Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ushering in the Year of the Goat

This last week, I had two very lovely visitors.  Here they are:

Miss Nikki and Emily, straight from the frosty climes of Minnesota!  Nikki and Emily landed in Vientiane on Monday morning and came straight to my school and straight into my classroom where they found me teaching English class to my students.  Nikki and Emily had just spent about 30 hours on a plane and instead of finding the sweet release of a pillow and a bed, found themselves sitting in miniature chairs next to Ford and Bank and Harry as I yelled above the normal insane noise level of my class.  I sort of gave up on teaching whatever nonsense I was trying to teach and changed my lesson into an opportunity for my students to write questions to ask Nikki and Emily.  Some of the more memorable questions were, "Are you backpackers? "(Harry), "Do you like hamsters?" (Oh), "Do you like rose apples?" (also Oh), among many other.  Overwhelmed by the insanity and noise of my class, and jet-lagged, NIkki and Emily put on extremely brave and kind faces and survived for an hour in my class until the school day was over. 

 I'm always so happy when characters such as Ford and Harry and Party become real to my blog-readers and friends.  I'm really happy to report that they do indeed live up to their notorious reputations.  I am indeed an exaggerator by trade, but in this case of my students, I'm really not exaggerating.  My students acted and did exactly what I expected them to when they met my friends: Party became clingy and adorable and told Emily about how he wanted to be a florist when he grows up so that he can 'give people flower', Ford head-butted Nikki and was predictably adhering to his usual routine of kissing other students inappropriately, Maggie acted like a normal American fourth grader with her midwestern accent and strangely mature questions about the nature of our (Nikki and my) friendship, Harry talked about mature video games, Bank uttered a battle cry, Oh asked something weird and incomprehensible about hamsters with the help of his constant lao-english dictionary... basically, everything proceeded in a very standard, predictable manner.  

The beautiful chaos that is the boys in my class earlier that day.  Please note Ford flashing his stomach and Bank letting out his inner gladiator:

And my girls (please note overall difference between the two pictures):

Anyway, their visit was off to a great start!  After enjoying several relaxing days in Vientiane in which N&E were able to sleep off their jet lag, explore the town via the granny bikes of Erica and Ilse, play lots of cards, and eat some delicious Lao food, it was off to Malaysia!  

As it turns out, none of us are big planners.  I think we felt enough accomplished in the fact that we had purchased real plane tickets to Malaysia, what else did the universe expect of us?  So anyway, we arrived in KL (or 'Kuala Lumpur' for all you lame-o's who don't know the cool way to say it), in the sweltering urban heat of a huge city after a magical ride on a fast commuter train that is apparently one of the top 5 attractions of KL.  Our first observation was the amazing amount of men everywhere.  Where were all the women?  We surmised that perhaps because of the culture, women don't walk around much.  Anyway, we found more women later when we ventured deeper into the heart of the city.  With only about 5 hours of daylight available to us, we quickly found our Air B&B place and then left to do some exploration and saw some super cool things like the Patronus towers (can't find this photo right now) which are super tall and made my neck hurt from all the craning, a crazy new-age and space-ship looking city center, and the fanciest shopping area I've ever seen.  The shopping malls had the most luxurious stores ever and made the Mall of America and basically anywhere in Minnesota seem folksy.  I guess when I go to other countries I hang out at malls now, but that's okay with me.  Because there's stuff like this in malls:

 An enormous golden goat!  There was cool goat themed decorations everywhere for the Chinese New Year, which as you can imagine, I was pretty excited about.

My fortune and prosperity bloomed greatly as I walked through these malls of the future.  It was the best.  We enjoyed a tasty l Malaysian meal at a really fancy restaurant that we were entirely under dressed for (what is with Americans always being tragically casual compared to 99% of the world?) and the food was so good!  Coconut rice, intriguing curries, and spice levels previously unknown to man or woman!  I had found another food-soul-mate country.  To top off our night in KL, we went back into a shopping mall and ate several mountains of gelato while watching wide-eyed and over-stimulated as the coolest people in the world walked past us (and i forgot to mention that now there were women too! and lots of different kinds of people!) and hundreds of gratuitous screens flashed gratuitous things above us like the current temperature in Russia, and waiters randomly broke into synchronized dance sequences, and people shopped, and just wow.  Our impressions of KL now were that it was probably cooler and fancier than any city we had ever been in.  Also, it's really hot.  We felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder accidentally finding a wormhole somewhere in North Dakota in the 1800s as she was milking a cow and then stumbled into modern Times Square during a Justin Bieber concert.  

