Transitions

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Last night I had a nightmare that my passport had been stolen in Loas and because it is such a difficult place, I couldn’t come home to America.

I keep having flashbacks. I keep remembering small things I’d forgotten in this swift transition from a third world country back to big city America.

Walking down the sidewalk in downtown Portland, I still think to myself how clean it is, how well laid out. I stop at crosswalks. I don’t run at full speed across the street between scooters and small cars.

I miss scooters.

The months I spent overseas are so small in the larger scheme of things. But… I’ve put off getting a hair cut because I love knowing that the last person to cut my hair was a man in Bangkok who didn’t speak much English but treated my head like a Bonzai.

It’s a strange and alienating feeling.

This morning in the shower I opened my mouth to the warm rush and drank from it. I can’t ever shake that fear of the water in Laos. Wondering if I was poisoning myself or my husband by rinsing vegetables in tap water…

I randomly remember so many things from life in Loas. I’m realizing that I basically came “home” and tried to turn off one valve while opening another.

Life doesn’t work like that.

So what do I do? I try to let myself think about what happened, how difficult and rewarding it was, I try to allow the managerie of feelings to have the space they need.

But, I still just want to shout at people around me that they are SO lucky! They can drink the water in the shower! They have a  light at each crosswalk the vehicles follow that allows them to cross safely. Oh how I want to tell the lovely people around me how many things we can be grateful for!

All the while, most of my energy is spent trying to acclimate. Even now I feel out of place and awkward. It’s not easy. Portland is amazing, don’t get me wrong I love it here, but SE Asia to Portland is jarring and I’m realizing more and more all these weeks later that I have to find a way to work through these feelings.

Transitions in life are like this, don’t you think? Some small, some leaps over canyons but none are easy.

What has been your most difficult transition and how did you work through it?

 

Failure to Thrive

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One word has been resonating through my heart and my head every day. A word repeatedly spoken as a gift by  Onmyfeet . He ends each encouraging comment with:

Thrive

Every day I go rounds with myself. How do I make this work? How can I find ways to thrive here in Laos? What am I doing wrong? The truth is I just plain don’t feel well. It’s been weeks of using my ‘mind over matter’ approach to sickness with no improvement. It’s a scary thing to admit you’re not physically well so far from home.  I’ve blamed the extreme heat and humidity. I’ve blamed lack of sleep and dehydration. I’ve blamed lack of physical activity. I’ve blamed myself.

I’m strong. I should be able to make this work. I shouldn’t wake up every morning figuring out how I’ll slog through the day ahead. I should embrace it all and be excited. Should should should.

It’s left me torn, confused and sad.

But, a wave of relief came over me yesterday when we bought my ticket home. Does this make me a quitter? I tell myself that the finish line was a point I set myself. I had this idea I’d last a year and anything less would be a failure.

So, now I try to come to terms with leaving. I will miss so much of this life.  The future is totally unknown again and that knowledge is also difficult to deal with. I crave stability and health at this point more than anything.

In a week I’ll be on a plane home. Rob will follow a month after and we will continue our crazy beautiful mess of a journey together into the next chapter.

And we will find a place to grow and more importantly to thrive.

New beginnings await.

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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.

 

Pi Mai Prison

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The Loas Pi Mai/Songkran New Year’s Celebration was last week…

Day One:

Oh look at those adorable little kids tossing water. That may be the cutest little girl I’ve ever seen! The backpackers sure are enjoying themselves. I had no idea so many water guns existed. I hear some loud music but at least it’s low key and sounds like local singers enjoying their celebration. It might be fun to go join in, but not on my own and unarmed. I don’t mind a day indoors.

Day Two:

Wow this is early for techno music. I haven’t even had my coffee yet. Maybe it’s just a vehicle sound system that will move along soon. Good grief that traffic looks like it’s barely moving! I never imagined I’d see kiddie pools set up in truck beds. Are those people just spraying with hoses? Sigh, that bass feels louder but I think I’m hearing two different sound systems.  Holy crap I may go insane. I’d go out but everything is closed and I don’t feel like getting soaked now. The only way I can block the thumping beat is to play my own music louder in my headphones. I may never sleep.

Day Three:

Okay this will be the last day and it can’t be nearly as bad as yesterday. The backpackers still aren’t tired of the mayhem. Looks like I wouldn’t make it three steps outside before being half drowned. There’s the music again.  But seriously aren’t they a little tired of this yet? I mean, how much fun can it be after a couple hours of non stop water wars? Time to buy some new music to distract myself.  I’m pretty sure these Bose earbuds my little sister gave me are the best gift I’ve ever received.  There’s no way I’m going outside. Where’s a good power outage when you need it? Every sound system in  Vientiane is turned up to eleven.

Day Four:

You’ve got to be kidding me. Three days wasn’t enough? Don’t they realize there’s a water shortage in the world? Haven’t they turned all pruney yet from being wet all day long? Oh look… there goes my last shred of sanity.

(The two purchased albums that helped me wade through the mind numbing beats from outside were M83: Junk and Christine and the Queen.) 

 

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.

 

 

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.