Boh penh nyang
I was excited to wake up the next day. No more playing leap frog through traffic or competing for pavement space with motorcycles because my student, Ms P, would be driving me to IFA for the duration of the course. Ms P. had volunteered when she heard that I was moving into her neighbourhood and looking for daily car pooling. That said, I was bothered by a couple of worrying emails urging me to return to Canada ASAP. There was talk about borders closing and restricted access, airlines were reducing international service, insurers wouldn’t guarantee health coverage. The actual reporting via Canadian news services didn’t sound so concerned. Certainly there appeared to be no need to rush anywhere. Most importantly, I hadn’t had an email from the Register of Canadians Abroad (ROCA) advising me to do anything nor any communication from the Canadian government representative in Laos. I finished my oatmeal and went to the end of the driveway to wait for Ms P.
The view to the end of the driveway.
At IFA, it was another story. My teaching colleagues were being told by their respective volunteer organizations that they would be re-patriated by the end of March or earlier. I felt slightly out of the loop because I, of course, no longer had an organization to back me. Nobody to tell me what to do or decide for me. I returned home that afternoon and for the first time since my arrival in Laos, I streamed CBC Radio so that I could better assess what might be happening in Canada. It was comforting to listen to familiar voices from the Victoria studio even though the market forecasts weren’t reassuring. On the hourly newscasts I still couldn’t hear anybody telling Canadians they had to return home although they were talking about non-essential travel. Well, I thought. I’m not on a vacation here, I’m working and I can stay. I have a place to live and this will all be over by the time I’m ready to go home. Schools had been closed as new self-isolation and quarantine guidelines had been drawn up for Canadians but the teaching facility where I was working here in Laos was still open.
I didn’t sleep well for the rest of the week. I’d wake very early in a panic and steel myself for news updates and emails. Eventually the ROCA emails arrived too with warnings but the risks still made it seem as if staying on in Laos was the better option. As I wrote in an email to a friend in Canada midweek: “I feel supported by the Canadian government and by my job placement.” Meanwhile my colleagues had electronic tickets and departure dates confirmed for the coming weekend. The classroom became my refuge that week from an onslaught of breaking news headlines, new statistics regarding the spread of Covid19, border closures, new travel health requirements, emails and unsolicited advice.
By Thursday morning IFA announced it was suspending classes until after the Lao New Year. Even though everybody hoped it would only be for three weeks we acknowledged the closures could be for a lot longer. Offices and businesses might close, a lockdown could be imposed as was happening in other countries and limited border access could result in interruptions to the food supply and no access to cross-border medical assistance for expat residents in Laos. I knew I had to leave.
Eventually I managed to reserve a flight for the following Monday from Vientiane via Bangkok and Taipei to Vancouver and Victoria. I waited on tenterhooks for a few anxious hours until the electronic ticket was sent and then began making arrangements to leave.
Friday I rushed around taking care of last minute business. Shopping could wait until Saturday. It was stinking hot.
With Ms T at Wattay Airport.
My student, Ms T, came by before dinner and we went out to the airport to say goodbye to one of the Australian volunteers. I wandered over to the Lao Airlines desk because I wanted to check that Monday’s flights were in the system. I gave the locator number to the desk agent so that she could bring up the reservation. She turned the screen towards me and shook her head as she pointed to the first leg of the journey, Vientiane to Bangkok on Monday morning. The last flight by Lao Airlines to Bangkok would be on Saturday, March 21st; there was no flight on March 23rd because there was no longer any service between the two cities. Could I change the ticket now to an earlier flight but I already knew the answer as I asked. Of course not.
Well, I reasoned, I have a place to live. The rent is paid. I can wait this out until planes are flying again. And that would be….?
Ms T returned. She asked if everything was OK knowing full well something clearly wasn’t. I told her.
“Teacher, boh penh nyang” pulling out her telephone. “Just a minute please” and she began talking.
My colleague, Keo, walked over and asked what had happened. Ms T interrupted her earnest monologue long enough to say something to Keo.
Keo looked at me and said “Wait”.
Ms T made another phone call. She conferred with Keo, answered another incoming call, and then motioned to Keo to follow her. They disappeared along a corridor and through a door so we all sat down and sat some more. I mentioned loudly that I had a place to stay and that I could stay on if we couldn’t find a solution. No you can’t I was told, you have to go. Said firmly. You can’t stay.
With Ms T and Keo.
Keo and Ms T returned. Keo was holding a strip of paper. It looked like one of those teleprinter printouts I used to see when I worked in flight operations years ago at Quebecair. Somebody in a back room at Wattay Airport had just got me a ticket on the Saturday morning flight to Bangkok. (And yes, reader, according to a quick Google search, “teleprinters are still widely used in the aviation industry”) I didn’t know precisely who had worked this piece of magic and I didn’t have the details about the long journey from Bangkok but I knew if I got to Bangkok before medical certification was required for all incoming passengers I might stand a chance of getting home.
"Thank you, thank you very much" I said turning to Ms T. "I don't know how to thank you."
“Teacher, boh penh nyang”, "Are you hungry?"
At least they let me pay for pizza that last evening in Vientiane.
Keo picked me up the next morning to ensure we got to the airport early. Before I could even exchange my strip of a ticket for a boarding pass, the counter staff had to take my temperature. There was a pause as the result was read. They tried again. This time it was OK.
Amanda was on the same flight and while she finished checking in, I waited with Ms T, Keo and some of the other teachers and students. I asked Ms T about her connections at Lao Airlines and the identity of the mystery telephone caller.
“My brother” she said “well, in English you say brother-in-law."
“Does he work in reservations?” I wondered.
“No, he’s a pilot. He’s flying you to Bangkok this morning”.
Look closely. Captain Tango's up on the flight deck.
This post is dedicated to Ms T, Captain Tango, my IFA colleagues and the students who came to the airport to see me on my way. And don’t say “boh penh nyang” one more time! It mattered. It will always matter. Thank you.
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