These are photos of some of the areas I visited with my boss and his family during the first week of arrival. More to follow when I have time to visit. Enjoy! I will update this section of my post iteratively.
January 9, 2014
So far, everything is working as initially planned. I met with my supervisor and we made few modifications to the proposed research plan (details of which will not be posted here). However, in general the meeting was productive and geared towards harnessing my time here to achieve the maximum outcome possible. So, Dr. Pavelic and Mr. Bounmee’s insights were wholeheartedly welcomed and paved the way for an effective collaboration. During our meeting and before we left the room, I told them that one of the main purposes of my work here was to establish a relationship between IWMI and Clark University, so that in the future, other Clarkies could apply and seek research or internship opportunity with IWMI and its affiliates in Laos and other parts of the world depending on the agency’s needs and students’ research or internship interests. They welcomed the proposed idea and suggested for us to explore that option at some point during my work. We ended the meeting with few issues that needed to be worked on and what the team will be doing at the village during our next field visit at Ban Ek Xang (which will be called in the rest of my post B. Ek Xang).
In Laos, a village is known as “Ban” and the name of the village comes after Ban. Thus, transliterating that into English, Ban Ek Xang means village Ek Xang, which would appear in English as out of order, but the Lao, village comes before the name of the specific area. Thus, the name Ban Ek Xang.
First we visited the soil laboratory located within the same premises as National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) and IWMI. The soil science lab conducts various soil tests in three separate buildings loaded with various equipments and experts. All the tests that are conducted in these facilities follow the standard scientific procedures and results are available within 2-3 days depending on the queue of tests to be conducted. During the time of our visit, soil tests were been conducted to determine the level of soil pH and the available Nitrogen percentage (N %) in some samples brought to be tested by some clients. I was fortunate to watched the tests and see immediate results. For my case, some tests will be conducted at the field and those results will be crossed analyzed using control laboratory techniques and this is where the lab plays a crucial role in the study. Below are few photos from the visit.
We also visited IWMI’s project sites in Ban Ek Xang located in the Vientiane Province. The travel time using IWMI’s pick-up truck was about an hour and half. Basically, the trip was intended to establish contact with IWMI’s partners in the village, meet the government agriculture extension officer for the district, meet farmers and visit field sites. It turned out that we got more than what we initially planned. We met all the stakeholders and briefed them about our objectives, scope, resources, and anticipated results. They embraced the project and were immediately onboard with us in the truck for the field visits.
The proposed project field trial sites are just located about 10-15 minutes drive from the main town center and the main town where B. Ekxang is situated and the town is known locally as Kilometer 52 (KM52). It is known by that name because of the town’s distance from Vientiane, Laos main capital city. So, as we left KM52 to B. Ekxang, we were driving on a semi-paved (partially paved and unpaved roads), I started to sense the life of a village haven lived in a village setting myself when I was a child back in Liberia. But here in Laos, at least with the presence of NGOs, CBOs, other institutions and the government there are electricity, access to clean drinking water, a health care center,a school, amongst others.Some of which are not always present in most villages in Western Africa or in other parts of the developing world. However, it appears that most of the inhabitants there rely on rainfed farming for their livelihoods as this could easily be deduced from the observation of hug plots of paddy rice fields along both sides of the road as we drove towards the village and also as we entered the village and from vegetable gardens in the backyards of several village households. The backyard gardens in the village fascinated me the most, because small-scale farmers were seriously engaged in some form of vegetables gardening. Vegetables as you will see from some photos from personal observations in the coming weeks form a major component of their diet. Vegetables, specially leafy vegetables are eaten alongside with almost every meal in Laos. Whether or not those vegetables are grown organically or not is a question that is yet to be explored. However, I was told by one of my colleagues that while most farmers use traditional methods to grow their vegetables others also use chemical fertilizers. So, even in the midst of this farming-like community/village, the agrochemical industries were in some way present through their agrochemicals sucking the local wealth of these farmers who work hard everyday. It is not my intention to change how the villagers cultivate their vegetables, but it is my intention to learn from their experiences and also present to them some alternatives from which they could choose to enhance productivity at their household levels through regenerative farming practices and substantially, if possible, limit their reliance on outside chemical uses.
