Village Trek

The other weekend, two of my housemates (Hannah and Nanny) and I flew to the city of Luang Prabang in the north to set out on a two-day trek. The trek would take us through a valley and to the top of a mountain, with visits to villages and an overnight stay in one of them.

The Laos that I live in is not really the Laos that I pictured before arriving. I live in the most developed city in a quickly developing country, teaching at an expensive English language school with a great reputation. I am continuously surrounded by some of the brightest and wealthiest people in the country, people for whom the possibility of seeing other parts of the world or doing significant things is greater than most. (Yesterday in my young learners class, we were playing a board game to practice reading simple three- and four-letter words and one word on the board was “pad”—upon seeing it, a nine-year old student in my class instantly said, “iPad!”)

Caught up in all that I’m doing here, it’s easy to forget what most of this country is actually like. The reality is that, outside of the country’s few tourist-drawing sites, Laos is almost entirely rural and underdeveloped.

We booked our two-day trip through a reputable tour company and were accompanied by five other travelers—two American, two Dutch, and one Spanish. We were driven in a van one hour out of Luang Prabang, north along the great National Highway 13 (a winding mountain road). We were dropped off in village along the side of a road and crossed a river in a small, long boat (its sides when loaded only rising two or three inches above the surface of the water), making three trips to get all passengers across.

We were accompanied by three guides, from three of Laos’ major ethnic groups. Laos is still ethnically very diverse, and ethnicities are grouped into three main categories corresponding to where people of those ethnicities choose to build their villages. The majority of the people in Lao are “Lowland Lao” people, living in the country’s flatlands and valleys. Other groups include those that live on the sides of mountains, including the Khmu ethnicity, and on the tops of mountains, including the Hmong. Each ethnicity has its own language, and the people’s knowledge of the national Lao language depends on the remoteness and financial status of that village. One of these languages, Khmu, doesn’t even have a written script.

Language can be such huge barrier to accessing information. As a native speaker of English, you can read news from all around the world published by multiple sources and viewpoints, essays, and literature either written originally in English or translated to it. We have access to so many ideas, either in English or in translation. Not surprisingly, almost nothing has been translated into Lao. Most educated Lao people rely on their knowledge of Thai or English for reliable information about what happens around the world. It’s then amazing to imagine what is available to people in these villages, for whom Lao isn’t even their first or best language. If they want to know anything about the world, they must at least learn Lao, which still won’t get them very far—ultimately, knowledge of Thai or English would be better.

We trekked through the jungle. It didn’t look all that different from a North American forest (without pine trees of course), but it was much louder with the sounds of birds and bugs and many trees and plants had absolutely massive leaves. The path, which was used primarily by the villagers in the area, was fairly grown over, making it feel at times like we were bushwhacking. It was of course all quite easy for our guides, who strode along casually in their flip-flops, while we struggled and sweated profusely in our hiking boots, frantically fighting off leeches along the way.

The villages varied greatly in size and culture. Some had extremely basic electricity—a small generator hooked up to a small dam in the stream provided a lightbulb or two of electricity for each of the wealthier houses. Although wary at first, the people—especially the children—were quite friendly. Digital cameras are still quite a novelty. Taking a picture of a child and then showing it to them brings joy and amusement. In one village where the children were more outgoing, they were eager to show off for us, doing cartwheels, hand stands, blowing bubbles with the juices from a plant, and singing every song they had learned in school. The songs, which were sung in Lao, seemed to have been taught for largely practical purposes (one began, “My tooth hurts!” while another warned that eating something—I’m not sure what it was—would bring you bad health). I was fortunate to remember that my camera has video, so you can enjoy their singing too. They nearly knocked me over as they swarmed around me in excitement to watch themselves sing.

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Blog Revival: Attempt #2

Inspired by reading the blogs of friends (and the much appreciated requests from others), I have decided to attempt to revive this blog. I must say attempt, only because I (and many others) know my own tendency to say I will do things or start things and not follow through. But I intend to make a good effort, and that’s also because there really is something nice for myself in writing these weekly mini-reflections.

I’ve missed out on talking about things that have happened since leaving India, and unfortunately it’s probably not possible for me to cover all of what’s happened in sufficient detail. I didn’t even finish the posts I would have wanted to write about India. So, here is my list of highlights for the past four to five months:

1. While in India, I met one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met–an extraordinarily sharp, down-to-earth, and passionate Indian woman with an MBA who was also a “healer,” a “seer,” and a self-proclaimed “time-traveler”. In her spare time, she is a freelance leadership coach for large corporations. This was perhaps my most breathtaking glimpse in to the magical worldview of India. I wish I could write more about her, and, who knows, maybe sometime I will.

