The New Normal

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We live on the sixth floor of a nice building.  Our serviced apartment has a small kitchen and attached living area, one bedroom, one bathroom and a walk in closet. Living here is not living like the rest of the city. I know this. I’m thankful for this. I have a clean and safe place to come back to every day after walking through the streets of Vientiane. I have air conditioning. I (usually) have hot water in the bathroom but not the kitchen. Our laundry and cleaning are done for us. This is not living like the locals.

We have Wifi. It’s very slow, but we have it. It’s not the internet I’ve grown accustomed to. Remember dial up? Remember waiting for pages to load? Remember when that was normal? It’s the new normal for me. I wait. Downloading a single episode of a t.v. show on iTunes can take between 3-5 hours. One episode. Why do I want to pay for t.v. or movies when I have Netflix you ask? Consider how long this internet takes to load a page of text and pictures and you’ll realize that getting it to buffer fast enough to stream a movie is impossible.

This means I’m reprogramming my brain not to depend on constant entertainment. Slowly it’s actually happening. I read more, I draw, I walk around and watch people, I keep in touch with friends and family and I try to enjoy the simplicity of it.

I tend to leave the apartment after 1 or 2 p.m. This is when my lovely friends and family are starting to go to sleep on the west coast and I no longer have anyone to text with. I look forward to my mornings of catching up so much. These texts going half way around the world keep me sane.

I leave the apartment with a small list of things I’d like to find, usually grocery items. If I don’t need anything I try to find new places or streets I’d like to explore. If it’s too hot I stay closer to home instead of wearing myself out in the high heat and humidity. On the cooler days I walk as far as I can before turning back.

I always see things that take me by surprise. I see small babies riding on scooters with their moms. I see tuk tuk drivers napping in hammocks they’ve strung up in the back of their three wheeled vehicles. I see kids playing jump rope with an actual piece of rope they’ve found. I catch their lives in small puzzle pieces to be assembled later when I have enough for a full picture.

As the sun starts to set, I often walk closer to the Mekong River. On the far side I can see Thailand. How strange that still is to me. The night market begins to set up as it does every  night. Each day they bring their carts of wares. They set up elaborate tables under bright red tents. Each night they tear it all down and take it away. So much work for what I can’t imagine is a lot of income on a daily basis. Most of them are selling the same things. Clothes, shoes, jewelry, scarves…over and over and over as I walk through the tents.

Evenings at home can be quite slow. I’m realizing just how dependent my brain had become on the easy time fillers. It’s been a sort of detox for me here. I’m learning to let time go by without being so busy and full. It’s okay to sit and listen to music without doing anything but listen. It’s good to watch the people go by down on the street or gaze over the top of the city considering how far I’ve come and where I’ll go.

For now this is home. For now this is my new normal.

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Alien Transmission

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It’s becoming harder and harder to explain what living in Laos is like to people who live in America. It’s very much like a creative writing assignment I was given in fifth grade. The task was to describe a ball point pen to an alien from another planet. I was to assume this creature knew nothing of Earthly inventions or ways of life, but apparently that they did speak and read English. Even at ten years old, I saw the flaws in logic.

Life in Vientiane is that ball point pen.  Very little about my life here looks at all like my life three weeks ago. When I attempt to put it into words, it sounds like gibberish. I send pictures to my friends and family to show how beautiful parts of it are. I also try to take pictures of the realities I deal with such as immense amounts of garbage lining the streets. I want to give an accurate portrayal of my new home. I don’t know why it’s so important to me that everyone understands that it’s amazing but also very difficult. It’s that ten year old in me – always the realist.

I remember really struggling with that fifth grade writing assignment. I wanted to give an accurate description of that pen. I wanted to bring it to life in the mind of the alien.

So, for all my aliens out there following my adventure… please know I’m trying to find the words. I would love to give you an honest and real depiction of Vientiane.  Deep down I know that until you really live in a place, it will always seem like another planet.

 In other words: This is just to say I don’t know how to say what I want to say (yet).

