Laos. A soft opening.
Nothing better than being in a new place. Nothing.
Sure, familiarity has its advantages but not nearly as exciting as the new and unknown. We know most South East Asian countries like Thailand, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and parts of Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia. So to volunteer and try our best to help, it’s great to be in a new land.
Laos, one of only 5 remaining communist countries in the world and the only landlocked country in South East Asia has greeted us warmly. Very warmly. After being in Uganda for over a month with its absolutely perfect weather, the sticky icky humidity of SE Asia hit us like a ten ton bag of rice. Sticky rice. It’s strange sitting, not moving, at all, but still sweating from everywhere, and this is supposed to be the cool season! I’m seriously considering deodorant for my finger pits. No wonder Buddha is always lying down. (WWBD)
Being born and raised in Asia, there’s something familiar about being here, and I don’t just mean the noodles. Compared to Europe or North America, it’s nostalgic to be in a passive and culturally collective society. In the Western world, individualism, personal goals, and ambition drives society and are more important than the collective. Here, decisions are made for the common and mutual good. This is most wonderfully and hilariously obvious to me when it comes to driving.
We were kindly lent bicycles and like most people here, a scooter to get us around. It’s common to see a 10 year old girl driving a scooter holding an umbrella in her left hand while her 8 and 7 year old brothers are sitting behind her on their way to school. We’re in a small city with zero traffic lights, but this culturally collective society moves through the streets like leaves floating on the Mekong river. If you want to drive the wrong way on a one way street, do it respectfully, and no one will bat an eye. If you want to cruise 4 kilometres per hour while talking to your friends in the middle of the street, go ahead, nobody will care. Do what you want, passively, for the common good. We purposely live in Ecuador, a country where they live and drive in a similar way, but these Laotians take it to the next level. They don’t know of or have animosity, and are incapable of having malice. I don’t think it’s in their vocabulary, definitely not in their driving.
A couple of days ago, while cruising down a remote rural road, we had to come to a quick dead stop as there were 2 elephants right in front of us. We felt bad about being in their way, after all, this is their land, these regal national symbols of Laos. They eventually passed on by, fortunately elephants don’t carry malice either.
Yesterday, one of my students told me why Laos is officially called Lao PDR, and it’s not People’s Democratic Republic. “It’s because in Lao, People Don’t Rush” he said.
During this time of year, the rickety bamboo walking bridge that connects where we live to “down town” washes away in the strong current, so tonight we took the one and only “water taxi” across the river to get some food. On the way back, the boat died in the middle of the river, and we were quickly sucked towards the larger Mekong river. The captain/taxi driver, a 16 year old kid, calmly got out a tiny oar and paddled us to shore. As we climbed up the river bank in the dark, we could hear him still trying to start the engine as he was whisked away by the current. He might be in Vietnam now. Lao people don’t rush.
Nothing better than being in a new place.