The next day, we got up wayyyy too early and left KL for Penang . Our collective knowledge on Penang as we boarded our plane was this:  Penang is across a vast ocean (false. source: Ilse), Penang may have Penang curry? (unsubstantiated but perhaps true.  Source: All of us).  

Luckily, the inflight magazine had some very useful tidbits about Georgetown and Penang that was truly illuminating.  We arrived in Penang an hour later and took a taxi into George town.  To collect our wits, we found the seemingly only open coffee shop and played a round of cribs and drank some awesome buttery local coffee called 'white coffee.'  Our spirits higher, we left the coffee shop to find that the city was waking up and had some other tourists walking around looking confused (always a promising sign!).  We had a few maps now and bravely consulted them to find several interesting things like the street of (religious) harmony!  The street of harmony had a lot of different religious stuff like Chinese temples, mosques, and more!  

We didn't touch the granite balls in the lion's mouth, in case you were wondering.  

George town is an UNESCO world heritage site and is quite picaresque, diverse, and a lot busier than we thought!  It also happened to be a lot hotter than we expected, but we gave it our best and walked around for a few hours before we had to retreat to coffee shops and delicious indian restaurants to get out of the sun.  

It was around this time, during our Indian lunch, when I made a conscious decision to drink the 'dodgy water' that was being served at the restaurant, in a moment of egoic confidence.  Penang had more to give us than just beautiful sights--especially for me---which I would discover in a few hours!  
Having discovered that Penang was indeed an island, although not 'across the ocean' from KL, we decided to take a taxi to the beach and see the sunset.  The miracle of blind travelling is that you discover things like beaches when you don't expect them.  The remainder of our time in Penang looked a lot like this:

Obviously, the sunset pictures came chronologically after the non-sunset pictures, but I'm too lazy to switch them around.  It was around the sunset that i began to experience the sudden onset of Montezuma's revenge or George Town's revenge, as it were.  Around this time as well, a large group of Pakistan men began to swarm around us, and finally asked us if they could take pictures of us.  At first, I misheard and thought they were asking us to take a picture of them, and I said okay.  At this point, I was lying flat down on the beach, barely noticing the sunset, because of certain mysterious sensations in my stomach.  Turns out I had just given permission for them to take pictures of Nikki, Emily, and I.  That was kind of weird, but it became even weirder when they each took a turn getting into the picture with us, like putting their arms around us.  Turned out that was a good time for us to start leaving.  

So, then we left for the airport to take our super late flight back to KL, with our flight back to Vientiane early the following morning.  As it turns out, I think we thought that we were like 19 years old and superheros, because our travel made it so that we had a total of 8 hours of sleep over 3 nights.  Now, Grandma Ilse didn't have an easy time with this, and whether it was Montezuma's revenge, or Grandma Ilse's fragile nature or a combination of both, I proceeded to fall into a short period of intense illness over that night and morning of travel, including dramatic shivering, nausea, extreme exhaustion, and the inability to move my limbs in the places where I wanted them to go.  Happily, this ailment receded pretty quickly once back in Vientiane and after a restorative nap at home.  

For the remainder of E&N's time in Lao, we did fun things like attempt to go to monk-led meditation, play cards, eat by the river, go to the night market, and see Buddha Park.  The girls left yesterday back to Minnesota.  

It was great ushering in the year of the goat with Nikki and Emily.  They were such great visitors and troopers, even during the weird times when I accidentally asked a Lao man how much his adorable baby cost (instead of how old she was), and when Erica started making lewd sculptures with her sticky rice instead of eating it.  Open-minded and big-hearted they are, and I'm so happy for their happiness together.  

Next to come: Frankovitch!  And then, mumsy and pops!

