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.

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.