Friday, August 29, 2014

Lamination is both wonderful and hideous.

I've been stuck in a purgatory that consists of endless lamination and cutting out.  This last week I've been working long days to make sure my classroom is ready on time.  Now just two day before school begins, I don't feel like my classroom (or really anything) is ready but I can't face the laminator again.  Exhaustion aside, I'm actually pretty happy with how things turned out considering my motor skills. 

I immediately regretted my decision to commit to making 22 dolphins.  This is the worst idea I have ever had.  

School has enveloped me.  I know after the first day passes, I will feel calmer and things will start to fall into place.  Something unnerving has been the lack of access at our school.  Despite being an International School, we have one functioning printer for over 30 teachers, shoddy internet access, and a week-long wait on making copies.  This has been quite alarming to all of us as we are unable to do simple things like print out materials and activities or even make copies for our upcoming week. 

Besides school, I've been getting into all sorts of hijinks like getting my bike stolen, making friends with animals, and going to "work parties" where all the expat staff get harassed into drinking absurd quantities of beer lao.  To be clear: work parties in Lao are insane.  Last night we all went to this glittery huge restaurant where we watched a drag show, got harassed by our awkwardly drunk van drivers to drink more beer lao, and finally all ended up throwing-down on the dance floor.  As in, our entire staff.  It was at this point when I was gyrating with my headteacher that I had the distinct thought that if we were in America, our entire staff would be fired if we acted like this at work functions.  It's pretty great.

Yeah, my bike was stolen, but I already bought a new one.  And it's red!  Actually, getting my bike stolen definitely opened my eyes a bit more to security and now I'm taking many more precautions here.  Vientiane is a really safe capital but there are definitely some things I have learned to avoid that will make me even safer.  I'd say the greatest threat here are the dogs.  I've never seen so many dogs wandering around!  Especially at night, they get very territorial, so you have to take care to not walk down small roads at night.  I think we basically have Kujo living a few houses down from us, so we try to avoid walking past his house.

Upside:  there are awesome dogs too!

And fun bike adventures:

Love and Lesson-Planning,

Saturday, August 23, 2014


I read a quote in my gloomy Norwegian book about how quickly a new foreign place or environment becomes your life---how in an absurdly small period of time all that seems bizarre, enchanting, exotic turns into life.  After being in Vientiane for almost two weeks, I have moved into a house, bought a bike, met people who became friends almost instantly, learned some rudimentary lao, and entered my very first teaching job.  Everything has moved so incredibly quickly.  My life in Uganda took what felt like 6 months to finally be set-up; heck I even had three months of language instruction and training.  Here, I just landed in Lao and then started figuring things out on my own and with the help of other friends.

It's nice feeling settled, albeit a little disconcerting how easily this came.  I have met some great people so far and have once again enjoyed the phenomenon of feeling like close friends with people I have known for less than a week.  Want to make friends?  Move to a foreign country!

The complete set of roommates:

 And our beautiful home:

We had to pay 6 months of rent upfront for this place and so basically it looks like we robbed a bank (which we nearly had to do) in order to afford it.

 The first week of training was relaxed.  We had several meetings with our departments but most of the time was spent making sure all the expat teachers were settling in and so we went off on a lot of errands.  The teachers and staff at the school are great.  A good mix of expat and Lao staff.  The school is undergoing a lot of change this year and they have hired this jolly Welsh man as the managing director with the goal of making PIS the best international school in Lao.  The expat teachers come from all over: China, Philippines, Canada, England, Ireland, and America.  There are about 7 returning expat teachers and the primary especially has seen a massive influx of new teachers this year.  The returning teachers have been really helpful in getting us settled too and making us feel at home in the school.  I think the school itself is a good mixture of laid-back and structured.  There are a few dodgy things like how we have one entire subject (Topic Studies) that we don't have ANY books or curriculum for, and simply have to decide what to teach(?), otherwise there are books and curriculum and a decent amount of supplies.  We all had to lead an extracurricular activity twice a week and I'll be leading Ultimate Frisbee and hopefully also coaching some soccer at some point during the year. 

