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