The love of detail

One of the many beauties about travelling are the valuable lessons for life I have learned from different cultures, different traditions, different points of views. Morocco is evoking the value of love of detail. As I was strolling through the narrow windy streets of Marrakesh, my gaze jumped from one little ornament, colorful tile and […]

Luang Prabang – coming back to my second home

I often wondered what it will feel like being back in Laos after returning to Europe in March 2014. Would Luang Prabang still exude this magic spell of an exotic, sleepy, tropic town to me? Would I still enjoy watching the rise of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, with massive tree trunks drifting along from the heavy rainfalls of the wet season? Would I appreciate the slowness of life and its people as much as I did (most of the time) while I lived here? Would I feel at home again or rather like a tourist and merely visitor?

Those and many more questions floated around in my mind a couple of weeks before my trip to Luang Prabang.
Flying over the lush, green hills and seeing the mighty Mekong snaking along Luang Prabang brought back the very same emotions I had on August 14, 2012 when I first flew over this town: overwhelmed by the beauty of this part of the earth, and an unexplicable sensation of happiness, contentedness and calmness.
Within the first few days I realized how much I had gotten used to the Western lifestyle again and how many things I had taken for granted such as potable tap water, an insect- and gekko-poo-free home, vehicles on the road actually looking at the traffic before making turns, streets without potholes as big as a volcano crater.
At the same time I cherished all those things we lack in the West or have to pay a very high price for: a tropical climate, strolls in warm summer rain, hundred shades of green wherever you look, 100+headed frog-and-cricket orchestras performing goodnight concerts, the freshest vegetables and tropical fruit on the many street-corner markets (at almost no cost), walking on emtpy streets under a starlit sky after 7 pm, noodle soups at small local shops while watching the slow-motion life go by, enjoying massages every other day, submerging in the crystal-clear and cool waters of Kuangsi-Waterfall, catching up with old friends, savouring every single sip of heavenly lime-mint shakes while watching the Mekong waters slowly moving by, and perfectioning the art of doing (and enjoying doing) NOTHING.
I have been here for more than 2 weeks already and if someone asked me what I have been doing all that time I would answer “NOTHING”.
Although that is de facto incorrect, it still feels that way. I felt the same when I used to live here. No matter how many things I might have experienced or achieved during the day, in the end it always felt like I had done nothing. This will sound negative to most people but in fact I experience it as something good. Because I feel very grounded, peaceful, relaxed and connected to myself (no mind-races, no impatience, no trick-playing playing mind). A sensation that I miss all too often in the Western world. Here I don’t feel the urge to go faster, higher, quicker or to compare myself with anyone. Here I simply feel at ease – being in the moment.
And I am deeply thankful for every one of those moments I experience.

WHY

proverb

WHY can be a life-changing word.

It can make other people turn away from you or it can open up dialogues.

It can make you lose your job or get promoted.

It can make your head spin or bring contentment and clarity.

It can cause you a lot of frustration or be the beginning of an endless journey of curiosity, learning and growth.

I do not know how many times I have used this word since I moved to England and started my new path to train as an osteopath.

WHY do people hunk the horn at me when I drive 3 mph slower than the limit is in a roundabout with a foreign car? WHY do people run around almost naked when it is only 5 degrees Celsius outside? Why do men in the gyms here work only their arm muscles so that they look like a disproportionate comic figure? Questions with nothing else to answer but a “because that is the way it is. And you should just accept it and direct your energy to more important things”.

Sometimes WHY is fruitless and will only cause frustration when we ask it in situations we can’t change, where we would find more peace or gain in accepting reality as it is.

But then there is the other WHY. The WHY that is fuelled by curiosity, interest, wanting to see the bigger picture. Wanting to learn, thrive, connect the dots, learn about yourself and your link to others, your environment and your place in this universe.

It took me five years to figure out which direction I wanted to head after I realized that my previous profession didn’t fulfil me anymore. Five years.

And now after my first 6 months of study I have come to realize that I need that “good” WHY. Why do we do this technique? Why do you place your hands here? (I have to admit there are also many WHEN’s, HOW’s and WHAT’s). I feel very lucky to have a few lecturers – and special friends – who truly welcome a challenge, criticality and curiosity rather than feeling bothered by it. Their openness inspires me, makes my brain go full speed – moments where I feel happiness, excitement and progression within myself. I am sure some teachers and fellow students are bugged by my relentless WHY’s or might even like to knock me out and that feeling surely isn’t very pleasant. But this urge to really understand, to make sense of things, to put the pieces of a big puzzle together and to be critical rather than accepting everything I hear as a fact is so strong that I can’t ignore it. And I want to feel that this difficult, long study and challenging profession is a thing I am convinced of and want to do for the rest of my professional life.

Knowing when WHY is the key to personal development, growth, progress, enrichment and happiness, and when it is nothing else but refusal to accept unchangeable facts is the key to growth – or stagnation.

