Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 15

Day 15: The Proudly Exposed Man Bellies

I unfortunately have no photographic evidence, but I'll miss Lao dearly for exactly this phenomenon that I'm about to describe.  If you happen to be a Lao man of a certain age (middle aged or above) and you happen to possess a protruding belly of a certain dignified girth, then it is acceptable and encouraged to let your belly air out/hang out when it happens to be a reasonably warm day.  What this looks like in practice is a bunch of otherwise-normally dressed Lao men with their t-shirts pulled up so that they rest just above the majestic paunch, with said paunch displayed for all to see.  This is truly a sight to behold, and also makes me ponder the comically quick transition that many Lao men seem to undergo when they change overnight from lithe, slender men to wise wielders of great oft-displayed paunch.  Thank you for your work.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 14

Day 14: Women's football/Soccer

I've had the pleasure of breaking into the women's football scene in Luang Prabang.  I'll miss playing with my rowdy, loud, good-spirited groups of women here.  My closest female Lao friends have come from being part of this.  In just a half hour, I'm off to my last double-header match with all of these lovely women.

 My football friends, Daa, and Naly (my closest friend here)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 13

Day 13:  Monks

Monks aren't exotic in Laos; they are everywhere.  Nearly every man has been a monk or a novice. When walking around Luang Prabang, saffron robes are always in sight.  They walk in little gaggles, usually holding orange umbrellas to protect their bald heads.  They aren't allowed to ride bicycles or motorcycles, so they either walk or pile into tuk tuks to go to school.  My favorite is when I catch a glimpse of a monk or novice on their iphone or smoking a cigarette.  They seem so timeless and majestic, so it's a great juxtaposition, and also a reminder that they are just adolescent boys.

My favorite one is the first:  Mutual, shameless picture-taking of each other.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 12

Day 12:  Beer Lao

Beer Lao is so much more than a beer.  It reflects Lao culture so perfectly.  There are some cultural rules surrounding Beer Lao, that I quickly found out.

#1:  It must be had with ice cubes.  Many of my Lao friends will refuse to drink it, unless there's a fresh heap of ice cubes in their glass.  These ice cubes can sometimes partially save you from the worst hangover imaginable, which Beer Lao proudly delivers approximately 3 hours after you start drinking it.
#2:  It is shared.  A far cry from American beer culture where every person buys their own bottle and drinks only their own bottle; Beer Lao is a social beer.  It is bought in large bottles by a group of friends, who then go through them one by one together, pouring the beer into small glasses.  You never have your own bottle of it.
#3:  It is finished.  No one is going anywhere, including you, until the entire series of bottles has been gone through.  We are all in it together.  We all go down together.
#4:  You pour for each other.  And, if you have any self-respect as a friend, all of your friend's glasses will be filled up immediately and often prematurely.
#5:  You must clink glasses and cheers, often.  Approximately every other sip, you all have to clink glasses and say "nyok nyok."  Once in a while, someone will "mot" you, and that means you have to drain your entire glass.
#6:  You can't cheat: If you are 'motted', you must respect the 'mot.'  You can't pretend to drink.  Besides, people will notice.
#7:  More beer must be procured subtly, whenever there's the slightest risk of running out of bottles.  
#8:  You most boldly display your drunkenness 
#9:  Any wishes to abstain or 'go easy' will be promptly ignored.  Begging illness, religion, preference, health, will do nothing help you.
#10: Whenever possible, foreigners must be drunk into a beautiful stupor.  This usually isn't too hard, as most foreigners usually haven't shared beer with lao people before.
#11:  Everyone you vaguely know (or sometimes don't know) must be invited over to have a glass.  You must also make them drunk too.

Beer Lao traditions, like Lao people, reflect a focus on sharing, community, openness, and fun/silliness.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 11

Day 11:  My 5th graders

Some of you have seen first hand how social and fun Lao students are.  Last year, I was victim to a group of rambunctious 9 year olds.  My second year of teaching has generally gone more smoothly.  I have only 10 students, and they are fifth graders (10 and 11 years old).  Despite this small class size, my students still achieve levels of insanity and loudness that I didn't even know were possible.  It's also probably a testament to my 'laissez-faire' style of teaching...I've never been a strict person, and I think my attitude towards my students is, "you do you."  Unfortunately, my students have caught on to this, and my classroom has descended into chaos for the last few months.  Their version of 'doing you' is making our classroom into a slime factory (they seriously produce so much of it) and a gladiator rink.  But, that's okay.  I don't like putting leashes on my students, and some of them are able to shine in a way that they can't when just doing academics.  Such as Namthip, the queen of the slime (and also, the sass):

Or Sok, who could care less about academics, but is a fantastic athlete, friend, and class clown.
Or View, who is a budding leader who is great with younger kids.  He all but runs the classroom, and is usually reeling from his latest sugar overdose.  

