While I was making my power-me-up-I’m-trying-to-cut-down-on-processed-sugar protein balls last weekend… I noticed something. Not out of the usual for here in Laos, but something that could be considered funny down under.
So, I thought I would write about it in this (hopefully) very engaging guest blog. ‘It’ being the top five things that ‘make-my-brain-explode-a-little-while-simultaneously-procuring-bouts-of-exasperated-laughter’.
Having lived here in Laos as a volunteer from July 2012 to 2013, I feel I can shed a little bit of timely, comparative insight into what it is really like to live in Laos. In addition to the candid and accurate picture the lovely Camilla has painted thus far.
<insert that very popular, annoying meme here>
Son, Laos ain’t got no time for rules.
Coming from the ‘Nanny’ country really does not prepare you for the disorderly ways of Asia. But fear not, it is not completely unruly, just a tad disobedient. Many use the term organised chaos. Disregard for road rules is common across South East Asia, and Laos is no exception.
I often (read: daily) have the little voice inside my head saying “Oh shit, is this how I’m going to die?” because a motorbike driver has casually, on purpose, gone the wrong way up a one way street. The brakes on my bike get a standard workout each day, as do a few expletives.
The feeling when these ‘near crashes’ happen is very much a parallel to the one you get when you miss a step. You know when your hands go all tingly and your heart jumps out of your chest a little?
I blame Laos for the increase in my adrenalin-junky ways, and thank it for my improved reflexes.
When people in Australia are having a whinge about the weather on Facebook… “Waaah, it’s so hot!”
It really isn’t.
When you step outside and sweat starts to run down the back of your neck before you’ve even left your yard… and it happens every day for months on end… then, and only then, can you complain about it being hot.
(Side note: Yes, I am aware that Australia has recently had some heat concerns, thanks to 90% of my newsfeed being inundated with screen shots of weather/temperature apps).
Standing sweat is what I’m talking about. Hot heat that starts to melt your insides unless you’re standing directly under this sweet, life-saving contraption called an air conditioner. Bless them if they work, curse them if they don’t. Or if the electricity cuts out.
One of the reasons I don’t run very much in Laos is not because I get a seriously red face and drip sweat, or look like an angry demon next to the perfectly composed, I-never-sweat-or-look-dishevelled Lao girls, but because my feet actually feel like they are burning as I run. Burning.
I took to turning the air conditioner on full blast in my living room last year and did, amongst other living room friendly exercise, squats, bro.
Dogs do in fact eat rice for dinner here. That is if they get fed it (which is what sparked this blog – our landlord’s dog bowl had been filled with rice), or sneak it out of someone’s rubbish pile. Speaking in a general sense pets are not treated as pets. They are given free rein to wander the streets (this is something I’m sure they enjoy), and yes, participate in doggy fight club (questionable as to whether they enjoy this or not but they do meet at 7pm nightly).
The attitude towards pets here, I have found, is that they are totally replaceable. Yep. Sadface. Compare this to the Aus standard i.e. where pets are more often than not considered a true-blue ridgy-didge family member. They even get presents at Christmas, and are included in family photos. While I was home for a short period before returning to Laos for this volunteering stint, I had to remind my mother that feeding me (the human) took priority over feeding the dog, because she was feeding him part of MY dinner… that I had cooked … for ME. Her reasoning was that he was hungry. Aaah okay Mum, but so am I! For realz. I lol’ed.
Now, the animals here in Laos if they are even owned by someone, are lucky to have a collar on. Although the new trend to put a shirt or jumper on them is intriguing (which is totally the part that makes me laugh). But the countless times I have seen dogs with incredibly deteriorated skin and/or limping from an injury is disgusting. There are a few animal rescue type groups but the sheer amount of neglect is too much for them to handle. It’s sad, but a reality of living in a developing country.
It’s not all dark and dreary though. Some pets, particularly the smaller dogs can have quite the luxury life, cruising around sitting between their owner’s feet on a scooter (very talented balancing I must say) or even IN the basket… the wind blowing their fur and tongue lapping away… the way a dog’s life should be.
Lao people insist on providing you with rice for every meal. I mean fair call, it’s their staple diet but if you (or me for this example) take –
[Eating rice two to three times a day]
minus [exercise (because it’s too hot)]
plus [a proportionately significant increase in alcohol (because it’s too hot)]
= boom shaka ta da! (uh oh)… you got fat!
This year, I resolved to cook at home more often in an attempt to reduce the amount of rice consumption (I hate you, evil carbohydrates). So far the house of Zilla has created some extremely delicious, nutritious meals including vegetable lasagne and a Moroccan tagine. Yeah baby!
BUT, for those playing at home… you need to know something.
Cooking in Australia = really easy.
Cooking in Laos = a god damn mission and a half.
