Laos & Bangkok: Being Fleeced and Following the Rails

So a week is past and for the first time in a while the mad house has screeched to a halt, allowing me some time to catch my breath, shower and scrape the toe jam off my feet. South East Asia, it seems, is dirty.

Laos itself was a stunningly beautiful trip, with amazing countryside and rolling mountains. Likewise, the society itself has been stunningly eroded to the brink of outright oblivion. The people poor, straw hut poor, with mangy dogs littering the roads, overflowing sewerage drains and appalling facilities. The comrades working for the communist-led government of course don’t suffer this indignation. They are the lucky few who get to live in palatial walled-in villas, safely separated from the dirt proletariat. If anything, Laos is a textbook example of why Communism is a hopelessly flawed ideology when placed in the hands of some exceedingly greedy people (ie just about any human being!)

But on the rickety 11 hour bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, the raw and painstakingly obvious beauty of Laos is thrown in front of you to stare at, mouth agape and eyes wide open. from the lush green rice paddies, misted rolling mountains, to the guard with the AK47 sitting at the back, the immediate sense of one’s mortality is made quite apparent.

But this is a country that, much like Thailand, relies on tourism for a good chunk of what little money comes into the economy, and that means tourists, LOTS of tourists. In Hokkaido, gaijin get funny looks simply because there aren’t very many of us there. Indeed, whenever I see a round-eye in Japan, I almost want to grab them by their shirt and speak to them in fluent English for a few minutes just so I can remember what it sounds like! In Bangkok and Laos, tourists are as prevalent as the street vendors peddling everything from pepsi bottles to tiny little fried birds on a stick. They’re everywhere, and so is the market that supports them. Finding a guest house is thankfully easy, tourist taxis do the rounds regularly, and haggling over what amounts to $1 or so difference on a purchase permeates the society. It’s not quite what I expected, but I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad thing for a foreigner to be surrounded by other foreigners. It’s just such a shame that getting off the beaten track is a lot harder than one would hope.

Luang Prabang, for all it’s majesty alongside the Mekong, is a tourist haven. the small town consists almost completely of tourist-related wares. It makes for an intensely exotic experience though, as finding the most commonly popular local attractions is extremely easy to find. From elephant rides to Lao massages it’s all attainable within a 10m radius of your accomodation.

Walking through the crowded streets, visiting one temple after another, watching my brother burn through camera batteries like a coke addict in Columbia is a great way to spend a few days. Everyone is friendly, of course, thanks to the tourist being many of the locals’ primary sources of income, and the characteristic Asian half-smile is constantly worn at all times, making the reading of their faces extremely difficult.

Bangkok is the tourist Mecca, with virtually every single inch of every single block in the city covered with taxi drivers, street vendors, con artists, prostitutes, “tour guides” and folks generally trying to pimp the tourist for as much Baht as possible.

What this does mean, however, is that there’s never a dull moment, as every waking moment is spent looking, searching, haggling or simply absorbing the atmosphere of the place. Clubs are free but drinks are expensive, and God knows how much the gender-ambiguous ‘girls’ who reside in every establishment charge for a night of company. Of course, one sees many middle to old-aged tourists with ‘companions’ roaming the streets at all hours. Interesting in and of itself.

But the first week here has so far shown me not so much the local people so much as how the local people interact with the tourists. I could say that this isn’t the real Thailand and Laos, but I honestly think that the tourist culture, as well as the interactions therewith is just as much a part of the culture now as sticky rice and poverty. I honestly had the idea in my head that Japan, Thailand and friends bore similarities that could cross borders within the region, but I now see that that little gap of ocean makes the world of difference!

There’s far more to the picture, but I’m too overwhelmed to write it all down at the moment, and my time on the meter says I don’t have long to write anyway. Needless to say again, but I shall anyway, Laos is a truly majestic country ruined politically and economically. A really harsh existence interspersed with injections of first world ‘foreign aid’. That there are no old people around says a lot (they generally die quite quickly due to the lack of healthcare), but Bangkok is the same but difference. A beautiful nation that loves their King, has a crapload of temples, enjoy fleecing the foreigners, but one that I would love to have seen 50 years ago even more!

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The Year So Far

This time last year I had just arrived back in Durban after a fantastic year at Wits in Jo’burg. It was basically a time to see old and familiar friends and family and sorta rewind a bit and decompress from the constant hustle that characterises Jhb. What’s more, the holidays in Durbs meant a time for me to figure out just what on earth to do during 2007. At first I was presented with one clear and obvious way forward: The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). They have a remarkable ‘cadet’ programme where young graduates like yours truly get educated on the art of being insincerely sincere and sipping one’s cocktails in the correct fashion for a year. Well, ok more like a year of learning how to write reports in government-friendly (read: droll and simplified) format. From there the programme serves as a launching point into a dynamic career as a junior diplomat, changing desks every four years or so. By any stretch a great career path to go down. So of course I turned it down when I got the call to attend the final stage of the process (the last of four.) I was pretty confident I’d get the job. Not only I am exceedingly intelligent and eloquent, but my stunning humility serves as a beacon heralding the modest magnificence that is South Africa. Also, more realistically, I was the only white kid applying, so by the own BEE standards of the government, I was virtually guaranteed a spot because, ironically, of my skin colour.