I'll miss all of my students so much.  With a smaller class, I've had the privilege of getting close to all of them, and finding out their lovely quirks as individuals.

Dan's verbosity and strangely mature sense of humor:

Josh's bad puns and obsession with Harry Potter:

Brie's kindness:

Jazzy's overwhelming sweetness, and creativity in making things:

Pink's quiet and kind leadership:

Jojo's smile and desire to do well:

Tien's incredible intelligence and drive:

All of their sense's of humor:

And their wisdom:

It was a great year with them!

For your entertainment, a slime 'time lapse' series featuring slime and Teacher Leif.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 10

Day 10:  Living with Wildlife

For those of you who kept up with me this entire year, you'll know that I have had many animal room-mates.  Rats, mice, lizards, geckos, feral cats, huntsman spiders, cockroaches...the list truly continues.  I wake up to mysterious insect bites on my legs and feet every morning.  I won't necessarily miss this every day, but I will miss how there's less separation between humans and wildlife here.  Just how you can't avoid the weather by getting into a car (nay, you ride your bike or motorcycle through wind, rain, and sun!), you also can't avoid interacting with the great outdoors.  Of course, a little separation is ideal, but in Lao, people aren't 'above' the elements.  You have to intermingle with it all, whereas in America, things seem overly hygienic and sanitized: the outdoors stays outdoors.  Here, I never know what creature I'll wake up with!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 9

Day 9:  Noodles

Everyone who knows me probably suspects that I moved to Laos mostly for noodles, and they wouldn't entirely be wrong.  I will miss all of the noodles here.  I will miss Lao Noodle Soup (similar to Pho), I will miss Pad thai, I will miss stir-fried noodles.  Living in a country, where it is allowed and normal to wake up and immediately eat a bowl of spicy noodles (and not have to pretend that I want to eat something like pancakes or cereal) is one of the best things to have ever happened to me.

Pad Lao:

 Lao Noodle Soup:
 Pad Thai:
 I made Pad Thai!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 8

Day 8:  Festivals

Whether it's boat-racing festival, fire boat festival, buddhist lent, Rocket festival, or Hmong or Lao New Year, this country knows how to put on a party.

Boat racing!

 Fire Boat Festival
 Hmong New Year
 Lao New Year (Country-wide water fight)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 7

Day 7:  My adult students

I volunteer at a great nonprofit called @library twice a week where I teach super-motivated, funny, and smart adults, age 16-40.  A few of my students are high school students, a few university students, a handful are college professors, and some are tour guides or service workers who have a passion for writing.  We focus on writing; on one day, we do creative writing (poems, stories), and on the other day we do professional/academic writing (essays, emails, etc).  I love teaching these students for completely different reasons than I love teaching my 5th graders...I can relate to them as adults and friends, and also I can teach an area that I'm really passionate about, and that I believe can really empower someone.

On a field trip to hear traditional Lao folktales:

 Always so focused on writing! In comparison, my 5th grade classroom is a drunken carnival of sugar-fueled tiny people.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Leaving Taking, Day 6

Day 6:  Tuk Tuks

I will miss my experiences in and around tuk-tuks.  Tuk-tuks are the form of public transport in Lao and surrounding countries.  They consist of a motorcycle converted into a taxi, or sometimes a truck converted into a taxi.  They sound like they are exploding, and often, they nearly are!  Actually, their name is an onomatopoetic take on the noise that they make while in motion.  Erica and I have many-a-time calmly remarked to each other whilst riding in an especially special-sounding tuk tuk, "Are we about to blow up?"  Luckily, this has never come to fruition.  They also move at majestically turtle-like speeds.  Tuk Tuk drivers decorate their vehicle with buddhist paraphernalia, flowers, and discrete bob marley stickers.  A lot of drivers in Luang Prabang are part of the exclusive Lao weed ring, which they immediately let you know when you enter their vehicle.  Also, in Luang Prabang, many tuk tuk drivers will roam the town center trying to convince tourist to go see the famous waterfalls by yelling "waterFALL, waterFALL"...and unfortunately, to an unseasoned ear, this often sounds like "what the F***, what the F***", which makes for a bizarre and uncomfortable misunderstanding indeed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 5

Day 5:  The Scruffy, disheveled "ban" dogs.