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” – Werner Heisenberg

The challenges of adapting

my very favorite spot on this track with the best views of majestic Mount Cook at sunset

While I was lying in my sleeping bag on the top of a New Zealand mountain, seeing the ice-cold breath steaming out of my nose, hearing the heavy rain beating on the roof of my tent and feeling every single bone in my back through the floor mat I thought “from now on nothing will bother me anymore. I have toughened up and everything will appear much easier from now on”.

Sharing my Lao house with hundreds of cockroaches and having a whole dynasty of spiders the size of my hand living with me- nooooo problem!
After having explained a million times to my hotel staff in Laos that they cannot sleep during their work time, change shifts without telling anyone, leave before the end of their shift, leave for good without prior notice or not show up because of weddings, birthdays, school exams or broken hearts, I said to myself “nothing will ever be able to upset or surprise me in a job anymore after what I experienced here”.
Hopping from one country to another one and then ten more within ten months, constantly being surrounded by different ethics, languages, currencies, cultures, food, traditions and climate I was sure that I had become the master of adaptation.
And in a way I did- at least in many respects.
Then I came back to my home country Austria after having lived abroad for two and a half years….and suddenly I was not able to adapt. Everything seemed estranged and difficult.
Coming back to the place that was the most familiar in every respect but nevertheless felt un-homey knocked me off my tightrope.
It took me many weeks before I had my first few moments at ease. And right then I sailed down a ladder and broke my heel one, equaling 2 months of jumping on one foot on crutches. When the doctor asked me if I was capable of walking on crutches I replied “of course, no problem at all”, but it took me a mere 24 hours to realize that it was very much a problem and that my heavily reduced mobility, flexibility and ability to do the most common everyday tasks made it impossible to a) accept the situation and b) adapt to it. After about 3 weeks I had reached a tipping point. I accepted the situation I was in and just did what I had to do. No asking “but why me but why now but why whywhyyy…”. 
Now I can walk again and in less than 48 hours I will be moving to the UK to start my new (professional) path in life – my 4 year course of osteopathy. Am I scared or worried to leave behind a profession that enabled me to live a comfortable life – that i could easily go back to without too much of an effort instead of starting a completely new career path? No. 
Am I nervous about moving to a country that doesn’t exactly stand on the top of my wish list and do I wonder if I will be able to adapt to living there? Yes. 
 
So am I capable of adapting? Absolutely. But interestingly it is often the little or unspectacular changes in our lives ( such as coming back home) that are harder to adapt to than the big, spectacular or courageous-seeming changes ( like trekking the jungles of Columbia in 42 Celcius).
 
I realized that no matter how many big “challenges of adaptation” we have already mastered in our lives and no matter how routined we think we have become- we will still encounter numerous new ones again and again and get shaky legs when we face them.
But it is those situations that make us grow and become more accepting of our environment.

my Laos

I got up at 3.45 am to attend the morning chanting at 4 am on my last day. In all my time in Laos I had never managed to get up that early so that day was my last chance. All temples have an evening chanting around 5 pm and some temples also chant at […]

Teaching English in Laos

Teaching was the main reason why I decided to come back to Laos after my 4 week stay in August 2012. I had instantly fallen in love with my novice students at Wat Taohai and wanted to bridge my eight months with living and teaching in Luang Prabang before starting afresh with a new education […]

off the beaten track – ‘samai leu’ and ‘kopar niem’

A few weeks ago I accompanied one of my novice students, Kham, to his village. It was my first time to visit a village of my students and I was very excited to go there. Kham, who is Khmu (the second largest ethnicity in Laos) told me a lot about his home town and I was looking forward to seeing another side of Laos as Luang Prabang is definitely NOT representative of the country. We were going to meet his sister who studies in a city south of Luang Prabang at the bus station and would then join her in a car to their village. One of the things you learn when you live in Laos is that the term ‘car’ doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as a car in the Western world. Here a car can be a truck, a van, a tuk-tuk – or – a car. We arrived at the bus station at 9 am after we received a call from Njay, Kham’s sister, telling us that they would be there soon. At 10 am we found out that they had a problem with the car (oil leakage) and that they were getting it fixed at a shop and would be there a bit later. At 12 o’clock his sister said they were on their way and that the car would be quite full as many of the young people from her hometown who study in the same city all were going to go home to their village (it was school holiday) which made me think that we might have to squeeze together in the back of the car and that it could be quite challenging as we were going to face a 4-5 hour ride. When Njay called us at 1.30, saying that they had just missed the bus station and that we should run along the street couple of hundred meters to meet them a young kid grabbed my big bag (full of fruit and vegetables for Kham’s family) and helped me carry it to the car. The ‘car’ turned out to be an old pick-up truck, and it was loaded with 21 teenagers on its ladeflaeche. My heart almost stopped when my brain cells put 1+1 together and I thought to myself ‘HOW on earth will I EVER survive such a long ride, perched together like on an animal transporter. They threw my bag on the truck and motioned to jump on. ‘But where do I have space?’ I asked, and some guys who were in the very back of the truck leaned out even more and my seat for the next 6 hours was a bucket of paint, amidst tons of bags full of cabbage, vegetables and 21 kids who probably wondered what a falang was doing on the truck with them. I learned how to make the most awkward knots into my far-too-long legs and made friends with some of the students who were all absolutely cool and charming. I practiced some English with some interested students and learned a Khmu phrase here and there (the Khmu speak a different language from the Lao Language).