But I turned it down. And now, almost eight months later, I’m not one bit sorry that I did. To be sure I thought long and hard about my decision. A safe and cushy career path in a field-related position that’s relevant to my academic interests is indeed a tempting carrot to bite. But on the other hand, I realise that I’ve really done nothing but academically-relevant roles since high school, and how can I be certain that this is really for me? Furthermore, I’m young. Being twenty-three grants me the time to take a year or two off and do something else, see somewhere else and not worry overly much about performance ratings. So I turned down the DFA in favour of the JET programme, and I love it! The DFA will be there when I’m done with my roving, and perhaps other opportunities will surface, but if 2007 has taught me anything, it’s that wherever you need to be, there you are.

It’s been a totally polar year for me. The first six months was spent in absolute mind-numbing boredom as I sent out my CV and covering letter to just over a hundred companies, receiving replies from less than ten, and generally being an unproductive lout. After flying out of Jo’burg, however, my world has been rocked, and it’s still shaking. I’m not ready to leave Japan, and I’m not sure if in six months I will want to either. But I must, before I begin to tire of the whole affair. Much like my holiday in Durban, you can get too much of a good thing. As I told my mother on the phone the other day, I’d rather not recontract for a second year here and leave Japan absolutely loving it than leave in two or three after growing disenchanted and thoroughly bored of the exercise.

So where am I now? I’m about to leave for Thailand, Laos, perhaps Cambodia and Vietnam, the latter being a country I have wanted to visit since childhood. And just like this time last year, I shall be rejoining some very old friends (Kelly, whom I’ve known all my life) and family (my brother, whom I’ve also known all my life.)

Certainly an entirely different country, with assuredly different experiences, but with some old and familiar friends and family. The more things change…

My picture for the week. Hokkaido may be predominantly Buddhist and Shinto, but they still love Christmas for it’s purely aesthetic charm. Much, I suppose, like the rest of the industrialised world…


As mentioned above, I will be away on holiday until the 11th of January or so. may well see some “dispatches” from my travels while away, but don’t count on it!

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Country Mouse and City Mouse

From Sunday I had headed out to Sapporo for the JET programme’s Mid Year Conference, where we ostensibly discuss teaching strategies and reflect on our role as Assistant Language Teachers (ALT’s). Of course it’s really mostly just a pretense for having a break from our respective areas and meeting with the 300 other odd assorted members scattered throughout Hokkaido. Surprisingly, however, this conference actually proved pretty informative. More than that, however, I’m beginning to get a tangible sense of just how lucky I am to be situated in this wonderful little village called Sarufutsu; something which I think I’d self-indulgently begun to take for granted…

My town, Onishibetsu – capital of Sarufutsu: Population 1000 and falling! This was the view from my balcony before I left for the MYC.

The way I’ve seen it so far, in terms of conferences at least, Tokyo in August acted as a giant decompression chamber. A momentary pause between seriously intensive travel to digest just what we’ve all done in moving to Japan more than any real attempt to provide some practical teaching input. It’s a chance to experience the heart of Japan in the soon-to-disappear company of many foreigners and the most South Africans I’ve since seen in one spot. The first conference in Sapporo for the Hokkaido ALT’s acted as a sort of welcoming ceremony into the fold. To be sure, workshops were held, but they were more all-rounded “this is Hokkaido: you can do X and Y” presentations. But this past MYC, however, actually intervened at a point where, I feel, most of us have begun to get a feel for this whole ‘teaching English’ lark and is thusly suited.
Sapporo at night
Odori Park at night. Very pretty!

So while the initial first day was a mish-mash of speeches and pleasantries, the following day’s workshops actually did help me collate my thoughts on being an ALT somewhat, as well as give me a lot more clarity on what realistic expectations I can hope to get out of this job within the year I’m here. Likewise, from what I’ve since heard from several ALT’s around the conference, it seems a lot of them are ultimately unsatisfied with their situations here. A veritable splash of cold water to my proverbial face if ever I saw one!

Firstly, in a professional sense, I’ve begun to understand that I can have a relatively influential capacity as the “spearhead” of english tuition in my village, but that ultimately the crux of learning ESL lies in the frustratingly restrictive context of Japanese education policy as a whole. The entire emphasis of ESL in Japan is centred around learning English through a myriad grammar points, as opposed to learning the language through fundamental steps. For example, learning “verbs” doesn’t exist in the sense that us native speakers understand it, but rather through a series of “grammar points” focused around “I run/jump/eat/drive” and so on. It’s effective in a very limited scope, but ultimately, in my opinion, cripples ESL education in Japan terribly. This means that my thoughts on emphasis on reading purely for its own sake as opposed to learning generic dialogues from a text book falls flat on its ass, and that I’m not alone in this. More worrying, however, is that several ALT’s themselves believe ESL education shouldn’t be oriented around learning a language through reading, but rather the aforementioned tedium of learning by textbook page.

