Editor’s note: As we completed a year-long Covid-rollercoaster ride in Germany last month and just entered our third lockdown, this past week saw Laos entering its first. Three infected persons entered the country illegally over the Mekong River to celebrate Lao New Year with friends, and – unsurprisingly – infection numbers have been rapidly rising since – they are in the hundreds now. The lockdown was ordered on Wednesday, sending shockwaves through the country. The Ministry of Health is attempting to control the contact chains while they are still controllable. At the same time, the Lao Government has been in the process of restructuring since the last elections, so there will be some chaos in Laos – as there was in all other countries when Covid-19 first hit them.
We have no clue, in other words, if tomorrow there will be anyone present in the relevant offices who will remember that we are waiting for a few last travel documents and permission stamps, which we would need (tomorrow).
This means: We have no idea whether our two doctoral students will be able to fly out on Tuesday or whether our three SKU partners will be able to fly here on Wednesday.
This means: The day after tomorrow.
First try: Leona Kemmer (Team XI)
When I got the confirmation that I was accepted as a volunteer for the Lao project, I was really excited. I was looking forward a lot to working at Sunshine School. At first, I did not think that Covid-19 would be such a big obstacle. How very wrong I was.
As the situation all over the world became more and more serious, and travelling was forbidden for many destinations, I still did not think that I would not be going. I thought that all of it would be over by the middle of September and that I would be going anyway.
Together with the four other volunteers in Team XI, I was participating in several preparation workshops offered by Prof Martin. During those days, concerns about the flights and Visa were vocalized, and for the first time in weeks I was not so sure about it all happening in September. But we thought that we wanted to be prepared in case it would all be working out like we hoped it would. So we continued planning our stay in Laos. We talked to our partners from the schools and colleges in online conference calls, learned about the country and cultures, talked about the expectations of the partners and our own, and started writing the blog post about our team. We also greatly enjoyed our first Lao-German Friendship Feast, where we talked to the Lao Erasmus+ students, to members of previous teams and even the guest of honour, His Excellency the Lao Ambassador Mr Phomma Boudthavong. He kindly offered to help us in the process ahead, and we felt hopeful.
As the weeks were passing by, new restrictions were formed. Even though I did not like the idea of being locked in a room for 14 days, we all agreed to go into quarantine after our arrival if that meant that we would be going to Laos after all.
End of August/Beginning of September 2020:
The estimated date was drawing nearer and nearer, and it became more and more obvious that we had to delay our stay to an unknown time. At first, I agreed to go to Laos whenever it would be possible again. It really stressed me, however: I could not plan anything and I was contantly torn between the happy thought of being in Laos and the trouble we all had to face.
As time was passing by, new requirements for more papers and letters and stamps kept coming from the Lao side, so we complied and sent more papers and letters and stamps. It became clear, though, and very likely, that we would have only a few days (up to one week) between the time we would finally get the green light (from the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the time of departure, the stress for me was growing. The whole see-saw and the situation itself was really nerve-wracking. As I still had to find someone to sublet my room to and because I knew that I would need time for preparation, I took a few days to think it all through. I decided that I could not do it like this. I decided that if I would not know if I was really going by a certain day, then I would not go to Laos in 2020. It was a hard decision, but at this time it was the right one for me. I decided that I would reapply for the next term.
Unfortunately, none of the other volunteers in Team XI could go to Laos in the end.
Due to a lot of administrational work and the COVID-19 situation I still was not able to go in the following term and I am still in Germany, now in my third online semester. I decided to give it another try next term, but I will finish my Master Degree first. After I heard that a new volunteer, Leya, is in Laos right now and that we know much better now all the details and steps about the travel permission and visa process, I am really confident again that I will be going to Laos later this year, hopefully in October 2021.
I have kept in contact with the Headmistress and communicate with the teachers at Sunshine School online. I have thus started my Master thesis on a digital project for English learning material that I started with my partners in Vientiane.
Today I decided to quickly leave Laos two months before the official end of my first research stay. The Covid-19 virus started to spread all around the world and when borders started to be closed (and Prof. Martin called me twice in one week), I decided to leave Savannakhet and fly back to Germany. I think it might be possible to return to Laos later in 2020 once the number of Covid infections go down again.
For my research stay at SKU I was granted eight months of Erasmus+ mobility funds, but until now I could only use 6 due to my early return to Germany. The Erasmus+ project was originally set to end in July 2020, but all Erasmus projects were extended by another year (by Erasmus) on account of the situation. This means I have to finish the last two months of my mobility before the end of July 2021. That must be possible.
There is hope. The big wave of Covid infections and the lockdown is over. In Germany the number of cases went down significantly. Everything started to open up again. In June, the lecturers returned to work at SKU in Laos and a little later they resumed teaching students in person. This lets me hope that I could return to Laos to continue my research in September or October, latest in November 2020.