My main concern now is getting my classroom set up.  If you know me in the slightest, you'll know that I'm not really a neat or crafty person (I probably failed arts and crafts as a child), both of which seem essential qualities for a primary school teacher.  I cringe whenever I imagine the comparison between my classroom and Erica's (the other fourth grade teacher)--who has already whipped up some delightful decorations and ideas for classroom layout.  I'm thinking a dinosaur theme?  Or the four elements as a theme?  Or maybe not a theme at all?  Anyway, this prep and making our classrooms beautiful is seriously much more nerve-wracking to me than the idea of teaching and lesson-planning.  On the side of all this, I'm reading a book called "The First Days of School," which will give me some tips about what to focus on when school starts next week.  I feel entirely unprepared but I'm sure the learning curve will be steep. 

Erica and I shopping for supplies:

Here is my desk space and a very distressing series of math books that are currently haunting me in my sleep:

Despite feeling a bit nervous for school to start next week, I'm riding a current of overwhelming positivity.  I am comfortable, (too)well-fed, surrounded by enthusiastic and caring people, and learning about a new culture.  I'm really glad I trusted my gut-instinct about taking this job; I think it'll be both challenging and rewarding.  I'm also really glad I trusted my instinct about Vientiane.  It really is this slow, dusty, special town and I'm just very excited about everything Lao: the food, the culture, the language.  In general, Lao people are very gentle and peaceful and relaxed.  Also, it's a very open-minded place.  A very common word here is "Bopenyang" which translates to "no worries" or "be easy" or something like this.  I don't feel the sense of judgment that I did in Uganda or even America.  Perhaps the Buddhism has to do with it.  Anyway, very excited to continue learning about this place and also explore the lovely countryside. 

In the meantime, back to my modest lifestyle of eating out every night.  (Indian food!  French food! Lao food! Turkish food! mmmm)

Love and Algorithms,

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I'm spoiled

This happens every night on the Mekong:

The aerobics during the sunset is incredible.  There's a man standing on a podium shrieking commands in Lao while hundreds of people follow his lead.  I plan to do this soon. 

I'm also spoiled because I now have this:

A really dorky cruiser with a basket that I can use to get around. 

Today, I met up with a few other new teachers and we signed for a house!  Not an apartment but a beautiful Lao house with 6 bedrooms, several balconies, and wooden floor.  Needless to say, you have a place to stay when you come to visit.

I can't believe I get to live in such a beautiful place.  I'm still in shock.

Finally, I'm spoiled to be able to go into any mom and pop Lao cafe and eat pad thai or curry whenever I want. 

Last night I met some of the expat crowd.  We went to an Indian restaurant (!!!) and also enjoyed Beerlao overlooking the Mekong.  The expat crowd all seem to know each other and hang out all the time, which is nice, but also very different than what I'm used to.  They are really welcoming.  Tonight I'm going out to eat Lao food and go to the night market with the teachers I will be living with.  We move in tomorrow so tonight we are celebrating our luck at finding a house within 3 hours of searching. 

Life is good.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Day 2

My blogging is on fire!  It's a good thing I have nothing to do.

Yesterday was bueno.  I decided to walk to the Mekong and see all the flurry and bustle that accompany that area of Vientiane.  Well, the great thing about here is that there really is never that much hustle and bustle.  Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) is also known as "Please Don't Hurry."

It took me about 30 minutes to walk from my hotel to the Mekong, and I noticed that I was quite literally the only person hoofing it.  Apparently people don't walk in Vientiane, and I have been told this by several people now.  When I asked "Why?" the responses were "Lao people are lazy."  Amazing.  Anyway, this proclivity towards walking makes me stick out like a sore thumb because only foreigners walk, so I'm definitely considering purchasing a bike within the next few days.  It's a very compact city so I could get everywhere on foot but it would be nice to be able to go across the city quickly in the evening if I need to and I've seen a bunch of people happily biking away in the streets.  A lot of people travel by "Tuk Tuk," which I believe is ubiquitous throughout SE Asia?  I had definitely ridden on one of these in Tanzania but they were called "Dalla Dallas" there. 

