On Monday, Mike and I plus the friends we have in town at the moment (Mum, Dad, and three little boys aged six, three, and 8 months) traveled up to Phonxai so that Mike could inspect a school in progress. This was an all day endeavor that involved renting a landrover and spending more than six hours traveling – about five of them on dirt roads.
As always when I travel up to the villages here in Laos, it was illuminating. In no particular order, here is a summary of things I learned or relearned on Monday.
1. Northern Laos is lush with mountains and winding dirt roads dug into the side of steep slopes.
2. Water is life – the rivers paint the valleys a vivid green, even when the hills are a dusty and parched brown.
3. In Lao, X is pronounced S (Phonxai is pronounced “Ponsigh”)
4. If you spend five hours in a landrover on dirt roads when you are four months pregnant you’ll end up feeling well frothed on the inside. Also, you should not drink a great deal in advance of this trip, and you should definitely wear a sports bra.
5. British kids will find even the cool season here in Laos uncomfortably hot.
6. Boys who are three and six years old have an incredible capacity to repeat the same observation or question numerous times (e.g., “gosh, it’s very bumpy, isn’t it?” and “are we nearly there yet?” and “why not?”)
7. If you let these same two little boys sit in the back-bench seats of the landrover together (even with two adults back there as well) trouble will erupt roughly every thirty seconds as long as they are both awake. You will find yourself repeatedly saying things like:
- “I said, bottom on the seat! If you can’t stay sitting down you’ll have to come sit in the middle seat with mum.”
- “Leave your brother alone! Don’t touch him! Not even one finger!”
- “Stop singing that song! I mean it, you have until the count of five!”
- “Try not to throw up, OK? Take deep breaths, look out the front window, and here’s a plastic bag just in case.”
8. If you want to make little boys deliriously happy, all you have to do is get in a landrover and drive back and forth across rivers – stopping every so often to let them walk across a bamboo bridge adjacent to the crossing.
9. Little boys will be quite enamored with squat, bucket rinse, toilets and very probably decide that they’d really rather have this type of toilet in their own home.
10. People all over the world are fascinated by each other’s babies. If you are a mother carrying a baby, you don’t need a word of the local language to effectively communicate on this subject.
11. Lao children in the classroom are remarkably well behaved, despite being packed onto backless benches. If a strange adult walks into the classroom they will leap to their feet and greet you with a polite sabaidee in unison.
12. It is a lot easier for non-profits to raise money to build schools than it is to fund teacher-training programs, but many rural schools suffer from a shortage of good teachers.
13. Rice banks (a village-run storehouse of rice that village families can borrow from during the hungry months and then repay the loan plus five percent interest after harvest) do great things in helping to reduce food insecurity. In one village we visited, of the 93 families in the village more than 60 borrowed from the rice bank every year. The rice bank had been started with an initial, donated, “fund” of two tons of rice and now had a total fund of about six tons of rice.
Mountains in Northern Laos
Water is Life