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Vaulting into Vientiane

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I made it on the first flight out of Luang Prabang, and in fact even had an exit-row seat with a mile of legroom (although on a 45 minute flight, that’s not a huge deal).

Our ATR-72 touched down at Wattay International Airport around 2pm and a driver from PSI was there with a sign with my name on it. All going according to plan. We drove into town and he dropped me off at a monumental new neoclassical office building on the river, so I signed in at the entryway while the driver left. I was a bit perplexed as he was supposed to take me to my guest house. This was not my guest house, but perhaps PSI’s offices were somewhere in there, but I had my doubts, particularly since the building was clearly labelled as the Mekong River Commission. I dragged my luggage up a big ramp and into the foyer and it all felt wrong. With luck I had the number of a PSI contact who had been organizing things and explained the situation, and I could sense her shaking her head. “The driver is coming back for you,” she said. So I signed out at the front gate, three minutes after I’d signed in, and waited the for the driver who returned 5 minutes later. The guard watched me get into the van and drive away.

The driver had been told to take me to the guesthouse near the MRC office (where I had been let off), but he understood that I was to be let off at the MRC itself. He spoke no English, and he was very stoic, but he may have been a bit sheepish.

My guesthouse was a short distance away. Called the B and P for some reason, it is pleasant and functional, has air con and a pretty good bed. I showered, changed, and went out for a walk.

Vientiane feels small. For a capital it is very quiet and low-scale, and the traffic isn’t that bad, at least in the centre, in part because some streets are one-way. There are many a wat, and therefore many a monk ambling about in orange robes and flip-flops. It is winter here, about 25 degrees, so I saw at least one monk wearing a toque. I walked about 10 minutes or so from my hotel and found that I’d covered most of the centre of town. I enjoyed an iced cappuccino at JoMa, got some money out of an ATM (new and novel for Laos), and dropped in an internet café to check emails and admire the latest pictures of my new niece.

I spent pretty much the rest of the day walking the streets in the town centre. This is a more attractive proposition than in Ubud, where you are in mortal danger of falling into a hole leading into a sewer, or in Bangkok where there are many obstacles and a great deal of sewer-odour. I wasn’t even pestered to buy things, with the exception of the odd tuk tuk ride.

I enjoyed a Beer Lao at an open air restaurant on the Mekong as the sun went down, and as night fell I opted for a massage. This, again, was easier than in Bangkok as ‘special’ massages aren’t on the menu here from what I know. I ventured across the street to Sabaidee Massage and enjoyed a massage several notches down the pain scale than I experienced earlier in Bali and in Thailand.

I wasn’t in the mood for restaurant food, so I went to a grocery store and bought crackers, La Vache qui rit, juice and yogurt, which I ate in my hotel room while watching TV shows (The Wire) on my laptop.

I spent today out at the PSI offices. I am working with two very nice, organized and helpful staff, Cristina and Elena, from Boston and Baltimore, respectively. Cristina’s focus is on harm reduction and family planning, mostly (their own Number One brand) condoms and education, and Elena is focusing on anti-malarial programs. PSI is a world-wide NGO working on health issues from a social marketing perspective, that is, they develop a market for health-related products by educating people and supplying product at a reduced cost, thereby creating demand which attracts other companies and their products. The end result is a healthy and educated population.

Today my work with them focused mainly on documenting their office activities. This involved photographing staff at work as well as about 12 people repacking condoms into packages of three for sale in pharmacies and stores. Staff at the PSI office include doctors, researchers, video specialists, a graphic designer, outreach workers and more. Elena also took me to their warehouse (which had been flooded during a recent surge on the Mekong) where I photographed condoms numbering in the thousands. Funny to think about their future. We also visited a number of pharmacies to document their products on display alongside other brands of condoms.

In all is was a fairly quiet day with a fair amount of waiting for things to happen. I did get locked in a bathroom once when the handle stopped working, but Elena rescued me after I resorted to knocking loudly on the door. The next few days should be a bit more productive when we can work more closely with the communications director to get me out with some outreach teams.


Written by sockeyed

November 19, 2008 at 01:18

Posted in Photography, Travel

Tagged with , , , , ,

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