It is not to say that farmers in the village are not currently doing organic farming or what I am calling in a fancy way “regenerative agriculture.” In fact, as we drove through the village, I could see what seems to be smoke being emitted out of vegetable beds in several gardens behind the homes of farmers. I was immediately impressed that they were in fact already testing some sort of “biochar-like soil management practices.” I said biochar-like because it seems like rice husk after being processed are broadcasted on the raised-beds and fired. The rice husk burn in the open, which mostly turns to ashes and partial char (carbon). When this is done, farmers plant crops into the bed after a week when the rice husk burned. The results are amazing and you can see the greenness in the leaves and partial darkness of the soil beneath the plant that is also mulched with grasses/rice straw, which prevents weed growth and reduces the rate of evaporation keeping the soil moisture levels in place. Well, what more and different can I offer to this community of organic farmers? Not much, but I could help introducing the biochar system on a much different level and with a biochar production system that can be easily and locally made and operated to produce well quality biochar products not just from plant biomasses, but also animal residues. You can make biochar product through pyrolysis from almost any plant and animal biomass.
So, it was a learning experience for me to see so much potential at this community and to learn what they have being doing for hundreds of years, if not, thousands. We visited several fields and made occasional stops to speak to farmers along the way. We also visited sites where wells are proposed to be drilled by IWMI once the pilot project gets started at the village. For this project, the site is located at a dug well located on the farm and will be used for irrigating the plots for the experiment.
My first day at the office of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Vientiane was Monday, 6th January 2014. I had a refreshing straight 9 hours sleep, thank goodness for the spatial room with 4m x 4m window facing to the west, which provides me with enough fresh air, view of people coming into the community, and voices of students playing diverse sports even late in the evenings. The morning was bright, sunny, and little cold, but not as the US or Canada. It was still about 100 degree F outside. I was little nervous getting ready to meet folks I have being communicating with since July 2012 to finally see them in person and talk.
At about 7:30am, I was ready to head out the door of the dormitory room to start my first work day. Just as the taxi driver told me the day before that I should cross the street in front of the dormitory building and go through the gates of the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources and keep walking until I see IWMI’s office, I did just that. As I approached the main gate to the ministry, I saw a security guard on watch. I greeted him in Lao (Sa Bai Dee) and he responded as I walked and passed him. About 10 meters from the main gate was a sign board written in Laotian scripts and one of those boards had IWMI logo and pointed to the direction of the office building. As I followed the sign towards the building, I also realized that it wasn’t closer enough than I expected so I walked into a nearby office, which was the Director General’s Office for Water and Land Resources of Laos. There I greeted the administrative secretary and asked if she could direct me to the office of IWMI. She could not speak English, so I showed her the logo of the agency after which she realized what I was looking for. She told me to follow her and we passed two buildings and she pointed at the office building. I thanked her in Lao appropriately and she responded in similar manner and walked away and I completed my walk to the office.
As I approached the office building, I realized there were men and women shoes at the entry of the building and on a board a note read “Please take off your shoes.” I took off my shoes, but left my sucks on and went into the office. It was my first experience taking off shoes while at work. Never have I experience that except in Laos. It was relaxing not having those shoes on my feet. I felt totally refreshed and motivated as I walked into the office to meet my colleagues (those are knew through email exchanges and those yet to know). I was immediately greeted and taken to my office space and I was given an information package. I was shown the entire office building and taken to the office of my supervisor. My supervisor and I had once video-conferenced via Skype. We exchanged series of emails, which eventually landed me here today. It was through his support and those of staff members at Clark University as well as U.S. Borlaug that I was able to be here today. They all played and are still playing paramount roles in shaping my academic and professional life.
I was given a quick tour of the facility by Ms. Sengkham after which she showed me my office space. I settled in and after few minutes she came back and asked if I would like to meet Dr. Pavelic, my research supervisor at IWMI. We went upstairs to the second floor of the same building and I formally met him. He asked me about my impression of the city and dormitory and I said that everything looks good right now. He told me to settle in and we could talk the next day. I concurred with him and Mr. Sengkham took me back downstairs and completed the tour of the building. As I was heading back to my office desk, I met Dr. C. T. Hoanh, Director of IWMI and a scholar on water resources. He recognized me and said you are the one going to work with Paul on the groundwater project right? I responded yes and he said welcome onboard and I look forward to talking with you more. I thanked him in Lao (kob chai) and he responded in similar manner. His office is just adjacent to mine. He is an elderly man in his late 80s or probably early 90s. He is someone who is full of knowledge, wisdom, experiences and a great teacher.
Generally, my view of the workplace ethics here at IWMI is truly unique with everyone working together as a family what seems to be a less competitive working environment contrasted with a typical workplace environment in the U.S. or other western country. In Laos, respect for others and being patient is crucial for collective productivity. This idea is generally reflected in the smiles, mutual, and respectful greetings, which forms the sphere of the workplace.
