The Bird’s Word Blog
Lessons from Laos
Laos has been a land of lessons learned. My first few days in Luang Prabang were an opportunity to practice sitting through discomfort. I had come from an amazing week in Cambodia filled with constant laughter and fulfilling conversations. I met interesting people and visited fascinating places. My arrival in Laos was my first time truly being alone on this journey.
I arrived at the beautiful Sa Sa Lao guesthouse where I had agreed to work during my time in Luang Prabang. The guesthouse is a part of a bigger business that also offers a 2-hour sunset river cruise every evening along the Mekong River. In exchange for four hours of work per day, I received a place to sleep and $10 USD worth of food, which was more than enough. My job consisted of both flyering/advertising for the river cruise and working as a waitress aboard. I enjoyed the job and loved watching the sunset on the river every night, but I knew early on that two weeks would be too much.
Fortunately, I really enjoyed meeting and getting to know the Lao crew members working full-time for the boat and guesthouse. In Laos, the minimum working age is 14. When I was 14, I worried about school, friends, hockey practice, finding a ride home, and other “normal” worries or anxieties of a young teen living comfortably in Ann Arbor, MI. I worked a very part-time job at my synagogue and babysat, but spent the majority of my time in school and with friends. That isn’t the case for most Lao children. By age 14, many work 12+ hours per day, 6+ days per week. But not once did I see the kids I worked with without a smile on their faces.
It’s easy for me to see kids working this hard and claim it’s wrong or unjust. It’s so different from the kind of childhood my parents gave me that I find myself judging their situation without even asking them how it feels from the inside. Of course, due to the ever-present language barrier I was never able to ask Nid, Sy or Lei (a few of the crew members with whom I grew close) these questions. But I was able to catch myself. I found myself jumping to conclusions about the quality of these people’s lives based solely on my perspective and my experience growing up in the United States. What I did learn from these kids, without a doubt, is the power of a positive attitude. Working 12+ hour days and finishing the night with a smile on your face, sitting with your coworkers/friends (almost family) and enjoying a meal together, making the most of the situation and each moment… from what I can tell, these kids are doing it right. They are in a situation where they need to make money to support their families, and they do it with grace. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with them. And to try their yummy foods!
I had intended to stay in Luang Prabang and work at Sa Sa for 16 days, but after 10 I decided to see another part of the country. My employers were very understanding, and I bought a ticket for a minivan ride to Vang Vieng, a two just 70km south of Luang Prabang.
I arrived in Vang Vieng after a very sweaty and bumpy minivan ride through the mountains feeling a bit carsick. Reminding myself that it would pass, I started walking towards the less-party-centric hostels (Vang Vieng is known as a bit of a party town and I wasn’t looking to party for 5 days straight). A few people sitting on the porch of a hostel were speaking Hebrew, so I approached them and, in Hebrew, asked if the hostel was a good place to stay. They said yes and 10 minutes later my tightly-packed backpack was open, belongings splayed everywhere, and I was in my new temporary home.
I became friends with some of the people in the hostel and spent the next few days enjoying Vang Vieng’s blue lagoons and Nam Song River. One day, three friends and I decided to rent a four-wheeler/buggy and drive to Blue Lagoons 3 and 5. The drive was slow but stunning. Even when lazy cows blocked our way, I couldn’t help but smile as I looked at the magnificent earth surrounding me.
We spent the morning and a good chunk of the afternoon at Lagoon number 3. I swung from the zipline, walked along the balance beam, and floated in the inner tubes available. As the day continued, more people joined us. My friend Ori pulled out his acoustic guitar and we all sang together. My cheeks are still sore from all of the smiles.
By 3:15pm, my friends and I realized we still hadn’t reached the final lagoon and decided to get going. We got a little bit lost on the way, giving us more time to listen to music and enjoy the scenery. We finally arrived at the 5th lagoon and enjoyed the quiet and the calm of the now-empty attraction. It was starting to cool down at that point so I wasn’t in the water for long. We played some music, did a little bit of yoga, and suddenly realized how hungry we’d become since eating at 10am. At 5:30pm we headed back to town.
My friend, Shenav, drove us back along the bumpy, rocky road. Music was playing, the sun was starting to set, and all of a sudden we heard a BOOM! We looked behind us to find the back right wheel rolling toward our now-three-wheeler… uh oh.
This is when I relearned how powerful a positive attitude can be. It was one of those things that could have ruined our day. We could have been angry or upset or whiny. Instead, we laughed. I called the rental company and the man working apologized profusely. He ensured us that he would come as soon as possible to pick us up. Then, we made the most of the situation. We laid out our sarongs, played music from the Bluetooth speaker in the buggy, and laughed while we played cards. Stranded between two villages in Vang Vieng, with tummies rumbling and no food in sight, we smiled and laughed. We laughed at our situation, we laughed at old stories, we laughed with one another, and we just kept laughing. Soon after, the man from the rental company came to fix our buggy. We boarded the accompanying Tuk Tuk and returned to town, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner and more of each others’ company.
My time in Laos has taught me a vital lesson: a good attitude makes for a great day. When things are uncomfortable or unpleasant, the way I choose to react can and will very much determine the outcome. When things don’t go as planned, my ability to roll with the punches or, as my dad would say, accept, embrace, and flow with the situation will determine the outcome. I am learning more and more about myself each day, and as I write this I feel empowered. I know that I have the ability to make the most out of my situation. Whether on Workaway in a quiet town or stuck with a broken buggy in the middle of the road, I can find a way to smile. And once I do that, I might remember it as one of the best days of my trip. I definitely think the Day We Lost Our Wheel is high on that list.