The first stretch to the biggest (and only one) town on the way, Pakseng, was 2.5 hours on the dustiest road I have ever been on. About 90% of the road was sand and earth, in some areas as deep as 20 cm. I amusingly watched one of the girls beautiful black hair turn whiter and whiter the further we got and we were all covered with red and yellow sand from toe to head. From Pakseng to Kham’s village, Mok Thanet, it was another 2 hours steep up the mountains. The landscape and hills are a beautiful sight and the incline of the street was so steep that the old truck wasn’t able to take the weight of 21 in the back plus 7 in the front so we often had to get off the truck and walk a few hundred meters to the next flatter stretch. The sunset was purple and pink and soon after that millions of stars lit the pitch dark night. I stared up into the sky and thought that this was the most challenging but also unique drive I had ever done and it was yet another memorable and not-to-miss experience.

Kham’s family greeted us and his father, stepmother, his shy stepsister, Njay and Kham sat around in a circle on the floor of the stilt house with me, eyeballing me and giggling when Kham and I were speaking English. I think and hope that they were proud that their son speaks such excellent English and when I tried out my few phrases in Khmu they definitely found that very funny (Samai Leu and Kopar Niem meaning HELLO and THANK YOU are the most important ones and already amuse Khmu people when spoken by falangs). Khmu has a loooot of rolling r-sounds which are easy to imitate so they were greatly amused that I was able to make their sounds. I was offered a glass (or 2) of Lao Lao, the local rice whiskey drink in Laos, and we had dinner together. Delicious green cooked vegetables, some (very spicy) chicken and of course sticky rice. More and more relatives joined the circle after word must have spread that Kham is back in his village with a falang. Here in Laos everyone is considered a cousin, even if you are not really related, so I met a lot of cousins, uncles, aunts and other relatives of the family during my stay. Around 10 pm the mats were put on the floor, a mosquito net was hung from the ceiling and we went to bed, Kham in one corner of the room, his sister Njay and me sleeping next to each other under the net. As soon as I turned to one side Njay snuggled up to me and swung her arm around my waist as if I was her sister or someone she has known for a long time. I was extremely happy about this closeness in two ways – firstly because I found it quite brave of her to approach me as she is (like most of Lao people) quite shy and secondly because she had extremely warm feet and hands – something very welcoming in about 4 degrees Celcius. I felt embarrassed and like a wimp to wear 7 (yes, seven!) layers of merino shirts and sweaters, a scarf, hat and gloves in bed while the rest of the family wore only a t-shirt and shorts or a sinh skirt.

In the morning we all got up around 5 am and I was rather stiff from sleeping on the floor. When I walked outside I saw a beautiful purple orange sunrise and thought once again how hard life in little villages in Laos is. People have to get up very early, work hard on the rice fields in the blazing sun all day and then after their dinner go to bed early as it gets cold and there is not very much light or entertainment in the evenings. We had a wonderful breakfast together, this time Kham was able to eat with us as the night before he couldn’t join us anymore (monks and novices are not allowed to eat after noon). Cooked green vegetables, some minced meat, sticky rice and something else that I couldn’t identify first. An inner voice told me that this brown colored meat could be a four-legged rodent and I asked Kham if this was what I thought it was. “Yes, it is a rat”, Kham answered, and I clapped my hands excitedly, telling them that I had wanted to try rat since I came to Laos. I was surprised by the taste of it… very intense but good. After breakfast we went for a walk and Kham showed me a little cemetery in the forest where his mother is burried and he explained a lot about the nature, customs and traditions of his village and the Khmu people. We walked to the next village and met many more relatives of Kham. People were clearly surprised to see a falang walking through their town, let alone a falang together with a novice. As the sun began to set it cooled down rapidly and we headed back to his village, stopping in one of his sister’s houses who was steaming sticky rice in the house. Most houses consist of one room with a section of it being devoted to cooking. Small coal or wood-fired clay ovens are topped with a steaming pot, a bamboo basket sitting on top of it. The inside walls and ceilings of those houses are charred and it is very smoky due to no air circulation. One thing that still amazes me ever time is the hospitality and generosity of the people – no matter how little they have, they still always offer you something. I got pomelos, pumpkins, stick rice from Kham’s family to take home to Luang Prabang and every time we visited one of his relatives they offered me fruit or sticky rice.

