Cycle Laos: A Mission

items from laos

I stood at the side of the road, mapping out the next move in my head as I looked at the criss-cross ahead of me.  My last day in Laos saw me shopping in Vientiane for purchases to take home.  As I waited for the lights to turn, my thoughts turned to my (somewhat traumatic) last day in Dehli, India.  I was different — nothing quite like the deep end for growth; I was more confident this time as I walked alone around this new city.

“Excuse me. Excuse me.”

A voice surprised me.  I turned around to see a slim lady on a bicycle. Immediately, I was struck by the intelligent and interesting face looking at me, questioning.

“Excuse me.  Were you just at my shop?”  Her voice was breathless from her obvious rush.  She stood beside her bike now, and like many times during my trip in Laos, I felt large compared to the petite people around me.

“Hello. Yes. I was just at the stop up there,” I responded pointing to the direction where I had come.

“I’m so sorry. You see, my colleague, they rang me,” her English was articulate, matching the intelligence in her eyes. Falling into easy conversation, we walked the short distance back to the shop.

I’ll tell you about the shop I has visited moments before this conversation, how I came to be there in the first place and why the intelligent faced lady chased me down the street.   It was late afternoon at this point, so I’ll start in the morning.

Morning came.  My body ached, weary from the 80 km ride into Vientiane the day before. But I felt good.  I was ready and excited to return home to my husband and family on the evening flight.  I lay there for a moment, celebrating the aches in my body as a triumph of the, in total, 300km ride I achieved to raise money for Save the Children projects in Laos.

This day, I woke with a mission: to take a piece of Laos home with me in the form of gifts for the many people in my life who helped me get to this point and a few things for myself as a reminder.   After a few conversations about where shops would be, I found myself at huge complex, filled with many shops and stalls. It was raining outside.  I felt a stab of keen disappointment course through me as I walked around.  This wasn’t what I wanted! It was obvious to me that most of the items in these shops were imported from China or Thailand.  I felt disappointed, but not defeated.

You see, I didn’t want stuff to take home — not a magnet with a Laos sticker on it, or pencils packaged in plastic — I wanted to spend the remaining Kip in my wallet on items made locally in Laos.    Like this piece of material with hand stitched decoration I purchased at the Luang Prabang night markets, with advice from local, Carol.  It was made by the Hmong people, who live in the mountains in Laos and tells a story of village life.  Isn’t it beautiful?

hmong textile -- Laos

And this green silk/cotton blend scarf I found in a small village we visited.  I asked the lady with one of the sweetest smiles (just take a look at the video) if I could record her for a moment, because I wanted to show it to each person I gifted a scarf.

scarf from Laos

I shook off the feeling of disappointment and returned to the hotel in a tuk tuk, leaning in towards the centre to avoid the stray rain drops running under the canvas roof.   I decided to regroup myself over lunch, determined to try again in the afternoon to fulfil my quest for the day.

The rain slowed into random drops while I walked along the river separating Vientiane from Thailand. It was a strange concept for me: to look across a river and see another country. If I had more time, I would have made my way to Thailand, just for the fun of it.

But the mission! I ducked in to a small dusty shop, stepping over boxes as I entered.  I purchased a diet coke — something cold to drink in an effort to appease the effects of humidity clinging to my body — and I laughed as the lady helped me dig through the wads of kip after I accidentally gave her too much.  The people I came across in Laos are like that I noticed: beautiful, kind and honest.

After almost an hour of wandering, I started to think that perhaps, the mission would fail.  And yet, I enjoyed the walk; the sky still grey but rain holding back for now.  I don’t know what exactly made me notice the open doorway, or what made me stop.  It didn’t even look like a shop. But stop I did. I stood on the footpath for a few moments, deciding whether to go in or not.

