Tag Archives: Engineering

The Easy Life – Monthly Update

14 Mar

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Hello, how have you been? It’s been a while…

So it’s now been over four months since I arrived in Vientiane and I feel like the time has flown. But it’s not the same as when I was back in Sydney, when weeks, months and years seemed to go by so fast and without notice that it would be scary. The difference here is that I feel like I have done, seen and experienced a huge amount in the last four months.

Here are some of the things that I got to do since arriving here:

  • live in a big house for the first time, sharing it with pretty cool people
  • get a dog!
  • have a cleaner and a gardener (this bit is kinda weird but does mean that I don’t need to do the washing or the ironing! Actually I never did the ironing back in Sydney)
  • have checked out 2 or 3 farms, had time to look into farming and have realised that is what I want to do (on a small-scale)
  • learned to ride a motorbike and went on a pretty awesome motorbike trip with hopefully more to come
  • time to do some online courses (currently I’m finishing a course on nutrition and health)
  • learn a new language
  • a chance to travel and live with Liz!
  • explore Laos and the south-east Asian region
  • grow a 2-month old beard (I would still have it except food started to get stuck in there and Liz was getting pash-rash)
  • drink bone marrow juice from giant cow bones with my Lao colleagues while at lunch
Bone marrow juice!

Bone marrow juice!

  • work on cool projects, do some interesting engineering
  • live in another communist country
  • time to continue learning to play guitar and learn to play the ukulele
  • work from home
  • work in a remote village and with the villagers themselves
  • time to relax!

That’s a pretty solid list for four months. Can’t wait to see what the rest of my time here brings. To counteract that list and so that you guys back home don’t get too jealous, here is a list of the not so good things that have happened:

  • witnessing a brutal motorbike accident
  • seeing a dead person on the road
  • feeling home-sick and missing the comforts of Sydney life
  • get multiple cases of diarrhea and other stomach related sicknesses

And finally, here is a list of things that I miss from back home:

  • being able to speak to everyone, fluently
  • smooth roads with no potholes
  • tap water
  • cheese
  • chocolate
  • clean air
  • my parents, brother and grandma
  • watching the footy

Now on to what I have been up to here since my last post….

Over the last few weeks, I have been working in Paksan. A small town about 2-3 hours south of Vientiane. This town is definitely NOT touristy. It gets a large number of Vietnamese visitors and so most restaurants sell pho…and only pho. It’s been an eye-opening experience working directly with rural Lao people and seeing what village life is like.

I was quite lucky to have two other volunteers/travelers working with me in my first week in Paksan. Linda and Andre are both fellow engineers and have quit their jobs to do a huge world trip. They are partly funding their trip through their newly established online business which is pretty cool. Having heard that Laos is more a place to live than a place to do touristy things, they found my details and contacted me about volunteering on the project.

It was great to spend a week doing some engineering, surveying and some laboring with the village workers that we have employed to fix up the very first Lao fishway that was built last year. Working in such a small town is both tough and interesting at the same time. Simple things like water, food and toilet paper become things that need to be considered at all times. There’s also a huge array of things to see and learn from.

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Fixing up the previous contractor’s mistakes

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BBQ duck – the rest of the ducks were walking around in mourning. No joke.

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Andre and Linda

Laos (1489)

Getting read for sindat – Lao version of Korean BBQ

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The workers

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I was amazed at how different the lives of people in the small village were not just to my life back home but even to the lives of Lao people in Vientiane. I saw kids washing their clothes by hand straight after school, different animals wandering around and sometimes getting slaughtered for food, people not being able to afford proper medication and treatment for illnesses, the consumption of food and the value placed on every part of an animal and plant so that nothing goes to waste. It’s really crazy to think how much a person’s life can vary depending on where you happen to be born on this planet. The lifestyle of Sydneysiders seems alien-like compared to the simple life on the outskirts of the Pak Peung village.

It’s all a lot to take in and I definitely haven’t got my head around it all yet but I’m trying.

Last weekend was the International Women’s Day long weekend so Liz and I took that chance to go to Vang Vieng. It was the second time there for me so we managed to avoid most of the tacky, touristy aspects of the town (except watching Friends on large flat screens while having dinner) and just see the really cool scenery and a bit of the village life. This included sharing a motorbike for a fun and bumpy day-trip through the dusty back “roads” of the town and then a 35km mountain bike ride that Liz managed to smash despite some reluctance. It was really nice to get away from Vientiane for a few days and see something different. We also stayed at this awesome place called, Laos Haven

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Petong

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Petong

 

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Pig

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Next few weeks for me will be filled with trying to finish off the work in Paksan while also building a scale model of a fishway that will be used as a display at an exhibition that’s coming up. The only catch is that the model will need to work properly as we will be passing small fish through it. Hmmm, I was never that good at art and craft.

Here’s the model so far…

Fishway scale model...in progress

Fishway scale model…in progress

Till next time,

Len

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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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