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Q and A with Kate Martin – Former Volunteer in Laos

29 Dec

So I know I haven’t been posting too much on my actual work here. In part because I’m still getting my head around what I will be doing while I’m here and in part because there is just so many other interesting stuff that I want to write about. However, I will try to tell you guys about my work here a little more and to start that process, below is a Q and A style email thread that I had with Kate Martin as I was getting ready to make the trip to Laos. Kate is the volunteer that I have taken over from while she takes a well-deserved holiday and comes back as a full-time employee in 2014.

A bit of background on Kate:

Kate was based in Vientiane for twelve months working as a Freshwater Fisheries Research Officer with the Living Aquatic Resources Research Centre (LARReC). LARReC is responsible for conducting research in the development of fish passage technology.

The aims of Kate’s assignment were to build capacity to develop and trial fishways. Kate  assessed the organisation’s core skills, developed training, procedures, guidelines, and a monitoring and evaluation system, and delivered training to staff. Kate also strengthened partnerships with existing networks.

Kate has a Bachelor in Applied Science in Adventure Ecotourism and, after working in the tourism industry for four years, decided on a change to working for Fisheries. Kate has worked for fisheries for the last three years and has experience in fishways, fishway assessment and social surveys. 

Kate applied for the program because she wanted to share her knowledge and skills, immerse herself in another culture, and learn from the life experiences that it has provided.


[LB] How have you found your placement? It seems like this one is really well-developed with a large number of people working on the project from both Australia and Laos. I’ve heard some mixed responses in terms of these kind of placements. Nothing negative but some seem to be much more structured and organised than others. 

[KM] My placement so far has been great. The first couple months are a great settling in period, just be willing to get to know your colleagues. Having lunch and parties with them will make the transition a lot easier. The project is very much supported by Australia and a number of Lao organisations, so you will have a great support network. It is very well structured in terms of meeting deadlines etc. but there are still things that pop up in between that throw us off course and there will also be some down time. The best advice I can give to people is to take initiative during those times and provide training in emails, Powerpoint etc.

[LB] What is your professional background? How did you find the settling in period?

[KM] I actually studied adventure eco-tourism and found myself in fisheries. I have worked with Lee and the rest of the team in Australia for the past 4 years at Narrandera Fisheries Centre so I was very familiar with their work before arriving here in Laos. So the settling in maybe a little different for you as I just left Australia and was doing the some work here in Laos. Don’t stress there will be people here to support you if you are having difficulties. Also, there is an Australian guy based here in Laos who runs the ACAIR project. He will be your boss and will point you in the right  direction if things become too confusing or if you find that you are struggling a little. It is a very relaxed culture they don’t stress.

[LB] What have been the hardest aspects of the role?

[KM] Hardest part has been communication but you will pick that up as you are going and you will find the best way to communicate. Sometimes the project is hectic and things don’t always go to plan so you will have to think quickly on your feet during these times. You will get frustrated, I won’t lie, but that is all part of it.

[LB] What have been the best aspects of the role?

[KM] Best part is that you will learn so much in such a short time, you have a great time with everyone you work with and other people you will meet along the way. You will get to see a lot of the country in through work and you will have opportunities to take holidays as well.

[LB] How many volunteers do you know/work with?

[KM] I work with no other volunteers, just me and Lao colleagues. There are a few volunteers here in country from Australia and the rest of the world. You will meet them during your first couple of weeks in Laos and they will become a little family/support network.

[LB] Do you live in a shared place or your own unit?

[KM] I live in a share house with an Australian and Swiss guy. You will do house hunting when you arrive. There are a couple of websites that you can look for share houses, houses or units for rent if you’d like to get your head around everything but you will do most of this when you arrive. LB note: I now live in Kate’s old house and it’s awesome!

[LB] Have you had much time to check out the country and travel?

[KM] You will have plenty of time to see the country and many other countries. There are plenty of annual holidays that Laos has that will give you time to travel and it wont eat into your recreational leave and you can also do plenty of weekend trips.

[LB] When do you finish your placements and what are your plans afterwards?

[KM] I finish in November so I may get to meet you in person before I finish my placement. Afterwards I am coming back to Laos to work more on the project so I may get the opportunity to work with you. I will be travelling before heading back to OZ and having Xmas with the family and then probably be back in January sometime.

[LB] How have you found learning the language? Difficult?

[KM] You will have language lessons in you arrive and you can continue with it throughout the year its not to difficult you just have to stick with it.

Thank you to Kate for allowing me to publish this stuff. I hope it’s provided a bit of insight into my placement here.

Until next time,



The Last Goodbye

1 Nov

Love heart

I’m not much of a crier but geez the last few days have been hard. All culminating to today when my mum and my Liz dropped me off at the airport.