When we arrived back in Kham’s village, many people were taking their ‘bath’  at the central water station. A shower you usually find at public swimming pools in Western countries is the place where people shower, of course only ice cold water coming out of the hose. There is no wall and no curtain around the hose, so kids bathe naked, men in their underwear and women wearing their sinhs pulled up. I never understood the concept of trying to wash yourself properly while wearing a skirt from top down to your knees or why the villagers don’t build a simple concrete wall so that they can shower in privacy. Children were playing on the street – some were  skilfully carving something with huge machetes (it cracks me up every time I  see a 4 year old with a big machete, carving bamboo pieces and thinking of how Western parents would get a heart attack seeing kids with such a tool) , some were chasing down an old rubber tire with stick. As I approached a group of kids and tried to play tag with them one of the little kids started crying like crazy. He was so scared of seeing a falang and I involuntary made hi cry at least 5 times per day every time our paths crossed. When we got back to the house the whole family had cuddled up in the kitchen, chatting away while Kham’s sister Njay was cooking a delicious dessert made out of pumpkin, tapioka, sweet potatoes, coconut and palm sugar. A bunch of their friends had joined us and some of them were eager practicing their English with the falang. It as such a wonderful evening, listening to cheesy Thai and American pop music, eating together in a circle and telling each other jokes. Later Njay, her friend and I cuddled up under a blanket (this time I got the deluxe-version, two floor mats for a softer sleep) and slept until 6 am. I was the last one to get up (all the other family members had jumped out of bed around 5 am already) and when I climbed down the steps of the house, Kham was working already, pounding sticky rice with fresh poppy seeds in a huge mortar, which made a wonderfully sticky, slightly sweet snack. Unfortunately it was time to say goodbye for me and before I made my way back to Luang Prabang I got a huge stock of sticky rice and vegetables to take home.

This experience was unique in many ways. It gave me the opportunity to travel with a  friend and be welcomed in a Lao home and it showed me the real life of Laos – a memory I will always cherish and be thankful for.

P.S: this blog is dedicated to my student and friend Kham: koparrrrrniem, dear Kham, for taking me to your pretty village and making me feel to welcome in your family.

Kham's family

Kham’s family

Kham pounding  rice with poppy seeds, delicious dessert!

Kham pounding rice with poppy seeds, delicious dessert!

delicious pumpkin dessert made by Khams sister Njay

delicious pumpkin dessert made by Khams sister Njay

typical kitchen

typical kitchen

beautiful views from the villages

beautiful views from the villages

rats being dried on house walls

rats being dried on house walls

steaming sticky rice

steaming sticky rice

harvest time

harvest time

Kham tying a wrist band for his grandma

Kham tying a wrist band for his grandma

one of my many friendly truck companions

one of my many friendly truck companions

a full load!

a full load!

road construction and a lot of sand

road construction and a lot of sand

Kham and his grandmother

Kham and his grandmother

drying rice

drying rice

view from the village

view from the village

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my first rat meal!

my first rat meal!

sunrise

sunrise

sunset

sunset

Tak Bat – collecting alms in Luang Prabang

Good morning teacher” I hear a voice whispering softly from behind my back as I walk through Wat Xieng Thong temple. It is 6.10 am and the sun hasn’t risen yet. I turn around to see where the early greeting comes from. Pong, a novice and former student of mine smiles at me and asks me how I am doing. More and more novices and monks are starting to assemble in front of the pagoda, their robes filling the temple grounds with bright orange spots in the dark. Every day aroun 6 am all monks and novices in Luang Prabang go for Tak Bat – the collecting of alms and a very special cultural and religious act. Barefoot they walk on the streets to receive the food offerings from the laypeople who in turn receive merit for their part. No matter what weather, the monks and novices walk in single file down the roads of the town, silently and humbly receiving sticky rice and other food such as cookies. Every house has a fire going in their yard, with big charred pots and bamboo baskets sitting on top of a coal fire to steam the sticky rice for Tak Bat. THe locals usually get up around 5 am and particularly older women give alms every single day. I am not exactly a morning person so only after the 5th attempt I managed to actually get OUT of bed this morning instead of switching off the alarm and saying to myself “oooh, tomorrow is another day…”.

Instead of giving alms myself today I decided to go for a morning walk and quietly watch the procession.

With Chinese New Year happening around these weeks and hence facing a Chinese “invasion” of loud Chinese tourists in huge tour groups of 20+ people I knew that the supposed-to-be-quiet  act of Tak Bat would be not-so-quiet but I figured out that if I zig-zag through my favorite streets which are a bit off the beaten track I would be fine.

I was so wrong.

