Airport Selfies

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Photo by Riikka Pitkanan
Our academic coordinator coordinated (ha, did you catch that?) a "staff outing" to a local rum distillery- the first of it's kind in Laos. The owner is a school parent, so we had to behave. After an hour drive to the country, with just a few beers and bahn mi's in the van to pre-game, we arrive at a

The two owner/operators, in the sugar cane field
modest sugar cane field. There's a canopy bar with an incredible garden along the walking path, and a modern distillery.

We hop on the back of a tractor to ride into the fields, then opt to just walk and enjoy the butter flies. I'm the only fool in wedge heels, but I manage not to trip along the rocky path. We toured the sugar cane fields, which were originally intended for ethanol development but luckily were converted for better purposes.

The distillery uses the patterns of traditional silk weavers from Laos for the labels. Their interior art work reflects the local townspeople working in the field for harvesting. They don't use chemical fertilizer or pesticides, because of the water and the workers. They don't use machines to harvest or plant, but instead hire locals, raising local earnings. Oh, and they make a damn good cocktail.

After enjoying the great outdoors, we drive back to the city, and head straight to the distillery's riverside bar, Laodi. Equally as enjoyable, however, as the stars start to twinkle, we realize we actually have kids. Two of them, home with the grandparents, and probably hungry. We come home to find two exhausted grandparents, one sleeping terror, and one overjoyed toddler. Apparently, they'd been inconsolable since 4pm, but the grandparents were too kind to end our drinking binge.

I won't make this a long post. Suffice it to say, Laodi rum is my new favorite drink. I left with three bottles and a mini pack to send to my dad. They're exporting to France. If you're lucky, they'll be exporting to the USA soon. check out their website!

I Joined the Boat Racing Team

Dragon boat racing. It's a thing. They take over the Mekong river, up and down the country, and race, 30-50 people in a sleek, dragon-spirited boat, rowing as one, chasing the current to claim glory. Most teams train for years together, know each other, know their teammate's rhythms, the boat's spirit, the water. There is, however, a local team, that takes foreigners. I've joined it!
(click that link for some pics and an explanation of boat racing)

I showed up to the first practice Monday night, uncertain of what to expect or who to talk to. The administrative coordinator at my school, a Finnish woman who's been on the team for the last 4 years, is there. She'd convinced me and another teacher to join, so we trail behind her, paddles behind our backs, heads bowed. We join tables with a Lao racer, an Irish/American newbie, and two Japanese guys who just came from a wine tasting. After lots of inspirational speeches we can't understand (due to the sound system), we grab our paddles, the life vests, and head to the water. I'm lucky I thought to wear sandals. My other novice colleague wore his sneakers, so he's crossing the crowded night market streets barefoot, dodging the broken glass and metal remnants from broken scooters. All shoes are left on the river bank; no shoes allowed on the boat. We walk across the boat in no particular order, our weight set to tip the slender vessel to the left, which is unfortunately my side of the boat. A second boat follows us, with the official coach shouting in Lao, while a third boat carries onlookers.
Photo by Glen Norton (watching from a bar!)

Your shoulder feels like it's on fire. Your writs aches. Your head spins whenever you try to look away from the paddle in front of you; then you end up smacking someone else's paddle. You can't look at the sunset. You can't look at the storm clouds across the river, looming towards you, lightning striking on the Thai side of the riverbank. You can't listen to the onlookers- street children, tired construction workers, happy riverside bar drinkers, cheering for your effort. If you stop counting, shouting the unfamiliar numbers "nung, som, sam, sii, ha, hok, jet, pet, khao, sip, OH!," then you're lost.

We make it one trip up river, one trip down river. My reusable water bottle is floating at my feet, in the brown river water that's splashed into the vessel. My feet are ankle deep in the mucky stuff, all self consciousness lost sometime around the 40th rep, when I finally stopped being squeamish and put my bare feet down. My clothes are soaked. My face is wet, and I've definitely swallowed river water (something I will pay for, violently, all night).

I could be hooked.

**I don't have any pictures, because carrying  phone would have been reckless; if Boon ever comes to watch, I'll make sure to add a video!**

Friday, August 11, 2017

"Mama, Wan Go Home."

"Wan go home."

"We're at home. This is it."

