Saturday, August 29, 2015

On the Banks of the Mekong


In the last few weeks I have moved back across the world to Lao to live in Luang Prabang, a quiet, quaint, Buddhist town nestled between green mountains and at the convergence of the Mekong and Namkong rivers.  Here's where the two rivers meet:

My school is surrounded by rice fields, horses, and this view:

Luang Prabang, though beautiful, quiet, and clean in comparison to Vientiane, still contains all of the elements of Lao that I love the most.  On a random Tuesday night loud Thai music blares from fuzzy speakers next door at a spontaneous all-night party, disheveled dogs root through garbage and roll in the mud, tuk tuks fly past dodging potholes, the dirt roads become mud pits during monsoons, noodle soup is sold for a pittance at little wooden stalls, in one breath you inhale both fresh flowery air and also burning garbage...Luang Prabang may be more 'polished' than Vientiane, but there's nothing at all sterile about it.  In fact, within 1 kilometer of the tourist-laden town center, you find yourself wandering in Lao villages, with groups of children playing soccer on a windy dirt road, men sitting and drinking beer lao in front of shops, families sitting for lunch on mats in front of the house, people hanging laundry in creative spots, a lone monk wandering back to temple, and always in the background the misty mountains arching above.

My experience so far as been mostly exploring on bike--an exceptionally crappy one that will be broken within months--slowly navigating the muddy roads to peek into temples, cafes, neighborhoods.  Already, this is a huge improvement from Vientiane, where having a motorcycle is almost a necessity for safety and expediency.  However, I miss Vientiane.  I happened to leave Vientiane right after I was finally making friends, connections, and finding communities that I felt happy within.  I miss my friends there, I miss playing frisbee with Sabaidisc, I miss all of the cafes and routines, and habits I had there.  I miss Erica.  It took me more than 6 months to feel at home in Vientiane and to feel comfortable enough to get out and do things that I loved like frisbee and make connections with Lao people.  The good thing is that that comfort carries over in Luang Prabang, and my paltry Lao language that I accumulated last year has been a huge asset here towards making connections and meeting people so far.  I've already started to do the things that took me 6 months to do in Vientiane: play sports, meet Lao friends, etc.  If anything, I think it'll take much less time to feel at home here.

Right now I don't have much to do but when school starts, my schedule will burst at the seams.  I will work from 8:00-1:30 every day, with two days ending at 4:00 because of tutoring.  Then, from 4:00-5:00 every day I have Lao lessons.  In my other time, I have to study for grad school, and then I want to volunteer in some capacity like teaching novice monks or something similar.  I don't really like being busy but this year I want to do more volunteering not only because I feel weird living in Lao and teaching rich kids (not that they aren't awesome and worthy), but because it's also an opportunity to make connections and learn more about the culture.

In the meantime, I'm eating noodle soup like it's my job and shamelessly speaking Lao to everyone I meet to get practice.  I'm also volunteering to help some young Lao people with writing their CVs and getting conversational English practice.

 Here's Joe: He is from Thailand and owns a delicious restaurant and within 10 minutes of meeting him, we had exchanged whatsapp contacts.  I love Lao.  'Getting a number' in America is serious business, but here it happens every day.

Love and noodle soup,

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


I don't know why I was expecting my less-than-2-month summer back home to last a life time, but it didn't, and I'm faced with leaving for Lao again in a week.  In the last 6 weeks or so, I've attended a best friend's wedding, visited San Francisco, gone up north, and spent several weeks with many members of my family.  I've been seriously grounded by the time with my family but I also feel like I'm a little floating cloud at other times. just skimming over the surface during a strange and short summer at home.

It's like skimming this time probably because being here feels like a stopover.  I don't mean this in a tragic way---like woe is me, home is no longer home!  I guess it's a good thing, because I have continuity in Lao, and I'm excited about going back.  I guess I just feel like I live in Lao now and I'm home for a few months, which is exactly what is happening.  It doesn't feel like I live in Minnesota and I'm off on another adventure.  I'm just going back.  I feel untethered here, but with none of the loaded implications that the word may connote.

This summer has been a good resting point and of course a great chance to see people I love more than once.  It's also provided a good perspective of culture shock and differences, but this time, I feel lighter about it.  Last time, it was less funny, as I was coming home from Uganda and settling down to live in the states for at least a while.  This time I can enjoy and chuckle at the weirdness, knowing that I don't yet have to follow all of the rules (real and fake) ones that America has.  I've been charged $130 for a tiny tube of prescribed face cream, which I laughingly walked away from. I've been woefully unprepared of nearly everything, mostly due to lacking a phone.  Something I can say that I got from Lao, is a sense of trust.  Trust in people and trust in the universe.  This trust can best be illustrated by a few very creative ways I have gotten home, especially from a wedding in a suburb of San Francisco (details provided to those who ask!).  Not only my sense of trust that things will probably be fine and that furthermore most people don't want to chop me into tiny bits, but I also believe my capabilities of problem-solving are at an all-time high.  Living somewhere like Lao where things usually don't work out the way you want them to, I have an extensive Mary-Poppin's bag filled with all sorts of charming tricks and ideas for how to do things like buy medicine, get home from somewhere, figure out what to do when my motorcycle tire pops at night in the rain, navigate the US sans cellular data or sim card, and more.  More trusting, and more crafty (which may make me less trustworthy?)

I feel sad not to have seen people as much as I'd like to have, but that'll always be the case.  Keep connected, friends and family.  I'll miss you all.  Let me know if you want some elephant pants next time I come home.

My new address in Lao should be:

Ilse Griffin, c/o Kiettisack International School
Phetsarat Road, Nongkham Village, Luangprabang District and Province, Lao PDR, PO Box 221

If you care to pen pal or send me delightful things such as sunscreen or teaching resources:)

Keep in tune for the exciting news updates of whether Laos lets me back into the country 3 days before my visa expires!  

Love and Laos,