Saturday, December 21, 2013

Take Me With You

I'm getting on a train tonight and leaving the country for the first time since I came here. I'm hoping I can come back to Laos in 2014 and have a do-over. I just pulled out my backpack for what will be my first experience using it without needing to also move and carry everything I own. The last time I used my pack I was moving from my house to my apartment; the time before that I was creeping overland across Europe and Asia like a turtle moving from Albania to Laos with all my possessions strapped to me; the time before that I was sailing across an ocean and training my way down to Albania.

When I dragged it out from under my bed, I also found an unexpected heap of feelings about my partner leaving. Considering the fact that he got it for me, and every trip I took with it he took with me, bringing it out for my first trip since he left felt far, far heavier than carrying everything I own in the world.

For now, it's that train, and Ayutthaya and Bangkok for a week. I have no idea where I'll be the week after that, and I am more than okay with that.


Fast train
Where do your passengers wait
What's at the heart of your engine's rage

To what smooth place at the end of the line
With crackling fires and quiet plains
Do the trees bend down
Fold their limbs round you
Welcome home faithful one
We forgive you

Slow down fast train
Slow down fast train
Take me with you

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Vientiane in December

Vientiane still isn't on the level of "impromptu dance party to street music in Estonia" happiness, but it's something better than where I was when I started here, so I'll take it.

I figured it was time for an update of sorts considering how generally gloomy I was about Vientiane in this post and yeah, for sure, in this one, too. Okay, let's get real, pretty much every post I've made since moving to Laos has included some element of side eyed exasperation at the fact that I am contractually bound to be here in this town until June rolls around. I don't retract anything I said before, and it's not that any of my fundamental issues have changed; rather, I've forged an uneasy truce with this town by changing some things in my control and then just accepting the patterns of life here and finding a way to work around the ridiculous thorny bits which are certainly still inexplicable to me.

Moving improved my situation exponentially. This has reinforced my skepticism of the oft quoted maxim of "Wherever you go, there you are!" Sure, just moving somewhere is not going to take your life from Shit Town to Ivory Tower if things are fundamentally really awful. Are you depressed, addicted to something, in a terrible relationship, stuck in debt, in a dead end job you hate, did you make a huge mistake and are now dealing with the consequences? Yeah, moving isn't going to change anything. Same problems, different place, this is clear. But where you live, from your house to your town all the way up to your country, absolutely affects your quality of life; if the fundamentals are good, but you're still not happy, a change of scenery really can make all the difference. In my case, my location was not only steeped in some bad memories, but it wasn't supporting me in being very social or active. By that I mean it was too easy, in the state of mind in which I found myself, to walk the 5 minutes to home and just stay in for the night. In contrast, now I walk 15 minutes home and at that point I'm only a 20 minute walk downtown to the river to watch the sunset. It's far easier to just keep going, or to drop off my bag and go out, than it was to drag myself back out of my house again. Of course, if I had a scooter this would be a moot point, but I do prefer walking or bicycling, so again, my new place supports me far better.

The second thing is that I just gave up trying to understand what is, to me, a very bizarre social scene, compared to other countries in which I've lived and traveled, and other states in which I've lived and traveled. I don't know if it's Vientiane's fundamental culture, the intersection between local culture and expat culture, the fact that it's SE Asia, the impact of the backpacker trail which is fully blazed through here, but whatever it is, I felt like I couldn't get any footing or human connection on almost any level that made any sense and so many interactions felt strange. I still find the social stratification and groupings here to be oddly formal and segregated, but it is what it is and I'm learning to just work around the random awkwardness that I encounter. This is wholly and utterly new to me- I have never, ever, ever, ever, I'm going to say never again just for emphasis, had any issues with feeling out of place with people in any country in which I have lived or traveled. Those of you who know me in real life know of my penchant for making friends just about anywhere, and many of you reading are people I have been lucky enough to meet along the road, and I'm so glad our paths crossed and you resonated with whatever crazy I was putting down when we met. On that level, Vientiane humbled me- I couldn't figure it out, I clearly wasn't getting it, what the hell was going on, I'm the Make Friends Everywhere Girl, why does this place feel so deeply icy and reserved toward me? Looking back, I think that I was probably so out of sorts from everything falling apart in the first month I moved here that I was just incapable of being a fundamentally pleasant person to be around. I was resentful, stressed out, overwhelmed, and often depressed. Sounds like a good time, right? Who wants to hang out with that person? I didn't even want to hang out with me, but I had no choice. I also know that I certainly wasn't feeling up for extending myself that much (see that entire previous paragraph about coming home from work and just staying in my house).

Graduate school deserves a shout out for making my life suck at the beginning of my contract here. It was really hard on me this semester, and unnecessarily so due to just getting behind because of a lack of internet access. Those 6 weeks of backlog have dragged me down this entire semester and it has been something I have worried over almost every day. I've just now, finally, gotten a handle on it but make no mistake- I'm still not finished, and I'm learning to accept the reality of an incomplete. Speaking of school, work has finally hit that excellent spot where you're over the first three months and you know your kids, your schedule, the flow of daily work, and you have your planning and grading down. School and teaching finally shrinking down to a much more manageable pace and workload help more than I can adequately express.

I also have to cut myself some major slack because this summer marked a year since my sister's death, and shortly after that I moved here, started a new job, my boyfriend left, grad school kicked off, I felt socially isolated, and I was doing everything I could just to hang on by my fingernails. I don't mind admitting I barely made it, and there were many days when it took everything in me not to quit my job and go somewhere else. Not home, just not here. As it turns out, that feeling was satisfied simply by moving into my new apartment.

If someone asked me if I like living in Vientiane, I would still say, in general, no, but there are many specifics that I really enjoy. It has to be said that this is not just Vientiane's fault- by the end of this contract I will have lived and worked in two developing countries for two years back to back with no break to go home. It's been interesting, I've learned a lot, I've honestly had more fun than I thought was possible, but I can definitely feel the fatigue of lack of infrastructure, healthcare, museums, parks, public libraries, and certain basic regulations I really need in my life. My next contract has to be somewhere that has governmental regulations and city infrastructure that is more Western, because I'm weary and I feel my interest and curiosity turning into annoyance and frustration. Related to that, I can't keep working in this middle ground of mid-sized, kind of sprawling towns. I would like Vientiane if it were far smaller, quieter, and more slow paced, but right now, I feel like I'm in a boring American suburb with poor public transportation and too much traffic. I don't want to put up with the inconveniences of city life without any of the benefits. If I'm going to be walking through traffic, I need to walk through it to get to a beautiful park. If I'm going to live right next to my neighbors, I want the building to be well made and have noise regulations so that I'm not kept up all night listening to yet another wedding or a football game blared on a loudspeaker. I would still recommend living and working in developing countries, but know when it's time to bail. For me, that's this June.

Or I'll end up in Cambodia and read this post and laugh. Who can say. Just kidding. Actually, I don't know. I add this at the end without thinking about it, which is both confessional and prophetic I'm sure. Not Cambodia specifically, but the reality that I have no idea where I'll be next contract. So, all of this is subject to change and it could change quickly. When I think of how miserable I was at the end of September, and compare that to the end of November, I'm astounded that two months can make such an incredible difference.

Friday, December 6, 2013

And So This is Christmas: I Keep Forgetting

All of my lessons for the next week are planned, so I'm taking advantage of a rare opportunity for solitude at work by grading upstairs in our classroom. Clearly I am not grading in this exact moment; trust me when I say grading is a tedious and (no exaggeration) revolting task for me, in spite of my Type A penchant for charts and organization. The only way to get through it is with frequent carrots sprinkled throughout any session involving me, a red pen, and a mountain of my students' work. For one, I actually don't really believe in grades in terms of homework or classwork (it's all too easy to cheat, it's easy to misunderstand a question, I'm more concerned with understanding than with perfection, we could go on, but this isn't about educational theory) and for two I find the endless accounting paperwork of it all to be an insulting theft of time from the much more enjoyable and fruitful task of lesson planning and analyzing my students through the lens of often informal, usually formative, assessment. What I'm saying is, I'm taking a break from that racket to pound away on the keyboard about nothing.