The rest of the day was spent at the office answering unanswered emails and revising my research plans, prospectus, and updating my WordPress blog for non-research related post of my experience in the country and other areas I have travelled or plan to travel. I had lunch at a small Laotian cafeteria at work and I ordered fresh rice noodle soup with pieces of pork. It was nicely cooked and tasty! This was the third dish of the same kind in two days. So, I hope you imagine what I mean.
My work in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (commonly known as Laos, which will be used in the rest of my online journal) officially started when I landed at the Wattay International Airport, which is located approximately 3 kilometers (1 mile) out of the Vientiane metropolis. I arrived on Vietnam Airline, which transited from Hanoi via Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City. The flight time was about 5 hours not considering transit hours in Hanoi.
A taxi driver picked me up from the airport (whose name is not going to be posted) based on an arrangement by one of my colleagues at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The good thing is that he spoke English and so it was less stressful for me to communicate since I just landed and wanted to just sleep. He is a great man. We talked about almost everything during the almost 20 minutes we had stay in the car (a 1990 Toyota Corolla). Ask me how I knew that car year? Cars are my thing!:) Well, it was still in perfect shape with an air cool install and breezing us with fresh air as we cruise through warm and humid air of Vientiane City. I almost slept in the car as we drove by thousands of motorcycles and vehicles. Unlike Indonesia where people drive on the right (making me to always tell the driver he is on the wrong side of the road), in Vietnam and Laos for example, they drive on the left (just like in the US), which is cool because now I don’t have to mentally tell myself this guy is taking the wrong turn. It was always funny that my wife had to remind me that this is Indonesia…duh!
Mr. Taxi Driver also asked me few interesting questions and I thought I should also share with you. He asked whether I play American Football? My response was like “hell no!” Off-course, I didn’t responded this way. It was only in my head. I would rather be considered rule and I don’t want that impression either. He said what about basketball? I responded and said, I wish I know how to play basketball, but sorry I don’t really. If you asked me if I can throw balls into a nest, yes I can. Then I told him three of the sports that I play or engage in, which include soccer, swimming, and martial arts (shotokan). We talked about soccer for few minutes and I asked him if he had any favorite Laotian soccer team? He waved his head in negativity and said, but I do have a European team. I asked him which one and he enthusiastically said “Chelsea.” I said wait a minute! How can this be? I am a Chelsea fan too! No wonder why you came to pick me up. We both laughed over that revelation and he diverted the discussion to the weather in Laos. He said that few days ago, it was really warm/hot here and that the air temperature was around 113 degree F. I said really? And I said, right now the US and Canada are experiencing what seems to be “global cooling.” He said yes, I saw that on the news! He also said, but it gets colder here too, but not as the US, they are in something else. I said, yes right. I gotcha. By the time that discussion subsided, we were around the National University of Laos (NUL) and gradually approached the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources where IWMI’s head office is located and where I will be working for the next 6-9 months or more. He pointed towards the location of the office and said on Monday, just go through that gate and keep walking and you will see IWMI’s office building. I said to myself, “just keep walking?” Well, that reminded me of Ghana. Sorry to all my Ghanaian friends, but if you ever find yourself in Accra or anywhere in Ghana for that matter and is seeking directions to go to a place you haven’t being before. Please make sure you ask the right person and that they send you details of where you need to go, because you don’t want a guy on the street to direct you the place or you will be taking an endless walk. It happened to me once even with my 11 years experience living in Ghana.
So, back in the Taxi. As we drove by the Office of the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources Management (same compound as IWMI) we entered into a gated community and that was the dormitory of the National University of Laos. The gated compound hosts undergraduate, graduate and professional students residing in Laos for academic/research work. It was on a Sunday, so no administrative staff was around to give the keys to my room. So, the driver made few calls and later a lady in her late 30s came and asked me to follow her. I did as I had no option. I paid the driver 100,000.00 Kip and told him in Lao (Sa Bai Dee, Kob chai), meaning thank you. He responded, Kob chai and left the premises of the dormitory. I took my luggage and followed the lady on the 1st floor in B1 (Building 1). I was given a brief 5 minutes tour of the building and verbally told the policy and the key to my room handed to me. It is a nice spatial room with a TV set, a king size mattress, two comfortable chairs for relaxing, a bedside table, a study table, a huge closet, and bathroom. It was more than I anticipated at a responsible price. The sad thing is that since it is a dormitory building, it also means no cooking. And cooking my own food is something that I cherish. However, why not explore the local food and be less stress out with cooking? That was something I was willing to trade off for now.
