Archive for the ‘Lounging with the ladies in Laos’ Category

I’ve been in Luang Prubang for ten days and extended my visit another week so I can celebrate Lao New Year with my friends. Everyone embraces me immediately. My first day here I am surrounded by five beautiful Lao women (and one American man). The day is filled with food, laughing, swimming, napping and more eating. And dancing! We go to the most charming Lao nightclub. The dance floor is encircled by large booths. A live band plays Lao music, and each song has a different dance. The band strikes up a new tune and everyone shuffles on to the floor. It’s all partner dancing, mostly girl + girl. I am delighted to see two 70-year old men dancing together ! And also drag queens! I don’t know how people can say that Asia is homogenous. At the end of the song, people clasp their hands, bow their heads to their partner and retreat to their booths for 30 seconds until the next song. They also love line dancing! Eventually, the band takes a break and the DJ plays American and Lao pop/hip hop. Everyone cuts loose for 30 minutes until the band returns. I can’t tell if they like the traditional dances more than the modern music, because everyone is having such a great time all night long.

It’s been really interesting to develop friendships in Laos. At first, the friendships are shallow – sweet, but superficial. I don’t know anything about Lao culture, and don’t want to make assumptions so am always asking questions. It probably helps to break down barriers since I also share with them about my life and American culture. A few days into the friendships, people start to open up and we have deep philosophical conversations. Everyone’s favorite topic is love. Happiness is a semi-close second. How many relationships have you had? How many times have you been in love? How many hearts have you broken? How many times have you had your heart broken? And then we talk about the correlation of the narrowing numbers. We are eating lunch by the river in 105 degree heat, and I am learning the most fascinating things about myself, love and Laos.

It’s not only laughing and lounging with the ladies. I visited one of three orphanages in Luang Prubang. This one is huge, filled with 517 children ages eight to 18. The government provides support, but only six cents per child per day. Fortunately, locals and tourists are very generous and provide supplemental donations, supplies, clothes, food, notebooks, etc. (www.lao-kids.org) I’m there with a novice monk and a group of six Australians. They have brought notepads and pens, and we go into each classroom to pass out the supplies. It goes pretty quickly, because all the students are thankful but shy. By the time we run out of supplies, one of the Aussies is determined to make a connection with these kids. He’s a primary school teacher, and uses interactive games to draw out the children. Students are volunteering, yelling out answers in English, laughing and clapping. It’s lunchtime, so the other classrooms have emptied out and the windows are filled with other onlooking students. I’m taking copious notes since I’ll be teaching English next month at Vietnamese orphanages.

In the afternoon, I go to the local library to help my American friend, Justin, with science experiments. He’s a former engineer and recently moved to Laos to start an NGO (www.villagescience.org). Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are all the rage in the US, but Laos has a long way to go. He wants to use science as a pathway out of poverty in Luang Prubang. Currently, whenever large infrastructure projects occur in Laos (roads, water, etc.) they use Lao people for entry-level jobs and import skilled-labor from other parts of Asia. Justin has setup three microscopes at the library to get children initially interested in classes. At first, they are a bit tentative, but within minutes they are animatedly peering through the microscope and swapping slides. These 13-year old children have never seen a microscope in their lives.

After the science experiments, we help the librarian develop a powerpoint presentation for her workshop in Sweden. She has never left Laos, and is nervous about her workshop and the weather. I feel somewhat useful and wonder if I can start a small business developing powerpoint decks J Besides running the local library, she has developed a partnership with a US-based NGO (www.communitylearninginternational.org) to distribute books to remote villages in Laos. Over the past five years, they have provided books to 200 different villages in Luang Prubang Province through a floating library on the Mekong Delta. She has developed a book bag concept and it costs $2 per book, with 100 books per book bag or $200 to supply books for an entire village! Children don’t have textbooks, let alone pleasure reading and it’s astounding what a small amount of money can do in Laos. We discuss getting the hotels/guesthouses in Luang Prubang to sponsor a book bag through their guests, and my guesthouse is the first one to sign up (thank you Manichan Guesthouse!).

That night, I meet three university students. They are in the inaugural class of a five-year degree program for IT Business Management. I ask them what kinds of jobs they will get upon graduation, and they tell me there are no jobs in Laos yet. No one is really ready for them. The teachers weren’t fully prepared with curriculum, and the labor market doesn’t exist yet. It’s unlikely they can get jobs in neighboring Southeast Asian counties as well. They will probably become tour guides or work in marketing, until foreign businesses come to Laos and can draw on this energetic, ambitious talent pool. I only wish I could help them attract businesses now.

It’s hard to believe I was in Seattle four weeks ago. My life seems so different now and everyday I’m thankful for this eye-opening, heart-pounding, cheesy-grin-filled life of mine.

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