The nothing in particular today is Christmas. Or, I should say, the holidays in general. Right now, our classroom is festooned with garlands and lights and wreaths and ornaments, dripping in tinsely bits and shiny balls, shimmering in glitter and sparkles and just generally being a bright and happy holiday place. It is one of the few places here that reminds me that it is, indeed, the holiday season of my home country (and of those who celebrate such holidays everywhere in the world, including here in Laos). This is also the second year in a row where I will be spending the holidays away from family, somewhere off in the world, celebrating with friends I made a mere handful of months prior. Yet I can tell you, in all sincerity, that it doesn't bother me nearly as much as the Colorado Christmases without family. In Colorado, Christmas was everywhere. Everyone I knew was gearing up for big holiday dinners, enjoying family traditions, staying up late to make purchases into presents with so many sheets of gift wrap and scotch tape, making elf dolls do precocious things, going to Christmas parties and Secret Santa affairs, making cookies and chocolate and all sorts of other outrageous Pinterest explosions of seasonal sugar. In the middle of all that? My God, the absence of my presence back home in Texas was a physical ache. It was something I could reach in and touch, gently, like a bruised rib. That was hard.

Here in Laos, or in Albania, or even in Japan, all of my acquaintances are in the same boat of expat living, floating on the often indifferent to holidays sea of our host country. No one is the odd man out, away from family for the holidays- we all are. Most people around us, the locals, actually don't give a damn about Christmas, at least not in the hyper family time extravaganza that I have known it. I spent my Christmas in Japan with Mormon missionaries who brought me along to tuck into the rare treat of a turkey dinner in a country without ovens and a traditionally passionate love for KFC during the holidays (horrors!). I did manage to sing Christmas carols with a group of other teachers, but we were swiftly dismissed by a stern policeman and then sent on our merry way home. I spent my Albanian year Christmas road trip criss crossing the gorgeous roads and treacherous mountain passes of Greece, landing in a stone cold closed down Athens and going on a do it yourself graffiti walking tour with my co-worker and his boyfriend. The hostel in which we stayed was a $6 a night Christmas tree and holly bedecked paradise, with lights and poinsettias to spare. I hung out the window on Christmas day singing "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" to the deserted streets before we headed out for a long walk through a city naturally empty of tourists because of course everyone was with their families- who wouldn't be, on Christmas?

I miss my family and friends, but I miss them in general, not specifically around these dates between late November and early January. I miss them on a Tuesday night when I want to be sitting on a couch and laughing until one a.m. about nothing but the fact that we find it funny. I miss them on the weekends when I think of Texas thunderstorms and coffee cups on back porches with tin roofs. I miss them on their birthdays, when I can't see their faces and tell them thanks for showing up here in the world when they did. I miss them on their wedding days when I wish I could see them put themselves into another person's life and make serious promises that change their lives forever, and I want to hug their bravery and tell them good luck and congratulations. I miss them when I'm out on a weekend and remember the hijinks we got up to, the banter we had, the outrageous predicaments with bricks (I'm looking at you, Tiara). I miss them when they have babies who won't be babies by the time I meet them. I miss them when they call me and their voices sound so very far away and they tell me dark things that make them cry and I can't do anything more than send my small voice back out across the line to the other side of the world, from my night to their morning, and tell them I love them. I miss them when they do the same for me. In light of all these everyday moments that I miss, the holidays, with their annual reliability of showing up right on their appointed date, just don't really bother me. The intimate spontaneity of proximity is the real gift, and I do daily know what I miss and am grateful that I have had that and will have it again.

So this Christmas I will be somewhere in Laos, possibly Northern Thailand, taking a much longed for and (I damn well think) well deserved break. I hope that I will be looking back on what ended up being a productive semester of grad school; I want to avoid what is still the real possibility of an incomplete that will nag at me all break and follow me like an unwanted puppy into next year. I'm hoping that my Christmas present to myself will be putting this past semester fully and firmly behind me, looking back on 4 months that felt like something much longer, and thanking whatever Gods might be listening that I never have to do that again.

Christmas 2012: Hanging out in the abandoned, graffiti covered streets of Athens

Monday, November 25, 2013

Right Now in Laos: Book Reports and Bedtimes, Passed over Motorcycles and Lost Novels

After two days of grading book reports I'm still not finished. I gave it up for the night, took a shower (a strangely daily occurrence now, instead of... well... it used to be more infrequent, let's just put it that way) and pulled up some Neko Case to put me to sleep, because I must say, I am so tired that I truly do wish I was the moon, regardless of how fruitless such a wish may be.

 Instead, I sat down to blog about things of little to no (okay, all no) consequence, like what I'm doing in this moment on a Monday night after a long day of working hard just to stay in one place. My apartment is filled with plants now, thanks to a weekend investment in making my life more livable. I have orchids hanging on my wall instead of art; they are cradled in silver wire and their roots frizz out of the cracks in the bamboo that holds the minuscule bit of soil they need to live. They hold themselves in such a spindly-dainty way and they are so outrageously beautiful that they make me shudder with happiness when I look at them making crooked strange shadows behind themselves on the wall. I'm sitting at my desk (not the product of procrastination desk, that one I left at the old house, and it was for the best). The scarf I dyed in frothy, stinking indigo runs over the top of the desk under my laptop, and my gold toes (thanks to the women whose services compelled me to move into this new place) are curled round the bottom slat. Really, this desk is a dream, and I didn't even have to buy it. It was just hanging out here when I moved in, and I have to say, it is a great roommate. My hair is so dirty I cannot even bear to think about it (look, I'm showering every day, isn't that enough?) but that's what buns and bobby pins are for, and oh believe you me I am bunned and bobby pinned. My nightstand lamp is on and the room is dim and saying "Hey, come crawl into bed with a book, why don't you?" But I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I left "The Moor's Last Sigh" on a table at the coffeeshop the night I met up with a traveling French man, whose motorcycle I thought I would want to buy now that he was finished taking it all over Cambodia and Vietnam. I don't know, it just seemed like the kind of bike that would have a home with me, with a history like that. After taking some tentative turns in the parking lot and mastering the clutch, I realized I really didn't want a motorcycle with a clutch at all, in terms of the stutter stop traffic that slowly slugs its way through the streets in this town. In the excitement of learning to ride something I actually didn't need to buy, and in the ensuing "Hey, let me buy you a coffee since I didn't buy your motorcycle" guilt, I totally forgot about my patient book, waiting for me on the table. I can't tell you how frustrating this is, seeing as how there is almost certainly no way I can find a replacement in this town in any good time. And oh, that book, it was a good one.

I can't wait to wake up to the birdsong tomorrow, and open my windows to let the light block walk in all over my bed while I get dressed. The mornings here, with the sun in the palm trees making slat shadows that shift and bend all over my kitchen like so many pick up stick prints, are really excellent. I have plans to get fresh noodle soup and Lao coffee for breakfast from the family down the street. Here's to fighting through more book reports on the other side of some sleep.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

In the Sunday Rotation

Love, let me sleep tonight on your couch
and remember the smell of the fabric
of your simple city dress.

This week was laughably long and hard. I spent this afternoon at the coffeeshop trying to cram work into the sporadic bursts of excellent internet punctuated with random outages. When the network was cooperating, I listened to Grace on YouTube. Then I came home and did a grad school assignment and kept the same soundtrack. The whole album is beautiful, I love all the songs, but the walking halting lilt of the music at the beginning of this song gets me every time.

Sundays are supposed to be for squandering. Why did I do so much work?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

New Digs

I'm not where I used to be, and I am so relieved. The Treehouse, though I tried, remained aloof to all my efforts to bring it into the fold of easy familiarity and comfortable rapport. It was, at it turns out, built for two (I mean, think back to any treehouse ever- they're more fun if someone is hiding out with you, the two of you snickering behind a secret password and the knowledge of the expertly hidden trapdoor). The Treehouse was staunchly indifferent to the single lady and her rag tag street kittens. I would come home and feel like I was intruding. "Um, hey, Treehouse? Yeah, work's over so... can I hang out with you?" And Treehouse would harrumph and purse lips and shrug shoulders as it deigned, through thinly veiled condescension, to let me enter. It's wood y'all, how is this level of emotional warfare even possible? Oh, but it is.