It's the middle of the afternoon, post-nap, and we are sitting on the gazebo porch at Boon's mom's house. The fan is blowing as hard as possible. There's a pitcher of hibiscus iced tea on the table, sweating almost as hard as we are. Declan's statement is clear and direct: he wants to go home.

It's less than a second before Caden hears him, and picks up the refrain. It was fun for a few days, now lets pack up and go home. All jokes aside, we're going back home, right, ma?

Obviously, there's only one answer to this. No. Suck it up. There is no return ticket. The renters are enjoying our house, so there is no "home" to return to. But an answer like that isn't going to stop them from wanting to go "home."

They aren't army brats. They know one home, and it's got a dogwood tree in the front yard, a box full of Legos on the floor, and central a/c. Only four people live there, and they all speak English. There aren't a lot of neighborhood kids to play with, but the one who's available doesn't tease or make you be the prisoner in all the games.

Here, there's a mango tree in the yard, just across from the starfruit tree. There are birds chittering in a huge cage, and feral cats that won't stop when you try to pet them. The neighborhood kids, a small horde of 8-10, roll past on their full size bikes, peering into the gate, shouting "Ca-Din!!" before running down the street. We practiced "yak lin, baw?" over and over again, as he worked up the courage to go outside and ask the kids to play. The leader, a girl about 9, grabbed him by the hand and they ran into the yard of the English language school across the street, all of the kids intent on a game of tag. Except it wasn't tag, it was more like, "shove the new kid into the corner a lot and yell at him." He gave it another try, later the same day, but simply can't learn a new language fast enough to keep up with the horde. We tried inviting them into our yard, bringing out the bin of Legos and the mega bounce ball for more equal play. Within minutes, the kids had overrun both Caden and Declan, and Meh Tou had to come out to keep the peace.

He'll get used to it. School starts next week, and we've finally secured a place for both boys at the same international school where we'll be teaching. He'll meet other kids, and hopefully learn Lao as they play. They'll get used to kao piak for breakfast, to the heat, to the flies, and to the people. They're lucky-- they have family in their new country, unlike most foreigners here, sent for work or curiosity, dumped in a new land with nothing and no one, really on their own.

Boon tries again to explain to Declan, this is home, there isn't another one, it's fine. But he continues, "mama, wan go home."

I get it, kiddo. I get it.

*yak lin, baw: want to play?

kao piak: noodle soup with thicker noodles, almost like udon. Sometimes has chunks of deep fried crispy pork belly (my favorite), chunks of congealed blood (Boon's favorite), or boiled chicken.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Let's Buy a Car...

Vientiane is a small city. The major roads lead to the major shopping centers, social hot spots, and most necessities. However, the trucks, cars, motor bikes, bicycles, and tuk-tuk trucks all use the roads as though they were their own personal freeway, weaving in and out of each other, foregoing U-turns in favor of just driving the wrong direction on the road, and capriciously stopping for roadside snacks. Boon knew this from the start. But our one successful cycling trip into the city center convinced me that we could live car-free, in a green-paradise, smug in our own tiny carbon footprint.

I've come to see, my vision simply doesn't match the reality. With two kids, a full time job starting in a week, and a deep personal sense of independence, I've had to concede: we need our own car.

Along, my brother-in-law, and Meh Tou, my mother-in-law, take us car shopping. First, we pull into the shiny new sales center of a large dealership. It's glass and white construction dazzle off the dusty main road. The Kia's are bright white, pristine, and covered against the sun and dust. We browse for a few minutes, as the selection is small. When we settle on a 2017 Kia sedan, we are led into the glistening interior, offered a seat on a leather couch, and a large basic calculator is set in front of us, with four company-logo'd bottled waters. My eyes glaze over as the negotiations begin. I didn't care for this part of the experience in the U.S., why pay more attention here. I notice the 20 year anniversary signage, a collection of snapshots over the years. You can see the development of the company from a small, modest business, to the modern icon it's become. I notice the girl laid out on another couch, jacket covering her feet, clearly asleep, possibly waiting for a lover to finish work. The crack in a hallway door reveals some unknown person squatted over a large plastic basket, peeling an enormous amount of papaya.

