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Eat, dance, laugh (and be sick) – our first weeks in Laos

Arriving in a country which is a quarter of a planet away from our home, we were overwhelmed by the impressions we experienced. Practically, to start with, however, the most impressive feature was our packed schedule. For the first few weeks we were invited to many celebrations and had a lot of fun, but being so far away from home can also lead to homesickness and other minor sicknesses. This may well happen when one has to adapt to a completely different environment.  To give our readers an insight into our experiences, I picked three major celebrations we took part in and will tell you a little story about our sicknesses.

 

Eat, dance, laugh (1): “Trio summer party”

On 29th September, shortly after our arrival and when Prof. Martin was here, we were all invited to Trio (Lao)’s summer party in Ban Sikeud. Trio (Lao) Export Co., Ltd Garment Manufacturers Industry is an Austrian company for which Madame Engel had worked before in China and for whom she set up a factory in Ban Sikeud in Laos in 1994. When first opened, the company was the largest private employer in Laos, and one that offered German-style working conditions1 for their workers at that. Besides providing unusual job opportunities for the residents of Ban Sikeud and the surrounding area, Madame Gerlinde Engel and her sister-in-law Ingrid Engel (AfC foundation) decided to rebuild the three local schools: Ban Sikeud Primary School, Ban Phan Heng Primary School and Ban Phang Heng Lower Secondary School, to ensure a good education for the employees’ children.2

When I first heard about the party, I imagined a large buffet, people sitting and talking to each other while having cold drinks and maybe a group of Lao dancers showing traditional dances, i.e. a nice get-together. I was a little nervous as I did not know the people there. Also, I had never been invited to such an event before. I did not know how to act suitably. I was afraid of doing or saying something wrong. I had only been to German summer parties before, so I just had the German picture of a summer party in my head.

Our team group from the LGTC in Vientiane had come to Ban Sikeud that weekend to spend a relaxing two days away from the city, and on the morning of the 29th we all had a special pancake breakfast with lots of fruits. Astonishingly, our Saturday in the village would turn out to be much wilder than our Saturdays in the city. At around 4 p.m., when everyone in the villa was in the midst of getting ready for the night, my excitement rose. Where exactly would the party be? What would it be like? Who would be there? I had all those unanswered questions on my mind.

Only a few minutes before 6 p.m., we set off to Madame Engel’s house. We would meet her there and walk together to the party, as the current representatives of the PH Karlsruhe and the AfC foundation. Earlier that day, we had already passed by the Trio company compound. The party was to take place on the opposite side of the company building where the workers live in a huge compound of dormitories, and on hearing the loud music, we knew it had already started.

Entering the gate, I was stunned: On the left of the court, there was a DJ playing American party songs. A large crowd in front of him moved wildly to western beats that sounded familiar to me. On the right-hand side, hundreds of employees were seated on party benches in front of the dormitories, and on the left-hand side the VIP guests had their own seating area. Looking around, I saw one non-Lao person dancing in the crowd. He was at least two heads taller than the people dancing around him. After several guesses about who this person might be, it turned out he was the owner of the company. It was special to see an employer mixing like this dancing with his employees.

Suddenly, the DJ turned down the volume of the music: A group of Lao women – workers from the factory – dressed in traditional outfits, got themselves ready for their performance. Gradually, the dancefloor emptied and nearly everyone at the party gathered around to watch. It was a most beautiful sight: Lao women dancing to the sounds of traditional Lao music, all with smiles on their faces.

Right after the performance, the DJ did not play western music anymore, but traditional Lao music, and everyone could join dancing. We also joined them, carefully watching their synchronized steps. I genuinely enjoyed this group dance, and it was easy to learn on the spot, so I did not miss many of steps whilst dancing along.

Our day ended after all of us having heaps of fun on the dance floor as we danced for hours and took photos with a lot of people. This party was not what I expected it to be. Contrary to my initial worries, it was so much fun to eat, laugh, and dance with all the people there while not being able to exchange one single word with them, and it is definitely a unique memory I will always remember.

