My colleagues at the Central Library are all extremely wonderful, kind, generous people and I have really enjoyed getting to know them since I have been here. One of my favorite colleagues is Mrs. Bounsalong. She is about 47 years old, and has 2 kids. She is really funny and always making jokes and when I have the time to study the Lao language, she is my teacher.
Anyway, yesterday I was discussing with her about how I would like to visit other regions of Laos. I asked her about her hometown, Attapeu, which is in the very southern-most part of Laos, close to the Cambodian border. First she suggested that we asked the director to give us his car and pay for us to take a trip there. Then I asked her about what is was like growing up there, and if she had electricity. She told me that Attapeu didn’t get electricity until about 4 years ago, and until she was 18, and came to Vientiane to study at the Teacher’s Training College, she had only seen an electric light 3 or 4 times at her counsin’s house in Pakse.
She told me that she had to work on a farm everyday, and go to the river to collect water for her family, and then go to school, and try to read by candle-light. At 18 she came to Vientiane, and in 1984 she finished Teacher’s College and worked as a geography teacher in the city for about 15 years, until she began working at the Central Library in 2000.
I find it really amazing that some one who had never seen a toilet or an electric light for the first 18 years of their life is now chatting on Yahoo messenger and sending SMS messages on her cellphone like it’s no big deal.
I asked her if she had any pictures of herself from when she was young, and she said she never had a camera so she doesn’t.
Anyway, today I went in for my usual tea break and chat time, and Mrs. Bounsalong said “Oh! Nicole! Did you know that when Mr. Somephone was young, he used to be very rich! He was a rich man! Everything was luxury!”
And I said “What happened, Mr. Somephone, how did you lose all your money?”
And he said “No, Bounsalong told a lie. When I was young I was very poor. There was war with America and I had to live in a cave.”
I thought he was joking for a moment. He had to live in a cave? Maybe for a night or 2… but no. He lived in various caves in the Savannakhet region of Laos from 1968 until 1975. For 7 years, he lived in caves, because the Americans were dropping bombs on that part of the country, near Vietnam, trying to kill the communists. Because if Vietnam fell to the communists, the Laos would, then Cambodia, and then of course the entire security of the American Dream would be threatened. By a few countries in South East Asia?
He told me that some days he wouldn’t even have anything to eat, and they wouldn’t have soap to wash their clothes. They would hit it with a stick from a tree. He told me that when he tried to study at school, they didn’t have tables, or chairs. They didn’t even have paper. They had little chalk boards, and they didn’t even have chalk. They used parts of another tree to write on the chalk boards.
He also came to Vientiane to study at the teacher’s training college in 1980. He recently completed a Masters degree in Education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, through a distance-education program. And he used to live in caves!
Mrs Bounsalong told me “When I was young, I didn’t even know about the rest of the world. We never thought about other countries, or other ways of life. We just thought about our village and our rice!”
They asked me about the war, and why Americans want to have wars in other countries. I told them I couldn’t explain, and as much as I wished we hadn’t been involved in Vietnam in the 60’s, and in Iraq today, there was nothing I could do about it. I tried to vote for a different president, but it didn’t work, “The government doesn’t listen to me” was my simple explanation.
We recently visited the Lao People’s Army Museum, where in many photographs various atrocities, by the French, or by the Americans, are shown, usually with the description “The American imperialists and their puppets did this or that terrible thing…..”. It’s comical, but surprisingly true in some ways. Why did the US feel the need to get involved in these political or religious struggles in distant parts of the globe? The only explanation i can come up with is money and power. Its a depressing thing to realize about your own country. All of the really terrible, fucked up shit we have done.
But they did also tell me that now they have many family and friends living in America who are happy there and like it and how they want to go to America too, but just to visit.
Then we talked about luck. Of course. The Lao think everything has to do with luck. “You are very lucky!” they told me, that I get to travel so much.
I guess I really do feel lucky. I’ve really had it easy in comparison. I never had to live in caves or hear bombs being dropped every night. Yet the Lao are so happy. Even though we like to think we have a lot to teach people in developing countries, maybe they actually have a lot they should be teaching us.
Anyway, my point is, I love my colleagues.