Treehouse wasn't always giving me the silent-I-can-barely-bear-you-treatment: I felt fine at first, but living alone there suddenly everything felt too big. At night, when I would crawl into bed, my big, open downstairs room felt like an uncomfortable presence underneath me; I was nesting on an enormous emptiness. No wonder I couldn't sleep. The wall rats, the geckos, the outdoor kitchen- I could hang with the quirky charm of it all. I made plans for a garden. I bought everything necessary to make the outdoor kitchen work. But in the end, honestly, I just needed my own place. Not the place I suddenly had to myself. That's not the same thing. My own place. One I chose as my own.

Yesterday, after a week of sickness that spiraled into cabin fever that served to magnify my discomfort in my own (by default) home, I went out with Jinni in search of painkillers (for her rib) and dirt cheap spa services (for both of us). While Jinni got a massage, I went next door where two tiny women bent over my feet and hands and cleaned me up with ever more delicious smelling scrubs and cold, sharp tools. The sun was streaming in through the windows, the women were smiling and fastidious and kind, and the amiable lap of the leather chair gave way whichever way I needed it to. I rolled my head back, eyes closed, and thought that I hadn't felt this great in weeks. It was then that I realized, in a way that left an angry-cold fist in my stomach, that even though I was still weak and a bit sick, I actually felt more comfortable in that much shared chair, in a strange salon, with unfamiliar strangers touching me, than I felt in my own home.

I decided then and there that I would not spend one more night in the Treehouse. I would give up the guilt; I would give up my stubborn "I will make this work" bullheadedness. I would allow myself to see moving out not as a failure, but as a valid and logical course of action given the circumstances. Why should I continue to live somewhere that felt less hospitable to me than a public chair in a nail salon on a tourist trodden road? The genesis of my discomfort and unease was irrelevant. I had walked myself through all the benefits of the house so many times it was almost a mantra- it's beautiful, it's close to work, the garden, the washing machine, the extra bedroom, the way the afternoon light spills onto the wood in the living room and makes everything glow like a nostalgic painting, it was so cheap, it's already paid a year in advance, you can make this work if you just try, why won't you try harder, you're just not trying hard enough. It simply wasn't working. I was so damned tired of flogging myself to keep trying. I gave myself permission to do something I rarely ever do- I just gave up.

And so I followed Jinni home that very same day and promptly rented the apartment right next door to hers. I have a familiar face nearby, but I'm still living on my own, which I truly enjoy. My bed has only ever been my bed, so it doesn't feel empty when I go to sleep. I woke up this morning and cried in relief because I felt, for the first time since Sept 23rd, like I could actually like living here. I was blaming Laos for how out of sorts I felt, but the problem might be my experience of Laos up to now, due to my trying so desperately to create harmony out of disparate parts and unwilling players. The Treehouse was never my house; it was our house, but now I'm the one who's here. I didn't want to stay where I found myself as a random result of unfortunate events and make it work; I wanted my own place, from the beginning. Now I have it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sick in Laos: I Puked in the Street, but I Almost Used that Brick

The past two weeks, I have been accompanying my friend and co-worker, Jinni, to various doctors in order to find some relief for her broken rib. In doing so, I was reminded of all the times I found myself in unfamiliar hospitals, in foreign lands, trying to converse, across a language barrier, with doctors about something as deeply personal and important as my health. It's not, I can assure you, anywhere near the top of my list of "Things I Enjoy About Living Overseas". Of course, being sick isn't anywhere near the top of anyone's list of things to enjoy, but nothing takes the wind out of your "I'm on top of the WORLD!" foot loose and fancy free ramblin' man sails like getting sick far from home. Even a simple cold feels so much more isolating, so much more personal, so much more of an obstacle to deal with.

I need to write an entire story around Jinni's broken rib (honestly, it contains the best of what is, in a dark way, the unique comedy that arises out of navigating hospitals in the developing world) but as it turns out I was waylaid with an illness of my own. It started Sunday, faked me out on Monday by pretending to retreat, and by Tuesday morning I was a shaky, coughing, bleary eyed, sinus fire snot mess. I went home from work in a haze of water limbs and sweat and slept all day. I dragged myself, shivering and goosebumped, into a balmy tropical evening. I had to go about a quarter of a mile down the street to get water, but this seemed like a marathon as I stopped every few feet to hack and cough and sneeze, and to will myself not to faint. Every step was torture. This ordeal was made worse by the fact that an enormous work truck filled with tens of wiry young construction workers communicated to me that there ain't nothin' more libido inflaming than a hacking, snotty, stumbling falang. As I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, they leered and heckled and catcalled me the entire length of the street. Dear reader, I have to say, in that moment, when I was feeling vulnerable, and miserable, and filled with fever and yes, a bit of fear as to what I was supposed to do if shit got real with this illness, that the heckling was just too much. I burst into huge, wracking sobs. The men just laughed at me, but when, between the tears and the coughing, I actually gagged and had to stop to puke in the street, they did finally ignore me.

I guess even construction workers in developing countries have standards. Good to know they set the bar as high as "when a girl is sobbing and puking and coughing in the street and can barely walk, that's when you stop heckling and whistling and yelling at her". Chivalry is alive and well in Laos!

After my traumatic evening stroll through my wonderful neighborhood, I came home with water and, more importantly, cat food. If I was going to die alone in my bed, I was going to be damned if my ungrateful street kittens were going to eat me. I dumped an exorbitant amount of cat food in their bowls, then dumped a bit more as a stern "Seriously, there will be no reason other than gross betrayal if you eat me when all of this is right here" warning, and then I collapsed into bed. After that, things get a bit hazy, as I proceeded to toss fitfully in and out of some pretty wicked fever dreams all night long. I do remember that my neighbor, who is a particularly moody kind of drinker, rolled into our shared driveway around 10:30 blasting a very badly produced love song. True, it was in Lao, a language I don't speak, but when you stumble, fever drunk, in your sick-sweat drenched nightshirt to peer out of the curtains of your Treehouse, and you see a sullen looking twenty something man sitting at the wheel of his car, blaring music while he pounds a Beer Lao and stares off into the distance, I don't know, you just know it's a love song. Also, the fact that the same song was played no less than 5 times on repeat is, to my mind, irrevocable evidence that some sort of heartbreak was being worked through in that front seat. The good thing is, when his obnoxious bass shook my Treehouse (the stilts upon which I live are quite sensitive) and woke me up, my fever had peaked at 101, which gave me an opportunity to pound a liter of water, stand in a freezing cold shower, and ponder whether or not I should call the emergency number of the French clinic. I was so tired and weak I just decided to make 102 my line in the sand and call it a night if I reached that line. This was, honestly, nothing more than an awful sinus infection/head cold, or perhaps a flu, with as bad as I was feeling, but fevers in America are not fevers in Laos. In America, a fever is a fever. In Laos... is this A FEVER? Tropical climates are pretty fantastic at cooking up some gnarly diseases, and when I find myself living alone in a foreign country without ambulances or addresses, much less a hospital, anything over 99 degrees suddenly seems much more ominous.

I woke up this morning feeling a level of awful that was appropriate considering the heat snarled, frequently interrupted sleep of last night, so I promptly went back to bed. At 4:00 I finally dragged out of my house to get some food. I still can't breathe, I still feel like tiny pizza cutters are rolling leisurely through my sinuses, but this is all firmly in the land of no big deal now I don't feel like I'm burning up from the inside out.

And so it's here that I will admit that yesterday I had a brick in my hand because of the dog that always chases me down the street, and when the men started in on me, I swear to you, if I had even 5% more strength I would have hurled that brick right through their windshield. Instead, I puked in the street, which is certainly a less violent deterrent, although far less satisfying than seeing the look of shock on their faces as the brick sailed in a graceful arc of "SCRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEW YOUUUUUUUU", before landing neatly in the center of the windshield and crackling it into a spider web of "SHUT YOUR DIRTY MOUTHS" right before the entire thing shuddered into a crystal pile of "YES, I AM THAT CRAZY" sparkle shards all over the front seat.

