Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Where am I Now? Working in Laos

[[This entry is part 2 of a 2-part post on what has been happening in the last seven months of my life. This entry is on the last month and where I am.]]

Extended travel can be an endless source of inspiration or it can become routine. For all the romance that quitting work, selling everything, and traipsing around the globe has as a concept, there are real implications. There is no fairy tale life. There is merely the greener grass on the other side. After six months on the road, some of that greenery existed as not having to pack up and move every few days, not having to haggle over everything, having some constancy, some routine, not having to familiarize myself with a new system, language, currency, or baseline of costs. Though despite all of these things there were two forces pulling me to stop moving more strongly than all others combined. The first of those was the desire to know whether I could turn up in a random place with no advanced warning and talk my way into a job should the need ever strike somewhere down the road. And the other, the biggest of all, was my bank account. As it turns out, traveling endlessly costs money. And without working to replenish that money, no matter how good I am at getting my expenses down, there comes a point where the money is gone. And that time is now.

In our travels, we were never meant to be in Luang Namtha. It was a stopover point on our way to Mueng Sing. But when the bus connections didn’t work and we needed to spend a night here, I quickly took a liking to it. The town is small for sure. About six blocks wide in the middle of town, and rarely more than the houses on either side of the street for much of its ambling length along ten kilometers of the main road, the population sits at about 3500. The tourist stretch of town is two blocks long (if I’m being generous) and consists of a night market, a dozen guest houses, and about eight tour agencies. As the capital of the province there are government offices, banks, a post office, and other such things you’d expect, but they sit invisible in plain sight to a tourist.

There is one reason for a tourist to visit Luang Namtha, and that is trekking into the Nam Ha National Protected Area (i.e. National Park) next door. As a tourist here I joined on to a group seeking a tour and visited three recommended agencies. On the morning of the trek, I spoke with the German woman at the winning agency who had sold it to us. How had she ended up here? She was traveling through, did a trek, liked it, and stayed on as the English-speaking salesperson who could answer the hundreds of questions that come across the desk. And at the risk of sounding unoriginal, I did just that.

The job interview was one of the easiest I’ve gone through. It consisted of me asking Christine everything I could think of for an hour, then having a fifteen-minute conversation with the owner who reiterated a few of the same points before asking if I was staying. I opted to travel on and think about it, but once Brie and I sorted things out in Phong Nha, I shot an email over and bought a plane ticket.

The owner of the company is a former Buddhist monk who left the monastery when he realized that he could do more good for the world by getting money and education into the poor ethnic minority hill villages than by meditating. After learning English and working as a tour guide for the oldest company in town, he opted to start his own so he could direct the money to those who need it most. Each of the tours the company lists in the brochure has a pie chart that details where the money goes. There is the section for overhead, profit, and marketing, but for most tours there are bigger slices for the villages and the guides. The guides do a lot of heavy lifting and they earn a fair wage. And the villages get to determine how they use the money on their own terms rather than having it earmarked by people like me. (It has gone to medical treatments, education, field revitalization, and home construction to name a few.) Every tour is run in the NPA so the government gets fees to maintain the environment and the evidence that tourists want the environment maintained. All in all, the company does an ethical thing here. And the guides know their stuff – from which wild mushrooms they can pick, to what vines contain safe drinking water, to what leaves can be crushed up to stop bleeding instantly. There is no ethical issue with my working here.

Now that I’ve been trained and my English-speaking peers have headed back to their home countries, it is just me and the owner/manager. Many days I am in the office while he takes care of things elsewhere or joins on to guide a trek on busier days.

My role here draws on my strengths – fluency in English, an affable nature, extroversion, a work ethic, and a basic understanding of computers. Since there is only one reason to visit town, I don’t have to convince tourists that they want to do a trek. And since we are ranked highly on TripAdvisor (and have been for years), I don’t have to convince tourists of our legitimacy. But we are not the only agency for whom those things are true, so I have to subtly give the answer to the question, “Why us?” It has only been asked directly once. The other questions are about what we offer, where the treks go, how strenuous, what there is to see, what sleeping arrangements look like, what they need, and a few hundred other questions. I’ve memorized all of our routes and can hone in on what someone might be interested in quickly, which is necessary since we have about 50 different tour options.

There are two questions that everyone comes to. Is there anyone else signed up for tomorrow yet? That’s a fun one, because on many days there will be a few groups walking around town, doing a loop of the same companies, asking that, without anyone pulling the trigger and committing to anything. I suppose they work it out in the end, but not without a lot of time and energy.

The other question is, “How much does this tour cost?” That’s a weed-out question. Being Southeast Asia, many people raise an eyebrow and see if they can haggle. They can’t. And people either get it or they don’t. We are an ethical organization with knowledgeable, English-speaking guides who get paid an honest wage for their work and villages that get compensated for us walking through their land and visiting their homes. At the end of the day, a tour agency isn’t putting their cut on the chopping block. If someone wants to be that focused on saving $5, there are other agencies that will happily take that cut from the villages.

While here I also manage all of the other things that keep a business running. Our website was down for the last couple months and so I did the second part of remedying that problem. And then overhauling the whole thing. I’ve added new tours to our brochure, edited the English already there, and clarified our offerings so people know what they can do here. I handle the emails and calls, though with a website down for so long, that part’s only coming around now. I’m still trying to figure out what is in all the drawers here and if there are better ways to advertise. And so on and so forth.

The hours of work go pretty quickly. The hours at work sometimes do. I am not expected to be on point for the ten hours a day, six days a week that I’m here. I’m treated like a local, which is to say if I’m tired, I sleep in the hammock and leave a sign for anyone to wake me up if they want to talk tours. Having been in several shops where I woke up the proprietor to pay, that’s just how things work around here. If I have things I want to take care of, like emails, or writing this blog, then I do. The work can wait. If I need to run an errand, I put up a sign that I’ll be back later. And if I’m hungry, part of my compensation is that I order whatever I want from the attached restaurant. On particularly slow days, I pop into the kitchen and watch how things are made. I’ve been taking notes, and with enough time here I’ll be able to make a full Lao menu. And the food is delicious; I certainly don’t spend much time here hungry.

I’m also compensated with a room in the Falang (foreigner) House. That compensation is a little less ideal, but that’s another story.

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This entry was posted on August 4, 2016 by in America.

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