To Market To Market

 

Upon arrival in Vientiane, Rob walked me to the nearby stores he’d located (well to be honest I located them on the internet while in Montana and sent him directions). The main two in this part of town are clearly for the Falang (foreigners) as they sell items the local people here wouldn’t want or need. I appreciated Phimphone Market and Home Ideal so much for making my transition easier but I kept searching for the REAL markets. I didn’t want to keep paying 12,000 kip for one sad cauliflower when I knew huge produce markets exist here.

But where? I assumed I’d walk down the street and see tables overflowing with gorgeous vegetables just waiting for me.

I had scoured the internet for clues of what to look for once I moved here, but only found hints of a twice weekly organic market and pictures of a produce market I didn’t know the name of.

Last weekend I spied a reference online indicating the organic market has a Monday market near me at the Fa Ngum Park. Monday afternoon I headed over to see if my dreams were about to come true and they did! I saw the tent with the English words “Organic Market” shining like a beacon as I rounded the corner. My fear of the language barrier diminished at the sight of veggies I needed to take home with me. I spied some cauliflower and asked “Thao dai” hoping I hadn’t just murdered those two words. She answered with what could have been “Go away crazy white girl who doesn’t even know how to say ‘how much’ in Lao and wears silly shoes!”. I nodded in agreement with whatever she said (I am a silly white girl in silly shoes after all) and handed her two of the cauliflower heads. She grabbed another and I realized they sold per kilo which I was fine with. I held up one bill, she shook her head. I dug around in my super American wallet and showed another. Finally she dug in her own pouch and held up a 10,000 bill. Ah. Ok. I handed it over and said “Khawp jai”. I repeated this exchange with another woman for broccoli and another for eggplant.

I walked home filled with glee and wanted to dance down the road like Maria in The Sound of Music when she swings that guitar case and sings “I have confidence the world can all be mine. They’ll have to agree I have confidence in me!”.  I was walking under the open windows of a middle school at the time (not dancing) when I heard “Hello!”. A young girl called from a third story window and I turned, smiled and waved up at her. As I continued on she made my day complete with “Hello pretty girl!”.

I’d come home with 3 kilos of veggies for 30,000 Kip. That’s 6.6 pound for $3.66. I did the real dance for joy once hidden in my apartment. This dance included three high kicks. I may have regretted those later…

The next day I was still on my high of discovery as I trekked over to the Talat Sao Mall (also known as Morning Market) because I’d found a blogger who’d had the same problem finding the entrance to the Khua Din Market. I had walked the blocks around the mall and still hadn’t seen anything more than the smaller street-side vendors. This blogger gave a detailed account of the tiny alley-like opening that’s practically camouflaged with busy street vendors and people. I’d walked by it twice already. That’s how hard it is to see.

This time I knew what to look for. The alley is lined with the most disgusting tables of meat and animal flesh. I knew I’d never have headed down it if I hadn’t known it led to more. I’m not keen on meat markets. But oh my goodness it opened up and suddenly I was in a huge maze of stalls that seemed to go forever in every direction. I realized I’d found the place everyone here comes to for all their needs. Stalls dripping with rich colored material, mostly silks, stalls exploding with clothing and literal mountains of shoes. Eventually it led me to the area selling “groceries”. Here I found the tables of veggies and fruit, the tubs full of stinky fish and long tables under lamps selling all sorts of animal flesh. Again, I held back from doing the happy dance in public.

Every day brings a new discovery. I wander aimlessly just to see what I can find down side streets. I found a street I now refer to as “Home Depot”. All the shops on that street are selling tools and whatever else you’d be looking for at Home Depot. I came around a corner one day and there was a large stationary store selling all sorts of paper goods, pens and even some paints and brushes. The grin on my face had to be a little creepy as I wandered the aisles. What can I say? I didn’t think I’d find anything resembling art supplies here. It’s not Michael’s Craft Store by any means, but somehow it’s even better because I didn’t expect it.

