Saturday, March 21, 2015

Suspense and Intrigue on a Cambodian Island

Erica and I decided to be heroic a few weekends ago and stretch our 3 day weekend to the complete brink of sanity by planning our arrival back to Vientiane to be 7:00am on the morning we had to start teaching again via night bus.  On Friday, we left for Southern Lao on a night bus called "King of Bus" with huge glossy pictures of a maniacal Winnie the Poo decorating the exterior.  Now, this bus was about 7,000 times more legit looking than what we had taken to and fro Luang Prabang, and so we already felt reassured.  We found our cosy little bed bunk and fit into it just perfectly.  The bathroom sort of worked!  I think this baller bus was the closest I'll get to being in a nightclub during my time in Lao.

Ah, the untold luxury of the King of Bus!

When Erica and I magically rolled into Pakse at 8 in the morning, we felt pretty refreshed and ready to adventure.  We decided to take a local bus the remaining several hours down to the 4,000 islands.  Relishing in the scenic countryside, we rumbled down through southern lao until we reached the delta in the mekong where the 4,000 islands are scattered.  Along the way, we harassed a few German tourists (who by the way are always well-informed and savvy) to find out some essentials such as where we were going and stuff like this.  Why do all the leg-work when you can harass the nearest German tourist?  So, when we reached the islands, we had a pretty good idea of which of the 4,000 islands we would go to.  It helped too that probably 3,990 of the islands were the size of a burrito, so we only had a few contenders.  As we found a dock to set off from, we still had two islands to choose between, and russian-roulleted our way into a ticket to Don Dhet.

So far, we had already noticed the very different sort of beauty down in this area.  Dirt roads, swaying fronds, tall reeds, and of course, the flowing rhythmic river-centered life.

Altogether, not a totally dissimilar vibe from lake country in Minnesota.  Quiet, rustic, rural, and beautiful.  A less epic sight than the beaches of Southern Thailand, but a very specific, special kind of beauty all the same.  

So anyway, we ended up on Do Dhet island, and the vibe was interesting from the very start.  We walked onto the shore and ran right into a colorful quiet little town center with reggae music, lopsided bungalows, chilled out tourists and lao people alike.

With tiny animals scurrying around everywhere, it wasn't long before Erica scooped up a duckling and forced it to be nurtured. 
After eating in the center, we decided to take a long, rambling walk around the island with the vague aim of eventually ending up somewhere really far away where we could see the elusive pink water dolphins.  After a pit-stop to a tourist agency to see the viability of the plan (in which we were told that it was too far to walk to see the dolphins and we'd have to take an tuktuk and where Erica met a baby that she imprinted on and subsequently gave glamour shots to), we were ready to go!  Plan or no plan, we were going to walk in a random direction!  
Glamour shots:

During our rambles on this island, we walked through lovely scenes of Lao pastoral life, complete with chickens, dogs, pigs, fisherman, farmers, and family life.  Interesting too because the tourists here seemed quieter and less intrusive...not a completely obnoxious blight upon the normal lives of the families.  In fact, the many small bungalows and hotels for tourists were run by the families who had farms and homes right across the street, and hopefully this gave them some additional income.

The bungalow that we later decided to stay in:

So yes, we walked around for hours alongside the dirt-road overlooking the Mekong on this lovely, frond-swaying island, doing exactly what we do best.  Eventually, we reached the end of the island where we could cross over a small bridge to reach the next island Dhon Kong where we could find the dolphin tours.  At this point, it was late afternoon and we had been walking for miles.  As we slowly realized, we still had miles to go on this island to get to the place we needed to be.  On this new island, we were walking through deserted farm fields, absent of life save for gangs of water buffalo.  When a lone Beer Lao truck passed us, neither of us hesitated to wave it down, and jump on for a lift the rest of the way.  Happily, the truck dropped us off in the exact area we needed to be in order to take a boat out to see the dolphins.  Erica and I approached a large group of Lao men to see about the tours offered and decided to do a sunset dolphin tour.  Unaware of the excitement that was in our future, we set off with a 23 year old Lao man on his little river boat.

