Laos is different. Way different. And I say “different” knowing it’s only different because I grew up with a certain definition of “normal” that doesn’t fit here. Life is pretty normal here for the people from here. Figuring out that might seem simple but let me tell you it’s not. It’s taken every one of the past 500 or so days of living in Laos to really grasp that “normal” is very…very subjective.
What do you do when you see a baby? You tell the mother how beautiful her baby is and make bunches of cooing noises. That’s totally normal, right? Sure, if you are from a western civilization. What happens if you are Lao? You tell the mother her baby is ugly. That’s right. None of that pretty stuff over here. Nope. “That baby is just plain ugly” is about the nicest thing you can say to a Lao mother?
What? Why? I don’t understand. Why….just, why? Well, I’m glad you are having the same reaction I had. Why would anyone want to tell a mother her baby is ugly? To keep the baby safe from the spirits, of course. You see, the tradition in Laos is that if you talk about how beautiful the baby is then the spirits will want it for themselves and will take it away. Fear of spirits is still very much a part of Lao people’s lives so much so that nearly every house has a small house (think larger than a normal birdhouse) outside of their home so the spirits will live in it and not inside their home.
If you were a new mother and were afraid of losing your beautiful baby to spirits I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t mind one bit if people kept coming up to you and saying your baby was ugly. If I’m honest, I still can’t bring myself to say it to people. Just knowing what I’m saying grates against everything I’ve ever been told about how to appropriately react to newborn babies but I also don’t go up to people and start proclaiming how beautiful their babies are. I just stick with the “awwww” and that seems to make everyone happy.
So what’s the moral of the story? I feel like one of the problems we face in our world today is that we immediately judge and condemn anything that goes against how we think. Remember that your idea of “normal” is exactly that: your idea. When you run into someone’s else’s idea of “normal” and it’s completely opposite of what you think just remember there’s probably a reason behind it. I’ve run into few people who do things without any thought or reason. You don’t have to agree with their reasoning (I don’t believe my newborn, if I had one, would be in mortal danger from people telling me I have a beautiful child) but that doesn’t make them any less of person. Nothing is wrong for standing up for what you think is right but immediately dismissing someone because they think differently means you are missing a wonderful opportunity to interact with someone. If you’re patient enough you might get the privilege to learn why they do things and maybe, if you do it right, you can even share your ideas. What happens after that is up to the person but I can almost guarantee you that you will make a new friend and gain a greater understanding of how the world works. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.
I saw him as soon as I turned the corner.
He was waiting for me just beyond my motorbike. He had seen me park it there at 1:30 and had apparently kept close watch over my parking space because there he was at 4:30, patiently waiting for me. Even from a distance I could see his hands clinched in nervous fists and an anxious, but excited, smile plastered across his face. I’ve seen that face many times before here in Laos. The face of a student who had read his one and only English textbook every night until the covers had nearly fallen off. A student who was about to get a chance to have a real-live conversation with a foreigner.
A little bit of context. I was in the province of Salavan. If Laos is the backwater of Southeast Asia then Salavan is the backwater of the backwater. This province is one of the most rural and untouched places in Laos and a place where good majority of the province is completely cut off from the rest of the country because they don’t have roads. And when they do have roads they are dirt roads that become impassable during rainy season (4 months out of the year). Basically, Salavan makes my home of Pakse seem like New York (and that’s hard to do). I was there helping out with an English teaching workshop for teachers at the provincial college as it’s only a few hours away from where I live. This college has no foreign teachers at all for their English department and their teachers had asked for some help. So here we were, three foreign teachers on the campus of a college smack dab in the middle of nowhere, Laos where few foreigners had ever ventured surrounded by students stunned at the very sight of actual foreign teachers.
Back to the student at my motorbike.
I walked up to him, asked him in Lao if he could speak English (he responded, “A little”…they always answer like that), and immediately switched to English to ask him his name and where he was from. He quickly answered followed by “Oh wow” and the biggest grin you can find on someone. He was also blushing which was is pretty hard for Lao people to do.
He actually turned out to be pretty good in conversational English but the best parts was when his excitement would get the best of him. At one point he was stumbling through his sentences when he stopped mid-sentence and exclaimed, “I’m so sorry, teacher, but I’m just so glad I am talking to you.” Eventually, after about 30 minutes, I had to leave but as I left on my motorbike I heard him give a huge sigh of relief.
