A Travellerspoint blog

April 2012

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.'
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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 Comments (2)

Around Attapeu

*A day offering proof of symmetry in the universe*

sunny 25 °C

Heading south, no set destination. I leave the main road and follow signs to Tatfan waterfall. The signs are not always forthcoming, but as I get closer I just follow the sound of rushing water. I park in a quiet grove of trees and fish flip flops and sunblock out of my pack. Not wanting to schlep the pack with me, I simply leave it by the bike and wander down towards the falls. Laos just feels like the sort of place where you can do that.

There are very few people about, perhaps because it is a weekday, or perhaps just because this is Laos. And perhaps because this is Laos, it does not seem so very strange when two men wave me over calling out, “gin kow!” They feed me sticky rice and some dried beef with a fiery dipping sauce while we communicate in a friendly mélange of broken English and broken Lao. We document the occasion with photos; I must be a novelty for them. Which is a novelty for me, coming from Thailand where I am just one tourist among many. They point questioningly to the large bruise on my arm and I reply, “rot lom” - motorbike accident. We talk some more. They point out that I have white skin while theirs is brown. Keen to use any Lao words I know, including some colors, I indicate my bruise and say “pyoo see-fa” - blue skin - and we all laugh. After we have eaten, they keep passing me bananas until I finally convince them I am not hungry anymore. (Note to self: Learn how to say “I’m full” in Lao.) And they press an extra bottle of water into my hand before they leave.

After my surprise lunch, all the more fortuitous because I did not have lunch with me, I watch some boys fishing in the river. First they scan the water keenly for fish. When they see one, they throw in a weighted net to trap him, then hop in, jeans and all, to extract their catch. We exchange a few words and smiles, then I go for my own swim. The pool is large and deep, big enough to swim laps, and the rocks make for some fun climbing.

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Throughout my travels, I seem to be in a constant state of Arranging Stuff. After the swim, for example, I need to put my hiking boots back on (otherwise my pack is near-about too full), reapply sunblock for the drive, pack up my wet sarong (which served as my bathing suit), tie my daypack down into the basket of the bike, etc etc etc. So I can be a little slow to get moving. While I am gearing up, I say hello to a lone boy fishing nearby. We exchange a friendly few words. Then I am finally ready, I could just say goodbye and take my leave, but instead I give my sarong a few more minutes to dry in the late afternoon sun. We end up teaching each other English and Lao words for half an hour. He invites me to visit him on my way back through the nearby town of Sekong and draws a map of how to find his village. This in itself is a language lesson comprising the Lao words for home, mango tree, and the very useful phrase, “Excuse me, can I ask you…?” Yet another experience where Laos rewards the traveler who is patient enough to go slowly and just hang around.

I continue on towards Attapeu, a city towards the southwest corner of Laos, and roll in at sunset. After a quick tour to compare room rates (motorbikes are so useful), I check into a place on the edge of town. After settling in, I zip back into town to buy some mystery food at the market (again, motorbikes are so useful), eat dinner in my room, and eventually fall asleep.

I loved the food in Thailand. From fried noodles to aromatic curries to incredibly fresh fruit shakes to the ubiquitous banana pancakes, Thailand was a gastronomic paradise. Lao cuisine has its high points to be sure, but so far it has given me less pleasure and more stomach aches. Case and point, I am writing this on the toilet. Gotta love laptops. Anyway. I wake up to another typical day in Laos. I don’t really ‘do’ anything, other than set out to visit some village I may or may not actually find. And nothing ‘happens,’ not exactly…

I leave my guesthouse around 10am, bit of a late start because I was nursing a stomach ache – see above regarding Lao food. My ostensible destination is a village called Pa-am along the former Ho Chi Minh trail. I am not particularly attached to reaching Pa-am, but it is good to have at least a theoretical destination because people always ask where I am going (I would say this is the second most common question after my marital status). After driving for an hour I do not seem to be finding Pa-am, but I am intrigued by the scenery so I continue east, stopping for the occasional random photo.
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When I’ve had enough highway, I randomly turn down a dirt road that ends two kilometers later in a small village. I park under a tree and wander into the abutting forest along a narrow foot trail. This truly feels like the middle of nowhere. Then, out of the silence, I see an old woman on her way out of the woods with a basket of sticks on her back. Two small children straggle behind her, also carrying baskets of sticks. She spits out a long thread of red betel nut juice, gives me a toothless smile, and tells the kids to hustle along (I think). I walk a little farther. It is once again utterly quiet. And unlike a national park where there is a designated trail leading some sort of destination (a pond, waterfall, viewpoint, etc), I realize am traversing trails the villagers use to gather the plants and wood necessary for their daily survival. Given that this network of paths probably snakes around the mountainside crisscrossing itself many times, and that unlike these villagers I am not used to finding my way around, I soon turn back. Careful as I was to maintain an orientation, I do make it back out, but manage to reenter the village at a different point such that it will take some wandering to find where the heck I left the motorbike.

