October 22, 2013
Leaving Laos tomorrow. As I am very excited to head to Cambodia, I feel I have some @unfinished business here in Laos. I’m not exactly sure what it means but whatever I came here to do I feel is unfinished. My encounters of the North teaching English and Computer skills was one of the more rewarding things I have done all trip. It all started our initial stop in the village coming into Laos. A woman, maybe around the age of 25, came up and grabbed my iPhone out of my hands. She began hitting buttons left and right until I showed her the camera. Potentially never having seen one before, we took “selfies” making funny faces. Upon review she would laugh, a gut wrenching laugh, like a child. She was perplexed. So over and over we went taking a photo and reviewing it afterwards. I had a map of SE Asia with Laos colored a different color making it stand out. I showed her the map of Laos and point. Next she goes “Loas??” I confirm my statement by pointing and saying “Laos”. She did not recognize the outline of her country. I then pointed to Vietnam, China, Thailand and Cambodia. Each she repeated in a question like tone. By the end, she was able to point out Laos on the map. Success. Having never though about it before, it killed me knowing education is so non existent as to even being able to recognize one’s own country. My next encounter was with a young man, 21 years old, who worked at the hostel. He had a higher level of education and was in university working on English. He asked me to teach him how to download and install applications. It turned out into a 3 hour lesson. He was doing everything the long way so I taught him things like copy, paste, new window, new folder, save, open, move files, etc. I taught him about the beauty of Google. He asked me “How do I translate English pages to Laos” expressing difficulty understanding every word on long search results. I told him to ask Google. He inquired how to go about that. I told him to type exactly what he asked me. So on he typed, “How do I translate English pages to Laos.” Then there we found a toolbar icon so he can translate each page with one click. He successfully searched, downloaded, installed and utilized the translator! He thanked me stating that “he would sleep good tonight because today was a very good day, because he met me”. We had another session the next day to answerquestions he had. When I saw him using his computer later he was using CTRL + C, CTRL + V, etc! The third person I met was the one who really made an impact. I was climbing up Mount Phu Si (yea, Puh-See, exactly as it sounds! No need to get your mind outta the gutter). I was watching the sunset and I hear “excuse me, can I practice English with you?” I obliged and we sat there practicing. His name was Jonh, a 17 year Lao man with a passion to have a better life. He is one of eleven children. His parents have a farm in the countryside a few hours into the mountains. We sat and practiced conversational English for over an hour. He kept thanking me for practicing with him and I gathered that English schooling (3 months) are extremely expensive. They are 300,000 kip so roughly $38 dollars. He learned English by saving up for over a couple months to get a 60,000 kip ($8) workbook. As we spok, something drew me to his positive energy. He kept saying how his life was going to be different than others. He said to me “Jus-Sen, one day, I am going to move to the UK and work”. He also told me that he would drive to my home in America to visit after he moved to the UK. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that the UK and America aren’t accessible by car. He also told me that after he made money in the UK, he would move back to Laos and start an English school for the poor kids in the countryside. He said they have no way to learn English. No way to make a better life. He also told me that he would come back from the UK with enough money to support all his brothers and sisters. He would give his parents and siblings a better life. Everything he said he said with an adorable smile. He spoke with such confidence and determination to succeed. His ambition was overwhelming. He said after he learns all of English that he will have a much better chance for making this all happen. He said that English is his gateway to a fruitful life. Keep in mind this boy is seventeen years old. He again thanked me and said that today was one of the best days in his life for he met an American and we were friends. Upon leaving he asked me if I would meet up w him the following day around 4:30 to practice English. I agreed and was kicking myself in the ass for not offering first. So the next day, day two, I met up with him. We climbed Mount Phu Si again for sunset and practiced speaking. After sunset, I bought us dinner and we continued conversational English with his friend whose name I couldn’t grasp. He told me stories and vice versa. The three of us hung out until around 10pm before I retreated to bed. Before I left, I asked him if he would show me the countryside tomorrow. I said we could practice English and in turn he can show me his providence. He was surprised and cheerfully obliged. The next day, day three, Jonh and I met at 8:30am and on the back of his motorbike I went. Right when we were leaving the town the cops pulled us over, asked for his license (tour guide license) which he didn’t have. Therefore, they took his bike right then leaving us on foot. At first I thought, “this is a brilliant scam” but then cursed myself for doubting my new friend. The cops wanted money, he had some but I gave the rest and we paid off the cops. He told me that the cops said I can’t go on his motorbike. Therefore, Jonh organized a tuk tuk to pick me up and take me to the edge of town. It was me and 8-10 Lao men and women in a tuk tuk heading into the countryside for over 40 minutes. Half way through I see Jonh pushing the motorbike which ran out of gas as the tuk tuk kept driving on. Eventually the tuk tuk stops and I gather I am supposed to get off. I try to tell them Jonh’s motorbike broke and he