At least, that's how I imagined it going down in my fever addled brain.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Laos Goals: Money

This post may well be boring to most people, but I'm a budget nerd at heart and I have some big goals I need to organize. Thus, I'm about to show my hand and get all detailed about my income and expenses in the interest of having some sort of accountability thanks to the fact that I put it out on the internet. I know many people don't like talking/thinking about money, but I say get it out in the open and know what you're working with. Plus, talking about what I'm doing after Laos keeps me motivated to stay in Laos, and I'm not too proud to admit that I need that motivation. I'm just warning you, this cartoon is the funniest thing in this post (and it's not even funny, so...).

Edited to add: There is some dumb stuff at the end that's sort of okay in terms of levity. 

Here's what I'm working towards:

Come June 15th of 2014, I want to roll out of my contract with enough money saved to sustain me through the end of December without income. That will give me a 6 month hiatus to chill out after a long and hectic year of full-time grad school, full-time teaching, and 24-7 living in Laos with my life to deal with (you know what I mean). On the most fragile gossamer strands of tentative plans, those 6 months will consist of 3 months dirty drifter backpacking (you'd think SE Asia, but honestly, folks, ol' Gadget Cat might just wanna shake the dust and hop a plane to another hub) and, much more firmly, 3 months of time stateside. I hope to be in the U.S. all of October, November, and December to hit the home run of the best holidays of the year with dearly missed family and friends. Places and time might change, but right now I really, really know that however I dice up those 6 months I need them to be at my disposal to dice. I really, really know that.

Here's what I'm working with: 
I take home $1,500 a month. $750 is deposited in my USD checking account and the other $750 is converted into the local currency and deposited into my LAK account. As a result, my baseline "Do not drop below this or you're a jerk" savings plan is $750 a month. I won't touch the USD account. If I do that for the next 9 months, I will have a $6,750 baby. Since I'd like a nice, round number to aim for, let's say I save an extra $28 a month to bump (this analogy just never ends, huh?) the savings up to $7,000.

To save that much, I'll need to live off of $722 a month. Here's a breakdown of my fixed expenses, which are $290 a month:

Rent:                             $150 (actually $300, but I'm getting a $1,500 travel reimbursement that                                                   pays back the other half)

Internet:                         $50 (so expensive, but I have to have it for school)

Electric:                         $75 (even more expensive, because I'm getting the special screw the                                                     foreigner rate, but that's a post for another time)

Water:                           $15 (over estimate since the first bill, for two weeks, was $3)

That leaves me $432 a month in discretionary spending. I don't drink, smoke, or do recreational drugs, and I don't care about buying fancy electronics, or going clothes shopping, or buying random crap for my house. I eschewed a motorbike and bought a bicycle, which I have already paid to have serviced (new brakes, new tires). That means I have $108 a week to feed and entertain myself, and buy random household items as needed. I've already dropped the big wad of setting up life in a new country cash, so if I can't stick within $108 a week then I have serious problems.

If all goes according to plan, I'll be able to leave Laos come summer and live off of $1,166 a month for my 6 month break. That's more than I will have lived off of monthly for almost an entire year, so it's safe to say that's a comfortable figure. The only debts I have are student loans, which are not due during full-time grad school, and which are in post-grad deferment for 6 months after graduation. Ah, it all makes sense now, doesn't it? Taking 6 months off post graduation is not only what I need, it's what I would do anyway because it will be the last time for a long time I can do something like this. Once my student loans come due I am going to aggressively pay them down to get them off my back as soon as possible. I just want a bit of a breather, some down time, and some family home time before I launch into that battle.

I'm going to track my spending for all of November, starting today, to see where it's all going, and I'll see how all of this works in real life come December 1st. I know that you are probably thinking "I cannot WAIT to hear an update, the suspense is going to KILL ME!" Bated breath, antici

       pation- I'm sure it's too much excitement to bear. Try to calm down. Maybe you could make a countdown chart? Something like those primary Christmas calendars where you affix a single cotton ball to each day for a month, until you have created a nasty-sticky, matted cotton beard to give context to the creepy Santa eyes/nose/mouth free-floating above the date boxes. Just a suggestion.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Our House, With Two Cats Not in the Yard

The Tree House. That gate is my front door, but front door doesn't really mean the same thing here, you understand.

The Tree House contains the following inhabitants*:

1 (one) human
2 (two) kittens

The 1 (one) human has rabies vaccinations. The 2 (two) kittens do not.**

This is Laos.

*The Tree House also offers shelter to an enormous rag-tag community of rats, mice, geckos, spiders, mosquitoes, flies, and an array of bugs which I am unable to classify within the reference boundaries of my narrow North American experience of bugs and their names. But, as you can understand, counting these additional inhabitants is impossible.

**They will soon, but right now I'm the one walking a dusty trail lined with strange dogs, while the kittens enjoy a life of leisure and comfort, safely inside always, with a box to poop in and mosquito nets to vanquish and food bowls overflowing.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Let Me Tell you About Buying a Desk: A Fable of Procrastination

I should be doing graduate school work right now, but instead I'm sitting at my cheap wooden desk, in the second bedroom of The Treehouse, watching my cats fly (ungracefully, I hate to admit) across the bed to ninja punch each other through the confusing gauze of the mosquito net that so attracts and deceives them. One of them just ran full throttle whiskers first into the wall, after mistaking its unbending seriousness for the forgiving fluff of the net. First rule, cat: know your enemy.

When I moved in, the second bedroom in my house contained the aforementioned battle scene bed (large, comically uncomfortable, but still a free bed, family and friends, so those of you reading who are so inclined to come visit, focus on the adjective free instead of uncomfortable) and a rather useless handmade wardrobe with peculiar dimensions and doors that refuse to stay shut. I got it into my head that I would get a proper desk and chair for this room, to have a place to work on graduate school and writing. The blank white wall next to the window, to the left of the bed- that's where my desk and chair would go, and that, THAT would be where I would go to be Productive and Thoughtful and Academic. Maybe I was thinking of all those productivity tips about having a dedicated work space, maybe I was thinking about writing tips that tell you to have a dedicated creative space, maybe I just needed some damned something to do on a Sunday that stretched interminably from sun up to sun down filled with dust and palm trees and a backlog of work. Whatever it was, I was after a desk, and a chair, and a little spot in a room of one's own in which to write.

I purchased my desk for absolutely Too Much Money at D-Mart, which is, for all intents and purposes (I cannot type that phrase without hearing people saying, incorrectly, "intensive purposes", and wishing I could, in this moment, beckon  them over to read the words directly prior to that first parenthesis so that they can finally understand the error of their ways) a step up from a Dollar General, but let's not get carried away, not anywhere close to something like a Target. I knew that I would be able to find the perfect specimen of over-priced particle board there, and I was not mistaken. I also managed to find what I did not know at the time was the scratchiest chair imaginable, which is, at this moment, giving the back of my legs rug burn even though, I swear, I am not moving at all. The ability to inflict a pain predicated on friction, in the absence of movement, is indeed a talent and I must say that perhaps this chair was worth every penny, if only for being so resourceful in the ways in which it torments me. Maybe that will make up for the fact that, on the first day, I made the mistake of expecting the armrest to bear weight, and it responded, indignantly, by snapping in half and then ricocheting back and spanking the side of my hip. Dear reader, I was mortified to be spanked by my own office chair. Is this any way to treat someone who simply wants to sit on you? I think not. But I'm jumping ahead.

Off I went to D-Mart, where the woman at the entrance counter kindly relieved me of anything on my person larger than a pack of cards, and handed my belongings over to a most reassuring security system: they were casually deposited on the edge of a ledge out of sight, with a flimsy piece of numbered cardboard on top of it. I was given my own flimsy piece of numbered cardboard that- and here's the genius part- matched the number on my belongings. In this way, the microchips (which I am certain were embedded somewhere in the flimsy piece of numbered cardboard) could communicate with one another and it would be physically impossible for anyone to take my belongings if, say, the employee charged with guarding them was, say, oh, I don't know, not there at all a few minutes later and was, let's imagine, drinking bubble tea with a most fetching male employee who, I must say, was most likely more interesting than my cardboard topped belongings.

But this is about buying a desk.

