Tag Archives: Australia

Land of a Million Crazy Dogs and Sticky Rice – An Unknown Adventure

8 Feb

It’s been a little while since my last post as I’ve been really busy over the past few weeks with work, field trips and Elizabeth arriving in Vientiane!

The past month has been such an eclectic mix of emotions, experiences and weather that I’m going to struggle to put it all into words. But I shall try!

My last post generated a bit of concern from concerned individuals about my working conditions and the type of work that I am doing over here. I guess specifically the killing of fish. The whole point of this blog was for me to document this adventure and for anyone interested in seeing what I’m up to or maybe doing something similar themselves to be able to follow along the journey with me. I’m going to tell it like it is. No point covering up some aspects of life and work here. Anyway, that’s the end of my rant.

I’ve now been in Laos for just over 3 months and it’s the longest I have spent overseas at any one time. It’s usually around the 2/3 month mark that I start feeling homesick (based on my previous adventures overseas) and realise how awesome a country Australia is and that I really miss the lifestyle and food back home. I haven’t felt as homesick this time around (partly because I actually like living here and have a sweet house, dog and now my girlfriend here with me) but have had thoughts of home a bit more often than before. I miss the beach, watching sport, my family and Sydney in general. But I know that my time here is finite and I want to try to make the most of it instead of reminiscing about home too much. I know that in the last 3 months not much has changed back there and upon my return things will feel like nothing had changed at all. Except for maybe my brother’s broken voice and the fact I will need to find a new place to live.

Before I left Sydney and while living here, a lot of my friends and family have asked me why I left a secure job, comfortable lifestyle and those that love me to pursue an unknown adventure in a foreign land. Well at this point into my journey the answer is a little clearer than before. 

I’ve given different reasons to different people as my perspective has shifted. I was quite uncertain about taking this placement on at first, not really sure if it would turn out to be a positive or a negative. I believe in taking opportunities when they present themselves and embracing change. That’s what I’ve done with this it’s paid dividends so far.

Laos is an interesting place to live. In some ways, polar opposites to Australia and in some ways quite similar. They love beer here. It’s just that they only have 1 kind of it and they drink it with ice (both of which I now like doing). Australia is girt by sea, Laos is girt by land. The Laos government is communist, taking directions from China and letting them raid the land here. The government in Australia is fucked up, taking directions from the US and letting China raid the land there.

It’s become much clearer in my mind what my professional interests are and what I want to be doing once I get back home. I’m also set on buying a block of land somewhere in Australia and living a much more sustainable and less consumerist lifestyle. I’m gonna be at least a part-time farmer. This idea will develop further over the next few months and I will start putting it into practice once I get back home. 

But enough on that stuff, I recently came across a really cool quote by Bill Bryson which summarises my reason for taking this adventure on. Here it is…

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

A quick update on work stuff:

I’ve been travelling around the country with the working group here, looking at different weirs, dams and other barriers to assess their suitability for a fish passage to be installed. It’s been great to be able to see some of the more rural parts of Laos as well as the beautiful city of Luang Prabang. A real eye-opener seeing the very poor conditions that the locals live in here. As much as you see the rich locals in Vientiane driving around in their giant SUVs, it’s in the villages that you see what it’s like for the majority of Laotians.

Work is going to be really busy for me in the coming months. A construction supervision job, design of a few fish passages, design of a pond and a fish hatchery as well as teaching at the university to both the students and lecturers. Exciting times ahead!

From my home-office,

Love Len

Oh and here are some photos of the recent adventures here:

Duck blood soup

Duck blood soup

Dried fish

Dried fish

Luang Prabang markets

Luang Prabang markets

A weir that we'll be building a fishway for

A weir that we’ll be building a fishway for

Yummy - not

Yummy – not

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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.

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[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,

Len

Protected: Democaracy, what democracy?

22 Dec

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What a crazy day

8 Dec

Ok, I know that I haven’t been keeping up my end of the bargain with this posting business. I promise I have lots of drafts saved, but have just been struggling to find the time to finish the drafts off and get them to your curious minds and curb your enthusiasm.

Today has hit me like a tonne of bricks. I woke up not too late but feeling a little under the weather. Not sure if it’s the smell of burning plastic or a lingering chest cold I picked up while doing the Thakhek Loop but I was not feeling the best. I started off with work in bed. Sent off some results from a bunch of experiments we did last week and then started to chat to Elizabeth. Fast forward a few hours and I was riding home after picking up a Lao-style Vietnamese Banh mi roll. I had one last night and was craving another one. They tend to swap the pickled carrots for the papaya salad over here but I have to say, and this is going to be controversial, the ones here are better than the rolls both in Australia AND in Vietnam. Maybe it’s the MSG or the delicious coriander but they are very tasty.

