Empathy on ANZAC Day

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This post is dedicated to my brave, handsom and charismatic cousin who serves today in the Australian Army. We are so proud of you Daniel – stay safe and continue your rascal ways.

Today is ANZAC Day, a very special day for Australians and New Zealanders to honour those who have died and suffered in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations. Australians and New Zealanders who wish to pay their respect to the sacrifice and memory of service men and women attend an emotionally charged dawn service, where two minutes silence helps you reflect and the sound of a lone bugler rips your heart out.

As a new expat living away from Australia was I struggling to connect with this spiritual day. Last night I joked with my sister that I have a free pass to sleep-in, but even as the word spilled from my mouth they horrified me. We discussed all the ways that I could pay my respects and our ideas included hosting a private dawn service at our local Buddhist temple and finding a retired serviceman to give my awkward thanks and possibly a batch of brownies. My sister suggested that I write a post about war and Laos.

Laos has a history of war as rich as any other. A complex web of invasions, conflict and surrenders are documented from the very beginnings of its history.  If you can think of a reason for conflict then someone in Laos has most likely fought for or against it.  Even within history as recent as the 1940’s the Lao people have fought for reasons including race, land, imperialism, anti-colonialism and communism. There is, however one aspect of Laos’ war speckled past that all those under protection of the western allied forces can be held somewhat accountable. Just as our men fell and suffered in the Vietnam War so too did thousands of unknowing Lao citizens sadly caught in the middle of a strategical attack by Australian allies. The details of this war are complex and compellingly interesting so I will hold off on specifics until another post where I can give the subject a greater respect.  Today it is simply my purpose to acknowledge that both sides of war equally endure injury and suffering.

It’s not my intention to preach that war is bad or what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t even assume to have a hard and fast position on any war, past or present.  I know that in our current level of social consciousness, war is inevitable. I can only hope that one-day, most likely beyond my lifetime, we ascend beyond the idea of armed conflict as an appropriate resolution. Perhaps the first step toward this idealistic future is the notion of empathy.

I am in awe of the sacrifice that Australian men and women made for future Australian generations. Very few Australians from my generation understand the sacrifices of conflict and the permanent scar it leaves on your soul.

This ANZAC day is a little different for me. Not because I am isolated from the ceremony and ritual of the day but because this is the first time that I have considered the sacrifice of our opponents alongside our allies. Both sides fight for their families and the preservation of their life as they know it.  Both sides sustain the same untold suffering,

So today on Anzac Day perhaps we could afford a moments thought beyond our own brave and selfless service men and women to every man, woman and child ever affected by war. Perhaps our empathy will be the element that one-day brings peace.

Image is kindly supplied by http://www.stanford.edu

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Luang Prabang When Wet

Since planning our move to this dusty little city I’ve secretly harboured a desire to live in a place other than here. It’s not far from our new home but just far enough to host a completely different vibe. A place where you can wear those daggy traveller pants with the low hanging crutch and elastic around your ankles and confidently rock a back pack without feeling like a dirty hippy – let me rephrase – you will feel like a dirty hippy but at least you’ll have rad street cred amongst all the other daggy panted, hippies. Luang Prabang is a backpackers dream and a vastly different scene from the glamorous expat life breading in most capital cities. Those that know me may have already spied my lack of commitment to underarm shaving and have already pegged me as a wanabe hippy; touché. I have spent my life finding a socially acceptable balance between try-hard posh and hairy hippy. I fear for my attempted equilibrium in a town like Luang Prabang and but I would not dare temp the style gods but actually making the move there. I can see myself falling down a rabbit hole of tank tops, tie die and chunky silver jewellery.

Regardless of my weakness for all things aforementioned I booked my family for a week-long hiatus in Luang Prabang, Laos. With our flights booked and a 50% discount on an irresistible little hotel- we were looking forward to a quiet getaway. That’s when I learnt about Pi Mi or Lao New Year. Yes, its over four months later than western New Year but I’m learning that things can’t be rushed over here. From my evolving understanding of Laos I swear they are actually celebrating the western New Year, only it’s taken them this long to organise the party.  During Lao New Year the entire country partakes in a spot of water throwing to cleanse the spirit ready for the upcoming New Year. By ‘spot’ I mean two people died after being high pressure hosed off their scooters.  The Lao, young and old, stand on the street or in the back of moving pick ups and throw water at each other. All day. For three days. Which actually turned into five…  When I was told about the New Year celebrations I would have waged my weekly massage that everyone would go crazy for the first few hours with die hards enduring for maybe the rest of the day. Well, this expat would have very sore muscles. Turns out I was completely wrong and apparently soaking already soaked people doesn’t get boring for ages… and ages.