Eat, listen, laugh (2): 60 years of Lao-German diplomatic relations

Next, we were invited to the 60-years-celebration of Lao-German diplomatic relations hosted by the German Embassy in Laos. All of us were thrilled. On the 3rd of October, at approximately 6 p.m., we got picked up by the AfC foundation’s driver, Mr Viengkham, who came to fetch us in the van already half-full with the volunteers from Sikeud. Arriving at the location where the celebration would take place, we could not hide our excitement: The Crowne Plaza Hotel, a huge and very new building in the city of Vientiane, looked remarkable with a big banner in front of its entrance saying: “Day of German Unity 2018”.We just could not resist taking a picture in front of the banner between two brand-new BMWs. Then we entered the hotel and made our way to the ballroom. In front of it, different companies arranged stalls to provide information about their work here in Laos.

As Shirin Ud-Din already described in her post on this event, when we entered the big ballroom, we were greeted by His Excellency Mr Jens Luetkenherm and his staff from the German Embassy. We were astonished about the fact that we just shook hands with the Ambassador himself and were actually there at this official party. While we were still chatting, the party started with a speech by the Ambassador and the Vientiane International Choir singing the two national Anthems of both our countries. The party continued with Pianotainment playing different interpretations of the familiar song “Happy Birthday” on the piano. They then opened the buffet for everyone and you can be sure that we were anticipating this part of the party the most: Eating German food again after nearly three weeks! Sauerkraut, Leberkäs, pretzels, and apple strudel – there was everything that we wished for, especially the pretzels! The evening ended with all of us laughing, chatting with other people, and having a lot of fun taking in the atmosphere and savouring the occasion.

I would like to thank His Excellency Mr Jens Luetkenherm for inviting us to this special event!

Eat, dance, laugh (3): Teachers’ Day

Here in Laos, Teachers’ Day is celebrated on the 7th of October. Two former volunteers already reported about this special event on this blog before (cf. Denise Burkhardt and Ariane Kummetz). Since the day fell on a Sunday this year, celebrations took place on Friday, 5th of October. As praise culture is not a strong feature in Germany, Teachers’ Day largely goes unnoticed at home. We therefore had no prior experience of this festivity and did not know what to expect. We were told to come to the campus of the LGTC at 8 a.m. and let ourselves be surprised. So we did. Walking along the little pathway between our bungalow and the campus, we were greeted by many happy faces. Not that being greeted by happy faces would be unusual in Laos – it is definitely not – but today it felt different. We were told to sit at one of the desks arranged on the yard. We assumed that a game would be played soon, due to the constellation of the desks and a Whiteboard in front of them. Our hunch was correct. There were student teams of every Section of the College: General Mechanics, Electrical section, Automotive section, Welding section and Heavy-Agriculture. Every team consisted of two students answering questions asked by the teachers. At the end of the game, it was the General Mechanics’ team who won and received the prize. Even though we volunteers did not understand a word, we still had fun deciphering the students’ faces on whether they scored a point or not, and cheered with them.

When the game ended, we were led to the location where the ceremony would take place right across the yard. Rows of seats were set up for the teachers and students, separated by a passage to the speaker’s podium. To our surprise, even retired teachers were invited and attended the ceremony. We were moved by the thoughtfulness that even after retiring one would be invited to such a celebration and get honoured. During the ceremony, teachers were called to the front to receive gifts. While watching the spectacle curiously, we suddenly heard our names called out, too. At first, we did not know how to react. We never anticipated being called to the front to receive gifts ourselves. But we did and are grateful for the honour. Each of us received a blue LGTC shirt and a neatly wrapped gift.

Once every teacher got their present and the ceremony was over, the students were excused for the day – but the fun part for the teachers was yet to come. We went back to our bungalow for a quick change of outfits to wear our newly attained LGTC T-Shirts, as we wore our daily attire during the ceremony. After having put on the new LGTC shirts we went back to the location where the ceremony took place, just to see that they changed the seats and the pathway to the podium into many round tables and a large buffet on the side. So it was finally time to eat some delicious Lao food.

While we volunteers were still wondering what we should eat, as there was a variety to choose from, some of the teachers already started dancing and asked us to join them. We danced to some Lao songs, in which the dancers include a couple, a female and a male. So our dancing relay began: Each and every time a new song was played, we volunteers always ended up on the dancefloor. We were continuously asked to accompany the male dancers, and we were happy to oblige. We ended up dancing the whole afternoon. In the end, we were confident enough in our dancing that we even did our own interpretations and had a lot of fun with the teachers of the LGTC.