Having smashed the roll, I jetted off to the gym with plans of taking my first Lao yoga class. Now I wasn’t expecting anything amazing or anything but what I got was way, way below my low expectations. The classes at this  “western-style gym” are held in a big warehouse-type room with a concrete floor. Not unlike the floor at the Virgin Active gym I used to frequent. Well…it’s actually very much unlike that gym.

There were already a number of people in the warehouse, waiting for the class to begin. I got my soft mat-type thing and began to watch the other people take selfies, talk on the phone and just generally act uninterested to about to do yoga. It was the most un-yoga like place I’ve ever been to. Our instructor was a lovely ladyboy named Vanhly with a sparkling “sexy sure” top on. The class was in Lao and in the 20 minutes that I managed to hang around, we did a total of 1 pose that I have ever seen or done at any yoga studio.

Following that experience, I bought some groceries and was riding home, trying to decide where to get dinner when I witnessed the most horrific thing I have ever seen. Here’s a recap:

I was riding my bicycle
Riding around, not knowing if to get dinner or not
I was riding for ages
Aimlessly
Then when I was on this long and dark road, heading home, I decided to do a u-turn and actually get dinner
50m after I did that, I saw 2 motorbikes heading the opposite way
I don’t think they had lights on or were wearing helmets
A random parked car that was on their side of the of the road started to do a u-turn
They were obviously going too fast and either not paying attention or were drunk
It looked like they had enough time to stop or maybe they thought the car would stop doing the u-turn and they could get around it
One motorcyclist started to break and was swerving but managed to just stop in time
While his mate t-boned the car at full speed
He hit the car just as I was passing it
The sound of the impact was horrible
Some shrapnel hit my body
Something hit my bike
I just ducked my head and rode another 50m or so
I was in massive shock
Didn’t know if to stop or not
There were people on either side of the road that were yelling
I stopped, looked back, saw the bike mangled up in the car and then started to ride again
I have heard stories of foreigners stopping at accidents and then getting the blame by police and the people in the accident
I also watched an Insight episode that covered this very issue
I would be surprised if the guy survived
He slammed into the driver’s side of the car so the person in the car could have been hurt too
I didn’t know if to go back and help or not
I just kept riding
I rode home in a state of shock. 

From the land of Laos,

Len

P.S. To leave on a slightly more pleasant note, I have spent the past hour playing hide and seek with a mouse/rat that is part of a family that lives in our walls. It managed to get onto my bed twice. I don’t know why it wants to go there but I’m going to try really hard to not think about it.

The illusive rat

The illusive rat/mouse

Asian Delights

17 Nov
Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge, seen from M...

Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge, seen from Mukdahan, Thailand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Warning: Long post ahead

It’s been a while since I posted on here. Partly due to how full-on each day has been and that I wrote about a page worth of stuff a couple of days ago that now seems a bit silly to post on here.

I sit here in my air-conditioned hotel room, sleep deprived and with a jumbled up mind and heart. The last two weeks have been amazing. I’ve loved every bit of it so far and already feel like I’ve gained so much from this experience. I’ve tasted some of the most delicious food (and yes, a lot of it has contained meat but more on that another time), met some amazing people and discovered a beautiful country that I knew little more than nothing about.

I think this post will be a reflective one, maybe cause I had to wake up at 4:30am this morning and I am feeling slightly out of it and cause I had my first confrontation with some beggars. I was having lunch at this delicious Vietnamese/Lao rice paper roll place that I stumbled upon a few days ago when I saw these two, 10 or 11-year-old boys, eating what looked like raw bits of meat off the floor. I passed it off as nothing at first and then proceeded to order my food. I watched as these two boys silently greeted each passerby the traditional Lao way, hoping for some spare change. Each person passed by, both Lao and expat, promptly ignoring the kids. I don’t know if this is common for everyone but I tend to get really affected by these kinds of scenes. I mean, I know Laos is a developing country and there are plenty of people living in poverty but it’s not every day that you see two, toothpick-like children eating scraps off the floor and silently begging for change while you’re having a bountiful lunch.

At our induction in Australia we were advised to not give anyone money as it solves nothing. I’m pretty confident a bit of my spare change will be used wisely. Hopefully as the months role by I’ll get a chance to have a significant impact outside of my specified placement here.

Now on to some slightly less depressing things.

IMG_3212

So freaking early! That Luang in the background

Today started with the culmination of the week-long Pha That Luang festival, arguably the nation’s most important event. I was lucky enough to be invited to enjoy this morning’s events with a Lao family. We met up at their restaurant, rode our bikes (me being the only one on a bicycle) to That Luang and proceeded to pray and give alms. It was an amazing experience and I’m so thankful to James for inviting me along. As a side note, I also managed to secure a room in a sweet 4-bedroom house not far from town.