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I’ll tell you who else didn’t get bored of water throwing – Falang that’s who! On the Lao GDP index, after mining comes sales from over sized, over priced water pistols. The tourists were crazy for the idea of soaking someone without being punched in the face. So much so that I dare say some went a little overboard. A risky topic; chastising fellow Falang I hear some people sneer. The tourists just couldn’t seem to read the crowd and judge the appropriateness of the activity. For example; an old man is walking down the street and he comes across a water throwing station. The locals ask him if it’s ok to pour some water down his back. It’s a hot day so he doesn’t mind as a teenage girl, in the spirit of Pi Mi pours a cup of water over him. He continues on his way when a twenty-something Falang, basketball layup style, slams him in the face with a twenty-litre bucket of water.  We were out and about with a one year old and were a little nervous at first. Our worries were in vain because the locals could not have been more sweet. They asked permission before pouring a little water down her back or flicking a few drops over her face. It was as gentle as a christening and for me (obviously not a Christian) just as meaningful. The only trouble we had was when a tourist dumped an huge bucket over her. What a legend.

Social retards aside, Pi Mi was a beautiful time to be in Luang Prabang. There was a street party on every corner where the locals, rich and poor, played music, drank beer and threw water. There were other celebrations besides the ‘water cleansing rituals’ too. For example the town put on a delightful if not completely chaotic parade.  For two hours parade participants were lined up, arranged and rearranged in their places along the street. An hour after the planned start time and no less than six false starts the parade finally began. I was expecting the parade to work like they do in the west. You watch from the side as the various groups representing the region such as racial minorities, artists and strangely; cross-dressing fairytale characters file past waving at the spectators. Picture this; the music starts and somehow everyone recognises this as the real deal so they strut off down the street, only unlike western parades the mass of spectators followed the parade down street keeping up with the section they started with. Kind of defeats the purpose of having a variety of floats?

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Pi Mi showcased the best of Lao people and their love of happiness and hospitality. I feel very lucky to see this fun loving side of the Lao at such an early time in our stay here. I only hope its not a whole year before I get invited to family street and practice my Nuk Jok (cheers) once again.

Stop by soon – I’ll play virtual tour guide and show you all around the beautiful town of Luang Prabang.

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Photo of the monks throwing water is kindly courtesy of yourviet.blogspot.com

Alarm Clocks and Prayer Drums

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When you first wake in the morning you get a few blissful seconds to yourself. You don’t have to share these with anyone or anything. You don’t have to share them with your partner, your kids, your to-do-list, or even your memories.  If you’ve ever experienced grief, heartbreak or depression then you might have cherished these few seconds of numbness before the memories of yesterday slowly curl into your mind and that blissful nothingness evaporates revealing yet another day of gloomy reality.  So too, this special morning moment can briefly conceal the potential happiness of your new day. Have you ever woken up and laid in bed for a while before you suddenly remember that today is Christmas?! Or even your birthday, or the day of your long awaited trip? You curse your mind for depriving you of excitement, even for just a few seconds!

I love waking up and not knowing where I am. I love that split second where your mind plays double-time detective trying to figure it out before the world gets impatient and gives it away. 

For me it’s usually the local sounds that reveal my whereabouts.  I am always happy to hear those special noises that are unique to my current location. It’s a moment to acknowledge and appreciate your life, wherever in the world you find yourself that morning. 

 

Here are some of my favourite alarm clocks:

My childhood home at Emu Bay, Kangaroo Island – crashing waves

My grandmothers house in Kingscote, Kangaroo Island – a thousand squawking galahs

A home away from home in Hangzhou, China – constant honking traffic

When traveling became my obsession in New Delhi, India – a squeaky fan

My first taste of the freedom of solo travel in Pai, Thailand – local children playing behind my tent

And my new favorite; Vientiane, Laos – prayer drums

 

Share some of your favourite earthly alarm clocks…

 

Vientiane – ‘I try not to make a good first impression because to me thats the same as lying’

First hand experience tells me that first impressions of a country are rarely correct. When given adequate time to thoroughly explore a place your opinion and understanding can change drastically. Thinking back to when I lived in China for six months, what I thought I understood of China after two weeks compared to what I knew of China when all was said and done was completely different. I know that even after six months I still only wiped away the top layer of dust leaving layers as deep as Shreks onion that I still don’t understand. This is one of the reasons why I have never aspired to smash and run tourism. I’ve always understood that you might be able to see the sights of a place in a few days but you will never understand it if you are only willing to dedicate short periods of time. I’ve always thought it to be better to see a few properly than to see it all without really seeing anything.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind some slap and dash travel occasionally; what I can’t stand is someone who claims to know it all after a 3 day Contiki tour. To prove my hypothesis I thought I would give you my understanding of little Vientiane after just six weeks in residence. – Cue laughing from veteran Vientiane expats on my newbie understanding of this city.

