How quickly things can change

On Wednesday Mike spent the day in the field, visiting a school construction site in a village three hours outside of Luang Prabang. And, in an effort to escape the drills and tile cutters right outside our guesthouse while remaining within the therapeutic reach of an air conditioner, I spent the day working in his office.

It was blessedly quiet, and I focused properly on writing for the first time since we arrived. I focused so well, in fact, that it was 2:30 in the afternoon before I realized I was hungry, and that I had a choice to make.

I could – like the sensible and well-traveled adult I supposedly was – leave the office, go across the road to the noodle stall Mike had pointed out to me just that morning, and get myself something to eat.

Or I could search the office for the almond-stuffed honey-coated dates that Mike’s brother, Carl, had thoughtfully posted to us in Alaska three weeks previously. Carl procured these dates in Afghanistan, we carried them from Alaska to Laos, and then Mike had taken them to the office so that he could use them (carefully rationing them out one or two at a time) as gifts for the district governors during his sojourns to the field.

Mike was supposed to be back around five, I reasoned. I didn’t want to fill up noodles now. I could wait.

So I found these well-traveled dates. I ate two of them. I told myself that they were really what I’d felt like eating all along. I worked very hard to completely ignore the fact that:

(A) They so were so not at all what I felt like eating; and

(B) I had essentially just decided that I would rather go hungry than leave Mike’s air conditioned office to venture across the street and seek to make myself understood in yet another new restaurant while ordering more unfamiliar fare; and

(C) I was pretty sure that A + B = TOTAL CROSS CULTURAL COWARD.

By 5:15 I was ravenous and Mike was still not back. When I called him he sounded tired and frazzled. They were still about an hour and a half away, he said. He’d meet me back at the guesthouse and, by the way, could I bring his work computer back with me?

How, I wondered after I had hung up the phone, did one go about catching a tuk tuk to Hoxieng from Mike’s office? I knew it could be done – Mike had done it many times – so I figured the staff downstairs might have the answer to my question.

I think the woman on the front desk would have, too, if she had spoken any English. But, round and smiley, she just jumped up hastily when I tried to ask for instructions and scuttled into the finance office.

I followed her in, smiling at familiar faces but only able to remember one name out of seven. They all knew who I was though, and they all seemed rather concerned at the thought of me catching a tuk tuk alone.

There was a hushed and hurried conference, and then the woman from the front desk left the room and went into yet another office.

“If someone could just show me how you catch a tuk tuk here?” I said again to the entire finance team, just to make sure we were all on the same page.

“No need,” said Kaileah, the young woman whose name I could remember. “She will get someone to drive you.”

“No need,” I repeated in response, increasingly perturbed by the disturbance my ignorant self was creating in an office full of busy and hard-working people.

I followed the first woman out, intent on preventing her from commandeering someone to ferry me home, but it was too late. One of the admin staff was already standing up from behind his computer and searching for car keys.

“Really,” I protested. “I am happy to catch a tuk tuk, it is just that I do not know whether to catch one from the street, or how to call one. But Mr. Michael told me it would cost ten thousand kip.” I pulled the money out of my pocket and waved it in front of them as proof that my husband, the big boss, had decreed it permissible that I make the journey from the office to the guesthouse unchaperoned and alone. That Mr. Michael had definitely not envisioned staff time and organizational resources be devoted to taking me home.

No one looked convinced.

There was another staff conference in Lao, and when it ended I could see the matter had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

“I am finish. I go to town now, on motorbike. I drop you,” Kaileah said.

The before we left LA someone had asked me whether we’d get around by motorbike out here.

“I’m conflicted,” I’d said. “I know motorbikes are practical, and they’re fun. But they’re dangerous, there’s just no getting around that. No, I don’t think I’ll be riding motorbikes.”

That was then, and this was now. And now, the polite and culturally appropriate thing to do was clearly to smile my thanks and accept – even though that meant a ten minute ride on the back of a motorbike, carrying two computers, and not wearing a helmet. So, since the need to escape causing further disruption suddenly felt much more pressing than my need to escape potential brain damage, I smiled my thanks and accepted.