My first stop was by the steps leading down to the mighty Mekong. At this time of the year the morning fog covers the forests around the riverbanks and touches the water. I never cease to be touched by this mystical atmosphere. The street along the Mekong is quiet and empty. This is one of the things I like so much about LP: most of the time you can walk int he middle of the road without getting run over y cars or motorbikes. I wander through one of the many narrow lanes leading up to one of the 3 main streets on the peninsula and continue my walk, heading towards a temple in front of which i usually give alms. I can already see lightning from far away. Lightning that is caused by the flashlights of 1,000+$ Nikon, Canon, Sony and what-not cameras. Huge tourist groups block the streets, most of them carrying camera equipment which would make every professional photographer jealous. Click Click, flash flash. The sad thing is that the people who take those photos neither really know how to use such precious equipment (or will most likely never look at the sevenhundredandthirtythousand pics they just took) nor do they – and this is far worse – behave in a respectful and appropriate manner. (Although I believe that usually I have no anger issues I am always very tempted to snatch those people’s camera, first take a photo of them WITH flash with the lens in their face and asking them how they liked that, then throwing the camera on the ground and  jumping on it a hundred times).

Tak Bat is a religious act and everyone who would like to witness this peaceful and atmospheric procession should act accordingly. Running around half naked, blocking the way of the monks for a shot, using disturbing flashlights and sticking the camera lenses right in their faces is clearly not appropriate. Or would any Christian go up to a priest in the middle of a mass and flash-photograph him from a 1 meter distance and say that this is ok? I still can’t stop wondering how so many people can have so little empathy, respect and manners and it upsets me deeply that so many tourists treat the monks and novices as if they were animals in a zoo. Unfortunately the government doesn’t take any measures (such as limiting the spectators to standing on the other side of the street) and so this calm and otherwise atmospheric act becomes a disturbed one.

I quickly flee from the hordes and head towards a quiet part of the street where I sit down on a little bench. While I am playing with a little puppy dog who instantly falls in love with my feet and more so with my flip-flops, a group of monks and novices quietly walk along that road. Some groups are small with only 8 of them, some temples are bigger and therefore the lines can be as long as 30 monks and novices.

After having lived here for 1,5 years I know quite a few of them, some are my English students and some recognize me from walking past their temples every day. Again and again I get a shy or big smile, some whispered “good mornings” or a little giggle (especially from some of the smallest novices whom make me smile every time they practice the few English sentences they know when I I meet them at the temples).

Watching the laypeople and especially the old ladies in their sinhs (Lao traditional skirt), with their scarves around their left shoulders, the rice basket in front of them, and them monks and novices receiving the food from them, is a very special thing. I wish people could absorb and enjoy this sight rather than just taking thousands of photos and actually not ‘getting’ anything of the meaning and the atmosphere.

After about an hour the monks and novices return to their temples and the town calms down again, all tour groups are being shoved back to their hotels for breakfast and Luang Prabang once again radiates an atmosphere of special calmness and peacefulness. I walk to my favorite French opposite the Buddhist primary school bakery to have breakfast and watch some novices sweeping the the temple yards. More and more small novices arrive at Wat Sop primary school. Some of them play around with their phones, some of them have a little chat just before class starts.

It is 8 am and the sun is starting to come out of the clouds.

P.S.: I don’t have any close-up photos of the monks while they collect alms (as I am sure you know why:)) but I think that even the photos that I took from the distance give a good-enough picture of this special event.

P.P.S.: I believe that no matter where we travel around in the world, we should adapt to and respect the rules and customs that are prevalent in this country if we want to be respected and welcomed by the locals. Here is an outline of correct conduct at Tak Bat (produced by the Department of Information, Culture and Tourism Luang Prabang)

  • Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and can do so respectfully
  • Please buy sticky rice at the local market earlier that morning rather than from street vendors along the monks route
  • If you do not wish to make an offering, please keep an appropriate distance and behave respectfully. Do not get in the way of the monks’ procession or the believers offerings
  • Do not stand too close to the monks when taking photographs; camera flashes are very disturbing for both monks and the lay people
  • Dress appropriately: shoulder, chests and legs should be covered
  • Do not make physical contact with the monks
  • Large buses are forbidden within the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site and are extremely disturbing. Do not follow the procession on a bus – you will stand above the monks which in Laos is disrespectful