Love and goats,


Friday, February 13, 2015

Hearts and stuff

Today I got roses, chocolate, and about 15 homemade valentine's cards from my students.  Ford's card said "Happy listernine day.  hope you got good day. Hope your baby is so strong" accompanied by very helpful illustrations of my future muscular baby destroying buildings.  

My students are really cute:

Friday, February 6, 2015


The temperature here is slowly yet undeniably rising, as is my current stress level at school.  We have report cards and exams coming up and also very academically-ambiguous tasks such as training our children to sing duets and solos for 'Family Fun Day' in late February.  Something I'll never get totally behind in schools are bizarre ancillary duties and sparkly events that shut down the school for days so that we can train our children to dance provocatively to Taylor Swift songs.  Gotta make the parents happy, I guess.  Never mind actual classes.

Funny thing about Asian schools is the assumption that all teachers are also dance instructors and drama teachers and basically just wizards of the highest level.  Usually, the last thing I want to hear at the end of a particularly hard day after I've tried my best to translate/decode the abstract concepts written in antiquated English of our Singaporean Science textbook into an ESL lesson for 20 rambunctious Lao kids (for example: Original text: Solubility is the amount of time that a material takes to fully dissolve in a solution.  The inherent solubility of certain materials is affected by a great variety of factors.  What I say:  Solubility means HOW LONG until GO AWAY?) is "Teacher Ilse, have you been able to start training students for the performance?"  Excuse me.  The word 'performance' alone will simply undo me, even without taking into account what it means for me to drop all of my work and teach my students how to tastefully twerk to "Let it Go."  I mean, c'mon: I'm already being a wizard every day in my classroom.  Asking me to do this is akin to asking Gandalf to continue saving Middle Earth but also to start doing magic tricks at birthday parties on the side.  

It's alright.  These school events are part of the culture, even for the teachers, as I experienced at our staff Christmas Party last year, where I participated in a sexy-santa dance with several colleagues including the distinguished Lao principal (who wore a short red skirt, a garish clown wig, and no shirt).  It's a funny place.  However, I'll take it over the 'no-touching' rules of American schools, where apparently teachers everywhere are forced to deny children the simple pleasure and comfort of hugging or holding hands with a trusted adult.

The world is funny, I guess.  I digress.  Anyway, Erica and I are busy compiling our end-of-term exams, and we have learned to stuff the pages full of pictures, and matching and drawing exercises rather than traditional test questions.  With the reality of the English levels in our classes, we realized that we have to set them up firmly for success, and since many of our kids can't read simple English or form sentences, pictures are the way to go.  We have also stepped up our game in science in a big way, bringing our students together several times a week to do experiments that we barely understand, consulting each other for last-minute questions like "Wait, is it supposed to dissolve in the water?"

So between being a dance instructor and a daily translator of antiquated English textbooks, the rest of my time basically goes towards attempting to inculcate the future president of Lao with good values, and stave off any classroom behavior that seems to be heading the way of "Lord of the Flies."  Both Erica and I have approached Pino in my class with various leading questions about his future prime-ministership/presidentship, such as "So Pino, will your dad become the next president after your grandpa?" or "Pino, are you the oldest child in your family?"  Pino has more dignity as a pudgy 8 year old that I could ever muster as an adult teacher, and he always rather disdainfully responds with "yes, father will."  "yes, oldest son."  At this point in Pino's life, he seems to have a rather limited emotional response, so I may wait until later to ask him how he feels about his future leading Lao or how effectively he believes that I prepared him for this noble office. (Will the great Lao firewall block this blog due to my inappropriate admissions of the pudginess of the future president? Only time will tell).


In other news, Ford continues to be a box-lover and the most spoiled child I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  Constantly in a state of flopping dramatically on the floor, sexually harassing anyone who comes into his path, and most recently taking off his shirt in class and creating maracas out of old water bottles, Ford remains to be my greatest and most adorable challenge.  During my daily talks with Ford where I remind him that "Ford is like everyone else.  Ford has to do the same things as other students like listen and participate.  Ford can't, in fact, kiss/disappear/climb trees/take off his clothes/eat pens/wander off/sing opera/wear boxes on his head/do yoga poses during class because no one else can either."