Why am I sharing this with you? Do I think I’m the best thing since sliced bread? No. Do I want you to think people are lining up in droves to get a chance to be in my presence? No. Honestly, there aren’t many things that would make me stand out if I were back home in America. I just happen to be in a country where foreign teachers are in short supply and in a country that is chock full of eager students wanting so badly to learn the language I speak. I share this story because this is one of the reasons I came to Laos: to help these students reach their goals and dreams.
A good majority of my students come from homes where they are lucky enough to have parents that have even been to a school much less finished school. Places where houses are built out of bamboo and your shower is a wooden platform outside with a bucket of water. Also, English is pretty hard and just being able to put intelligible sentences togethers takes lots of work. Seeing the joy on student’s faces as they finally get a chance to talk in English with a foreigner is something I will always cherish. Not only do I get to talk with them but I get to help them grow in their English skills. Speaking English is a dream for so many of the students here in Laos. Being a part of that is special. I have rough days here in Laos. It’s not always the easiest of places to be but students like the one I met in Salavan are what keep me here.
It’s not often you get help someone take steps towards accomplishing their dreams.
And that’s why I love my job.
My love fest for mountains is well documented on this blog. It’s actually a little embarrassing but I keep doing it. Just turn those judging eyes elsewhere because you keep reading these posts. Basically, you’re just as guilty as me because you’re enabling me.
Now that we are in this together, let’s get on to the pictures I took while in Luang Prabang. There’s no need to keep babbling on when there’s mountain pictures to look at.
Do you want to know what makes this picture even cooler? I was on the back of an elephant. Just walking down the street on an elephant. No big deal.
Beach, river, mountain. Have I found the perfect place? Maybe. Just maybe.
Overlook of Luang Prabang.
I took this picture from a small bamboo bridge that you had to pay to walk across (it was only $.75). Pretty sure the lady thought I was crazy because I paid, walked to the middle, took this picture, stared at the mountains for a few minutes, and then walked right back.
These next few pictures are from the top of Si Mountain which is smack dab in the middle of downtown Luang Prabang. One of the few times I’ve actually been breathless at a view.
I waited on the top for sunset. I was slightly disappointed at my sunset pictures but that’s okay. Seeing it with my eyes was enough. Even with that, here are some of them.
And this is what was around me. I’ve never been around this many foreigners in Laos. I kept feeling a little protective of Laos and kept holding myself back from telling all of them to go back home but then I would remember I was a foreigner too doing the exact same things as them.
Last one, just because I can’t end a “mountain” post with a picture of people.
I’ve still got more stuff coming from Luang Prabang. You’ll just have to forgive the delay in posts. I’m trying to get everything settled in for this new semester because, you know, I’m actually here to work and stuff. Blah. Who am I joking, I love my job. I can’t even be sarcastic about it being a bother.
Hang in there. Be safe. And go watch some Olympics (because there are certain people in the world who love them but have no access to them and it just might be driving them crazy to be missing them. Just some food for thought)
The land of a million elephants.
This is what the first major kingdom that controlled modern day Laos was called because…well…there were lots of elephants. There aren’t as many anymore but they are still pretty common considering I’ve passed one on a dirt road while riding out in the countryside. You know, just like we pass deer in the States (okay, so maybe not THAT common).
Anyway, as soon as I figured out I was going to be teaching in Laos riding elephants became one of my top priorities. Which, when you think about it, is kinda of crazy because those things could squish you in the blink of an eye. Why on earth would someone want to get on top of one to ride around? Who knows. But you can’t deny it that you secretly want to ride one too.
I got to check that off my list last year when my oldest sister and her husband came to visit but during my recent trip to Luang Prabang I got to take it a step further. Some friends and I took about an hour ride along the river bank and got to see some beautiful scenery but the elephant ride itself was pretty similar to what I had done earlier. You’ve got your two person “chair” on top of the elephant and you just enjoy the ride.
After our hour ride we had lunch and then prepared for the part I had been secretly wishing for since I had gotten to Laos. Swimming with elephants. That’s right, we got the chance to ride our elephants down to the river and swim with them. Once again, I know it sounds crazy but come on, who wouldn’t want to splash around in a river with one of Dumbo’s family members (because all elephants are part of the same family tree, of course).
Oh, and we got to ride down to the river “bareback.” Be insanely jealous.