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10,957 hours

…or 1 year and 3 months in Laos. I: fell in love with lush Lao nature; laughed tears with my novice students; was close to strangling my students; ate Khau Piak at  streetfood stalls; slurped noodle soup at the shop across my house; smelled stocked blood and animal intestines at the local market, smelled fresh mangoes and tropical flowers; saw superman; felt the smoke from slash-and-burn in the air and in my eyes; raised an abandoned baby cat; arm/paw-wrestled with my not-so-babycat-anymore; taught it to do a high-five; crossed the Nam Khan river with a little boat every day for a year to get to work; declared flip-flops my favorite piece of clothing; mowed my 60 cm-high lawn with a custom-made machete; became desperate trying to get the tonal pronunciation of Lao words right; felt proud of my first 10-minute Lao conversation in a temple with the wife of the chief of the village; tried to learn reading and writing the Lao alphabet, gave up on trying to read and write the Lao alphabet; drove my Lao teacher crazy with questions; only memorized 3 phrases in Khmu language; swam in pristine Tad Sae and Kuang Si waterfalls; got lost in little countryside villages trying to find hidden waterfalls; eventually found the microscopic waterfalls; munched my favourite Gyoza and spring rolls; pigged out on the vegetarian buffet at the Luang Prabang night market; learned the difference between pig-out and pork-out; chased after snakes in the hotel garden; talked to my pet-spider Steve in my bathroom; did excursions to waterfalls with my novice students; learned how to make Kathongs (little banana leaf boats), learned how to cook Kao Poun (the best one in Laos!); cooked more than ever before; looked up at star-lit skies; went for evening walks through temple grounds; saw some thousand Hmong people during their New Year festival in their beautiful and colorful costumes; received blessings from my novices and monks; participated at Buddhist festivals; learned to chant in Pali language in temples with monks and novices; got grinned at by locals and novices chanting in Pali; was called Falang thousands of times; watched huge funeral processions passing through Luang Prabang’s streets; got into crazy water-fights during Lao New Year; got soaking wet on a bike during rainy season; saw double-looped rainbows spanning across Luang Prabang; rode elephants and bottle-fed a baby elephant; listened to the many gekkos in and around my house while falling asleep; started naming little see-through lizzards which live by the hundreds in Lao houses; savored fresh croissants and pain au chocolat at the French bakery; waited for Lebkuchen in the mail;  spoiled myself with 110 Lao massages; drank Lao Lao whisky during Lao New Year; bought a baby-blue scooter; took naps and watched Tatort on youtube; painted the scales of a huge paper naga green; practiced yoga with my own private teacher; pulled a muscle and got back onto the mat; learned about Kinesiology; tried to grow European basil, severely failed at harvesting a single leaf; got organic vegetables fresh and handpicked from the living-land farm; got myself 4 Sinhs (traditional Lao skirt) tailored, almost tilted over on my bike trying to ride wearing a Sinh; road tripped through the mountains on bumpy dusty streets; listened to horrible karaoke music everywhere in town, thought about pulling the plugs of the speakers, thought about paying the karaoke singer to stop singing; learned to line-dance at a nightclub; watched the mist over the Mekong at 6 am while monks collected their alms on the streets of the town; tried to avoid drinking Lao Lao whenever I could; admired sunsets from a boat on the Mekong; toured the South of Laos 360 km on a scooter; watched coffee growers work on their fields on the Bolaven Plateau; climbed the steps to Wat Pou in Champasak; did 3 visa-runs with a scooter to Thailand; learned how to die silk; watched women weave and make Saa-paper; was taught meditation by a monk-friend  in an enchanting forest, got lost with a monk and 2 novices while hiking back a different path; got addicted on Peppermint-Lime shakes at Mekong fish restaurant; got even more addicted on sticky rice with tamarind sauce; received blessings and many white strings around my arms during Baci ceremonies; watched Novices leave the temple, watched novices become monks, watched monks leave the temple; made artificial snow with my students; lit paper lanterns and made wishes and sent them into the sky; got stared at by water buffaloes crossing the street; returned thousands of waves from little hands yelling sabaidee to me; inhaled 2 liters of dust whilst biking on dirt roads; distributed 190 kilos of clothes and English books in little villages; bought 120 prepaid telephone vouchers; flushed down the toilet 68 cockroaches; learned the true meaning of patience and slowing down; worked as a teacher and hotel manager/ problem-solver/dispute-settler and babysitter for grown-ups; had great friends visiting from around the world, made great friends from all over the world; refrained from killing mosquitoes for Buddhist reasons, changed my mind about the bloodsuckers again about sparing them; heard the temple drums at 4 am and 4 pm 75 times; took 7.329 photos and deleted 4.928 of them; wondered if or when a coconut would fall on my head from one of the trees around me; broke my toe running against a table-foot; watched cheesy romantic Thai music videos at the bakery while waiting for my bagel, watched people riding their bikes, watched tree trunks drift by in flooded rivers, watched bamboo bridges get swept way; fought against thousands of ants, hundreds of cockroaches and some rats while moving into my house; bought huge rat-traps, learned that rats don’t eat cheese in Laos, gave up on using rat traps after almost chopping off my fingers, realized that my cat is not only refusing to pay rent but also does a lousy job at catching anything with 4 legs (her specialty is biting and scratching 2-legged creatures); did a last-minute trip to Cambodia and Angkor Wat; thought about my past, the present and my future; valued everything I have and I experienced and I was and I am; made plans for my future, got excited got scared got worried got nervous got optimistic got curious about it.