On the way to the center/Mekong, I saw what seemed like dozens of temples rising above me as I passed by.  

 The area I walked through to get to the Mekong reminded me a bit of Uganda as well.  A lot of dusty storefronts, advertisements for cell phone air time, and people hanging out around the stores sweeping or eating. 

The center near the Mekong was a lot different than the area where I'm staying.  It's not really bustling but there are definitely a lot more tourists and foreigners and nicer places to eat food and drink coffee.  I had a nice talk with myself and decided that I wasn't going to bemoan the fact that I can go into a nice coffee shop and have a soy latte in Laos.  Globalization is just one of those things that you hate and love; hate because it often means the loss of unique culture, and love because you can drink soy lattes wherever you go.  I'm reading a really gloomy book by a gloomy Norwegian and it didn't help that he happened to be ranting gloomily about globalization at the time...that everywhere things are the same (specifically Norway and Sweden).  However, it seems like despite the influx of things like coffee shops and well, foreigners like me, Laos still does have its own unique and persistent culture.  And the juxtaposition of a British girl wearing booty shorts walking past a Laotian monk could not be any more mystifying.

So, upside, if you visit, I can take you to a large array of delicious places; turkish restaurants, french bakeries, korean cafes...and of course delicious Lao/Thai food.  We can also get lattes. 

I found the Mekong finally!

Pretty glorious.  There were some monks by the river, too. 

So this area by the Mekong is where the magic happens.  Every night there is a night market with all sorts of wonderful food and festivities.  Apparently there is also a huge free aerobics class, which I'm definitely going to check out.  Another activity I reckon I'll repeat is enjoying a beerlao by the river while the sun sets.

While walking alongside the Mekong, an elderly gentleman sitting on a bench called out something to me.  I figured he was Lao and answered that I only knew a few phrases.  "I'm not Laotian, I'm Dutch," he said, and motioned for me to come join him on the bench overlooking the river.  Tjan was a retired mechanical career from Holland, his family immigrants from Indonesia.  He had been traveling the world for the last 13 months and when I asked him how long he planned to travel, he smiled and said, "Until I drop."  Tjan and I walked around together, he helped me find a map and a legit ATM, and bought me bubble tea.  We talked about travel, home, Holland, and family.  He has two sons and two grandchildren (he showed me pictures) who he never sees but is trying to 'lessen the bonds between them' so that they will take his death more easily.  His wife passed years ago.  He has been to South and Central America, the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa.  He has lived in Nigeria, India, France, Holland, Indonesia, and others.  A very quiet man, he has a wonderful smile.  We had lunch together too, delicious Pad Thai and a Beerlao.  I think even though he is trying to reduce his ties to the world and people around him, he still clearly needs companionship sometimes, and I hope that our time together was as good for him as it was for me.  Despite my delight at being the first teacher here and free to explore the city on my own, I definitely was feeling some pangs of loneliness.  I wanted to share a meal with another person and have someone to walk with.
His plans are to renew his visa, continue traveling, and explore China next. 

I'm finding I definitely have a thing for making friends with older gentlemen.  I would consider myself very skilled in this area. 

So, Laos is really hot.  I have been constantly sweating every moment I'm outside here.  It's not too unpleasant but definitely will take some getting used to.  After exploring the Mekong area, I was more than ready to get out of the sun and rest.  I went back to my hotel hoping to spot the other teacher who was supposed to arrive that day.  I saw a white man sitting in the waiting area and I approached him with excitement asking him if he was another teacher at Panyathip.  He stared at me.  "No, I'm Tommy."  So, Tommy wasn't the teacher I was expecting, but in fact, a gloomy Norwegian!  When I found out he was Norwegian, I spoke in broken child-like Norwegian apparently to impress him.  No reaction.  Then I started retreating from the situation, and as a last-ditch attempt told him I was reading a Norwegian  book right now and asked him if he knew the author.  He nodded.  "You seem very excited to be in Laos," he told me.  It was at that point that I recognized my introversion had run up against an overwhelming desire to talk to other people.  But Tommy wasn't my man.  I left him to his gloominess.