My hesitation turned to action and I removed my shoes at the doorway, as they were dirty from dust and the remnants of rain combined.  My heart leapt as I glanced around the tiny space.  I knew there was something special about the products.  I picked up a recycled paper necklace immediately, and then spotted a skirt on a single manikin.  During my time in Laos, I noticed many of the Laos women wear calf length skirts — similar to the one in the shop — in various colours and patterns.  A skirt was one of the things I wanted to buy in Laos!

“May I try on the skirt?” I asked the woman there. She was wearing jeans and a simple top; her long black hair was glossy and straight.

“No English,” she said before continuing speaking rapidly in a language I couldn’t understand.

We managed to communicate through gestures and she helped me try on the wrap-around skirt. It was a perfect fit.

“Can I buy it? Yes?”

She spoke again, and then rushed to the back room to make a phone call.

I waited.

When she returned, the pretty lady pulled out a stool and indicated for me to sit. I was confused.

“Does it have to be made?  Or can I take it? I have to leave tonight. On the plane.”  I sounded ridiculous as I tried to communicate with words and actions.

I thought perhaps, she had rang a dressmaker to have the skirt fitted. I didn’t have time and so, waving one hand, I said,”Don’t worry, I’ll just buy these,” holding up the items in my other hand.

I need to press on to see if I can find some other things, I thought as I left the tiny store, and a skirt; would love a skirt to take home from Laos.  I had, you see, withdrawn an amount of Kip to spend on souvenirs and gifts, and it’s the sort of currency that can only be used (or changed) in Laos, so there was no point in me taking it out of the country.

I stood at the side of the road, mapping the next move in my head as I looked at the criss-cross ahead of me.

“Excuse me. Excuse me.”

The voice surprised me.

The lady explained, a touch flustered, that she owned the shop I had just left and the shop assistant had rung her due to the communication problems.

As we walked back in the direction of the shop, I clarified, “I wanted to buy the skirt in the shop — it’s lovely — but I wasn’t sure if it had to be made or if I could just buy it.  You see, I’m going back to Australia tonight.”

“Yes, yes, you can,” she said, walking while holding to the handle bars of her bicycle.

As we walked and talked, I glanced over at this lady introduced to me as Masako.  Again, I was struck by her interesting face. I couldn’t pick her age.  Her face was thin but pleasant; unlined, and yet there was maturity in the way her face moved as she spoke.

“I’m actually from Japan,” she said after I told her what I had been doing in Laos for the last fortnight.

She continued, “I visited Laos a long time ago, and loved it so I came back.  I live here now.  I run the Coola Shop to support local Laos business.”

I could have hugged her then. It’s interesting how things find you.  Not really because they find you, but because your eyes are open for opportunity.  That is what brought me to Laos in the first place. It’s what my blog is about. It’s how I live my life: with a strong foundation, a mission if you will, but with the flexibility of changing course, still on the same firm ground but owning that the future is unseen and sometimes unexpected paths allow for growth and compassion; always believing that paths, roads and ways are found with eyes open to joy and feet willing for opportunity.

A fitting way to end my time in Laos.  Yes.  So I emptied my purse, despite concerns from Masako that I wouldn’t have enough to get to the airport, and purchased 2 skirts, Christmas decorations, necklaces, a bag, a few scarfs and stuffed toys for the kids, all the time hearing the stories about the artists behind each item.

items from laos

laos outfit

I slipped my shoes on at shop entrance — arms full of bags, face beaming (I could feel it), feet plodding with the confidence of a quest conquered — and made my way back to the hotel, and then on to the airport for home.  There is something I took home with me, that wasn’t in the bags.

This: the encouragement to be brave. BRAVE.  I wondered at Masako, and how brave she was to run after me; to approach a stranger in the middle of the street, on a mission of her own.   If she had not done so, this story would not be told.

I can cycle over mountains. Yes I can. Because I did.

Don’t hold back, Kelly.

Be brave.

And run.


Read all my post from Laos here.

Check out Masako’s Facebook page here: Cooloa

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