Aligned fates on Luang Prabang last day
Trip Start Jan 12, 2013
42Trip End Feb 27, 2013
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My last day in Luang Prabang turned out to be much more fulfilling and fun than I could have predicted. It started with a few hours of lounging at the 'public' pool in Luang Prabang which was fantastic because the cloudy skies prevented the masses from descending. I simply relaxed and read my book with no noise or distractions.
Then, I of course had to go for noodle soup from my favorite lady at her alcove in the opening of an alley in the night market. I'm not sure if I've mentioned this, but very close to my guesthouse, the road shuts down every night and vendors set up their pop-up tent awnings (I'm not sure what they used before those ubiquitous tents made their entrance) to sell their wares. This is a tourist night market. There are only scarves, clothes, and knick knacks such as wooden carvings, drawings and other souvenier things. It is very interesting to me to see every nationality walking through these stalls and negotiating with the Laotians all in English. I feel very lucky that English is my first language because I think it makes communicating tremendously easier. When non-native speakers are trying to use English but grammar and pronunciation are horrendous, I can usually figure out pretty easily what they're saying because my grasp of English is so good. This isn't really the case when the Laotian noodle lady is trying to answer the Chinese tourists questions...with both of them using limited broken English. These noodle joints are a little different than we're used to. You don't have to say anything...you just sit down and the ladies know you want some soup. If she has different types of soup, well then, she'll point and ask what you want. This is very odd for our cultures because we're used to be acknowledged and 'placing our order'. So, I've found over the last few days that I become impromtu translator for these tourist groups. While I was eating, a large group of Chinese tourists came by and wanted some soup. The issue was they needed 11 bowls. They said, 'eleven', but the Laotian lady didn't know that high of a number in English and with us not having 11 fingers, conveying 11 became a bit tricky. They were at an impasse and this is where I debated to sticky my 'know it all' nose in...but I figured I'd want someone to help me...so I spoke up and held up my hands in fists, raising one finger at a time, counting..using all my fingers. Then, at 10, I held up one more finger to illustrate number 11. The lady's eyes got wide and I nodded....yep, 11! I feel like I'm in a continual game of charades. Then, some Dutch dudes came by and they were asking what the meat stuff was. Of course, the lady didn't possess enough English to explain it so I piped up, again, and explained what it was. So crazy how English is uniting in that way...and I feel kinda loser-ish because all these other people can actually communicate to some degree in another language...I coudn't even say hello in Dutch, much less Chinese!
My butting in apparently caught the attention of a Lao guy eating his soup next to me and when we solved the 11 bowls of soup issue, I heard him say, "Ahh, yes 11" in English...which of course piqued my curiousity. I asked him where he learned his English (it's rare for Laotians to speak much English since it isn't really taught in schools until maybe high school or, more likely, university--which of course, very few students get to go to). This is where fate met food. He said he worked for a company called 'Big Brother Mouse' and I exclaimed to him that I had just heard about his organization two days ago and wanted to come check it out but didn't know where it was. Big Brother Mouse is a non-profit organization based in Luang Prabang that writes, designs, illustrates, and prints children's books in Lao. They also do translations of famous books such as The Diary of Anne Frank. Their purpose in doing this is to then disseminate the books to children in rural Laos who do not have libraries or any books. A sobering reality is the fact that these kids don't even understand the concept of a 'children's book'. The only books they likely have ever seen are their lesson books from school, which they must share with several other students. So, reading for fun and getting them engaged in the act of learning that way is foreign to them. Just crazy to think about. Big Brother Mouse takes the books paid for by donations (some people sponsor an entire book's production, and the front cover bears their name as a sponsor) and distributes them. Many of the books are written in dual Lao and English to help the kids learn. Since they cannot afford to pay copyrights, the stories have to be original. One story was a true one of Big Brother Mouse trying to distribute books to a remote northern Laos village and running into difficulty when the road was blocked by landslide. Word got to the village and they organized a troupe of elephants to come down and carry the books back to their village! Interestingly, they also encourage people to buy the books themselves, at their office location or at the night market, and give them out to children as they continue with their travels. I thought this was a pretty neat idea to allow people to physically give something to a child. Anyhow, I really hit it off with my new friend named Leo. I asked if I could hang out with him at his booth in the night market. We hung out for the next few hours, with him asking a few things about English that he struggled with and me pestering him about all sorts of life/school/work questions. And, of course, those of you that have been with me at bear/optometry fundraisers know what happened to those poor souls trying to scurry through the night market. I lured them in with a bold, native English, "Hello!" "What a great night for a walk!" "Is that a coffee shake you're drinking?"...anything to get them snared in my sticky web. I learned about the company from Keo and regurgitated that information back out to interested people. It's sad to say, but I think the fact that I could chat so well in English and explain to them in a language they understood, helped garner donations. Plus, I think the fact that I could relate to the tourists as a tourist myself...discussing the various things we'd seen on our travels and the difficulties of cramming our packs with books...all worked to the kids' advantage last night. After the market was over, I asked how we did with donations and Keo said we did very very well that night! High-five! He said he wished I could hang out there every night. I said, "Me too." Such a perfect place to allow tourists to give a few dollars to really make a difference. I think that people naturally want to help, they just don't know how and don't want to be duped.