was walking and that I didn’t know where I was going. Then they smiled, waved and drove off. So there I was in the middle of the countryside waiting on the street. I waited and waited until a random guy approached me on a motorbike. He motioned for me to get on the back. Slightly confused, I said “No, Thank You”. He motions again. I figured Jonh called one of his brothers to pick me up. So on the motorbike I go and we disappear into the jungle. We arrive at a home with chickens, roosters, oxen, cows and dogs running around. An elderly man and women welcome me with a warm smile. They motion for me to sit down as they poured me a glass of water. I still wasn’t sure where I was but presumed it was John’s parents. His parents called one boy to get me a coconut. He climbed a 20 foot tree with his hands and feet to retrieve it. As I drank the coconut water his father and mother sat next to me with a smile as they glared into the fields. No words were exchanged but I felt safe. We sat for roughly 30 minutes and Jonh eventually came stating he ran out of gas. We spent some time in his village. The way of life is so interesting for me. Everything is so similar but yet so different. “Same. Same. But Different” as they say. After some time w his family we retreated back to Luang Prabang. Jonh had moved to Luang Prabang with his brother. He moved there for a year to work, going to school when he can afford it. So off we went to his guesthouse. It is a cement square, smaller than my room at home. This is where he lives. One cement square, one thin bamboo mat, a pillow, blanket and roughly 15 articles of clothes. Everything he owned could be fit in a small briefcase. If you could materialize his ambition, personal drive and positive outlook, there’s no briefcase in the wold big enough. His dreams were so strong, so real to him. So I take off my sandals and sit on his mat/bed and we go through his English workbook. I taught him the difference between an odd and an even number as he was stuck on that section. As we practiced, sweat dripped from my nose as it was easily 95-100 degrees in his still room. We practiced and soon came in his brother. His brother was a 21 year old man. He spoke very good English and had the kindest eyes. Turns out his brother is a monk. He was active, living in the temple for 9 years from the age of 11. News to me, but a monk can (and often do) leave the temple and their orange wardrobe whenever they desire. His brother game me insight to Buddhism. He said society sees him as a dependable and competent man having lived in the temple. His daily routine while in the temple consisted of waking daily at 4:00am. At 5:30am they went to the streets to collect alms, or their daily food, from the village before returning to the temple. In the temple they teach him every subject, including English, as well as Buddhist practices. He meditated for hours each day, calming the mind. His intelligence was impressive, telling me historical facts about Laos and the world. John told me whenever he is sad, he talks to his brother who makes everything seem that it will be OK. I spoke to his brother for over and hour before Jonh and myself left to go to the computer lab. His brother asked for me to return for dinner. I was exhausted, tired, full of dirt and wanting a bed and shower, but assured him I would return later that night. So off Jonh and I went by foot over to the computer place. Jonh forgot his password to his old email address and wanted me to try to recover it. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to recover it so I created him a new email address and made sure he was able use it. Afterwards, Jonh said his brother already called to make sure we were coming back to their guesthouse for dinner. Before arriving, I bought us a few beers and back to his room we went. I threw down a couple bucks and asked his brother to go get us some street meat on a stick. So we sat talking, laughing and joking. Locals popped in left and right as they walked by surprised to see a Westerner in their village. At one point his brother said that he couldn’t believe I was actually in their home having dinner with them. Jonh agreed and they both thanked me for visiting their country. They said that today was a “good, good day”. Jonh went on to tell me he only drank beer twice beforehand but today called for a celebration because he met me and we were friends. His brother and I had another conversation about his time in the temple. His brother gave me so much peace. There I was in the middle of Laos, deep in a village having more wisdom thrown in my direction than I knew what to do with. Then it became later and later and it killed me to have to go home since I left Luang Prabang the following day. As I said goodbye to his brother I promised him I would keep in contact. He went on and on saying what a good day it was and hoped I enjoyed my time. I assured him I had a wonderful time and thanked him for inviting me into his home. Next Jonh took me to my hostel on his motorbike saying the police weren’t out this time at night. As we lashed through the streets of Luang Prabang I knew was next, the inevitable goodbye. We arrived at my hostel and I got off the bike. I turned to him and to be honest I am not exactly what I said, I just remember the feeling. I didn’t want to leave yet. In a sense I felt I was abandoning him, leaving him in his dirt filled square room as I go off to explore the world. Why is life so much harder for some people than others? I do remember looking at him and telling him what a smart young man he was. I encouraged him to continue practicing his English, he’s so close. I told him to never stop dreaming and that anything is possible. I leaned in to give him a hug. I told him again to never stop chasing his dreams and gave him an even tighter hug which took a second for him to return. I didn’t want this to end as I knew afterwards it was over for now. As I let go he looks at me in the eyes and says “Thank you so much Jus-Sen”. I see his lip begin to quiver as he takes off into the night with water filled eyes.