Sunday, September 18, 2011

Expat Me Up: Living and Working in Vientiane

One of the goals of the GT, besides eating delicious food and authoring an amazing blog, was to do some volunteer work.  We had already spent a week working with abused elephants and a day with Cambodian children.  Now it was time for a longer commitment.

We found a position in Vientiane, Laos, with Village Focus International, working on their Rights-LINK project.   Rights-LINK focuses on land rights issues for Laos people.  Without a systematic national land title system, the land rights of rural Laos people are constantly in jeopardy.  Rights-LINK strives to serve as a link between the rural people and the Laos PDR government – to educate Laos people about their legal rights, and to keep the government informed about the needs of the Laos people.  Rights-LINK has also created a resource center that Laos people, government employees, NGOs and others can use to learn more about land rights issues.

It was an interesting and rewarding month and a half.  We learned a ton about land rights issues in Laos and in developing nations in general, and we saw how insecurity about land ownership underlies almost every problem for people in developing nations – from hunger, to poverty, to education, to women’s rights.  We also learned about how easily people can be exploited in a country with a one-party government, high rates of illiteracy and lack of Laos-language capacity (many rural people, especially women, speak only their tribal language), and an increasingly growing divide between the rich and poor.  We even had the opportunity to travel to rural Salavan province, meet some of the Rights-LINK local youth volunteers and visit two villages with whom Rights-LINK works.  More on this later.

Even more than a great learning experience, our time with VFI was characterized by the warmth and hospitality of its staff.  Our new Lao friends brought us to restaurants and taught us about Laos cuisine, treated us to home-cooked dishes, invited us to baby showers and happy hours, took us for haircuts, helped us have traditional clothing made, and drove us around all over the place.  Thanks to them we expanded our Lao vocabulary to include such words as: mango shake, coconut, fried chicken, pork, beef, spicy… are you seeing a pattern here? 

Below are some photos of our month and a half living in Vientiane, working at Rights-LINK and having fun with our new friends.  Thanks everyone for making us feel so welcome!

Living in Vientiane:
Our comfortable studio at FAA Apartments.

Speedy Gonzalvez, our motorbike.
Dave learned to drive a manual motorbike while we were in Vientiane,
which got off to a bumpy start (ha!) but soon was smooth sailing (ha! ha!)

The pool at our gym, Sengdara Fitness.
I actually never went in here.  But I did drink coconuts poolside.
[DSM: I swam in the pool all the time.  It meant I didn't have to shower!  Just kidding.  Really.]
Work-out area
The gym's spa.
$5/hour massages, nice!
After being members for almost five weeks,
Sengdara finally printed our cards.
It looks like we joined the Darma Project.
This surprisingly delicious-smelling
banana-scented soap graced the Sengdara bathrooms

Working in Vientiane:

Outside the VFI building.
The first floor houses their Rights-LINK project and the second-floor their human- trafficking project.
The Rights-LINK staff, with visiting youth volunteers from Salavan Province who had just put on an awesome show.
Sad goodbyes on our last day.
(Check out my Lao skirt!)
Sightseeing in Vientiane

We really embraced the concept of "living not traveling" in Vientiane, and we did shamefully little sightseeing while we were there.  However, we did spend a lot of time down by the waterfront, partaking in free aerobics classes, strolling the pedestrian (and motorbike and bicycle) walkway, and taking in the beautiful sunsets over the Mekong with any icy Beer Lao in hand, a classic Vientiane experience.
Riverfront statue of the Lao king stretching his hand in friendship to Thailand
Fountain near the river
Free aerobics by the fountain!
The Mekong at dusk
(That's Thailand across the river)
Gorgeous sunsets
Sunset over a wat
Patuxai ("Victory Gate") is a concrete war monument (suspiciously reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe)
celebrating the struggle for independence from the French.
Having fun in Vientiane

Fourth of July Party,
with burgers and freedom fries...
...and acoustic covers of Lady Gaga
by a Mexican-looking Lao man. But of course.
Beerlao is without a doubt the national drink of Laos
But there is also a wide variety of creatively-named whisky available
At a baby-naming-type party with friends

Sampling some brutal moonshine
We attended a concert put on by Lao artists and the US Lao Heritage Foundation.
Once the HOUR of speeches was over, it was quite enjoyable
We watched True Blood every Monday night
at Kong Khao bar & restaurant...
...and Thursday nights at open mic night
(And no, neither of us ever got up there)
Celebrating the last day before the start of Khao Phansa (Buddhist Lent),
during which people give up alcohol (and sometimes meat) for three months
I regularly visited this fruit stand where the people always ripped me off
so that I could play with their adorable puppy
And speaking of adorable things,
Lao babies are too cute
I met this little girl at a papaya salad stand.

Here is a map with all our spots in Vientiane.

View Vientiane, Lao in a larger map

You can learn more about Village Focus International and Rights-LINK by visiting their websites:
And if you're interested in making a donation, you can do so here.

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