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Living at the French Embassy in Vientiane

*And appearing a parade*

sunny 25 °C

I am pleased to report that I completed my tour of Southern Laos and surrendered the motorbike without further incident. Almost. There was this one time I pulled over to put on a jacket because it was starting to rain. As I leaned the bike on its kickstand, I could tell the sloping ground made for a precarious balance, but figured it was just for a moment. Next thing I knew, the bike tipped over as I watched helplessly, both my arms halfway through my jacket sleeves. The right rear view mirror broke (I later replaced it for $5 so the rental company would not charge me). Far worse, when I righted the bike, it wouldn’t start.

Here’s the thing. Laos has a way of eliciting manic emotions from me. No sooner was I sinking into a toxic mood as I battled with the kick-start, than a young woman from the adjacent village was walking towards me, attempting the kick-start herself with full gusto, and suddenly the motor was running and I was brimming over with gratitude. It was kind of like that time I got a flat tire in New Zealand not ten meters from the AA truck. If nothing else, this trip has confirmed I have strange luck. Which is probably how I wind up living at the French Embassy in Vientiane. As background, one more minor event towards the end of my motorbike odyssey:

My last stop on the way back to Pakse is Tad Gneuang Waterfall, the site of my first Lao lesson; I want to visit to my friend Boualy, and get another installment of Lao learning of course. While cooling off down by the falls, I also end up talking with a French girl named Cora who works at the Embassy in Vientiane. She invites me to call on her when I pass through the capital, saying I should just go to the French Embassy and ask for her by name. I would have expected an email or contact number, but I am starting to figure out that nothing here works the way I expect.

Entering Laos by way of the south provided a particular introduction to the country. Everything is less developed than what I grew accustomed to in Thailand. The roads are rough, the houses basically made of sticks, the role of public toilets most often fulfilled by the great outdoors, etc. There are few westerners to be found outside the main cities, and likewise few Laotians who speak any English. Now, after some ten days of feeling like Laos is truly the ends of the earth, I board a ‘VIP sleeping bus’ for Vientiane. The sleeping bus is set up with beds on either side of the aisle, two people to a berth. I’ve heard tell of some sketchy situations, but happily, I am sharing with a Lao girl around my age and nothing untoward transpires.

Arriving in the capital I am utterly flummoxed to find large government buildings, proper paved roads, enough cars to cause traffic, and coffee shops with English-speaking staff where people on laptops browse Facebook courtesy the free wi-fi while sipping a macchiato. A bit of reverse culture shock, I suppose, and not at all in keeping with the Laos I have come to know. It’s kind of a downer, actually. Especially when I check into a hostel and am suddenly surrounded by a bunch of other backpackers who are either coming from or going to Vang Vieng (a once-tranquil landscape now known for hazardous tubing and excessive drinking, usually enjoyed simultaneously). I leave my stuff in the hostel and go trudge around town. My eyes soon glaze over from tourist restaurants and travel agencies and I am feeling a bit despondent. It is only out of a sense of wanting to keep my word that I dutifully find my way to the French Embassy and ask for Cora. Then suddenly she is walking out to greet me, is so happy I came, will show me around town this weekend, and would I like to stay with her in her apartment here? – Really, it’s okay? – Yes of course, she just needs a copy of my passport so I can come in and out.

And so it is that after one night in the hostel, I move into the French embassy. Inside the high walls, the grounds inside are landscaped with colorful flowers and large graceful trees, and the buildings are white with blue shutters. Cora’s apartment is the closest thing to a home that I’ve seen in a long time: I have my own room where I can unpack (a pretty quick undertaking when one is living out of a backpack so it is more of a symbolic act), a kitchen where I can make tea (another small yet important detail that really makes me feel at home), and a living area where we sit drinking said tea and chatting.

Friday night we get dinner at a local French expat hangout with a live band and excellent French food. Just like the good old days, I can’t help thinking, the colonizers bring their homeland with them to the jungle. But I’m not complaining – my omelet is delicious and the vibe is good. On Saturday we go to a temple at the edge of town where there is a sauna and meditation workshop. There is sitting meditation, which is old hat for me, and walking meditation, which is something new. Walking, we all do it all the time, seems like such a simple thing. Walking meditation, I discover, is altogether different. It’s not “hard,” exactly. But it is mindful, which I suppose is precisely the point. I find myself focusing on each subsequent millimeter of my foot as it makes contact with ground, the slow transfer of weight onto the new standing foot, the seamless peeling up of the sole of the other foot… You don’t cover a lot of ground this way, but it’s cool. Try it sometime.

Afterwards, just outside the temple, we stop to watch a game of “Kataw” in progress. It is like volleyball but played with your feet, and the physical feats it demands are easily worthy of ESPN coverage.
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Other highlights of the weekend include:

Cora taking me to some of her favorite restaurants. This one is a little café tucked away down at the end of an alley, picturesque as you please, serves good Laotian food and great coffee. In addition to being most grateful for this kind of insider local knowledge, I really enjoy Cora's company. Her taking me in this weekend is one of those random acts of kindness where you hope to someday reciprocate and/or just 'pay it forward.'

A youth soccer game between a French team from the capital and a Hmong village half an hour’s drive away. Multiple generations of the village come out to watch, and the cows mostly stayed off the field. Afterwards, the French team presents the Hmong village with some balls, nets and extra practice equipment. Neither team could speak more than a few words with the other, but Laos is reminding me time and again that goodwill doesn’t always need language.
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A concert followed by parade of antique cars. Apparently Vientiane has a sizeable community of both Laotians and foreigners who enjoy restoring and maintaining old cars. Naturally, they wanted to stage a parade with said cars. Naturally the parade kicked off with a concert given by a French band playing American rock numbers in a parking lot flanking the Laos National Assembly and the famed golden Pha Tat Luang temple. And naturally, when it came time for the queue of cars to drive off, Cora and I were invited to jump into different cars and join the tour. Our caravan made a slow loop through town, honking and waving as we passed the Patuxai monument, drove along the Mekong, and eventually completed the circle. And that is my story of living at the French Embassy and appearing in a parade. That's 'my' car in the photo below, and check out the photo gallery for a few more pics of Vientiane!
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Posted by sbw2109 06:00 Archived in Laos

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Still reading every single one of your posts and loving them!
Thanks for sharing!

by Kristina

Whoa, I am glad to read that you are fine and all things around you please you...at least, the problems are solved and finish well. Your voluptuous description of Laos is so nice and good to read. Are you located in Europe now? That is cool and I am going to Chicago pretty soon, to look at Loyola...know anywhere that I can claim a couch in exchange for a brilliant visit? Bon voyage, post something recent!

by Alex

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