Vientiane is comfortable and so utterly uncomfortable at the same time. I arrived on the evening of Nov 5th on a flight from Guangzhou with rowdy, old Chinese people who apparently didn’t know how to behave on a plane. Needless to say, I was excited for a new start. I got my visa-on-arrival, picked up my luggage, and met Michael, one of the staff at WFDF. Feeling a bit of culture shock already, he drove me to my hotel where I would be staying for now until I moved into my apartment. The environment was completely different from Hong Kong, I knew no one, no one knew English, and I, again, had no home.
Coming from Hong Kong, I was very materially comfortable. I didn’t have very much privacy or personal space but I could get a hold of anything I wanted…delicious food just steps away and a feeling of belongingness that I hadn’t felt if ever in a place I’ve never been. I felt like I belonged there. There was no question of it. I didn’t have to answer to anyone where I was from or have to endure someone tell me who I was or wasn’t. This was no China. Although I was only in HK for 15 days, I had some concerns that I may be getting too comfortable….that now I no longer remembered what Tibet and Nepal were like. I wanted to feel that discomfort again because I felt my strength during those tough times. And truthfully those were not even tough times. Sure, they were tough for me, but the people lived in those conditions on a daily basis. They were happy and I wanted to know their secret even if I could just peek in on it briefly. No electricity, no water, no expectations, no demands. In Tibet and Nepal, I felt my skin crawl with discomfort but I appreciated what it taught me. I knew that no mattter what I would figure it out. No matter how effed up the situation, I felt like I could manage. Yes, I know I was on tours for both Tibet and Nepal and I had a source to rely on but regardless, I still experienced, I still endured if not a small taste.
Here in Vientiane, I hoped to get that experience even if just a few instances. Regardless of my desire for discomfort, it was great to have my own apartment for 3 whole weeks. Finally, I had the privacy I lacked in Hong Kong, as well as the comfort of my own kitchen where I wanted to make my own breakfast, my own washer where I was excited to drop in a load of laundry that I did not need to do by hand (not that I had to do it by hand in Hong Kong, but I still remember those good ol’ Tibetan days 🙂 ), and finally not one but two a/c’s. I was living in quite the luxurious setting.
I had quite a rough start with the quick and anxiety-transferring of duties from the previous teacher, Michelle. I felt the huge burden placed on me and I felt Michelle’s anxiety and worries. Maybe she was worried I might not be competent…and I felt the same. There was so much thrown at me and I had absolutely no teaching experience, I felt like I would let Michelle down and all the work she has put into this, as well as the students who I felt were counting on me. This really did a number on me as I barely had any sleep and started to come down with some respiratory symptoms which turned into horrible coughing spells and complete nasal congestion. It was definitely a challenge getting up every morning to teach 6-7 classes per day feeling like absolute shit and taking cough drop after cough drop just to get through the day. At night the congestion and coughing would be so bad, I thought at times I wouldn’t be able to breathe and just choke to death. I have no idea how I got up every day and did what I did.
About a week later, as I was nearing the peak of my illness, I began to feel a bit more comfortable with this teaching English thing. I started to learn all the students’ names and their little nuances and I was quite proud of myself that I did not need to prep hours as I did in the preceding week. It felt good to be able to wing it and still manage to teach the class.
In addition to the apartment, I opted for a bicycle for transportation since previously I was told by Michael that the motorcycles were manual only. I came to find that in fact there were automatic motorcycles as Michelle was currently renting an automatic one. In any case, I decided to go with the bike since I was a bit concerned about riding one when I didn’t normally ride one at home. The bicycle though did come with its own set of problems…firstly, I was just taken to a bicycle shop and told to choose a bike. No budget stated, Nok, the admin assistant gal at work, told me to choose a bike. No criteria, no background, absolutely no idea what type of bike I needed, I randomly chose a bike. Turns out I am a fancy girl with expensive taste because apparently there was somewhat of a budget, although Nok could not explicitly state it. After a second and third bike shop, I finally settled on a cheap, no-gears model. Riding off into the sunset I go…NOT! I needed a tool to adjust the bike seat, a helmet, a headlight, a backlight, a tire pump, and a bike lock….the latter three we forgot to purchase. It was a whole clusterfuck as the moral of the story was…don’t buy a kid’s bike in Lao. Second moral of the story (yes, there are two morals to this tragic tale/lesson) – question everything and don’t expect anyone to look in your best interest (even if the purpose of her presence is to assist you with that one deed).
After just a few days, the struggles of a daily bicyclist got to me….the danger of racing against cars on the road just to make a left and the strain of my bum right knee. Sure, I became “handier”….I used my headlamp in my backpack as a backlight while riding, I figured out the space capacity for groceries, and all in all I felt somewhat strong and competent.
Then came the electric scooter (when the bicycle was no longer an option; when someone from Lao tells you they wouldn’t ride that bike, you know that bike is a not a real bike). No manual, no questions asked, the scooter was purchased. I was told this MIGHT be how you charge it, it MIGHT be a good idea not to take it very far…I’m not sure how I should interpret this….unusable, unsafe junk? Anyways, no amount of eye-rolling will solve this problem. Finding myself stuck on a Saturday afternoon with a clunk of junk after the same unwilling-to-help assistant drained the battery the day before on a job-related joyride, I was livid. First at Common Grounds, nursing a glass of apple beet carrot juice for two hours telling myself this is the local way of life and trying to laugh about it, then at a random restaurant 5 mins car ride from my apartment feeling grateful the owner spoke some English and was nice enough to let me mooch off his electricity, it was exactly how I wanted to spend my last weekend in Vientiane.
Needless to say, even with all the luxuries, the incompetence of Hongkae and its way of life (Saturday electricity/water outtages) and the lack of common decency of some people (whom shall be unnamed) got to me. Yesterday though, I had a stroke of luck. The night before yesterday, I tried every other option possible of charging the scooter and….. EUREKA! The scooter was up and running. I went downtown, got my bus ticket to Vang Vieng (although unexpectedly at some random hotel), hopped onto the #14 bus that “wisked” me away to Buddha Park, the rather eclectic and “mess” of a collection of Buddha statues. It was THE most beautiful thing I’ve seen in Vientiane. Maybe I am a bit hard on Vientiane. It has a sort of slow charm to it.