Apparently dropping all academic classes for a day and letting kids run around and scream wasn't enough stimulation for Ford either.  Ford pictures during his most recent dramatic flop on sports day:

Another student who has been coming out of the woodwork in my class is Bank.  This is Bank:

Bank is a completely unique mixture of gangster, gladiator, and adorable 10-year old.  Past nightmare of mine, this student has completely stepped up his game in the classroom by doing previously uncharted acts such as listening and doing his work(!).  Still unchanged is his tendency to insert phrases like "what the fuck" and dramatic swagger in the classroom; the former I'm unsure how to deal with, since I'm 100% sure Bank has no idea what he's saying and also since it's the only thing he can successfully say in English.  Small victories.  And, nobody can stop his swagger.  Confident in his sudden change in performance, he has turned into some sort of leader both inside and outside of the classroom!  During class Bank helps his classmates with their work after he is finished, and recently during sports day, he led the Blue House through a series of athletic events to win the cup!  Standing at the stature of a modestly-sized house elf, Bank turned into a gladiator on the sports pitch last week, and as the smallest and youngest male member of his team (which included 4-6 graders) led his teammates to victory through his astonishing performances in sprinting, baton racing, basketball, and obstacle course racing.  Being on the blue team myself, I spent my day in ill-concealed hysterics as I watched Bank deliver insults and inspirational battle-cries equal-part to his teammates.  I accepted his 2 be-jeweled iphones with pride every time he suited up for battle, happily noting the constant notifications from an app called 'gangsterkid' flashing upon his screens.

I unfortunately had both Ford AND Bank on my Blue team, which provided many tense moments! Picture this:  During the one race that the blue team would agree to Ford doing, Ford falls spectacularly in his first steps, then several steps later drops his baton, then half-way through dissolves into laughter, and finally forgets that he is running in a race and starts doing cartwheels. The crowds part in the thronging mass of the blue team and at its epicenter, a storm of fury (formerly known as Bank) seethes and swirls, sending off a series of violent gesticulations like lightning bolts, and a great wind of screamed Lao obscenities at Ford.  It was a long day.  

Ford pictured in white shirt below:

Bank, Nini, Oh, and Maggie with their medals.  Despite Ford's best efforts, the Blue Team came in first!  

I believe also that my time living here has given me plenty of material to write a magical realistic novel.  I daily come into contact with several individuals who are completely magical in their evilness, and provide such perfectly wicked characters, that I don't even have to rely on my imagination to create evil characters ever again.  Thanks for the inspiration and for making my friends sad!  More about this after I'm safely out of Laos!

I have been killing it recently in my life outside of school.  Last night alone I drank a single glass of red-wine!  On the way to eat pizza last night on our noble steed, Brian, Erica and I both had the same thought at the same time (a phenomenon I've heard happens with long-married couples!) and told each other in tones of sensible glee, "Honey, I think tonight I may have a glass of red wine!" Or in Erica's case, a 'women's cocktail,' which in Erica-speak means something sweet and pink and mysteriously named.  Without a 'women's cocktail' in sight, Erica settled for a 'coca cola' which certainly means a big night for her, and I drank my red wine and promptly got a raging headache.  Whenever Erica orders alcohol or in fact even a coke, it always sounds like she has just learned how to pronounce the word in a rare foreign language, and this time the waitress mistook her "coca cola" for "Gorgonzola pizza."  We were nearly kicked out of the restaurant a few minutes later when Erica screamed because there was a baby next to her chair and she thought it was a lizard (the important distinction being that Erica loves babies and hates lizards).  Needless to say, there's a reason we don't go out much.

Today we are both recuperating from the titillating activities from the night before (a pizza cafe!  a lizard-baby! a coca cola!) by doing Amish things like writing, drawing, and drinking lots of water to get all of the toxins and tannins out of our bodies.  Working Amish over-time today since we are also trying to make up for last weekend when we dressed up like Bond Girls and stayed up past 10pm for dear Otto's 25th birthday.  

Luckily the skies remain clear of things like parties and tannins so rest-assured that we will most assuredly be resting.  Tomorrow we have plans to venture out for a peace mandala meditation where I shall send many of you peace and love!

Love and Larping,