How quickly things can change – and not just with regards to my stance on riding motorbikes.

In the blink of an eye I’ve gone from someone who typically goes to bed at midnight and gets up at eight to someone who goes to bed before ten and gets up about six. From someone with a job, an office, and not enough time on my hands, to someone whose husband has a job, an office, and not enough time on his hands. From French fries to rice. From cold to hot in weather, and from hot to cold in the shower.


I used to think I loved it. Now, I think I mostly want to love it.


16 responses to “How quickly things can change

  1. I found myself with a poignant smile on my face when I read this, Lisa. A smile because it sounds so familiar and I could hear the touches of humor. Poignant because it sounds so familiar and I could hear the more complicated emotions as well…

  2. Hang in there Lisa! I’m thinking of you and all the changes you’re making right now. It’s good to hear that you’re doing some good work on your book. Sorry that wasn’t a terribly articulate comment but big hugs to you.

  3. hey lisa,

    living in another country is such a challenge. when i lived in nepal, i found it so hard to be brave. and at the start it felt like i had to be brave to do anything. so just take it one day at a time. for one day all of this will be normal and familiar. and until then, revel in the little steps of bravery. like actually getting out of the house, and actually attempting to get a tuk-tuk (even if in the end you didn’t get one, at least you took the deep breath and tried). it takes energy, but take courage that you have done this before. you have been new in other countries and step-by-step figured out how to make life work. you will be able to do it again, little bits of brave at a time.


    • Good to hear from you Bec. Yes, brave. And energetic. And, along the way, seeing it as grist for the creative mill. Thanks. Are you in Oz at the moment, by the way?

      • yeah, i’m back in melb after a busy five week adventure travelling the length and bredth of south africa. five and a half thousand kms in five weeks. we’ve been back for a few weeks now, and i am starting to lose that holiday shine…

        hope that today is a good day for your, with some little victories to rejoice in!

  4. Dear Lisa,

    I thought about this subject many times when traveling or living abroad. Their is this conquering proces that goes on everytime. And within 2 months time, things that seem very dauntig and confusing at first become normal everyday things that you will forget to instruct your future visitors about. It’s uncomfortable and scary at times and made me feel like a little child. And being so dependant on your partners knowledge doesn’t help most times. When you see it as one big adventure (Alice in Wonderland like) it kind of becomes fun to go out and try new things. And just remember in doing so you give lots of joy and laughter to the locals around you. So basically you are adding value to their days by not having a clue how to do things that are so normal to them 😉

    Good luck on your quest to master Lao life and my love to hard working (as ever) Mike. Please take good care of yourself, things will come!

    Greetings from the crazy orange country,

    • Yes, he does work rather ridiculously hard, does he not? Good to hear from you. I saw your name, and I thought of the story book you made for us for our wedding – the one that made us laugh until we cried. What a great present that was. Hope you’re going well in the crazy orange country.

  5. Sharla Chinniah

    Hey Lady,

    Make sure you connect with Kate about the (ahem) joys of motorbike riding. 😉


  6. You are one of the least cowardly people I know.

    • You are the only one in the list that shows up with your happy smiling face. Do I show up with an orchid when I comment on Zozo’s Mom?? BTW, I am STILL thinking about the Clean Plate Club. PS, Thank you.

  7. Lisa – your post really resonates… Change is fine when we’re leading it, right? But when it happens to us it’s deeply challenging.

    Take care on those bikes!

    You’ll get your turn to reciprocate the warm generosity, but it might be a matter of ‘paying it forward’, so to speak…

    God bless

    • Change, yeah… Theory to practice. Theory to practice. By the way I’ve been thinking about you guys and your own big change which is on the horizon. Or, maybe, since I’m so behind, already in the rear vision mirror. Please give my love to A as well.

  8. Ok so my cross-cultural cowardice now seems completely pathetic when it was just a move from Sydney to LA and navigating driving on the wrong side of the road or walking over to the Grove.
    You are a brave little vegemite Lisa, tuk tuk or no tuk tuk, motorbike or no motorbike, helmet or no helmet.

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