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.