MONDAY Laos National Day is a public holiday. I tried to find out if there were any events I could be attending but learned nothing. So, I stayed home and in the evening went into town to meet one of the other international volunteer teachers for dinner at the Delhi Durbar. Every cuisine on the planet seems to be well represented in Vientiane but I often wonder how they all stay in business. There were a few other diners, all expats too.
TUESDAY This is the start of exams as it’s the second last week of the term. Students are tested in each subject area: listening, speaking, reading, writing and an individual project. My writing skill tests are ready to go for each level. This week is the lull before the storm of marking them all next week. C gives me a lift home. I often get offered a lift straight to my door now so I don’t have to deal with crossing the really busy road. I wonder if one of the students read my blog post and now all the students feel duty bound to offer their teacher a lift. One student said she worried about me.
The temperature dropped overnight and it’s 15°C when I wake up. I delight in the freshness of the morning and need to stifle giggles at all the toques, parkas, scarves and fleeces that have appeared. The breakfast lady along the road is snug in a woolly sweater and Yooni sports a quilted jacket, matching scarf and her pink hat. Meanwhile, both ladies are amazed at my bare arms. “Canadian.” I explain to laughter all around.
After class this afternoon, I accompany one of my upper-level students, J, to the classroom he has created at his home. J is a government employee and one of my best students. After his day-time job and at weekends, he runs English classes in his neighbourhood. His fees are nominal and the money goes into local charitable causes established to help less-advantaged Lao people. The irony for me is that J’s students are already from a less-advantaged group…students in their final year of high school along with university students and new grads. Monks too. There’s a soldier and also a police officer. Some of the students are quite timid when we all start chatting because, as J has explained, they’ve never met a first-language English speaker before. More extroverted students compensate for their shyer classmates and we talk about everyone’s interests and experiences while they pepper me with questions about my hobbies, my favourite foods, my kids and my impressions of Laos.
And then they present me with a birthday cake because “It was your birthday.”. This year’s birthday has certainly been memorable – five cakes! This one is full of coconut cream. Saeb rai – very delicious!
One of J’s older students drives me home. It turns out she studied in Dresden in the 1980s and that makes sense because Dresden was still behind the Iron Curtain and Lao PDR had just emerged as a country. I would have liked to hear more about those experience but my Lao language isn’t up to it, M’s English is elementary and neither of us has spoken German in years.
THURSDAY The upper-level students invite their teachers out to lunch today. These lunches which take place at local noodle shops are a regular occurrence and give us international teachers an opportunity to try new Lao specialties.
Today it’s a beautiful sweet treat, a dessert called nam wan made with sugar syrup, tapioca, coconut water and pandan leaves among other ingredients depending on the version. Dessert isn’t usually served with Lao meals but all kinds of sweet concoctions can be found at the roadside or in the night markets. Most of them are based on coconut, sugar syrup and sticky rice. In addition, the French legacy means there are many pastries and European-style baked goods for sale. After all, where did those five birthday cakes come from? With every sugary confection I discover here, the more I am unable to resist.
FRIDAY I am cold this morning when I shiver my way out of bed. I have one sweater with me in Laos and I never unpacked it when I moved into my house. But out of the suitcase it comes. Fortunately it goes well with my sinh. It turns out we're all in sweaters when I get to work.
I’ve been advised to dress nicely today because the Prime Minister of Laos will be touring the Institute of Foreign Affairs this afternoon so I want to put my best Canadian foot forward. I’m warm enough by lunch-time to discard the sweater. At 3pm the Prime Minister comes into my classroom with his entourage, I nop, he shakes my hand, speaks a few words to the students and then turns back to me and tells me to stay on in Laos for a long time. No selfies either. Mr. Thongloun’s visit is the highlight of the week for everyone at IFA. I tell the students prime ministers have never shown up in my classrooms in any of the other countries I’ve taught in and that maybe the Canadian Prime Minister doesn’t even know I’m here in Laos. It must be a sign! The intermediate level students invite me to an impromptu Friday afternoon party at a student’s house but I pass. I need to rest up for all that marking next week.