After few minutes of rest and a nice shower, I decided to take a walk and try getting a phone and to see if I can buy a wireless modem for my laptop to be able to connect to the Internet at home. I needed to be connected to the world. However, in order to make my way through I had to make sure I know what to say to those from whom I will be buying things I need urgently. So, I learned few phrases in Lao from the brochure I was given by the agency. It wasn’t perfect, but with a nice smile on my face those to whom I spoke to knew what I wanted and it made my new life easier. In Laos, being patient means everything! If you are not a patient person and want to cultivate that virtue, Laos is your paradise.
As I walked down the stairs unto the green, I observed students (Laotian) gathered in groups of four or five (specifically) with snacks and a laptop playing western music. That was interesting. Another group of student about six in number (composing of four females and two males) were learning English Grammar. As I walked pass them, one of the females said hello and waved. I smiled back and said Sa Bai Dee folded my hands towards my chest as if I was about to pray. In Laos waving your hands and saying hello is culturally inappropriate. In order to greet someone you have to fold your hands and gradually bring your folded hands towards your chest and slowly lower your forehead. This is Laos and this is how we do it here. So, I have to follow the norm. I approached the group of students (probably undergraduates) and said I see you are learning English. They said yes and I said well it would be great to learn Lao too and I can teach you English in return. I smiled and left them to study, while I walked down the alley to where I can find some food to eat as my stomach was punching by back in anger!
As I walked through the campus there were other students also going towards the same direction as I. They were all going for dinner at local restaurants located around the campus. As I said earlier, no cooking is allow in the dorm buildings. Also, a student told me that they have to pay 900,000.00 Kip/year for housing at the dorm, which is very cheap compare to housing for undergraduates in the US let say at Clark University for example. Here at the NUL 900.000.00 Kip is equivalent to $112.30/academic year. Considering the economy here, this amount could be very high, but to us in the US it is not even close to that. However, the university policy is that since students paid this much for housing (which in comparison to other schools in the city is affordable), students now have to commit to buying food from local businesses around campus. I think this is a brilliant idea, if we should be encouraging local businesses and food systems. This approach strengthens the university’s relationships with the local community not only within the context of intellectualism and jobs for university staff, but also for local business to flourish, grow and it enhances the local economy. Can this approach be applicable to undergraduates at Clark University? Maybe or maybe not. But it is an approach that seems to work and help the communities in which the university functions.
So, at one of the local restaurants/eateries around campus, I ordered my very first Laotian dish and it was Khao Piak Sien, which is Laotian Fresh Rice Noodle Soup. You can make the noodle soup without any meat product (if you’re a veggie) or you could add just pork meat, beef, and or chicken meat. You can use whichever you prefer. Here is a good link I came across as I was writing this post for those interested back home and want the recipes. Here is the blog: http://concasse.blogspot.com/2010/06/khao-piak-sien-laotian-fresh-rice.html.
What I like about this dish is the sides that comes with it. You have freshly grown lettuce or in some cases cabbage leaves, mint/Basil leaves, young germinated beans/beans sprout, slices of lime/lemon, and with additional hot pepper paste that gives it the extra fire that you need. It is a tasty soup that you need to try.
I ended the day walking down the street away from the university to a local public market place, which looks similar to markets in West Papua, Indonesia and Accra, Ghana with little shops mixed with cooked food vendors and those selling uncooked food items. My plan was to get a SIM card for my 2 SIM Card cellphone, but I wasn’t lucky that evening as it was Sunday and all the businesses closed early. As I walked back to the campus at around 8:00pm. I saw an Internet Cafe’ next by a lady selling roasted/grilled chicken. I entered the cafe’ to send few emails and I ended up staying for about 20 minutes. Internet access at a cafe’ in Vientiane cost about 500 Kip/minute, which could vary depending on the location and speed of the Internet connection. So twenty minutes should have cost me around 10,000.00 Kip, which is about $1.30. As I checked in my wallet to pay, the guy at the desk told me not to pay. I insisted to pay and he said no (it is okay in Lao language). I didn’t want to keep insisting to appear rude or insensitive of his hospitality, so I accepted his offer and told him that the next time I return, I would like to pay. I told him sa bai dee, kob chai as I leave the cafe’ towards the campus.
My first day in Vientiane was really interesting. With very limited chance of speaking English to get around, I was able to find my way through the community and get to meet few people. The people here are caring, very kind, and hospitable. The only thing that needs to be remembered is to respect their cultures and do as they do and you should be okay. I hope you like the post and please check back soon for more stories! Also, please leave a message if you can.
Sa Bai Dee, kob chai