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

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)

 

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.

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).

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.

 

Akin to Panic

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I don’t want to call it “Panic” per se.  Maybe more than basic fear but less than terror.

Basic fear? Is that a thing?

I woke up this morning and made my coffee (french presser for life), went to the gym and walked home in the cold.  As I washed the sweat from my face I suddenly felt the intense urge to cry my eyes out.  Of course, I did what anyone would do. I looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and said “Pull yourself together lady!”. Then I was upset that I called myself lady because it made me feel old like when the clerk at the store calls me Ma’am.

So, back to the panic.

I started doing more of the cleaning and little packing things one does when moving to a third world country. All the while I couldn’t actually breathe.

It began to snow slushies outside. I went to the store for supplies and also to be around humans so I was forced to act normal. No crying in public. It’s a rule for me.

Back at the apartment I was still counting the hours left before driving away from Missoula followed by counting the days left on American soil. Not many days left. Before I was scared shitless, I was overflowing with excitement about fulfilling my dreams. Now my dreams started looking like nightmares because what if? WHAT IF???

What if?  Surely you have felt the dreaded What If Disease before. It’s brutal.

I know that what I seek is on the other side of fear. I know it. I know that if I’m not afraid I’m not really living. It’s the part where I have to feel the fears turned up to eleven that kills.

I’m doing it. Friends, I am doing it. I’m feeling the fear and I’m not turning back.

Today I win.