The street dogs in Laos are just hot enough that they aren't aggressive.  Maybe that's a thing.  I like to call them the neighborhood dogs, or "ban" dogs, because they seem to belong to villages, rather than individuals.  They are barely conscious, most of the time, and can be found in rather bizarre poses like sprawled in the middle of the road, lying on the top of dinner tables, or in piles of mud...Every once in a while, my favorite thing happens, which is when I spot a dog riding either in the basket of a motorbike, or riding behind their owner and sitting like a person.

My favorite dogs are the especially next-level disheveled ones, and I have a name for them too.  They look and act exactly like hangovers, so they are the "benders."  They emerge, confused, and dazed in the late-morning, wandering around with fur in their regretful eyes and covered in leaves and mud and beer lao.  They are the accidental, and forgotten heroes here.

Needless to say, Beppo would wet his pants within minutes of interacting with any Lao dog.  What a pampered dork.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Leaving Taking, Day 4

Day 4:  FRUIT!

Laos has the most bizarre, eclectic, and delicious fruit I have ever seen.  There's little red fruit that looks like a hairy monster, and bumpy purple fruit that looks like something Tim Burton dreamed up.  Every day I eat fruit until my stomach hurts, and I'd have it no other way.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Leave Taking, Day 3

Day 3: Time

I'm pretty sure in America, time shifts-shapes and warps until it is rarer, smaller, stingier.  We spend time in America, like we spend money.  We also run out of it.  In Laos, time is like the Mekong.  At times, barely moving. Great, swollen expanses of time.  On especially hot days here, time spends us.  We lay motionless on flat surfaces in dark rooms, begging for the release of night time, begging for time to release its steadfast grip on us, in the hot hours of the day.  What do I have a lot of here in Lao?  I have time. Time to think, time to do yoga, time to read, time to drink Beer Lao, time to watch the sunset, time. There's no shortage of it here.  The only reliable measure of it: the temple drumming/gonging which happens at the same times each day.  I'll miss waking up on a Sunday with an entire day sitting like a fat, lazy dog in front of me, and knowing that I won't have to spend the time in a myriad of ways.  I can just sit in it, indulgently.

Leave Taking, Day 2

Day 2: The Mekong

Since last year, when I lived in Vientiane, the Mekong has been the center of everything here.   "Mekong" in Lao means "The Mother of all things."  And so it is. It's where we gather, in the half light, to eat on wooden tables and watch the sunset with Beer Lao in hand. The best sunsets I've seen in my life have been from the banks of the Mekong.  In Vientiane, it forms the backdrop of the night market, all red tents and lights and river.  We play frisbee on the beach, walking through the scraggy plants on the sand.  In Luang Prabang, it frames the town, and shapes everyone's life.  Long boats and blue-roofed Slow Boats turtle across, bearing villagers and food.  Fisherman wade, waist deep, with nets in the early morning and evening.  Monks and novices play and bathe by bamboo bridges; splashing in their saffron robes.  It is everything here, and yet you can barely register its silent, persistent embrace, the many gifts it gives.  The Mekong barely moves when you watch it; it's a lazy, brown, beautiful river, framed by soft green mountains.  Right now, I watch its languid, unrushed movement from inside my house.  Living on the Mekong has been such a lucky dream.  I'm happy to return to the fresh, brisk, blue waters of the Mississippi, but I'll miss its more earthy, sultry, jungle-kissed cousin in SE Asia.

My view from today, while writing a paper for grad school:

Friday, May 13, 2016


And so I enter another season of leave-taking.  I think I can truly measure my years in terms of this sort of bittersweet event: leaving a place.  Sometimes, the constant evolution of English results in the perfect word, and I can't think of a better one to express how I'm feeling about my upcoming departure from this fair land...


In celebration of Lao and all that Lao has brought to me, I want to revive my blogging efforts in my last 3 weeks, and try my best to post something about Lao every day.  Either a memory, something I love, or something I will miss about living here.

Day 1:  Greetings.
 This town feels like a village.  Wherever I go, whether it's to ingloriously buy a 24 pack of toilet paper and then almost crash into a vegetable stand on my way back, or to dinner, or to a bar, or to teach, I am greeted by faces I know.  "Fa!"  I hear the short, musical, retort of my Lao name barked at me around each corner, as I run into all of the different, lovely, smiling faces that have become part of my daily life here.  Just today, on my short errand into town, I ran into "Beer" (girl who sells me noodles and also forces me to drink Beer Lao with her), "Lee" (tuk tuk driver in my neighborhood who tries to sell me marijuana and smiles for days), "Long Neck" (preschool student at my school who thinks he is a dinosaur), mysterious elderly woman who gives me bananas, and everyone else in the world.  I spend my day saying hello to people.