 

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Alms giving

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Lao family that showed us white-folk the ropes

Now on to a bit of a recap of the last few days.

Saturday, 9/11: I took a rice farm tour with a new company called Tuk Tuk Safari. I didn’t know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised as the husband and wife team took us to a local organic farm on their tuk tuk. The farm tour was really interesting as it’s a lifestyle I’m hoping to adopt when I get back to Australia (I’ll also leave that for another time).

We got to harvest rice, collect duck eggs, use some worms from their worm farm to catch some fish, picked some veges and then cooked lunch. It was delicious! We then went to a silversmith which was a pretty eye-opening experience. I never realised the effort that goes into making a piece of jewelry. Apparently they source the silver from Australia and then sell it to tourists who visit the place in large tourist buses.

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Duck

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Rice

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Threshing the rice

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Rice husk remover

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Morning glory

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The fish we caught

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The silversmiths

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Thinning out the silver

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Sunday, 10/11: On Sunday I was lucky enough to be able to take part in a working bee at the Disabled Women’s Centre, right next to the Friendship Bridge. It was such a fun day and I even got some engineering work out of it (not paid). I’m really excited about the opportunity of helping out at this centre and it seems that, for some volunteers, this opportunity has been more fulfilling than their actual placements.

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Sub-woofer

 

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The chicken house we made

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Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge

Tuesday, 12/11: My 29th birthday started off with a massive anti-climax. Not only was I completely unperturbed about it but I also didn’t have any friends or family here with me to enjoy the day. I wasn’t quite sure if anyone that I’d met in Laos would remember either (I had mentioned that it was coming up a few days earlier). As I had some work due that day, I started the day as I had every other day, with breakfast at the hotel. This usually consists of eggs, bread and fruit. They also usually give me a bit of ham as I haven’t yet found a way to explain that I don’t eat meat. I then met up with James to go grad a spare bike that he had. I rode back home, finished the work that I had to get done and then had my 3rd language lesson with Khamsy.

During the lesson I got a call from my mum and I told Khamsy that she was calling me cause it was my birthday. Now back in Australia, this would have normally been followed by a congratulations etc. Not this time. In the Lao culture, birthdays are generally not celebrated. Khamsy told me that he has never celebrated any of his birthdays. This really appeals to me. No more hassle of thinking what to do, no more stressing whether everyone is having a good time and are all mingling with each other, no more pressure to “do something”. It’s just another day.

It’s interesting that in the western culture we celebrate our birthday yet complain constantly that we’re getting older.

Now this may or may not be right cause as it turns out, Khamsy already knew that the surprise birthday party was already organised for me. After my Lao lesson, I rushed to call Liz and then got changed. When I came back downstairs, everyone had already gathered and promptly sang ‘happy birthday’ to me. It was a really cool night and one that I really appreciate.

Wednesday, 13/11: I’m pretty used to things but not yet comfortable. I’m also really enjoying everything and every day brings about many new experiences. Like on Wednesday, when I went to meet the senior people who I will be working with at the Nabong campus. There were all the general staff there who were all friendly and excited that I had arrived. They were all full of enthusiasm and ideas of how I can help which is great.

Then there were the senior people like the Dean and deputy dean of the faculty. They’re the ones that you need to listen to, take orders from and the most important thing to remember…don’t get on their bad side cause they probably have communist connections. Shortly after meeting everyone, the next step in the “induction” was to take a sip of the local moonshine. A boozy welcome lunch followed soon after. In Laos, the tradition is to cheers glasses every 10 minutes or so which is really fun and endearing. Someone usually calls out how much everyone should drink like 1%, 50% or 100% ie skull.

Which brings me to the thing that I have struggled with the most in the last two weeks.That thing being alcohol and the amount that it’s consumed here. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a beer, wine or even the odd shot of vodka but I’m not one to drink regularly, let alone every day. It seems it’s the chosen pastime here.

The other interesting thing that I learned on Wednesday was that a lot of the older staff members had studied in Russia and love practicing their Russian. This suits me just fine as I need the practice as much as they do. I can only suspect that their senior positions are a result of having studied in the Soviet Union.

Thursday, 14/11: I spent the morning visiting some international schools trying to find Liz a job (with some success!). I also managed to get myself a free haircut at AFESIP, a centre that provides care and recovery for woman who have been victims of human trafficking and offers vocational training to support their sustainable community reintegration.

I’m loving this place so far. That’s it for now.

Till next time,

Len

T minus 10 days – A reflection

22 Oct
vientiane

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…

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