2. I met the healer during a week-long course in Buddhism in Bodhgaya, arguably the most significant Buddhist pilgrimage site in the world. Buddhism was a previous interest of mine. One of the official translators of the Dalai Lama, an incredibly bright and dynamic teacher, led the course and gave me a completely new understanding about misconceptions regarding this religion.

Pilgrims at the site of the Buddha's enlightenment

The Root Institute in Bodhgaya

3. In January, shortly after returning from India, I took a three or four day trip to Hanoi, Vietnam with my housemate Hannah (who’s written about it in more detail on her blog). I suppose I’ve always wanted to assume that Southeast Asian countries in the Mekong Delta region (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia) are very similar, but I was struck by how different Vietnam felt–much edgier, less warm, slightly Chinese.

The Temple of Literature

Nighttime motorbike traffic in Hanoi's Old Quarter

a coffee shop

4. I found myself busier than ever with work during the first 10-week term of the year. This was the main reason for my blogging intermission. I started teaching a fifth class during the daytime and found myself teaching a huge amount of writing. I really do love teaching writing, but it’s a very time consuming subject to teach: for about five weeks, I felt like I had a new stack of ten to eighteen essays to read and comment on every day. Though stimulating, it was very exhausting.

5. During our Term 1 midterm break, Hannah, myself, and a friend from college currently working in Chiang Mai, Thailand took a motorcycle trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang in the north. The trip took us for three days along winding mountain roads (one of the country’s most major “highways”), surrounded us with countless vistas of mountains upon mountains, and saw us break down in villages so rural that everyone living there would come out to stare at you silently in curiosity.

Motorbike breakdown in a village

Rural gas station

Hannah and Denali

6. This term, I am writing and concurrently co-teaching a new course for advanced students at our school. Entitled “Exploring Self Awareness” by the school’s administrators, the goal is to use English language literature, to which students have almost no exposure, to show students how reading and writing are incredible tools for self-reflection and personal growth. So far, we have read and discussed two works, “Mrs. Sen’s”, a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, and “Maple”, a poem by Robert Frost.

Four weeks into the term, I can say that the experience has been exciting, challenging, and very rewarding. And as I write this, I have around eleven weeks more–just over two months–to spend in this country. It still doesn’t feel like I’m that near the end, but I know the time will pass quickly.

What’s on the horizon: continuing to write and teach this new course (about the only thing on my mind these days), one or two more trips within Laos, a half marathon in Thailand, and perhaps one more big trip (location still to be decided).

India the Beautiful

For all of India’s heartbreak and suffering, there must be an equal measure of beauty concentrated in various places around the country. Though we weren’t able to spend long at any one place, we saw some breathtaking sites. Below I’ve posted photos from four of our destinations.

The first of course is the Taj Mahal. While it might be one of the most cliched tourist icons in the world (perhaps alongside the Eiffel Tower), the experience of seeing it in person cannot be underestimated. The first glimpse of its utter perfection is nearly emotional. It must be the most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen.

Following these are pictures from the city of Udaipur, sometimes called the “Venice of the East,” in the western state of Rajasthan, and a few photos of the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. Finally, there are photos of Darjeeling, a hill station town in the foothills of the Himalayas. The mountain rising above the town is Kanchenjunga, which at 28,169 feet is the third highest mountain in the world. Darjeeling is famously known for its tea plantations, and tea plantation shown here is a producer for Harrod’s in London.

I thought I might spare you more description this time and try to let the photos speak for themselves.

India: Traveling Woes

Two and a half weeks, especially when you plan to spend one whole week of it in one place, is an inadequate time to really see India. (Thankfully, India isn’t too shy about showing itself in full force to its visitors, so even a short time is enough to get a good whiff.) India is a huge and incredibly diverse place. Suppose someone told you—I have eighteen days to see the US, and by the way I’m going to spend eight of those days in Graceland, Tennessee—what would you tell them to do?

The two options are (1) spend a longer time in each of only one or two places, or (2) spend just a little time in a number of places. Four days in New York and four days in D.C., or one or two nights each in New York, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Disneyworld—which is better? If you aren’t able to visit the US very often (perhaps the first trip will be the last), I think this is a difficult choice to make.

We decided to go with the second option and visit a greater number of places in our short amount of time. With an ambitious schedule as ours was, it’s important to be able to rely upon reliable and efficient modes of transportation to get you from place to place. You don’t want to lose too much of your precious time in transit.

Well, reliable and efficient are about the last words one would use to describe our experience with transport in India. In a combination of planned and unplanned stops, the mysteries of the Indian transportation system brought us to Delhi, Agra, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, (Delhi, again,) Varanasi, Bodhgaya, Patna, Calcutta (twice), and Darjeeling. All in 18 days! Many of the problems were created by a cold spell in northern India which resulted in heavy fog everyday throughout the region. Let me give you a sense of what happened at each step of the way.

