Archive | January, 2014

All in a Day’s Work – From civil engineer to falang

21 Jan

Lao PDR is certainly not a democratic country. It’s for this reason that the acronym part of the country’s name can stand for something else – please don’t rush. This is a much more apt description of a number of things here that can be both endearing and frustrating.

I feel this is also an apt description of how my work here has been so far. Going from the hustle and bustle of working in a big organisation in Sydney as a civil engineer, to my work here, has been a huge shift in dynamics. It didn’t take me too long to adjust however. The Lao way of doing things can be annoying at times but I think that it also has a lot of merit. I hate the materialistic lifestyle that a lot of Sydney-siders live. The keeping up with the Joneses mentality is just not for me.

I have had to take on a steep learning curve as I tried (and am still trying) to come to terms with doing lethal experiments on fish, going to local markets with pretty poor animal welfare conditions, dealing with the language barrier and the many other challenges. But so far, it has all been worth it. I am loving living and working in Laos.

Here is what a typical day might look like for me (this is when I’m not working from home):

730am – wake up and do some exercise if I’m feeling lively

8am – feed the dog and myself

9am – get picked up by driver and try to teach him English while he teaches me Lao

930am – arrive at the lab and plan the day’s activities

10am – go driving around Vientiane looking for pipes, pumps and tools to continue building/improving the shear tank experiment

1230pm – lunch at a local restaurant – generally pho but sometimes fried fish with sticky rice or maybe a banh mi

3-5pm – finish work and drive home

Not too bad, right? I feel like I have already got quite a bit of work done in my short time here. I’ve managed to build an experiment from scratch  which was never in the placement description when I took this project on. On Friday I leave for a week-long field trip travelling to some cool places around the country. We’ll be surveying some water mitigation structures and then it will be up to me to design the upstream fish passages. There’s no funding for construction yet but this is not uncommon in a lot of engineering projects.

The Shear Tank Experiment

Setup

When I turned up for my first day of work, my supervisor talked me through one of my main tasks for the first 2 months. That was setting up (from scratch) a shear tank experiment. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this experiment aims to simulate the forces that are exerted on fish when a weir gate (or similar) is opened.

The lab

The lab

Buying the last bit of pipe

Buying the last bit of pipe

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I have a bit of experience in water and sewer main design so I had a fair idea of what was required. I just didn’t know that besides designing the experiment, I would also be building, checking and modifying the thing. It was a lot of fun and I loved getting a chance to work with some tools.

Centrifugal pump (ie BEAST)

Centrifugal pump (ie BEAST)

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Gansta

Gansta

Welding

Welding

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The fish feeder and outlet which will generate a jet of water travelling at 20m/s

The fish feeder and outlet which will generate a jet of water travelling at 20 m/s

Testing

Having built the experiment with the help of 2-3 Lao colleagues and some students, we were ready to test!

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The Aftermath

This experiment is pretty brutal. Something that I’ve had to learn to accept as I’m not a scientist and am not used to testing on animals. The results speak for themselves. [UPDATE: I’ve been asked to remove the photos showing the results of the experiments]

 

Besides my assignment here, I’ve also met some really interesting people outside of my placement. It’s amazing how many different organisations are here and they all seem to be willing to discuss their work. As part of my networking so far, I’ve managed to get a couple of volunteer roles.

One will be writing the odd article for the Laos Investment Review and the other one will be helping the guys at SERC to organise a clean up day similar to Clean Up Australia Day. The focus of our work will be on reducing the amount of plastic bags that are used here. It really blows my mind how much plastic bags are relied upon here. Not only are they used way too often but a lot of people then burn them to not have to pay the fee for a rubbish collection truck to come pick them up. Here is a short (and really interesting) documentary on the problem of plastic here:

From Banana Leaves to Plastic Bags

On a side note, Elizabeth arrives in a couple hours! She’ll be working as an English Teacher at the Australian International School here. I’m really excited to have her here with me, to live with her and to share all these experiences with her. This also means that today is the day for a well overdue haircut and shave…

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Sending you love from Laos,

Len

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Flying Fish and Vang Vieng – A Working Holiday

13 Jan

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Just before the Christmas break I was working on setting up an experiment to test the effects that water regulation structures such as weirs have on fish. The gates that regulate water flow past these barriers exert very large shear stresses on the fish and we’re trying to simulate these scenarios to work out injury and mortality rates. It was up to me to build this experiment having no previous fish experimenting experience. On one of my first days here, my supervisor showed me the ‘lab’ that still in construction and gave me a very rough outline of what I needed to do to make this experiment happen. A few sketches and a lot of googling later, and we were ready to do some trial runs. We managed to chuck down a couple hundred fish through the makeshift fish feeder and work out what needed to be fixed in the new year to get better results. 