Then, the next turn of fate met me at the ATM. I was saying goodbye to Keo when I noticed a decidedly American/Canadian looking guy, obviously lost, with his pack on withdrawing money. Clearly he'd just arrived and didn't know where the heck he was. I said, "Can I help you find something?" And he said, "I'm just trying to find a place to stay tonight...I don't even know how to get out of this night market!" I told him where he was and where many many guesthouses were, but noticing he wasn't terribly confident with that information I offered to walk him there (it's amazing how involved and helpful we become when our own personal deadlines are removed...I had the time to both sit and chat with Keo as well as help this lost American). I toted him with me and we went to guesthouse after guesthouse looking for vacancies. It was 10pm and every single one was full. I asked if he would hack me to death and when he assured me he wouldn't, I took a leap of faith and offered to let him use my unused second bed. I know, I know, terrible idea, but he was American and seemed innocous enough. He was beyond grateful. As we were walking back to my guesthouse, I figured I should at least get his name in case I needed to tell the police in the event he merely maimed me instead of killed me. Such a weird world this travel business is. No where in my life have I encountered a situation where you felt comfortable letting a complete stranger of the opposite sex room with you, but it's common. More surprising to me is that these 'bunking together' situations are just that. Unlike the dating/singles/normal life scene, there are no insinuations or unspoken expectations. I guess when you are dropped off in a country where you don't speak the language and are lost without a place to stay for the night, survival mode trumps any other motives. lol. For me, it's been really fun to just get to meet people and get to know them without worrying that ulterior motives are at work.
Turns out that my newest friend, Randy, works in publishing. Not just any publishing. Scientific publishing...yeah, he started asking me about how many papers I'd published, what the impact factors of the journals were, if I'd been cited yet, etc. etc. and I knew he was legit! haha. I couldn't believe I had randomly helped a lost guy at an ATM in Luang Prabang, Laos that worked for the company that publishes the journals that I try to publish research in! He was asking all the appropriate questions about my research and it was surreal. I took him to the most popular bar in Luang Prabang and we chatted about science over a beer. Hilarious. I told him that when I needed a job, I was going to harass him for one. lol
Laos businesses must close by 11:30pm at night by law. In order to keep money coming, the Laotians have skirted this by paying off one of the village chiefs to allow a bowling alley to stay open later. Yes, I wrote bowling alley. Now, I've not really wanted to go, but Randy was excited to see it so I thought, fine. Welp, it literally is a concrete bunker building with white-washed, undecorated walls inside and about 10 real bowling lanes. The oddest thing. A small concession stand sits along the back wall and the resident stray cats stroll through getting pets and discarded food. The participants of 'bowling' are 18-25 year old white Westerners. Drunk as skunks. It was like being in a Cancun club without the music or dim lights, and, oh yeah, bowling...!!?? We didn't stay long needless to say. But, I can say I saw 'bowling' in Laos...the crazy afterparty.
Good news is obviously Randy didn't hack me to bits! Great end to my time in Luang Prabang! Now, off to Bali!