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.

 

 

 

 

 

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).

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