In October, the numbers of infections in Germany started to soar again. The second lockdown in Germany followed. With a lot of help from the Lao Embassy in Berlin, our Lao partners who studied in Karlsruhe in the summer term 2020 were finally able to get a return flight in October 2020. For me it still was impossible to fly to Laos to resume my data acquisition and teaching there since there seemed to be no affordable flights at that time (prices had rocketed) and not enough information about the travelling process, which was becoming more and more difficult since the beginning of the pandemic.
In the last months the list of steps we have to take before being able to travel to Laos got longer and longer. Mainly with the support of our Lao partner Mr Saythong Insarn, but also others, Prof Martin, Ms Julia Friedl (International Office), and us travellers-to-be finally came up with this list of 13 different steps:
Part 1: Application for “special status” in Laos (this entitles one to get a visa for Laos and to enter the country)
1. Send personal data and information about dates to the Lao host institution;
2. Letter of recommendation for the application for special status in Laos by Prof Dr Isabel Martin for the Lao host institution;
3. Description of tasks and and working hours by Prof Dr Isabel Martin for the Lao host institution;
4. Submission of the documents above to the Head of the receiving institution;
5. The Lao host institution now submits all the documents to:
a) the General Education Department (for primary), or the Vocational Education Dep’t (for secondary/College), or the Higher Education Dep’t (for tertiary/SKU) of the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES)
b) the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA)
c) the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI)
d) the COVID Task Force in Laos
to get a letter confirming the “special status” of the applicant.
Part 2: Further necessary steps to travel to Laos
6. Book or reserve a charter flight through Mr Oudomsin and clarify luggage transfer for connecting flights;
7. Book a quarantine hotel for 14 days;
8. Send confirmation of flight and hotel to the Lao host institution and they issue a Confirmation of Acceptance which they need to hand to the MoFA;
9. The Lao host institution applies for an immigration permission by the COVID Task Force; permission for the Lao Embassy to issue a VISA is also required;
10. Send passport and required documents to the Lao Embassy in Berlin;
11. Visa is issued in Berlin after they receive both documents (9.);
12. Sign University of Education Karlsruhe form that you are going on this internship at your own risk;
13. Get an appointment for a PCR-test and take out the prescribed Covid health insurance.
The new year has not brought any improvements until now. Yesterday I got the news that there are new infections in Laos and Laos closed the borders even more strictly. No chance to get back to Laos to continue my research and teaching right now. Fortunately, I could already gather the first data for my research in Savannakhet last year. I spent the last year since my return from Laos in my study at home and did more research and wrote about the theoretical background, got familiar with adequate analysis methods, transcribed the interviews that I had conducted with the lecturers at SKU, and started to analyse the data. Nevertheless, to proceed with my research and the writing of my thesis I now really need to collect the missing data at SKU in Laos.
Although in the last year we learned that many things are possible online, I need to return to Laos to conduct my research in person. In this special intercultural-multilingual research setting, important data and a certain degree of mutual understanding would be lost if it was done online.
After countless online meetings and searches for flights, sometimes different information every week if not every day, and sometimes no new information at all, Ms Julia Friedl and Prof Isabel Martin were able to get in contact with a travel agent in Laos who takes care of charter flights into Laos. Through him we were finally able to get all the needed information and are able to book a flight to Laos and back to Germany. This way Leya was able to travel to Laos two weeks ago. And now we try to get all the documents ready for Miaoxing and myself to travel to Laos at the end of April.
Travelling in a pandemic is certainly not easy and not really advisable. However, no one knows how long this pandemic will go on – the average is 3 years. The time I have for my PhD is limited and the Erasmus+ project ends in July.
I was able to reserve a flight for the end of April and we are now waiting for the necessary documents to be issued by the Lao ministries. Prof Martin has asked her contact person in the Ministry to supervise the process now and received the answer that they would try their best.
23 April 2021:
The necessary documents from the Lao ministries for my visa did not arrive by this Friday. I will go into the weekend not knowing whether I will be able to get the visa on Monday and fly on Tuesday, or whether I should even go to my PCR-test on Monday morning, or cancel it. It has been a nerve-wracking week and will be a tense weekend as well.
Third try: Leya Hoenicke (Team XI.5)
I had heard about the Laos project in the Global English(es) class that Professor Martin offers. I was very interested and wanted to go abroad one more time during my studies for an internship. It seemed like a perfect fit and I applied for a place in Team X. On the interview day a very nervous me sat before Professor Martin and Johannes Zeck answering question after question. And guess who got accepted! That’s right – not me. (But two of my friends were.) In my heroic overcoming and mastering of this difficult rejection and my new, carefully constructed resilience, I gained the courage to apply again in the fall of 2020, encouraged by Prof Martin, who had told me I would no doubt be “ready later”. In reality, I had already heard so much about the project that I wanted to be part of it.