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If Vientiane posted an add on a dating website it might read something like this:

About: I’m a naturally attractive lady who doesn’t wear too much make up or try overly hard to impress. In fact I’m a little scummy and am often caught covered in a thin film of dust. However I am sure that once you get to know me you will see that my wrinkles are merely laugh lines and that I am a charming and honest woman.

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Health: I am a chronic four pack a day smoker. I usually only smoke rubbish and rice fields but the smell occasionally lingers in my clothes and obscures the vision around me.

 

Details: I am 370 years old and weigh 754,000 people.

 

Intent: I like mainly Chineese, but occasionally Russian and Vietnamese men, to pay for everything. They are often a little overbearing and can take control of my life so I am also eagre to explore relationships with American or European men– as long as they don’t talk down to me and make me feel like an incapable third world woman. I have never been very good at earning my own money but would still like to look presentable to my slightly wealthier neighbours so I need someone to pay for all my cosmetic procedures.

 

Religion/Political: Strictly and exclusively Communist… Actually; a little Buddhist…  Heck I’ll be honest; I am also quietly exploring Capitalism.

 

Drinking/Drugs: I do both occasionally – mainly lots of longneck Beer Lao though. When I have a lot of money I also make the most of the imported and extremely cheep wine and champas. I both grow and dabble in a bit of opium but modern street drugs aren’t really my thing.

 

Likes/Dislikes:
I love karaoke but am possibly the worst singer you have ever heard. That doesn’t stop me singing Celine Dion ballads at 3 o’clock in the morning though.
I hate street signs. I would much rather drive around in circles for half an hour calling to ask directions six times because I keep forgetting them before I get there.

I love vegetables. I can’t eat a meal without a gigantic plate of lettuce and herbs next to my plate. I think I have a slight case of OCD when it comes to condiments. Without exception I have to pour exactly 53 different things into my food before I can eat it.

Lastly, I love temples. I stick them all over my body.

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I hope you come to visit me one day. I am a genuinely lovely person with many beautiful aspects although I could use a little help in a few areas such as financial accountability… Write me a letter – actually you better email – I don’t have an address. 

 

Just call and say ‘number 11’

There are no street signs here. That’s annoying enough but the reason is because there are no street names. The concept of an address is literally a foreign(ers) idea. In Laos you give directions to you destination using the local temple as a sudo suburb.  Easy enough for the locals but slightly more confusing without the aid of a common language. Our local tuk tuk driver calls us Number 11. There is a small sign at the end of our street with an 11 written on it; this is what he pointed to when he said ‘Just call and say number 11.’

After a month in a small but easy apartment we have moved into our big house in the suburbs. Its not actually big by expat standards but compared to our 1940’s duplex in Adelaide its plenty enough for us. We are very happy here. We have round the clock security guards otherwise known as play things for Grubba and language teachers for me.

I’ve developed a daily ritual with the guards. In the mornings I make Ms Pang a coffee and sit with her in silence as Grubba plays with her phone. In the evenings I take Mr Pang (a pure but convenient coincidence) some fruit and a cold soft drink.

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Our Mae Bahn, Tang is the mother of a daughter the same age as Grubba. I feel dreadful knowing that she puts her daughter in day care to come to work. I told Tang to bring her daughter along to our house but she said she would prefer not to as she wouldn’t get any cleaning done. I’m hoping to convince her into at least one day a week.  Tang does everything that needs doing. I am redundant now. Hence this unnecessarily long blog post.

We have a corner store where you can buy all the necessities of life; water pistols, Ferrero Rochers and Pepsi. You can also pick up those occasional treats such as water, milk and rice.  We are scarily (for my waist line) close to one of the best cafes in town.  Mulberry pies, cheese and chive scones and the best coffee in town are all on the menu and at just a two minute stroll away I’m in a constant state of self control – mostly.  As if in cultural combat to the perfectly air-conditioned café the local restaurants are disgusting.  Luckily they are also disgustingly cheap and their food is disgustingly yummy. I foresee many evening strolls to the end of our drive for local takeaway.  Also, funnily, fried rice is called cow pat which easy enough to remember.