As I walk along the dirt road, looking around at the wooden huts on stilts typical of so many villages in southern Laos, the villagers look back at me wide-eyed. I greet their stairs with timid smiles, feeling my way towards where I think/hope I left the bike. I am ready to escape; I sense no hostility, but feel somewhat like an intruder, having no real business here. Just as I regain the street I first drove down, a woman gives me a kindly smile and wave. She seems friendly enough, so I go over to where she is sitting in the shade under her house. We cannot exactly talk - she speaks no English and my Laotian is exhausted after a couple short phrases - so we communicate a bit with smiles and gestures. She motions for me to wait while she goes up into her hut overhead, and she returns with bolts of cloth over her arm. They are siins, traditional Lao skirts. I do not want to buy a siin, but not knowing what else to do, I praise the skirts (“ngam lai” – very beautiful) and try one on over my clothes. She has to help me arrange it.

Meanwhile, what appears to be the entire population of the village has gathered under her hut. Men and women of all ages, and scores half-naked children, all regarding me with unadulterated curiosity. I feel a little nervous being the center of attention, but I suppose it is fair; I am probably the first white girl to randomly roll into their village on a motorbike, and they must wonder what on earth I am doing here, standing around wearing a siin over my tank top and hiking pants. I spot the old woman and two children I saw walking in the forest and experience an odd sense of relief - utterly silly if you think about it – upon seeing a ‘familiar face.’

Meanwhile, the woman showing me the siins winces in pain. We both look down at her calf where there is a festering wound the size of a silver dollar. There is oozing pus and dried pus. Flies occasionally alight on it; sometimes she waves them off, sometimes not. It makes me cringe and turns my stomach. I am not going to purchase a siin, but maybe I can do something else for her; as always, I have band-aids and Neosporin in my day pack. I don’t know if it can help at this point, have no idea what this woman and the villagers will think, and I have no language to explain that it is a serious infection… but I cannot just stand here looking at that wound. I take off the siin, fold it and gently hand it back to her. Dig in my backpack for my supplies, and I can sense the villagers watching to see what this alien carries with her. Motion the woman her to rest her leg on the sitting platform, which she does. Carefully place a generous squeeze of Neosporin on the wound and cover it with four band-aids I stuck together. Finally, I press the tube of Neosporin into her hand and try to convey to her that she should put it on every day.

There does not seem to be much more to do here. I politely take my leave and find my bike a little ways down the road. As I drive off, my head is spinning. That wound was so horrid, so sad, so… unnecessary! The most basic local clinic could disinfect and care for it long before it got to that point. I don’t know if it can heal now, wonder if she will lose her leg, wonder what kind of health care these villagers get (if any) and what it would take to set up some sort of mobile medical unit serving the area… Meanwhile I am back on the main road, turning down another side route, and it is once again SO remote, the next marked town some 60 kilometers. I intermittently pass people on foot carrying various bundles of biomaterial. It is a hot day; they are affected but not incapacitated by the heat. A bit later, I stop and turn off the bike just to appreciate the quiet, ringed by mountains. While I am paused here, an old man that I passed earlier approaches. Well, hard to guess his age given that his life’s daily work is so strenuous. I wordlessly offer him my water. He drinks with gratitude – the sun is brutal – then hands the bottle back to me with some water left, but I motion for him keep the bottle. He gives another grateful nod and resumes trudging along the road, which to all appearances leads from nowhere to nowhere.

Throughout the day I have asked a several people where to find Pa-am and been pointed in various directions, but none of the roads I have taken have worked. I am now heading back towards Attapeu, close to relinquishing Pa-am, but hit the brakes when I see a roadside stand with fresh coconuts. It is manned (womanned?) by a mother and her three daughters. They are lovely, and we exchange bits of English and Lao while I drink the coconut and eat the meat. Coconut, "Mak-phet"… I am learning Lao words from every person I meet, and loving it. Anyway. Feeling refreshed, I get back on the bike and head in the direction they said to find Pa-am.

