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Life in Laos: five unforgettable moments from my TIE volunteering assignment

25 October 2019


Emma Ryan works as Head of Servicing and Legal for Octopus Real Estate. In June, Emma left the comfort of her desk to spend a month in Laos, on a volunteering assignment on behalf of The International Exchange. Here, Emma shares five of her most memorable experiences.

Memory #1: Teaching English

Before I arrived in Laos, I knew that language was going to be one of the hardest hurdles to overcome. Few Laotians speak English, and all I could initially manage was ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Lao. So, I was stuck communicating through other means (mainly by gesticulating wildly).

My volunteering assignment, which was arranged through Octopus Giving and The International Exchange, meant I would be spending my month with the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre . The Centre houses full-time disabled staff and students who come to live, study and work for six months at a time.

I decided to embrace the language barrier. It brought me closer to the women at the Centre and I was surprised at how determined they were. They made the most out of everything offered to them – which was inspiring. And showed how hard-working they are. I felt like I was making a difference from the get-go.

Memory #2: Understanding disability

A few days into my trip, Miss Z, a resident that I spent a lot of time with, showed me a letter she was writing to a bank in Laos’ capital, Vientiane.

In the letter, Miss Z described her experience visiting the bank as a disabled person. For context, Miss Z has an impairment in one leg. Rather than have to deal with crutches, she simply swings her impaired leg at a speed to keep up.

She asked the bank to consider people who needed some extra help to get inside, and how difficult it can be to reach the countertops. But her main request was for them to train their staff.

She was just looking for understanding and kindness. At no cost at all. Things we don’t think about can be a major barrier to someone who has a disability. I helped Miss Z with her letter, and thanked her for helping me understand things that are far beyond my realm of experience.

Memory #3: Expanding my vocabulary

During my stay, I had a lot of work to do. I’m a worrier. If the work isn’t done, I’m concerned about it. On one particular afternoon, I hadn’t left the office space all day, so I didn’t really have any clue what time of day it was. I was getting pretty tired and starting to feel homesick all of a sudden. And earlier I was bitten by ants, so I was covered in these awful bites up my arm.

As I slumped in my seat feeling sorry for myself, Miss S, one of the residents, glanced at my arm and noticed the bites.

“Mosquito?!” she enquired.

“No, ant,” I said, and received a vacant expression in reply.

Miss S speaks very little English, but another resident, Miss Z, translated. So, my English lessons with the Centre paid off! We played a quick vocabulary game. I noticed I had a new-found energy all of a sudden.

Taking time out to laugh during a long working day makes things go by so much smoother. It was a small interaction, but meant a lot to me when I was stressed. The women at the Centre were such a vibrant lifeline during my stay – I knew we’d be friends for a long time.

Memory #4: Going above and beyond

Here’s a fact about Laos: buses don’t stop unless you flag them down.

Attempting to get the bus home from work was one experience I’ll never forget. I had no luck at the bus stop and, miraculously, got picked up by a woman on a motorbike who had very little English. Instead of dropping me to a bus stop, she swerved in front of the moving vehicle to flag it down for me!

I offered to give the woman money for the lift. She refused. She was just doing this out of the kindness of her own heart, and she didn’t expect anything in return.

This situation was very different to my everyday life – but it did make me think about what I do to help those around me. Looking out for people isn’t going above and beyond; that should be the bare minimum.

So after this experience, I thought a lot about how I could help the Centre beyond just organising fundraising for the charity. I organised a selection of books for children and adults to be brought over from England to enable the women in the Centre to read and share amongst themselves. I finally felt like I wasn’t just here to get a job done, I had the chance to make a difference in these people’s lives.

Memory #5: Baci ceremony

The Centre put on a Baci ceremony as a goodbye and thank you at the end of my trip. Baci is a traditional Lao ceremony conducted for important occasions. It was a beautiful conclusion to an eye-opening few weeks.

They thanked me for my work and wished me good fortune for the future. I remember feeling very overwhelmed with how welcoming, open and accommodating everyone had been.

The calm, gentle, helpful nature of the Lao people and the positivity of the women there really kept my spirits high throughout the trip. I knew I’d never forget my time here.

Read more about Emma’s assignment in Laos, and all the amazing work The International Exchange do.