A pretty full year I would say.

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my 2013 in Laos

This is already my second New Year in Laos. We often tend to say “this year went by even faster than the last one” or “i don’t know where the time went”. For me especially the former couldn’t be truer. I know where the time went, it is just hard to grasp how quickly it can […]

My home in Laos

When I came back to Laos in October 2012 I moved into a nice guesthouse where I stayed for 4 months but I realized quite quickly that it would be nice to cook your own food every now and then instead of eating out every day. As there are no apartments in Luang Prabang the […]

Lao monkeys meeting Obama

some of my students at Wat Sene temple

some of my students at Wat Sene temple

Last week I asked my novice students to finish a story I had printed out for them. Since challenging and sparking the imagination of students isn’t really on the teachers’ list I figured I would give it a go and see what they come up with. I was sure that with this kind of story they would be able to create the craziest and funniest endings. Here is the story and the task:

NOT A NORMAL ZOO DAY

It all started on a nice sunny day last April.  All the kids in school were excited to be going to the zoo, but I was especially excited.  I love animals and picnics, and going to the zoo is having both at the same time. 

At the zoo, we got to see different animals in their cages and some of them were getting fed by their guards.  Each of us had a favorite animal, and mine was the Elephant. 

It was all going well, until Sam decided to mess around with the lock on the monkeys’ cage and then..

 Finish the story

Continue this story with your own ideas.

It was their homework to finish the story and the next day we had class I asked each one of them to read out loud their story. I was very surprised as most of them had only 1-2 sentences and the longest ending was 4 sentences. Also the level of creativity was quite meager as the only thing that happened was that

a) the monkeys stayed in the cage or

b) they ate some bananas and ran to the jungle or

c) they freed the other animals and THEN ran to the jungle.

I said “COME ON, that can’t be all the ideas that you have, there must have been more  happening after the cage door opened!”

I pushed and pushed and pushed them with questions like “and what happened then” and I also gave them a hint that they should think of the movie Madagascar which I had given to one of the novices for his Birthday. In the end of our 60 minute class we had a story up on the board that made me giggle and happy as it was so much more creative than boring monkeys not getting their ass out of the cage.

  1. after the cage opened the monkeys freed the other animals
  2. a giraffe, a zebra, a penguin, a seal, a lion, a tiger and some monkeys robbed a bank and bought a car and helicopter with the money
  3. they flew to NEw York with the helicopter
  4. then they went to the White House to visit Obama (I forgot to mention to them that the White House is NOT in NY)
  5. they put a gun to Obama’s head and told him that he needed to make sure that all zoos in the world will be closed
  6. Obama called the presidens of all countries and told them that they need to close their zoos because the animals are not happy in captivity and should be able to live their life in freedom.
  7. When Obama called the Lao president the Lao president told him he would only close the zoo if he got some money to compensate for the loss of ticket sales
  8. the American president was ok with it and the animals left.
  9. Some of them went into the jungle, some into the desert and some to the South Pole.
  10. Onc a year they all meet again.

Now THAT is good  story, isn’t it?

Elephant Conservation Center, Sayaboury, Laos

The Elephant Conservation Center is probably one of the few places you can visit where it’s not about elephants adapting to people’s schedules and needs but where people adapt to the rhythm and needs of the elephants. If you care about the well-being of the elephants and if you care about supporting people who really […]

A story about everything and nothing

Lately I haven’t climbed any high mountains, haven’t ventured out to any  lost cities, I haven’t seen exotic animals (well, except for the occasional mega-Gekko)  or exciting rituals. So if you look for a really exciting story then keep looking.

This posting is about everything and nothing. About this and that. About everyday life in Laos.

Some days I wake up and think that I am the luckiest person in the world -and some days I am saying to myself “are you crazy to do that or what?”. Life is so different here from Western Europe and at the same time it isn’t. You have to deal with the same challenges and issues such as annoying neighbors who have nerve-wrecking construction work going on 6 days a week 10 hours a day, flat tires on your motorbike, an empty fridge in the evening and 2 lazy legs that are refusing to go to the next street food place to grab a take-away. And then there are the challenges which I haven’t encountered so far yet in my life such as staff who are impossible to motivate and get them to do their job and a slowness in everyday life that sometimes drives me up the wall (I need to add though that this slowness DOES have its good sides too: when you are late somewhere or you need someone to wait for you then this is nooooo problem at all!).

On the other hand I have highlights every day that I would never be able to experience in Austria: my palm- and banana trees-view every morning I step outside (seriously, I never thought that banana trees can make you so damn happy!), very often bright blue skies and sunshine and a wonderfully empty main street where you most often the only pedestrian for a couple of hundred meters.

