Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Volunteer Story

There is something to be said for travelling first class, not that I’ve had much, or any, experience in the past, but I have now had a taste of what it must be like to spend the time between flights sitting in comfortable and relaxing surroundings rather than restlessly perched on hard plastic seats in a standard departure lounge.

I’m still not sure how I managed it but when I collected the boarding pass for my connecting flight from Bangkok to Laos the wonderful girl on the desk said I could spend my 5 hour wait in the Bangkok Airways lounge. I wasn’t too sure what to expect but found free food, drinks and internet access, as well as seats large enough for me to fall asleep in. Of course all this is like waving a straw at a man drowning in the morass of cattle class but it makes me wonder even more what it must be like to travel up at the pointy bit of the plane.

But enough of that… I didn’t get checked, poked, searched or even looked at strangely the entire way from Australia to Laos. I did get a taste of government efficiency when I arrived at the Luang Prabang airport though. I arrived without a visa, knowing that it was possible to get one at the airport. Sure it’s possible, just a long and involved process that takes place while standing in a serious tropical heat. It seemed that everyone stepping off the plane had the same idea as me and we all queued up at the first window, handed in our visa applications, a passport photo (tip #1: bring a passport photo) and our passports. From there we joined queue two where we paid our money (tip #2: bring US cash) and got our passports back with the visa in it. From there it was on to queue number three where the visa was checked, our passports stamped and we were let into the country. My bag was waiting on the carousel for me and it was just a matter of stepping through the only door, luckily marked “nothing to declare”, and I was in Laos. Because I am here for so long I will need to renew my visa at least twice but apparently there is an office in town where I can do that and it may involve a few less queues. Or I can only hope.

Stepping out of the tiny airport building it was with great relief that I found a woman holding a sign with my name on it. Apparently it’s GVI policy to greet volunteers at the airport and I can say with a little experience that this is a good thing. That initial blast of a new place when you step through the doors into a maelstrom of humanity that is an airport can be daunting and taking a few seconds to blink and figure out where you are and where you are going can only cause a pile up of equally confused people behind you. Being able to head towards that sign gave me a few seconds to catch my breath before I lost it again at being greeted with an Australian accent.

Tricia is the person running this project; a teacher by trade, a traveller by instinct and a lover of the Laos culture and people by good fortune. She is here to teach the people because she wants to and because she can and is genuinely pleased and touched that anyone else is here to join her and help. This in itself makes you believe you have made the right choice coming here and her enthusiasm and good humour continue to reinforce it.

But, introductions out of the way, our first task was to take the Tuk Tuk, driven ably by Mr. Phong, to the guest house where I would be spending the next ten weeks.

First impressions were that Laos was superficially similar to any other SE Asian country and superficially this is probably true. It is green, humid (this being the rainy season), bicycles and scooters reign supreme on the roads and small businesses, ranging from a woman on the side of the road with a bag of fruit to small shops selling washing machines and mobile phones, seem to outnumber houses. The streets are dusty but surprisingly clean, without the build up of rubbish that seems to happen in so many other places. The greenery is everywhere and even the plots of land with buildings or crops on them are ready to be engulfed again by the jungle. Buildings seem to be going up everywhere and they have the look and speed of construction that can only happen in this part of the world where rules, regulations, codes and safety are so different from the west.

I was nervous as we drove into town, ten weeks is a long time to throw yourself into something like this. Tricia was trying to allay my fears but it wasn’t until we got to the guest house and I found I was to be in quite a level of comfort that I was able to relax regarding the living conditions.

The Cold River guest house is to be recommended if you want a cheap, friendly and well appointed place to stay. My room turned out to be upstairs and past the double bed and small wardrobe are double doors that open onto a balcony with a table and two chairs. A quick look into the bathroom, that has a sink, shower and western style (yes!!!) toilet, and I was drawn to that balcony. The view is of the river, a fast moving stretch of water the colour of creamy coffee, but even in the small space between the edge of the guesthouse and the riverbank there is a tangled web of bamboo, coconut palms, banana trees and mystery green things that frame the river and hide the few buildings on the opposite bank. If it wasn’t for the near constant sound of construction, mostly from the guest house next door where they seem to be extending their terrace further towards the river, it would be an idyllic setting. The construction does stop at night though and that is when the balcony comes into its own. When the sun has gone down, the insects are hiding from the dozens of small, pale geckos that seem able to hang nonchalantly from the ceiling and there is a bottle of local rice wine or a bottle of Chilean shiraz on the table along with the company of the other couple of volunteers, it is easy to see why so many people become enamoured of the East.

So, that’s where I sleep at night, sit on the balcony writing things like this on my days off and where I drink Shiraz.

Okay, change of location. I’m sitting in a noodle place at the moment waiting for lunch to be cooked. It’s only about a 10 minute walk from the guest house and the food is plentiful, extremely tasty and pretty cheap. For about $2 I have ordered fried noodles with pork, a serving size to satisfy even me for lunch, and a pineapple shake. The most amazing thing about the place is that everything is cooked to order. The shake will be made from chunks of pineapple, a little sugar water and coconut milk, whizzed in a blender. The noodles will be cooked in a wok over a small gas stove in the corner of the open area that serves as the restaurant. A young girl will chop the required vegetables and pork for my individual dish and cook it fresh. You can see exactly what goes into it and her unhurried style and skill with both implements and ingredients mean a superb dish in a surprisingly short time. The only thing to keep in mind is if there are a number of you or the two other tables are occupied, this means a bit of a wait as she really is only equipped to cook one dish at a time, reset and then cook the next. But, all that being said, the food and the price make any waiting well worth the time spent watching the world go by.

Whoops, foods here so you’ll have to excuse me for a few minutes.

Luang Prabang is not what I expected. I knew that it was essentially the second city in Laos behind the capital Vientiane but I was completely unprepared for how touristy it is. I have now seen a large number of places that are geared towards providing for cruise ship passengers and the effect that has had on them. There is a strange similarity here. Just the other day one of the other volunteers rang a friend who had visited here not that many years ago and they were surprised to hear how it was now, remembering having had to sleep on a temple floor. Now there are guest houses every few feet, internet cafes and places offering local food, western food and even Italian fusion food on the same menus. Tuk Tuk drivers abound and it’s impossible to walk any distance without having a number ask if you need a ride. The main street is crammed with cafes, restaurants and gift shops. Walking down that street I sometimes feel there are more western faces than locals.

It’s probably my initial surprise talking at the moment. I’ve been here a week now and am slowly becoming used to the numbers. At least these tourists are not of the cruise ship type and most have made the effort to travel to what is still a fairly remote part of the world. I just hope that no one figures out how to bring cruise ships up the Mekong, but then again, why can’t the locals make their share of the tourist dollar.

Well, that is my first post. A bit brief and certainly not covering all I’ve done and seen so far but I thought I should send something in case anyone wondered what had happened to me. The next post should contain details of a trip to a waterfall and a Buddhist cave, an encounter with a black bear that left bloody wounds on the side of my face, more impressions of the town, just how many things qualify as genuine “Laos coffee” and details of why I’m here, teaching English to Buddhist monks, or more correctly, Buddhist novice monks.