I bought my desk- a very simple affair, being just a stationary rectangle squatting on top of a smaller, sliding rectangle to accommodate a keyboard (lol, desktop computers, what?) sitting on four utilitarian legs- without much fanfare, but then there was much confusion when it was discovered that this falang didn't have a car. What? No car? But... falang. Of course you have a car. I shrugged my sweaty shoulders, gave a helpless "Whatcanyado?" hand motion, and then made a walking motion so that the saleswoman could understand the depths of my non-falang-edness: I.had.walked. Why, I didn't even have a scooter?! I nodded emphatically and slurped the bubble tea I had purchased after seeing the entrance counter cardboard dispenser woman talking to the fetching male employee. It was delicious, and made me wonder if she had left my belongings more for the tea, or for the boy? These things can be hard to tease apart. Kind of like how it's hard to reconcile a falang with no car, or scooter, who does strange things like use her feet to get to D-Mart to buy a desk. I asked about delivery, but then there was the issue of there being no such thing as an address. No problem; after a year in Albania I am a seasoned veteran of living in the land that Google has not met. I was able to whip out my cartographer skills and draw, what I think, to be what is quite possibly the most accurate representation of the rural bits behind the temple (off that one street that has Joma 2 on it right before the water tower, no, before, yes, before, no... okay) that has ever been committed to the backside of a D-Mart circular that was, in a delightfully meta way, advertising furniture for sale.

Despite what I deemed to be superior map making illustrations, it was decided that no one had any idea where the hell to take my things. This is where I had reached the bottom of my delicious tea to wrangle with the sticky globs of rapidly drying tapioca bubbles. I was hungry, and the bubbles were not cutting it. I was hot. I was pondering the fact that I might never see the fruition of my goal to equip my second bedroom with a productivity corner, if the fruition of that goal was dependent upon the people around me looking skeptically at the map upside down. And, I have to admit, I was lazy and looking for a free ride. Literally. I wanted a free ride. So I told the saleswoman I would just sit on the ground of the warehouse until the truck came back, and I would then ride with the truck to my home. It was settled. I sat on the ground and chewed more tapioca.

The truck rolled up rattle trap and ready to go, and I hopped up in the cab with an ease that evoked laughter and surprise from the old man and a boy, who was in charge of sitting in the back of the truck and hugging my desk to his body to keep it (and maybe himself) from flying out. I'm studying Lao, but I'm sure you can understand that I don't yet have the vocabulary to say "I'm from Texas, y'all, I know how to hop up in the cab of a rattle trap truck" so I just left them to ponder the peculiarities of sweaty falang women who sneak rides and snap tapioca bubbles with their faces out of the open window to catch a breeze.

We made it to my dirt road with no problems (honestly, can I just say again, that map I drew was a dream, a pity it will never be used) and I was able to wow the men once more. See, the passenger side door didn't have a handle on the inside. As a person with a ridiculous amount of anxiety about being trapped in places, the first thing I do is scope out my "How to get the hell out of here" strategy (doubly so when riding in trucks with strangers, I might add). I had zoned in on that missing handle the moment I got in. As a result, when we pulled up to my house and the old man hopped out to run around and let me out, I was out and shutting the door behind me by the time he got there. This he found really hilarious, and gave me an "Oh, you!" finger wag. When I tossed a friendly "Sabaidee" to my neighbor, the old man erupted in peals of laughter. I really liked the old man. I smiled at him and let him into my house (this means I opened up a gate and we were inside something that is still outside) where he dropped my desk, the boy dropped the chair, and they left.

Then I dragged the desk and chair up the impossibly narrow staircase while all of my neighbors watched and laughed at the Antics of the Spunky Falang. When I made it up with the desk above my head and didn't fall, I made sure to take a few steps back down and give the thumbs up to my audience. They laughed some more. I really like my neighbors. In a sea of relative cultural isolation, their willingness to engage me is refreshing.

But this is about buying a desk.

Oh, wait, I already told you about buying the desk. I guess I'll just end by saying that this is the second time I have used it since I bought it, about a month ago. As it turns out, a room of one's own filled with cats, surrounded by the most active of the wall rats, and tricked out with a flimsy rectangle of a desk and a pins and needles chair with a broken armrest is not the most idyllic spot for creativity or productivity.

But sometimes, you just need to get out of your house, walk a very long way, and accomplish an arbitrarily decided upon task so that you can feel like you accomplished something on what would have otherwise been a long and dusty Sunday in the town in which you find yourself living. In a stunning double whammy of forward thinking resourcefulness, I must say that the task of buying the desk and the chair was, without a doubt, an example of the expert ways in which I can create things to do out of thin air when I really, really, really don't want to do something else. Thus, that manufactured chore to get out of doing something I didn't want to do has served me twice: once, in the doing of it, and twice, in the re-telling of it when I should have been doing graduate work.

This isn't really about buying a desk.

Friday, October 25, 2013

About Once a Week, I Feel This Way

I saw this on FB and thought "This is my relationship to Laos", which surprised even me. I figured I should elaborate on that first reaction, if only to sort out my brain.

Strangely, it seems that when I am trying the hardest to be grateful and positive, when I am gritting my teeth and steadfastly refusing to go down inviting rabbit holes of velvet negativity, when I am setting my eyes high and holding my chin up and squinting at the picture and doing my absolute, honest, level best to see the good, that's when things really get hard. The juxtaposition of something that is nothing other than negative, with my anxious commitment to see anything but the negative, is so constant, so immediate, that in those moments it feels personal. I feel taunted, in some way that isn't sensible but I feel it nonetheless. 

It's not just in the day to day that I feel this duality- it's in the very fact that I have ended up here at all, suddenly solo at the end of a long line of wandering that has been, up 'til now, so thoroughly satisfying. I have traveled almost all the way around this earth, over land and sea, through tens of countries which have knocked me breathless with wonder and happiness. I have made incredible connections with fellow travelers effortlessly, conversation and laughs and stories and hugs flowing freely. This past year and summer was like a technicolor greatest hits feel good reel of the stunningly simple and profound ways in which people can so easily fall into rapport against a backdrop of a new time/place/language/culture, filled with learning and curiosity and advice and support. I loved those countries, and I loved those shared experiences. Albania gave me so much that I don't know how I got so lucky as to be in that place, in that time, with those people. And then to leave there and get to ant crawl my way through all those other places and faces? Beautiful, sorrow steeped Bosnia and the hostel that felt like a family reunion turned road trip; Serbia, between the coffee shop chance meeting and the pub crawl out under the damp dark tramping through the streets and dancing and sweating and laughing along the river with new people who suddenly seemed like my oldest friends; Poland with the travelers I met in the ER after eavesdropping on a motorcycle accident back home in Albania; Estonia and the stone streets of the old town deciphered by a group of college students who were so frank, witty, and kind that they seemed to have sprung from the pagan, forest mist dream of the country; trains all over Russia with stranger-travelers who curled up knees and elbows pressing against me to share food from far flung home countries and talk about where-to-next/where-from-before. This last year was what I was searching for when I said, for the previous six, that I wanted to leave my home and my family, in spite of how much I loved both, to go travel, to explore, to dig my fingers into the earth and see what I could find in the soft soil crumbles in my palms.

This summer, I rolled off the Trans-Mongolian into China and onto a plane where I was filled with happiness and excitement for what would be next. I roamed the streets of Bangkok laughing out loud at how much I loved it after waiting so many long years to finally be there. I found myself on a tile floor in a train station, my entire life heaped in bags around me, my partner next to me with his arranged the same, and I was so curious to get on the train that would take me, in my sleep, to my new home. I would wake up to Laos. To Vientiane. It would be different on every level, of that I was sure, and that was what I was expecting and looking forward to.

So now? To to find myself here? In Laos? Where everything feels filtered through funhouse mirrors and watered down, missed beats and awkward steps, with a palpable lack of energy in the air that leaves me exhausted and unsatisfied when I try to breathe it in? It hurts even worse by unavoidable comparison, and that's magnified by living here alone when here was chosen for two. I know how blood-deep joyful this vagabond life can be, I have seen it and felt it and it's why I keep going. To have to slog through such a relatively gray landscape, desperately trying to tap into that pulsing vein and coming up dry every time, pushes me into so much frustration and anger. I feel the absurdly awful truth of how diametrically and wholly opposite this experience has been thus far. The fact that I adore my job and my students, and I need to finish my master's degree and save money, is the only thing holding me here- a single thread of mundane commitments, no more. 