I’m learning that I have to explore, but much of what I need is here. I’m slowly transitioning my definition of that word. Much of what I thought was necessary is really just a convenience to those of us lucky enough to be born in a first world country.  I still think I need Ibuprofen, but that’s the head cold talking. If I can’t buy Ibuprofen here, neither can the lovely people I pass on the street. When they have pain, they must just deal with it.

Needs are met quite easily when your definition of them is honed.

(Pictures: Top two are the organic market. The other four are all within the Khua Din Market)

Dirty Laundry

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By now I know myself well enough to expect emotional breakdowns after a major life change. Adrenaline only gets me so far before I have that sudden moment of overwhelming fear. In this moment, I become convinced I’ve made the worst decision and I must be crazy. I fit a lot of self flagellation into a short amount of time and decide I have no way out. That moment of fear feels like a bottomless pit.

But the moment after that?

The moment after the moment of fear is truth. The truth is that I’m strong. The truth is that I continue living my life on my terms and not letting the fear put me in a strangle hold. The truth is I can and will keep going. The truth is that fear never wins.

Within the last year alone I’ve lived in Hawaii, Montana and now Laos. In one year. Moving isn’t easy and I have to remind myself it’s on the list of top most stressful things one can deal with. It’s not easy.  Living in a country that is entirely different from what I’m used to is exciting, but equally difficult. I have to piece together a new life using what I discover here. This constant state of not knowing what will happen next keeps me totally in the moment.

Mindfulness is a survival skill.

When fear hits I will continue to remind myself that nothing worth doing is easy.

 

Double Dutch

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Somehow it’s almost been a week since I arrived in Vientiane. Every day has been so full of new sights, sounds and smells I almost can’t contain it all.

The day after I got here, Rob had to leave for work and was gone overnight. Heading out into the city alone on that first day took an internal pep talk. I had given myself a little lesson in the new currency so I wouldn’t be lost in the markets or freaking out at price tags that say 200,000 (this only amounts to a little more than $24). Technically I’m a millionaire here. Kip to dollars is a hard transition for my brain but I’m figuring it out slowly. I was able to buy a few groceries and wine for myself and didn’t get lost or overwhelmed.

Navigating the sidewalks and streets takes total attention. Nobody here would be caught walking down the sidewalk with their face glued to a smartphone. Every few paces find me avoiding small things like garbage or larger obstacles like cars. Vehicles will and do park on the sidewalks. To go around can mean stepping into traffic. It reminds me of playing double dutch jumprope as a little girl. Getting the timing right is important when trying not to get run down by a Tuk Tuk or moped.

The buildings here may be falling apart, but each has it’s own beauty. I’m always looking up and trying not to take pictures of every single one. The old French style is very apparent and the crumbling facades are so beautiful. The temples are spectacular and many. I pass monks of all ages and try imagine what their daily lives are like.

My impressions so far of my new home are that it is a city so full I’ll never be able to take it all in. The people are kind and helpful. Not speaking the language isn’t as big a barrier as one would imagine.

I’m starting to adjust to this completely different way of life all the while knowing I will always be facing new challenges.

Inhale. Exhale. Repeat

So Far

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So Good.

Vientiane is more than I expected. As I walked around the city yesterday for the first time, all of my senses were saturated.  Only a few blocks away from my apartment, I knew it was love. I’ve always felt happier in places with history and character. I love places with personality and a certain vibe I’ve never been able to explain. I actually loved Los Angeles when I lived there (and not the pretty parts). I loved the cracked and the old broken parts of L.A and the huge variety of nationalities. When my sister lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn I was able to explore her neighborhood a few times. It too overflowed with sights and sounds and smells that drew me in. To say Vientiane is like Brooklyn or L.A. is false, but it has something that speaks to me in the same way.

This new home is crazy and dirty but also charming and alive. I hope to be able to find better, less jet-lagged words to share it here in months to come.

For now, I’m happy. I have what I need and I’m reunited with my husband after a month apart. Getting here was hard work on many levels, but we made it.

Adventure is now.