Phuket

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I just deleted a whole slew of paragraphs about our time visiting Phuket last week. I was trying to give the day by day timeline of Rob and my exploration of the island. I hate play by plays. Over wine just now, I asked Rob what I should say about Phuket. How do I put into words our four days exploring and relaxing on a Thai island?

Rob said I should set the scene. I should start with us on our rented scooter, hair in the wind (his words) cruising down the road. Suddenly we find ourselves part of a police check point! Rob has forgotten his drivers license as did every other tourist apparently because each of us is paying the fine before continuing on.

Okay Rob…what should I say next? He said I should tell about pulling over and how one thing led to another and ….

Except guess what – that never happened. Nice try Rob.

We did have a lot of fun exploring the island on that cheap little scooter. We did get pulled over and we did pay the fine. We continued on and for the next few days were on our own following the road as we chose. Not very many of the expected tourist things were on our list. We didn’t even swim in the ocean. I know, sacrilege. We did enjoy a lot of pool time at the lovely resort we stayed at. We didn’t snorkel or dive or rent a boat. We did ride all over the island and get sunburned. We visited the Big Buddha which was probably the most touristy thing we did. We walked on the beach and through the small Karon town where we were accosted by tailors (if you’ve ever been to Thailand you’ll know what I’m talking about)(and the answer is always no, we do not want to have a new suit made in this sweltering weather). We had fun fueling up our motorbike with glass bottles of gasoline sold on every street corner and our vegan hearts were happy to find more than a few delightful vegan cafe’s and restaurants.

Something about already living in Southeast Asia made us lean toward enjoying what was different and new in Thailand and not as interested in visiting temples or touristy locals.

Mostly we tried to enjoy every day in our own way.

Phuket (pronounced Poo-ket) was even better than I had hoped in many ways. As my first trip into Thailand it opened my eyes even more to the fact that as residents of Laos we “live in the sticks”. We just do. It’s not a criticism of Vientiane, it’s just the truth.

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I know this isn’t a typical post about where we went and what we did on Phuket, but honestly I’m just not that kind of blogger. Visiting Phuket was amazing and I was sad to leave, but next was Bangkok….

To Be Continued

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Out of the Nest

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It’s hot. No really, I mean it’s HOT in Vientiane. Six weeks ago when I arrived, walking the city streets was easy and enjoyable as long as I had a little bottle of water with me. I could walk for hours, popping in and out of shops and markets to see as much as possible.

The heat will continue for a while. This morning I was asked via a text from home what season we are in. “Dry” was my response. “So, it’s summer?” the reply. I laughed a little to myself because I would have asked this same question before. We have two “seasons” if you can call them that. It’s going to be dry and hot and then it will be wet and hot.

The temperature hovers around 100 degrees every afternoon. When I leave the air conditioned bliss of the apartment, I’m sweating through my shirt within the first half hour.  I can carry water with me but the extreme sweltering takes it’s toll and I head home sooner than usual.

Staying close to home for so many days left me feeling as though my world had gotten very small. I’d started to forget the magnitude of where I live and what it means to me. Yesterday we were able to hire a Tuk Tuk for a ride up to a distant shop and back home. The ride was a vital reminder of the scope of Vientiane. I’m living in a world far far from anything resembling America. I was thrilled to return home with ground cinnamon. Who knew I would ever spend an entire afternoon for the luxury of cinnamon in my morning coffee.

Expanding my perspective with this long bumpy ride around the city was exactly what I needed as a bit of a reset button. I have to push myself out of the nest daily or risk regressing.

The only way I’ll learn to fly, is to continue jumping (or being shoved) out of my nest.

A Portable Garden

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“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve had a few very spontaneous and almost inexplicable crying outbursts since moving to Laos. I’m not one who cries easily, so it takes me by surprise. Rob is bewildered and concerned. The last time it happened was because he couldn’t tell me what time he was going to bed. Yes, you read that right. The scenario is clearly much more complicated, but after I recovered and looked at the situation it became a bit more clear.

I have very little control over many factors in my life at this point. I live in a strange new country where I don’t speak the language and I spend a lot of time alone.  When I asked Rob what time he thought he was going to bed, it was really my way of asking how many more minutes I had with him before he had to leave again. He didn’t know this is what I needed. I didn’t even know that’s what I needed in the moment.

Everything can fall apart quickly when the world around is completely foreign and nothing resembles the life you’re used to. The important thing for me has been to spend time figuring out why it fell apart and how to not just put the pieces back together, but also to remember that it’s not the end of the world.

Fall seven times, get up eight.

For me this means I can cry seven times if I dry my tears and press on that eight time.

My tears dried, I always find new reasons to smile and laugh. Yesterday I saw a row of nude store manikins on the street, each priced according to their apparent worth. I couldn’t help but crack up. Passing me on that same street was a woman pushing a large cart overflowing with flowering plants. Amid the traffic, a portable garden.

May we all hold a portable garden in our hearts to soothe us when we feel the sting of defeat. And remember, a single defeat does not have to be a final defeat.

 

The Visa Crawl

I’m a legal alien once again. Yesterday was my first running of the gauntlet over the border of Thailand and back in order to get another visa on arrival for Laos.

Even after the detailed stories I’d found online outlining the step by step process, I still somehow felt completely lost and unprepared. Would I fill out all the forms properly? Did I have the appropriate monetary amounts in each currency? What if I missed a step, crossed some invisible line landing me in a foreign prison where I’d be sure to sit for for years because, I mean, isn’t that what always happens if you break a rule in an Asian country?