I’m not going to lie, it was little nerve wracking. You’re pretty high up there and your sitting on the neck of a ginormous creature. The “fun” part was as we were walking down to our elephants I overheard one of the guides mention that since I was the only guy of the group I should get the “naughty” elephant. It was in Lao so I wasn’t sure if I heard it right but once our Lao riders figured out we could speak Lao they reassured me I was indeed on the naughty one. Great.
We got down to the river with no problems and proceeded to do normal “elephant bathing” stuff: having our elephants submerge themselves completely under water, being sprayed by their trunks, and standing on their backs.
Also, we posed for dramatic landscape shots.
After a few minutes of splashing around things got interesting. You see, these elephants had been trained to buck their riders off when they hear a certain command from their trainers. Yep, we started riding elephants “bull-riding” style. Let me remind you (Mom) that we were still in the river so it was completely harmless and tons of fun. Also remember, these are huge animals so it wasn’t like they were leaping out of the water with us on their backs. More moving the head back and forth really quickly. They kept telling us to try to stay on as long as possible and if we actually did stay on they would start poking fun at the elephants telling them they couldn’t get a bunch of silly foreigners off their backs. That rarely happened so don’t feel too bad for them. There may or may not be a video of me getting thrown off my elephant in quite the dramatic fashion that I may or may not upload to youtube in the next few days. I’ll keep you posted.
The funny thing was this was the time when I figured out just exactly what it mean to have the “naughty” elephant. She was always a little slow to respond to commands but I’m pretty sure she jumped at the opportunity to throw me off. Then, one time while I was trying to climb back on after the 100th time (about) I was apparently climbing up too slow and so she reached around with her trunk, grabbed my leg, and started to pull me off. If I’m being honest I panicked just a little bit because the only thing I could think of was that she was about to eat my foot but in reality she was just tired of having this gangly foreigner take forever to climb up her back. Needless to say I whipped my foot back and practically jumped on her back without even touching her.
See, we were totally friends afterwards.
It really was an amazing experience that I won’t easily forget. I don’t know how many opportunities I will have in my life to not only be this close to an elephant but also play with them in a river.
Oh, and before I end this post. Baby elephant.
I love this next picture because I think my friend’s face is a perfect representation of what most people feel around baby animals in general but is only magnified around baby elephants. I mean, it’s practically Dumbo in real life. And I know some of you guys are already feeling sorry for it because of the chain. Trust me, we did too and asked about it. The guide assured us she only stays there for maybe 1 or 2 hours so people can be around her and take pictures. After that they let her run free in the jungle. We took this picture before our first ride and, sure enough, after we returned (about 1 hour later) she was already gone. She was also constantly being fed coconuts and other fruits while we were there. No worries for baby elephant. She was happy.
So yeah, this happened. I love this country. I love these people. I love teaching. Sometimes I really do wonder if this really is my life.
I’ve told you guys about a gazillion times that Laos is beautiful. I’ve told you a gazillion times because it’s true. This place is breathtaking.
Just look at it and tell me this place isn’t beautiful.
Well, the bad news for you guys it’s that I’ve got even more reasons to talk about why Laos is beautiful because I’ve now seen a small glimpse of the Northern part of the country. I live in the South and so I’ve been limited to this region of the country for my travels. I had heard talk of how beautiful the Northern provinces were and so after our first term ended I had some free time to travel.
Guys, Laos is….beautiful. Specifically, Luang Prabang.
The Southern provinces have some beautiful mountains (it’s one of my favorite things about living here) but the mountains in the North are on a different level. There were actual moments where I had to remind myself to breathe because what I was seeing was so breathtaking. Don’t worry, I’m not going to bombard you on this post with pictures of mountains but be forewarned: it’s coming.
Mountains weren’t the only exciting part of my trip, though. Oh no, there were waterfalls, night markets, good food, and elephants. That last one was especially fun. It’s not every day you not only get to ride elephants (and I’m talking about riding “bareback-neck” type of riding) but also get to go swimming after you’ve finished riding them.
Hopefully in the next few days I’ll be able to write out all the details of how everything went down. I’ve been in Thailand for the past week but I’m currently making my way back to Pakse. I’ll get back to posting regularly when I get settled back in because right now I’m in a nice comfy hotel bed and as much as I love you guys this bed is just way better. Honestly hurts sometimes. Sorry.