I know from personal experience that this approach is haphazard at best. In SA we begin our Afrikaans education from a very early age (1st grade onwards essentially) and learn the fundamentals of the language, like the sentence structure of future, present and past tense (for those SA folks reading, ever remember STOMPIE?) and then build upon that through countless passages, afrikaans books, short stories, poems and even television programmes. In Japan, the fundamentals are forsaken in favour of simple parrot fashion interpretation of what is arguably the single most complicated language in the world! Regardless, at the conference I began to realise that I can only gently nudge my own ideas in such a confined context, but that I can hopefully formulate it in such a way as to be ultimately beneficial for all involved. Unfortunately, Japanese education policy dictates only 1 precious lesson of English education necessary for elementary schools, which means that students up to the age of 12 and 13 have little to no basic English foundational education. An uphill struggle indeed! And not one I can hope to change, but I can at least push for some school budget to be put into buying some books!

Politics aside, I have begun to get the impression that a large portion of ALT’s are relatively unsatisfied with their respective lots in life. Heather up in Wakkanai, for example, has had a torrid time with her own administration and co-teachers, resulting in a ridiculously asymmetrical schedule and tons of added stress. From some others I have spoken to during the MYC, it seems many are frustrated by their relatively annoying administrative snags, teaching irrelevance and other niggling annoyances. One poor girl seemed to have a supervisor who, while all smiles and platitudes, refused to help her in even the most essential of tasks which foreigners with no Japanese could possibly hope to complete. From schools who actively laugh and mock the ALT’s to folks who just plain dislike Japan, it seems there’s a lot of bad blood simmering underneath the JET circles. Alarming indeed, but not entirely unexpected I guess. People are people wherever you are in the world and Japan, it seems, is no exception, however much to the contrary I’ve been led to believe!

Of course, as I mentioned, this all makes me quite aware of just how fortunate I am to have been placed in what many folks in Tokyo considered a laughable exile into the snowy oblivion. Far from it! To be sure the solitude is sometimes gloomy, but on the other hand, the absolute and staggering beauty of my area, as well as the unbelievably benevolent town spirit I have been immersed in has made it all the more worth it. My schedule is hardly rushed, and I find my time in the elementary schools an absolute pleasure, while the Junior High, despite it’s dogged adherence to the text book, has a self-discipline inherent within students and staff alike that I have quite honestly never experienced before in my life.

I’ve written before about this phenomenon, and had naively thought it to be a trend throughout Japan. But after the MYC, I’ve become convinced that my village is a social anomaly in an otherwise disparate educational and administrative maelstrom. It’s arrogant to presume, of course, but I’m rather an arrogant sort of lad, so there it is! I boldly proclaim Sarufutsu as special! From communications received from my predecessor Josiah, it seems he wholeheartedly agrees with this sentiment. Perhaps I just don’t see the scummy underside, but I’ve eaten sea snakes with the fisherman and I’ve had cow’s tongue with the educational bigwigs, so I’d like to think I’ve seen a relatively large cross-section of my town.

So self-aggrandisement aside, I’ve learnt something else quite important from the MYC. And this is that I am actually glad to not have been placed in a City. Before I got here, most treated my announcement of Sarufutsu as my hometown with thinly veiled expressions ranging from mild pity to outright sympathy. In fact, I have yet to meet someone, even now, who considers my tiny town to be a blessing rather than a curse. And yet, here I am, 4 months later, happily claiming that you can keep your insular little Gaijin bubbles, your railways and your damned Starbucks and McDonalds! I have people with character. I have a town that greet me each morning with a polite bow and a quick “Ohayou Gozaimasu John-Sensei“. I came to Japan to experience Japan, and that, it seems, is precisely what I’ve attained. I guess that’s not really an ‘aside’ from self-aggrandisement! Oh well!

Certainly I enjoy my brief forays into the city, and Sapporo is certainly the picture of an ideal city. One where the wealth exceeds the population. But I think I only really enjoy the city because I know I can return to my little town, where I’m not mistaken for a Russian, where I’m not treated like a complete alien, and where, when I return from JET conferences, I can really find some peace.

Here are my pics from the week, enjoy!:
Chris, my neighbouring ALT, in his natural habitat. A bar with hundreds of different imported brews…
…All except a very old and crusty Castle can!
My favourite spot in all of Sapporo. A small canal/stream filled with Koi. I try and take a stroll along it every time I visit the city.
My new hangout!
On the train home. Plenty of snow outside of Sapporo.

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