When I think about the last two weeks, there are hundreds of different things coming to my mind: Lots of unfamiliar yet tasty Lao food, Lao people smiling at us, I hear children greeting us with “Good morning” – even in the evening – with a huge smile on their faces, a very bumpy “road” leading through Sikeud, and lots more. I have never been so impressed by so many things in such a short time. I can only try to depict a few of my first experiences on this incredible journey. Let’s start!
Almost three weeks ago, on Tuesday, the 17th of September, four other volunteers and I met at Frankfurt Airport to start our long way to Laos – a country that none of us had ever visited before, which was why we were all very curious but also a little nervous about everything that lay ahead of us. Luckily, we were accompanied by Shirin Ud-Din from the previous Team VI for the first three weeks. This was also financed by the AfC foundation, to ease our start here. Since she had already experienced this major adventure, she was familiar with all the – for me – unfamiliar procedures, like filling out the Lao visa application form to begin with.
The moment we entered the plane that would bring us to Bangkok, I was already fascinated by the Asian flair and my excitement for this new continent grew even more. The seats were pink and purple and the Thai Air hostesses were all dressed in beautiful, elegant traditional skirts and blazer-like blouses.
After 12 hours of flying and a four-hour layover in Bangkok we arrived at Wattay Airport in Vientiane, where we were warmly welcomed by our lovely driver Mr Viengkham and our teammate Meike, who had arrived from her travels in Vietnam two days before and had already moved into the “villa”, our new home for the next months. On our 30-minute drive from the airport to the villa I felt like I was thrown into a completely different world. We saw tuk-tuks and hundreds of motorcyclists cruising through the streets, people sitting on the top of buses, plenty of food stalls located directly next to the streets, and huge stores full of Buddha statues.
Although we had already seen photos of the villa, we were overwhelmed by its spaciousness and luxurious interior when we finally arrived there, and it was a cozy and therefore welcoming place to come “home” to after 24 hours of traveling. After unpacking and taking a little rest we took the bikes which were waiting for us and cycled to the market in Sikeud in order to get some food.
For me personally, that first ride to the market was one of the most impressive things I have ever experienced. There were cows, chickens, and goats sharing the bumpy road with us. I also learned that Lao people do not go by traffic rules as much as by the potholes created by the monsoon rain. People walk and drive wherever there is space – and where there are not too many holes. Two or three teenagers or young couples with one or two children sitting on one motorbike are not unusual. Moreover, people were watching and pointing at us, and many were saying “hello” or “good morning” as we passed by. It was the first time in my life that I was the only western person in a place, a clearly marked foreigner, and the feeling of being an “attraction” for the Lao people has not completely faded since. I now think I may have an inkling of how refugees must feel in Germany, especially in rural areas.
The big morning market offers an amazing variety of all kinds of fresh vegetables and fruits that we would only know a few of in Germany. There is also lots of fish and all kinds of meat available – less interesting for me, a vegetarian. The same goes for the insects, maggots, and frogs, which heighten the bewildering market experience. Also, although I already knew that food is a lot cheaper in Asia than in Europe, I did not expect it to be that cheap. 10 bananas, for example, only cost 30 cents. We soon decided that bananas would become our staple food for the next few months, as they are very affordable, nourishing and more tasty than the ones we can buy at home. We also discovered the most delicious dragon fruits, huge pomelos, pomegranates, and rambutan, and we still have to find out the names for all the fruits we have not encountered before!
As Shirin had organised a first get-together with one of the Lao teachers, Ms Saysamone, and her sister for the evening, we bought everything we needed to make our first Lao dinner: Summer rolls. Since Ms Saysamone
was to be my English teacher-student it was great to get to know her on my very first day.
On the next day, Shirin took us to Ban Phang Heng Secondary and Primary School as well as Ban Sikeud Primary School to show us around and to introduce us to the teachers that we would work with over the following months. Both teachers and pupils were most welcoming and excited to see us. Many children came to us and shyly asked “What’s your name?”. Others just greeted us with “Sabai-dee” and then bowed their heads and passed by, as a sign of respect, as I learned.
After one week of settling down, arranging our timetables and getting to know the basic set-up and our tandem-teachers, we were ready and even more motivated to actually start our work at the schools.
On Monday, I had my first day of teaching the preschoolers, also known as “Mopsies”2 , at Ban Sikeud Primary School. At the beginning I was quite nervous for two different reasons: Firstly, from reading previous project files I already knew that preschoolers in Laos can be “challenging”, as it is not common in Laos to send children to nurseries. This means they need to learn to behave in a way that makes them “teachable” in class and within a group generally. In other words: It is my responsibility to practise school manners and English class rituals with them.
The second reason was the children’s names, which are entirely different to the ones we know in Europe. This became obvious when the English teacher Ms Mittaphone Sichampa kindly helped me to transliterate the names into Latin letters. I still struggled to pronounce the children’s names correctly when I went into their classrooms to pick them up. Perplexed faces from the preschool teachers and the answer “[child so-and-so] is not in our class” as a reaction were not rare!
This was probably due to two reasons: For one thing, there is a large number of vowels in the Lao language, many more than we have. For another thing, as the French were the first to transliterate Lao names, French spelling and pronunciation principles need to be kept in mind when reading Lao names, as in “-phone” for [pɔn], or “Souk” for [sʊk]. We therefore might also pronounce the capital of Laos incorrectly, “Vientiane” as [vɪɛnˈtsɪɐnə] instead of [vjɛŋˈtjaŋ].
Or how would you pronounce the following names: I have “Phutthasai”, “Chansamone”, or “Ainthuon” in my groups, to name but a few examples. But well… I can only get better and the children did not seem to mind. They were all excited and giggling about seeing a completely different-looking person talking a completely foreign language to them.
Although I had learnt from previous volunteers that communication without a shared language works quite well, I was still surprised when I witnessed it myself! The children loved listening to my disguised “little dog” voice whenever the handpuppet Mopsy was talking, and Mopsy soon became the star among the children. At first, the majority of the pupils was too shy to speak themselves, but soon more and more of them dared to repeat my words and said “good morning” to Mopsy. I am very excited about (hopefully) seeing them open up further and learn more English in the next weeks and months.
Text by M. Frahm
Photos by M. Frahm, P. Faix & S. Ud-Din
Video by I. Martin
1 “Morning glory” or “phak bong” (or “pak bung”) is very popular and tasty Thai street food. “Morning glory” is actually the name for water spinach that is stir-fried and cooked with lots of garlic, chili, and fish- or soy sauce.
2 The coursebook “Mopsy and me” by Leonora Fröhlich-Ward & Gisela Schmid-Schönbein, which we use to teach the preschoolers comes with a hand puppet called “Mopsy”. This course book is exceptional because it developed out of a research project at a kindergarten. The preschoolers who were taught by Team I loved it so much that they were all called “Mopsies” in the end – and the name got stuck until this day!