Our trip started out well, and I wasn't too fazed by our guide's odd behavior of calling me 'beautiful' and generally staring a little too intently.  I don't make this kind of stuff up out of thin air; I'm usually the one who is staring at beautiful Lao men intently with no reciprocation, so I am very sensitive to the odd times when it's the other way around.  Anyway, we set off, and stopped at a place in the river where the dolphins often are frolicking about.  Happily, we saw them!  We watched for about 10 minutes as distant river dolphins surfaced and resurfaced in a group of about 6.  At this point our guide started talking to me about what we would do next, namely check out the sunset and perhaps an island on our way back.  He also pointed out a not-so-distant island where Cambodia began and Lao ended, which was a little surprising, as Erica and I hadn't realized we were so close to Cambodia.  On our way back, our guide landed the boat on an island, which was also surprising as we had heard from the men back at the dock that we wouldn't stop at an island, only look from our boat.  We got out, excited to see the sunset, and explore.  This is when things started getting strange.  Our guide was now quite obviously besotted with me and for the next tense and awkward half hour, was either plotting to murder us, or was trying to set the stage for a romantic date.  There's no possibility it was anything in between these two things.   As we walked around the island, he offered to carry my ukelele, and then attempted to execute a half-dozen pathetic attempts to be alone with me.  Instead of staying on the beach of the island to be able to see the sunset, he led us deeper into the bush for no apparent reason, asking Erica several times to be quiet and to go a different way so that he and I could be alone.  Upon reaching a distant pond, far from the beach, he told us that we could swim, and when that failed, told us to lay down by a tree.  "Um, maybe we should get back to the beach to see the sunset?" Erica gently asked.  At this point, the guide asked me if I had a boyfriend, to which I responded enthusiastically "yes, a husband," and he told me of his intense desire to have a baby with me, to which I didn't know how to respond.  We steered our course back towards the beach, realizing that we needed to break up this date before it got even weirder.  The climax of weirdness had to be when after another aborted attempt to split Erica and I up, he suddenly panicked because we were talking too loudly, and had us duck behind a tall shrub so not to disturb his 'sleeping friend' at a nearby campsite.  The ducking behind a tall shrub coincided with a boat passing by, so we both started to panic a bit, thinking maybe he was trying to hide us.  Then, he chillingly urged us to go inside the bush and lay down, which we cheerily responded no to.  Alarm bells went off, and realizing that the sun was rapidly setting and that we were quite possibly on a deserted Cambodian island with a crazy person, we both segued quickly into fight or flight mode.  "Ah, I'm so thirsty.  I'm sorry, I think we have to go back now so that I can drink water," I said apologetically, playing a deferential and dehydrated damsel.  "Thank you for taking us.  This has been so wonderful, we love this island, but it's time to go."  We spoke really gently to him.  A last-ditch attempt at romance (or subterfuge?!), he sulkily said he had to go to the bathroom behind some distant trees and asked me to come with him.  I declined.  As he disappeared from sight, both Erica and I started to panic.  The sun was setting.  We couldn't see our guide anywhere...he could be doing something creepy or getting a weapon...way off in the distance on the far end of the island, we saw a woman preparing a small boat to leave, and both of us fought an strong impulse to sprint towards her, however this moment passed when we saw our guide materialize from the bush.  We watched forlornly as the distant woman floated away from us on her boat.  "Ilse, if we need to, we ditch our stuff, and swim," Erica whispered as he walked towards us.  Luckily, it didn't come to that.  Our guide, now in a visibly bad mood at the failed date, got back into the boat and silently shepherded us back to Lao and safety.  When we landed back at the dock, he made us pay him a tip (perhaps for having gone to a special Cambodian island?  perhaps because I disappointingly didn't become his girlfriend? perhaps for not murdering us?) and then, high on adrenaline, we climbed up the bank as fast as we could.  

Erica took great pictures of the Cambodian island...whether it was actually in Cambodia or not remains unknown.  Having a camera was a great distraction and display of normalcy as we were panicking.   

 Our very special guide.