Have I ever mentioned my penchant for worrying? If worrying were a professional sport, I’d have the gold medal, the title, the trophy, the cup or the belt. Whatever the top award for worrying is, I’d own it.

I didn’t have to face this task alone. Rob has his work visa now and also had the day off to accompany me. Our residence offers a van ride to the border and would wait to drive us back. We left at 9 a.m. and I tried to enjoy my first vehicle ride in a month. My heart pounded so hard and fast I could barely take in the passing view. We were dropped off and waited in our first line to pay the exit fee. The next line was very long. We were waiting to be stamped out of the country. After almost forty minutes, we exited and bought bus tickets for the ride over the bridge. The Friendship Bridge was built over the Mekong River to act as another portal between the two countries.

My heart was still beating so quickly. I suddenly realized why it’s referred to as the “Visa Run”. My heart was behaving as though I was running a race even as I stood or sat the entire time.  Technically, it’s not more than a “Visa Crawl” at best.

We got off the bus in Thailand, found the appropriate line and waited again. Each time I waited in line, my brain managed to come up with a few hundred scenarios that could play out as I handed over my passport and the filled out entry and departure forms to the stern man behind the desk.  The reality was that he would simply look it over, read the papers and look very official as he stamped and wrote and took my picture.

Rob and I were a little tired and very dazed as we walked out the doors after being cleared to enter Thailand. Halfway done, we turned and went to the opposite side to now make our exit. The lines entering had been very long. Crowds of people were heading into Thailand. Leaving Thailand to visit Laos? No lines. Stamped out, we realized a little too late that to buy two bus tickets back over the bridge we needed Thai Baht which we had failed to obtain.  Rob asked the attendant if they would accept American dollars. At first it looked like we would have no luck, but then she answered “One dollar, one ticket”. I actually had two U.S. dollars and handed them over a little too jubilantly considering how much profit they just made on our tickets!

I tried to enjoy the second ride over the Mekong knowing that I was almost done. We were tired, hot and sweaty, but almost to the finish line.

We cued in the line we thought we needed to go through first, to pay the entrance fee.  The woman behind the window looked at my passport looking very confused and kept shaking her head and giving it back. Yes, I panicked. World Champion Worrier proven correct at last! Surely I was about to be told I couldn’t re-enter Laos for some unknown reason. A missing stamp or incorrect date – some missed step had sealed my fate.

She pointed at the ‘visa on arrival’ window and it dawned on me that until I had the new visa in my passport, I couldn’t pay the fee to enter. Off to the window I went. Luckily I did remember to bring a passport photo and $35 U.S. I filled out the entrance and departure form for Laos, the visa application and handed it all over to yet another very official, very stern looking man.

One last wait and my passport was given back with another page entirely taken up by a 30 day visa for Laos. We went to the same woman to pay the exit fee but once again I was waved away and realized it was part of my fee to get the visa. Rob didn’t have to pay either. We exited, showed our legal passports one last time at another desk and we were DONE! It was Noon, only three hours had passed. It felt like an entire day.

I felt such a rush of relief that I’d made it, followed by the sinking realization I had to do it again every month. Sigh. The price of adventure isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it!

(Photos from left to right: Waiting in Line, Taking the Bus, Even Monks Fill out Forms)

 

Month One

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Tomorrow marks the end of my first month in Laos. The past thirty days have raced by faster than the motorbikes on Lane Xang road. Tomorrow I’ll make my first “visa run” over the Friendship Bridge to Thailand. I’m an expat. I do visa runs. It still doesn’t feel real.

I’ve had good and bad days. As expected, I’ve had to adjust to a brand new way of living.  I’ve had to learn to turn off the part of my brain that’s geared toward NOT using plastic bottles of water. I cringe as the pile of bottles grows quickly over the days and is sent out with the garbage. Instead, I’m becoming only thankful to be able to buy and drink water that won’t make me sick.

I’m learning that just because I saw it at the store yesterday, doesn’t mean it will be there when they run out of it. Next time I’m buying every single one (I’m talking to you Hummus). It’s also a lesson in the simplicity of fewer options. Having only one or maybe two of something to choose from really takes the frustration out of it.  The errand of buying mustard, for example, was simply finding regular mustard and purchasing it. The finding becomes the hard part, not the choosing.  As a Libra and a middle child, I appreciate fewer decisions in my day.

Hot water isn’t to be taken for granted. We don’t have hot water in the kitchen and it often quits in the bathroom. I’m lucky to be able to get it fixed rather quickly and I’m thankful to have it every single time it’s working!  With the heat, humidity and dirty streets I’m happy to have that shower twice a day sometimes.

Using less of products is becoming even more of a habit for me in Vientiane. I brought my toiletries and other supplies with me as I wasn’t sure what would be available once here. Now that I see my future options, I’ve taken to using minuscule amounts of shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream and lotion. I use only what I really need or less. Using less is such an important lesson, I’m more than happy to practice.

These are only a few of the lessons I’ve learned this month as a foreigner freshly landed in Southeast Asia.  I’m certainly about to learn even more in the weeks and months to come.

March holds new adventures already. I’ll be starting language classes and Rob has his first block off time when we’ll be traveling over to Thailand!  (‘block off’ is pilot talk for time off)(pilots like to use fancy words for everything).

Thanks to everyone checking in and cheering me on. I feel so supported and there are days where your presence in my adventure makes it all easier.