“Sabaidee” from Vientiane, Laos!
First things first – it’s both ‘Laos’ and ‘Lao’ and hold the ‘s’.
So, is it ‘Laos’ or ‘Lao’? (I’ve seen ‘Laos’ and ‘Lao’ interchanged in written communications all the time). And if it is ‘Laos’ – is the ‘s’ pronounced? There are few discussions about this online but now being here, this is what I have understood. The country is ‘Laos’, the people, language, food etc. are ‘Lao’ and you don’t pronounce the “s” in either. The French apparently added the “s” in 1893 for the country name and even though the Lao people had no choice to accept it, they didn’t change their original pronunciation. The ‘s’ is pronounced by mainly westerners but since I’m here – as in Laos, do as the Lao do!
Now that is settled, back to the blog……After applying to the PULSE program back in January (and giving my poor manager 1 days’ notice – Patricia thank you again!), I am finally here writing my first (ever) blog. The journey has been a real adventure so far; from the multi stage application process to the thorough 3-day training in Philadelphia; from the numerous communications and group sessions from the fantastic PULSE team to speaking to past volunteers – the build-up has been both exciting and nerve wracking.
I was officially confirmed successful in my application in April and was assigned to Save the Children in Vientiane, Laos (where I had to quickly “Google-Map” it as embarrassingly I didn’t actually know where it was!) – then the rollercoaster of activity and emotion really began. Over the last few months I have packed up my apartment; completed the many deployment actions i.e. visa application, health and security briefings, not to mention the endless vaccinations; transitioned my current work and said a heartfelt goodbye to family, friends and colleagues both in the US and the UK…. and now I am finally here.
Getting here: Getting here had a few challenges too, my flight into Bangkok was delayed which meant a missed flight to Laos, an additional 9 hour delay at Bangkok airport and a lost suitcase (and then found again) – which I put down to being all part of the adventure. I then finally arrived in Vientiane where I met my 2 housemates for the next 6 months: Jyoti and Devon. Jyoti is a GSK Dubai employee also on PULSE in Vientiane working for CHAI (Clinton Health Access Initiative) and Devon (from the US) is one of her colleagues. Jyoti and Devon have been absolutely amazing! Jyoti started 6 weeks before me and is already a “local” and Devon has been here 18 months and knows Laos like the back of her hand. They are a lot of fun, great to live with and have already introduced me to home-made celery soup, bamboo shoot snacks, dragon fruit for breakfast, pumpkin frittata and evening Zumba classes on the Mekong river and this was just in the first week!
First Impressions: I wanted to give a little taste of what I have experienced in charming Vientiane so far. What really hits you when you first arrive here (other than the jet lag) is the hustle and bustle of the street markets; the vibrant colours of the many Buddhist temples; the salivating smells of fresh food in the air followed by the not so great “street” smells; the rich green of the foliage and the unexpected bakeries dotted around. The Lao people can bake! – fresh bread, pastries, cakes, coffee shops much akin to what you would expect in France or Italy which was a very pleasant surprise. More fool me for thinking it would be all noodles and rice! Now, I am making the assumption that this is due to the French colonial influence here but I also don’t want to do Vientiane a dis-service especially when my boyfriend likes to tell me (an Italian), that pizza was originally invented in China! I do however still dispute this to this day, (I think he says it just to annoy me), but out of sheer patriotic loyalty I absolutely refuse to believe it! Either way, I’m certainly not complaining, the food here is delicious and the Lao people excel as bakers!
Weather wise we are in the rainy season at the moment, the dry season will kick in the beginning of October so I will get to experience both. Rainy season is very hot, humid and of course has frequent monsoon like rain. It doesn’t rain all day every day, today for example was a scorcher, blazing sun in the sky with 100% humidity but by 5pm the heavens opened and down it poured. I have been caught out in it a few times (forgetting my poncho) and you just accept that you simply can’t get any wetter and go about whatever you were doing.
Save the Children (STC): Now for the real reason I am here….I am in week 2 as a HR Advisor at STC. There are 2 others in the HR team who I directly work with: Thip (“Tip”) and Phelee (“Pey-Lee”). My new interim manager (Country Director for Laos) will be flying in later this week as there has been a recent change in leadership so I should be understanding more about my assignment then. My first week was mainly introductions, inductions, learning the work STC do here in Laos, finding local food to eat at lunchtime and getting to know the area. Part of PULSE training before I arrived was talking about the pace of work in NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) and I am understanding that more now I’m actually here. I’m eager to jump in and get started and I have to keep reminding myself that for the time being I just need to listen, understand the work culture and be comfortable with the pace of the office. Anyone who knows me well knows that this is, and will continue to be, a real challenge, but I’m slowly getting there (s.l.o.w.l.y!)