I don't find it hard to live here in terms of culture shock, or day to day lifestyle. On a variety of levels, it's easier than Albania. No, I am just uninspired, apathetic, and wholly unimpressed by the culture here in Vientiane. These episodes of doubt can vary from from "Well, that's unfortunate, but you can't love everywhere" to "ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW?" when I ponder the next 8 months of living here.

And here is where I say that yes, even the most beautiful and interesting place will be awful when you're going through a break-up, but I must say, dear reader, that this would be a bit easier somewhere else, of that I am sure. I've been to many Somewhere Elses, in the middle of much greater pain of loss, and dealt with it better than I am dealing with this. I stand resolute in my opinion that the problem is with Vientiane. Or, okay, let's share it: maybe it's me in relation to Vientiane. I just don't belong here, but I have to make a home here.

Teaching. Grad school. So many books. Writing. More writing. Back to the books. This is what Laos will mean to me.

Ah, but now I've laid it all out hyper-concentrated in the middle of an attack of spontaneous prose, distilled through the filter of a bad day, I need to tell you: please don't worry about me. Truly.

Six days out of seven, I'm golden; I am golden sparkling Buddha fingers in the sunshine.

About one day out of seven, I'm a gutter dog.

As long as I keep rolling numbers like that, I'll be okay.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Bookends for the Beginning

“I want so much that is not here and do not know where to go.” - Charles Bukowski

That's not quite right, but it's close. The desperately vague sentiment of that quote is about as specific as I can get right now. I spent all day today with a wanting that was so tangible it was as if it were a strange person sitting too near for comfort. 

I want so much. That's all. No definitions, no clarifications needed. That's it- I want so much.

More than not knowing where to go, though, is the creeping certainty that wherever I would try to go, I would not be welcome; it wouldn't be an escape. Not really. I'd just show up with Want So Much and there'd be no place for either of us. 

I definitely wouldn't let MeandmyMind sleep on my couch if MeandmyMind showed up at my front door right now.

There is no where to go. I have to stay here. Literally and figuratively. The wanting? I think there's something under it I need to dig out. 

I'll find it.

"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
    I'll dig with it." 
- Seamus Heaney

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sleepy Cat

As a teacher, I care a very great deal about the classroom culture and atmosphere I foster and model for my students. There is an oft passed around mission statement type feel good quote that really resonates with me, despite being slightly cheesy. Basically, it says that teachers... eh, you know what? I'm just going to Google it. I'm too tired to summarize thoughtfully without blatantly plagiarizing. 
Okay, here it is, courtesy of an anonymous stranger who took the time to type it into Goodreads:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

― Haim G. Ginott

Now, this could be read as a bit self important, but I choose to read it as a reminder that teachers have a huge responsibility to their students on more levels than just teaching them. Students spend half of their waking lives with me, and if I'm not a pleasant person to be around, I am making that half miserable. 

Okay, now I need to get to the point, which is hard, because my eyes are crossing. I have been working since last Friday off of about 4 hours average of sleep each night, due to a combination of factors: sometimes I was just stupid and stayed up too late frittering away precious sleep time in internet rabbit holes, other times I was frantically completing a grad school assignment at the very last minute (which is actually 13 hours ahead of all my classmates, due to time difference, so really, I am quite wholly a pathetically good procrastinator), a few times I woke in the night a feverish, dehydrated mess, stumbling downstairs to my mosquito den outdoor kitchen to get bottles of water, and night before last my neighbors decided to start Karaoke Fest Vientiane 2013 around midnight. They are not good singers, as I'm sure you are shocked to know. There was one night when neighborhood cats were having street fighter style epic battles on the auditory magnifying glass that is my tin roof, which then set the wall rats into a frenzy of fear, which resulted in a solid hour of yowling on top and squeaky-scritching all around, with me in the center of it all sighing in defeat, watching my mosquito net wave in the breeze from my A.C. while I calculated how many hours of sleep I was losing. By the end of this long line of comically interrupted nights, I have found myself staggering through the last two days in a sleep deficit addled haze, squinting at my life through burning eyes, desperately trying to remember how to spell basic words on the whiteboard. I don't even want to know what kind of responses I posted to my grad school discussion- I know I did them, and I read over them before posting them, but lately I have been typing things and re-reading them only to find the most surprising words in the mix. They glare up at me, wondering why I put them where they do not belong. Judgmental words are really the worst.

On top of the sleep exhaustion, I feel the guilt of knowing, with certainty, that I am being a sub-par teacher in comparison to the standards I have for myself (relevance of quote above, activated!). Oh, my lessons are still meticulously planned, the objectives line up, I start and end class on time: the framework is still there. But I can feel how much less fun of a teacher I am, because I am certainly not having very much fun myself when I am dragging myself up the stairs trying to remember what day it is. I can feel the energy of the room dampen a bit when I'm off my game like this. I can even sometimes see it in my students' faces: "What's up with Teacher? Why isn't she singing us random songs about what we're learning?" That is what makes me feel worse than a million nights of no sleep. Teaching isn't a job where you can roll in on a bad day, hunker down at your desk, and bang out your work while wrestling with whatever issues you have going on in life. You are physically in front of your responsibility all day long, and you just can't check out emotionally or mentally. Some of the worst days of any job I have ever had are the days when I have had to teach when I am broken down, bone weary, desperate for sleep, knowing that I have to stand, and smile, and support, and continue on. 

I miss approximately a million things about working in Albania, but this one is pertinent to the topic at hand: I had my own classroom, with a rug, and on our breaks my much loved co-workers could come nap on it with me. 

Feeling awful on top of feeling awful for doing a shoddy job because you feel awful is an exquisite exponent of discomfort. I left school yesterday vowing to go to bed early, but I found myself awake at midnight, poring over grad school work. I woke up this morning and clattered out of the house only to slip in a mud puddle and have to go right home to change. Sleep. I need it. 

More than sleep, though, this breaking point of exhaustion has shown me that I just need to get back into a routine that has a hell of a lot more self care in general. With as boring as I find Vientiane, and since I get out of work at 3:30, there really isn't any reason why I shouldn't be doing a lot more things that contribute to my health and happiness, which lends itself to being a better teacher, which also contributes to my happiness because I cherish my job and my students. That's not too sentimental of a verb, cherish: trust me that's the one I picked and that's the one I mean. This has been the first week where I've really had a terrible time due to not getting enough rest, and thus this has been the first week where I've felt like I'm only giving about 80%. In other areas of my life, however, I've been going through the motions almost from the day I arrived here: I haven't been working out or eating well; I haven't been reading nearly as much as I'd like to; I've been writing more but not nearly as much as I really need to in order to clean out my brain; and I have been doing a pitiful job of organizing my time in a way that helps me get caught up on grad school without resulting in my sitting up at one a.m. completing a mere 200 word response that I could have done the day before. Much of my disorganization in the past few weeks is due to adjusting to the idea of living in Laos alone, and being sad over my partner being gone, and not having any idea what will happen next, but the fact is that even that will be relieved, in some way, if I start investing more in things I know I need to do to help my life be much more pleasant in spite of my apathy towards Vientiane and the personal troubles I'm dealing with.

I should at least take advantage of the lack of things to do here, entertainment wise, by filling my time with books and writing and yoga and weightlifting, grad school and volunteering. From the moment I got here, I have focused almost exclusively on being a good teacher and doing a good job- which is fine and all, but if I am worn down into finely shredded pieces I won't even be able to accomplish that much.

