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.

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