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My favourite time of day is in the mornings when Grubba and I sit on our second story balcony eating fruit and yoghurt. Through the trees we get a glimpse of the local temple and hear its morning prayer gongs and that’s when I know for sure; we are not in Kansas anymore. 

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Look who’s talking Lao

We’re signed up to live in Laos for at least three years and if I want to fulfil any hope of understanding the culture and the people here then I must learn at least basic conversational Lao. It seems simple enough. How could you possibly live and function actively in another country without learning their local tongue. The answer is: bloody easy! The gigantic and very socially active expat community all speak English. Most cafés and western style supermarkets are generally decipherable. Pointing, hand gestures (the polite form of course) and a primitive form of charades gets you mostly what you need. If you can keep calm when your driver takes you to the bread shop when you ask him to take you to the bed shop or if the local restaurant serves your cow stomach soup instead of beef soup then you should be fine in your little bubble of English.

The locals seem to love it when you have a go at talking Lao. Not because you are being culturally sensitive and trying to understand them whilst in their country but because you sound hilarious trying to say absolutely anything. When asked if I needed a tuk tuk the other day I replied with what I thought was ‘no’. I must have told him that his mother was whore for dogs because his mate literally pissed himself. I walked off totally embarrassed and wondering where I went wrong as the word was shouted from tuk tuk driver to tuk tuk driver so fast that it reached the corner before I did and more drivers were waiting to laugh with/at (still unsure) me.

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Mr Johnson is speaking sickeningly well after his first four weeks. I knew he’d get all obsessed with learning the language – he tends to pick something to become addicted to every couple of months. That’s why I don’t let him try ice. While on our six day honey moon to Bali he attempted to learn Indonesian. On our sixth day he was disappointed at how long it was talking to pick it up.  After four weeks in Laos he’s already getting frustrated at not being fluent.

I’ve asked our Mae Bahn (maid/nanny) to speak only Lao to Grubba. With her brain totally wired for language at the moment she will literally overtake my four words by next week.

So here is my choice: The easy road – stick to western cafes, western friends and live in my English bubble. Basically live in a shitty version of the west or take on the mountainous task of memorising an entirely new language. Side note – once you’ve passed the age of 7-8 and you haven’t started learning the language then that part of you brain shuts down and the only way beyond that is to use the inefficient memory section of your brain. I’m guaranteed to fail.  I might eventually manage the basics of conversing but I’ll almost definitely never become fluent. I don’t care how badly I pronounce the most simple word in their language, I’m going to give it a real go. Why else would you leave a beautiful life back home if only to half-heartedly attempt a new one? I’ll learn the language. Even if my biggest accomplishment is to impress Ozzie visitors with a random slurry of words that unknowingly ask the shop keeper; ‘How much for fifty million hard mothers.’

 

 

For further reading on expats and their quest for language domination this is a very funny site: http://stufffalanglike.wordpress.com

The Merger

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I’ve always wanted to travel. I have managed to get a little under my belt but it was never very responsible (read – live with parents, save up for months, go away, blew all your money then return home to live with parents again.) Mr Johnson had a different idea in mind, he was all about paying bills on time and establishing himself financially – totally alien to my downward spiral of travel and credit card debt.  Turns out he was right – but only half right. So as the story goes, marriage, house, baby and here we are living in Laos merging our two little dreams into one life. By adding a little maturity to my travel dreams and a little adventure to Mr Johnsons we have managed to come up with a pretty cool plan.

Our family of three; Mr Johnson, Myself and our 1 year old baby girl nicknamed Grubba have all moved to Vientiane, Laos from Adelaide, Australia. Following the smell of copper and gold, Mr Johnson signed a three-year contract to work at a mine in the south of Laos. Grubba and I wait patiently in the capital city of Vientiane for him to finish his two-week swing and re-join our family for a week together. During our weeks together we plan to make the most of our location and do a little travel around Laos and South East Asia. This blog will be the story of our life, our trials and tribulations but also our discoveries and adventures of this funny little landlocked country in the middle of Asia.

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And we’re live!

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Sorry guys, its been nearly a month now and hardly a word from us. Here is my attempt to keep you all updated on our life in Laos. This page will be a melting pot of all things bloggy – think travel info and pics, the challenges and highlights of expat living, cooking, craft and all things mummy. Stick around and join us on our journey.

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