It's 7:22 p.m. here in Vientiane, and the rain is pounding down on the Tree House while I type this. I have two cats curled up against my side purring; they are happily oblivious to the outrageous luck that has allowed them to be in my warm bed instead of outside in that rain. I have a shower to take and a book to read. I have a job to go to tomorrow where my students warrant verbs like cherish. By 8:00, I hope to be fast asleep. The rainstorm should keep any rooftop cats or karaoke jams at bay.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Upon Closer Inspection

This gorgeous guy is right off of a hectic street. The temples all over town are beautiful.
Ever since my first teaching job- in 2005, in Japan- I have looked to SE Asia as a goal, a destination off in the mists of future job opportunities. I fantasized about Thailand when living in Japan, but, as Japan was still too much to see in a year, I spent all my vacation time on the island. When I went back home to America, I would often peruse Dave's ESL as a motivator to keep going to the job I hated to pay off my debt. Regardless of the impossibility of leaving anytime soon, I would look into any job in SE Asia. I researched a volunteer program teaching English to Buddhist monks in Laos. I fumbled through the infinite stream of three month contract postings for part time work in Vietnam. And, despite my familiarity with the TEFL + guaranteed job combo in Thailand, I would dutifully read it when it popped up like clockwork twice a year, like some offering of continued interest and dedication to travel and work gods.

Through a series of twists and turns and compromises and changes of plans, I finally find myself in SE Asia, specifically, Laos. Laos, to be sure, was never in the steady rotation of my work and travel fantasies. Sure, there was that one program with the Buddhist monks, but mostly there were just never any job postings for Laos. Thailand and Vietnam were the pillars upon which my future goals rested. But, in the end, it was Laos, and so I set off from Albania filled with excitement about the coming year. Along the 8 weeks I traveled, I met people who had been to Laos, specifically to Vientiane, who, upon hearing of my good fortune to live here, gave me a saucer eyed accompaniment to the ecstatic proclamation that I would love it. Others raved about SE Asia in general, with a cursory afterthought reference to the certainty that Laos, too, would naturally share the same characteristics that led to such adoration.

Naturally. Of course. Wonderful. I would love it.

Plot Twist! I don't.

Well, let me elaborate (who's surprised I'm going to elaborate, honestly, it's what I do).

I don't not like it. I just don't love it. I feel as though I could sum it up with a "meh" and a twisted "Whatcanyado?" smile. I'm certainly not feeling the saucer eyed ecstatic proclamations. Yes yes, I've only been in Vientiane. Trust me, I understand. I loved Albania but wrestled with Tirana mightily; I'm fully aware that capital cities are, in general, outliers. They are rarely indicative of the rest of the country, and often present a blatantly contrary face that is wholly out of touch with the culture, politics, and day to day living of the rest of the population. Sure, we all know that- that's the whole world, isn't it? I mean, look at Paris and then look at the rest of France. On a smaller scale, even state capitals don't ever tell the real story- let me introduce you to Austin, Texas, who was surely sired by some wandering Liberal Milkman because Mama Tex is a redblooded conservative and barely claims that bastard, if we want to get really real real.

So, yes, Vientiane. It's not the heart of Laos, I know, it's just the capital. But people specifically raved about Vientiane. Not just Laos. Vientiane. It's charming, relaxed, beautiful, inspiring, I meditated a million hours a day, I felt like I was at peace like never before, out of all the places I've traveled that's where I'd want to live- I could go on. I won't, because even for me this is rambly. What the hell was that analogy about Texas up there? I just.... okay.

I'm coming up against the reality that I thought I was the kind of person who would move to Laos and fall into some kind of balmy, tropical lifestyle of leisurely wandering in hideous hippie pants and a braid, happily eating something wrapped in rice wrapped in leaves dipped in awesome sauce, peacefully taking in my Vientiane life, and I'm just not. I thought I would be excitedly planning trips around Laos- undeveloped! undiscovered! untouched! After all, that was my favorite part of Albania- it was so remote and undeveloped. The natural wonders were incredible. I was excited from the moment I hit the ground.

Instead, here, I'm just kind of bored. There, I said it. I'm bored. No, wait: I'm a bit disappointed. That's more what it is. From all the stories/forums/articles/blogs I read, and from the pictures I saw, I thought it would be a walkable little town on a charming river that would be easy to get to and enjoyable to walk regularly. Instead, the city is far more rambling and suburban than I had thought it would be, so it is difficult to walk anywhere without committing at least half an hour, and doing anything social in the center requires a 15 minute bike ride or an exorbitantly priced tuk tuk- honestly, they are more expensive per mile than taxis in New York City, but it's just the back of some dude's truck. The river is about a 45 minute walk one way. There is nothing that would be described as "dense" or "compact" at all. I miss the density of Tirana, the ability to walk everywhere. I miss the community, too. I would walk home from work giving nods and hellos to all the familiar shopkeepers, stop in at Watermelon and buy her fruit, stop in at Downstairs Dude and get water or pay my electric bill, smile to Buke Lady. Here, I'm out on a little dirt road fringed with palm trees and houses with enormous concrete front yards bordered with tall fences. The most social aspect of my neighborhood is that I walk through a Buddhist temple to get to work. It's beautiful, it's a 400 meter walk door to door, and I love my house, but still, I think I'd love it more if, on my way to work, I passed several little shops and produce stands and tailors and bakeries (or the Laotian equivalent of a bakery).  Of course, to satisfy that desire would mean living on the other side of town, and biking half an hour to work, or breaking down and dropping $500 on a scooter. So, again, I'm coming to terms with the fact that Vientiane is changing rapidly, even within the last year, as I'm told by so many expats. Gone are the days of leisurely riding one's bike through a wide open road. Now it's bumper to bumper car traffic, with every spare opening filling with an endless rushing of scooters blowing dust on everything. And I'm in the middle of it, trying to get to the other side of town on a bicycle, wondering where my relaxing dreams of idyllic tropical wandering went. Probably off in the back of an overpriced tuk tuk.

To be fair, when I first came to Vientiane and was spending all my time on the other side of town, on the riverfront, I was perfectly satisfied. But now that I find myself living here alone, I'm wishing that I was at least in the middle of the action of town. Now the question is, how much do I care about that? Enough to be a half hour bike ride from work? Probably not; the action isn't that great, after all. It would just be nice to have easier access to it for when I care.

Would you like to burn a candle in remembrance of that long forgotten time in your life when you weren't in the endless jungle of my interminable ramblings? 

For now, I'm just allowing myself to not like Vientiane and not be guilty about it. I've lived in three states in the U.S. and this is my third foreign country- one does not have to love everywhere one travels or lives. I've been lucky that I was mad for Japan from the moment I stepped off the plane, and Albania won me over in all sorts of wacky ways with unreal experiences I never could have had elsewhere. If this is a dud, it's a dud, and the percentages are still working out in my favor. Overall, I think there is a tendency to conflate being open minded and adaptable with loving everything that happens when traveling, or loving everywhere you go. It's okay to just not like a place. I know I am damned adaptable, and resilient as hell, and I have fit in to cities and parties and schools and hostels and pubs and back roads all over this world. I know that is true. This ain't my first rodeo, y'all, and it won't be my last. I'm just saying, the constant in these equations was me; the new variable is Laos. I feel confident blaming Laos, so there. I do wonder how I would feel about Laos if this was my first overseas job- would the general novelty of it all make me feel more attached to it? Who can say, but maybe that's part of it. I know what it's like to live in a foreign country and love it, to want to devour the local culture and learn the language and go exploring. I miss that feeling. I want it here, but I'm just not feeling that drive, and honestly I'm tired of feeling guilty for not feeling that drive.

Instead, I'm making the most of my year here in spite of being in Laos, not because I am in Laos, which in many ways feels more gratifying to me at this point. I'm focusing on the (many!) good things that I will get out of living here. I'm finishing my second master's degree, saving at least 60% of my monthly salary, and being the best teacher I can be because I really, really love my job and my students and my schedule. I live in a sweet little Tree House with two (I got suckered again!) cats, I love my bicycle after a year without one in Albania, and I'm finding a bit more of a community feel about 5 minutes biking distance from my slightly anti-social dirt road. If, at the end of Laos, I have a master's degree, enough savings to fund a 6 month no work travel adventure, and another year's worth of international teaching experience, it will be a massively productive year. I'm looking forward to lots of writing (get ready for more walls of text is all I'm saying) and reading books, and I'm excited about weekend travel plans that will hopefully get me more interested in where I am.