View from our boat on the way back:

Back at the landing with no way back and no comforting daylight, we felt ourselves start to panic again.  We needed to get back to Dhon Dhet quickly so that we weren't stuck on this island at night.  With no Beer Lao truck to take us back, we ended up paying a family to get a ride back with their motorcycle and side car, driven by their 10 year old son.  I've never felt so comforted to have my life in the hands of a 10 year old.  Both Erica and I wanted to be far away from our jilted guide and we felt so safe being shepherded back by a young boy and his older sister.  And so we rode off into the sunset with two 10 year olds....A picture of the girl taking us back:
After getting back safely to the other island and finding a friendly family-run guesthouse, we felt better.  We told a really kind woman about the unseemly guide and asked her to warn solo female travellers of doing the dophin experience.  Of course, the closest thing I've had in a year to a 'date' turned out to be both terrifying and very worrisome.  I'm off dating for a while.  

Anyway, I'm sure it was more innocent than it felt, but we were really relieved to be alive and continue our journey away from the islands.  The next day we took the bus back to Pakse to explore the city.  

 Pakse is sleepier and cleaner than Vientiane, the former a marvel considering the comatose nature of the capital city!  We found a giant buddha of course, preceded by many other buddhas, and climbed roller-coaster stairs to get up to him.  

One of the buddhas before the big buddha (and some beautiful lao people)
Roller coaster stairs!  

 More buddhas.
the big Buddha:

On the way back to our hostel we saw some really bad ass Lao bikers from our tuk tuk:

Pakse was a nice stopover and resting place between our adventures in the 4,000 islands and our next days' adventures up to the Bolaven plateau.  Being in a Lao town devoid of pollution and foreigners was such a nice change.  In fact, everywhere we went in Southern Lao, we were met with such friendliness and kindness (besides our misadventure seeing dolphins of course).  The unspoken divide in Vientiane is nearly insurmountable and you often feel like you are bobbing along in a private world filled with foreigners.  In the south, there wasn't this divide, as the place wasn't overrun by westerners.  I practiced my Lao more than I ever had during that one weekend away.  

The next day, Erica and I booked spots on an all-day tour of the Bolaven Plateau, a fertile and lovely area with the best coffee and waterfalls in the country.  In a large white van filled with large white people, we spent our day stopping at various waterfalls, meeting elephants, sampling local coffee, and getting dropped off without explanation in tribal villages to 'experience minority culture.'  



A general theme of our trip to the Bolaven plateau was the lack of explanation.  For each of our stops, our driver briskly sent us out the door with several terse and mysterious words such as "15 minutes."  or "1 hour." With no other explanation or instructions.  Erica and I thrived under this Socratic tourism, walking around coffee plantations and making up names for every different plant we saw.  It was great until we started to get dropped off in the middle of tribal villages with the same amount of explanation and nowhere to go and nothing to do but basically lurk outside of homes, and so for periods of 15 minutes, several peaceful villages had a group of bumbling tourists roaming all over their personal property with no clue what to do and not even the vaguest understanding of the culture.    

A model village that we visited specialized in cassava farming and production and for a minute I felt that I was back in Arua.

After a full day on the plateau, we came back to Pakse time to catch our night bus back to Vientiane, hoping we'd arrive before work started the next morning.  We arrived to school at 8:05am on Tuesday morning, 5 minutes late, in the same clothes we had worn for 3 days and taught a full day of classes.  

Friday, March 6, 2015

This is a chicken.

Good morning or evening (your preference!)

Much to update here! In this dusty, sleep corner of the earth, the temperature is rising and the mekong is steadily disappearing into acres of sandy beach and frazzled looking plants. I even played frisbee on this beach!