This morning when I walked to work I saw this woman carrying about 10 huge baskets attached to a wooden pole which she carries on her shoulders (notice how empty the main street is at 8.30 am!?!?!). People here (especially women) are so tough, no matter how old they are they still walk around carrying heavy bags of rice, wood or other things. IMAG1111

By the way: I still haven’t screened my 6.500 photos that i have taken since I came back to Laos (90 % of them have to be  deleted!), That will be another “interesting” challenge.

In this little town I bump into friends a couple times a day and there is ALWAYS time for a nice chat. Nobody is too rushed. I really like that.

my students at Wat Sene temple

my students at Wat Sene temple

I find teaching my novices in the temples everyday for 2 hours  still enjoyable. Although I sometimes struggle with them being too noisy and to slack during class (no comparison to our school systems whatsoever). When I had my birthday a couple of weeks ago the novices from one of the temples handed me wonderfully wrapped presents at the end of our class and I was really moved by their thoughtfulness. And at my other temple one of the novices still makes me smile every time when he says “teacher, I am very happy today”. “Why?”, I ask. “Because  I see you. I want to see you every day”. OOOOOOOOOOhhhhhh, so sweeet!

Food is another neverending subject here. All the expats here have certain cravings after a while. Although you can get quite a lot of things here every now and then we all have a craving for “western” things you can sink your teeth into. And as the selection of cheese (or generally milk products) is limited and extremely pricey I was all the more excited to get close to 2 kilos of wonderful Austrian mountain cheese sent directly from my father to Luang Prabang (thanks, dad!). The next day I invited some of my friends to enjoy this rare delicacy together. Makes you appreciate the “everyday-things” from the western world all the more.

nice view over the peninsula and the many spectators

nice view over the peninsula and the many spectators

soe of my hotel staff and me watchng the race

soe of my hotel staff and me watchng the race

..somehow reminds me of the little dwarfs in Snow White..

..somehow reminds me of the little dwarfs in Snow White..

2 of the 32 paticipating boats racing against each other

2 of the 32 paticipating boats racing against each other

view from the Old Bridge down on one of the racing boats (looks like a huge insect)

view from the Old Bridge down on one of the racing boats (looks like a huge insect)

view from the Old Bridge towards the town center

view from the Old Bridge towards the town center

On the 4th of September the big annual boat race took place. This event is THE event of the year and there were 32 longtail boats competing against each other on the Nam Khan river. The sportive aspect of the event is not the most important thing though for the spetcators. The main thing is incredibly loud music, drinking beer Lao and betting money on the teams. Around noon pretty much the whole of Luang Prabang was drunk and watching the boats became less important. The boats themselves are stunning though I have to say. Massive wood, heavy, very long and elegant – and obviously quite unstable due to its narrow built. One boat sunk during the race.

 

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o-ohh- elephan on a dive-mission!

o-ohh- elephan on a dive-mission!

where is he?? (actually he is RIGHT underneath me!)

where is he?? (actually he is RIGHT underneath me!)

yesss, I CAN stand on the elephant (at least for a few seconds)

yesss, I CAN stand on the elephant (at least for a few seconds)

elephant ooooooove

elephant ooooooove

maybe I could take him home?

maybe I could take him home?

Tad Sae waterfall bursting with water!

Tad Sae waterfall bursting with water!

cool fold-up plants close to the waterfall

cool fold-up plants close to the waterfall

Today I went to Tad Sae Waterfall with a friend of mine. I love this place. It is in the middle of a lush jungle and it has water only in rainy season. We went there quite late and most of the few remaining visitors left when it started to rain heavily. I was contemplating to bathe an elephant in the water- one of the things you can do at the waterfall. As I was going to get wet anyway I decided to do it today as I prefer to have less tourists staring at you while you enjoy this wonderful experience. My elephant was called Moun and she is 10 years old. After I got onto her back (I forgot how bow-legged you have to sit to NOT fall off) she walked to the path leading to the water and within seconds she was in the waterfall-pool. Although this is my 3rd time riding/bathing elephants I once again realized that even if it was the 10.000th time I would be just as exited and happy. For me elephants are one of the most amazing, impressive and wonderful animals on this planet and being able to spend time with them in nature rather than seeing them in a zoo or circus is a real privilege. It is such a blast when the elephants fully submerge in the water underneath you and when they come up you are lucky if you still sit on them. Those 15 minutes with my wonerful elephant made me feel like a little kid again. Happy happy happy.

I am ready for many more wonderful experiences here in Laos.

A Buddhist farewell

When I received the message last month that my cousin Tina’s husband Ken had passed I felt a deep sadness. I hadn’t know Ken well, I had met him 3 times over the course of probable 10 years but I had followed his blog (where he wrote about his fight with the aggressive brain tumor […]