STC has been working here for 24 years and implements support for 6 very important programs:
- Child Protection;
- Child Poverty;
- Child Rights Governance;
- Health & Nutrition; and
- Disaster Risk Reduction
There are about 100 employees working across 4 offices in the country: about 30 employees in Vientiane (the capital where the main office is and where I am based) and the rest are spread across 5 remote provinces Luang Prabang, Sayaboury, Khammouan, Savannakhet and Bolikhamsay. A little history about Laos – in addition to the Lao people (known as “Lao loom”) who live in built up areas and who we would deem the local people, there are approximately an additional 70 ethnics groups of indigenous Lao people that live in remote mountainous villages across the country which includes a range of languages and traditions. They are viewed as different to the Lao loom and often face prejudice and discrimination from their country counterparts (very similar to the native American or Australian aboriginal history).
The life the ethnic people is very different to what we are used to, schooling is pretty much non-existent especially for girls and then you have to think about the actual efficacy of the schools themselves. It’s a crazy concept to get your head around – schooling in the traditional sense potentially causing more issues than it solves?! I will give you an example of just a basic thought process:
- What does the curriculum look like?
- What jobs are the children likely to eventually move into bearing in mind they survive off the land?
- Due to the many ethnic languages spoken (not Lao), the Government only acknowledges Lao as the official language so what ‘should’ they be taught in?
- Where do you find the teachers?
- How do you get the children physically to the schools? Some of these villages are so remote and wide spread, that children have to walk for hours to attend. We are talking about asking parents in local villages (which involves finding someone who also speaks the local community language) to release their 8 to 16-year-old daughters (who are typically not allowed to be schooled as their role is to stay home, marry at a young age and look after the families to enable the boys to be educated) to live in local dormitories which more closely resemble shacks, near the closest school miles away. In these shacks the children sleep on wooden benches, there is no electricity, toilet facilities or running water, they suffer with hunger and have often been found in the forests alone in the middle of the night foraging for food. On top of that, if they don’t have enough to deal with, are vulnerable to child traffickers and sexual abusers.
- And then there is the funding, STC is already having to stop supporting local areas as of 2018 as there is no more money to support their work
And that’s just one thought process I discussed with one of my colleagues after the naturally many questions I had! STC is currently working with the schools to be able to provide better dormitories which are safer, clean, and enable children to continue with some form of education. I have attached a link which shows an example from the Sayaboury district and you can get a glimpse of what the original dormitories look(ed) like: https://laos.savethechildren.net/news/i-could-not-sleep-tale-thongxay
This leads me to the truly heart breaking side – the amount of rape, sexual abuse and child trafficking that occurs here and this takes place locally (within families and villages), by travelling foreigners and even more horrifically by actual aid workers (the very people who are supposed to be helping!) It’s pretty heart wrenching stuff and the team here do phenomenal work to try and address the numerous issues and are passionate to understand the many and varied local cultural traditions to try and provide some kind of alternative and education of basic child rights and protection.
I have met so many people already who have dedicated their working lives in developing countries which is truly humbling; my 6 month attempt to contribute feels pretty pitiful in comparison. I have to keep telling myself that my focus is to learn as much as I can and if I can do anything, just one thing in my HR capacity, to help these employees do their crucial jobs more effectively then I will have achieved something albeit small. So, the plan is for me to be going out to some of these remote provinces in the next couple of months which will be both an amazing and difficult experience so I will certainly keep you posted and will take lots of photos.
So, that’s pretty much it so far, it has certainly been emotional. From feeling horrified and upset learning about the treatment of children to being thrust into this whole other world of new experiences encompassed by an air of adventure. I have already experienced so many ‘firsts’, too many to list really but my favourites have been finding gecko eggs at the back of the sofa (that’s what those little white balls are in the attached photo) and watching goats, chickens and large zebu cattle (the cows with a hump or as my uncle Dave articulately called them – “camels!”) moseying past the garden and moo-ing in what I can only describe as Barry White doing an impression of a goat – sounds crazy but very accurate.
With that being said, I am definitely aware that “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”. Vientiane is unlike any place I have been and I am so excited, and feel incredibly privileged, to be fully embedded here for the next 6 months, learning and hopefully contributing in a real way to the important work STC does and am certainly looking forward to sharing it with family who will be visiting in a couple of months. I will sign off now and will be blogging again soon. I have already heard stories of snakes coming out of the toilet and a giant rat hurling tomatoes in the night whilst eating geckos (I wish I was making this up) but I will leave that to next time.
Missing you all : )
P.S If you want to have a look at what STC are doing specifically in Laos, here’s the web address: https://laos.savethechildren.net/