It’s really hard when you go away for a long time. Not something that I can say I’ve done too much. Well, besides the odd month-long holiday or two but that’s different.  This is very different kind of adventure.

When you decide to do something different or go somewhere new (that something ultimately being a big change in your circumstances). Time passes by, days, weeks, months, and all of a sudden you’re faced with 1 or maybe 2 days before your departure. It all becomes real and imminent.

Last night was really hectic as I finished packing, ran the last few errands, ticked off the last few items on my ‘to-do’ list, drove back to work cause I forgot my hard-drive and managed to get some sleep on a single bed not designed for 2 people. It was really hard holding Liz while she tried to deal with me going as best she could. Not much I could say or do besides just be there for her. I know that everything will be ok and we’ll see each other soon but this doesn’t change how much it sucks being at the airport, having just said goodbye to the ones I love.

The airport is a funny place, so many people going to so many places, all with a different purpose. I ticked “other” as the reason for travel on the departure form at immigration. Walking down through those gates, having just said goodbye to my mum and Liz was really hard. Crying doesn’t come easily to me but I had tears in my eyes and a certain part of me, probably somewhere in the heart region, wanted me to turn around and cancel this whole thing.

But I won’t cancel or back out of this. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for  a while and feel very lucky for this opportunity. I’ve made some sacrifices to be here and I will try to make the most of this new adventure as best I can. I know the next few months will be really challenging but I will persevere.

Now, I better go, before I miss my flight…

T minus 10 days – A reflection

22 Oct

Vientiane (Photo credit: Kippelboy.)

Time has flown by, kind of fast, kind of slow.

In some ways, it only seems like a few days ago that I got an email from Austraining International telling me that I was successful in my interview and application for the role of Environmental Engineer on a 12-month placement based in Vientiane, Laos. In actual fact, that was 3 months ago. I only had a few days to accept or decline the offer. I accepted.

I completed and signed the mandatory forms, had a check-up with my GP, did a blood test and began a course of vaccinations. Throughout this time, I was also trying to work out whether this placement was the right decision for me or whether I was making a huge mistake.

I have a secure and well-paying job, I have a girlfriend who is not planning on moving overseas to one of the least developed countries in the world and take up a life as an expat’s partner. I also have all my friends, family and life’s comforts here in Sydney. Why would I put all that in jeopardy to take up a placement in a foreign country, undertaking plenty of field work in dangerous locations, exposing myself to many lethal diseases and taking a pretty significant pay-cut in the process?

I spoke to lots of people and got plenty of mixed responses. My dad thought (and still thinks) that I’m making a mistake and doesn’t understand why I would leave my job to work in a different country where I can’t speak the language or know anyone. I understand where he is coming from. He was born in Ukraine, during the reign of the communist empire, when times were a little tougher than they are now and people didn’t just leave their jobs that they spent 5 years studying for, to move to some random country where they didn’t know a word of the language (well he did make that same move when we immigrated to Australia in 1992 after the fall of communism in Ukraine).

My mum was much more understanding and I think she’s just used to me undertaking these random adventures. My girlfriend was at first hesitantly supportive, then flat-out did not want me to go and has now resigned to the fact that I will be going and we’ll be doing long-distance for a while.

My friends were all generally really supportive and positive about this opportunity but it’s always easy to be supportive and positive about something that you don’t need to do yourself. A lot of my friends are passionate about humanitarian-type work and were always going to be really into the idea of me going.  Change is never easy and I am about to undertake A LOT of change. New food, new friends, new house, new job, new boss, new language, new culture.

It’s now only 10 days till I get on a big plane and jet off to a place I’ve never been before. I know very little about the place I’m going and even less about the region that I will be living in. The most time I’ve spent in that area was when I took a 3-week holiday to Vietnam a couple of years ago.

I have completed my week-long pre-departure training in Melbourne (which was awesome!). Finished the course of vaccinations, handed in my notice at work, moved out of my apartment (and back in with the parents for a couple of weeks) and semi-packed my bag. I’m ready and really excited to go. Just gotta count down the minutes…

Big Fat Needles

30 Sep

Well, not really big and fat but still lots of needles. I’m half-way through getting the required vaccinations for my new life in the south-east. Luckily for me, I already got lots and lots of jabs when I spent a few months volunteering in Costa Rica. Unluckily, most of those have expired in the time since so I need to get them again. So far I’ve had two shots against Rabies shots, one for Typhoid and one for Japanese Encephalitis. The Typhoid one was the worst. Had a nice lump on arm for a week. Below, a photo for your viewing pleasure.


Have you had any vaccination experiences recently? Feel free to share in the comments below…


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