Zero to Sixty

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I’ve been back in the states for a week. Already it feels like my expat life was lifetimes ago. My brain so easily slipped back into the ways of American life. Driving a car, grocery shopping, speaking English to strangers, going to manicured parks and exploring shops who’s wares are not necessities.

A few days from now I’ll be starting a part time job. A few weeks after that I’ll start a second part time job. Within a very short time my life has gone from zero to sixty. In Laos I spent hours alone and without much to do to pass the time. As I look at my schedule for August I worry I won’t have enough time. I like this problem.

The challenges I faced in the last five months in Laos have left me much stronger than I realized. Admittedly, a version of me years ago wouldn’t have embraced such massive life changes and challenges happening so quickly. I would have needed time to ease into each one. I would have dipped one toe in at a time. Slowly, I’d walk in up to my waist and when finally acclimated I would carefully go in over my head.

I’m cliff diving into this one.

Does this mean I don’t have anxiety and worry I’ll be a total mess? Not at all. I know that even when I’m a mess I can still succeed.  I’m remembering that not trying at all is the true failure in life.  Whatever happens, I want to know that I didn’t let fear hold me prisoner.

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My Beautiful Mess

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I’m always trying to find my balance. Every move leaves me wobbly and wondering. Did we make the right choice? Will this be okay? How can I ever know if I’m on the right path?

I suspect the answer is simple, although it doesn’t ever feel that way.

With new surroundings come new challenges. Every day is bursting at the seams with ups and downs. One minute finds me frustrated, hot and thinking it’s time to throw in the towel (which is drenched with sweat) and the next I’m overwhelmed with amazement at some small piece of magic.

Leaning out the window as the clouds burst one night, I was greeted with a friendly call of “sabaidee” from the man across the street. He kept pointing up at me to lure his small daughter out. She waved shyly to me and scooted back inside as fast as possible. My heart swelled.

Sitting down for a glass of wine on the quiet main street of town, the soft, low drum and chanting of monks washed over me from across the narrow street. My heart was calmed.

Riding Scout, our scooter, through a riverside neighborhood of unpaved streets, we were met with kind faces and friendly waves from the residents. My heart glowed.

This morning as we came down the steps of Mt. Phousi, two male tourists stopped us with what sounded like Japanese. At first I thought they wanted Rob to take their picture together but that wasn’t it. They each wanted to have a picture taken with Rob. He kindly agreed. My heart laughed.

The answer I feel somewhere deep down inside is that every path is the right path. I don’t believe in fate or that some things are meant to be.

Life to me is a chaotic, random and ever changing beautiful mess.

What we do with that mess is entirely up to us.

Fight or Flight

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This morning I sit gazing out over rooftops to the mountains. Today is our third morning in Luang Prabang. Our new home is a welcome change from Vientiane. I can see trees, mountains and sky! The rainy season is beginning, bringing with it cleaner air and bluer skies.

The apartment we rented for our first month is comfortable and has the view pictured above. Stunning.

We hoped for quiet. I believed I’d escaped most of the city noise.  This morning a wedding party began it’s set-up right outside our front door. It will soon be tents and tables and chairs covering the entire street. I’m in a panic. Why? Because these parties last for days and are accompanied by the loudest possible music.

So, even though we’ve only been here for a few days, we changed our Friday tickets to today and will escape to Bangkok.  It may sound extreme, but trust me you would do the same thing. The noise level and length of the Laos wedding is bad enough that the minute I saw them setting up outside the window, I started shaking with adrenaline.

Fight or flight? I choose flight.

Our apartment will wait for our return and I’ll still have my sanity (somewhat) intact.

 

 

Moving and Shaking

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Moving used to sound like torture to me. When I was a little girl I held fast to the idea that we would never move from the house I grew up in. Once I was older, I was sure I’d find my own home and stay in it forever. The thought of uprooting everything and taking it to a new place was overwhelming. I was highly attached to things and places and parting with any of it was much too sad to think about.

My first move away from my original home was to Seattle. After a few years of rain, we (yes Rob and I were an item even then) packed it all up and made the long move down to San Diego. Southern California remained my home but to the tune of about four or five different locations requiring even more moves.

When I said goodbye to California, we really scaled down our belongings for a move over the ocean to Oahu. We moved from Oahu to Montana and from Montana to Laos. There were interims and temporary living situations in between many of those larger moves.

Clearly the little girl in me had to get over moving and let go of attachments.

Now it’s time for another move, albeit a small one. This weekend Rob and I will pack up our suitcases and head to our next home in Luang Prabang.  It’s about a seven hour drive and I’m looking forward to seeing more of this country I call home. Vientiane isn’t exactly a jewel in the crown of Laos. I’m a bit worn out from the noise and the lack of nature. The city mouse in me is over it.