My office

My office – that’s a diesel pump that doubles as a desk

Cutting steel Lao style

Cutting steel pipe Lao style

Action shot

Action shot with one of my Lao counterparts. The water was REALLY cold.

Taking video of the fish being shot out by the jet

Taking video of the fish being shot out into the high velocity jet

Having managed to get this done before Christmas, I basically had the next 2 weeks to work from home which involved doing a bit of research and some time honing my CAD/Google SketchUp skills. I was originally planning on going to Malaysia for this ‘working from home’ period but ended up going local to nearby (4-5 hours by bus) and very touristy Vang Vieng.

I decided to go to Vang Vieng the night before I left, having done some online research on the place. The picture that was painted for me was not a pleasant one . Vang Vieng has been the a backpacker destination for some years now. With the infamous river tubing, river bars, river rope swings and the river death slide having taken the lives of around 25 people per year for the last 5-10 years. However, in late 2012 the communists decided enough was enough and closed most of the riverside bars, the crazy slides and swings in an attempt to curb the death rate and make the picturesque town a little more family friendly.

Party Over for Vang Vieng

Party’s Over for Backpacker Mecca

Is the Party Over in Vang Vieng

The thing that sold it for me though was an Organic Mulberry Farm just a few kilometres out-of-town which sounded quite nice. The next day, I managed to make it on the 11 o’clock bus at 11:30am and we promptly left Vientiane at 12pm.

It was my first Lao bus ride and I was excited. I bought a banh mi at the market for sustenance and had my Lao language book for entertainment. The 4.5-hour bus ride was adventurous with plenty to see. As we were leaving Vientiane, the bus stopped next to two foreigners who had signs written in both English and Lao to go to Vang Vieng. They rejected the lift cause they did not want to pay. I guess they were after a free car ride or something. Silly falang.

Having made plenty of random stops to drop and pick up things and run errands, we made one proper pit-stop where I bought some more boiled corn. I love boiled corn.

Laos (932)

Road-side sustenance

Road-side sustenance

Having not booked any accommodation for the night, I set out to do a bit of exploring. For my first night in Vang Vieng I settled for the in-town bungalows on the other side of the infamous Nam Song River called Otherside Bungalows. The bungalows were nice but it wasn’t till the next morning that I discovered my first Lao/western toilet (i.e. it had no seat). It’s really up to you whether you squat over it or decide to place your bum straight onto the ceramic. I chose the latter for those playing at home.

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You gotta love the pink toilet paper

My first impressions of VV were great. It seemed chilled out, touristy and had the most beautiful mountain ranges. I didn’t have a set time-frame for how long I could stay there and knew that I would enjoy the next few days.

The next morning I set off to get a bike and rode the 4km journey to the farm. The farm turned out to be awesome. I milked goats, helped out with planting some food and taught English to local school kids as part of a separate program that they were running.

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Goat city

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Otherside bungalows

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Inside Blue Lagoon cave

Pig!

Pig!

The farm also happens to be the starting point for the tubing which I did on Christmas day with a bunch of other revelers. It was really fun to float around the river, check out the scenery and watch the dozens of dirty backpackers getting wasted. The tubing was actually inadvertently started by the farm’s founder, Mr Thanongsi Sorangkoun (affectionately known as Mr T). Mr T wanted the farm’s volunteers to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river by floating on old tyre tubes that he bought. Before he knew it, some of the locals turned it into a big commercial endeavour which was almost the death of the town. Mr T does not like it to discuss this. With the new government reforms, I hope that the town continues to thrive and the drug-riddled backpacker scene tones down a bit.

Apart from milking goats and making delicious goat’s cheese, I also tought English at a local school. It was a great experience and one that I didn’t know I would enjoy as much as I did. My only previous teaching experience was as a high school maths teacher to snobby private school kids and trying to help my brother with his homework. These kids were really clever and eager to learn.

Farmer

Farmer

Teacher

Teacher

During my first night teaching, I was busting to go to the bathroom. Upon asking where the toilet was, the volunteer high school teacher asked if I wanted to shit. I said no and was promptly shown to a wall at the back of the school where you pee. Not quite sure what girls do at the school or what they do when it’s not just a pee that they need to do.

All in all I really enjoyed my time in Vang Vieng. I met some lovely people and did some cool stuff. I would definitely recommend it to anyone thinking of going. I just don’t suggest you stay in town and make sure you rent a good mountain bike to check out the beautiful scenery and villages in the area. Vang Vieng is a great place if you like Friends. The TV show. A number of the bars and cafes play Friends, South Park and other random shows on repeat on big plasma TVs. It’s actually really fun to get dinner and chill out watching Friends. The only nuisance are the tourists. There are lots of them and most are annoying. From the snobby older type who complain about the service to the teenagers with dreadlocks and wearing happy pants, glued to their iphones and ipads. 

I came back to Vientiane for NYE and it was fun!

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Till next time,

Len

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