side of the road, in the dark, on my own.  Can’t work out what is mud, what is blood.  Switch off the bike.  I’m ok.  I am ok.  Sat there.  What to do?  Am I ok?  I feel blood in my mouth and various scrapes, but hard to determine in the dark, and through the caked-on mud.  Found my phone, and a torch in my bag.  Called the motorbike rental company (Wang Wangs, thank you so much!).  The woman who answered the phone got the message and said she’d try to find some help.  However, being down a ditch by the side of a road, in the dark, with a constant procession of trucks and other vehicles passing by, I knew no-one could see me and I had to get up and walk – at least to the side of the road.  Easier said than done.

I was covered in slimy mud, had to try to find my shoes first.  Inching my way on my bum through the gravel (I couldn’t stand up at that point) I finally managed to get my slimy mud covered shoes on and find a way to the roadside.  Bare feet or slimy feet?  Fell back down a few more times, but finally managed to get to the road.  I started trudging back towards the last roadside store I’d stopped at.  Stopped at a mileage stone – 10km from Thakhet and Wang Wang’s called me again.  Waited there and my life savers appeared!  Noy and his assistant managed to get the bike out, start it up, and she rode it back while I went in the car.  He dropped me at the hospital, and well, that’s another story!

Cleaned up now, back home.  Scratched, sore and sorry for myself.  And wiser for all of the foolish mistakes that I made along the way.

Lessons learned:

  • If there’s a big muddy puddle and no way around it, change your plans.
  • If things seem not to be going right – trust your instincts and avoid trouble.
  • Don’t ride at night!
  • You can fit a lot into a day – get somewhere safe when it’s getting dark.
  • Trust your instincts.

But most importantly, when I went back to WangWang’s today and saw a group of young tourists renting bikes, clearly with little to no experience, and wearing thongs, shorts, skimpy tops and no helmets I realise that at least I followed the basics – helmet and good footwear… plus the previous advice to self (next time, I promise you kids…)

The truth is, I was pretty much in shock at this stage.  I was alone, I was scared, in a foreign country with severely inadequate medical care.  But I had to keep going, be strong, tough, all of that stuff.  Nobody was going to come and help me unless I asked for it.  I knew I’d made some dumb decisions that day, and as I limped back to the hotel from the hospital, in the dark, later that night, I knew I had to just get through it.  On the way back to Savannakhet the next day in the bus, I called a friend and asked if he could please come and pick me up.  It was only at that moment that I felt overwhelmed by what had happened, and how much more serious it could have been.  You have to stay tough, but you can only keep doing that to a point… So I’ll start again in the morning.