Instead, I started talking to the girl at the front desk.  I asked her her name.  "Nok."  I told her mine, and she immediately burst into a smile. "Queen Elsa!  I love Frozen!"  Thank god for Frozen.  Nok is 16 years old and enjoys English class and hates math.  We have a lot in common.  She wants to be a journalist so that she can illuminate the corruption of Lao.  Nok walked me to the nearest bike shop so that she could make sure I was offered a fair price.  I like Nok.

I finished off my night by eating at a local Lao place.  Green curry.  I'll take it.

Love and Lao,

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Here and safe!

Hello love lobos,

I arrived safely in Vientiane last night and was picked up by the assistant principal of my school, a really nice Laotian man named Mr. Uthai.  In a true miracle, my luggage arrived with  me, which I didn't expect considering I was told in Toronto that my bag was 'lost.'  Today I woke up refreshed and was picked up by Ms. Bey, the head of Human Resources at my school.  Bey was great.  She is young, Vietnamese, and very talkative.  Besides doing official things like taking me to the school and having me sign the contract, she also showed me around the city a bit, helped me find a sim card, shampoo, currency exchange, and took me to a little coffee shop where her boyfriend works and bought me cake and coffee.  The school is very nice and everything is green and clean.  I saw my future classroom!

I'm currently staying in a small hotel near the school, where I guess I may stay for up to a month before I am sure about housing.  I'm the first (foreign) teacher to arrive and I guess there's a whole slew of us showing up; the second one comes tomorrow.  For the time being, I'm going to spend my days wandering around Vientiane. I hope to meet up with a man I met on the plane last night; he was the only Laotian person on the plane (it was filled with Koreans and me).  A very nice older man named Kong who has lived in the US for 20 years and was going to Laos to visit his sick mother.  He was happy to hear that I had chosen Laos to stay in, and he offered to help show me around and introduce me to his niece. 

My impressions so far?  I love it.  It's hot, slow, quiet, and relaxed.  The streets aren't murderous or dirty.  The people are kind and quick to smile and say hello.  There's beautiful buddhist-looking buildings everywhere.  The food is spicy and the beer is good.  Parts of it remind of of Uganda; the rogue dogs wandering around, the heat, the smell (a mixture of wonderful with a whiff of  horrible once in a while), but then it's also blessedly different.  It's quiet, the traffic is light and slow, and everything seems just a lot simpler than Kampala was.  People (for the most part) obey traffic rules and stop lights!  I can walk down or a sidewalk and cross the street with ease.  It's really a chilled and calm place, which I love.  Kampala gave me seizures and headaches and trauma.  I also can tell that there is less English spoken, which makes sense since English was an official language in Uganda- so I'm really going to need to learn some Laotian.  Another difference: there's internet!  And it works!  There's wifi in my hotel and at the school and I really think I'll be much more wired here than I ever was in Arua.  People here have the same smart phones that we do. 

Tonight I walked down to a Lao/Thai restaurant and ate one of the spiciest curries I had ever eaten along with a BeerLao (official beer of Laos).  The humidity and the spice led to me sweating freely and profusely into the evening air, and I breathed a sigh of relief as the sun started to sink and the air began to cool, and all felt good in my world.  I'm going to be a sweaty and happy person here, I think. 

Love and Laos,

Friday, August 8, 2014


It has been a great year and a half home.  I did lots of things like backpack through Europe for three weeks, ski, bike to Duluth, live with friends I have known for 20 years, work with some goofballs, and see everyone in my family. 

I came home to these two. 
 I saw a rainbow staircase in Turkey. 
 I met a Romanian sister.
 I went to a spice market in Istanbul.
 I hung out with she-biscuit.

 I saw every member of my family.  Sometimes more than once!

 I hung out with teens and they pretended that I'm cool. 
 Liz got married. 
 I "biked" to Duluth.
 I made a speech!
 I went to Nisswa. 
 I celebrated my teens' achievements.

 I skied!

I opened a teen resource center!