Luang Prabang beckons with it’s quieter setting, cleaner streets and greener surroundings. The country mouse in me will enjoy this UNESCO world heritage site for a while until it’s once again time to pull anchor.

I’ve never been to Luang Prabang. I realized this morning that the last few moves I’ve made have been to places I’ve never set foot in.  Somewhere along the way, I let go of the need to make absolutely sure everything will work out. Nothing is ever how I think it’ll be anyway. Expectations are the leading cause of major disappointments (I’m talking to you Oahu).

I do have one expectation. I expect I’ll still be just me (actually).

That saying “wherever you go, there you are” is annoying because it’s the absolute truth. Every time I move I harbor a little hope I can turn over new leaves while leaving behind the inner demons.  Once I arrive and the newness wears off, I find I’m still exactly who I was  and who I will clearly always be. Each move is another lesson in learning to accept this.

Into the great wide open….(again).

First Quarter Growth

 

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It’s been three months since I landed in Vientiane. Twelve weeks of attempting to grow where I’m planted.  Finding a way to thrive in a place such as this isn’t exactly easy. One minute I think I’ve got a hold on things and the next I’m on the floor. The trick is getting back up and trying again. 

I’ve learned a few things for sure in my short time here…

Ants are diehard little bugs. I know I’ll never win, but our battle wages on.

Vientiane and I aren’t strangers anymore. I know my way around. When it’s time to pay for something, I don’t have to stare at each denomination of kip trying to decipher which is which.

I’m immune to the calls of “tuk tuk” on every street corner.

Laotians will be friendly even without knowing a word of English. When I bought apples today, the produce lady smiled as she always does but this time put her fingers to each of her cheeks. She insisted I smile too. I did.

Killing a mosquito after it drank my blood all night feels amazing.

Ordering a coffee or tea is never as simple as I think it will be. Cream and sugar will be in everything unless I can communicate otherwise. Ordering wine is easier. I order wine a lot.

Crossing the street is exactly like a video game I played as a child. Dodging cars, motorbikes, trucks and tuk tuks requires some serious eye/foot coordination. Most street crossings are either a mad dash straight across or a run and halt, run and halt situation.

The extremely high temperatures are teaching me to find more ways to fill my time indoors. No longer do I trek miles a day as I zig zag through town. I wait for Rob’s day off when we can take Scout (our scooter) on the longer errands. Even on short walks I find new places on my body that have the ability to sweat copiously.

Surviving Pi Mai (Lao New Year) is an accomplishment worthy of a t-shirt.

Every day is a fresh start. I remind myself after the more difficult days (there are many) that today could be better (it often is).

A store employee will probably follow me around as I shop.  I’m prepared now to have a human shadow as I peruse the goods. It will never stop being annoying.

Strangers are almost always willing to help.

The power can and will go out randomly and without reason. Always be prepared.

Being an expat in Laos has had me dealing with emotions and situations I never dreamed I’d be facing. Making it through each week feels like an accomplishment. Well, it IS an accomplishment.

Three months in Laos has taught me so much about myself. I can only imagine what the future holds.

 

Scout

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Meet Scout. Scout has a young soul and an old(ish) body. She enjoys long rides out of town where she loves to just relax (aka breakdown) and chill. She also likes long strolls down the sidewalk (aka getting a flat tire) in the heat of the burning Laotian sunshine. Scout sure is a little trickster but we love her anyway.

We found Scout about two weeks ago. She’s a 1984 Honda Super Cub something something something (aka more letters and numbers). The first full day of ownership we really did breakdown on the outskirts of the city. After she spent a weekend at the mechanic, we had about two days before the flat tire.

My mom commented that “Everyone needs a friend to keep us on our toes” and I believe she’s right. When Scout stops working, we have to negotiate the circumstances without losing our patience. Rob and I have to work as a team to find help, stay safe and learn even more about Vientiane.

I surprised myself the first time she broke down. We were far from home. Nobody spoke a word of english. It seemed like we could really be stuck, but at no point did either of us give up or even get annoyed. A previous version of me would have been freaking out, but this strange new Expat Rachael 3.6 kept calm, helped or stayed quiet as needed. Rob found assistance in a new friend who drove to where we were and led us to a great mechanic who specializes in the classic bikes.

The afternoon of the flat tire was extremely hot. I had an overflowing backpack full of groceries. Rob was pushing Scout as I tried to keep up. Sweat dripped from places I didn’t even know could sweat. It was Sunday which means most shops are closed, but he didn’t give up and I didn’t either even though I felt like I was going to keel over. A stranger walking by spoke enough English to help us when Rob asked for a local mechanic. This stranger walked into a minimart to ask as we waited. He even hurried around the corner to check that the shop was, in fact, open and able to help us.