Here’s the standard process:
Step 1: Take a trip to multiple mini marts to find specific spices, pastes or canned items. Bundle your shopping into your bicycle basket. Try not to crash while dodging dogs that without warning run in front of you on the way home.
Step 2: After stopping at home to drop-off the aforementioned shopping, venture into the putrid smelling meat and vegetable market and scour the seller’s produce for quality vegetables (sans maggots, this is important!).
Step 3: Probably take another trip to a downtown mini mart because the first few didn’t have what you needed.
Step 4: Be tired and sweaty already, but pursue your inspired ‘it’s going to be delicious’ recipe.
Step 5: Wash all of your fruit and veg in bottled water in an effort to avoid getting a stomach bug/parasite.
Step 6: Actually prepare everything and cook it, taking due care to not let the temperamental oven burn your dish, and assemble it as nicely as you can on the plate.
Step 7: Eat your meal that took over 2 hours to prepare and cook… in under 20 minutes (or less because you’re feeling pretty starving by this point).
Step 8: Boil water to wash your dishes (most Lao kitchens don’t have a hot water tap).
Step 9: Wash the bloody dishes.
Step 10: Think about how tomorrow it is Camilla’s turn to cook.
Despite this time consuming cooking process, our amazing culinary skills have not waivered. Our sheer patience and dedication to deliciousness has not been compromised. We shall keep cooking, that is until one of us inevitably says ‘I can’t be bothered, takeaway tonight?’
Also, I vow I will never take my Australian local fruit and veg barn, or Aldi/Coles/IGA/Woolworths for granted ever again.
Many say the PDR in Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic *cough* Democratic? That’s for another possible entry) stands for ‘Please Don’t Rush’. Literally, I can tell you… it’s the absolute truth. Last year I found myself writing lists and being all proactive about work. <insert fail buzzer sound here>
I soon found that my energy, all well and good, was not the way to get things done (I was too energetic). Understandably, Lao people have their way of doing things.
It goes like this: slow, slow, fast.
Literally, they do EVERYTHING at an extremely slooooow pace, until about two or even one week before something must be completed, and then somehow, magically *poof* everything gets completed. I was in awe when I saw it for the first time.
Stressed. Out. Of. My. Freaking. Mind.
But in awe.
The moment of magic I’m talking about happened to take place while I was organising a concert that had over 1000 people attending. They were only putting up the advertising signs the week before. The week before! I was in event manager hell, until I suddenly wasn’t anymore. It was confusing at the time – like, I questioned it a lot… did that actually go okay, or was I dreaming?
Anyway, this year I am taking on a very bopenyang (our equivalent to ‘no worries mate’) approach, trying to be as Lao as possible, but still sneakily planning as I go… because I need to meet some of my objectives alright?
For a conservative culture, Lao people drink a lot. In all seriousness I think they should do a binge drinking survey here. They are the biggest party people, always ready for a Beer Lao. It’s awesome. I am without a doubt Camilla will post more entries about Lao parties and weddings so stay tuned for that.
Lao people hardly ever smile in photos, but they’re really fun to be around and smile a lot otherwise. They’re gentle, always ready to try to explain something or point you in the right direction. I feel I could adopt a lot of grandmothers/grandfathers here…
The main thing though is that Lao people are happy. Even when they have what we perceive to be ‘nothing’… because they have everything they need in their family, friends and good health.
So, what is Laos really like to live in?
Well, as you might have surmised from the above, it’s a rollercoaster. Some days, when you’ve just had enough of people cutting you off and being sweaty… you do feel like throwing a tantrum. My former housemate and I would sit and yell at politicians on Q&A on the TV (thanks Australia channel) to relieve the stress.
When I went home to Aus in October, a lot of my friends asked me what it was that made me want to come back for round two (after complaining about the multiple stomach bugs I had struggled through). I couldn’t really answer it as eloquently then, but after some contemplation I can now.
Despite some of the day to day challenges we volunteers/falang (foreigners) come across, Laos has a certain magic to it. Yes, all these weird/sad/frustrating things happen but in an odd way you learn to embrace them because this is just how it is here. Change is slow but the people are generous and kind, the food is delicious, the sun is almost always out… but the best thing is that people take their time to enjoy life and the people around them. When something bad happens, you bopenyang (remember: no worries mate) it away as much as possible. They try and find the positive in the situation and accept it how it is. Blame and guilt are not notions I stumbled across much, if at all. I can tell you, it’s refreshing.
Life isn’t about reaching milestones, it’s about creating memories with friends and family. For me, I fell in love with being happy just being me (a little bit crazy, sugar addicted, with a hint of cheeky sassiness) without the precursor of expectations and comparisons to other people made by myself or others. That’s what Laos has given me, and a whole lot more including a bunch of amazing friends, and an incredible amount of respect, tolerance and patience for what the world throws my way.
I for one can’t wait to see what more this amazing country can give me, as well as Camilla this year.
Thanks for taking the time to read this epic post!