Over the Bridge and Through the Mud

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Just two hours after my plane touched down in Laos on Wednesday, I was in a van on the road to one of our project sites. I had been able to time my trip with a visit from a representative of our project donor, who wanted to assess the project in the field. With barely time to repack my things, and definitely no time for a shower, I ate a quick lunch of fried tilapia, sticky rice, and papaya salad with my Lao colleagues at the office, and then we were off. The weather was cloudy and cool, like I was right at home in Santa Cruz. Just minutes into our three-hour drive, it began to rain – hard. I worried that tomorrow’s rainy forecast didn’t bode well for our field trip.

Mist and rain over the Mekong River

The paved road turned to bumpy dirt as we got closer to our project site. We were traveling east of Vientiane. On the other side of the river was Thailand, with hills shrouded in rainy mist. I saw rocky islands and green plants in the Mekong River for the first time – I had seen photos of these from my colleagues who had visited the project site, but had never seen them for myself. I had only seen the river as wide and flat and brown. When we reached the town of Sanakham, the head of Sanakham District in Vientiane Province, the rain had stopped, leaving puddles in the reddish brown mud of the roads. I was bundled up in all the layers I had brought, thinking it strange to feel so cold in Laos. While I think I prefer the cold to the heat, I was thinking about what my grandma had said about the cold in Hanoi, Vietnam – a damp cold that cuts to your bones. It feels impossible to get warm in such conditions, but I asked for any extra blanket at our guest house, and slept in several layers, which helped a lot.

The next morning we ate noodle soup at a streetside restaurant. The smell of the wood burning fires and the coolness of the morning reminded me of camping. As we left, one of my colleagues approached a black mynah bird in a cage with striking yellow feathers around its eyes. He said “Sabaidee,” or “Hello,” in Lao. The bird answered “Sabaidee,” in a deep, eerily human voice. It could also say “Do you want to buy some beer?” in Lao. It’s pretty common to see beautiful birds in cramped cages in Southeast Asia. I was amazed at the bird’s mimicry, but also sad to see it reduced to a party trick.

Our first stop the district governor’s office for a meeting about the Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, our project helped establish in the area. The district deputy said they had tried to create Fish Conservation Zones with local communities in the past, but these efforts didn’t really succeed because of a lack of training and outreach for the communities to understand and enforce the rules of the no-fishing zone. He hoped that our project, for which we held many meetings and trainings, could become a model for other villages.

By this point, the rain had stopped, but as we headed toward one of our four project villages that shared management of the FCZ, we realized it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. A new bridge was under construction, with piles of rocks blocking the entrance on either side. A dirt side road skirted around the bridge, but a truck had gotten stuck in the mud at the lowest point, blocking the way. Trucks were backed up on either side, and a small crowd of spectators stood on the bridge, watching and commenting on the effort to get the truck unstuck from the mud. A steam shovel arrived and began clearing the rocks to open up the bridge. The local fisheries office offered the use of their truck, since our van had to wait for the bridge to be cleared. I was worried that our project plans would be foiled, but after an hour, we were on our way. It was a good reminder to me that when working in countries like Laos, just getting to the project location is a small victory in itself!

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Running in the Rain

Rain on the roofI’ve come to Southeast Asia smack in the middle of the rainy season, the period from roughly May to October when tropical monsoons roll through and drench the subcontinent. The rain held off for my first two days here. Then, late into my second night, the thunder came with a boom and a bang, and the rain pounded down.  And so it’s been every other day or so since.

I love the percussive sound of falling rain, love watching it pour off the rooftops. I’ve heard many variations on thunder since I’ve been here, mostly waking me up in the wee hours as I lie in bed. It’s quite an education for this resident of relatively thunderstorm-free California. There’s the classic low, growling rumble; the reverberating wobbly sound—like a big sheet of plastic they would shake in school plays to simulate thunder; and, most nerve-wracking of all, the metallic, crashing crescendo like cymbals exploding over my head.

So far, the rain hasn’t bothered me much. In fact, the other day I found myself wishing for rain to take the edge off the heat. Of course, if I had to ride around on a scooter, as many people do, then I might think differently. Ponchos are definitely the accessory of the season. Streets flood, and many villages too. Even the apartment below ours is prone to flooding (one of the main reasons we opted for an upstairs abode!).

Constructions workers ride home in the rain

Construction workers ride home in the rain

I also find the rain especially comforting when I have to spend time working inside. It helps me focus by reassuring me that I wouldn’t really rather be outdoors anyway. But I may have to reevaluate that notion after my experience getting caught in a downpour while running the other day. It was a faint drizzle when I started, but by the time I was nearly home, a full-on deluge had commenced. And it was exhilarating.

My mom once told me the rain in Vietnam felt like taking a shower. And I have to say, the rain was definitely stronger than the water pressure in my shower here. (Although yes, the shower does have hot water, for those who asked). The rain itself was also warm enough that it didn’t bother me that I was soaked through. The people around me barely seemed to notice either. Kids still kicked soccer balls in the street, couples walked under umbrellas, vendors doggedly set up their stalls for the night market under tarps.

Running in that movie-style downpour was something I’d always wanted to experience. There are few things better than the feeling of rain on your skin, knowing that you’re almost home, knowing that you’ll soon be dry, knowing that you’re awake and alive.

Rain on the roof of our old office across the street

Rain on the roof of our old office across the street