I see one more turn-off that looks promising. Then the road gets bad. Before embarking on yet another off-roading adventure, I stop to ask directions yet again, this time at a roadside stand selling a random little assortment of items - cigarettes, bags of homemade chips, and boxes of soymilk warm from the heat of the day. A Lao woman buying a bag of the chips greets me and promptly asks about the bruise on my arm. “Rot lom,” I say with a sheepish smile. I try to shrug it off, but she is concerned. Here is what my arm looks like, by the way:
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This woman, whose name is Gorudon, calls out to a friend in the house across the street. Her friend presently emerges from bearing… tiger balm which Gorudon gently applies to my arm. Then she asks where I am staying, do I need a guesthouse, and if so there is one near here. I thank her but say I am staying in Attapeau. Then she repeats that there is a guesthouse nearby. This is all done in Lao, so I figure there may have been a little misunderstanding along the way, and in any case it can’t hurt to see the guesthouse she is talking about. I summon up some Lao words equivalent to, “you go, I come?” And off we go on our bikes. I follow her to what turns out to be her home, where we sit under the house talk. I learn that she has two children, a boy of twelve and a girl of nine, and a husband, and the four of them sleep in the house on stilts in whose shade we are sitting. Around us are goat kids frolicking, chickens pecking, and ducks waddling about.
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Now for proof of symmetry in the universe: Gorudon goes into her house and returns with a small glass vial of amber liquid labeled “amoxicillin sodium for injection.” It looks like I am getting yet another treatment. The medicine smells strong but not unpleasant as she dabs some on her finger and applies it to the bruise on my arm. Then she insists I keep the bottle and put some on every day. Lastly, she asks her son to bring cold water with which she refills my empty bottle. Thus, having given away medicine and a bottle of water a few hours prior, I leave Gorudon’s home gifted with… medicine and a bottle of water.

Back in Attapeu, I stop in town to have a little wander-around and see about some dinner. I presently pass some teenagers who wave smilingly at me and it seems like they want to engage, so I stop to say hello. They bring a chair, tell me to sit, bring me a glass of water, and we end up talking for about twenty minutes. In contrast to my encounters with villagers merely an hour down the road, they know a fair bit of English (relatively speaking for Laotoans) and are keen to practice it with me. There is one boy named Louie who speaks particularly well; he explains that he and his friends are meeting later to study for a test and he asks if I can help them with English. Sure, I say, when and where? At 7:30pm in the park down the road, he says. Where in the park, I inquire. Just go there and walk around and we’ll find you, he says. I nod somewhat dubiously and promise to do my best to find them.

Next I wander into a Vietnamese joint for dinner. Because Attapeu is so near the border, it seems half the restaurants here are Vietnamese. This restaurant is run by a woman, her son and daughter in law, and their chubby three year old running around making trouble. While the woman and her son cook up some delicious fried rice for me, I realize do not know a single word in Vietnamese. I take advantage of the situation to learn a few basic phrases and enter them into my all-purpose notebook. As I am sitting down to eat, a young Caucasian woman hesitates by the entry. I wave hello and assure her the food is good here, so she joins me. She is a doctor, from France, and we speak most of the time in French. I’m pretty sure I have spoken less English this week than ever in my life. Meanwhile, it is a warm evening, so I let my shawl slip off my shoulders, inadvertently leaving my bruised arm visible to the public. The woman who runs the restaurant asks what happened… Presently, I am getting yet another application of medicine – my third today. I don’t know whether the tiger balm is medically helpful, but I don’t care. I cannot quite wrap my head around this kind of kindness.

Towards 7:30pm, I explain to my French doctor friend that I have to go walk around in a large, dark park to meet up with a group of teenagers. Such is Laos. I find the park, drive around to a well-lit area with some groups of people hanging out (i.e. a place where it feels safe to walk around), and park the bike. I see a group of teenagers sitting around a table, slowly approach, and they all get very excited like they were expecting me. This must be it. Then Louie appears, explains he has to go to a wedding, but asks will I stay here with his friends? Of course, I say, and sit down at the table where about ten boys and girls, textbooks open, begin eagerly asking questions in English. (First question, of course: Are you married or single?!)

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At the end of the evening, they all want my phone number and email and ‘autograph.’ Also, some of them use the internet on their smart phones to find me on Facebook.

Back in my room, I puzzle over the contrast between these technology-savvy, eagerly-English-learning teens and a village just an hour west of here where a woman with an infected leg wound and no English sits weaving siins.

Posted by sbw2109 14:30 Comments (0)

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