We had an event at our school last week called “Family Fun Day.” Apparently this is another event where our children turn into k-pop stars and sing Frozen and New Direction and other stuff i've never heard of and shake their hips at our head of school. Also notable were some of our 'sponsors' at the event, including the company “Slim Concept”, who had a booth at our event with the very nice touch of a scale for 10 year old girls to see how fat they are and some rather toxic looking products that would indeed cause you to lose weight since you'd die and dying is technically one way to lose weight and also a skin-whitening booth. I'm definitely not in Kansas or anywhere remotely near. Like most events my school puts on, this one looked like it cost roughly 7 million dollars. Also, with all the weirdly dressed trendy adults watching children entertain them via competitive performances, it kinda reminded us of the Hunger Games. The last few weeks, us upper primary teacher had spent a lot of time teaching the 4-6 graders how to perform a sign language song called “See me Beautiful.” It was listed on the official program as “Interpretive Dance.”

The interpretive dance:

Another exciting occurrence was seeing two neighborhood dogs stuck together after an intimate (although rather public) moment. Erica and I being mature fourth grade teachers promptly stopped everything, dropped our bags outside of our gate, and started gaping and taking photographs. An elderly Lao man who is always situated near our house perhaps as a general observer of life walked over and helpfully pantomimed with a circle and a finger what had happened. Glorious! I'm not surprised about this as I think either all of the female dogs in Vientiane are in synchronized heat or all canines have started a fight club recently... but this occasion has led to a great relationship with this lao man who now gesticulates lewdly to us every time we see him while he points to dogs and laughs while I reply, “yes, we like so much” in broken Lao (which I suppose means that Erica and I like when dogs get stuck together).

I went to a farm earlier this week with a bunch of Lao kids who have apparently never seen a shovel or a chicken before. Once again, I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I have shared intimate quarters with chickens in my past life!  I know how to dig and plant things! (sort of).  Newtern, the smartest kid in fourth grade who literally reads Jane Austen and Dosteovesky in his free time, affected a victorian english attitude and huffed about all the dirt. I mean, I get it. Harry helpfully told me that he was a herbivore as he ate a meat patty and fish for lunch. THe future president interacted with hay for the first time and came away pleased.   It was a good day.

 Pino's positive interaction with hay:

I'm really proud! The other day, I was driving home on Brian from hanging out with Otto and thinking about how Otto was spending his day working on his novel and I was spending my day probably ogling goats and I realized that there's literally nothing stopping me from doing something insane like...writing a song!!! And so, as I glided majestically down the boulevard on my truly surprising and new mode of transport, I started composing a song in my head using Brian as motivation, starting with this line, “I used to hate motorcycles. And the sort of people who ride them.” Promising start. I even had some phantom chord progressions echoing around in my skull! When I reached home, I ran upstairs, got out my uke and for the next half hour entered what I shall now refer to as my “Mozart moment” as I somehow plucked out the beginning of a song. I was so excited to tell Erica and when she got home she promptly finished writing the second half of the song. The day happened to be Valentine's Day, by the way, so by the end of our efforts we both realized that what had happened exactly was that we wrote each other a love song on valentine's day.

Feast thine eyes on the fruit of our going on facebook!!! I don't know how to link it here.  

What's really cool is that two goofballs like Erica and I can write songs! And not bad songs either! I can't guarantee it's not plagiarized as who knows what Metallica song was knocking around in my head at the moment to give me inspiration but it felt pretty genuine at least. If we can write a song, we can do anything. Anything!-including survive the bizarre social climate of Vientiane—which is quite an accomplishment indeed!

We have truly accomplished so much these past few months. Besides writing a song, we have also upped our domestic routine to 3 (3!!) dinners that we can make together. The first, a flavorful pasta with tomato sauce, then indian lentils, and finally bamboo soup. And, those fresh ingredients don't just appear in our kitchen, you know. We go to buy them ourselves. And I sometimes speak Lao to ask for bananas. So there. Take that, Lao. We now know how to inhabit you more comfortably than before. And our bamboo soup is next-level. Erica and I are so finely routined that a mid-week proposal to hang out, really throws us for a loop.

And speaking of loopy, tonight we leave on an all-nighter bus down to southern Lao to see Pakse, the Bolaven plateau, and 1,000 islands with pink dolphins!  The last time we took an all-night bus, it broke down for 12 hours on a mountainside and we had to forage for bananas and Erica had to share a bed with a thai lady boy.  Here's to a better ride!
Love and loopiness,