Delhi to Udaipur:
Our flight is delayed six hours due to fog; when it finally takes off, it is unable to actually land in Udaipur due to poor visibility; we land in nearby Ahmedabad instead, and take a four hour cab ride to Udaipur, arriving 16 hours after getting to the Delhi airport that morning (the duration of the normal flight is one hour). Hours delayed: 12.

Udaipur to Varanasi:
Udaipur to Delhi – our early morning flight is first delayed, then cancelled; we take the four-hour cab ride back to Ahmedabad and get on a flight to Delhi; we can no longer make it to Varanasi that evening, so we spend an unexpected night in a hotel in Delhi.

Delhi to Varanasi – for the first time so far, we have no problems getting to our destination. Hours delayed: 20.

Varanasi to Bodhgaya:
The trip itself to Bodhgaya (by road), is fine; although, the course I planned to take in Bodhgaya moved up its starting time forcing me to leave Varanasi a day earlier than expected. Hours delayed: 0!

Bodhgaya to Darjeeling (this one was rough):
Bodhgaya to Patna: the trip by road to Patna (the capital of the state of Bihar and a transportation hub) is uneventful, though slow and bumpy.

Patna to Darjeeling: I get dropped off at the Patna train station around 7 PM. I am alone, cold, a little bit anxious about taking the train by myself for the first time (especially in this part of India which is somewhat unsafe by reputation), and the only foreigner in sight. When I look at the board displaying departing train information, I find, to my horror, that my train isn’t listed! I push up to a busy window and am told that the train is fourteen hours delayed! It had a 10 pm departure, meaning the new schedule departure is 12 noon on the next day. Deciding it wasn’t safe to spend the night in the station, I found a hotel to stay in (after being denied a room at one place where I’m almost certain they had vacancy). The next morning, I learn the train is now 23 hours delayed. I decide to throw in the towel with the train and fly to Darjeeling, which means I have to first fly to Calcutta and spend a night there.

Patna to Calcutta: My cab drops me off at the departure area of the Patna airport. I look at the board. My flight is cancelled! Amazingly, I am able to get onto a different flight going to Calcutta, leaving only one hour later.

Calcutta to Darjeeling: My flight to Darjeeling gets me there without a problem. I remember that I actually only have one night to spend in Darjeeling (I had been falsely thinking that I had two nights). When I arrive at the guesthouse I had a reservation for, I learn that they have given my room away to someone who is sick. They give me a room in their sister hotel one kilometer up the road. I now have 20 hours in Darjeeling. There’s no chance of staying an extra day as a planned strike on the following day will freeze all transportation to and from the city. Hours delayed: 30.

Darjeeling back to Calcutta:
My flight back to Bangkok (and ultimately Laos) leaves out of Calcutta. An overnight train brings me safely to Calcutta only two hours later than scheduled. I have given myself enough of a cushion to make my flight with a few extra hours of wait time. I breathe a sigh of relief. Hours delayed: 2.

With 64 total hours of delayed transportation, traveling through India was understandably exhausting. On the bright side, all of these diversions allowed us (and me) to see a lot more of India on the ground than we would have otherwise. In some ways, a four hour car ride through the countryside to a somewhat unremarkable city tells you more about the place than a visit to the Taj Mahal. Similarly, what would visiting the Empire State Building and the White House tell you about how American people live? Throughout all of the difficulties, we were able to face each obstacle with a fairly good sense of humor. As everyone who hears these stories says, this is India.

Whirlwind Tour of India (Introduction)

My parents and I left Luang Prabang on Christmas Eve, spent the night in Vientiane, and then headed off to India on Christmas Day. The three of us traveled together for a week, and then I traveled on my own for a week and a half afterwards.

I’m not quite sure how to break down these two and a half weeks in India. It would seem logical to do by location, but the somewhat unbelievable number of difficulties we had getting from place to place resulted in me visiting an unbelievable number of places in that time. With one exception, I wasn’t able to spend more than two consecutive nights in any single place. 18 days of traveling brought me to Delhi, Agra, Udaipur, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Bodhgaya, Patna, Calcutta, and Darjeeling. Focusing on my individual experience of each of these places doesn’t seem quite right.

They talk about India as a place of extremes, and I couldn’t agree more. For every bit of incredible beauty, inspiration, color, and quietude, there was an equal measure of heartbreak, filth, and chaos. Over the next few days and weeks, I’ll try to highlight some dimensions of my experience there that stuck with me, from extraordinary sights, to death-defying car rides, unimaginable travel complications, and glimpses into magical other worlds.