Since I'm in a Buddhist country, I figured a mantra to support my positive approach would be good. Here's my mantra:

My approach is that I'll let myself be apathetic towards Laos, and I'll leave the door open for it to woo me. Make no mistake: I'm still, against all my first impression odds, holding out hope that one day Laos and I will lock eyes from across a crowded room and it will come over and say something so charming and brilliant that I will have no choice but to be hopelessly enamored. So come on, Laos. Change my mind. I'm open to that possibility, and I'll meet you halfway. Until then, you're just a dusty suburb in my heart- a suburb with really good food, to be sure. Keep that up. You're winning all over on that count. I'll give you that.

See? There's a chance for us yet.

You can stop reading now. You definitely need a rest.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Where I Find Myself

I'm sitting in my wooden house, listening to the rain pebble-pound on my tin roof, knowing that same rain is sliding off the eaves and dumping all over my open downstairs living area, where it will arrange itself in a long, irregular rectangle along my kitchen wall. I know that tomorrow I will go downstairs and use my broom to sweep the water out into a thinner layer, one more conducive to drying and less conducive to breeding mosquitoes. I don't want dengue. The mosquito net draped over my bed and curling white around my pillows says the same thing- I don't want dengue.

There is a kitten in my lap that I didn't plan on having, but things like petulant meows radiating from rain soaked bushes in the middle of tropical thunderstorms happen here, so now there is a kitten in my lap and that is that. The neighborhood dogs are barking all around as they do every day when I walk to work and every night when I go to bed. This follows me as I drift off to sleep until the roosters take over in the morning, crowing in stereo. The intensity is a function of the fact that my walls are basically particle board nestled together in a way that isn't particularly concerned with being airtight; I can glance up and see a long ribbon of night between the wall and the pillar in the corner doing its part to hold up my house. In the corner a web waves in the breeze from the air conditioner, and a spider slides down on a long ta-da! of a single thread to, I imagine, get a better view of what he made. A gecko studs that same wall, its flat, stony looking body raised against the badly painted white. I think of the gecko, the spider, and the mosquitoes dangling in the air around me and remind myself to make food chains for my science class.

Inside my walls, but mostly in the attic above my head, creatures of indeterminate nature and number romp and roll and live out a rowdy, nocturnal existence. I haven't seen them yet, and I'm still undecided as to whether that is comforting or disconcerting. Right now, I can shrug it off as rats, but in the back of my brain, in the middle of the night when I hear them whipping through the walls and scritching with undefined claws, I conjure up random absurd and terrifying things that could be much worse. The kitten in my lap was justified as a preventative measure against whatever is up there, but she greets the noises by looking up at me, with a shiny wide baby eyed stare, for assurance that everything is okay. I don't think I can count on her.

I can't really say everything is okay, but I can say usually things are fine in the end, so we'll say everything is probably on its way to fine.

And now, Laos. And now, just me.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Train That's Gonna Take Me Back Where I Belong

All smiles the first morning. That night, my roommate pissed in my boot. I'll tell you all about it later.

Well, Albania and I have parted ways, and I'm heading into the second of three legs of the Trans-Siberian railroad. Technically, I guess, it's the Trans-Mongolian, but everyone knows it best by Trans-Siberian, so I'll continue to refer to it that way. Right now I'm in a coffee shop in Siberia, in Irkutsk, Russia. It is a proper city of over half a million people and it is farther away from home than I have ever been. It feels like it, too. There is a strange disconnect between this busy city and the fact that we are in the middle of so much isolation. It makes me wonder what being in Mongolia will be like. I'll find out soon, since I get on a train tonight bound for Ulaanbaatar, the second stop. 7 days of steppes and yurts and horses? I can't wait. My long cherished dream of galloping across the grassland with my hair streaming is finally coming to fruition. I had to make sure to do it while I still had hair to stream and hips that could a) hold me on a galloping horse and b) not break so easily if I fell off of said horse. This trip was on the "Need to do sooner rather than later" portion of the bucket list, and now that it's finally here I can definitely say I'm glad I'm doing it now, when I can roll with all the crazy Russia throws my way.

Here's a map of where I've been/where I'm going. It was supposed to be all overland, including trains and buses from Beijing, China, to Vientiane, Laos, but Bobby and I decided in St. Petersburg that we'd rather spend 5 hours on a plane than 5 days on trains and buses. I think overland from Albania to China is enough to say we gave it the old college try. Oh, we also cut out our stops in Latvia and Lithuania in favor of more time in Estonia. Best decision ever.

Until the next time I can be bothered to sign in and post something,

Post title courtesy of Bright Eyes

Sunday, May 26, 2013

For My Sister: A Name I Love and a Face I Miss

It took me almost a year to be able to even write about it. I still don't have the right words.


June 18th was the day the summer carved and cut from me, shredding and scattering and leaving the hollow. The sun baked the edges and burned away still more. I poured out of my face and fell out of my throat and rotted in my own belly. Every waking began with the slivered edge of a remembrance of what was, followed fast by the rushing wailing of the remembrance of what was now. I was breaking and broken and crucially crumbling, wasting away in the tender part that knit us together, the part that was carved, the place that was cut, the pieces that were shredded and scattered, the hollow that remained, waiting, growing. I crumpled around the absence and slid inside. I wept my way around the borders of this emptiness; I crawled in the dark of it, finding it ever expanding under my searching palms, my dirty knees, my bowed and broken head. In this way I mapped the shape of the place my sister occupied in the person I was. I often forgot where I was and thought I would find her there, even though there was the place of where she was not. So I heaved and sobbed through a wretched and winding way, and in these crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels I discovered what the hollow held. There in the dark, wet cold, I did not find a straightforward grief, or frank loss, or blunt pain. It was nothing so simple or neat, not so clean or sane. Inside, instead, I found a living thing. I found an unwanted and strange creature, humming and fluttering along under my ribs. It has a name I love and a face I miss, but it is not her.

It’s a beating and breathing mass of all that she was, and all I was with her, and all we were together. It murmurs what was left unsaid, and remembers what should never have been said. It shimmers with memories beautiful, and shudders under memories terrible. It teems with joys, with guilt, with questions; it dreams in misty ifs and cries in sharp barks of why, why, why? It is frenetic and dangerous, full of teeth and grasping claws that mark me over and over again; it is smooth, docile curves where I can rest my head and hear the beating heart of what it meant to be and to have a sister. In the hollow, beneath my ribs, sometimes it’s so small I can breathe around it. Sometimes I forget it is there and glance down to find its eyes on me, and then I have to discover it all over again through the infinite shock of knowing. Sometimes it’s wild and screaming and threatens to overtake me; sometimes it does, and then I’m in the hollow, in unfamiliar places I have yet to map, crawling again on searching palms and dirty knees, lost. Sometimes, when it has been exceptionally tame and I am feeling especially brave, I make myself reach in and carefully cradle it in my hands. I make myself feel the shape of it, and softly stroke the finality of what it means to have such a creature inside of me. I feel the awful weight of it in my palms, the warm, weeping reality cupped there, the insistence of the necessity of carrying it with me until I, too, am an unwanted and strange creature beating and breathing in the hollow under someone’s ribs. Rare are these brave times, because they leave me exhausted- far more so than those first lost days of crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels. At the bottom of everything, of course, such distinctions are pointless: whether cupped in my hand or curled in the hollow, I can never, and I will never, be apart from it in any way that truly relieves me. The geography of the body doesn’t allow for such distance. Our proximity is complete and final.

Most of the time, I can be neat and clean and sane, and allow it to live as I know it must live, to dream and scratch and breathe and beat and shimmer and shudder, to hum and flutter along somewhere under my ribs. Most of the time I can set my shoulders and move through the world even as it moves inside of me. Most of the time. Still, in slipping moments I sometimes give in to the need to stand on the slivered edge of remembrance of what was. I shake my head at what is now. I try to fill in the space where I was carved and cut, but it pours out of me. I try to gather the shredded and scattered, but it is forever lost. In this ritual I try to deny what is now, even as I know I cannot forget the crawling travels of the hollow, or ignore the unwanted and strange creature under my ribs.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it hummed and fluttered anonymously.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it did not take the name I love and wear the face I miss.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish for June 17th