Boon snaps me back to attention with a carefully prepared chart, demonstrating car prices, down payments, and financing options, conveniently done in U.S. dollars. My eyes widen, and I lower my jaw incredulously-- I am NOT paying that much for a Kia. It's a Kia. We walk out, heads high, jaws put back into place.

We continue back on the dusty road, where other dealerships line the road. We stop first at a small shop, with only four cars out front. A red Kia Soul caught Boon's attention from the road. A car he'd never consider in America, suddenly has its appeal. We circle the four cars displayed, but the teenager with skinny jeans, not quite covering his navel, comes out to tell us that the owner left at 2, he has no car keys, better luck tomorrow.

You do NOT want to mess with that rooster. 
We try another lot, this time with several more cars. As we approach, a large rooster in a wicker cage calls to us, perhaps we'd spare some crumbs? A toddler, maybe 15 months old, runs in circles in a side area, from rooster to another fowl's cage, nude and joyous in the 92 degree heat. Her three top knots jiggle as she runs, and I consider why my own toddler isn't more trustworthy when diaper-less.

A salesman, or mechanic, maybe just the guy who lives here, comes out to see why we're there. He quickly gathers that this is a possible sale, and straightens up. As he shows us around the 5 offerings, he motions to another guy to grab the beer off the table, where a glass sits half full. Boon tries to convince me that the white Honda sedan, with black and red leather interior and obvious muffler upgrades, is the perfect family car. I manage to steer him towards a mid-size Kia sedan, used, and far more reasonable.

It's hard taking photos covertly. Also, a little creepy. 
After a test drive, Boon and I linger to consider whether this is too much of a rush to commitment; its a big  chunk of our savings we're talking about here. As we walk back to the beer-table-turned-sales-counter, we realize Meh Tou has already taken the lead on negotiations. She sits in gambler position, legs firmly planted, arm rested yet forearms flexed, leaned forward, intent on the discussions. The woman across from her holds the toddler for just long enough to wrangle her into pants, then straightens up with her calculator and notebook. Her large rose-print blouse clashes with her gold and black sinth.* The dragon pin across her bosom representative of far more than her zodiac. In the heat her face remains pure matte, her carefully penciled eyebrows narrow, and her fingers fly across the calculator. There will be no concessions from Madame Dragon.

We get back into Along's car and drive towards home. I gaze out the window as the conversation races past me- interest rates, down payments, alternative dealerships; our American credit rating is meaningless here. I notice the cars that drive by- mostly white, fairly newer, intermingled with the truckers and mopeds. Where is the craigslist for cars in Laos? The buy-and-sell Vientiane page on Facebook is useless- just expats trying to get out of town with at least what they came in with.

Later, as the boys devour ice cream cones from the corner store, Boon and I consider the experience. We don't have anything Lao to compare this to; our only point of reference is America. We just can't get here, what we could have gotten at home. It simply isn't the same place at all.

We'll get to work somehow. We'll get to the grocery store. For now, the car can wait. Our ice creams, on the other hand, require our immediate attention.

*sinth= traditional Lao skirt, still in fashion for daily wear.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Problem With Distance

My grandmom died on my third day in Laos. Despite my dad’s best efforts to contact me, I found out on Facebook. I rolled out of bed, where Declan and I had collapsed for twenty solid hours, a combination of jetlag, heat, and being overwhelmed, and instinctively checked my cellphone. It’s jarring to realize someone you love died while you were dreaming.

After gathering the details from my dad, I follow the boys out to the front patio, where they play with the feral neighborhood cat, and make up silly songs. There is no one here, except Boon, who knew my grandmom. There’s nothing here that reminds me of her. No cast iron skillets in the kitchen, no plastic bin of wafer cookies on top of a fridge, no crochet blankets in atrocious 70’s color schemes. I considered walking to the local Wat (temple) to light a candle for her, but I wonder if it would offend her Christian practice. Moreover, if I lit a candle, I’m not sure where I’d put it- at the spirit tree? Before a Buddha statue? Where do you put a flame for a woman who was the quiet foundation of a huge family tree? Would it be wrong to put it on a rock? 