The first rejection motivated me, even more, to try again. I had seen so many exciting posts on the blog that I decided for myself: If I go abroad again, I will go to Laos. I prayed for it to work out.
I got a call from Professor Martin two hours after my second interview. I did not have too high hopes as I was rejected before and the COVID-19 situation did not seem to improve.
Apparently, my prayers were heard by Fortuna herself – I got accepted! I was over the moon. Turns out Fortuna is a very … moody individual. She decided to then send me and everybody else involved on an emotional rollercoaster ride.
December to March 2020:
Everything seemed to go well. I was determined to volunteer in Laos. Now or never, I thought to myself. Leonie (Team XI) and I had postponed our departure from February to March due to rising number of COVID-19 infections. Things were going rather smoothly and the “special status” had been approved. Then Leonie cancelled her plans to go to Laos in February, … “and then, there was one”. I had already terminated the lease for my room in Karlsruhe, so I decided to keep going. I knew if I hesitated now, I would not make it to Laos. For me, there was only one direction and that was to push forward and straight through. Remember Fortuna and her rollercoaster? What I had experienced before was just a warm-up. She gave me the ride of my life. Ups and downs, loopings and corkscrews. You name it, I experienced it.
We did not know of any flights. Luckily that changed in March.
Two weeks before:
We got in touch with a Laotian travel agency which notified us that flights were available. I reserved a spot as soon as possible and booked the quarantine hotel. I was one step closer to my goal. Unfortunately, there still was no visa in sight.
One week before:
All seemed good: I had the flight confirmations, had booked the quarantine hotel and… now there were a few new extra steps to take. Extra documents issued by Lao ministries were needed. Calls to the Embassy in Berlin and Lao partners ensued. Ms Moukdala Keomixai took over the baton at this time and did a lot of running around to get the documents. Meanwhile, I had sent my passport to the Laos Embassy in Berlin in the hope of receiving my visa soon.
Day before flight:
I got up early in the morning. I had to go to the doctor’s to get the last few recommended vaccinations. My next stop was the local city hall to get a temporary passport as a precautionary measure, as my passport was still in Berlin. After my appointment at the city hall, I drove to Ettlingen to get the mandatory CPR-test done that you need for international travel. My next stop was at the Karlsruhe University of Education where I met Professor Martin to have the fastest and most compressed preparatory workshop conducted in the history of TheLaosExperience project. It was a very stressful day with the possibility lurking in the back of our minds that we might be doing all of this in vain. Luckily, Professor Martin had brought the best Key Lime pie I ever had, plus fruit salad, nerve nourishment which I desperately needed.
I was ready. Well almost. One tiny key detail was missing. The visa.
I am on my way back home on the highway when I get a call from Julia Friedl. I stopped at the next possible site and called her back. She gave me the good news that the Embassy was able to issue the visa! They issued it at 4 p.m. that day. The National Express closes at 6 p.m. A very friendly employee of the Embassy ran to the post office to get it sent back to me through all of Germany in one night. If it does not arrive tomorrow morning, I will have to cancel the flights.
23.03.2021 Flight day:
I am not giving up. I still have hope that my passport will arrive in time. I have paid extra for fast delivery as well. If it does not arrive I will personally track down the post van and get the passport by myself. I am so close and I will not let this ruin my chance to volunteer in Laos.
23.03.2021 at 9:44 am:
I am in the upstairs bathroom, the window open. I hear a bigger car approach. I look out of the window and it is a DHL van.
9:44 am: Ten seconds later: I bolt down the stairs, almost run over my cat and rip the front door open like a maniac.
9:45 am: It takes the driver one whole minute to find the envelope in his car. If he is going to walk past my house I will either lose my mind or set his van on fire.
9:45 am: He approaches my front door and looks up from the stack of mail in his hands. He must have seen a face full of emotions, lovingly staring at the passport-sized envelope in his hands.
I had to hold myself back, to not rip it out of his hands. He handed me the envelope. The sender: The Lao Embassy in Berlin. Luckily, the postman had walked back to his van, otherwise, I would have kissed him right then and there.
I opened the envelope and lo’ and behold, it was my passport and even better it had a visa in it. I was on top of the world, floating on cloud 9, and ready to leave for the airport. I cannot describe the amount of relief I felt while holding the passport in my hands. One hour later I left my Swabian hometown once again – this time for a new adventure.
I safely made it to Laos. Has my rollercoaster ride paved the way for those coming after me? We do not know. But it has left a long trail of cooperation, collaboration, solidarity, and team spirit between the German and Lao partners in our memories already. Let us hope that Fortuna will be as generous with luck to the following travellers as she was to me.
Text by L. Kemmer, R. Dengler & L. Hoenicke
Editor’s note by I. Martin
Photos by L. Kemmer, R. Dengler, I. Martin
Drawings by L. Hoenicke