New Years Resolution/Christmas in Luang Prabang

Happy Holidays! Sorry it’s been such a long time since writing. My New Years Resolution is to breathe life back into this blog. Tell your friends!

I’m writing from my house during a short three-day intermission from what has been an incredible vacation from work. My parents came to visit in the middle of December. I showed them Vientiane, and then we went up to the city of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. On Christmas Day, we flew to Delhi, India. We traveled there together for one week, after which I traveled on my own for another 12 days. I returned here on the 12th. Finally, this evening, I am going with my housemate, Hannah, to the northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi for three or four days. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of my stories and thoughts from this once-in-a-lifetime vacation.

Today though, I’ll start with Luang Prabang.

In the showcase of Lao tourism, Luang Prabang, a small, northern city situated on a peninsula between two rivers in the mountains, is considered the country’s shining gem. For anyone who has been to Japan, it can quite accurately be compared to Kyoto. It is the Kyoto of Laos. Numerous airlines now fly direct to Luang Prabang from international destinations in Thailand and Vietnam, meaning you can now bypass a stop in Vientiane, where I live. Development there is accelerating in its own direction wholly separate from the changes here in the capital city. Moreover, due to press in upscale travel magazines and the New York Times, the city has become a new, trendy destination for high-paying tourists looking to do something a little different (“Hasn’t everyone been to Thailand?”–they might say). For a country bent on development, Luang Prabang is really putting Laos on the map, for better or worse. It’s the only place in the country where you can find an internationally franchised five-star luxury hotel renting rooms at 800 USD a night, the existence of which, prior to the past few years, was probably hard to imagine.

Of course, this boutique Southeast Asian experience isn’t really what we were going there for. It is culturally rich. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage city. It probably has the greatest density of temples anywhere in the country, and some of the oldest temples as well. In some ways, it is a place best appreciated for its atmosphere. Imagine monks walking down quiet streets lined with flowering trees, old French colonial buildings, temples, and rivers winding through farmland, palm trees, and mountains. In the morning, you can watch local people rise before work to give alms to the monks on the main boulevard of town. At night, there’s a dizzyingly vast, though completely calm, market filled with local handicrafts of every possible variation. The place is overall extremely pleasant, a quality that this country has a knack for cultivating.

As someone who lives in Laos, it’s a little bit challenging for me to look beyond the touristy facade of the place. For three or four times the price (which, by western standards, is still admittedly cheap), fancy restaurants serve food on clean, white plates that the masses buy in plastic bags at night markets every day. For the extra money, they’ve replaced the market-standard plastic stools with real chairs and have kicked out the resident stray dogs and cats. My dad and I shared a meal of some of my favorite night market dishes at a restaurant which bore the New York Times’ honor of being the “best place to try local Lao food.” (One dish, which we call “broken rice” in English, consists of a deep-fried ball of rice broken up and mixed with vegetables and egg. You scoop some of the mixed, broken rice onto a lettuce leaf, put fresh herbs like basil and mint on top, use the lettuce to wrap it all up into a little package and dip it in a sweet peanut sauce.) It felt completely strange eating this meal at a white tablecloth. I felt awkward holding a fork–this is basically finger-food–I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it! I couldn’t help but feel that in some ways it didn’t seem real.

However, cynicism aside, I think that what Luang Prabang offers, a well-polished concentration of Lao culture, is unique. Anyone who gets to experience it, in whatever form–whether your street food comes with wine and waiter or with toilet-paper napkins and dogs–can be considered lucky.

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A quick update

Happy late Thanksgiving to everyone.

I’m trying to prevent myself from slipping out of the habit of posting every week, but I only have time for a quick update now. I have a number of things on my plate at the moment, in preparation for things in both the near and far futures.

This past weekend we had our own Thanksgiving in Vientiane. There are six of us Americans here through the Princeton-in-Asia program, and we’ve met a few others. We couldn’t miss out on this most critical of American feasting holidays. We had a total of 14 people at our dinner–American, Australian, and Swedish. We special ordered a turkey through one of the two mini-supermarkets that caters to Western expats. We had all of the traditional accompaniments–stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie–as well as a few new additions–gratin, sweet potato latkes, chocolate cake, and a Swedish pancake-cake. And there was more! The turkey was excellent and all of the dishes were really impressive given our collective lack of Thanksgiving cooking experience. All-in-all, it was quite a traditional stomach-bursting, food-coma-inducing evening. I’m grateful to have a group of friends with whom we could share this experience. It makes it feel a little more like home.

Days and nights here have gotten cooler, making it the most fall-like we will probably experience. The air is dry (it hasn’t rained in about a month) and some leaves are dying and falling off of the trees. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no chance of a white Christmas season here in Laos.

Exciting things are in the days and weeks to come!