Once again saved by the kindness of a stranger.

I found water while Rob watched the mechanics work their magic. Soon Scout was ready to go and we were on our way home. I’m beginning to suspect that this motorbike really does have ulterior motives.

She knows when it’s time to spill us out of our comfort zone right into the lap of a learning experience.

Scout is named after a character in one of my all time favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a name for a tenacious, brave but sensitive soul and fits our new wheels perfectly.

“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

-Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

 

Feels Like Regular Life

It took leaving to really come home. Returning from our week away in Thailand triggered a shift in my view of Vientiane. It no longer feels as though I’m visiting. The comfort of knowing where things are and how it all works makes this feel like home.

The woman at one of the grocery markets I frequent knows me well enough by now to forgive me for being 1,000 Kip short. “Baw pen nyang” (it’s nothing) she replied when I realized I didn’t have enough.  She knows I’ll be back for the rest of the hummus…

Lately I feel a little more a part of this life and less an observer. I’m greeted by strangers as I walk by more often. Their “Sabaidee’s” always make me smile. The other day an elderly local man approached me as I sat alone in the shade. “Are you waiting?” he asked. I said no, only resting. “Do you have friends?” was his follow up and next “Are you married?”. In the course of this short but sweet exchange I told him I’m married, my husband is a pilot and was at work. He wanted to know why I wasn’t with him. I’ve learned that in the Laos culture, being alone is not relished one bit. They prefer the company of friends and family and view being alone as the worst thing for anyone to be. I reassured this worried gentleman that my husband would return soon. He said a sweet goodbye and continued on his way. His gentle and kind nature stayed with me all day.

This coming week will be a crazy one. Lao New Year is upon us. I’ve purchased my waterproof phone bag and have begun stocking up on food and necessities as I’ve been informed that a majority of businesses will close for almost the entire week. Water will be coming from all directions for many days and may be laced with dye and perfume. I’m about to witness the mother of all water fights and I admit I’m a little scared!

Nine weeks later – it feels like regular life.

 

 

Bangkok Reds

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“You know the days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds. You mean like the blues?
Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?” 
― Truman CapoteBreakfast at Tiffany’s

Walking is the only way I truly get the feel of a city. It was on one such walk in Bangkok that I found myself on the edge of a breakdown. We had been walking in the heat through a dreary section of the city. The sidewalks were never ending and our destination felt unreachable.

It could have happened anywhere, but it happened in Bangkok. Our three days there were overflowing with walking and hunting for things we can’t find here in Vientiane, Laos. The first mall we ventured into was immense. I saw H&M and heard the little girl inside my head squeal with delight. Here were clothes I understood and liked! This mall was one of about five or six we found ourselves nearly lost inside of. Bangkok is truly a shopper’s paradise. I’m not a mall lover in real life, but in my new life as an expat in a country where I can find very little of what I’d call ‘normal’ shopping I suddenly found myself ravenous. I had a short list of items I hoped to bring home with us and was able to find almost all of them. Thank you Thailand!

But back to that walk.

At first I thought I was simply tired, hot and thirsty. I figured it would pass. Instead I found this bubble growing inside my chest and it got to the point where I wanted to sit down and sob on the sidewalk. I wanted to go home.

“Home?” I thought. Where is that? I don’t quite feel like our Vientiane apartment is home. With each step I became more distraught as I realized I felt homeless. That’s quite silly I know. When the emotions are given free reign this is what can happen. I felt homeless and lost and somehow it made me terribly afraid.

Ah there’s that fear again.

So we continued walking and after many twists and turns found our haven in the city, a restaurant called The Veganerie. As we fell into our seats, sweating and frustrated, Rob saw my face and said the words that seem to always break my resolve not to cry, “Are you okay?” he asked. I shook my head and went to the restroom to pull myself together. I had to return to the table and admit I was not crying tears of joy at reaching the restaurant, but tears of fear and frustration.

Minutes later a torrential downpour let loose outside. I almost started laughing out loud. How perfect was our timing to be sitting safely inside? If we had still been out walking in that storm I’m pretty sure I would have lost my head entirely. Instead I was safely and happily sitting across from my favorite person in the world, enjoying a perfect vegan lunch as the rain came down and the wind stripped the trees. We lingered as long as we could which is easy when nobody is forcibly bringing the check, trying to free up a table. (This is one more thing I love about Southeast Asia. We have to ask for the check and even then can take as long as we want.) The rain halted almost the minute we stepped outside.

So the angry reds? They passed. I came back to my senses and continued on with our Bangkok adventure. And I remembered where home is.

Home is anywhere as long as I’m with the one I love.

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

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.