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! 🙂

 

 

 

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.

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

 

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.

New Year Reflections…

Midnight (or so…) 1st January 2017, Bangkok, Thailand

The Big ‘ol time clock has just clicked over to 2017.  And what a year it has been!

So many deaths – celebrities, innocent civilians around the world, refugees seeking asylum, so many needless deaths of those who happened to be born, or to be, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  I   am sorry for so much loss, for so many.  Somehow, I am still here and so grateful for all that I am, all that I have.

At the beginning of 2016, I worked as a casual academic in a Melbourne University.  I desperately tried –for more than 10 years, to apply for the ‘holy grail’ – to be a tenured – ongoing academic, doing what I loved to do, improving what I was doing, and to just have someone say – give her a go … she deserves it.  But it was never meant to be.  In my 40s I was energetic and passionate, I would have done anything to be what ‘they’ wanted me to be.  OK, I never did establish my ‘expertise’ in any particular genre or discipline, I just wanted to work at something I felt passionate about – I could have become whatever ‘they’ wanted me to be.

In March of 2016 I turned 50 years old and actually felt very happy to be where I was.  I was never sad about what I hadn’t done, I was proud of what I had achieved, and particularly proud to have two incredible children, to have achieved my PhD, to have a house to live in and food in my fridge.  I paid my bills, I had savings in the bank, I lived near the beach and I had opportunities to follow another of my dreams, to volunteer again – this time in South East Asia.

I finished my work at the end of 1st semester, and prepared to pursue my next dream – my escape?  My saving grace?  An adventure that I so missed?  A real challenge?  An opportunity to take a chance and to draw on my experience, my passion, my abilities, my desires, my spirit?  I had finally managed to succeed in a job application to work as a volunteer in Laos.  With thanks and eternal gratitude to Pol, my daughter’s father and guardian, and Rani, my son who would now have to look after himself (and my house), I was able to pack my life away in the shed and embark on a dream.

So at the beginning of a New Year, I am so happy about the last, and hold so many hopes for the next.  I just ask for more of the same – joy, adventure, challenge, gratitude, and good (enough) health to get me through.  I give thanks to my family and friends – old and new – and want only the best for them too.

Thank you.