… and be sick

Our first weeks here in Laos were not only shaped by celebrations but – unfortunately – also by several sicknesses. My personal major sickness was a bad case of homesickness, which lasted for nearly three weeks. Strangely, although I do not travel much apart from visiting my family in Turkey once every few years, wanderlust is not unfamiliar to me. (I do not count my trips to Turkey as “traveling”, as I go there to visit family.)  I want to see different countries, gain experience, and broaden my horizon in any aspect of my life, so I never worried about homesickness while applying for this internship and preparing for my five-month-stay in Laos, not even whilst traveling here. It was never an option for me to even consider even having homesickness. But, well… my experiences here of being without my family and having to adapt to a wholly different way of life showed me what homesickness feels like.

When we first arrived at Wattay airport in Vientiane and drove to our bungalow – our home for the next few months – everything was still alright. We were a little jet-lagged but still energetic enough to absorb every little first impression of Laos. However, I felt more odd day by day.

First, I did not know what that feeling was. I could not describe it, I just felt miserable without any particular reason. When after a week, I started bursting into tears whenever I did not feel well, I knew that I was homesick. I started to tell myself that I just wanted these five months to be over and that I would be back in Germany soon enough, reunited with my friends and family. I did not care about my time here, let alone enjoy it.  But what I learned about homesickness during this difficult time was that it just takes time to disappear. And when it is gone, it is gone – as if nothing ever happened. And that is what actually happened: From one day to another – however simple it may sound – I did not feel sad anymore and started to really enjoy my time here in Laos. Now, I do not even want to think of saying goodbye to all those people I met here. It really feels like home here and it makes me sad to know that I will be back in Germany in a couple of months.

Connected to homesickness, the first weeks were also filled with physical sicknesses. Stomach-ache, headache, or feeling nauseous was on our daily schedule, moving from person to person like in a relay. Luckily, we were never sick all at once. It was always only one of us who felt a bit sick every now and then. At first, we were thinking about food poisoning or something similar. Later, we realized that our discomfort was due to homesickness, paired up with stress: “TheLaosExperience.” You cannot imagine what it is really like here when you are at home still, preparing for this, not even after the best preparation from the project leaders and all the endless counseling, workshops, and the 130-page-“Laos Project Reader” we got. They did tell us that this could happen. We did not understand it at the time. The foil was missing. And now it was there.

It is nothing unusual to be a little stressed-out when traveling to a new country and getting everything ready to spend many months there. A big stress factor for us was getting used to the different food and environment. On our first days, we were overcautious about everything: We even brushed our teeth with bottled water not using the water from the tap. As time went by, we realized that we were exaggerating a bit and eventually got used to using the water from the tap. We do not drink it, but for brushing our teeth and washing the dishes it is just fine.

Another major stress factor, of course, was being in charge of so many tasks and classes all at once. Preparing for two students classes and one teachers class, organizing our time table and bungalow matters, conduct meetings, getting used to our special task…our first weeks were not boring not in the least! Again, we had received the “Starter Kit” and all the other information packs plus access to the project CMS (Content Management System) alfresco and did prepare in detail, but it is one thing reading about challenges and another thing facing them all by yourself when the first course leaders’ visits and Skype consultations are over.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that we have been having a great time up until this day during our stay here in Laos (which is very likely to continue!), and I hope and trust that we will experience much and much else up to the day of our departure!

Text by D. Erdogan

Photos & videos by D. Erdogan, Team VII & I. Martin

 

Notes 

The Trio company is renowned in Laos for its exceptionally good working conditions. Employees work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a lunch break of one hour, they can earn more if they work quickly and effectively, and working overtime is payed by 25% more hourly wages. The employees also get “rice money”, another bonus to cover their basic dietary needs so they can use their salary for other expenses. There is also a high standard of hygiene at the workplace. The halls are kept clean and insect-free – no food can be brought inside. White-tiled washrooms are also provided.

The company grew quickly, workers came from other parts of the country, then also guest-workers from Viet Nam, and the schools grew accordingly. Apparently, many families are moving to Ban Sikeud so their children can attend the AfC-supported schools.

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