I won’t make it back for her funeral. To be fair, I didn’t make it to Tennessee to visit her, even when I lived in Virginia. She’d never even met Declan, save for Face-time. Boon recognizes this loss—the inability to grieve publicly, or to grieve properly. He was in Virginia when his meh-tou* passed in Laos. It took us weeks to find a way to honor her passing, eventually planting a fiery pink rose bush, an “American Beauty” varietal, in our garden, in honor of her fiery spirit, beauty, and love of gardening. Unfortunately, we never learned how to properly garden, and the rose eventually wilted and grew barren.

The problem with distance is that you really have to admit, you’ve chosen your own happiness over your family, your community. I can’t wish to be closer to my dad, my aunt, or my brothers, to be there to hug, commiserate, to grieve. I can’t wish for that, because I already wished to be far away, and what’s done is done. Something to consider, if one chooses to move abroad—will you be able to be with the people you love when you need to be?

*meh-tou = grandma in Lao


We arrived around noon, in the heat of the sauna-like summer. After confusion in the visa line- “But we have B2 visas, why do we need to fill out forms for tourist visas? We need passport photos? What’s going on??” a friend of Boon’s dad comes over and sorts us out. Another foreign teacher family, possibly Dutch, sees our struggle, and allows us to cut back into the front, noting that we are clearly here as workers for the first time. The boys run around the customs area, in and out of customs lines, between baggage, along the window sills, as though this were the greatest play zone they’ve ever seen. I look like a sterotypical American mother, shouting uselessly for control at my free-range minions. Boon tries to sort out the visa mess.

When we finally make it to the Souvannamethy homestead, on the north west side of the city, along the Mekong, we are fed, showered, and collapse. Boon is proactive about jet lag, and stays up as long as possible. I, on the other hand, use the boys as an excuse to burrow under covers and sleep for 24 hours. The next day, we are confronted with reality: we have no car, we don’t know where our school is located, and we should probably buy some food we recognize.

Meh tou (as we call Boon’s mom, who is now officially “grandma”) takes us to the newest western-style grocery store, filled with exotic imports, organic offerings, and a solid variety of cheese. I balk at the $10 price tag for P&G Tips black tea, $11 peanut butter, and $9 strawberry pints. We walk out with little more than lotion for rashy Declan and banana chips.  We’re on teacher salary now—can’t be messing around with prices like that.

We hustled through a few stores and restaurants in the first three days, getting our bearings and replacing some basics. I feel like I’ve gone mute—a naturally low talker to begin with, I find my voice trailing off to a whisper, much to Boon's frustration. I’m led around like a child, while I shuffle my actual children through stores and streets. I have no functioning vocabulary. I can’t do the math in my head fast enough to figure out the exchange rate. The money works in the thousands and millions of kip; I’m completely lost. We establish new cell phone accounts, which requires us to get an older model phone from the early 2000’s for voice calls, which I affectionately refer to as our “burner” phones. I smile and agree to the new two-phone system, one for internet, one for voice, because frankly, I have no idea what’s going on.

I wanted to start from scratch, to feel lost, and find answers all over again. This was clearly the place to travel for such needs. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Better than a ship.

36 hours is a long time to travel. I'm not even sure it's been 36 hours. I know I left Wednesday morning at 10, and it's now 9:13 am in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday. Some hours were lost in-between. Boon and I have maybe slept for 7 hours, total. I'm not even going to blame that on the mini wine bottles.

There was the 13 hour layover in Dubai, where it's 110 degrees, so we stayed put in the airport. We slept on chairs in the open lounges, secure in knowing everyone else was just as stuck. We paid too much for duty-free lotion to deal with Declan's sudden full-body rash, only to toss it out as we went through Thai security (our third such security check). Children from India, Eritrea, West Virginia, Germany, and Bahrain played together for hours, on the space in front of the airplane toilets and the airport play zone, utilizing the universal language of childhood. I commiserated with mothers from Lebanon, Bahrain, and India, as the terrible two's are likewise universal. 
Documentation of my boy's going crazy on the plane. Thanks, Emirates!

In Bangkok, we frantically ran across the airport, practically dragging Declan before Boon finally left the two of us behind, desperate to get our transfer tickets within the hour connection. We had to pull apart our book bags, leaving dirty socks, plaid panties, and books on display for our fellow travelers, finally concluding that we'd lost the checked luggage tags. Declan gives unsolicited hugs to the stewardesses. 

We are sweaty.  Declan is itchy. We are almost to Vientiane. And regardless, this has been much better than taking a ship.